(Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Musée du Louvre, January 1992)
Srayanka (Cruel Hands) is a character based loosely on a number of artistic and literary depictions of Scythian women in contact with Greek society, most particularly with the character of Medea in Euripides play of that name. She is a war leader and a priestess, two roles that could be combined in Scythian society, and whatever her sexuality, she has chosen to remain a warrior.
Scythian and Sarmatian grave finds suggest that women could indeed be mothers and warriors, as attested by finds of women buried with both husbands/children and their own weapons and horses, but the fact is that Scythian society was complex and we may never know for sure what women’s roles were.
Suffice it to say that women could be, and were, warriors in the horse-nomadic cultures of the Sea of Grass.
Srayanka and Samahe are two examples from different Scythian social classes of women for whom the way of the spear is more important than home and hearth, or yurt.
Where I was unable to learn from art or literature (most of all Herodotus, with some input from Ovid and Lucian) how the Scythians behaved or lived, what they wore, what they called themselves, and so on, I have felt free to borrow freely from their cousins across the Pacific, the Native American tribes of the woodlands and the plains. Any student of the Scythians has to be familiar with the similarities between the two cultures, many easily explained by the technologies arising from the combination of the horse and the bow, but some quite remarkable, like the similarities in shamanistic belief.
Srayanka was born in 355 BC, the last daughter of the prolific Ataelus, king of the Western Scythians and determined enemy of Philip of Macedon. It is worth noting that Philip, who was supposedly wounded in 339 BC in single combat with the eighty-year-old Ataelus during an epic battle, claimed to have emerged victorious, having defeated the Scythians, killed Ataelus, and seized twenty thousand horses. It’s a good story, but Philip came home with a much-reduced army, no horses, and a hideous wound in his thigh that persisted for the rest of his life. Various excuses were advanced for the loss of the horses and the wound. I’d like to suggest that it’s just as likely that Philip, father of the modern “just tell lies until they believe them” philosophy of politics, may well have lost to Ataelus. Certainly he never ventured onto the plains again, and if he won, his victory paid him no dividends in alliance or tribute.
Whatever the truth, Srayanka was born to a royal Scythian family and became a prominent war-leader in the mid-330’s, leading raids against the Getae and Bastarnae and maintaining the western borders of the Scythian Host. Cool and calculating at times, hot-headed at others, she is Medea in her own environment, happier and more at peace — and more capable of affection.