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The Saka nomenclature
A Persian appraisal


September 15, 2005

Like a hot wind of the high hills... he cometh up as clouds... his chariots ... as the whirlwind, his horses ... swifter than eagles. -- Thus prophesized Jeremiah of Judea around 627 BC (Jeremiah, iv, 11-13). In about 625 BC the horsemen known to the Assyrians as Iskhuzai and Greeks as Skythos or Skutai (Scythian) invaded Syria and Judea and would press as far south as Egypt.

This essay examines the nomenclature of the nation known to Darius I the Great (r. 522-486 BC) as Saka and it is based primarily on the words and images contained in Darius' records. Where there is need for extrinsic evidence or material to illustrate a point, I shall rely on other Achaemenian records and on Herodotus (d. ca. 425).

Generally, for Achaemenian texts I have relied on a collection of translated Achaemenian inscriptions, with transliteration, at based on Ronald G. Kent, Old Persian Grammar, Texts, Lexicon (New Haven, Connecticut: American Oriental Society, 1950). I have consulted extensively the on-line pictorial offerings by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the photographs contained in a Time-Life publication The Persians. For Herodotus I have used George Rawlinson, trans. and E. H. Blakeney, ed., The History of Herodotus, 2 volumes (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1949). Other sources are H.W. Bailey, "Khotanese Saka Literature," in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3(2) (Ehsan Yarshater, ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 1230-1243; J. M. Cook, "The Rise of the Achaemenids and Establishment of their Empire," in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2  (Ilya Gershevitch, ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985): 200-291; Roman Ghirshman, Iran (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), pp. 96-98; J.P. Mallory & Victor H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000); Oswald Szemerényi, Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka (Vienna: Verlag der Osterreischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1980); Tamara Talbot Rice, The Scythians (London: Thames and Hudson, 1957); Tamara Talbot Rice, "Scythians," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1981), Macropaedia, vol. 16: 438-442; T. Sulimirski, "The Scyths," in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2: 149-99.

The assembly of the research and interpretation of the data herein benefited most singularly from the generous advice, suggestions, corrections and insights of Fatema Soudavar-Farmanfarmaian, an exceptionally learned scholar who shared her knowledge generously and completely, remaining all along a guiding light in a sea otherwise ravaged by dark motives of academe's "specialists." I am also grateful for the unkind ribbing of an anonymous reviewer at a publication that specializes in ancient Persia; his or her criticism prompted me to do more research and better articulate my observations. I am most of all grateful to Jahanshah Javid for devoting a good part of this site to the advancement of research into Iranian history, geography and language.

The First Encounter
The rapid descent of the Saka horsemen from southern Russia into western Iran in the 7th century BC owed much to their mastery of the horse and, according to Herodotus, to a lousy sense of direction. As for the first, in the words of the late Tamara Talbot Rice ("Scythians," p. 438), the Saka were "accomplished horsemen, among the earliest people to master the art of riding." As for the second point, according to Herodotus (I: 103), while pursuing the Kimmerian in Anatolia, a Saka group "turned out of the straight course" and rode eastward keeping the Caucasus on their right. When they dead-ended at the Caspian Sea, they turned south, passed through Darband and entered the Iranian plateau, coming to rest at present-day Sakkiz some 75 miles south of Lake Urumia and 140 miles northwest of Ecbatana (mod. Hamadan), the seat of the Median Kingdom (Rice, "Scythians," p. 438; Rice, The Scythians, p. 45; Ghirshman, p. 106).

To underscore Saka's serendipitous arrival in the central Zagros region, Herodotus remarked that "missing their road" brought them to the borders of Media (IV:12). It is likely that Saka intended to attain this region in order to explore new lands: They rode the circuitous route in order to bypass the impediment offered by the Zagros Mountains. In addition, the similarity of the names of their leaders Partatua and his son Madyes with and the names Parsua (Persians) and Mada (Medes) suggests perhaps a different affinity on the part of the Saka to reach a region inhabited by Median and Persian groups. See generally Matthew W. Waters, "The Earliest Persians in Southwestern Iran: The textual Evidence," Iranian Studies vol. 32, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 99-107, pp. 100-101.

In about 612 BC when Kiakhares (Cyaxares) of Media was busy laying siege to the Assyrian capital at Nineveh, the wily Saka horsemen burst into Media and thence harried much of western Asia for the next twenty-eight years. By 584 BC they ran out of steam. In that year, Kiakharez, invited them to a banquet, made them drunk with wine, and then massacred them (Herodotus, I: 106). Those who were spared retreated into Armenia (Rice, "Scythians," p. 438) and some others, according to Rice, retreated eastward and settled between the Caspian and Aral seas, where they intermingled with their Daha kinsmen ("Scythians," p. 438). And others from among them were allowed to settle in the Luristan area where, according to Rice (The Scythians, p. 45), "[a]s the price for their clemency" the Saka were "to train and establish cavalry units for the Median army." 

