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Central Asia

What's in a Name - Sakas & Scythians

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 31 May 2019

A name breakdown for the Saka and Scythians (essentially the same name in different forms) is an interesting one to explore.

Sakas were Indo-Europeans (IEs). Specifically they were nomadic Indo-Iranian Central Asian tribes that inhabited the region around the River Jaxartes and Lake Issykkul (or Issyk Kul - located in the Tian Shan Mountains in modern eastern Kyrgyzstan). They were part of a large group of peoples who had formerly lived around the north shores of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea but who gradually expanded into South Asia.

The later Scythians are generally accepted as having a variation of the same name, but in their case home territory remained to the north of the Caspian Sea, and then also the Black Sea as they expanded westwards.

An IE word root which is pretty widespread is the IE 'skei-', meaning 'to cut, separate'. It can be seen in the Latin 'scio' and 'scire', and in the Cymric 'ysgïen', meaning 'knife, sword'. It's also available in Old Indian as 'chidira', meaning 'sword, axe', and is the origin of the tribal name, 'Saxon'.

It is applied as a verb to split or cut, and as a noun to something which splits or cuts or to something that has already been split or cut or which appears to have been. (Even the English and German euphemisms (and modern vulgarities) for 'defecation' appear to derive from it, describing the 'split' in the buttocks from which faeces emerges!).

It would seem likely that 'Saka' and 'Scythian' were derived from the word used for the short sword that was commonly worn by the Ossetians until very recently. Their use of 'skei' became 's[a]ka' to those around them who were able to record them in writing for posterity. The same word, 'skei', became 'scythian'.

Same name, different people?

Whilst that is a pretty easy origin to pin down, what is also does is raise some interesting implications.

One is somewhat wild, unproven, and a bit of a stab in the dark (pun intended), but is also very interesting. Are the Saxons, whose name breaks down as 'sax' plus the plural suffix '-on', meaning 'the knives, the cutters', a case of parallel naming, or are they a branch of the Sakas and Scythians whose name survived in a slightly altered form?

The Germanics already have a notable and noted Indo-Iranian satem-speaking influence in their make-up. Could this be part of it?

The Saxon custom of using the 'sceansax' is tantalising here. Could this have been a continuation of the use of a short stabbing sword by the Sakas, Scythians, and also Alans (more Indo-Iranians)? The oldest short swords to have been used would have to be bronze, allowing an early date for a shared origin of up to 3700 BC and the Maikop culture, prior to the Yamnaya horizon which witnessed the mass Indo-European migrations... That's certainly early enough for it to have been shared amongst most IEs.

The Saxon use of the word and name may have been based on longstanding tradition or a continuation of naming when the Germanics settled in Scandinavia. They wouldn't have remembered their steppe origins by the time the Saxons became known to history, but they may still have revered the short sword/long knife as a very important cultural distinction.

Much as did the Sakas and Scythians before them.

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

Frey & Freya
Sakas & Scythians


Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Cranberry Letters, The - Pre-Proto-Germanic, International Affairs, Language Policy, and History

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Online Sources

Geochronology - Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Proto-Indo-European Etymological Dictionary



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