Barbarian Scythians

In the last few days my regular Bible reading has taken me through Colossians 3:11. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”.

The verse follows on from instruction to set our minds on things above rather than on earthly things, to put to death those behaviours which are part of our old earthly nature and to put on the new heavenly self which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. And here, in this new heavenly self, there is no Greek, Jew, or barbarian Scythian.

We’re familiar with the distinction between Jews and Greeks. Jews tended to look down on Gentiles like the Greeks, with their not having the Law and their many gods. Greeks were not the only Gentile people – the word means “not a Jew” or “one of the nations” – but thanks to Alexander the Great it was Greek language and culture which served as a common frame of reference for the entire eastern part of the Mediterranean, and in the New Testament the words “Greek” and “Gentile” were used more or less interchangeably.

As I said, we’re somewhat familiar with the cultural distinction between Jews and Greeks. But there were other cultural distinctions as well, and one of the important ones involves “barbarians” and “Scythians”.

The word “barbarian” originally comes from the Greek language. It originally meant “someone who couldn’t speak civilised Greek and just kept making bar-bar-bar sounds”. It was applied particularly to the non-Greek tribes of the northeast, living in what is now Bulgaria and Romania and the Ukraine. In other words, it was a derogatory term for a foreigner.

The perceived worst of these “barbarian savages” were the Scythians.

The Scythians were a nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes that stretch from Ukraine away eastward to Central Asia. They didn’t build towns to live in, nor did they till the soil and plant crops.

Their lives were bound up with livestock, hunting, trading and raiding, and they have been widely credited with the invention of the stirrup,and perhaps also the recurved compound bow.

Civilised (ie city-dwelling) peoples have feared and despised nomads since at least Sumerian times, and I personally wonder whether it could be traced back to the enmity of Cain and Abel. Cain, after all, was a farmer, while Abel kept flocks, and it was Cain that built the first city.

Still, it was from Cain’s descendent Jabal that the first nomadic herders came, too.

In any case, civilised peoples, and especially their governments, have always despised nomads. They are all too often a threat to the settled peoples’ way of life (with their raiding and warfare), and worse, they aren’t readily taxable. If you sent your soldiers out to collect the people’s taxes, the nomad would see you coming and either fight you or move away from you. They had nothing invested in remaining where they were; they needed to move around so that their pastureland didn’t become overgrazed.

The history of civilisation has almost always been written by settled peoples. Indeed, the very term “civilisation” refers to those who build cities; the nomads around the periphery are at best unimportant and have nothing to contribute; at worst they are an active threat.

We can see the same dynamic in play, very often, in the treatment of Native Americans by the European colonials. Not that all Native nations were nomads, by any means, but even settled Native polities with highly sophisticated governments, like the Haudenosaunee and the Tsalagi (better known as the Iroquois and the Cherokee), were so often “uncouth savages” or “little better than animals”. They were there, they were in the way, and the entire history of civilisation said that their way of life was lesser.

We can also, perhaps, see the same dynamic in play in the hostility between most European peoples and the Romany. Nomads and settled peoples, still locked in that ancient struggle.

The Scythians were considered the lowest of the low, despised by both Jews and Greeks. They built no cities and by and large couldn’t speak Greek. They were polytheistic spirit-worshippers who had neither Law nor prophets. They were largely illiterates. They were warlike and dangerous. And their culture was so alien that they let women fight and be leaders.

It’s an interesting thing, but quite a few despised nomadic cultures have been far more advanced than their settled rivals in terms of women’s rights and the equality of the sexes. When your whole nation – men, women and children – needs to know how to ride in order to maintain their way of life, and when your main weapon of war is the bow, there’s a lot less conceptual distance between the abilities of the sexes, and a woman who can ride better than the men and shoot a bow accurately at a full gallop is something praiseworthy, not a shocking dissolution of The World As We Know It.

To us, here on the far side of the Second Millennium AD, the egalitarianism of Scythian culture is amazingly modern. To the Greeks, the prominent role played by Scythian women was, more than anything else, a “proof” of their savagery.

The Greek cultural prejudice against nomads has carried down the centuries. Look at our cultural associations with such terms as “Gypsies”, “Huns”, “Tartars”, “Goths”, “Vandals”.

And in this passage Paul says that even this ancient enmity comes to an end in Christ. There is no more “barbarian”, or even “Scythian”. Jesus makes the civilised Jewish patriarch brother to the Scythian “savage”. He brings the wild Scythian warrior-woman into the same household of faith as the good Jewish or Greek housewife.

And not once does He tell her to cease being who she is, either.

The lesson is one that goes beyond just “Scythians”, whether actual or metaphorical, and it’s one we could all do with bearing in mind on occasion.

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