We do not know what the Medes called these horsemen who settled among them. They could have called them in a manner after the name of their kings. Or because the horsemen inhabited the lush prairies and plains at the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, they could have been called hill men, nomad, or horsemen. But instead it was their pointed headwear that was most impressive about them. And so they were called 'ones with tall hats.' We surmise this from Herodotus' description of Darius' 10th administrative division (satrapy), in which the Orthocorybantes [ones who wore peaked bonnets] formed a part of Media (III:92). Orthocorybantes is the plural from of Greek orthokorvas, which is made-up of ortho (up-right) and kirvasia (Persian bonnet or hat with a peaked crown), resulting in "one who wears a peaked bonnet." I am indebted to Stefano Kotsonis for this explanation by Dino Politis of the British Museum. It is worth noting, in the procession of national delegates memorialized on the eastern stairway at Apadana, the Hall of Audience, the pointed- cap Saka were ushered before the king by a Mede.

Achaemenian Designations
The foregoing paints a picture of the Saka horsemen as a tribe or, as Herodotus pointed out (I: 201), a race, fragmented about the ancient world. Certainly in Darius' time they were found from Jaxartes (Syr Darya) to the Black Sea and Balkans, with colonies in Egypt and southeastern Persia. The view that Saka were also present in Sistan in Achaemenian times, if not sooner, is discussed in V.F. Büchner, "Sistan," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Th. Houstma, et al, eds.), vol. IV (London: Luzac & Co. 1934): 456-461, p. 458.

While Darius distinguished the Saka by different descriptive names, in all of his records, from Persia and Egypt, these horsemen were called Saka.

In Darius' Persian records, the term Saka appeared as a place name, first as a dahya (BD2:8), which Darius understood to be situated  para Sugdam (DPh:5-6) [beyond Sogdiana], past the Oxus (Amu Darya) and Jaxartes in Central Asia. Later, he noted also Skudra as Saka tyaiy paradraya [DNa:28-29], meaning "Saka beyond sea," even though darya could have meant any body of water.

In Darius' time draya meant any considerable body of water. As the substitute for the Avestan zraya, meaning lake, the term meant 'lake' (see discussion below about Zraka). In the Suez inscriptions (draya tya hacha Parsa aity) the term referred to what is known presently as the Persian Gulf. In Tigram adaraya (BD1: 85) the term meant Tigris, clearly a river, the crossing of which into Babylon by Darius' army took place on inflated skins, camels and horses. Then there was the draya across which he went, with mention of no naval or maritime aid, to reduce the Saka to obedience. It is my contention that the hieroglyph used to describe the 'Saka of marshes,' a more or less round shape with an inflowing and out-flowing rivulets, suggested Darius' notion of draya to be more than marsh or swamp.

While one could differentiate Skudra and Saka Paradraya as two separate entities, they referred to the same polity, namely the Saka of the Black Sea/Danube region whose land Darius invaded in 513 BC. I note this coincidence or synonym in reference to the following. First, where there is a mention of Saka Paradraya there is always mention of Skudra right after it (DNa: 28-29, DNe: 24-25), or somewhere in the list not far behind (such as in Susa.D.statue 12 and 17). The redundancy implicit in this appears to have been corrected in Darius' time, as we see in DSe (24-25, 29) reference to Saka haumavarga, Saka tigraxauda and Skudra. The Daiva inscription from the time of Xerxes (XPh) reflected this correction when it noted Saka in seriatim as Saka haumavarga, Saka tigraxauda and Skudra (26-27), with no reference to Saka paradraya. Second, while the throne bearers at the Persepolis south tomb were labeled as 30 ethnics, there were only 28 of them shown bearing the throne of Artaxerxes II, a deficit that may have been in part the result of correcting the redundancy implicit in Saka Paradraya and Skudra (DNe: 24-25).

In the reference Saka tyaiy xaudam tigram barati (BD5:21-22) -- Saka who wear long hood - later Saka Tigraxauda, for short -- the term Saka clearly referred to a group of people. The reference to them and the representation of their leader Skuxa at Behistun (Bisotun) were the earliest reference to Saka in the Achaemenian records as ethnics. As retold by Darius (DB5:20-30), the country called Saka rebelled against him and so in the second or third year of his reign as king, 519 BC, he went with an army to Saka and after crossing the draya with all his army he smote the Saka Tigraxauda.

