Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Steppe Nomad Symbolism for SCA Armory

   I’ve talked about tamgas being a heraldic tradition of steppe nomads before, but what if your particular culture and time didn’t have tamgas, didn’t use them as heraldry, or you just don't want one? There are still plenty of ways to make your Western-style armory reflect your steppe persona. Just think about symbolism that would have been important to your culture and put that on your device or badge. Mine their art for ideas as well as thinking about their modes of life.
    Below are some ideas. Can you think of any others? Add them in the comments!

    Steppe nomads were not exactly a peaceful lot. They raided, they were mercenaries, they fought against empires that threatened them… They also got a lot of their sustenance from hunting. Bows (think Mongol-type bows, not longbows) and arrows were used both for hunting and in combat (Parthian shots ftw!). Some Sarmatian tribes, like the Iazyges, used long lances in combat. Swords and daggers were also prolific (swords in particular held strong symbolic significance for some, such as the Alans). When you emblazon them, just pick the type your persona would have had. Sarmatians were known for swords with little to no guard and ring pommels. They also had dirks which they carried in sheaths strapped to their thighs rather than hanging from their belts as Westerners would have done.
Ring pommels were popular between the 2nd cent. BC and 2nd cent. AD around the Black Sea and Hungarian Plain. They were usually 50-60 cm long, and sometimes had semi-precious stones set in the rings. These are from the Odessa Archeological Museum. (Brzezinski and Mielczarek, 2002)

    What would your persona wear? What type of kaftan did their culture have? Were their boots distinctive? What about hats? What type of armor did they wear? Any torques or other commonly-worn accessories? All of these are possible charges.

    People are not common in armory- partially because most don’t care for them as charges and partially because they’re harder to draw/sew/embroider/etc… for most. If you do like them, though, you can have people standing around, people riding horses, people shooting bows, etc… Just give them the sort of racial features and proportions your nomads would have had, dress them up in their clothes, and make any other accoutrements persona-appropriate.
Models of dwellings from
Kirch, Crimea circa 600 BC.
(Andrews, 1999)

Wagons and Tents
    Steppe nomads did not simply sleep on the ground or in a bedroll; they had wagons and tents (which or what they look like depends on your persona). You could have a tent or wagon simply placed on your device, show them being drawn or carried by horses, cattle, or camels, or you could have multiples arranged to symbolize an encampment (heraldic options for this are semy, in orle, a semy on a bordure, or in a train (try “on a fess, x wagons/pack animal”).
    The single most important animal in a steppe nomad’s life is their horse. They are transportation, source of dairy, indicator of wealth and status, pack animals, mount during hunting or combat- everything. This makes them an extremely appropriate charge for a steppe nomad’s armory. 
Running deer from: 1-2)The Ukraine,
3-5) Russia, 6) Iran, 7) Kazakhstan,
8) Mongolia. (Lebydynsky, 2011)

    Early steppe nomads- both Iranian and Altaic- really like deer as art subjects. This wonderful figure from Lebedensky’s Tamga book illustrates the uniformity of just one deer motif. They sculpted, painted, and sewed them standing, lying down, being attacked by predators, with their legs turned 180 degrees (registering that might be hairy, though you could display it that way), and running. In Western (and SCA) heraldry, courant invokes the image of legs extended, but the steppe depiction is the moment in the stride where the legs are tucked under the body.

    Griffins are of huge importance to Iranian steppe nomads. Unlike later Western griffins, it isn’t simply the back half of a lion glued onto the front half of an eagle with ears. You take something that looks like a lioness (or maneless male lion), add bird wings, a beak, pointy, feathery ears, and a fish-fin type crest running down the length of its neck. If you want to get really fancy, have it vulning (standing on top of and attacking) a deer or ibex. Depending on your culture, the deer’s legs may or may not be twisted 180 degrees from the front of the body.

Phalera with two Bactrian camels.
Bronze, Filippovka, 4th cent. BC.
(The Golden Deer of Eurasia)
They have pompadour mullets!
    Camels were (and are) important to many Altaic nomads. A fairly common theme that you see in nomadic art is two Bactrian camels with fangs standing side-by-side and biting each others' back legs. I seriously doubt that particular pose could be registered, but the “combatant” pose was created with the intention to show animals attacking one another, so try registering that instead (the word may be changed to “respectant” during registration since they’re herbivorous). Alternatively, you could have them standing and facing one another (statant respectant). Then when you display it, shift it to the form more appropriate to your persona.

