NOTE: This essay was written in honor of Mother's Day.
We are fast approaching Mother’s Day weekend. No doubt many of you will be taking your mothers out for brunch and giving them greeting cards expressing your affection. I thought it appropriate to devote this essay to a mother of epic proportions.
Her name was Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae (6th century BCE). She’s actually famous if you know anything about the military squabbles that constitute the bulk of history. For those of you who don’t know about her, you’re in for a treat.
For starters, don’t believe everything you read in Herodotus. I’m sure you’ve heard of Herodotus, the “father of modern history.” Accent on the word “father.” He’s a big ole patriphile, so he tends to report facts from a skewed perspective. Take this line for example: “Each man has but one wife, yet all the wives are held in common; for this is a custom of the Massagetai (sp).” Now if you pick apart the phrasing of that androcentric statement, what you get is that Massagetae women had multiple husbands while the men (gasp!) were restricted to a single wife. The practice is called polyandry and is a pretty good indication of matrilineal kinship. That’s a fancy way of saying everybody traced their descent through their mothers. It was quite common, if not universal in the ancient world, but the custom was dying out by the time Herodotus started writing.
Anyway, Queen Tomyris ruled over this particular clan of steppe nomads and they were a tad scary even to the barbarian tribes that shared the wasteland with them. To illustrate my point, they had a quaint local custom that eliminated the need for retirement homes. If a man lived to a ripe old age, he would be sacrificed to their deities along with some spare live stock. His remains would then be boiled and eaten by the tribe. It was a party! Now mind you, only the fittest codgers could make the cut for this distinctive honor. Anybody who died of disease got buried in the ground while everybody shook their heads at how unlucky he was to miss out on being the main course. As I said, scary people. Not the sort you’d want to mess with.
Unless, of course, you were Cyrus the Great (aka the big noise from Persia) who as the conqueror of the known world considered himself ten feet tall and battle axe-proof. He had already swallowed up every kingdom from modern-day Turkey east to Russia and in 530 BC he decided to take the little patch of earth north of the Amu Darya River (bordering modern day Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) that the Massagetae called home.
First he tried proposing marriage to Tomyris. As a practicing polyandrist, she wasn’t excited by the thought of joining his collection of wives. One husband? Who does that? When she refused, Cyrus commanded his men to build a bridge over the Amu Darya so he could march across and teach those barbarians a lesson.
Tomyris watched his construction project with amusement for a while but she was a woman of action. This bridge-building nonsense could go on for years so the queen sent Cyrus a message. Here’s Herodotus’s version of her note: "If you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetai in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days' march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side of the stream, retire yourself an equal distance." My translation: “Let’s throw down. Your place or mine?”
Her challenge sent Cyrus into a dither of indecision. After consulting with his top advisors, he decided ambush was his best bet. His main army moved a day’s march from the river but he left behind a banquet with all kinds of goodies guarded by his worst soldiers because they were sure to be slaughtered. (Of course, they didn’t know they were arrow fodder but that’s because their wits were as slow as their reflexes.)
Tomyris sent a third of her army in pursuit, led by her own son Spargapises. They made quick work of the arrow fodder and then sat down to a victory nosh. The only problem was that the Massagetae weren’t used to drinking wine. Their favorite highs were hashish and fermented mare’s milk (which might actually go a long way toward explaining their taste for parboiled grandpas.) After guzzling up Cyrus’s best vintage they all got sloppy drunk and fell asleep.
Easy pickings for the Persian army. Most of the Massagetae were killed but Cyrus took Junior captive. Tomyris was understandably upset. She fired off another quick note to the king of Persia. “Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed… Refuse, and I swear by the sun… bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.” (I don’t believe that sentence needs any additional translation.)
Cyrus, of course, didn’t heed her warning. To make matters worse, once Spargapises got over his hangover he was mortified at being captured. The thought of what mom would say was a fate worse than death so he chose death instead. He killed himself.
When this news reached Tomyris, she removed her mittens. It was on. She ordered her army to attack and they cut the Persians to pieces. Cyrus, who had reigned unopposed for twenty nine years, died in the battle. After it was over, Tomyris filled an animal skin with human blood, took Cyrus’s severed head, and dunked it in the gore. Then she said, “I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.” Legend has it that she later scooped out Cyrus’s brains and used his skull as a drinking goblet. It became one of her most prized knick-knacks.
I think the moral of this story is clear. Never come between a mother and her young. Especially if she’s Massagetae. Now that’s what I call maternal instinct!
(To learn more about the steppe nomads and the women who often led them, read Jeannine Kimball-Davis, Warrior Women.)