Mutations

Snake-legged goddess (perhaps the Mixoparthenos), gold plaque. Greek work, mid-4th c. BC, from the Kul Oba kurgan, from here

The Scythians, these nomadic horsemen of Iranian origin (their closest living language relative is the Ossetian, which belongs to the Eastern New Iranian group) appeared around the 7th century BC to the north of the Black Sea, and by ousting the Kimmerians they soon occupied the region between the Carpathians and the Caucasus. By the late Middle Ages their memory – together with that of the Sarmatians and Huns – only survived in obscure Central European origin myths. For the ancient and medieval Europe, their name usually meant for a long time all the nomadic peoples coming from the East (although in this respect even Herodotus’ wording is not very clear), and the Akkadian version (askuza/iskuza), which went over into biblical Hebrew in the form of אשכנז ashkenaz, would indicate the Central European Jews in the diaspora.

When they appear, however, they are the “first barbarians” in the history of Europe, the first Asian nomadic people described in detail by western sources, especially Herodotus. The customs attributed to the Scythians, also reported by Herodotus in the fourth book of his History (such as making a drinking cup from the enemy’s skull), later become topoi in the ancient and medieval European literature, and we will also find them in the descriptions of other nomadic peoples from the East.

The Mixoparthenos from the lapidary of Kerch.
From the current great Crimean exhibition of the LVR-Landesmuseum, Bonn.

Herodotus narrates several Scythian origin myths, including one told to him “by the Hellenes living along the Pontus”. This story says that Heracles, while driving the cattle of Geryon in the territory of the future Scythia, lost his horses in a snowstorm. In search of them, he arrived at a land called Hylaia, where in a cave he met the Mixoparthenos, the queen of the region. The being with a female upper body and a snake-like lower body let him know that the horses are at her, but in exchange for their return, the hero had to sleep with her. Heracles finally begets three sons – Agathyrsus, Gelonus and Scythes – to the Mixoparthenos, and tells her, that whichever of the three would be able to bend his father’s bow and could put on his belt, would deserve to be the king of the region. This will be the youngest son, Scythes, ancestor of the kings of Scythia, while the Scythians, “to commemorate the drinking bowl hanging from Heracles’ belt, still wear drinking bowl on their belts.”

The eighth mission of Heracles: to seize the man-eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. Coin of Sauromates II, King of Bosporus, 2nd c. AD. Source.

The siren-like creature of this mixed story, including both Greek and eastern elements, as Neal Ascherson points out, soon would become a symbol, that of the Bosporan Kingdom embracing the Greek colonies along the northern Black Sea coast and having a mixed, Greek-Scythian-Thracian culture, as well as of its capital, Pantikapaion (today Kerch), until its destruction in the 4th century AD. However, Ascherson also mentions an even more interesting survival of the Mixoparthenos:

“But the Mixoparthenos lived on in another, entirely practical way. She became a handle. Her slender body, curving outwards but held in again at head and serpent-legs, became an ornamental lug baked onto the rims of pottery cups, riveted or welded to the necks of bronze and glass vessels. She remained nameless but useful long after her city had burned down and her children had left history.

No longer recognised, the Mother of the Scythians still lives among us. The other day, in one of the old Habsburg railway stations in Budapest, I felt something unusual as I pulled open the heavy double-door of the ticket-office. There in my hand, in worn-away brass polished by millions of travellers, was a naked woman divided below her navel into two coiled serpents.” (Neal Ascherson: The Black Sea)


Not Budapest, but looks like. The door handle of the Virginia Center for Architecture, from here

But I looked in vain for its traces in the railway stations in Budapest, the Mixoparthenos could not be found. The door-handle seen by Ascherson probably has been replaced. But even so it has not disappeared without a trace. Although its figure has merged with the common sirens (more closely, their two-tailed version, the melusina), the Scythian matriarch ending in a two-tailed snake still can be seen today, namely in a highly unusual place, the logo of the Starbuck coffee houses.

The siren of the Starbucks logo gradually became more and more “shy”. See about this the article by the Odessa-born Michael Krakovskiy.