Eurasian Warrior Women and Priestesses

Petroglyphic, Funerary, and Textual Evidence for Women of High Status


Jeannine Davis-Kimball

Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads

2158 Palomar Ave.

Ventura, CA, 93001 USA

805 653-2607



One of the most popular legends displayed in Classical Greek art is the Twelve Labors of Hercules, the heroic half-mortal son of Zeus. The ninth adventure has Hercules ordered to capture the Amazon queen Hippolyte’s sacred girdle. In the battle that ensues—for the queen does not easily surrender—she is slain and her Amazonian sisters are driven from their homeland. In other versions of the myth, Greek heroes, such as Theseus who always has supernatural strength, attack and gain dominance over the formidable female warriors. Thus, the Amazons, perhaps our first (mythical) warrior women, were such fearsome enemies that no mortal man could achieve supremacy.

         One can well imagine that the Amazonian myths may have originated as travelers, who had encountered warrior women along the numerous silk roads that traversed the steppes from southern Europe to points eastward into China, sat around nightly camp fires spinning tales of far-off lands, of women who rode horseback, shot arrows, killed men, and with their supernatural powers, manipulated great nomadic chieftains.

         Herodotus, the “Father of History” who lived in Odessa ca. 450 BCE, recounts the genesis of nomadic Sauromatian tribes: they were the descendants of the Amazons and Scythians. The Amazons had shipwrecked on the shores of the North Black Sea and encountered the Scythians. A battle ensued and at the end of the day the Scythians examined bodies of some of the fallen only to discover they were fighting women. Quite taken back, the Scythians sought advice from their elders, who in turn counseled them not to fight but rather to marry the Amazons. This came to pass. However, the Amazons promptly declared they could never live as the Scythian women did nor could they live in proximity. Thus, the Scythian men collected their inheritances and the “new tribe” migrated to the north and east.[1]  It is in the steppes to the northeast of Scythian territory that multitudes of Sauromatian and the later dated Sarmatian kurgans (burial mounds) dotted the landscape.

In the sixth century BCE, a warrior queen ruled the Massagetae, a Saka tribe who occupied a sizeable territory in Central Asia. Herodotus recounts an historical battle between Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenid Persian king, and the Massagetae Queen Tomyris and her warriors. It seems that Cyrus decided to annex the Massagetae territory beyond the Araxes River. Although she had warned Cyrus not to cross the river, he did not take Tomyris seriously. With the intent of tricking her warriors, Cyrus had a feast and skins of wine laid out for the young nomadic royalty. Some, including Tomyris’ son fell for the bait and thinking her warriors were now useless in battle, Cyrus crossed the Araxes. To his surprise Tomyris attack the Persians. The battle was so fiercely fought that “There perished the greater part of the Persian army, and there fell Cyrus himself ...” The queen was so furious that Cyrus had breached her lands and that her son, in shame, had committed suicide, she “filled a skin with human blood, and sought for Cyrus’ body among the Persian dead; when she found it, she put his head into the skin and spoke these words of insult to the dead man: ‘Though I live and conquer thee, thou has undone me . . . but even as I threatened, so will I do, and give thee thy fill of blood.’”[2]

As the early nomadic societies of the first millennium BCE were without written languages, textual sources such as that of Herotodus and other Greek historians as well as the chroniclers of the Achaemenid Persian Empire have provided valuable information. It was assumed for years, however, that Herodotus’ tales of the nomads were completely unreliable. Archaeological excavations, however, have lent credence to many of the nomadic way of life and burial customs he recorded about the nomads. It is unfortunate that patriarchal societies, from ancient times to present, have recorded information that tended to gloss over the roles women played in history and that as a result only a paucity of information, e.g., actual names and specific deeds were rarely recorded.

As to examining snippets of history that reveal the roles of women in ancient times, this paper focuses first on a quite remarkable scene, a petroglyphic tableau dating to the Bronze Age. As Bronze Age sedentary societies give way to those who practiced nomadism throughout the Eurasian steppes, we examine selected archaeological excavations and the artifacts that accompanied the deceased. These burials range geographically from southern Siberia to southern Kazakstan, and from the southern Ural steppes to those of northern Afghanistan. All have commonalities. Mortuary offerings are rich in complex iconography that expressed universal rituals and rites of passage for all Early Iron Age nomads. Iconographically and stylistically they reveal cultural influence that came from all points—north, south, east, and west—and that the intermingling of various cultural traits created the dynamism that survived on the Eurasian steppes for more than 2500 years. This is particularly apparent in the artifacts of women of high-status: the warrior women, priestesses, and warrior priestesses.

It is suggested that through time women achieved much of their dominance as a result of healing powers. To become healers would have occurred as a natural progression from the era of hunting and gathering. They learned the properties of each plant: it use as a foodstuff, its medicinal powers that allowed them to heal. They also found that hallucinogenic properties of certain plants provided the means for them to make special journeys into the Otherworld;[3] a discover that was perhaps instrumental in the development of Siberian shamanism.[4] With the evolution into the nomadic period and the subsequent migrations from forest-steppes to steppe environment, the women found yet new medicinal plants, allowing them to further their knowledge and augment their skills. It was probably at this time that the evolution from shamanism in the forest-steppes to warrior-priestess in the steppes took place.

Physical and forensic anthropologists have studied the skeletal remains from various Eurasian populations and found that, probably because of higher population density, skeletal remains of sedentary people, and nomads of large confederacies show more signs of trauma and disease.[5] Moreover, incidences of severe diseases are essentially non-existence among true nomadic societies.[6]  Thus the need for extraordinary healers would be more intense within the circles of great chieftains who had amassed large numbers of tribes. It follows that by association the priestesses and warrior-priestess would have to be of high status. As discussed below, is within the larger kurgans that we find the most evidence for great priestesses and warrior-priestesses.


The Evidence from Petroglyphs

         By carving (petroglyphs) and painting (pictograms) on stone, prehistoric populations were adept at not only expressing themselves but also preserving for posterity many special activities related to their belief systems. Although in our belief systems, the wide range of ancient petroglyphic images may have remote denotations and obscure connotations, for the ancestors the connotations of the images were essential for factual documentation as well as economic developmental structures, modes of life, and methods of warfare while the denotations reflected philosophical thought, religious beliefs, aesthetic concepts, and ancestral memory. Of most importance in primitive societies, where the population not only had a short life expectancy but also a horrifically high infant mortality rate,[7] the generative and regenerative forces of nature: propagation, birthing, and life maintaining, were universally of prime importance. Rituals pertaining to fertility were perhaps not only the most significant of formal procedures but also were the most complex and it was essential that they be visually recorded for future generations to follow. In Eurasia, procreative themes were carved as petroglyphs in the Ukraine, the Don River region and, profusely along the Lena River and it Siberian tributaries.[8]  Two exceptional cultic petroglyph sites, one at Tamgaly in Kazakhstan and the other Saimaly in Kyrgyzstan were begun in the Bronze Age. At Tamgaly, people still come today to worship gods and make sacrifices.


Eurasian Female Sculpture

         Women of status did not commence with Eurasian nomads. In her many studies, Maria Gimbutas documented hundreds of images of life-giving forces that have come down to us primarily in the form of female sculptures[9] with the earliest dating to the Old European Paleolithic. The exact purpose of the small statuettes has met with much discussion, yet it cannot be doubted that their function included some form of procreative force whether it be human, animal, or vegetal—all were absolutely essential for human survival. Even though millennia had passed, when small village farming gave way to the less work-intensive nomadism based on animal husbandry, the tradition of life-giving forces personified by female figurines continued. Small three-dimensional white stone sculptures of the sacred feminine became widespread in female burials from the middle Volga River region to the southern Urals. Strikingly similar to those recorded by Gimbutas[10], the iconic statuette was an atypical art style and religious/cultic object for the Early Nomads whose specialty was Animal Style. Moreover, the sacred feminine represented also occurred as near-life size stone sculptures as well as the theme for a tableau in western China discussed below.


 Prehistoric Fertility Rituals: The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

         One source of direct influence on nomadic belief systems is found in the region known as Turkestan, specifically in the Xinjiang Province of western China (Map). A grotto located in a massive red stone outcropping high in the Tien Shan Mountains[11] is resplendent with petroglyphic tableau depicting a plethora of priestesses and a dearth of priests engaged in a fecundity ritual (Figure 1). The images also imply annual peregrinations as well as bearing testimony to the choreography of a magnificent ritual-mating dance. One can well imagine that the Bronze Age people who carved the scene believed the ritual dance was necessary to guarantee procreation of their society.

