Although the tattooed Scythians of 2,500 years ago may seem impossibly distant from most tattooed westerners in terms of geography, culture, and time, their bold tattoo symbols still hold some sway among modern devotees. Seemingly inscrutable and yet tantalizing familiar, their images draw our curiosity back to a time and place that may help us to interpret them.
It was amid the high plateaus of the modern day steppes of Siberian Russia, near the border with China and Kazakstan, that the Pazyryk people once roamed and flourished. In their nomadic lifestyle, they were both skilled horsemen and hunters whose trade network was flung from Central Asia to the Near East and whose textiles and other crafts are still considered stunningly beautiful and well made. From approximately the 6th to 2nd centuries B.C.E., these hunters gradually shifted their economy from hunting to herding, moving their animals from pasture to pasture throughout the year. Although ancient writers such as Herodotus described some aspects of the cultures of the region, most of what researchers today know of the Pazyryk comes from the excavation of several of their kurgans or log-barrow tombs.
Although the grave goods are sumptuous and even include horses with saddles, the most renown aspect of these graves are their tattooed occupants, two of whom have come to be known as the Chieftain and the Ice Maiden. The Chieftain, excavated in the early 1950s by Sergei Rudenko, was only partially preserved but his remains still evinced several tattoos: On the right arm, from the shoulder to the wrist are six fantastic horned animals, their hindquarters unnaturally doubled around. The right leg from the kneecap to the ankle is covered with a fish, while on his chest is a tiger with a spiraling tail. On the left arm are two stags and a leaping wild sheep with its hind legs also bent under. Likewise, in 1993, Natalia Polosmak recovered the body of the Ice Maiden, encased in her permafrost kurgan. Similar “animal style” tattoos were present on her shoulders, arms and hands: a deer with a griffin beak and horns decorated with griffin heads, a ram, and a large-toothed spotted leopard.
The images are fluid and powerful, done in bold bluish ink that was likely derived from soot. The animals are certainly rooted in those that the Pazyryk would have encountered in their environment but they are not naturalistic reproductions of these animals. Instead, they are highly stylized composite creatures that draw from felines, deer, eagles, and even mythological animals. The distinctive “twisted animal” motif has most often been viewed as the contorted hind quarters of an animal that has been brought down from a full run, or whose back has been broken, and it is a motif that is well known throughout Siberia, Central Asia, and Asia Minor. But what would the significance of this imagery have meant to the Pazyryk, especially in terms of their use in tattoos?
Because of the particularly rich nature of the kurgans of these tattooed individuals, they have always been viewed as people who very likely enjoyed a special social status in their group, perhaps as political leaders and also perhaps as spiritual leaders. The mythic nature of the tattoos combined with the elite status of the people, suggest a couple of possibilities. The tattoos may represent ancestors, in the way that the clans of the Pacific Northwest trace their lineages back to a time when humans and animals interacted. Or, perhaps as spiritual leaders in the shamanic traditions that were known for the Scythians the fantastic creatures depicted in their tattoos may represent animal helpers, affines who travelled with their shamans on spiritual journeys and in visions. Or, finally, as leaders in their communities, their tattoos may have been not only their special privilege but also their duty in terms of carrying forth a shared belief system, knowledge, and tribal wisdom. As is so often the case with ancient tattoos, we will likely never be able to state conclusively whether any or all of these interpretations applies. However, what we can easily do, despite the intervening millennia, is still appreciate the beauty, strength, and graceful positioning of these artful tattoos.