Scythians, Amazons, and Hyperboreans: Diodoros on some northerners (mid-first century BCE)

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 2.43-46 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Diodoros of Sicily (or: Diodorus Sicilus) somewhat unusually transitions from his discussion of the peoples of India to the peoples of Scythia (although it is true that there is some continuity in the nomadic populations that ranged across the Eurasian steppe). His brief discussion of various peoples sometimes encompassed under the Greek category of “Scythians” seems more of a pretext for discussing the ways in which Scythians varied considerably from Greek gender expectations. An outline of some stories about Amazons and Amazon queens illustrates this unusual feature from a Greek perspective. The discussion of Scythians to the north of the Black Sea and the Amazons (imagined as living to northeast of the Black Sea) also segues to further northern peoples, in this case the (largely if not solely mythical) Hyperboreans (with some reference to Hekataios’ supposed account).

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Library of History, Volume 2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of the Indians, go to this link.]

Book 2

[Scythians bordering on India]

43  But now, in turn, we will discuss the Scythians who inhabit the country bordering on India. This people originally possessed little territory. But later, as they gradually increased in power, they seized much territory by reason of their mighty actions and their bravery and advanced their people (ethnos) to great leader­ship and renown. (2) At first, then, they lived by the Araxes [Aras]​ river, altogether few in number and despised because of their lack of renown. But since one of their early kings was warlike and of unusual skill as a general, they acquired territory in the mountains as far as the Caucasus, and in the steppes along the ocean and lake Maiotis​ [Sea of Azov] and the rest of that country as far as the Tanais​ [Don] river.

[Scythian origin stories and Scythian peoples]

(3) At a later time, as the Scythians recount the myth, a maiden sprung from the earth was born among them. The upper parts of her body as far as her waist were those of a woman, but the lower parts were those of a snake. With her Zeus had a son whose name was Scythes. This son became more famous than any who had preceded him and called the folk Scythians after his own name. Now among the descendants of this king there were two brothers who were distinguished for their courage, the one named Palos and the other Napes. (4) Since these two performed renowned deeds and divided the kingship between them, some of the people were called Palians after one of them and some Napians after the other. But some time later the descendants of these kings, because of their unusual excellence and skill as generals, subdued much of the territory beyond the Tanais river as far as Thrace. Advancing with their armies to the other side​, they extended their power as far as the Nile in Egypt. (5) After enslaving many great peoples which lay between the Thracians and the Egyptians, they advanced the empire of the Scythians on the one side as far as the ocean to the east, and on the other side to the Caspian sea and lake Maiotis. For this people increased to great strength and had notable kings, one of whom gave his name to the Sakians (Sakai), another to the Massagetians (Massagetai), another to the Arimaspians (Arimaspoi), and several others received their names in a similar manner.

(6) It was by these kings that many of the conquered peoples were removed to other homes, and two of these became very great colonies: the one was composed of Assyrians​ and was removed to the land between Paphlagonia and Pontos, and the other was drawn from Media and planted along the Tanais, its people receiving the name Sauromatians (Sauromatai). (7) Many years later this people became powerful and ravaged a large part of Scythia, and destroying utterly all whom they subdued they turned most of the land into a desert.

[Prominence of women in Scythia, including the Amazons]

44 After these events there was a period of revolutions in Scythia, in which the sovereigns were women endowed with exceptional valour. For among these peoples [i.e. Scythians], the women train for war just as do the men and in acts of manly courage are in no way inferior to the men. Consequently distinguished women have been the authors of many great accomplishments, not in Scythia alone, but also in the territory bordering upon it. (2) For instance, when Cyrus the king of the Persians, the mightiest ruler of his day, made a campaign with a vast army into Scythia, the queen of the Scythians not only cut the army of the Persians to pieces but she even took Cyrus prisoner and crucified him. The people (ethnos) of the Amazons, after they were organized, were so distinguished for their manly prowess that they not only overran much of the neighbouring territory but even subdued a large part of Europe and Asia.

(3) But for our part, since we have mentioned the Amazons, we feel that it is not foreign to our purpose to discuss them, even though what we say will be so amazing that it will resemble a tale from mythology. 45 (1) Now in the country along the Thermodon [Terme] river,​ as the account goes, royal power was in the hands of peoples among whom the women were considered superior, and its women performed the services of war just as did the men. Of these women one, who possessed the royal authority, was remarkable for her prowess in war and her bodily strength. Gathering together an army of women, she trained the army in the use of arms and subdued in war some of the neighbouring peoples. (2) Since her excellence and fame increased, she made war upon people after people of neighbouring lands.