         Xinjiang Province partially bordered by the rugged Tien Shan Mountains and the Pamirs as well as hosting the extensive Taklimakan Desert is culturally an extension of the Eurasian steppes. Mummies, desiccated by the heat of this region, most specifically the group that includes the Loulan Beauty, reveal that from about 2000 BCE[12] the population was Caucasoid. Oasis cemeteries located at the edge of the Taklimakan Desert, moreover, reveal fine examples of the population’s evolution from a sedentary Bronze Age culture to that of the nomadic Early Iron Age.[13]

         The unique Kangjiashimenji petroglyphic tableau carved in bas-relief is located some 75 kilometers southwest of Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang province. The tableau of schematicized images is.[14] In addition, to complete human figures, depictions of heads fill voids and animals, such as meandering dogs, static felines, and heraldic goats add points of interest. It is the human figures, however, that dominate the scene. They are exceptionally large, e.g., some females measure as much as three meters in height while the males average about half that of the females. All are portrayed with long, slender noses and well-defined superciliary ridges, indicating they represent a Caucasoid population. The female and male figures are all identifiable by the unique artistic conventions assigned to each sex. Most of the female heads are triangularized while the heads of the males are oval, emphasized because they are either hatless or wear skull caps (not apparent) while the females wear truncated conical headdresses adorned with two projection that coil outward at the ends. Both sexes have triangularized bodies but the males’ hips are represented much slenderer. Although it is usual for the breasts and pudenda to be represented in ancient art, these elements are absent in this tableau. In contrast, the males are emphatically ithyphallic, their penises often almost approximating their own height.

         The tableau is divided into six separate scenes [noted by the numbers in parenthesis in Figure 1].[15] In each, intense dance is in progress and some females have entered a state of ecstasy [such as the female below (1)]. Others are about to be inseminated (3). Lower in the scene [below [3]) perhaps suggesting further in time, small embryonic images evoke a chorus line, seemingly to indicate the importance of many progeny. At the upper left a masked shamanic image [below the number (2)], a female as indicated by her body stylization, is emblazoned with areas of red color. Below is the pair of striped tigers and further to the right two pair of heraldic goats (inserted between females),[16] as well as a sprinkling of dogs (mostly lower right). The animals add notes of ambiguity, yet provide additional clues to place the tableau in time and space and provide an historical basis.

         The interpretation of the scene involved (a) defining the objects found in the tableau, e.g., the dancers, their headdresses, the positions they hold their bodies as they dance, the stylization of the animals, etc., and (b) comparing these objects to similar objects found not at Kangjiashimenji but rather within the ancient world.

         Following careful scrutiny some objects that form the basis of the Kangjiashimenji ritual are found far to the west in the Cucuteni-Tripolye Culture,[17] a population that is identifiable by its distinctive painted pottery style. Sherds of this pottery excavated in archaeological sites marked a migration route from the Tripolye homeland in the Ukraine eastward toward western China.[18]  Iconic dancing female images painted on the pottery[19] reveal not only the origins of the Kangjiashimenji ritual but also the extraordinary importance of priestesses and their sacraments. The erotic element graphically portrayed in the petroglyphs but not found in the Cucuteni-Tripolye iconography, was most probably introduced into the rituals as the migrants passed through northern Bactria[20] ca. the eighteenth century BCE. In contrast the shamanic element, noted in the masked red-painted female and perhaps the two felines, may have originated in Siberia and was transmitted to the oases people by the northern tribes when they entered the ‘Kangjiashimenji’ cultural zone.[21] Finally, several object provide a general time frame in which the tableau could have been developed and was carved: The complexity of the project, the change in proportions and modifications in the images’ stylization from right to left sides in the tableau, indicate that the actual production took place over a significant period of time, even centuries. This suggests that the annual ritual was performed not only during the construction period, but also for an unknown length of time afterward. The Kangjiashimenji fecundity ritual, therefore, could have taken place from the seventeenth century BCE to ca. 900-750 BCE, although it might have continued into later time.

         The Kangjiashimenji sacred feminine dancers of the Bronze Age set the stage for the accomplishments of the succeeding generations of female leaders in the Early Iron Age: nomadic women of high status, warriors, priestesses, warrior-priestesses, and tribal chieftains who achieved distinction throughout the frontier of the Early Iron Age.


The Southern Urals: Sauromatian and Sarmatian Warrior Women and Priestesses

The probably unrelated Sauromatians and the Early Sarmatians[22] nomadic tribes that migrated to graze their herds in the southern Ural steppes—the area where Europe and Asia meet—and the Don and Volga interfluvials in southern Russia, habitually and ritually buried their dead each summer in kurgans.[23] Thousands of these burial mounds dotted the skyline of this vast prairie before excavations began in the nineteenth century. Between 1992-1995, the collaborative American-Russian team excavated more than 182 burials at Pokrovka,[24] a site of at least 10 kurgans cemeteries in the southern Urals some 120 kilometers south of Orenburg (Figure 2).[25] The nomads who performed their burial rituals there between the sixth to the second centuries BCE worshipped nature gods with a goodly admixture of shamanism. They also maintained a strong belief in the Otherworld. As such, they felt it necessary not only to include provisions with the deceased for the journey to the Otherworld but also to provide for the future with the accoutrements the deceased had used during his or her lifetime. Fortunately, the profusion of artifacts in the burials, and ethnographic information collected from among contemporary Kazak nomads in the Mongolian Altai Mountains who have maintained the old ways of life, have provided sufficient material to glimpse into the lives of the Early Nomads.

         When the evolution occurred from sedentary farming to nomadism the women had, by necessity, modified their lifestyle, and as a result their status changed from one of dependency, as found in many sedentary societies, to one in which warrior women, priestesses, and warrior priestesses played central roles in their world. The economy of the Early Nomads was based upon animal husbandry. Because they lived great distances nine to 10 months of the year—early spring through late fall—from the sedentary societies where they could barter for luxury items they could not produce, the animals provided much of their needs: milk and meat for food, wool and leather from which they fashioned clothing, shelter, and harnessing. Trade, perhaps infrequent, added some necessities and always luxury items to their household. Caring for the animals—sheep, goats, horses, camels, and in the higher altitudes, yak—and the preparation of food, clothing, and shelter was the family’s job. Specific tasks always overlapped among the sexes. Small children were placed with a parent on horseback as soon as they could sit (6-10 months of age) and by the time both boys and girls were six or seven, they were herding or jockeying in the favorite long distant, 15-25 km, horse race (Figure 3). Young men hung out with their fathers, learning the art of saddlery, leather- and metalworking. Sometimes they herded, learned butchering, and frequently helped with the toddlers. Young women, in addition to learning the arts of establishing and maintaining a household, also drove the herds to the daily pastures in the steppes. The entire family was involved in milking the sheep, yak, and horses several times a day (Figure 4).

         The mature women, however, had extras: bearing and nursing the children (Figure 5), daily and long-term food preparation, disassembling and reassembling the yurt (portable housing) at each move, weaving and rope making, readying for rites of passage, and performing the rites. By tacit agreement, women were equals in decision-making that involved their yurt or their aul, the extended family making up in the small group of yurts (portable housing) that lived and traveled together. Women could and were leaders of the aul as this position is assigned to the most capable. Girls as young as six or seven eagerly participate in a plethora of tasks so by the time they were young adults they were perfectly prepared for survival in a continually harsh environment, not only because of the elements, but also because of the threat of raiders. As exogamy was practiced and wives were bought or stolen from other tribes, as youngsters, the women were trained warriors, able to defend their home, property, and themselves.

                  The artifacts from the Pokrovka burials provided data to analyze the status of both the Sauromatian and Sarmatian men and women buried there. It is noted that only non-organic materials were preserved, and burials would have been much  richer in cultural content if organics, e.g., felts and textiles, had been available for study.[26] However, the profusion of non-perishables revealed extensive information about status and rank during their lifetimes. Data indicated that priestesses were 7% of the population, warrior-women 15%, warrior-priestesses 3%, while women of the hearth held the majority at 75%.[27] As revealed by the large number of artifacts, primarily imported beads, pottery, and spindlewhorls, including pseudo-spindlewhorls carved from soft chalk, many of the hearth women must be considered above average in wealth for the time period[28] and, therefore, women whose rank within their society was relatively high. The presence of pseudo-spindlewhorls, implies that in ancient times spinning must have had a special significance, possibly even of a mystical nature. It may not be a coincidence that there are mythic connotations tied to fairy tales, such as spinning straw into gold.

