By: | Post date: April 1, 2009 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

From the Suda On-Line project I contribute to, a cloyingly heartwarming anecdote from the historian Phylarchus:

The Scythians, when they were about to lie down to sleep, brought the quiver, and if they happened to have passed that day unharmed, they placed a white pebble on the quiver, but if [things had gone] troublesomely, [they placed] a black one. Accordingly, in the case of men who were dying, they brought out their quivers and counted the pebbles; and if many white ones were found, they declared the departed fortunate.

When I relayed this anecdote to my long-suffering colleagues (who have to endure every randomness that strikes me online when I should be working, and may well keep a mental stock of black pebbles for when I do), one wondered that that quiver might get pretty damn heavy after a while. The other pointed out that with pre-Classical average lifespans of 30 (especially for warriors), and entering into service at 18, they wouldn’t get that heavy.

Hand me my back of an envelope: 12 years, 365 days, 1 g a day: 4.4 kg. Quite doable. More realistic for pebbles, 20 g a day: 87.6 kg. There may be some implementation issues to address with the anecdote. Could the Scythians have pebbles on credit perhaps?

He also suggested this would make for a good white-pebble applet. If anyone out there feels like warming the hearts of their fellow human beings, I claim no copyright (especially since it was my colleague’s idea anyway).

(I see Phylarchus has already been blogged… Ah sod, the hippies have already gotten to the notion…)


  • opoudjis says:

    I was about to look up basic colour terms in Farsi (as the closest living relative of Scythian I could think of), when I realised that no, basic colour terms do change in time, so neither Farsi nor Ossetian would tell me anything conclusive about Scythian. Even Old Persian wouldn’t. (Do we even have colour terms from Old Persian?)

    Then I started meditating on “blue”, whose basicness in Modern Greek is debatable (μπλε is a loan from French, μπλάβος was a loan from (Italian?) but now is specialised to bruises, γαλάζιος is specialised to sky blue).

    Then I started meditating on κυανοῦς in Ancient Greek, and how even though “cyan” in English has ended up blue-green, kuanous in Greek was the colour of the sea, and in fact kuvane in Tsakonian ended up meaning “black”.

    Then I boarded the train. I was eudaimon (good-daemon, fortunate) enough to get a seat, and incorporate some more misspelled omegas in the TLG lemmatiser. Now I’m at work, and I have some work blogging to do. Good morning!

  • John Cowan says:

    Well, you could apply the principle of coinage: for every ten white pebbles, substitute a red pebble; for every ten black pebbles, substitute a gray pebble.

    Of course, it may be that the Scythians were a Berliner & Kay two-color culture.

    CAPTCHA: "demen", just a bit misspelled. "Call no man eudaimon until he is dead.”

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