The Mysterious Scythians Burst Into History

Not long after the kingdom of Israel disappeared in defeat and captivity at the hand of Assyria, a new people suddenly arose in that general region who would eventually populate northwest Europe. Is there a connection?

"Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth; yet I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD" (Amos:9:8).

When the northern kingdom of Israel suffered destruction at the hands of the Assyrians, its people found themselves forced into exile. Yet God had promised they would survive to become some of the world's major powers in the last days.

Where did they go from there? How can we find them?

Tracing the ancestry of ancient peoples is an extremely difficult task. Archaeologists, historians and distinguished professors in famous universities often differ on the interpretation of artifacts and historical documents.

This is because full knowledge of any ancient people's origins is almost always clouded by the mists of time. This is especially true when written records have vanished, been destroyed or never existed. Therefore, to determine what happened to the ancient Israelites, we must carefully compare the available historical and archaeological evidence to the history and prophecies in the Bible.

Archaeologists and historical researchers have accumulated a substantial base of information we can fit together as pieces of the historical puzzle. The more pieces on the table, the easier it is to accurately connect the information. By assembling enough parts we can obtain a reasonably good picture of the past.

Key historical clues

Historians accept that most of the ancestors of today's Western democracies once lived as nomadic tribes roaming the vast grassland plains of antiquity known as the Eurasian steppes. One particular group of these migratory peoples, identified as Scythians by the Greeks, suddenly appeared on the Eurasian steppes about the same time the 10 tribes of Israel disappeared from history. Is there a connection? Here are some of the more pertinent facts and discoveries concerning the two peoples.

The vast Eurasian steppes stretch some 4,350 miles from the base of the Carpathian Mountains in Europe to Mongolia in eastern Asia. They formed a single geographic unit of natural grassland that every spring was transformed into spectacular seas of wildflowers stretching as far as the eye could see.

This vast plain was perfectly suited to ranching and grain-raising. Archaeologists have discovered ample evidence to prove that, in antiquity, nomadic tribes regularly traversed it while following grazing herds and flocks in great cyclical routes during the spring, summer and fall.

However, climatic changes about 2,000 years ago turned large sections of the central-Asian steppes into a desert waste. It became so dry that it could no longer support the pastoral way of life practiced from 2,700 to 2,100 years ago (Tamara Talbot Rice, The Scythians, 1961, p. 33).

The Scythians' sudden appearance

Some modern scholars suggest three theories to explain the sudden and mysterious appearance of the Scythians in the steppe region adjacent to the Black Sea. Some believe they migrated there from the north, others from the east. A third opinion suggests the migrations came from the south.

Although the geographic origins of the Scythian people are hotly debated, evidence for the time of their first appearance in history is not. They suddenly appeared at the same time and near the same area of the Israelites' disappearance.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says: "The Scythians were a people who during the 8th-7th centuries BC moved from Central Asia to southern Russia" (15th edition, Vol. 16, macropaedia, "Scythians," p. 438). The Encyclopedia Americana explains that the Scythians first occupied the territory around the Black Sea around 700 B.C. and that, from their first beginnings, they presented a "cohesive political entity" (Vol. 24, 2000 edition, "Scythians," p. 471).

Historian Tamara Talbot Rice confirms that "the Scythians did not become a recognizable national entity much before the eighth century B.C. ... By the seventh century B.C. they had established themselves firmly in southern Russia ... And analogous tribes, possibly even related clans, though politically entirely distinct and independent, were also centred on the Altai [where the eastern border of Russia meets the western border of Mongolia and China] ...

"Assyrian documents place their appearance there [between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea] in the time of King Sargon (722-705 B.C.), a date which closely corresponds with that of the establishment of the first group of Scythians in southern Russia" (Rice, pp. 19-20, 44). This date also corresponds with the disappearance of the captives from Israel's northern kingdom.

During the late eighth century B.C., records from the Caucasian kingdom of Urartu, which controlled the northern reaches of the Euphrates River, also noted the appearance of a group called Cimmerians.

The book From the Lands of the Scythians explains: "... Two groups, Cimmerians and Scythians, seem to be referred to in Urartean and Assyrian texts, but it is not always clear whether the terms indicate two distinct peoples or simply mounted nomads ... Beginning in the second half of the eighth century B.C., Assyrian sources refer to nomads identified as the Cimmerians; other Assyrian sources say these people were present in the land of the Mannai [or Mannea, south of Lake Urmia] and in Cappadocia for a hundred years [that is, about 750 to 650 B.C.], and record their advances into Asia Minor and Egypt.

"The Assyrians used Cimmerians in their army as mercenaries; a legal document of 679 B.C. refers to an Assyrian 'commander of the Cimmerian regiment'; but in other Assyrian documents they are called ' the seed of runaways who know neither vows to the gods nor oaths'" (Boris Piotrovsky, 1975, pp. 15, 18).