The carvings and inscriptions at Behistun described the events in Darius' first three years as king (522-519 BC). His expedition to Egypt/Suez was in 518. He campaigned against the Skudra in the Black Sea/Danube area in 513. His statue made in Egypt or in Egyptian style found at Susa was from toward the end of his reign ca. 466.

We know from Darius' account of the Saka campaign that he had stepped into a divided Saka community, as the Saka surrendered two of their own leaders to him, including Skuxa (shown below in the procession of the captured rebels, at far right, with his tall cap and tied hands), whom Darius replaced with another chief. However, after this campaign in 519 BC, any mention of Saka Tigraxauda in Darius' inscriptions was preceded by the name of Saka haumavarga (DSe: 24-25; DNa: 25-26; DNe: 14,15).

In images, too, Saka Haumavarga, were represented in a precedential manner. At Darius' tomb in Naqshi Rustam, the throne-bearer Saka Haumavarga is shown in the 14th position in the upper row, followed by Saka Tigraxauda in the 15th position on the in lower row.

Saka Haumavarga, according to conventional wisdom, were so called because they consumed hauma. The term varga [or varka] is said to have represented an ingestion function such as drinking, eating or inhalation - conveniently 'taking' or broadly 'consuming.' According to J.M. Cook (pp. 254-255), the late Ilya Gershevitch was content with leaving it at "consuming."

The hauma that the Saka consumed has been equated with homa or hom, of the Avesta. According to the Avestan glossary, hom was a plant with medicinal and spiritual properties ( and some have suggested that it was made from a mushroom that grew north of the Oxus (Jona Lendering in Scythians/Sacae on but the preponderance of research tends to view it as a mixture of ephedra and other ingredients. See Mallory & Mair, pp. 138, 262.

A brief note on homa in Achaemenian religious practice is found in Shahrokh Razmjou, "The Lan Ceremony and Other Ritual Ceremonies in the Achaemenid Period: The Persepolis Fortification Tablets," in Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, volume 42: 103-117 (2004), pp. 113-114.

In the Avesta there is an entire sacred hymn called The Hom Yasht, in which Yasna 10 speaks of hom's properties: vanishes waste and foulness (sec. 7), healing and health-bringing (sec. 7 and 8), toxicant and stirring (sec. 8), exhilarant (sec. 14), "makes the poor man's thoughts as great as any of the richest whatsoever" (sec. 13), grows in mountainous (sec. 3, 4, 11 and 12), liquor (sec. 12), liquid (sec.17), "tasting of thy juice (sec. 5), "drink mixed with milk" (sec. 13). On the basis of these qualities, I had equated hom with grape-wine, a substance with which the Saka were intimately familiar. Herodotus (Book IV) described the place of wine in the rituals of the European Scythians.

Among their possessions they valued a drinking cup (IV: 5); once a year those who slew in combat partook from a bowl of wine (IV: 66); in an oath ceremony, the parties to an oath partook wine from a bowl that contained drops of the parties' blood (IV:70). In their early history in western Iran, they were made drunk with wine and massacred (I:106). While I stand corrected (see Guive Mirfendereski, "High Times Homavarka: The Potheads of Ancient Iran" on 17 May 2005), I do note that the inscription at Ka'ab Zartusht by Shahpour (ruled: 241-272 AD) listed in the daily offerings for the happiness of the souls of his predecessors 4 pas of wine.

I believe the term Saka Haumavarga/Haumavarka referred not to the consumption of hom, but rather it referred to the Saka of the land (~ka) that produced (bar/var) hom.


Lastly, in Darius' records in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Saka were represented as Saka of the marshes (waters), Saka of the plains, and Skudra [Suez stele ca. 518 and Susa statue ca. 480]. On the stele discovered near Suez, the Saka were represented as:

However, on the base of the statue (Susa), the Saka were represented as:

See G. Posner, La Première Domination Perse en Egypte (Cairo: L'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, 1936), vol. 11 (Receuil d'Inscription Hiéroglyphiques), p. 54; Jean Yoyotte, "Les Inscriptions Hiéroglyphiques Darius et L'Egypte," in Journal Asiatique 260:253-266 (1972), p. 256, text 5a: 12 and 5b: 17.

While there are differences in writings, I look at the hieroglyphs and can only conclude the notations to say 'Saka water', 'Saka highland.' 

The Legacy of the Tall Cap
Two reasons can explain the conic shape of a Saka xaud, the precursor word for today's hood in English and khud, meaning "helmet" in Persian. First, the tall pointed shape of the headwear indicated station. The high conical hood of the high priests comes to mind as analogous. He who wore it thus could be distinguished from the rest of the tribe. From a practical standpoint, the distinctive architecture of the hood was owed to the part of the animal, probably leg or hind part, in which the pointed portion corresponded with the foot or tail.

