Taurians and Kolchians: Diodoros on the origins of human sacrifice in the Black Sea area (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Taurians and Kolchians: Diodoros on the origins of human sacrifice in the Black Sea area (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 1, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16491.

Ancient author: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 4.44-48 (link).

Comments: Diodoros of Sicily continues to tap into mythical materials as an avenue for dealing with peoples. Here he turns from Herakles to the Argonauts (with Herakles as participant), dealing with peoples in the Black Sea area around Taurian Chersonese (northern coast) and Kolchis or Colchis (eastern coast, although the geography seems a bit mixed up in the myths).

This is one of the more substantial accounts of the supposed uncivilized Taurians or Kolchians (engaging in human sacrifice of foreigners, namely Greeks), and Diodoros’ materials attempt to explain the origin of the practice. Diodoros’ account, in which he sometimes expresses doubt about certain versions of the myths, nonetheless confirms how blurry the boundaries were between genres of literature (whether historiography, myth or other) in which the characterization of peoples was paramount. For ethnographic passages from Apollonios of Rhodes’ version of the Voyage of the Argonauts, go to this link.

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Sicilians and Sardinians, go to this link]

Book 4 

[Context of Herakles’ joining the Argonauts’ campaign to the Black Sea area]

44 … (4) I am not unaware that certain writers of myths say that the sons of Phineus [a ruler in Thrace] were blinded by their father and that Phineus suffered a similar fate at the hands of Boreas. (5) Likewise certain writers have passed down the account that Herakles, when he went ashore once in Asia to get water, was left behind in the country by the Argonauts. However, generally speaking, we find that the ancient myths do not give us a simple and consistent story. (6) So it would not be surprizing if – when we put the ancient accounts together – we find that in some details they are not in agreement with those given by every poet and historian.

[Savage Taurians and Kolchians engaging in sacrifice of foreigners, and mythical tales explaining the origins of the practice: Hekate, Kirke, Medea, and the Argonauts]

Anyways, according to these ancient accounts, the sons of Phineus turned over the kingdom to their mother Kleopatra and joined with the chieftains in the expedition. (7) And after they had set sail from Thrace and had entered the Pontos [i.e. the Black Sea], they land at the Taurian Chersonese, being ignorant of the very savage ways (agriotēta) of the native peoples (egchōrioi). For it is customary among the barbarians who inhabit this land to sacrifice foreigners who land there to Artemis Tauropolos [i.e. worshipped among the Taurians]. It is among them, they say, that at a later time Iphigeneia became a priestess of this goddess and sacrificed to her those who were taken captive [see Euripides, Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, early fifth century BCE].

45  Since it is the task of history to inquire into the reasons for this slaying of foreigners, we must discuss these reasons briefly, especially since a digression on this subject will be appropriate in connection with the activities of the Argonauts. We are told that Helios had two sons, Aietes and Perses. Aietes was king of Kolchis and the other one was king of the Taurian Chersonese. We are told that both of them were extremely cruel (ōmotēs). (2) Perses had a daughter Hekate, who surpassed her father in boldness and lawlessness. She was also fond of hunting. When she had no luck hunting, she would turn her arrows on human beings instead of the animals. (3) Since she was also ingenious in the mixing of deadly poisons, she discovered the drug called aconite​ and tried out the strength of each poison by mixing it in the food given to foreigners. (4) Since she had had a lot of experience in such matters, she first of all poisoned her father and so succeeded to the throne. Then, after founding a temple of Artemis and commanding that foreigners who landed there should be sacrificed to the goddess, she became known far and wide for her cruelty. (5) After this she married Aietes and bore two daughters, Kirke and Medea, and a son Aigialeus.

(6) It is said that Kirke also devoted herself to the devising of all kinds of drugs and that she discovered roots of all kinds and potencies, including those that are difficult to credit. Still, notwithstanding that she was taught by her mother Hekate about a considerable number of drugs, she discovered by her own study a far greater number.

The result was that that Kirke made it hard for any other woman to compete with respect to devising uses of drugs. (7) Kirke was given in marriage to the king of the Sarmatians, whom some call “Scythians.” First she poisoned her husband and after that, succeeding to the throne, she committed many cruel and violent acts against her subjects. (8) For this reason she was deposed from her throne. According to some writers of myths, Kirke fled to the ocean, where she seized a desert island. There she established herself with the women who had fled with her. However, according to some historians, she left the Pontos [Black Sea] and settled in Italy on a promontory which to this day bears the name Kirkaion after her.

46  Concerning Medea this story is related: From her mother and sister she learned all the powers which drugs possess, but her purpose in using them was exactly the opposite. For she made a practice of rescuing the foreigners who came to their shores from their perils. Sometimes Medea demanded from her father by entreaty and coaxing that the lives be spared of those who were to die, and sometimes she herself released from prison and then devised plans for the protection of the unfortunate men. For Aietes, partly because of his own natural cruelty and partly because he was under the influence of his wife Hekate, had given his approval to the custom of killing foreigners.

(2) Now, since Medea opposed the purpose of her parents more and more as time went on, Aietes, they say, consigned her to house arrest, because he suspected his daughter of plotting against him. Medea, however, made her escape and fled for refuge to a sacred precinct of Helios on the shore of the sea.