Historian Samuel Lysons spoke of "the Cimmerians seeming to be the same people as the Gauls or Celts under a different name" (John Henry and James Parker, Our British Ancestors: Who and What Were They?, 1865, pp. 23, 27).

Anne Kristensen, a respected Danish linguistic scholar, recently reached the conclusion that the Cimmerians (who later became known as the Celts) can positively be identified as the deported Israelites.

In the beginning of her research Dr. Kristensen was skeptical and subscribed to the traditional theory that the Cimmerians were "Aryan" tribes the Scythians had chased out of the north, as Herodotus had theorized.

But as she dug more and more into the Assyrian sources, she found the Cimmerians first appeared in history in 714 B.C. in the region of Iran south of Armenia where the kings of Assyria had settled many of the deported Israelites. She came to the conclusion that the Gimira, or Cimmerians, represented at least a part of the lost 10 tribes of Israel.

Dr. Kristensen writes: "There is scarcely reason, any longer, to doubt the exciting and verily astonishing assertion propounded by the students of the Ten Tribes that the Israelites deported from Bit Humria, of the House of 'Omri, are identical with the Gimirraja of the Assyrian sources. Everything indicates that Israelite deportees did not vanish from the picture but that, abroad, under new conditions, they continued to leave their mark on history" ( Who Were the Cimmerians, and Where Did They Come From? Sargon II, the Cimmerians, and Rusa I, translated from the Danish by Jørgen Læssøe, The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, No. 57, 1988, pp. 126-127).

It is also worth noting that Assyrian crown prince Sennacherib wrote a secret intelligence report that archaeologists found during the excavation of the royal archives at Nineveh. Sennacherib's report passed on news from his spies that Cimmerian nomads had invaded Urartu and had defeated their forces. On the strength of that report the Assyrians made preparations to invade their northern rival, Urartu, which they successfully accomplished in 714 B.C.

A Scythian tribal alliance emerges

But in the end it was the Scythians who profited most from the conflicts that weakened Urartu. By 700 B.C. the Scythians had gained control over the territory of the old Urartean kingdom. There they formed a tribal alliance the Greeks called the Scythian Kingdom.

Using the central Kreuzberg Pass (also known as the Caucasus Gate), the Scythians mastered crossing the steep Caucasus Mountains. The pass was passable most of the year; it was relatively ice-free even though its elevation is higher than many passes in the Alps. The Scythians had a remarkable ability to move large armies back and forth through the pass. In antiquity it was even known as the "Scythian route."

Before their exile the 10 Israelite tribes of the north would have been fully aware of the kingdom of Urartu and its strategic location. Why? Because in the first half of the eighth century B.C. the northern kingdom of Israel, before its captivity, was heavily invested in export-import trade, and Urartu was a key to that trade. Urartu had made an alliance with the small states of northern Syria that bordered on the territory of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II.

Many of those Aramaeans had been allied with King Pekah during his invasion of Judah around 735 B.C. During that time the Urarteans had gained the strategic domination of the Euphrates down to its western bend, allowing them to control the main trade route to the Mediterranean from the southern Caucasus. Archaeological excavations in Urartu have uncovered artifacts from Egypt, Assyria and Persia as well as from the Mediterranean region.

Scythian origins

The term Scythic, wrote historian George Rawlinson, was originally more the designation of a way of life than a reference to blood relationships. He explained that the term was "applied by the Greeks and Romans to Indo-European and Turanian races indifferently," providing that their habits and customs conformed to the nomadic way of life (George Rawlinson, Seven Great Monarchies, Vol. 3, 1884, p. 11).

Today, however, historians use the term Scythian mostly in reference to the Saka, or Sacae, Scyths. These people became the leading tribes of the Scythian culture. They inspired its dynamic way of life and its political, artistic, economic and social leadership. From the seventh century B.C. forward, it was the Saka, or Sacae, tribes that defined what it meant to be Scythian from the Black Sea all the way to the mountains of Mongolia.

Before the early 20th century, European and American historians assumed the Scythians were of the Mongol people from Asia. Modern anthropological research, however, has shown this idea to be false. Most scholars are convinced that no ethnic links exist between the Saka Scythians and the Mongols or the Slavic peoples.

However, this doesn't mean the scattered former tribes on the Eurasian steppes—the peoples the Greeks first labeled Scythians before the eighth century B.C.—all suddenly disappeared. Rather, the Saka Scyths simply began to dominate the steppe region from 700 to 500 B.C. During that time the Saka Scyths—accompanied by a smaller mixture of other tribes of Middle Eastern origin such as displaced Medes, Elamites and Assyrians—became the predominant peoples on the Eurasian plains.