The Tigraxauda cornered the trademark headwear, but other Saka wore them too. A corps of Saka Haumavarga [Herodotus: Amyrgian], which was a part of the army assembled by Xerxes (r. 486-465) for the Greek expedition (481-480 BC) at Salamis, wore tall stiff caps rising to a point (V:64). From their representation at Persepolis, the Skudra too bore caps that came up to a protrusion on top (Apadana E Stairway), albeit in the shape of a modest knob.

The shared fetish of a distinctive headwear points to a history shared by all Saka. If the legend spoken by the Saka of the Black Sea region was any indication, Saka Tigraxauda were the first Saka. As recorded by Herodotus, the Saka of the Black Sea region had descended from their first king Targitaüs, the first man who lived in their country around 1,500 BC, which place before his time was a desert without inhabitants (IV: 5-7). Targitaüs was the later or Greek name for Tigraxauda, no doubt the eponymous ancestor of Saka Tigraxauda. The similarities in the two names aside, as Herodotus pointed out, the Saka differentiated themselves on the basis of their royal lines of descent, whereby, as an example, the Skoloti among them were named after one of their kings of that name (IV: 6). So one may conclude that the Saka Tigraxauda were named after Tigraxauda.

The fact of a tall cap is probably the reason why the carvers/architects who designed the procession of Darius' captives at Bisotun (Behistun) appear to have placed Skuxa slightly at a lower level. This would have allowed the representation of the fallen Saka king to appear shorter than Darius. Only Ahuramazda (Faravahar, really) held a superior situation to the king. Similarly, the fact of the tall cap represented a challenge when depicting the Saka as throne bearers. The pointed part of the cap was therefore bent into an arc in order to avoid the asymmetry that the tall pointed tip of the cap otherwise would produce.

The Legacy of Horses
The procession of national delegates depicted on the Apadana stairway showed a mix of animals brought forth as tribute to the king - camel, donkey, oxen and ram aside, horses were presents of choice that Saka Tigraxauda and their kinsmen from Skudra gave to the Persian king.

For what is worth, in 1931 H. Sköld posited that the name Saka derived from Ispakai, a name associated with the people in 7th century BC whom the Assyrians knew as A‰guzai. Sköld equated Ispaka with *spaka meaning 'dog' (Szemerenyi, pp. 40-41). The late Oswald Szemerenyi however refuted this theory on the basis of contradictory evidence found for the word 'dog' in Khotanese language. Yet the word spaka, which Mede called a female dog (Herodotus, I: 110), no doubt is related to sabaka of the Slavic languages. Regardless, I believe Sköld was onto something: In his Ispaka I read Aspa, taken to mean 'horse' in Persian. The Arimaspians are said to have their name derived from asp, horse, in Persian, yet location continues to remain a mystery of sorts among historians. See Mallory & Mair, pp. 42-43.

Saka in the Satrapies
The fact that Saka rebelled against ["went away from"] Darius at the start of his reign is proof that the dahya was already an Achaemenian province prior to Darius' ascendance to the throne. Exactly how that inclusion had come about is not clear from Achaemenian records. Herodotus wrote of Cyrus II the Great (r.550-529 BC) that he had planned to campaign personally against Bactria, Saka and Egypt after he had taken Babylon (I: 153). Yet there is no record of him pursuing any of the remaining enterprises after Babylon. Instead, according to Herodotus, Cyrus crossed the Araxes and did battle with the queen of Massagetae (I: 201-216) and was, per Herodotus, defeated by the Massagetae.

Cyrus' successor and Darius's immediate predecessor, Cambyses II (r. 529-522), campaigned only in Egypt. The task of securing the allegiance of the Saka therefore would have fallen on the lesser princes of the kingdom and must have come about during Cambyses' reign. The prime candidate as the linchpin of the imperial order in the northeast would have been Darius' own father, Hystaspes [Vishtaspa].

Hystaspes had been the governor of Parthava (DB2: 93-94), probably since the time of Cyrus. According to Herodotus (I:209-210) he was in Cyrus's company in the war against the Massagetae. It must have been routine for the provincial governors to subdue their neighbors that were farther from the center. When Parthia and Hyrcania rebelled against Darius, the task of subduing the province fell on Hystaspes who, with the aid of an army sent by Darius, managed to quell the rebellion (BD3: 1-8). When Margush [Margiana] farther east rebelled, Darius delegated the operations to the governor of the neighboring Bactria (BD3: 11-19). But when the Saka rebelled Darius chose to proceeded personally against them. That may have indicated a new conquest.