         Warrior women’s burials contained the same types and styles of artifacts in various quantities as those of the hearth women with the addition of mostly bronze arrowheads and frequently other armament such as iron daggers and swords, and occasionally, iron armor elements (Figures 6 and 7). A priestess was heralded by her possessions that substituted a bronze mirror, a kubok (ceremonial vessel),[29] and fossilized seashells for armament. The latter could have been used to mix colored ores for ceremonially painting designs on textiles or her body. The mirror as well as the shell might have been used for scrying, the art of seeing spirits or hearing voices from the Otherworld. Nomadic women, as priestesses, were sought to perform rites of passage within the family, clan, or tribe as well as to attending to gods or representing goddesses and, to perform prognostications and divinations that resulted in decisions benefiting the welfare of the aul or tribe. Warrior priestesses’ artifacts and duties were a combination of all three statues noted above, the warrior aspect ceremonial  (indicating higher rank) rather than actual and their burials were always more affluently appointed.

         The earliest Sauromatian priestesses that we are aware of appeared within the Sauromatian population,[30] and judging by the minimalist contribution to the burials, these nomads had not yet gained the affluence found in later-dated nomadic burials. From Cemetery 1, the earliest Pokrovka Sauromatian priestess excavated had a single small seashell and a bronze mirror. In contrast, an Early Sarmatian priestess from the same region had artifacts that included three gold feline attachments, a kubok (ceremonial vessel), four large fossilized seashells, a ceremonial (or sacrificial) stone-carved altar, a large bronze mirror engraved on the reverse with an abstract design, beads carved of imported semi-precious stone, and gold conical-shaped temple pendants (Figure 8).

         The feline emerges as the priestesses’ principle helper; and appears to be associated with the theme of ‘a female riding a feline’ known in other parts of the nomadic world. As such, the feminine power of priestesses should be viewed along the same lines as the Mistress of Animals (see below). The gold feline plaque is also found associated in burials of other priestesses in the Don-Volga region as well as in southern Kazakstan and southern Siberia, indicating that a perhaps loosely defined confederacy of priestesses had enjoyed historical, hereditary, and contemporary contact, as they employed identical iconic powers.


Women of the Bosporus

         A number of artifacts from the Bosporus illustrate women of high status and the accoutrements used by priestesses. From the Karagodeouashkh tumulus a gold conical-shaped plaque is divided into three registers that appear to depict rituals. In the top register is a standing personage; in the second register, a personage drives a team of horses; in the lower register, four personages flank a seated female who wears a pointed hat and holds a kubok. All the personages wear robes and being unbearded, they must either be female or Enareis.[31] Again illustrating a ritual, a plaque from Sakhnovka reveals four musicians frantically playing various instruments; they either sit or kneel on either side of a seated female, who wears a headdress and holds both a mirror and kubok.[32] Also from the Bosporus, a stele faćade that includes the image of a five-column temple, a female in the pediment wears a pointed hat.[33] On the gravestone for Agathous, a descendant of an important military leader, a female en face in pointed hat sits on an elevated platform at the foot of couch holding a reclining man.[34]

         The identity of these female images has been interpreted as Aphrodite, or Aphrodite Ourania, patroness of the dead of the netherworld, and the rituals taking place are determined to be communion with the goddess or communion between the deified dead and the goddess.[35] However, objects depicting scenes of winged goddesses, fantastic animals, and objects belonging to the shamanic realm have been excavated from the great Bosporan tumuli in which both men and women were interred. In the Metropol tumulus, only the female headdress accompanied the deceased male and thus was believed to possess supernatural qualities.[36] A scene engraved on gold plaques from the Melitpol fourth century BCE kurgan in Scythia show an enthroned female holding a mirror while a male stands before her dressed in nomadic attire as he drinks from a rhyton. Numerous other burials mounds from the region also held women who wore elaborated headdresses, including one whose headdress was covered with gold plaques in the form of the so-called Scythian deer.[37] It would seem more likely that images of seated females holding kuboks or mirrors both magical objects used in prophecy, could represent priestesses performing various rituals. This would be true as well of the en face personage on the Agathous gravestone, who may be symbolically escorting the deceased to the Otherworld.


The Siberian Plateau: Pazyryk and Ukok Priestesses

Sergei Rudenko’s excavations of the great Pazyryk frozen burials, although robbed of precious metal objects that would have augmented our knowledge of these people’s belief systems, contained organic objects (materials normally lost) that provided remarkable insight into the elite and the chieftain rank. The Early Iron Age Pazyryks nomadized in a very small venue of high pastures in the southern Siberian Gorny Altai. Frozen in time by permafrost in great kurgans, the quantity of preserved wooden carvings, leather and felt saddlery, and various forms of textiles reveal, among others, previously unsuspected long-distant trade contact with the China, e.g., a Chinese mirror and embroidered silks, as well as with the Achaemenid Persian Empire, e.g., a tied wool carpet depicting Medes leading horses, a scene similar to one carved at Persepolis in southern Iran.[38]

         Although the Achaemenids chronicled Tigrahaudas, the Saka with pointed hats, the concept of a large headdress as a status marker originated centuries earlier and much farther to the west. In Anatolia, priestesses, Enareis,[39] and goddesses, as depicted in sculpture and on cylinder seals wore brimless high-headdresses called polos. Scythians may have assimilated this hat; females wear them as seen on gold plaques. The style and its underlying concept of status traveled east along the Silk Route or was introduced into western China by nomads coming from the north. A fifth century BCE desiccated priestess from the Subashi cemetery at the edge of the Taklimakan Desert wore a brimmed, high pointed headdress. Another from Tarim Basin was buried in an even more elaborated high hat with two points.[40]

         In 1995, the Russian archaeologist, Natalia Polsomak, made another remarkable find in the permafrost of the southern Siberian Ukok plateau.[41] The young woman the archaeologist excavated was about 25 years old when interred; she wore a caftan and full skirt, and an impressive conical hat three feet high that measured fully a third of the hollowed out log that served as her sarcophagus. The headdress was made of molded felt stretched over a wooden frame. Its decorations, carved from wood and covered with gold foil, were images of eight massive felines, representing either Tien Shan snow leopards or Siberian tigers, and the symbolic birds associated with the Tree of Life.[42] Tattooing on her torso, executed in Animal Style included winged snow leopards and on the left arm,[43] in zoomorphic juncture, a deer with griffin heads terminating the tines. A silver mirror in a red leather case lay beside her torso.

         The costume of this ancient priestess is paralleled by shamanic costumes worn into recent times by the Evenki, Ket, Ostyak, Tofa, and other Siberian taiga tribes. Elements of the deer (reindeer, moose, elk, or maral) were incorporated into a costume, e.g., an entire deer hide was used and strips of deer hide were sewn to dangle from the costume.[44] A mirror (or other shiny object) was frequently incorporated into the breastplate.[45] Depictions of birds combined with those of the deer augmented representation of shamans’ animal helpers. The shamans’ drum, made from a special wood, referred to the Tree of Life that grew in the center of the tribal or clan territory, the birthplace of the shaman’s deer-helper. The shaman believed that deer were winged [46] and could fly like swan. Birds and deer represented realistically or in zoomorphic juncture, were powerful and protective animal spirits; they also provided transportation for the shaman to fly to the Otherworld or Underworld in search of souls.

         Much of the Siberian shaman iconography and symbology was incorporated into elements of the Siberian nomadic repertoire. Large representations of three-dimensional felt swans were found in a Pazyryk tomb[47] and a fantastic bird rendered in felt was a wall hanging (Figure 9).[48] Horse tack decorations included not only realistic felines in three-dimension but also horned felines on bridal cheekpieces and plaques [49] as well as realistic and fantastic deer[50] and moose,[51] all with great racks of horns. In addition, priestesses’ silver and bronze cultic mirrors were found in several kurgans.[52]

         An extraordinary felt appliqué wall hanging, 15 feet by 23 feet, was also preserved in one of the Pazyryk frozen tombs (Figure 10). It was divided into six areas, with an identical scene; a woman, seated on an elaborate chair, is rendered proportionately larger (a canon of art indicating higher rank or status) than the dignitary on horseback to whom she is granting an audience. She wears a decorated robe and a large headdress. One hand is held to her mouth as if she were speaking while the other holds a stylized Tree of Life. Her only apparent jewelry is a triple torque, a sign of high status. Elements of the Tree of Life emanate from the back of her chair.

         Combining the evidence provided by the artifacts from the Ukok priestess burial—the Animal Style felines, birds along with the Tree of Life, and the mirror, it would seem that one or more of the females buried in the Pazyryk frozen tombs were priestesses.


From Bactria to Scythia via Anatolia: Ladies, Felines, and Eunuchs

Over centuries throughout Eurasia, a ritual element displayed iconographically was the female riding sidesaddle on a great feline (Figure 11). The representations seem to have originated in Bactria, long a cultural crossroad. During the Bronze Age,[53] it may have been the only human figure incorporated into bronze objects that have been termed ‘compartmentalized seals.’[54] Undoubtedly this concept represented a commanding woman, one who had mastery over powerful wild beasts.

