The Scythians were a barbaric group of pre-Common Era nomadic tribes who are a fascinating example of an ancient cannabis using group. The Scythians played a very important part in the Ancient World from the seventh to first century BC. They were expert horsemen, and were one of the earliest peoples to master the art of riding and using horse-drawn covered wagons. This early high mobility is probably why most scholars credit them with the spread of cannabis knowledge throughout the ancient world. Indeed, the Scythian people travelled and settled extensively throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and Russia, bringing their knowledge of the spiritual and practical uses for cannabis with them.
Scythian Society & Dress
The Scythians (as the Greeks referred to them) or Sakas (as the Persians knew them) are believed to have been of Iranian origin. They shared a common language, and maintained well-used trade routes that connected their many distant settlements. Although they were nomadic, the Scythians had a single patriarchal sovereign that the different chieftains all paid tribute to. This leader had an entourage of wealthy nobles who acted as his courtiers, and his position was passed on to his son at his death.
The Scythians had no written language, so much of what is known about them has been derived from the many precious and exquisitely crafted artifacts found in their frozen tombs in Russia, Kazyktstan and the Eurasian plains. These precious items included weapons, jewelry and clothing, and were meant to follow the deceased into the afterlife. They can be viewed in Russian museums, well preserved from their long stay in the frozen tombs.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Scythian wardrobe as
Many Royal Scyths wore bronze helmets and chain-mail jerkins of the Greek type, lined with red felt. Their shields were generally round and made of leather, wood, or iron, and were often decorated with a central gold ornament in the form of an animal, but other tribesmen carried square or rectangular ones.
All used a double-curved bow, shooting over the horse’s left shoulder; arrows had trefoil-shaped heads made, according to date, of bronze, iron, or bone. Arrows and bow were carried in a gorytos (bow case) slung from the left side of the belt.
Their swords were generally of the Persian type, with an intricately
ornamented heart-shaped or triangular crosspiece. …the sheaths were
often encased in gold worked into embossed designs and offset with paste or ivory inlay and gems.
Their knives were of various shapes and lengths, some being curved in the Chinese manner. They wore the dagger attached to the left leg by straps, and many carried spears or standards surmounted by bronze terminals depicting real or imaginary beasts.
The Scythian’s horses were also outfitted in beautiful and ornate
costumes, and were seen ridden for the first time among many of the peoples they descended upon.
Many of the Scythians had full body tattoos with extremely intricate
tribal designs, depicting both real and imaginary beasts as well as events from their mythology. Looking like the forerunners of modern-day Hell’s Angels, the fierce appearance of the Scythian nomads had a formidably terrifying effect on the people whose lands they invaded.
The astonishing victories of the Scythians brought them a great deal of
fame, and much of Western Persia fell under the rule of Scythian chieftains. It has been recorded that they invaded Syria and Judea around 625 BC, and even reached the borders of Egypt where peace terms were reached with them by the intimidated rulers of that kingdom.
Equality in War
The act of war was one in which the Scythian women are said to have participated in equally with the men. Scythian women were tattooed like their mates, and the ancient historian Diordorus commented that Scythian women ‘fight like the men and are nowise inferior to them in bravery’.
It has been recorded that Scythian women had to kill three enemies in battle before marrying, and that a mastectomy of the right breast was performed on female infants so that their pectoral muscle wouldn’t weaken and they would be able to brandish a sword better!
It was the horseback riding Scythians who overtook the fierce Cimmerian infantry, which fought on foot and didn’t have horses.
Most readers will probably be familiar with the Cimmerians as the people who were later popularized in the famous fictional tales of the displaced Hyperborean Era warrior, Conan the Cimmerian, by Robert E. Howard and later L. Sprague DeCamp. The fierce horseback-riding raiders in the scene at the beginning of macho director John Milius’, Conan the Barbarian, who rape and pillage the young Conan’s tribe, are meant to depict the ancient Scythians.