The Saka were included in several other administrative divisions of the realm. Besides the aforementioned Orthocorybantes of the 10th satrapy, the Saka [Sacae] were included clearly in the 15th satrapy, along with the Caspians (III: 96). They [Pausicae] [=Apa-saka, Saka of Waters] were also counted in the 11th satrapy, again along with the Caspians (III: 92). If present also in eastern Persia, they would have been counted as part of 14th satrapy that covered east central and southeast Persia. The 14th satrapy included the Sagartians, Sarangians, Thammanaeans, Utians, and Mycians, together with the inhabitants of the islands in the Erythraean Sea [southern seas in southwest Asia], where Darius sent those whom he banished (Herodotus, III:93). 

The Saka were also found in Egypt. Egypt formed Darius' 6th satrapy, with its capital at Memphis, north of Lake Moeris. According to Herodotus, a 120,000-man Persian force was stationed there (III: 91) and its cavalry, according to J.M. Cook (p. 255) consisted of the Saka. It is possible that the designation of the Saka as "Saka of the marshes" and "Saka of the plains" in Egyptian hieroglyphs was framed exclusively in reference to the presence of the Saka force on the Egyptian landscape which, according to Herodotus, was flat and full of swamps (II: 22). Perhaps the universe of an Egyptian's impression of the extent of the Persian Empire, too, was influenced by the multinational components of the Persian army that occupied it. We know from Herodotus, for example, Cambyses' army that went to Egypt drew from all nations of the Achaemenian Empire (II: 1).

In Xerxes's army, according to Herodotus, Bactrians [12th satrapy] and Amyrgian Saka [Haumavarga] were under the command of Hystaspes, Darius' son. (VII:64). The Saka soldier - beside the trademark pointed cap, wore trousers and carried the bow and arrow, dagger, and battle-axe (VII:64), among which the battle-ax, a heaven-sent, was considered sacred (Herodotus, IV:5-7). Other bestowments were a drinking-cup, a plough and a yoke. The implement was a handy tool for beheading and flaying the fallen enemy, as was custom among the Saka soldiers (IV: 64). Ceremonially, the dipping of the battle-axe in a bowl of wine-and-blood sealed an oath (IV: 70). A scymitar was dipped in the ceremonial oath-taking bowl, which symbolized the solemnity of the undertaking under penalty of death: The breaking of an oath or bearing false testimony, after a trial by jury, begot death by beheading (IV:68). In Xerxes's navy, on every ship there was a band of soldiers, Persians, Medes or Saka (VII: 96).

In the procession of national delegates depicted on the stairway at Apadana, the Saka were among the few who were allowed before the king bearing arms. This no doubt was a mark of the trust that the king had in them.

A Geographical Reorientation
In conventional wisdom the Massagetae and Saka Haumavarga are depicted as neighbors and inhabiting an area beyond Jaxartes [present-day Uzbekistan], with the Massagetae occupying the area north of Haumavarga. The Saka Tigraxauda are depicted as inhabiting the eastern littoral of the Caspian Sea between Hyrcania and Chorasmia [present-day Turkmenistan]. See, for example, Cook, pp. 282-283 (map).

There is sufficient evidence in Herodotus to call for the reorientation of the geographical positioning of the Saka so that Saka Tigraxauda are placed in the Jaxartes watershed and Massagetae and Haumavarga are relocated to the eastern littoral of the Caspian Sea. There is also evidence to suggest strongly that the term Massagetae was a Greek (Herodotus) name for the Saka Haumavarga.

The term Saka Haumavarga did not appear in Herodotus. Instead one learns of the Amyrgian Saka who formed a part of Xerxes' army [VII:64], a name that is said to have derived from the name of the plains [Amyrgium] that these Saka inhabited. It is equally plausible that the Amyrgian plain received its name from the Amyrgian Saka themselves. Regardless, by the process of elimination, considering that the Achaemenian records in Susa and Naqsh-e Rostam identified the Saka as Haumavarga and Tigraxauda, one may conclude that Herodotus' Amyrgian Saka must have been a reference to Saka Haumavarga. To futher intimate the connection, the names Amyrgian and Haumavarga are not phonetically that far apart for the Greek name (Amyrgian) to be considered a corruption of the Persian (Haumavarga).

The Achaemenian records and Herodotus suggest that Massagetae and Haumavarga were one and the same and they inhabited the present-day region east of the Caspian Sea and west of the Aral Sea. This area that presently is watered by Gorganrud and Atrak in the south and the Oxus and Jaxartes in the north had a different look in the views of the ancient geographers. The Oxus and Jaxartes were deemed to empty into the Caspian Sea, thereby creating a milieu consisting of plains intersected by various rivers closer to the Iranian heartland. See, for example, Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1950), pp. 2-5.