          During the Bronze Age, populations of heterogeneous Indo-Iranian composition migrated from the Sintashta River region in the Trans-Ural steppes into northern Bactria bringing with them certain belief systems.[55]  Gradually as the now further-mixed populations moved westward, interfacing with the Elamites in southern Iran[56] and thence into the Fertile Crescent, the symbology of the Mistress of Animals became known in Mesopotamian, Levantine, and Anatolian cultures. Between 1430 BCE and 1360 BCE, the Mistress of Animals appeared on cylinder seals of the Mitanni, a peoples that are thought to have entered eastern Anatolia from the Iranian Zagros Mountain.[57]

         By 1250 BCE the feline, now manifested as a lion, had become the principle attribute of Meter, the Phrygian mother goddess.[58] However, as with Lilith[59] and other female deities who, in the beginning were powerful but benevolent, her significance was reversed. Lilith became a demon while Meter evolved first into Matar Kybeliye,[60] and later Cybele.[61] She became the powerful goddess with a complex cult having darker implications. In mythology Cybele was enamored with a beautiful youth, Attis whom, for her selfish reasons, she drove insane until he self-emasculated. The ensuing cult of Attis maintained that the blood that poured onto the ground from his wounds lent fertility to the earth—a reversal of the traditional fertility issues that belonged to women.

         The cultic rituals of Attis and Cybele were bawdy festivities, offering sacrifices, and practicing self-flagellation that splattered blood upon the altar. At the height of the extreme orgiastic rituals in which they no longer felt pain, the young male initiates self-castrated. In this act, they were eligible to become Cybele’s eunuch priests. As eunuchs, they were powerful, revered, and feared for they now possessed feminine intuition and could provide the essential everlasting fecundity. In art they are represented as beardless and attired in the large headdress, long robe, and the great strings of beads, the type of costume usually reserved for priestesses (Figure 13).[62]

         According to Herodotus a Scythian named Anacharsis brought the cult of Cybele to Scythia (north of the Black Sea), vowing if his journey were safe he would perform her nocturnal rites.[63] Although it is reported that Anacharsis was later put to death, the cult apparently gathered some following in Scythia as pendants and plaques display dancing women or Enareis clutching weapons or heads of beasts. Herotodus reported on Enareis, describing them as Scythian diviners, being epicene; and gaining their power from Aphrodite.[64]  The pseudo-hippocratic treatise De aere (22) notes that the Enareis “belonged to powerful nobility, wore women’s dress, perfomed women’s jobs, spoke like women, and enjoyed special respect because of the fear they inspired.” Scythian Enareis probably were affiliated with the orgiastic cult of the Near Eastern fertility goddess, Aphrodite Ourania-Astarte, frequently indistinct from Cybele and Meter.[65] It is ironic that we learn so much about priestesses’ powers from descriptions of the Enareis.


Back to Bactria: The Tillya Tepe Warrior-Priestesses

The manifestation of the powerful Mistress of Animals,[66]  the female riding sidesaddle on a feline, returns to Bactria richly emblazoned in gold, and now in association with several nomadic Yüeh chih warrior priestesses. This came about following a series of historical events.

         In western China, the powerful nomadic Hsiung-nu confederacy had maintained such severe military pressure in central China that the Chinese were forced to construct the Great Wall. Turning their interests elsewhere, the Hsiung nu advanced upon the five tribes of the Yüeh-chih confederacy, who were nomadizing in pastures adjacent to the Silk Roads in western China. The Yüeh-chih in turn retreated arriving in Bactria (northern Afghanistan) along the Oxus River ca. 135 BCE where they subjugated the local inhabitants. About a century later (ca. 35 BCE) the confederacy came under the domination of a single chieftain, who founded the widespread Kushan Empire that fostered the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.[67]  The early images of Kushan Buddhism reveal the nomadic influence in this religion: Bodhisattvas and deities wear the accouterments of the nomadic costume as worn by priestesses and Enareis, i.e., long skirts, large headdresses, and great strands of beads or torques. (Figure 13)[68]

         In northern Afghanistan during the seasons of 1978-79, Viktor Sarinidi of the Soviet Institute of Archaeology, in conjunction with archaeologists from Afghanistan, excavated at Tillya Tepe (Gold Mound) located along the Amu Darya (known as the Oxus River in ancient times). Tillya Tepe had seen numerous cultures and people pass through since the initial construction more than 3000 years ago. Its lowest layer had been a fire temple with a columned hall and fortified towers, most likely associated with Zoroastrianism. Constructed before 1000 BCE, it continued in use until it was laid waste, then magnificently rebuilt in the middle of the first millennium BCE. Not long afterward a fire demolished the structure so that when Alexander the Great marched through ca. 328 BCE, he found only ruins.[69] A couple of centuries later when the Yüeh-chih confederacy controlled this territory—and it may well have been the consolidating chieftain that gave Tillya Tepe its new role—it became the final resting place for the most prestigious of Yüeh-chih religious leaders.[70]

         Sarianidi excavated six burials from near the surface of the mound. From the artifacts in these burials it is possible to discern that of the five young females, ages 15 to 30; two were warrior priestesses and three priestesses. A single male, age 30, had assumed attributes of a warrior priestess, which would lead to the conclusion that he was a eunuch or Enaree.[71]. Incredibly rich, the burials contained 20,000 gold cast and polychromic (encrusted) artifacts along with a plethora of other mortuary items.[72] Stylistically, the objects represent six different cultural associations: the second millennium BCE Bronze Age Bactrian followed by Greco-Bactrian and Greco-Roman; the Early Iron Age is represented by the local Bactrian tradition, a Siberian-Altai (Saka) Animal Style, and Scytho-Sarmatian Animal Style.[73] In addition, the extraordinary iconography provides many clues as to cultural affinities and nomadic belief systems.

         The artifacts found in the burials associated with priestesses (burials 1, 5, and 6) include mirrors, colored chalk, and objects semantically loaded with fertility ritual iconography.[74]  The warrior-priestesses accoutrements (burials 2 and 3) included, in addition to priestess artifacts such as the fertility related Kushan Aphrodite and Venus-like images, an amulet of Athena in warrior stance and several daggers from various locales. The female in burial 3 had worn a belt in which the two fasteners depicted a eunuch warrior (Figure 14). The female in burial 2 wore Temple pendants revealing a Mistress of Animals controlling two mythological creatures with rolled hindquarters (Figure 15).

         The male in burial 4 had been dressed for burial in the same type of costume as that worn by the females: a belted V-necked caftan over a long skirt. His artifacts were those of the nomadic warrior priestess: daggers and a sword, another Kushan Aphrodite, a kubok, and a gold Tree of Life. His belt consisted of nine lost-wax cast medallions secured with gold chains:[75] Each medallion displays a female riding sidesaddle on a ferocious feline (Figure 16). This iconography bears a striking resemblance to the image from this region centuries earlier as expressed on the “compartmentalized stamp seal.” Now, however, the serenity of the seal image has been replaced by Cybelene intensity, expressed by the utmost mastery of the wild beast and a display of supreme feminine power[76]

         Through time, belts have been extremely important elements of the nomadic attire as they signify clan, tribe, and status; still today the traditional nomadic costume is a caftan or even a heavy coat secured with an ornamented silver belt that has important significances (Figure 17). The belt buckles worn by the Tillya Tepe female in burial 3 and the male in burial 4 are semantically loaded. The burial 3 buckles each illustrate a robust male, now beardless and now an Enaree who has assumed the sacred feminine. The personage stands within a Tree of Life where birds are perched (both procreative symbols) controlling fantastic creatures (feminine power) that crouch at the base of the Tree of Life. Although the eunuch’s costume harkens back to the Greco-Roman stylization, the iconography of his artifacts—the Tree of Life incorporating birds, the teardrop shapes, and fantastic creatures—relates the image to the Siberian-Altai (Saka) Animal Style and to the belief systems of Eastern Eurasian steppe nomads.

         Much of the same iconography with a distinct Eurasian nomadic flavor is repeated in the temple pendants belonging to the female in burial 2. The personage displayed on the pendants wears a belted caftan and flowing skirt adorned with teardrop shaped turquoise encrustations. She controls great fantastic beasts, stylized with twisted hindquarters in the manner of the Altai Pazyryk and the Kazakstan Saka Animal Style. The semantics indicate feminine power and complete physical control.


