The Pazyryk belonged to the great horse cultures that came out of the Altai and ruled over the steppe along with the Sarmatians and Scythians for over a thousand years. They were the first and arguably the most outstanding horsemen the world has known as the splendid articles found in their elaborate burials attest to. But they were also nomads who left no written record.
However, we are fortunate to have an account of their culture from the so called father of all lies, Herodotus, in the The Histories. Interestingly many of Herodotus’ claims, seemingly outlandish in previous eras have been proven right over and over again.
The position of women in Sarmatian and Pazyryk culture was high, and Herodotus writes of female warriors known in legend as the Amazons. The Ice Maiden was found relatively recently by Russian archaeologists, and dated to 500 BCE. From the jewels, carvings and textiles found in her tomb she is supposed to have held a high rank among her people. The archaeologists who found her say she was no princess, but a shamanka of great stature.
The story which will appear in eight short parts over the following weeks is a recreation of a moment in time in the Shamanka’s life, as told by the young horse girl who loved her. It is a morality tale, and though I wrote it, it always manages to move me.
The reader will notice some interesting details of the shamanka’s costume. The long pointed witches hat was supposed to have conferred power upon it’s wearer, and the animal sculptures and carvings and tattoos of panther and deer, probably had the same function; transferring the characteristics of the animal to the human. The steppe cultures had some interesting features in common with Native American, Celtic, Slavic and Scandinavian cultures: the sweat lodge/sauna for purification, the use of cannabis/ hashish for inducing trances; the taking of scalps and so on.
Today we buried the Shamanka. The sky was blue, the earth so green, and I chose six dark horses, grown fat on sweet summer grass to travel with her, and they followed me meekly because they trusted me.
She was embalmed, the contents of her body removed and peat and moss stuffed in its place. We dressed her in a silken yellow blouse spun from the cocoons of wild butterflies, and a red woolen skirt, girded with a belt of woven gold. Her stockings were embroidered, her body was adorned with necklaces and gold. Upon her head we put the black pointed hat of her station and pinned it to her blond hair with a gold stag, and under the felt, the wooden frame of the headdress was carved with with swans and panthers, a crouching griffin at the base.
We lay her in a hollowed log long enough to accommodate the headdress that made her deeds magic. We lay her on her side as if she would sleep a short nighttime only. She was a tall woman, and the log was long and heavy, and the tomb deep and wide. We placed her coffin upon rocks and logs, many layers deep, and then we put her things around her. Her head faced east, her feet lay west, and near her face we put a bowl of coriander seeds. On a low birch table, we placed a pitcher filled with mares’ milk, and a hunk of horse meat, and a bronze knife, so that she would never go hungry even after she had passed to the next world. Behind her knees a red cloth case held the bells and beads and the mirror she used for scrying.
I cut her horses’ manes and braided their tails and put fine saddles upon them. Golden griffins and rams ornamented their bridles, tassels and felt fish adorned their saddles. They were old horses but fine. I led them to the burial site, where they were killed by blows to the head, while I turned and looked away. We lowered the horses into the hole and covered it with boulders and rocks so high, so high the mound could be seen from a far, far distance away.
Old women brought roasted mutton and made a feast, and the people told stories about her into the night and for days afterward. They all said twenty-seven summers was too soon, too short a life, for such a one as her. They all told what they knew, but few knew her.