Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What's a Sarmatian and why did I choose to be one?

If you've heard of the Sarmatians, and haven't learned a lot about history beyond what a standard US world history book deems worthy of mention, it's probably because of the 2004 incarnation of King Arthur. They used the  idea that Sarmatians were the main origin of the King Arthur story to the point that the Knights of the Round Table (Sir Lancelot foremost among them) were portrayed as Sarmatian horsemen in the Roman army (a few Arthurian scholars accept this, most don't; more on this later).

 The most basic thing you should know about the Sarmatians is that "Sarmatian" is a collective term for some of the Indo-Iranian nomadic tribes of horsemen who inhabited the steppes of the southwest areas of the Soviet Union from about 600BC to 450 AD. They spoke a language in the Northeastern Iranian group, whose only representatives spoken today are Ossetic (directly descended from the Scytho-Sarmatian dialects) and Yaghnobi. Sarmatians raided neighboring areas for much of their history, making some tribes a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire. Other Sarmatian tribes joined the Roman legions. They used bows and lances, wore scale mail made of horses hooves or bronze, and lived in wagons. Over the centuries, they were largely driven westward by the Goths and the Huns until they eventually melded with other groups and disappeared as a distinct people.

 I spent the entire summer after my first fighter practice researching various cultures to find the one that felt right for me. At that point fighting was my main interest. I wanted to be authentic in that whatever culture I picked, I, not being male, would have fought had I actually belonged to it. I spent days sifting through every pre-16th century culture whose name I could come across until I found references to the idea that Sarmatians are as a possible source for the legends of the Amazons (more on that later, as well). Turns out some Sarmatian burial sites have female skeletons dressed like male warriors. It was perfect! I continued sifting through other cultures, but they ended up being the only ones with a prominent history of female warriors.

Abaev, VI, A Grammatical Sketch of Ossetian, trans. Stephen P. Hill, ed. Herbert H. Paper, 1964. 
Anthony, DW, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, Princeton University Press, 2007
Brezinski, R, and Mielczarek, M,  Men at Arms:The Sarmatians 600BC-450AD, Osprey Publishing, 2002.


  1. I had the same feeling about being a female fighter which is why I chose to go with an Early Period Persona, also.

  2. So that's where the Amazon legend sprung from! (Maybe ;) Interesting. Not many cultures where women could become fighters!

  3. Yup. :) I'll have to double-check my notes, but I think 20% of the warriors found in burial sites are female. The legend is that the Amazons at some point settled down with the Scythian males they were visiting and became the Sarmatians. That's probably just myth, but the two tribal conglomerates are actually related.

    1. Hi,I am Fabio from Naples, South of Italy.
      Congratulations for this excellent blog.
      I'm interested too in Sarmatian culture and I,m fascinated by the possible Sarmatian origin of Arthurian legends. My family name is Serpico and, in according to Hungarian scholar Gregor Bihari, is by Sarmatian origin (because of the sorbian/serbic prefix Srp - see Srpska for example).
      Go on this brilliant way.
      Best wishes and greetings from Sothern Italy.

    2. Hi, and thanks!
      You've reminded me that I have yet to post about the Sarmatian Hypothesis of Arthurian origin. I think that'll be my next one.

    3. kasdesign@hotmail.comJuly 17, 2014 at 11:29 AM

      I am so happy to have found this ....and you!!! I am fairly new to SCA and had decided to take a Sarmatian persona . I too am from Kingdom of Calontir and feel a bit lonely in my choice of time and persona but it so fits who I am a warrior woman "amazon". I hope we can meet sometime. I do archery and equine events in SCA. So glad to have found this blogsite!!!

  4. Whoohoo! Another Sarmatian Calontiri!
    I don't get to go to a lot of events, unfortunately. The next one I'll go to if I can get a ride is Harpies and Hillians.