Warrior-Priestesses of the Tien Shan Mountains and Ural Steppes

Issyk. Summer headquarters for a branch of the Saka Confederacy, possibly the Massagetae, was located at Issyk, some 60 km. east of Almaty, southern Kazakstan, near the base of the Tien Shan Mountains. Today the looted remains of gigantic kurgans signal burials of great chieftains dating to the middle of the first millennium BCE. In 1969, a gold plaque plowed up at the edge of one of these burial mounds revealed the lateral undisturbed burial of a high status personage. [77] Small on-face lion head plaques were sewn to decorate the hems of the caftan while the field fabric and knee-hi boots were embellished with small geometric plaques. Two elaborate gold plaques, one in the form of a horse, the other a moose, and both with twisted bodies, ornamented the dagger sheath while gold belt plaques were cast as fantastic deer.  Because of the small, non-robust size of the skeleton and the ceremonial gold and iron sword and dagger found in the burial, the initial reconstruction was that of a “young warrior” (Figure 18).[78] However, the tomb also contained items normally associated only with females of the early nomadic period, e.g., large imported beads and earrings.[79] The personage also wore a triple gold torque similar to the one worn by the priestess on the Pazyryk wall hanging.  Another item worn by the deceased that would indicate a female burial included the tall conical headdress. It was elaborately decorated with gold foil branches and floral shoots at the front, referencing the Tree of Life, the hallmark of fertility rituals. In addition, addorsed ibex heads flanked two heraldic horned-horse protomes (Figure 19), a motif that echoes rituals associated with sacrificial horses found in the Pazyryk burials and again repeated on the Tamgaly petroglyphs.[80] Gold plaques attached to the sides of the hat include Tien Shan snow leopards winged like deer and twisted in the Pazyryk style as they poise over mountain symbols as well as small birds in flight over the Tree of Life. These images are precursors to contemporary shamans’ headdress complex, but also may have come into the Early Nomads’ repertoire from more ancient Siberian female shamans.[81] Two silver bowls (the smaller with an undecipherable inscription), a silver ritual spoon, a second ritual spoon carved from wood along with wooden dastakhans and a silver mirror in a leather case further define the burial as that of a priestess. Even though no skeletal remains are available for testing, with the distinctive iconography and the elaborate ceremonial weapons, it should not be doubted that the burial was that of a young high-status warrior priestess.

         Prokhorovska. In the summer of 2003, Leonid Yablonsky re-excavated the kurgans at Prokhorovska,[82] located north of Orenburg within sight of the Russian-Bashkortostan border. This Early Sarmatian typesite cemetery, ca. 200 km north of Pokrovka, is one of the furthest north of Early Sarmatian burial grounds. In the re-excavation, the only burial in Kurgan B was that of a spectacular warrior priestess, who was about age 30 when she had been placed within a Podboi, a niche excavated to the side of the burial chamber. She lay in the “attack” position, her right leg straight while the left knee was bent as if she were lunging toward an unseen enemy. She was bow-legged and her lower coccyx was fused, indicating she had spent many days of her life astride a horse. In the Podboi, a large unoccupied space above her head probably had held an elaborated headpiece, most likely a pointed felt hat, but being organic was now lost. Lying near her chest were large gold plaques, executed in the same art style as many excavated from Filippovka Kurgan 1.[83] The Prokhorovska warrior priestess burial also had a large number of gold beads probably sewn to her caftan. A most unusual Dastakhan or a sacrificial table, fashioned from a massive moose[84] horn lay below her feet. Nearby, the unprecedented offering had been placed for her journey to the Otherworld: the bones of half a sheep including the head, the first such find reported from any Sarmatian excavation as a small cut of meat, generally the ribs, was more the norm. More than 110 iron and a single bronze arrowhead lay on the right near her waist and the remains of an iron spear had been placed on the pit floor to the right of her hat. Reminiscent of both the Ukok and Issyk priestesses’ burials, a large silver mirror encased in a leather pouch had been placed near her side. She wore a necklace and bracelets of beads that included imported carnelian and amber as well as glass eyebeads, and a gold temple pendant formed of elaborated small chains falling from open double rings. An Achaemenid-type silver bowl lay near her right foot, and most unusual, was the large alabastron, imported perhaps 2000 miles from Egypt.[85]

         The presence of the large quantity of iron arrowheads and the Filippovka-type plaques date this burial to ca. 150-200 years later than the Pokrovka warrior priestesses and more or less contemporary with the burials at Filippovka. The moose horn also places this burial into the time, space, and belief systems of the southern Issyk warrior-priestess while the Filippovka plaques point to other influences coming from further to the west.


Filippovka. The 25 Filippovka kurgans, excavated between 1986 and 1990,[86] are located in the southern Ural steppes approximately 60 km west of the city of Orenburg and ca. 200 km SW of Prokhorovka. Three of the kurgans 1, 3, and 4, were massive and were undoubtedly royal burials sites All the fourth century BCE kurgans, except one, had been robbed. However, Kurgan 1 held unique collections of gold artifacts in two distinct treasure troves adjacent to the central burial. These included in total, 18 large mostly three-dimensional sculptures of deer carved from wood and covered with gold and silver (Figure 20), and more than 600 gold attachments and plaques primarily of zoomorphic images, some that had once decorated wooden vessels (ca. 350) and others that had been sewn to belts or ceremonial clothing. Treasure pit 2 also contained an Achaemenid silver bowl, two rhyton, and a solid gold amphora with mouflon shaped handles. To the left of the dromos-opening leading into the kurgan, five additional finely executed three- dimensional deer sculptures, antler tines terminating in bird heads, guarded the entrance to the tomb. A ceremonial gold elaborated iron dagger and Akinakes (short dagger), a whetstone, and horse trappings were also grave offerings.[87]  Jewelry, e.g., temple pendants, small plaques sewn to clothing, and large glass beads indicated the presence of a female in Kurgan. Floral and zoomorphic images were incised on the reverse of a mirror excavated from Kurgan 3. Other images engraved on the mirror handle are females wearing elaborate headdresses that have two projections extending from the top.[88] These images are styled in a manner that, although much more recent, are reminiscent of the Kangjiashimenji female dancers that also have two projections from the top of headdresses. In both cases the projections may refer to bird feathers and are associated with fertility.

Eight cultic spoons carved from bone and with elaborated handles were found in the kurgans. Some scholars have associated cultic spoons with the cult of Soma/Hauma[89] while other believe the carved spoons entered the Sauromatian and Sarmatian nomadic culture via the ancient forest-steppe Hansi-Mansi tribe who lived east of the Ural Mountains and with whom the nomads came in frequent contact while pasturing their herds. The Hansi-Mansi practiced the bear cult in which they raised the cubs, feeding them with a cultic spoon similar to those found in Sarmatian burials. Later the bear was sacrificed during an elaborate ceremony.[90]

         The Filippovka treasure trove is unique not only in the quantity of gold plaques but also in the size and stylization of the deer sculptures. Fairy tales indicate everything gold was associated with the Otherworld. The deer sculptures, in addition to representing the priestess’ helper, also symbolize the magical mount that transported the deceased to the Otherworld.

         Some plaques that had once been fastened, some with tiny golden nails, around the rims of the round-bottom wooden ritual bowls, incorporated a single handle cast in zoomorphic form: a stag, fighting camels, a wild boar, or horse heads. Others, however, featured the theme of the fantastic predator—griffins, bears, wolves, birds of prey, and felines. The images and motifs—animal combat, fantastic animals, and hunting scenes—appears linked to sacrificial offerings as well as to the Otherworld. The predator becomes the protector of the contents of the ritual liquid held by the kubok while at the same time is the animal helper of the celebrant.

         The parallel in the types of burial offering found at the Filippovka kurgans with those from the Issyk warrior-priestess and the Prokhorovka warrior-priestess burials e.g., gold plaques, silver mirrors, Persian bowls, imported beads, and temple pendants, add credence to the theory that one or more of the unknown personage in the Filippovka kurgans was a high-ranking female, perhaps a priestess or warrior priestess.


         Kuboks. Ritual bowls, or kuboks, seem to have originated in the East, and are known throughout the nomadic world from the Scythians north of the Black Sea to the Pazyryk Saka in the Altai Mountains to the Massagetae-Saka of Kazakstan. M. I Rostovtsev thought that kuboks were associated with the Mother Goddess, Aphrodite Urania, the most important deity of the Scythians.[91] Often depicted holding a small vessel, the goddess is linked to fertility and is acknowledged as intervening in the transition between present day and the Otherworld. The belief in fertility and transition may have also included a resurrection factor in the nomadic belief system.[92]

         There are many representations of a female holding a rounded bottom vessel including the Lady of the Lake (Figure 21), an ancient sculpture that stands in solitude facing one of the great lakes of western Mongolia, not far from where the Altai Pazyryk and Ukok culture once nomadized. A later-dated sculpture of a female from the steppes north of the Black Sea where the great Scythian kurgans once stood is now in the Tanais Museum (Figure 22). She is depicted nude except for her tall and now brimmed pointed hat. These near-life size sculptures relate to the white stone figurines excavated from Sarmatian female burials in Don-Volga interfluvials and the southern Ural steppe. Although much more stiffly stylized with arms to the side, significantly, miniature kuboks carved from the same stone accompanied them. The tradition of portraying priestess wearing elaborate headdresses and holding kuboks continued into the Middle Ages. Many such sculptures were gathered from various locales in the steppes and are now exhibited at the Rostov-na-Donu (Russia) museum (Figure 23).


