The Sarmatians

Part of the Legend of King Arthur?

Paul V. Hartman

The Sarmatians ("sar-MAISH-ee-ens") were derived from, and very much akin to, the much better known Scythians, with both groups dwelling side by side in Southern Russia near modern Iran in the period 600 BC to about 500 AD. They were a nomadic steppe culture which traveled in wagons and lived in yurts when temporarily settled. They were excellent horsemen, and like the Scythians, used females in their military: about a fifth of all Sarmathian burials show females with armor and weapons. This is thought to be the origin of tales of female warriors named "Amazons".

Herodotus described them as "blond, stout, and tanned." They were "milk-eaters" as was much of the people of the steppes. They wore long flowing robes. They did not have a ready source of iron and so were limited in this capacity, but they owned Lots of horses. They made weapons and armor from horses hooves: indeed, their armor was made of layers of "scales" of hooves, which is part of the notion that they were "reptilian". (Along with their description as having "small eyes".) Their principal weapon was the compound bow, and they were especially good at using the lasso. All the people of the Steppes were good with compound bows, and the Mongols would prove to be the ultimate war machine, using highly skilled mounted archers with this weapon.

The place of the Sarmatians in history has been preserved in the notion that they played a pivotal role in the saga of King Arthur. The Romans in the 2nd Century AD, in addition to fighting nearly everyone non-Roman at every compass point, were also fighting tribesmen in Southern Russia: Sarmatians and Scythians, who were all good horsemen. Marcus Aurelius took 3,000 defeated Sarmatians and sent them as a regiment to Britain.

The Sarmatians had a history of veneration for a sword stuck in a stone! While in Briton they fought under an officer named Lucius Artorius Castus. (his men would greet him with the middle name as "Artorius") As cavalry, they carried a wind-soc banner shaped like a dragon ("Draco") which produced a loud roar in the wind. Obviously, the local Britons took notice.

So we have dragons and a sword stuck in stone, but there's more:

In their home country, the Sarmatians had smiths who made unique swords, with either (it isn't clear which) a whitish color or a high sheen. Caliburn is the modern form of chalybus (steel) joined with eburnus (white). Wow. White Steel = Caliburn, which is Excalibur. Artorius is Arthur? Hmmm.

The Sarmatian/Artorius combination in this instance is much earlier - by a couple hundred years - than the period of Arthur, which we figure to be somewhere in the range between 460 - 540 AD. But the need for a hero of great substance was large in a people - the Britons - no longer protected by the Romans. An enhanced history to that of Arthur would not have been unexpected. Did Artorius have a son? Seems likely.

The culture of the Sarmatians was extinguished by the arrival of the Huns.

As regards their neighbors to the East, it is said about the Scythians that those females selected for battle would cut off ("burn off" may be more accurate) in their youth, the right breast, as it was an encumbrance to the use of the bow when mounted. Although this seems bizarre, there is some evidence for the truth in it.

A "compound bow" differed from the conventional English bow which was straight limbed and made of Yew. The compound bow was made from wood layered with the ancient substitutes for plastic: sinew and horn. The limbs of such a bow, above and below the handle, were curved outward at rest, and when strung, unfolded into a harp-like structure. When the bow was drawn, the curved tips would unwind to extreme, and when the string was released, would rapidly seek their natural curve, adding immense power to the thrust of the bow.

Indeed, the English bow depended on the length of its wooden limbs for strength - the longer, the stronger (the "Long" bow) - and a very strong man to draw it back. The composite bow drew energy from uncoiling those sinew and horn tips, and could therefore be very short (ideal for horseback), and drawn by small men. Or women.

To know the history and culture of the Scythians is to know that of the Sarmatians. But there is no Scythian legend in England of any kind, including a sword named Caliburn. That part goes to their neighbors, the Sarmatians.

Well, with that as cover, you can now dig deeper into the history and legends of this almost vanished people.

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