The coincidence of Massagetae and Saka Haumavarga obtains from the correlation of a few shreds of evidence. First, Herodotus stated that Massagetae were viewed according to some as a nation belonging to the Saka race (I:201). Second, Herodotus placed the Massagetae in the plains that stretched eastward of the Caspian Sea (I:204), against whom Cyrus the Great led an expedition right after the taking of Babylon according to an itinerary that Herodotus described to have included a campaign against the Saka (I: 153). In reaching the Massagetae/Saka, Cyrus crossed the Araxes, which in antiquity was viewed as a watershed area consisting of the present-day Aras River, southern Caspian littoral and Atrak and Gorgan rivers and, possibly, the Oxus (old course). See Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1950), pp. 2-5.

Third, etymologically, many have concluded that the name Massagetae meant "Great Saka" (Mallory & Mair, pp. 98-99). Massagetae, the reasoning goes, referred to Saga/Saka and "ma" or "massa" meant "big" or "great" so the whole name meant "Great Saka" in the language of Persia or Central Asia. This etymology is dubious at best. One would be hard pressed to find an example of the word "massa" in any of the Old Persian texts. The one word that would have meant "great" was "meh" or "mah-a" in Sanskrit but in Persian that would have dated to Middle Persian, as did "amavand" (powerful). The equation of "massa" with "great" or "heavy" or "big" or "powerful" is tainted apparently by the Latin notion or connotation of the word form "massa," "mass" or "mas." If quantum of the Saka was the emphasis, then a more appropriate word for "big" would have been "s*g" that meant "numerous;" "mah" would have been "moon." See generally, D.N. Mackenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

To understand what Herodotus meant by the name Massagetae should be left to Herodotus to answer. The same way that Herodotus did not refer to Saka Tigraxauda and Saka Haumavarga by their Persian names (he used Orthocorybantes and Amyrgian instead), one should not expect him to have referred to Massagetae by their Persian name either. At best, Massagetae was Greek for a nation that was known to the Achaemenians by another name, as one finds no direct by-name reference to a group called Massagetae in Achaemenian records. However, according to Herodotus, the Massagetae lived in the plains east of the Caspian Sea and the Amyrgian Saka also inhabited a plain. Arguably, because the word "nomas" in Greek means pasture, the label Massagetae may have referred to the pastoral Saka.

The fourth factor that intimates a connection between the Massagetae and Haumavarga is the place of milk in their cultures. "Milk is what they chiefly drink," wrote Herodotus [I: 216] of the Massagetae. For the Haumavarga the importance of milk would have been in connection with the preparation of hom, which according to the Avesta [Hom Yasht, Yasna 10: 13] was mixed with milk. If a nation is called "consumer of hom" and uses milk to mix with it, then it is easy to see how milk in the Saka Haumavarga tradition too would be a chief drink.

The key to the etymological significance of "Massagetae" is likely in Massagetae being a Greek rendition of Haumavarga -- in which "hauma" appeared in the form of the first syllable "ma" and Saka was represented in "sagetae" or "saketae". Therefore, Herodotus' Massagetae was a corruption of the name "Hauma Saka."

The synonymy of Massagetae with Saka Haumavarga situates the latter on the eastern littoral of the Caspian Sea. This relocation is significant in that it provides a rational basis for the reference to the "Saka of the marshes" and "Saka of the plains" in Darius' Egyptian hieroglyphs [Susa statue and Suez stele]. The "Saka of the marshes" were depicted in relation to a watershed resembling a lagoon-looking shape (diagramed like a stomach) with rivers connecting to it, just like the Caspian would have appeared to the ancient geographers. For that reason the "Saka of the marshes" (or later "Saka of the waters") would have been the ones inhabiting this region east of the Caspian. By the same token, the "Saka of the plains" referenced in Darius' hieroglyphs would have been the Saka who inhabited the plains of Central Asia and farther to the east of Jaxartes. It was no coincidence therefore that the mentioning of Saka Haumavarga by Darius preceded the mention of the farther Saka Tigraxauda, just as the nearer "Saka of the marshes" were mentioned before the distant Saka of the plains.