In fact, until sometime in the fifth or fourth century B.C. the predominant inhabitants of even western Siberia were "a fair-haired people of European origin, and ... it was after that date that an influx of Mongoloids resulted in a very mixed type of population" (Rice, p. 77). Close examination of 20th-century archaeological discoveries plainly and consistently portray the Saka Scythians as physically like the present-day people of Europe.

Links to biblical prophecy

Let's compare what we have learned about the Scythians to the promises God made to the exiled Israelites. Addressing them as the "house of Isaac" (Amos:7:16), He promised that during their captivity they would not be destroyed as a people (Amos:9:8, 14; compare Hosea:11:9; 14:4-7). Instead He promised to greatly multiply them after their exile (Hosea:1:10) and show them loving-kindness and mercy because of His covenant.

The Scriptures plainly tell us that the Israelites, after the Assyrians forcibly deported them from their homeland, relocated "in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan [in northern Assyria], and in the cities of the Medes" (2 Kings:18:11). This is not far from the region of Urartu, between the Black and Caspian seas, where the Scythians had established a temporary kingdom.

Through Hosea God had foretold that the Israelites would become "wanderers among the nations" (Hosea:9:17). This explains why the exiled Israelites seem to have vanished as a people. They didn't really vanish; they simply reappeared in history under new names—as a vagabond people, separated into independent clans, wandering over the Eurasian plains.

Obviously no one could any longer identify them as citizens of their former Middle Eastern kingdom. So they acquired a new identity. Only their old subtribal, or clan, names remained mostly the same. Those names have proven to be important in preserving their identity as the lost 10 tribes of Israel.

The Scythian-Celtic connection

At the same general time the Scythians burst on the scene around the Black Sea, another civilization was emerging to the west in Europe. In his book The Ancient World of the Celts historian Peter Ellis notes: "At the start of the first millennium BC, a civilisation which had developed from its Indo-European roots around the headwaters of the Rhine, the Rhône and the Danube suddenly erupted in all directions through Europe. Their advanced use of metalwork, particularly their iron weapons, made them a powerful and irresistible force. Greek merchants, first encountering them in the sixth century BC, called them Keltoi and Galatai...Today we generally identify them as Celts" (1999, p. 9).

Considerable evidence connects the Celts of Europe with the Cimmerians who fled from the Near East to Asia Minor at the time the armies of Babylon were conquering the Assyrian Empire. From Asia Minor the Cimmerians migrated by way of the Danube River into Europe, where they became known as the Celts. Many historians have concluded that the Celts and Scythians have a common background.

The Greeks and Romans called all people beyond the northern boundaries of the old Roman Republic and the Greek city-states barbarians. They used the term to describe foreigners who dared challenge their political and cultural leadership, regardless of how educated or technologically advanced they might have been. These people represented many extended-family clans known by a variety of names. Among them, no doubt, were clans of unrelated ethnic origin that had fled from eastern territories of the old Assyrian Empire at about the same time.

But the more significant fact is that many, if not most, of these so-called barbarian tribes were racially and culturally related. For that reason we should expect that the language of these related tribes could be traced to a common parent language—and that is exactly what we find.

The language link

Languages are identified by families. The language family common to the Northwestern European people falls within what is classified as the Germanic branch of Indo-European languages. The history of the Indo-European language family provides us with excellent clues to the relationships between the barbarian tribes that engendered the Northwestern European democracies.

When we look at the nations of Europe, we see delineated nation-state boundaries with distinctly different languages such as English, French, Danish and Swedish as well as localized dialects (such as High and Low German). However, in the days of these so-called barbarians such obvious distinctions did not exist. The people settling Northwestern Europe at that time spoke mainly different dialects of the same parent language.

English is part of the Indo-European family of languages that is usually broadly labeled as Teutoni c or Germanic. But such labeling does not imply that the modern German language ( German ) is the parent language or that the German people came from the same ethnic stock as the Scythians. To the contrary, modern German is only one branch of the original parent language. The same is true of the English, Danish, Dutch and Scandinavian languages. All are branches of one original language.

As Cambridge University professor H. Munro Chadwick explains: "Down to the fifth century the German, English and Scandinavian languages differed but slightly from one another ... In the fifth and following centuries differentiation took place very quickly within the north-western group. English developed in general on lines about midway between German and Scandinavian, but with many special features of its own. Frisian [Dutch] seems to have differed little from English for a long time ... The differentiation of the languages was obviously governed by their geographical position" ( The Nationalities of Europe and the Growth of National Ideologies, 1966, p. 145).

