On Tirgatao and Scythian Ethnicity

I posted about Tirgatao on Reddit (link), and I got this reply:


So let’s talk about this.

Yes, a number of accounts describe the Scythians as pale, with red or blonde hair, and light colored eyes. Wikipedia covers this at length:


Now, the subtext to this long list of Wikipedia citations is that their ethnicity is contested – hence the article listing all the evidence to them being what we’d today consider white. And if you look in the “talk” section of the article, you’ll find no shortage of evidence of people contesting it:

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As I talk about in the footnotes for the Tirgatao entry, “Scythian” was a catch-all Greek term for a wide range of people, who have variously been linked to Circassian, Arab, Persian, Mongolian, and a long list of other ethnic groups. Moreover, the Greeks were pretty inconsistent with who they considered a Scythian, and it changed a lot over the centuries.

Now, Tirgatao’s legend is most closely tied to the Circassians, who have an oral history that matches Polyaenus’s tale. This is what modern-day Circassians look like:

NOTE: as pointed out by a commenter, these are actually Georgian people, although it was labeled as “Circassian” to the high heavens by the referring site. Literally, the alt-text was “circassian-people-kabardino-traditional-costume-balkaria-karachay-cherkessia-north-caucasus-circassian-men-women.”

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You can see some red-haired folk there, and you can see a range of skin tones. And granted, this is 2500 years after Tirgatao’s day, after a mass diaspora (mostly to Jordan, from my understanding), and presumably a lot of genetic intermingling.

So given all that, here’s the bottom line as to how I portrayed Tirgatao (and Tomyris, also described as a Scythian):

  • I don’t know what she looked like.
  • I don’t know who to trust regarding Ixomatae ethnicity. There’s a large number of loud contradictory voices on the subject.
  • At a certain point, I decided it wasn’t worth any more effort trying to untangle that knot.
  • I tried to fudge her ethnicity to be a bit of a question mark – unclear as to whether she was darker-skinned from being outside all the time, or because of her ethnicity, or both. Her hair outlines have a dark reddish tint to them, but it’s mostly lost in the final version.
  • Ultimately, it’s on me. It’s my art, my call, and all I can be is transparent about that and hope y’all like what I come up with.
  • If and when I do another Scythian princess, I’ll likely mix it up and portray them differently.

And this was another episode of, “how the sausage is made”!

(still figuring out who the next entry will be, hope to have the hint up later today. I want it to be another comic style entry, but figuring out good candidates for this format requires more prior research than the old format.)

4 Responses to “On Tirgatao and Scythian Ethnicity”

  1. Laughing Collie

    A few thoughts re the genetic make-up of the Scythians — and all the other various Central Asian nomadic equestrian tribes — which I thought you might find interesting: (1) skin color or ethnicity is an issue that Western culture makes a big deal of, but there is evidence to show that nomadic or indigenous peoples care(d) less about that than we do. Who your tribe or family was seems to have mattered more, and adoptions of strangers were apparently far more common; (2) on PBS’s “Secrets of the Dead” show about the amazons (found here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/amazon-warrior-women-background/1466/) archaeologist & scholar Jeannine Davis-Kimball does genetic testing on a rare blonde Mongolian girl and the bones of one of the Scythians — which shows they come from the same genetic line; (3) many of the mummies in the Tarim Basin of China show clear Caucasian features (more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarim_mummies) — and there is some evidence to link them to the later equestrian tribes that traveled through Central Asia; (4) there were a LOT of equestrian tribes in Central Asia — so it’s entirely possible they were blonde in one tribe and black-haired in another! All of which is just to say: I think you’re doing fine with your plans on how to portray them — and hopefully (if you’ve not read all these links already) you’ll find them fun, interesting, and thought-provoking! :)

  2. Ploplo

    Hello! The last picture you posted is of Georgian folks, as you can see by the little Georgian flag in the lower left corner, and the inscription in Russian which says “Georgian Cuisine”. Note that their clothing style is also distinctively Georgian and not Circassian :)

    As for Scythian’s physical appearance, you must take in account that ancient people had a tendency to exaggerate things: a really tall man becomes an 8-foot-tall giant, and a few people with reddish tint in their hair will become an entire nation of only red-haired people.

  3. Jason Porath

    Ah, whoops! I can’t read Cyrillic script, and I don’t know enough of the regional differences to know. I’ll add a note as to my goof.

  4. muffinman

    In modern times Georgians actually stand out as the tallest people of the Caucus region.