As the tide of her fortune continued to be favourable, she was so filled with pride that she gave herself the appellation of “Daughter of Ares.” But to the men she assigned the spinning of wool and such other domestic duties as belong to women. Laws were also established by her, by virtue of which she led forth the women to the contests of war, but upon the men she fastened humiliation and slavery. (3) As for their children, they mutilated both the legs and the arms of the males, incapacitating them in this way for the demands of war. In the case of the females, they seared the right breast so that it would not project out when their bodies matured and be in the way. It is for this reason that the people of the Amazons received the appellation it bears [a-mazos or a-mastos: “without a breast”].​

(4) In general, this queen was remarkable for her intelligence and ability as a general, and she founded a great city named Themiskyra at the mouth of the Thermodon river and built there a famous palace. Furthermore, in her campaigns she devoted much attention to military discipline and at the outset subdued all her neighbours as far as the Tanais river. (5) They say that this queen accomplished the deeds which have been mentioned, and fighting brilliantly in a certain battle she ended her life heroically.

46 (1) The daughter of this queen, the account continues, on succeeding to the throne emulated the excellence of her mother, and even surpassed her in certain actions. For instance, she exercised in the chase the maidens from their earliest girlhood and drilled them daily in the arts of war, and she also established magnificent festivals both to Ares and to the Artemis who is called Tauropolos [i.e. Taurian Artemis]. (2) Then she campaigned against the territory lying beyond the Tanais [to the west] and subdued all the peoples one after another as far as Thrace. Returning to her native land with a lot of plunder, she built magnificent shrines to the deities mentioned above. Because of her kindly rule over her subjects, she received from them the greatest praise. She also campaigned on the other side [east and southeast]​ and subdued a large part of Asia and extended her power as far as Syria. (3) After the death of this queen, as their account continues, women of her family, succeeding as queens from time to time, ruled with distinction and advanced the people of the Amazons in both power and fame.

Many generations after these events, when the excellence of these women had been heard abroad through the whole inhabited world, they say that Herakles, the son of Alkmene and Zeus, was assigned by Eurystheus the labour of securing the belt of Hippolyte the Amazon.​ (4) Consequently, Herakles set out on this campaign. Being victorious in a great battle, he not only cut to pieces the army of the Amazons but also, after taking captive Hippolyte together with her belt, completely crushed this people. Consequently, the neighbouring barbarians, despising the weakness of this people and remembering against them their past injuries, waged continuous wars against the people to such a degree that they left in existence not even the name of the descent group (genos) of the Amazons.

(5) For a few years after the campaign of Herakles against them, they say, during the time of the Trojan War, Penthesileia, the queen of the surviving Amazons, who was a daughter of Ares and had slain one of her kindred, fled from her native land because of sacrilege.​ Fighting as an ally of the Trojans after the death of Hektor, she killed many of the Greeks and after gaining distinction in the struggle she ended her life heroically at the hands of Achilles. (6) Now they say that Penthesileia was the last of the Amazons to win distinction for bravery and that for the future this people diminished more and more and then lost all its strength. For this reason, in later times whenever any writers recount their prowess, men consider the ancient stories about the Amazons to be fictitious tales.


47 (1) Now for our part, since we have thought it was appropriate to make mention of the regions of Asia which lie to the north, we feel that it will not be foreign to our purpose to discuss the legendary accounts of the Hyperboreans.​ Among those who have written about the ancient myths, Hekataios and certain others say that, in the regions beyond the land of the Celts​, there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island, the account continues, is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans. They are labelled with this designation because their home is beyond the point from where the north wind (Boreas) blows. The island is both fertile and productive of all kinds of crops, and since it has an unusually temperate climate it produces two harvests each year.

(2) Moreover, the following legend is told concerning it: Leto​ was born on this island, and for that reason Apollo is honoured among them above all other gods. In a way, the inhabitants are looked upon as priests of Apollo since they praise this god daily and continuously in song and honour him exceedingly. There is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape. (3) Furthermore, a city is there which is sacred to this god, and the majority of its inhabitants are performers on the cithara. These performers continually play on this instrument in the temple and sing hymns of praise to the god, glorifying his deeds.

(4) We are informed that the Hyperboreans also have a language which is peculiar to them. They are most friendly disposed towards the Greeks, and especially towards the Athenians and the Delians,​ who have inherited this good-will from most ancient times. The myth also relates that certain Greeks visited the Hyperboreans and left behind them there costly votive offerings bearing inscriptions in Greek letters. (5) In the same way Abaris,​ a Hyperborean, came to Greece in ancient times and renewed the good-will and kinship of his people to the Delians.

They also say that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be only a short distance from the earth and to have upon it prominent features, like those of the earth, which are visible to the eye. (6) The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years, the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished. For this reason, the nineteen-year period is called by the Greeks the “year of Meton.”​ At the time of this appearance of the god, he both plays on the cithara and dances continuously the night through from the vernal equinox until the rising of the Pleiades, expressing in this manner his delight in his successes. The kings of this city and the supervisors of the sacred precinct are called “Boreadians” (Boreadai), since they are descendants of Boreas, and the succession to these positions is always kept in their family.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of the Arabians, go to this link].

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