If we go back 500 years from the point when the Teutonic languages began to differentiate, we discover that great swaths of northern, western and eastern Europeans spoke similar dialects of a common Indo-European language. When scholars try to pin a label on a particular European barbarian tribe as being Germanic or Celtic or Scythian, they often find themselves in a quandary: Distinctions are often unclear and can easily become arbitrary.

The ancient Romans rarely bothered to learn barbarian languages, preferring to use interpreters. They couldn't tell the difference between the language spoken in Gaul and that spoken on the other side of the Rhine. So Latin writers habitually began to label barbarian tribes east of the Rhine as the "Germani," lumping them into one group.

Some modern archaeologists, however, describe the dominant people of Northern Europe during the period ca. 500 B.C. as broadly divided between Celts and Scytho-Teutons. Even this distinction was more geographic and cultural than ethnic.

The farther back in history we go the less distinction we find between the Celtic and Teutonic peoples who settled Western and Northwestern Europe. Professor Chadwick writes: "In any discussion as to the origin of the Teutonic (or Germanic) languages it must of course be borne in mind that these languages are merely a branch of the Indo-European languages ... and consequently that their original home—as distinct from the area in which they acquired their special characteristics—was that of the whole Indo-European family. The same remark applies to the Celtic languages ... No one doubts that these languages, or rather the parent language from which they are derived, were once limited to a much smaller area than that of their present distribution" (Chadwick, p. 157).

These people burst into view along the edge of the old Assyrian Empire in the last half of the eighth century B.C.—at the same time and in the same area where the lost 10 tribes of Israel disappeared. Until about the fourth century A.D. their dialects of a common language remained similar enough for them to easily communicate with each other.

Scythians and Celts are closely related by language. But were the Celts a distinct people unrelated to the Scythians? Or are there indications of a strong relationship between them?

Scythian-Celtic interaction

Historians and archaeologists report that during the second half of the first millennium B.C. the area of Europe north of the Mediterranean world shared two related cultures. From the British Isles to the headwaters of the Danube to the eastern fringe of the Alps existed what historians label as the Hallstatt Celtic culture and, later, the La Tène Celtic culture.

But further east, occupying a vast area of Eastern Europe, was the strong horse-centered traditional Scythic culture based on a way of life suited to grasslands rather than mountains and forests. Each of these provided ideas and inspiration for the other. According to the archaeological evidence, the two groups freely intermarried.

The separate Celtic and Scythian cultures interacted with each other much like modern Britain and America. Each was adapted to the geography of its own region. But the people themselves interacted as if they shared an ancestry. Archaeologists have uncovered some remarkable sites of Celtic and Scythian cultures that demonstrate how closely the two peoples worked with each other.

The distinction between Scythian and Celtic cultures is probably best explained by two factors. First, the geography supporting each culture was generally different. But, equally important, 10 Israelite tribes were exiled from the Middle East. Each of these had its own culture within the larger culture of Israel's northern kingdom. Also, each tribe was further subdivided into clans (1 Samuel:10:19; compare Exodus:6:14-25, NIV).

Therefore, one would expect these exiled Israelite tribes to continue exhibiting some cultural differences in the lands of their exile. Such distinctions would also explain the clans and subclans existing among the Scythians and Celts.

Israeli Talmudic scholar Yair Davidy, in his book The Tribes: The Israelite Origins of Western Peoples, presents convincing evidence that the displaced Israelites retained their sub-tribal clan names during and after their captivity. "Proofs adduced," he writes, "are derived from Biblical, Talmudic, Historical, Archaeological, and Linguistic sources as well as Folklore, Mythology, National Symbols, and National Characteristics" (1993, p. xiv). As a resident of Jerusalem, Mr. Davidy had access to the historical and biblical sources on the shelves of Jerusalem's National Library.

Tribal and subtribal names, he points out, are a key to tracing the Israelites' wanderings. In his introduction he summarizes his conclusion: "'The Tribes' produces evidence that most of the ancient Israelites assimilated to foreign cultures and forgot their origins. In the course of time they reached the British Isles and north-west Europe whence related nations (such as the U.S.A.) were founded" (ibid.).

For thorough coverage of this aspect of Israel's migratory history, we refer you directly to his books The Tribes: The Israelite Origins of Western Peoples (1993), Joseph: The Israelite Destiny of America (2001) and Ephraim: The Gentile Children of Israel (2001).

Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500 enemy tribes and drastic climatic changes drove the Scythian clans from the Eurasian steppes to the northern and western regions of Europe. For another 1,000 years the former Scythians were alternately allies and enemies in feudal Europe under a variety of clan names. This lasted until modern nations as we know them began to take shape in Europe.

In the next chapter we pick up the amazing story of the scattered descendants of ancient Israel rising to the international prominence that God had long ago promised to the offspring of Joseph.

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