What was Scythian about the Scythian Diana at Nemi?
Pia Guldager Bilde, January 2004
The main aim of this paper is to ask, when and why Diana Nemorensis in her Central Italian
sanctuary by Lake Nemi was conceived of as the Scythian Artemis/Diana1 and why her cult
was thought to originate in the land of the Taurians.2
The Sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, that is Diana of the Sacred Grove, is situated by Lake
Nemi in the Alban Hills, just 25 km southeast of Rome. It was one of Italys most important
sanctuaries - and certainly one of the largest and richest. Strabon provides us with the longest
and most precise description of it preserved from antiquity (5.3.12):
...to the left of the way as you go up from Aricia, lies the Artemisium, which they call
Nemus. The temple of the Arician [Artemis], they say, is a copy of the Tauropolos. And
in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the
people set up as priest merely a run-away slave who has slain with his own hand the man
previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a
sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself (translation: H.L.
We shall return to the sanctuary at Nemi and its cult later. But first: who was Strabons
Tauropolos, and why did he describe the cult in the Sanctuary of Diana by Lake Nemi as having
barbaric and Scythian elements?
From Parthenos to Tauropolos
1Ov. Met. 14.331; Strab. 5.3.12; Luc. Bell. Civ. 3.86; Solin. 2.10-11; Pseudoacron Hor. Carm. 1.7.10. 2Serv. Verg. Aen., 6.136; 7.764; Solin. 2.10-11; Pseudoacron Hor. Carm. 1.7.10.
There can be no doubt that Strabon based his particular combination of the elements barbarian,
Scythian, Tauropolos, human sacrifice and Diana (Artemis) on Euripides play Iphigenia
in Tauris (IT) written in 412 BC or slightly earlier. As is well known this play describes how
Iphigenia administered the sinister cult of a Taurian goddess on the southern shore of the Crimea.
Euripides description of the Taurian deity and her cult in turn drew on Herodotos story of the
Taurian Parthenos (4.103) created a few decennia earlier, in the third quarter of the 5th century
BC (or on a source common to both of them).
Euripides elaborated on Herodotos (or his sources) providing new facets to the story, first
of all an interpretatio graeca of the deity: she is now furnished with the name of a Greek
goddess (Artemis), though the reference to her being called Parthenos (v. 1230, as in Herodotos)
is also given. But also the way the human sacrifice is described is more in line with Greek
sacrificial practice than is Herodotos description. In IT the victim is first sprinkled with water
and then stabbed with a sword, not, as in Herodotos, struck on the head with a club. But of
particular importance to our discussion of the later reception of the deity are the two new epithets
for her, tauropolos and elaphochthonos, which do not occur in Herodotos.
The closing lines of IT reveal Euripides main aim with his play: to explain the rites in
the Sanctuary of Artemis at Halai Araphnides3 that included a symbolic human offering.
Euripides plays frequently ended with an aetiological myth. At Halai Araphnides, probably
modern Loutsa in Attica, there was a famous temple dedicated to (Artemis) Tauropolos, which is
also known from inscriptions.4 Euripides must have been inspired by Herodotos (or his
sources) description of the foreign, savage goddess in the Taurian lands by the name of
Parthenos, which allowed him to relocate the origin of the rite of a (symbolic) human sacrifice at
Halai to the marginal area of Greek civilisation: the barbarian milieu of the distant, northern
shores of the Black Sea, and at the same time to provide an explanation for the epiklesis
Tauropolos of the Halai Artemis. The point of view of the two authors evidently differs: whereas
Herodotos operated within a general Greek discourse Euripides provided the description of a
complete outsider. He had never visited the Black Sea, but more importantly, he operated within
3Also Rives 1995. 4Kotzias 1925-1926, 168-177; Stauropoullos 1932, 30-32; Papadimitriou 1956, 87-89; 1957, 45-47; Knell 1983,
39-43; inscriptions: see also SEG XXXIV, 103.
a specific Athenian discourse.
