Let’s talk about Truth, for a moment. There are those who believe that “The Truth is out there-” that truth is something objective and quantifiable. There are others, who have a more fluid concept of truth, that it’s subjective and slippery, or that there are many Truths. As the founder of the North American Pseudohistorical Society, it’s probably no surprise that I fall into the latter camp. You may be surprised, however, to learn that the man widely regarded as “the Father of History,” Herodotus, was totally in that camp as well. He would record all the different versions of a story, ending with ‘Well, this sounds like the best version, so let’s say that’s what happened.’
“Cat, why are you telling us about a man- isn’t this supposed to be a herstory?”
Oh yeah, and this month’s featured woman is a real doozy. I did, though, want to preface by saying that while this woman definitely existed, was definitely bad-ass and definitely is deceased, that’s about as far as the definites go. All primary sources we have about her stem from Herodotus’s account of her life, and even that was written nearly a hundred years after she died. Normally, this would send me looking for a more well-researched/documented lady, however when I heard this story, I felt like I imagine Herodotus must’ve felt- that whether the story was TRUE or “true” or ‘somewhat (?) true?’, the picture it paints is too vivid not to retell. So this month, I’m going to tell you about Tomyris*
Tomyris lived in the 6th century BCE, in the area that spans from present day Kazakhstan to Iran and possibly farther east. By the time she appears in Herodotus’s account, she is already the widowed ruler of the Massagetae, a fierce nomadic confederation that occupied the Great Steppe. The Steppe was a harsh place to live, and the people who lived there grew up tough. (500 years after Tomyris, another nomadic group of hard-core folks roamed the Steppes. You might know them as the Huns). Sadly, not much is known about the Massagetae (or Tomyris’s early life), beyond their location, the fact that they were a nomadic group, and that this lifestyle made them a real pain to their neighbors in the West who wanted to collect them in an empire. In fact, it’s because of their resistance to the ancient Greek nemesis, Persia, that we know about them. Tomyris defeated Cyrus the Great,*** the famed Persian ruler.
Persia in the 6th century BCE was the largest and arguably most powerful empire at the time. They expanded and expanded, seemingly unstoppable, until they got to the steppe and met the Massagetae. When your primary method of subjugation is to storm cities and subdue the people en masse, that method sort of falls apart when you come up against a people who don’t have cities. Being unwilling to give up, as I imagine many other supreme leaders of empires might be, Cyrus tried a different approach. He sent a message to Tomyris, praising her beauty and intelligence and offering her a proposal of marriage. Tomyris saw it immediately for the thinly veiled attempt at her lands that it was. She laughed it off. Taking a different track, Cyrus began to amass warships and had his people start to build a bridge over the Jaxartes River which separated the two nations. Tomyris was not having it, saying:
“…Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, 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 the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.”
…or, in other words, ‘You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone. But mess with us and it’s your place or mine, buddy?’ At this point, it’s generally agreed upon that Cyrus should’ve walked away, and he was about to- when he chose that moment to listen to some very bad advice from his brother and adviser, Caesus. Arguing that giving up to a woman would be a huge loss of face, Caesus proposed a new plan: They would leave a camp seemingly abandoned and stocked with an overabundance of food and wine, and attack when the Massagetae were good and full and sleepy. This worked even better than expected- as a nomadic people without the agricultural system needed to grow grapes, the Massagetae were unused to wine and totally unequipped to handle it. They became thoroughly intoxicated , the Persians swept in and attacked, killing or taking prisoner nearly a third of the Massagetaen forces. One of these prisoners was Tomyris’s son Sparagapises. Needless to say, Tomyris was pissed. Not only was she upset at the loss of troops, she also felt that Cyrus and his people had played dirty. That her son was captured further enraged her, but rather than go on a massive killing spree to get him back, she tried one more time to appeal to reason, and sent a message to Cyrus, saying:
“… Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”
Meanwhile, back in the Persian camp, in a twist of fate straight out of Shakespeare, Sparagapises was sobering up and becoming aware of his position as a bargaining chip. He convinced his captors to temporarily remove his bonds and quickly killed himself, to keep from being used as a tool to manipulate his mother. When Tomyris heard, she rallied her forces and brought battle to the Persians, in what was described as “the fiercest” combat seen at the time. The Persians, and their leader Cyrus the Great, were destroyed. This, though, wasn’t enough for Tomyris. When the battle was over, she had his body brought to her, along with an empty wine skin. Amidst the gore of the battleground, she filled the wineskin with blood, cut off the head of Cyrus and either dipped it into the wineskin or poured the wineskin out over it (depending on the source), saying:
“I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood and so I shall.”
Tomyris is famous for defeating the ruler of the greatest empire in the world. History is full of upsets and bad-ass women in positions of military leadership. What really makes this story for me, is how many times Tomyris sought peace and the extent to which she kept her word when these efforts didn’t work. Hell hath no fury like a woman who told you she was going to have fury if you did A and then you did A anyway, you dummy.
As cool and bad-ass as Tomyris was, I think we can all agree that defeating and decapitating those who cross you is not an ideal or sustainable method for solving disagreements, so this month we’re going to learn how to use “I-statements.”
How to Construct an “I-statement” to Deescalate a Situation So You Don’t Have to Dip the Heads of Your Enemies Into Buckets of Blood.
In her book How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable, Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin shares a variety of tools which can be used to have a disagreement which is constructive, rather than hostile. One such tool, is the “I-statement”. Constructing an i-statement is simple, and allows you to state your feelings and concerns in a neutral way.
- Start with a specific, objective action which you want the person you’re talking to to stop.
For example: “When you swing that stick around like that”
- Follow that with a description of how you feel (using the phrase “I feel” rather than “you make me feel” or “it makes me feel”:
“…I feel nervous…”
- End with the reason for that feeling
“…because I worry you might hit another friend in the face and hurt them”
So now, instead of yelling “Quit swinging that damn stick around!!” you say “When you swing that stick around like that, I feel nervous because I worry you might hit another friend in the face and hurt them.” (I should probably mention I use i-statements frequently when working with preschoolers) It may take a bit longer to say, but having used it with children and adults, in both silly and serious situations, I can honestly say it does help- I haven’t had to dip a single head in a bucket of blood.
*I’ve seen multiple spellings and variations including Thomyris, Tomris, Tomiride, or Queen Tomiri. To keep things simple, I’m sticking with the one I first heard/have seen the most.
**Also, one of the few drawings that doesn’t portray her as improbably white and/or blonde.
***In all fairness to Cyrus, he seems like a pretty okay dude. Especially for the times, he was remarkably tolerant and just as a ruler.