They were partly the product of man and the land, and partly inspired of the gods of antiquity. But transgender shamans of antiquity north of the Black Sea remain a people at whom we wonder, and the legends behind them seem disjointed to the modern geographer. Admittedly, the Scythians seem to fade in and out of history at various times. Nobody has detailed the entire story of their generations. We know even less about their shamans, those whom the Greeks called Enarees ( Ἐναρής). In fact what we do know raises more questions than we have been provided answers, especially in terms of the sources of information and how their mythos developed.
The origins of the Scythians themselves are obscure, though they seem to arise, as do the Celts, from the Kurgan people who inhabited the Volga Delta region around 2200 BCE. We speak of “Kurgan” people loosely, not knowing what the earlier people really called themselves or even if they necessarily represent a singular tribe. Kurgan people had that name attached to them because of the manner of burial in mounds called “kurgans”. As these people grew and spread, they would have contact with the Hittites in Anatolia, as Gerhard Herm attests in The Celts:
“This brings us within reach of the first Indo-European people whose existence is attested in written documents: the Hittites. They [the Hittites] advanced around 2000 BC into what is today Turkey, where they founded, a good four hundred years later, one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world, which at its apogee reached into Syria.
“These steppe-warriors could not have acquired the capacity to set up and govern a state in their homeland. This they presumably learnt in the Trans-Caucasian region, where they had to test their own hierarchical order against a more highly developed people. Their military prowess will also have benefited, for the mountain people seem, like themselves, to have been of a warlike disposition. While the Hittites’ forefathers were setting off, the Churri, who probably lived in Armenia, left their homelands and set up several states in Mesopotamia that were dominated by chariot-borne armies. Half a millennium later they were followed by the Cassites who conquered Babylon and held it for almost four hundred years. Some scholars reckon that, though not Indo-European, both peoples were at least led by Indo-European chieftains. They were at all events characterized by a rigidly hierarchical social order. All of this permits us to suppose that a warrior people lived on the slopes of the Caucasus, in the modern Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaidjan, which at one time had not only the military but also the organizational capacity to undertake the great march to western Europe.”1
Scythians themselves first appeared as allies to the Assyrians when the Scythian ruler Partatua married an Assyrian princess in 674 BCE. The 2 nations went on to conquer the Medes near the Caspian Sea.2 This onslaught would have given ample motivation for the Medes to unite with the Persians, eventually becoming a single nation that would explode into empire in the next century. The Medes beat the Scythians back to the steppes. Then Darius the Mede, who had taken Babylon in 538 BCE, 3 invaded the region north of the Black Sea in 514 BCE. But because the Scythians didn’t operate farms or settlements but lived as nomads, they could simply utilize the vastness of the Steppes and let Darius be swallowed up in nothing but the advancing North Wind. Darius had no choice but to withdraw.4
This narrative becomes significant for the Enarees as well. Scythians in conjunction with Assyrians would have fought in other parts of Assyria’s dominion. The Assyrian Empire extended from Mesopotamia into Syria and southward into Egypt. Syria controlled the city of Ashkelon. Herodotus wrote this concerning the Scythians who were in Syria at that time:
“So they turned back, and when they came on their way to the city of Ascalon [Ashkalon] in Syria, most of the Scythians passed by and did no harm, but a few remained behind and plundered the temple of Aphrodite Urania [Heavenly Aphrodite]. This temple, I discover from making inquiry, is the oldest of all the temples of the goddess, for the temple in Cyprus was founded from it, as the Cyprians themselves say; and the temple on Cythera was founded by Phoenicians from this same land of Syria. But the Scythians who pillaged the temple, and all their descendants after them, were afflicted by the goddess with the “female” sickness: and so the Scythians say that they are afflicted as a consequence of this and also that those who visit Scythian territory see among them the condition of those whom the Scythians call “Hermaphrodites”.5
Herodotus describes the place as “Ascalon” because no “sh” exists in Greek and a simple sigma best approximates the sound. Ashkelon has belonged to various nations at different times and regional control has shifted back and forth. Today the ruins of Ashkelon are located in Israel. At one time Ashkelon was a Phoenician city and Aphrodite was a Phoenician goddess before she was ever in the Greek pantheon. This is important to know, not only because we need to trace any religious association with the Enarees, but must also account for why Scythians would have existed in the Levant in the first place. Scythian associations with the Assyrians account for this.
It’s interesting to realize in the course of the alliance with Assyria that the Scythians would also have known about the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal in the 7th Century CE. Ashurbanipal was reputed to be a cross dresser. It has been suggested that Ashurbanipal’s gender expression was motivation for insurrection and ultimately his death.6 Might the memory of Ashurbanipal have been inspiration for the priesthood of Aphrodite to issue such a curse as what infected these Scythians, as if these Scythians should realize a similar end? Maybe. We don’t know.