Cannabis and the Dead
Cannabis was an integral part of the Scythian cult of the dead, wherein homage was paid to the memory of their departed leaders. After the death and burial of their king, the Scythians would purify themselves by setting up small tepee-like structures which they would enter to inhale the fumes of hemp seeds (and the resinous flower calyxes surrounding the seeds) thrown onto red-hot stones.
In a famous passage written in about 450 B.C., Herodotus describes these funeral rites as follows:
…when, therefore, the Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp, they creep under the cloths and put the seeds on the red hot stones; but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud.
It is most likely the seeds described by Herodotus were seeded
buds, and that the charred seeds found by archeologists are what was left over from the burnt buds.
Proving the Myth
Herodotus’ ancient records of the Scythian hemp rites were once believed to be mythical, but they were verified in 1929, with the discovery of a Scythian tomb in Pazyryk, Western Altai, by Professor S. I. Rudenko. As cannabis expert Ernest Abel explains in
Marihuana, the First 12,000 Years:
Digging into some ancient ruins near the Altai Mountains on the border between Siberia and Outer Mongolia, Rudenko found a trench about 160 feet square and about 20 feet deep. On the perimeter of the trench were the skeletons of a number of horses. Inside the trench was the embalmed body of a man and a bronze cauldron filled with burnt marihuana seeds!
Clearing the site further, Rudenko also found some shirts woven from hemp fibre and some metal censors designed for inhaling smoke which did not appear to be connected with any religious rite. To Rudenko, the evidence suggested that inhalation of smoldering marihuana seeds occurred not only in religious context, but also as an everyday activity in which Scythian women participated alongside the men.
The Encyclopedia Brittanica describes the cauldrons found at these Scythian burial sites as follows:
These cauldrons varied in size from quite small examples to others weighing as much as 75 pounds. An overwhelming majority have a solid base, shaped like a truncated cone, around which the fire was heaped. The upper section is a hemispherical bowl… with handles (shaped like animals) fixed to the rim opposite each other… at Pazyryk, small cauldrons filled with stones and hemp seeds were found standing beneath leather or felt tentlets with three or six supports.
It is known that sacrifices took place with the death of a Scythian king, as the physical evidence collected by archeologists can attest to. For 40 days after the death of a king, the mourners would travel the country conducting the king’s dead body through the lands he had ruled in life. After this the body was taken to a tomb for burial, where a massive sacrifice took place, not only of horses, but of humans as well. The king’s wives, cupbearers and principal servants were destined to join him, willingly or not, in the afterworld.
The Great Goddess
Two extraordinary rugs were also found in the frozen Scythian tombs. One rug had a border frieze with a repeated composition of a horseman
approaching the great goddess Tabiti-Hestia, the patroness of fire and
beasts. She is depicted as holding the “Tree of Life” in one hand and
raising the other in welcome.
Tabiti-Hestia is the only deity who figures in Scythian art. Considering the barbaric nature of these people it is interesting that she is a female, but perhaps really not all that surprising, as many of the peaceful goddesses became more fierce in the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.
In The Woman’s Book of Myths and Secrets, Barbara Walker writes
about the Scythian religion.
The only deity shown in Scythian art was the Great Goddess, whom the Greeks called Artemis, or Hestia or Gaea (The Earth)… Scythians were governed by Priestess-Queens, usually buried alone in richly furnished Kurgans (queen graves)…
The moon-sickle used in mythical castrations of God was a Scythian weapon. A long-handled form therefore came to be called a scythe, and was assigned to the Grim Reaper, who was originally Rhea Kronia [the old crone]in the guise of Mother Time, or Death- the Earth who devoured her own children. Scythian women apparently used such weapons in battle as well as religious ceremonies and agriculture.
The Scythian Queens
One thing that differentiates the tombs of royal Scythian queens from that of the kings is the complete lack of brutal sacrifices.