(3) This happened at the very time when the Argonauts arrived from the Taurian Chersonese and landed during the night in Kolchis at the precinct. There they encountered Medea, as she wandered along the shore. Learning from her about the custom of slaying foreigners, they praised the maiden for her kindly spirit. Then, revealing to her their own project, they learned in turn from her about the danger which threatened her from her father because of the reverence which she showed to foreigners. (4) Since they now recognized that it was to their mutual advantage, Medea promised to co-operate with them until they were able to perform the labour which lay before them. At the same time, Jason promised under oath that he would marry her and keep her as his life’s companion as long as he lived. (5) After this, the Argonauts left guards to watch the ship and set off by night with Medea to get the golden fleece.

It may be appropriate to give a detailed account about the golden fleece, so that nothing which belongs to the history which we have undertaken may remain unknown. 47  Phrixos, the son of Athamas, the myths relate, because of his stepmother’s plots against him, took his sister Helle and fled with her from Greece. While they were making the passage from Europe to Asia, as a kind of providence of the gods directed, riding on the back of a ram whose fleece was of gold, the maiden fell into the sea, which was named after her “Hellespont.” But Phrixos continued on into the Pontos and was carried to Kolchis. As some oracle had commanded, at Kolchis he sacrificed the ram and hung up its fleece as a dedicatory offering in the temple of Ares. (2) After this, while Aietes was king of Kolchis, an oracle became known. The oracle was to the effect that he was to come to the end of his life whenever foreigners would land there and carry off the golden fleece. For this reason and because of his own cruelty as well, Aietes ordained that foreigners should be offered up in sacrifice. He did this so that, when the report of the cruelty of the Kolchians had spread around to every part of the world, no stranger would have the courage to set foot on the land. Aietes also built a wall around the precinct and stationed there many guards who were men of the Taurian Chersonese.

It is because of these guards that the Greeks invented monstrous myths. (3) For instance, the report was spread around that there were fire-breathing bulls (tauroi) around the precinct and that a sleepless dragon (drakōn) guarded the fleece. The identity of the names of the guards had led to the transfer from the men who were “Taurians” to the cattle because of their strength and the cruelty shown in the murder of foreigners having been made into the myth of the bulls breathing fire. Similarly the name of the guardian who watched over the sacred precinct, which was Drakon, has been transferred by the poets to the monstrous and fear-inspiring beast, the dragon. (4) Also, the account of Phrixos underwent a similar re-working into a myth. For, as some men say, he made his voyage upon a ship which bore the head of a ram upon its bow, and Helle, being troubled with sea-sickness, while leaning far over the side of the boat for this reason, fell into the sea.

(5) Some say, however, that the king of the Scythians, who was a son-in‑law of Aietes, was visiting among the Kolchians at the very time when, as it happened, Phrixos and his attendant were taken captive. Developing a love for the boy​, he received him from Aietes as a gift, loved him like his very own son, and left his kingdom to him. The attendant, however, whose name was Krios (Ram), was sacrificed to the gods. When his body had been flayed, the skin was nailed up on the temple, in keeping with a certain custom. (6) Later on, when an oracle was delivered to Aietes to the effect that he was to die whenever foreigners would sail to his land and carry off the skin of Krios, the king, they say, built a wall about the precinct and stationed a guard over it. Furthermore, he coated the skin with gold leaf so that, due to its brilliant appearance, the soldiers would consider it worthy of the most careful guarding. As for these matters, however, it rests with my readers to judge each story in accordance with his own tendencies.

48  Medea, we are told, led the way for the Argonauts to the sacred precinct of Ares, which was seventy stadium-lengths away from the city which was called Sybaris and contained the palace of the rulers of the Kolchians. When Medea approached the gates, which were kept closed at night, she addressed the guards in the Taurian language. (2) After the soldiers readily opened the gates to her as the king’s daughter, the Argonauts, they say, rushed in with drawn swords and killed many of the barbarians. The Argonauts drove the rest, who were struck with terror by the unexpected occurrence, out of the precinct. Then the Argonauts took the fleece with them and went to the ship quickly. (3) Medea likewise, assisting the Argonauts, killed with poisons the dragon which, according to the myths, never slept as it lay coiled around the fleece in the precinct. She then made her way with Jason down to the sea.

(4) The Taurians who had escaped by fleeing reported the attack on them to the king. They say that Aietes took with him the soldiers who guarded him, set out in pursuit of the Greeks, and came upon them near the sea. Joining battle on the first contact with them, he killed one of the Argonauts, Iphitos, the brother of that Eurystheus who imposed the labours on Herakles, but soon, when he enveloped the rest of them with the multitude of his followers and pressed too hotly into the fray, he was killed by Meleager.

(5) The moment the king fell, the Greeks were encouraged, and the Kolchians turned to flee and the majority were killed in the pursuit. Among the chieftains, Jason, Laertes, Atalante, and the sons of Thespios, as they are called, were wounded. However, they were all healed in a few days, they say, by Medea by means of roots and certain herbs. After the Argonauts secured provisions for themselves, they set out to sea. . . [omitted remainder of the adventures of Jason as they head back beyond the Black Sea area back home to Thessaly].

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Teukrians, Dardanians, and Trojans, go to this link].

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