But if we should believe another account, Aphrodite Urania, or “Venus Castina” as Romans described her, held a special position for transfolk in the Eastern Mediterranean, being “assigned the task of responding with sympathy and understanding to the yearning of female souls locked in male bodies.”7
Hippocrates the Physician, apparently examined some of the Enarees himself, giving this early medical opinion:
“And, in addition to these, there are many eunuchs among the Scythians, who perform female work, and speak like women. Such persons are called effeminates. The inhabitants of the country attribute the cause of their impotence to a god, and venerate and worship such persons, every one dreading that the like might befall himself; but to me it appears that such affections are just as much divine as all others are, and that no one disease is either more divine or more human than another, but that all are alike divine, for that each has its own nature, and that no one arises without a natural cause. But I will explain how I think that the affection takes its rise. From continued exercise on horseback they are seized with chronic defluxions in their joints owing to their legs always hanging down below their horses; they afterwards become lame and stiff at the hip-joint, such of them, at least, as are severely attacked with it. They treat themselves in this way: when the disease is commencing, they open the vein behind either ear, and when the blood flows, sleep, from feebleness, seizes them, and afterwards they awaken, some in good health and others not. To me it appears that the semen is altered by this treatment, for there are veins behind the ears which, if cut, induce impotence; now, these veins would appear to me to be cut. Such persons afterwards, when they go in to women and cannot have connection with them, at first do not think much about it, but remain quiet; but when, after making the attempt two, three, or more times, they succeed no better, fancying they have committed some offence against the god whom they blame for the affection, they put on female attire, reproach themselves for effeminacy, play the part of women, and perform the same work as women do.”8
It’s an opinion built not only upon observation but upon the ancient view of the effect of the humors upon the body. Nobody today considers seminal emissions connected to bloodletting unless resulting in severe blood loss. Nevertheless, the Enarees reputedly had some medical devices of their own. According to Helen Savage in a thesis for Durham University in the United Kingdom:
“The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the borders of the Scythian steppe in the first century BC, provides a tantalising hint of the practice there of drinking mare’s urine, a substance so high in oestrogens that it is still used as the source of a proprietary drug, ‘premarin’, widely used still for hormone replacement therapy – and to feminise male-to female transsexuals.”9
Of course, Ovid wasn’t a historian. He was to the Romans what Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt have been to the United States. Apart from the mythological corpus behind The Metamorphoses, Ovid’s forte was the production of erotic literature, at least in terms of what was erotic to the Romans. High school students continue to translate from Ovid today and even hold mock plays to poke fun at what Romans then regarded as scandalous.10 Ovid was even banished to Tomis a town near the Black Sea coast along the Danube for his scandals. This frontier locale would have brought him into contact with Greeks and various other tribes that inhabited the Black Sea area.
A claim, less substantiated, has circulated about licorice root, also called “Scythian root” being liberally used as an anti-androgen. Was this a Greek idea or was it genuinely in the practice of the Enarees? The intersex Ergi shaman Raven Kaldera, author of Hermaphrodeities, appears to attribute this also to Ovid.10
But it could as easily have circulated as folklore from those engaged in trade between Roman provinces and peoples doing commerce with the Bosporus Kingdom who at the height of the Roman Empire would have been a client kingdom operating along the coasts of present day Ukraine. Did others practice such things before the time of the Assyrian Empire which could alone account for the presence of a Scythian force in Syria? Very likely so. Scythians didn’t isolate themselves from the rest of the world like the savage barbarians they’ve often been depicted to be.10
Scythian shamans appear to have practiced much in a similar way as Altaic shamans because the eastern bands of Scythians did inhabit the Altai range in Central Asia. Altaic shamans survive today. Aside from the story of the Temple of Aphrodite, transgenderism has commonly existed in shamanism throughout the world. It’s as primal a form of spirituality as anyone can expect to find, built upon the disposition of dreaming and magickal practices.11 It could have been augmented with the Scythian practices of burning hemp upon coals in rituals that relied upon pastes of resins that would have contributed as much to dreaming as to personal hygiene.12
Herodotus also noted a peculiarity apart from the veneration of Aphrodite:
“Scythia has an abundance of soothsayers, who foretell the future by means of a number of willow wands. A large bundle of these wands is brought and laid on the ground. The soothsayer unties the bundle, and places each wand by itself, at the same time uttering his prophecy: then, while he is still speaking, he gathers the rods together again, and makes them up once more into a bundle. This mode of divination is of home growth in Scythia. The Enarees, or woman-like men, have another method, which they say Venus taught them. It is done with the inner bark of the linden-tree. They take a piece of this bark, and, splitting it into three strips, keep twining the strips about their fingers, and untwining them, while they prophesy.”13
It’s a form of divination unknown to us today. Various modern approaches to divination proliferate today: cartomancy, cheiromancy, oneiromancy, rune casting, geomancy, astrology, tea leaf reading, and augury to name the most common practices. But while we know of binding rituals with respect to knots, we have no other record of divination through the braiding of tree bark upon the hand. What’s even more peculiar about this story is that such a practice should take hold in a region largely devoid of trees. Of course, not all of the Scythian lands were steppes; and scarcity no doubt would add to the sense of sacredness in collected tree bark.