Shamanism and Mythology

Beginning in the Bronze Age and continuing through the Early Iron Age, Sarmatian and Saka nomads came into contact, interacted, and developed symbiotic relationships with semi-sedentary tribes in the forest-steppes to the north, such as the Hansi-Mansi.[93] Practicing exogamy, interracial marriages resulted between the Asiatics, Mongolians, and Caucasoids. Still today, some Kazaks (roughly an admixture of 33% Caucasoid and 67% Mongoloid)[94] have blonde or red hair, freckly skin, and light colored eyes. Many Mongols of the Oriat tribe, who live in the western Mongolian Uvs aimag, have blue or green eyes and yellowish brown hair.[95] As social and religious customs are transmitted especially through the female, it may be possible to extrapolate from recorded historical sources additional insight into the religious and cultic modes of Early Nomads as they affected the women of the tribes. 

         Darkhad Mongol shamans perceive the world as divided into three parts: the Lower World where demons live, the Middle World where humans and animals live, and the most sacred Upper World. The Crown of the Sacred Tree (Tree of Life) is located in Upper World. [96]

         Eurasian funeral rites are based on ancient traditions. During the burial ceremony the mourners manifest dualistic feelings. During this ritual they overcome the fear of a deceased body and at the same time are able to maintain close personal or social ties.[97] Many other dualistic principles associated with a mythical background include worship of the Sun and Moon, the concept of father and mother, and the mystical rituals of fertility and rebirth. Rebirth occurs when at death, the soul of the deceased transmigrates from the Dark World into an unborn child, thus, the concept of resurrection.[98] In the ancient times, a great feast was prepared to feed the dead and funeral participants, traditions noted with frequency among the ancient nomadic populations. Food offerings at the deathbed and the grave were necessary for the dead to complete the difficult journey to the Otherworld. The task of the shamanic figure (or priestess) during a funeral was to successfully send the deceased to the Otherworld.[99]

.       Buryat Mongols have preserved a much more pristine version of ancient Mongolian mythology in their folklore while the orally transmitted Western Buryats epics conserve valuable information about the pre-Lamaist Mongolian religion.[100] Mongolian mythology, as found among the Western Buryats, is matriarchal.  The creator of the earth is female, and her daughters are the ancestress of all of the deities of the Mongolian pantheon.  The culture hero of the Buryats, Bukhe Beligte, is significant in his function not because of his being the son of the syncretistic god Hormasta, but rather for being the son of the sun goddess Naran Gookhon.  In many Buryat epics the heroes are women, the most prominent of them being the decidedly Amazon-like Alma Mergen, daughter of the ruler of the water spirits, who is both a warrior woman as well as a shaman.[101] Thus she is the precursor of warrior-priestesses.

The ceremonial kubok found in priestess burials and depicted on sculptures of priestesses, is a ubiquitous theme throughout time. As related in mythology, an enormous silver cup is the principle attribute of the Buryat goddess and Great Mother, Manzan Gurme Toodei. Unfortunately, in this myth the exact meaning and purpose of the kubok has now been forgotten, but it appears to have healing properties. In the myth, the sorceress Yonhoboi creates a duplicate of the goddess’ cup in order to deceive the hero, Abai Geser, who believes it is the true cup of the Great Mother. Desiring a son, Abai Geser and his wife, go to get blessings from this cup, but through the black magic of the false cup Abai Geser is turned into an ass.  When all attempts to return him to his original form fail, Manzan Gurme Toodei announces that only a woman has the power to save Abai Geser. It is the Amazonian like Alma Mergen who goes to rescue him. Perhaps this implies that that only a woman has the power to undo another woman's magic. It would appear, moreover, that kubok has some symbolic connection to the magic cup of the Great Mother,[102]



This brief overview of rank and statuses of Eurasian women reveals that from at least the Neolithic Period women had been influential in eastern Europeans societies. Many traditions and customs, especially those of a ritual nature, were transmitted with them as migrated them eastward. Because of high mortality rate among the children and generally younger age at death, practicing and preserving fertility rituals were especially critical. The unique Bronze Age Kangjiashimenji tableau in western China records the choreography of one of the traditional rituals that originated among the Cucuteni-Tripolye people. It also reveals woman’s role as shaman as associated with large felines. Over time these animals became, not only the shaman/priestess helper, but also an icon lending itself to define feminine power in the guise of the Mistress of Animals. And in yet another appearance she rides sidesaddle on the great feline. The concept of feminine power was transmitted via the Elamites in southern Iran to eastern Turkey where, in the second and first millennia BCE, the Mistress of Animals emerges first as the Great Mother, and then metamorphoses as Cybele whose cult is of darker implications. The Cybele cult and her priests, the Enareis, were transmitted into the Scythian and other Early Iron Age nomadic hierarchies throughout the steppes. The vast variety of iconographic motifs, art styles, and metallurgical techniques reveal Bactria, from the second millennium BCE, as a cultural crossroads. Many cultural influences were responsible for the stylization of Tillya Tepe gold artifacts that further emphasize the existence of powerful warrior-priestesses and priestess. Textual passages from nomadic contemporary writers has been augmented by archaeological data to reveal that high-ranking Sauromatians, Sarmatians, and eastern Saka personages set the standard for status of nomadic women in the first millennium BCE. Because of their belief in the Otherworld and their concept of resurrection, it was imperative to that worldly possessions be placed in their tombs.  Because of this it has been possible to ascertain the rank that a personage held within society during his or her lifetime. Extrapolating ethnographic information concerning belief systems, statuses, and life styles of contemporary populations in southern Siberia and western Mongolia augments these deductions. A re-evaluation of the burials of high-ranking individuals within the realm of the Saka in southern Siberia and Kazakstan, along with a cursory study of shamanic beliefs and mythology, further defines statuses of Eurasian women in the first millennium BCE. Some were tribal leaders, the functions of others include: fighting in battle, healing, prognosticating, and officiating at many important rites of passage. Their function in society should not be underestimated. They were absolutely necessary for tribal survival.


[1] Herodotus. Tr. A.D. Godley. IV: 110-117. (Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

[2] Herodotus IV, 205-215.

[3] The author has seen great clumps of cannabis growing wild in the southern Ural steppes. A Sarmatian burial at Pokrovka contained a terracotta vessel that held seeds of a hallucinogenic plant. Evidence of inhaling hallucinogenic smoke was found in the Pazyryk burials. Sergei I Rudenko, Tr. M.W. Thompson, Frozen Tombs of Siberia: The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970).

[4] Ethnographers have noted that the roots of shamanism lie in Paleolithic Siberia where a single term, udagan, is used throughout the region for female shamans, while in contrast male shamans have a variety of names. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Priestesses of Ancient Eurasia,” in Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, eds. Mariko N. Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, 603. (Santa Barbara, Denver and Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO, 2004).

[5] E. Murphy and J. Davis-Kimball, “Weapon Trauma on Human Skeletal Remains from the Chowhougou Cemeteries,” Journal of Palaeopathology 13, 27-34.

[6] In the older population (45-65), Pokrovka skeletal material revealed arthritis (aging process) and fusing of the coccyx (trauma from horse riding). Teeth of all age groups were excellent without caries. Among the skeletal remains of men (18-40) cause of death was not apparent leading to the conclusion that soft tissue infections and perhaps lung disease such as pneumonia may have been the primary causes of death.

[7] At Pokrovka, infants and children below the age of puberty are about 33% of the total burials excavated.

[8] A. P. Okladnikov, Yakutia: Before its incorporation into the Russian state (Montreal and London: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1970), 34, Figure 3.

[9] Maria Gimbutas, The Goddess and Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982); Maria Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1991); Maria

Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1991.

[10] Gimbutas, The Goddess and Gods of Old Europe, 198-205, particularly figure 309.

[11] Wang Binghua and The Cultural Relics Publishing House, eds. Tienshan Petroglyphs: A testimony of fertility worship (Urumchi: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 1992).

[12] Elizabeth Barber, Mummies of Urumchi (New York: W.W. Morton, 1999), 71.

[13] Nomadism is defined as herding within a defined region in the steppes or mountains, sheep, goats, horses, camels, and yak in the higher altitudes between nine and 10 months of the year, and wintering at a sheltered locale during the frigid months. J. Davis-Kimball, “Village Life to Nomadism: An Indo-Iranian Model in the Tien Shan Mountains (Xinjiang, China),” in Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference Los Angeles May 26-28, 2000, Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph Series, No. 40, eds. Karlene Jones-Bley, Angela Della Volpe, Miriam Robbins Dexter, Martin E. Huld, 243-268. (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2001).

