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Central Asia

Saka Groups

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 17 July 2022

The Sakas were seemingly vast in number. This is not entirely surprising seeing as the label 'Saka' was used for just about all of the Indo-Iranian tribes of Central Asia in the first millennium BC to the north of the Jaxartes.

It was not until the arrival in the region of the Achaemenids under Cyrus the Great and then the Greeks in the form of Alexander the Great that the Sakas entered the historical record and at least some of their groups or tribes were documented - albeit not always clearly.

Those groups can be detailed here in chronological order of appearance.

Amyrgians

The Amyrgian subset of Sakas in particular were fairly well attested, after coming into contact with both the Achaemenids (who called them Sakaibish) and the Greeks under Alexander.

They were apparently centred on the Amyrgian plain which equates to all of Ferghana and also the Alai valley - well to the east of most of the Sakas.

They accompanied Alexander on campaign, under their 'King Omarg', and later entered India along with the Kambojas to found a kingdom in Gandhara (now in northern Pakistan), displacing the ailing Indo-Greek kings.

Tigraxauda

The Tigraxauda name is commonly translated as 'pointed caps' thanks to the headdress worn by members of this group.

They appear to have been nearest the Persian border during the eastern campaigns of Darius the Great, having been noted as fleeing from his advance.

By the fourth century it seems possible to be able to equate the Tigraxauda name with that of the Orthocorybantes. They would appear to be one and the same, but the name change cannot simply be put down to poor research on the part of the ancient authors.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis
Saka Tikrakhauda (otherwise known as 'Scythians' who in this case can be more precisely identified as Sakas) depicted on a frieze at Persepolis in Achaemenid Persia, which would have been the greatest military power in the region at this time


Haumavarga

Then Darius crossed a river which was probably the Syr Darya - the Jaxartes or River Tanais - after crossing Suguda, and 'smote the Saka exceedingly', slaying their chief. This would be the Haumavarga.

The origin of their name is taken to mean that they practiced haoma-drinking. Haoma - the soma of Rigveda - is a medicinal and health-giving extract which comes from plants and which is associated with ancient Zoroastrian healing practices.

The shift between soma and haoma is another example of the 's' to 'sh' to 'h' shift which can be seen between Indo-Aryans and Indo-Iranians. More than just medicinal, haoma appears to have been psychotropic in nature if the Rigveda is read correctly.

Guive Mirfendereski at the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies equates the Massagetae with the Haumavarga (but not the Tigraxauda?), suggesting that Herodotus had produced 'Massagetae' as his own Greek pronunciation of Haumavarga and Amyrgian to describe a specific group of Haumavarga.

Map of Bactria and India 200 BC
The kingdom of Bactria (shown in white) was at the height of its power around 200-180 BC, with fresh conquests being made in the south-east, encroaching into India just as the Mauryan empire was on the verge of collapse, while around the northern and eastern borders dwelt various tribes which would eventually contribute to the downfall of the Greeks - the Sakas and Greater Yuezhi (click or tap on map to view full sized)


Paradraya

The third of the early Saka 'nations' was that of the Paradraya.

This name breaks down into 'para' and 'draya', the first part meaning 'across' and the latter almost certainly being 'darya' or 'river'.

When Darius boasted of the limits of his empire he gave as the north-eastern corner the 'Sakaibish tyaiy para Sugdam' - the Sakas across/beyond Suguda, on the other side of the Syr Darya, which forms the boundary between Suguda and Scythia.

Dahae

Later groups were noted in the fifth century by Xerxes and others. The region known as Daha was added to the empire, the name coming from 'daai' or 'daae', meaning 'men', perhaps in the sense of brigands.

Daha or Dahae would appear to be the region on the eastern flank of the Caspian Sea, bordered by the Tigraxauda to the north. This contained a confederation of three tribes, the Parni, the Pissuri, and the Xanthii.

With the latter, the 'x' in Xanthii has a 'ks' sound which is interchangeable with 'sk' in place of the 'x', possibly providing 'skanth' which can also be seen in the region name ' Skudra'. It turns out that the Xanthii may have been a branch of the Sakas and Scythians (for an examination of the Saka/Scythian name itself, see the related links in the sidebar).

Homodotes

In the 280s BC, the Greek explorer and satrap, Demodamas, undertook military expeditions across the Syr Darya to explore the lands of the Sakas.

From his material, and that recorded by Megasthenes around a generation before, another group of Sakas could be perceived at this time, known as the Homodotes (Pliny's Homodoti, a term which is based originally on the work of Demodamas). This group is one of a list of regionally neighbouring tribes called the Astacae, Rumnici, and Pestici).

The Homodotes were located in the (northern) Emod and at the headwaters of the Oxus (the Amu Darya).

Kushan king sculpture

A second century statue either of a Kushan king or of Surya, opinion is divided, now in the Mathura Museum in India, the very city the Sakas ended up commanding following their defeat by the Kushans

 

Main Sources

R C Majumdar - Ancient India (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987)

L Prasad - Studies in Indian History (Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000)

Guive Mirfendereski - A theory proposed in the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

Marcus Junianus Justinus, John Yardley, & Waldemar Heckel - Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (Books 11-12, Volume 1)

Satyendra Nath Naskar - Foreign Impact on Indian Life and Culture (c.326 BC to c.300 AD)

K D Bajpai - Indian Numismatic Studies

P N Chopra & B N Puri - A Comprehensive History of Ancient India

J M Cook - The Persian Empire (1983)

René Grousset - The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia (1970)

Ctesias of Cnidus - Persica (original work lost but a section is repeated by Photius in ninth century AD Constantinople)

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

J Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

I P'iankov - The Ethnic [Background] of [the] Sakas (Scythians) (presented by the Iran Chamber Society)

Ancient History Encyclopaedia (dead link)

K E Eduljee - Zoroastrian Heritage

World History Maps - Talessman's Atlas

 

 

     
Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.