It isn’t difficult to imagine how braided bark could work as a divining tool, especially with respect to oneiric practices. If engaged in dreamwork in a trance state, the pressure of consecrated bark upon fingers in various ways could incubate those images envisioned while in shamanic trance. Even in modern magickal practices elemental attributions have been applied to the fingers: thumb for Spirit, index finger for Water, third finger for Fire, fourth finger for Earth, and fifth finger for Air. A spirit guide or atavism may also direct the shaman in any alteration of the placement of the braids.
Despite Hippocrates’ opinion concerning the impact of heavy horseback riding upon male genitalia and subsequent vitality would be a mistake to presume that Enarees could not have continued to engage in warfare. Simon Warrall stated when writing for National Geographic, that DNA testing and bioarcheological analysis of Scythian gravesites determined that a third of the women were buried with war weapons and their skeletons show injuries of impacts from war in the same way as men. He further cites these as fitting ancient descriptions of Amazons. If women fought, Enarees could also have fought like women.14
When we look past what we could dismiss as prejudices of local writers and when we consider the fuller scope of Scythian interaction with the world around them, we can expect that the Enarees would have fulfilled a vital role among the Scythians. They rose up along with other trans priesthoods of antiquity, and form a link between modern and ancient medical practice. Though individual Enarees appear to have disappeared from history like most Scythians did, as keepers of a shamanic tradition they still testify of spirituality beyond dogma, and others draw strength from the fact that they nor only survived but thrived. We draw strength from something else: that the innocence of those who dream is equally reflected in the heroes of yore whose fierceness did not diminish the dream but enhanced it for themselves and their society.
Featured image: A collage of public domain images attributed to Scythians, Asiatic shamans, and the Kurgan people. The quote is from Ovid.
- Herm, Gerhard. The Celts (1975) St. Martin Press, New York City NY, ISBN: 312-12705-7, pp. 79,80.
- Marx, Irma. The Scythians (n.d.) Web: Silk Road Foundation: http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/artl/scythian.shtml.old. Retrieved August 26, 2017.
- Daniel 5:31
- Op cit.
- The Histories, Book I, Chapter 105. Translated by George Rawlinson in The Histories of Herodotus (1885) D. Appleton and Company, NY. No ISBN.
- Feinberg, Leslie. Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman (1996) Beacon Press. ISBN: 9780807079416, p. 53.
- Bulliet, C. Venus Castina, Famous Female Impersonators Celestial and Human. (1928) Cofici, Friede, New York (no ISBN), quoted by Anne Vitale aka Tunukchina Acoma. Gender Variant Expression: A Historical Account, from History and Resolution of Sex/Gender Integration As Experience by Four Male-to-Female Transsexuals. (1982, reprinted online January 14, 2002) Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Professional School for Psychological Studies, San Diego Web: Avitale: http://www.avitale.com/historicalaccount.htm . Retrieved August 26, 2017.
- On Airs, Waters, Places, Part XXII. (Francis Adams translation April 16, 2012) Web: Wikisourse: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_Airs,_Waters,_Places. Retrieved August 26, 2017.
- Savage, Helen referring to Ovid, Amores 1, VIII, “describes a certain old dame … by name of ‘Dipsas, who knows… the poison of the mare on heat.’” id., Heroides, Amores, trans. Grant Showerman (1977) Harvard University Press, 2″”ed. Rev. G.P, Goold, p. 347. Web: E-Theses: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3364/1/185.PDF?DDD32+. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
- Raven Kaldera. Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism (2007) Asphodel Press, ISBN: 9780615139159, also by the same author: www.northernshamanism.org/shamanic-techniques/gender-sexuality/ergi-the-way-of-the-third.html. Retrieved August 26, 2017.
- Marx. The Scythians
- The Histories, Book IV, Chapter 74, 75
- Book IV, Chapter 67.
- Warrall, Simon. Amazon Warriors Did Indeed Fight and Die Like Men (October 28, 2014) Web: National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141029-amazons-scythians-hunger-games-herodotus-ice-princess-tattoo-cannabis/ . Retrieved August 27, 2017.