In the 1994 November issue of High Times, staff reporter Bill Weinberg reported on a more recent Scythian discovery:
The newest find is from the remote Altai mountains of Siberia- specifically, from the archeological dig at Ukok, near where the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet. Russian scientists found the 2,000-year-old mummified remains of a Scythian queen elegantly laid out in white silk alongside horse harnesses, a mirror, dishes- and a small ceremonial container of cannabis. The July 13 New York Times report on the find says archeologists believe Scythian pot “was smoked for pleasure and used in pagan rituals…”
The Enigmatic Enaries
Cannabis was not only used by the Scythians for relaxation and ceremonies for the dead. These ancient nomads had a class of shaman-magicians called the Enaries. These were ancient transvestites who uttered prophecies in high pitched voices. This at first sounds bizarre, but was actually a very common trait among shamans world wide. The Scythians believed that these people, who had characteristics of both sexes, were somehow also living in both worlds, and could travel between the two.
Of the groups directly influenced by the Scythian use of cannabis, probably the most notable would be the red-haired, fair-skinned Thracians. A Greek speaking nomadic tribe, the history of the Thracians is closely tied to that of the Scythians, so that at times the two groups would seem inseparable.
Herodotus wrote of the Thracian’s ability at working hemp fibres, and claimed that their clothes “were so like linen that none but a very experienced person could tell whether they were of hemp or flax; one who had never seen hemp would certainly suppose them to be linen.”
Like the Scythian shamans, the Thracians used cannabis in a similar manner. Dr Sumach explains in A Treasury of Hashish that:
The sorcerers of these Thracian tribes were known to have burned female
cannabis flowers (and other psychoactive plants) as a mystical incense to induce trances. Their special talents were attributed to the “magical heat” produced from burning the cannabis and other herbs, believing that the plants dissolved in the flames, then reassembled themselves inside the person who inhaled the vapors.
Dionysus a Doper?
The majority of scholars are in agreement that Dionysus, the famous Greek God of Intoxication, was originally a Thracian god. Mircea Eliade, probably recognized as the foremost authority on the history of religion, has commented on the Thracian cult of Dionysus, and further he has connected this worship with the use of cannabis:
Prophecy in Thrace was connected with the cult of Dionysus. A certain tribe managed the oracle of Dionysus, the temple was on a high mountain, and the prophetess predicted the future in ‘ecstacy’, like the Pythia at Delphi.
Ecstatic experiences strengthened the conviction that the soul is not only autonomous, but that it is capable of union mystica with the divinity. The separation of soul from body, determined by ecstacy, revealed on the one hand the fundamental duality of man, on the other, the possibility of a purely spiritual post-experience, the consequence of ‘divinization’. Ecstacy could …be brought on by certain dried herbs or by asceticism.
In a foot note to dried herbs, Eliade commented on the use of “Hemp seeds among the Thracians… and among the Scythians”, and refers to some of the ancient shamans as “those who walk in smoke” or Kapnobatai. The Kapnobatai would be dancers and Shamans who used the smoke of hemp to bring ecstatic trances.
The messages from the other world brought back by these ancient Shamans
was taken as authoritative advice by the ancient chieftains and their
tribes. In this sense, the Shamans acted as the conscience or mind of the whole group.
Mellowing with Time
It could well be that in later times the cannabis smoke had somewhat mellowed the Scythians, and their spiritual leaders directed them towards becoming a more civilized people. The ancient Greek historian Ephorus wrote in the fourth century BC that the Scythians ‘feed on mares milk and excel all men in justice’. His comments were followed in the first century BC by Strabo, who wrote that ‘we regard the Scythians as the most just of men and the least prone to mischief, as also far more frugal and independent of others than we are.’
Next Issue: A Hemp Heresy
Probably the most famous of the ancient Shamans who were directly influenced by the Scythian technique of ecstacy through cannabis were Moses, Isaiah, Ezekeil, and some of the other Old Testament Prophets and kings. A grandiose claim? Is the Philosopher stoned? A Hemp Heresy? Join ‘When Smoke Gets in My I’ next month for an in depth look at cannabis in the Old Testament.