With the explanation that Taur-polos meant worshipped by the Taurians, Euripides
created a false etymology, as he thereby suggested that the root -polos is passive. The root is
active, and tauro-plos signifies a person handling or taming bulls in a real context, e.g.
agricultural, or in a symbolic context, e.g. in cult or ritual.5 This handling of a bull must have
played a certain role in the ritual makeup of the Halai sanctuary. We do unfortunately not
possess any evidence of this. But it is significant that in two further sanctuaries of Tauropolos
closely connected with Halai, Brauron6 and Amphipolis,7 Tauropolos was with certainty depicted
as a bull-handler riding side-saddle on a bull, frequently with a torch in her hand.
The cult of the Tauropolos, frequently as an epithet of Artemis but also in one case of
Hekate, is known from other sources, inscriptions and literary texts.8 Considering the fact that
with the exception of Euripides mentioning the Taurian goddess Tauropolos, in the Crimea there
is no evidence that either the Taurian deity, or the later Greek Parthenos were ever celebrated as
Tauropolos, and none of them were ever depicted as a bull-handler. The connection between the
various Tauropoloi is therefore still to be studied. It seems most likely that we are dealing with
two separate phenomena:
5I am grateful to G. Hinge for providing me with the reading of the word Tauropolos. Oppermann (1934, 35) reached
the same conclusion with different arguments. Braund has recently combined the two poles, suggesting that
Tauropolos means Mistress of the Taurians (Braund, forthcoming). Though the suggestion is interesting, we have
absolutely no evidence that the Chersonesean deity was ever locally worshipped under the name of Tauropolos. This
epithet is applied to her from the outside, and it remained extraneous to her cult. 6Terracotta reliefs, c. 500 BC; see Kahil 1984, 674, nos. 700-701. 7Kahil 1984, 674, no. 703. This was the dominant reverse type of civic bronze coins minted in Amphipolis between
Augustus and Commodus (Lorber 1990, 13); cf. SNG American Numismatic Society 7 (Macedonia I), 1987, nos.
150-154, 195 and numerous coins in-between. The identification is ascertained by frequent inscriptions on the coins
naming her Tauropolos. 8The only general study of Tauropolos is Hans Oppermanns short article in the RE from 1934 (33-38). Tauropolos
has not yet been included in LIMC. Note that Oppermann erroneously refers to Aricia as a place, where Tauropolos
was venerated. The cult place was, in fact, the sanctuary by Lake Nemi, which was administered by Aricia, but not
within the limits of that town. Since the appearance of Oppermann 1934, the inscriptions have become noticeably
much more numerous. This makes a modern, updated study of the Tauropolos a desideratum. See Guldager Bilde
(a) an actual cult of a bull-handling female deity (Tauro-plos) originating in Halai and
(perhaps) spreading with the Macedonians through Amphipolis, to the Hellenised East as far as
Ikaros in the Arabian Gulf. The knowledge of this cult is mainly based on epigraphical evidence,
the majority of which is documented in the 4th-2nd centuries BC.9 Though interesting, this deity
need not concern us here.
(b) cult(?) of a female deity worshipped by the Taurians, (Taur-polos), based on the false
etymology created by Euripides. The notion of this cult was spread throughout the ancient world
and especially promoted in Strabons writings10 as a literary topos of long-standing popularity.
The locations of the cult are mentioned exclusively in literary sources, predominantly Roman,
first of all in connection with aetiological explanations of local bloody rites. The vehicle is the
presence of the cult image removed by Orestes from the Taurian sanctuary.
With the exception of what is probably the oldest location celebrating the cult of Tauropolos
(Halai Araphnides), there is no overlapping between the two above- mentioned groups.
Parthenos as elaphochthonos
The second novelty in Euripides IT is the epithet elaphochthonos, deer-killing. This epithet is
extremely uncommon. It is exclusively found in Iphigenia in Tauris and in one later source,
Apollonius Dyscolus Grammaticus from the 2nd century AD.11 Similarly, other terms for the
deer, such as elaphos, or the young deer, ellos, combined with a suffix denoting killing, either
-phonos, -ctonos, or -bolos are equally unusual, and they are found exclusively as epithets for
Artemis.12Nebroctonos=ellophonos: Schol. Kallimachos, Hymn to Artemis 190. Elaphebolos
9Guldager Bilde 2003, fig. 2. 10Guldager Bilde 2003, fig. 1. 11De Adverbiis part 2 1.1, 189, l. 8. 12E