The relocation of Saka Haumavarga (Amyrgian and Massagetae of Herodotus) to a region immediately east of the Caspian Sea is consistent with Darius' scheme of imperial administration. According to Herodotus, the method of administration employed by the Medes and later adopted by the Persians was to rule directly their immediate neighbors and then let the neighbors rule the peoples and lands farther out [I:134]. When Darius smote the Saka Tigraxauda he appointed for them another chief. While it is not said whom he appointed to the task, it is significant to note that in Darius' records after the campaign - such as at Susa and Naqshi Rustam -- the name Saka Haumavarga preceded the Saka Tigraxauda. This would have made perfect sense within the linear administrative method: The Saka Haumavarga, who were closer to the Persian heartland (east of the Caspian) were put in charge of Saka Tigraxauda farther away in the plains beyond Soghdia in Central Asia.

Etymology of Saka
The Skudra were the Saka (Scythians) who inhabited the Black Sea/Balkan region. The late Oswald Szemerenyi believed that the Skudra got their name from skeu and skuda, meaning 'archer,' because of their facility as archers, capable of fighting on horseback with bows and arrows (Szemerenyi, pp. 16, 19). This agility with bows-and-arrows did not impress the Persians, however, as the Persians themselves were equally skillful at riding and archery. The Persians chose to called them Saka instead.

The term Saka was explained by Szemerenyi as meaning 'nomad' in Persian, from the stem sak- meaning 'go, roam,' 'wanderer and roamer' (p. 45). This interpretation fitted conveniently with the description given by the Greek historian Strabo (d. ca. 25 AD) about the Skuthai [(......)], who lived east of the Caspian Sea and beyond Jaxartes, as nomad [(......)]. As convenient as this is, Szemerenyi's conclusion does not square with two general observations.

First -- If sak indeed had meant nomad in Persian then why was it not used to describe other peoples in that meaning? If indeed the Achaemenians used the term Saka to refer to the people north of the settled areas (Szemerenyi, p. 44), then why is it that in Xerxes' Daiva Inscription (XPh:26) the term Saka did not qualify the name of Daha, a nomadic people who also inhabited the area east of the Caspian? In contrast with Greek and Assyrian city civilizations, among the Persians, themselves being relatively recently settled in southwestern Persia, nomadic tribes were a common phenomenon. By the time of Cyrus, according to Herodotus (I: 125), the Persian nation consisted of many tribes among which four were nomads, including the aforementioned Daha [Daa].

Second -- While it is true as a matter of human geography that Saka were nomadic, there is no independent etymological reason however to conclude, as did Szemerenyi (p. 45), that the word "Saka is nomad" or that sak meant "roam." Yet this interpretation persists because the study of the nomenclature of Saka, in my opinion, has been overly restrained by the assumption that the name must have derived from some sk- or sak-based root or stem. The culprit in part has been the appearance of the noun Sak in writings found in Kashgar dating to 2nd century BC, even though the later pronunciation of the same in Chinese writings were Sö and Sai. See Bailey, p. 1230; Mallory & Mair, p. 91.

I believe, in the area of etymology of Saka, an alternative explanation is offered by the proto-stem sa and this is suggested entirely by Darius' own inscriptions.

In the place-names that populate Darius' inscriptions, six end in the sound ka. In addition to Saka, they are Kuganaka, a town in Persia, Zraka [Drangiana/Sistan], Maka [Makran], Katpatuka [Cappadocia/East Central Anatolia] and Karka [Caria/Southwest Anatolia]. In Xerxes' place-names I also note Akaufaka (XPh: 27). I focus on Zraka and Maka to illustrate my point.

In Avestan, Zra meant lake. See, for example, Yasht 19 (Zamyad) [Hymn to the Earth], part 9, section 66 [zrayo]. Wilfred Schoff equated Zraka with both "lake dweller" and "land of lake dweller." See Wilfred H. Schoff, trans., Parthian Stations [from Mansiones Parthicae of Isidorus of Charax Spasini] (London, 1917) (Chicago: Ares, 1976), p. 32 (Zareh: Note to § 17 - Zarangiana). The term zra in the Avesta (Zam Yasht, paragraph 66) is in reference to Lake Kasa at Haetuman (Hirmand/Hilmand/Helmund) River and Zaranj of modern times is in Sistan north of Ab-zareh Lake where the mouth of the Hirmand empties into the lake. Zraka as toponym is noted in DB1: 16 and as ethnic in DNe:9. Then, the suffix ka in Zraka denoted the inhabitant and the country of the inhabitant.