[14] For a detailed study of the Kangjiashimenji Tableau, Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Fertility Rituals: The Kangjiashimenzi Petroglyphs and the Cucuteni Dancers,” in Material, Virtual, and Temporal Compositions: On the Relationship between Objects, ed. Dragos Gheorghiu, 27-44.  Papers from a session held at the European Association of Archaeologists Fifth Annual Meeting in Bournemouth 1999, British Archaeological Research Reports, International Series 953. (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2001).

[15] For a detailed description of each scene, Davis-Kimball, “The Kangjiashimenzi Petroglyphs,” 30-32.

[16] These emulate Luristan bronze images from the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Cf. P.R.S. Moorey, Catalogue of the Ancient Persian Bronzes in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1971), Plates 30-31.

[17] These populations lived ca. 4000-2500 BCE in present-day Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine. Linda Ellis, The Cucuteni-Tripolye Culture: A Study in Technology and the Origins of Complex Society, eds. A. R. Hands and D. R. Walker (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series 217, 1984).

[18] Yuri Rassamakin, “The Eneolithic of the Black Sea Steppe: Dynamics of Cultural and Economic Development 4500-2300 BC,” in Late prehistoric exploitation of the Eurasian steppe, eds. Marsha Levine, Yuri Rassamakin, Aleksandr Kislenko, and Nataliya Tatarintseva (Cambridge, England: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1999), 59-182; Dragos Georghiu, “Semnele stramosilor: Rituri funerare si transmiterea lor in societatea cucuteniea,” in Acta Musei Napocensis: Preistorie-Istorie Veche-Archaeologie 34 (Cluj-Napcoa: Ministerul Culturii, Muzeul National de Istorie a Transilvaniei, 1997), 727-734.

[19] Illustrated after Gimbutas in Davis-Kimball, “The Kangjiashimenzi Petroglyphs,” 34, Figure 4.

[20] Bactria was also one of the provinces of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and is now northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan.

[21] Davis-Kimball, “The Kangjiashimenzi Petroglyphs,” 243-268.

[22] For a concise historical overview of the Sauromatians and Sarmatians see “Part II. The Sauromatians and Sarmatians,” in Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age, eds. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Leonid T. Yablonsky, and Vladimir Bashilov (Berkeley: Zinat Press, 1995), 83-188.

[23] For the lifestyle of Eurasian nomads, Jeannine D. Kimball, “The Nomadic Kazaks of Western Mongolia,” in The Turks, volume 6, eds. Hasan CelČl, Güzel, C. Cem Oguz, and Osman Karatay (Ankara: YenĒ TürkĒye Publications, 2002), 697-706. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Sauro-Sarmatian Nomadic Women: New Gender Identities,” in Journal of Indo-European Studies, volume 25, numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 1997), 327-330; Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Statuses of Eastern Early Iron Age Nomads,” in Papers from the EAA Third Annual Meeting at Ravenna 1997, British Archaeological Reports, International Series 717, eds. Mark Pearce and Maurizio Tosi (Oxford: Archaeopress, 1998), 142. For a broader nomadic study, e.g., in Iran, Anatoly M. Khazanov, Julia Crookenden, tr., Nomads and the Outside World (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994).

[24] These 182 were burials that contained skeletons in condition that could be aged and sexed. Skeletons that had been destroyed were not included in the study.

[25] The team consisted of the Kazak-American Research Project, Russian Division (later changed to the American-Eurasian Research Project, Inc., Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads) led by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, and the Russian Institute of Archaeology, Moscow, led by Leonid T. Yablonsky.

[26] The methodology used to determine the statuses of the Pokrovka Sauromatians and Sarmatians is published in Davis-Kimball, “Sauro-Sarmatian Nomadic Women,” 327-343; and Davis-Kimball, “Statuses of Eastern Early Iron Age Nomads,” 144-149. Subsequently, research by the author in museums in the cities along the Volga and Don rivers, from the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan to Ufa in Bashkortostan, revealed that the same statuses or ranks occurred within the Sauromatian and Early Sarmatian periods in the Don-Volga interfluvials. As strict data was not kept on the hundreds of Russian and Soviet excavations that took place between ca. 1950 to present, the percentages of status or rank are not known.

[27] In 2002, double blind DNA testing was accomplished on a number of female skeletons from Pokrovka. There was no change in the sex of the people in the study as previously determined by physical anthropology. For more on the DNA study and results, J. Auerback, “Secrets of the Dead: Amazon Warrior Women” (Washington D.C. and Berlin: Story House Productions, 2004). The complete DNA report is in press.

[28] Nomads buried at Pokrovka are considered middle-class as almost all have valuable artifacts in the burials and only a very few (2-3) have no grave offerings. Yet no large “tsar” kurgans are found among these cemeteries. The closest great kurgans, known as Piat Bratya (Five Brothers), are located ca. 7-10 km west of Pokrovka. These have been extensively robbed (probably several times) and never excavated so it is not know if they belong to the Pokrovka group.

[29] Sometimes referred to in the Russian literature as a Kurilniza.

[30] In the burials, Sauromatians are oriented north-south while Early Sarmatians are placed east-west. Iron trilobite arrowheads appear in numbers only in the Early Sarmatian period, ca. 4th century BCE. Before that time only bronze trilobite arrowheads are used.

[31] Yulia Ustanova, The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1999), Plate 9.

[32] Ustanova, The Supreme Gods, Plate 10.3.

[33] Ustanova, The Supreme Gods, Plate 13.

[34] A veil covers the pointed hat in this and other Bosporan illustrations. Contemporary Kazak women who are married in, or dress in traditional costume for special performances, also wear pointed hats covered with a veil. These are illustrated in Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History’s Hidden Heroines (New York: Warner Books, 2002), 38.

[35] Ustanova, The Supreme Gods, 148.

[36] Ustanova, The Supreme Gods, 113.

[37] Anna I. Melyukova, “Scythians of Southeastern Europe,” in Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age, eds. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Leonid T. Yablonsky, and Vladimir Bashilov (Berkeley: Zinat Press, 1995), 49, figure 49 a-c.

[38] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, for mirrors, figure 115; for silk embroideries, figure 89 and Pl. 178.

[39] It is agreed that the meaning of the word, Enaree, is the loss of virility. Herodotus II: 105.

[40] James P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest People from the West, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000). Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Warrior Women, 132-152.

[41] Natalia Polosmak, “La prźtresse altaĆque,” in Tombes gelées de Sibérie, eds. B. Bioul, A. Jeannelle, H. Durand, and V. Maily, Dossiers Archaeolgie 212, 28-35. (Dijon: Editions Faton SA, 1996).

[42] Bird figurines were known in the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture as well as other areas of Eastern European Neolithic cultures. Many female figurines with bird heads are illustrated in Gimbutas, The Goddess and Gods of Old Europe. In the Germanic area, stories were recorded in the 19th century that may have originated in the Neolithic of powerful females who can shape-shift into birds. Mary Lynn Wilson, “The Bird Goddess in Germanic Europe,” in Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference Los Angeles May 26-28, 2001, Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph Series, No. 40, eds. Karlene Jones-Bley, Angela Della Volpe, Miriam Robbins Dexter, Martin E. Huld, 235. (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man, 2001).


[43] The right arm tissue was decomposed.

[44] Esther Jacobson-Tepfer, “Deer Imagery and Shamanism,” in Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, volume II, eds. Mariko Namba Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman (Santa Barbara, Denver, and Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 547-550.

[45] Mannequins dressed in shamanic costumes that incorporate a mirror are on display in an Ulaanbator, Mongolia museum.

[46] Jacobson-Tepfer, “Deer Imagery and Shamanism,” 547-550.

[47] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, Plate 106; figure 49. Although earlier in time and much further west, a parallel is seen in myths of the Valkyries who remain in human form until they put on swans’ skins at which time they turn into birds. Wilson, “The Bird Goddess in Germanic Europe,” 237.

[48] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, Plate 149.

[49] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, figure 111.

[50] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, figure 88-89.

[51] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, figures 137, 139, and 142.

[52] Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, figure 70.

[53] The Bronze Age culture during the eighteenth-seventeenth centuries BCE is known as the Bactrian Margiana Archaeological Culture or BMAC.

[54] These seals probably were amulets. Many composite statuettes of large females, some standing, others sitting, were carved from chlorite and limestone. The single composite statuette of a male is described as disfigured. Pierre Amiet, “Antiquities of Bactria and Outer Iran in the Louvre Collection,” in Bactria: An Ancient Oasis Civilization from the Sands of Afghanistan, eds. Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori (Venezia: Erizzo, 1988), figures 20a-c.