    You don’t often see unique chimerical monsters in SCA heraldry, but they do exist and are completely registrable (there are currently 37 registered). You just have to blazon the different parts they’re made of. Some steppe nomads left behind depictions of chimerical monsters. The most common example it to start with either a deer or a horse. Say you have a deer- you can give it a bird beak. You may put stylized griffin heads on the ends of its antler tines. The blazon would read something like "a monster composed of the beak of an eagle and the body of a deer, with antler tines ending in gryphon heads". If you start with a horse instead, you do the same thing while adding deer antlers.
In steppe terms, this is a lion-headed, goat-horned gryphon (with front leg proportions more akin to a goat, but still ending in paws). Because of the difference between medieval gryphons and early steppe gryphons, this chimaera would be better blazoned as "a bird-winged monster composed of an ounce's head, paws, hindquarters, and tail, a goat's horns, ears, and forequarters, and a dragon's neck" if you want to register something like this in the SCA. It could be taken to be couchant (lying down) or sejant erect (sitting, but with front legs raise), but make it more obviously one or the other for registration purposes. It's wings are addorsed and inverted if you want to blazon that detail. Remember that steppe art involves squishing and stretching things to fit the space.
From a scabbard made by a Greek with Scythian designs and for a Scythian. Gold, PLACE, TIME. (From the Lands of the Scythians)
 What Not to Have
   Once you've come up with a steppe-themed charge, you might find that you want to put a little bit more on your device but don't want the rest of the obviously steppe options. Instead, you might find yourself flipping through the PicDic or medieval armorials for possible charges. What should you avoid if you want it to still make sense for a nomad? Big ships, for one- horse nomads have no reason to go sailing (unless you want to be one of those Iazyges who went to what's now England, or an Alan who crossed Gibraltar to raid with the Goths, but those were one-off trips). That's not to say they didn't fish in rivers or any of the seas in or near the steppes- you can occasionally find a zoomorphic fish- but big whales? No. Pelagic fish? No. Also avoid any objects which postdate your particular culture or that they never would have encountered. Maunches, for example- the angel-armed sleeves- are not from a time or place in which they could be encountered by a Saka. Farming implements (aside from some involved in animal husbandry) would also be uncharacteristic. If your persona didn't have a written language, books and quill pens wouldn't make much sense. Unless you have evidence that a steppe nomad encountered tales or depictions of New World fauna, it would be best to avoid them considering how temporally and geographically restricted knowledge of them was in SCA period. These are just a few examples. Basically, just do your homework and use your best judgement when picking charges not specific to steppe nomads. :)

One Final Note
   Keep in mind with all of these that if a steppe nomad motif looks much different from the Western standard, there is the risk of it not being registered if submitted as such. I’m not saying it couldn’t, but keep in mind that typical SCA heralds have to be able to blazon it consistently. Stylized zoomorphic art has been registered in the past, but so far as I know it isn't anymore, so definitely avoid that aspect when drawing for submission. When it comes time to display your armory, though, show everyone your steppe persona!

From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the USSR, 3000 BC-100BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol 32, no. 5, 1975.

The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Brzezinski, R, and Mielczarek, M, 2002, Men-at-Arms: The Sarmatians 600BC-450AD, Osprey publishing.

Andrews, P, 1999, Felt Tents and Pavilions, Melisende UK Ltd.

Lebydynsky, I, 2011, Les Tamgas: Une "Héraldique" de la Steppe, éditions errance.


  1. " A fairly common theme that you see in nomadic art is two Bactrian camels with fangs standing side-by-side and biting each others' back legs."

    I will never be able to get the idea of vampire camels out of my head again. 0.0

    1. Heheh To be fair, they do actually have some wicked canines. http://svpow.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/dscn5616-paris-camel-mark-evans.jpeg

  2. oh, i took care of some alpacas and that is exactly how the males fight for dominance: they interlock legs and necks, bite each others' back legs, and it looks just like wrestling. The owner said they were trying to bite each others' testicles off. I bet you could find some video of this. Alpacas have long front incisors but only the bottoms. The top of the mouth has a calloused pad of gums where the teeth should be. Camels may be the same.

    1. Oh cool! Well...not for the alpacas...
      Nope, they don't. Lacking upper incisors is a camelid thing. I don't know if it goes farther down the tree to any of their extinct relatives. If I find my artiodactyl morphology book I'll be able to answer that.