Maka, too, was a compound noun, in which ma meant marsh or muddy swamp, certainly a feature in eastern Makran, in southeast Persia. See Cursetjee M. Cursetjee (b. 1847), The Land of the Date (Reading, England: Garnet Publishing, 1994), p. 22 (relying on Percy Sykes' observation re origin of Makran); Joseph P. Ferrier, Caravan Journeys and Wanderings in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkistan, and Baloochistan, trans. William Jesse, editor H.D. Seymour (London: Murray, 1856), p. 428, editor's footnote re meshila (as in Meshila-Seistan, Lake Seistan) which in Arabic meant "muddy swamp." In Darius' hieroglyphs Maka is represented by two symbols -- the familiar owl for ma and the symbol for ka (DSuez: 23; D.Susa.Statue: 23). There is no notation for mak as a morpheme. While the term Maka appeared as a place-name (BD1: 17), men from Maka were denoted as Makiya (DNa: 30). Curiously, the hieroglyph for "Saka of the marshes" contains no diagram of the sound ma, but rather the topographical feature is denoted by a symbol resembling a reservoir or watershed.

As a matter of etymology then Szemerenyi's Saka could be made to have meant 'nomad' in Persian only if the proto-stem sa was connected to the essence of nomas that, at least, in Greek was 'pasture,' which one, the nomad, sought by wandering from place to place. See Oxford English Dictionary. Compact edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971 [nomad, q.v.]. Certainly, labels that placed the Saka at paradraya and in marshes and plains tell us something about their preferred habitat. From Darius' records, we know in general terms that Saka lived near bodies of water and in the plains. The Saka who dwelled in the European region that Darius invaded in 513 BC inhabited a land that was level, watered by intersection of many rivers and streams, and abounded in pasture. This topography, as described by Herodotus, favored their need for military security (torch-and retreat across rivers) and subsistence on cattle (IV: 46-47). The Saka were by all indications pastoral.

If one where to believe that the term Saka was made up of sa and ka, just like Zra+ka, then what topographical feature would sa represent? I am inclined to believe that sa in Old Persian meant something. One place to look for its meaning, I surmise, is in the Avesta itself. After all, the Saka were an Iranian people and, in the words of Rice (The Scythians, p. 39), the language spoken by them was "basically an Iranian tongue, but it may have been more closely allied to Avestic then [sic] to ancient Persian.*" The Avestan words like asanghamca (land), asasca (district) and asanghamca (region), for example, uniformly referred to places with fields, pastures and abodes with springs of water. Yasna 1:16 (asanghamca=land), Yasna 2:16 (asasca=districts) and Yasna 3:18 (asanghamca=region).

The availability of the suffix ka as a locative indicator in Old Persian permits a different interpretation for the term Haumavarka, in which avar or var would have signified raising or bringing forth the subject hom. In today's Persian bar continues to mean "bear," "produce," or "be laden."

In conclusion -- Can it not be then that sa meant 'pasture' or grassland in Old Persian? The acceptance of this definition will then open the mystery of the place-name Zadrakarta. This was the capital of Hyrcania (Mazandaran and Astarabad) in Achaemenian times and it was where the governor of Hyrcania-Parthia tendered his submission to Alexander. See A. B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 98; Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander, translated by John Yardley, with introduction and notes by Waldemar Heckel (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1984), p.125 (Quintius Curtius, Book 4:23) and note corresponding with endnote 23. It is identified with present-day area of Gorgan. See Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda, Loghat-Nameh [Dictionary] (Tehran: Tehran University, 1946), vol. 27, p. 23;  Masih Zabihi, "Yaddashatha-i darbareh-e jografiya-i tarikhi-e Gorgan" [Notes on the Historical Geography of Gorgan] in Masih Zabihi, Gogan-Nameh [Book of Gorgan] 2nd ed. (Iraj Afshar, ed.) (Tehran: Entesharat-e Babak 1363/1993-94): 28-66, p. 61;  But see, E. Badian, "Alexander in Iran," in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2 (Ilya Gershevitch, ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985): 420-501, p. 451 (estimates Zadracarta to be possibly Sari); Soroush Sepehri, "Gorgan va Shahnameh-e Ferdowsi" [Gorgan in Ferdowsi's Book of Kings], in Asad-Allah Imadi, ed., Bazkhani-i Tarikh-i Mazandaran [History of Mazandaran: A Reappraisal] (Sari: Farhangkhaneh Mazandaran, 1372/1994): 99-115, p. 99 (equates it with present day Gonbad-e Qabus, northeast of Gorgan).

Phonetically at least, in the name one hears the echo of the proto-toponym Sa-karta [= village of Saka], where karta in Old Persian of the Achaemenians meant "village," as in a karta Abiradush nama (a village named Abiradu) in Susa Inscription (Darius Sf, line 46). Consequently, I am inclined to believe that the place-name related to "sa" -- meaning pasture, grassland. That a village could be called "Sa-karta" - i.e., village of pastures -- is not far-flung (viz. Sabzevar in Khorasan). It is then that the people who hailed from Sakarta came to be known to the Achaemenians as Saka, for short.

Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk ( Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features in

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