[55] Gernot Windfur, “The Iranians and the Sarmatians: A Note on Terminology,” in The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes, eds. Joan Aruz, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 19-20.

[56] Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Enarees and Women of High Status,” in Kurgans, Ritual Sites, and Settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age, eds. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Eileen Murphy, Ludmila Koryakova, and Leonid Yablonsky, British Archaeological Research Reports, International Series 890, 225. (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000),

[57] Davis-Kimball, “Enarees and Women of High Status,” 233, figures 3 and 4.

[58]  Phrygia was a kingdom in west-central Anatolia ca. 1200 BCE.

[59] Lilith is summarized in Davis-Kimball, “Demon or Independent Woman,” in Women Warriors, 93.

[60] G. S. Gasparo, Soteriology and Mystic Aspects in the Cult of Cybele and Attis, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985.

[61] Lynn E Roller, In search of God the Mother: The cult of Anatolian Cybele (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999).

[62] Eunuch is treated more fully in Davis-Kimball, “Enarees and Women of High Status,” 224-225 and figure 6.

[63] Herodotus II, 76.

[64] Herodotus IV, 67.

[65] Ustanova, The Supreme Gods, 129-178.

[66] The Iranian goddess, Anahita, appears as the Mistress of Horses. Ustanova, The Supreme Gods, 112.

[67] John M. Rosenfield, Dynastic Arts of the Kushans (Berkeley: University of California Press), 10-11.

[68] Cf. “Torso of a standing bodhisattva,” Kushan period, ca. late 1st–2nd century, Kushan Empire (ca. 2nd century B.C.–3rd century A.D.), in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated

[69] V.I. Sarianidi, The golden horde of Bactria: From the Tillya-tepe excavations in northern Afghanistan (New York: Abrams, 1985).

[70] This follows the nomadic tradition of using ancient monuments for burials. The author has seen many instances where, in recent times, Kazaks and others have used an ancient kurgan for a contemporary cemetery.

[71] Without soft tissue, which was completely lost, there would be no way to determine if he had been castrated.

[72] “These treasures and many others were tragically lost when the Kabul Museum was bombed in 1993. At first, only the upper galleries suffered losses and looting. The remaining artifacts were transferred to lower leveled, steel-doored vaults. In 1994, the United Nations attempted to stop the looting by repairing the doors, and bricking up the windows. Disappointingly, these attempts failed, and looters continued to plunder 90% of the museum's collections. Both private collectors and antique dealers from as far away as Tokyo have purchased stolen museum pieces. Looted artifacts have shown up all over the world, and they bring in large sums of money to the criminals. Afghanistan On Line, “Kabul Museum,”

A more recent update, according to a New York Times article, indicates that near the end of the Soviet occupation, 22, 513 objects had been moved from the museum and hidden away. The Tillya Tepe artifacts, noted as the most valuable pieces, had been stored in the presidential palace compound. C. Gall, “Trove of Afghan antiquities ‘lost’ since ‘80s had been secreted away to Kabul storage,” New York Times.

[73] Sarianidi, The golden horde of Bactria, 53.

[74] A mirror found the following spring in the Kabul bazaar implies a sixth personage, a priestess, in the mound. Sarianidi was not able to complete the Tillya Tepe excavations because the weather became so severe in early November the work had to be discontinued, and the following spring the Afghan-Russian war was in full bore.

[75] The artifacts are correlated with the females in the table in Davis-Kimball, “Enarees and Women of High Status,” 249. Also see Davis-Kimball, “The Kangjiashimenzi Petroglyphs,” 27-44.

[76] Although beyond the scope of this paper, the extent of the female sidesaddle astride a lion, holding a recurved bow and arrow, is displayed on a fourth century silver-gilt vase from the Thracian Rogozen Treasure (Vratsa district, Bulgaria). I. Marazov, ed. Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Thracians: Treasures from the Republic of Bulgaria (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in co-operation with the Ministry of the Republic of Bulgaria, 1997).

[77] K. A. Akishev. Issyk Mound: The Art of the Saka in Kazakstan (Moscow: Iskusstvo Publishers, 1978).

[78] The author has made attempts to locate skeletal remains for DNA analysis to determine sex. However, to date no remains have been found.

[79] Akishev, Issyk Mound; Jeannine Davis-Kimball, “Chieftain or Warrior Priestess?,” Archaeology Magazine (New York: Archaeological Institute of America, Sept/Oct 1997), 40-41; Davis-Kimball, “Statuses of Eastern Early Iron Age Nomads,” 144.

[80] Francfort, H., F. Soleihovloup, J-P. Bozellec, P Vidal, F. E’Errico, D. Sacchi, Z. Samashev, and A. Rogozhinskii, “Les petroglyphs de Tamgaly,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute, number 9, eds. Carol Altman Bromberg, Richard N. Frye, Bernard Goldman (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1995), 167-207.

[81] Commonly known Germanic myths relate that some females are witches that wear magical bird skins enabling them to fly. Wilson, “The Bird Goddess in Germanic Europe,” 238-241.

[82] Prokhorovskaya Culture was the name first given to the Early Sarmatian Period. The major excavations of nomadic burials in the southern Urals began in the late 1950s. Marina Moshkova, “History of the Studies of the Sauromatian and Sarmatian Tribes,” in Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age, eds. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Leonid T. Yablonsky, and Vladimir Bashilov (Berkeley: Zinat Press.1995), 92-93. In 1916, however, M. Rostovtzeff excavated seven kurgans at Prokhorovska and the information was published or edited by S. I. Rudenko in 1918. As was the technique of the early years, the kurgans were excavated without removing the mound, as it was not yet known that lateral burials were placed around the central burial. The mounds had further been plowed reducing their original height more than a meter. And, they had suffered additional damage: one had been used for an elevation marker, another for a modern cemetery, and all had been robbed several times by local villagers. When the mound of Kurgan B was removed to the ancient soil level during the current excavations, it was found that the warrior-priestess was the only burial in this kurgan and, moreover, it was off-center, possibly a coincidence that was instrumental in its preservation. L. Yablonsky, personal communication.

[83] Aruz, Joan, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova, eds. The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 126-127, Plates 64.

[84] Known as elk in Russia.

[85] The Prokhorovska Warrior-Priestess was also a feature in PBS documentary, Auerback, “Secrets of the Dead: Amazon Warrior Women.

[86] Excavated by the Institute of History Language and Literature of the Bashkir Branch of the Russian Academy of Science, directed by Anatoli Pshenichniuk.

[87] Anatolii Pshenichniuk, “The Filippovka Kurgans at the Heart of the Eurasian Steppes,” in The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes, eds. Joan Aruz, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 21-30. For the complete illustrations of the Filippovka deer, The Golden Deer of Eurasia, Plates 1-4, 20-22, 84-92, and for plaques Plates 24-83.

[88] Golden Deer of Eurasia, Plate 110 and figures 69-70.

[89] Vitali Fedorov, “Bone Spoons and Wooden Vessels of the Nomads and the Cult of Soma/’Hauma,” in eds. Aruz, Joan, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova, The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 65-66.

[90] Bashkortstan archaeologists, personal communication.

[91] Elena Korolkova, “Ritual Vessels of the Nomads,” in The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes, eds. Joan Aruz, Ann Farkas, Andrei Alekseev, and Elena Korolkova (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 61-64.

[92] Korolkova ,“Ritual Vessels of the Nomads,” 61-66.

[93] Ludmilla Koryakova and Marie-Yvane Daire, “Burials and Settlements at the Eurasian Crossroads: Joint Franco-Russian Project,” in Kurgans, Ritual Sites, and Settlements: Eurasian Bronze and Iron Age, eds. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Eileen Murphy, Ludmila Koryakova, and Leonid Yablonsky, British Archaeological Research Reports, International Series 890 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000), 63-74.

[94] Orazak Esmagulov, Kazak Institute of Archaeology, personal communication.

[95] Personal observation. Also cf. Auerback “Secrets of the Dead.”

[96] Otgonu Purev, “Darkhad Shamanism (Mongolia),” in Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, eds. Mariko N. Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman (Santa Barbara, Denver and Oxford, England: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 545-547.

[97] Elena Boykova, “Funeral Rites in Eurasian Shamanism,” in Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, eds. Mariko N. Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 557.

[98] Purev, “Darkhad Shamanism (Mongolia),” 546-547.

[99] Elena Boykova, “Funeral Rites in Eurasian Shamanism,” in Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, eds. Mariko N. Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 557.

[100] Under Russian rule the Buryats escaped the Lamaist suppression of shamanism that took place in other Mongol regions. Julie Stewart, personal communication.

[101] Julie Stewart, personal communication.

[102] Julie Stewart, personal communication.