Those who associate marijuana with laziness and sloth wouldn’t know what to make of the Scythians. They were a nomadic tribe who dominated Central Eurasia (Central Asia and Eastern Europe) from approximately 900 BC to 200 BC. Their influence had been felt from China to the northern Black Sea by then.
It is suggested that a king named Koloksai founded a royal dynasty that reigned from the 8th or 7th Century BC. By the 6th Century BC, the Scythians were driven from the Near East but quickly returned with a vengeance. The Second Scythian Kingdom hit its peak by the 4th Century BC. Remarkably, it seems as if this energetic and driven collection of tribes were powered by weed!
This article looks into five things about the Scythians and marijuana that you probably didn’t know.
Very little is known about the Scythians and their culture. We are indebted to the legendary Greek historian, Herodotus (484 BC – 425 BC), who is effectively our sole ancient source of note.
There is some debate about the accuracy of his accounts. Modern historians suggest he never visited Scythia, though recent archaeological discoveries suggest he was accurate in at least some of his accounts. All told, he remains the best Western writer on the topic of these nomadic tribes.
We know that Herodotus undertook a sequence of journeys in the middle of the fifth century BC. He visited Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, northern Greece, Thrace, Macedonia, and the Crimean Peninsula. If he truly traveled this much during that time frame, he almost certainly came across the Scythians somehow. In Histories, Book IV (“Melpomene”) includes a chapter dedicated to the infamous group of nomadic tribes.
Herodotus was particularly impressed with the Scythian ritual of the dead. The historian wrote that the Scythians, “have hemp growing in their country, very like flax, except that the hemp is much thicker and taller.”
We already know that ancient cultures used hemp to make fabric. However, it seems that the Scythians found an entirely different use!
According to Herodotus, the Scythians threw the hemp seeds on red-hot stones during the funeral burning ritual. Here’s what Herodotus says happened when the smoke and steam appeared:
“The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath. This serves them instead of bathing, for they never wash their bodies with water.”
The ritual likely promoted the wellbeing of the deceased person’s soul, along with those left behind. The Scythians used hemp to loosen the boundaries of death. The drug’s effects on the body and mind enabled the tribe to overcome sorrow and depression. Perhaps this is why marijuana was referred to as Scythian Fire for thousands of years.
The Scythian penchant for inhaling marijuana smoke is something we still enjoy millennia later. Interestingly, they set up what we would call “saunas” for the specific purpose of inhaling the smoke. The burning hemp seeds were covered by a small tent under which they placed their head. Herodotus believed the Scythians used the vapor baths for washing, but it was more likely a religious ritual.
It is easy to dismiss this incident as a very special ritual and not something that defined the Scythians. However, discovering a Scythian shaman’s body in a frozen, undisturbed grave in the Altai Mountains in 1993 has changed that mindset a little.
The shaman’s corpse was found with hashish and several other hemp products. Known as the “Siberian Ice Maiden,” MRI scans found that she had breast cancer. She may have used cannabis to manage the pain!
An exciting discovery in 2019 gives even more credence to Herodotus’ writing. A study in Science Advances outlined the excavation of wooden bowls with significant traces of THC from the Jirzankal Cemetery in the mountains of western China. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis found that the cemetery was approximately 2,500 years old. This is around the same time that Herodotus wrote Histories.
It seems that the people involved in the rituals smoked cannabis by burning it on hot stones placed outside the bowls. Then they allowed the vapors to fill an enclosed space. Sound familiar? According to the researchers, these rituals likely involved the vapor, rhythmic music, and flames to help guide people into an altered state of mind.
In the Scythian culture, the tribes had shaman-magicians known as the “Enarei.” They were possibly transgender individuals that used high-pitched voices to utter prophecies. According to the Scythians, these shamans could live and travel between two worlds because they bore characteristics of two genders. The Enarei were also heavy users of cannabis.
Unsurprisingly, there is debate as to whether the Enarei were, in fact, transgender. In The Prehistory of Sex, Timothy Taylor looked into the work of a Roman poet named Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD). According to Taylor, Ovid said Scythian shamans were born male but presented as female. The Roman writer suggested that the Enarei made a transition using horse urine.
Taylor likely jumps to this conclusion due to the existence of Premarin, an estrogen supplement prescribed to trans women that was derived from horse urine! Yet Taylor seems to believe that the Scythians drank the urine for survival reasons and were ignorant of the hormonal effects. However, analysis of Ovid’s work suggests that Taylor is possibly mistaken.
Meanwhile, Herodotus uses the term “enares” which could mean “androgynous,” “emasculated,” or “not man,” depending on how you interpret it.
Hippocrates wrote about Scythian eunuchs that spent too much time on horseback, thus contributing to genital problems! He said these eunuchs spoke like women, performed female work, and were effeminates.
Unfortunately, it is hard to trust Greek sources on the Scythians due to their low opinion of them. Consequently, it is unknown whether Scythian shamans were transgender as we understand the term today.
It was necessary to use whatever implements were available in bygone days if you wanted to get high. This often meant using a plastic bottle and bucket to create a crude bong. Nobody told the Scythians about this rudimentary method because they preferred to get high like movie stars.
In 2013, archaeologists uncovered a cache of fascinating gold treasures in the southern Russian Caucasus Mountains. They uncovered a gold bracelet, two neck rings, and a gold ring. Excavators also found two golden bucket-shaped vessels, which the Scythians used as bongs! One of the team asked criminologists in Stavropol to analyze the black residue found inside.
You’ll never believe what it was – opium and cannabis! These vessels were probably used to brew a strong opium drink while the weed burned close by. Scientists now believe that the Scythians used both drugs simultaneously. The vessels were dated to approximately 400 BC when the Scythians were rulers of that region.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Scythians used marijuana. After all, the Cannabis ruderalis species grows naturally throughout the region where the nomadic tribes once roamed.
Not every ancient writer approved of cannabis use, however. Hesychius of Alexandria opined that the Scythian incense known as hemp had, “the power of stealing the youthful vigor of all who stand near.”
Whatever Became of the Scythians?
Whether the Scythians were high in battle is unknown, but we are aware of their exceptional fighting prowess. They were especially skilled horsemen. Their archers could shoot 10+ arrows a minute with great accuracy, an extraordinary number for the time. However, the Scythians were never a single united tribe. This fact didn’t prevent them from providing the mighty Persian army with an enormous headache.
The army assembled by Darius in the 6th Century BC was the largest ever assembled at the time. The Persians marched to the Danube River, believing they would crush the Scythians. The Scythians had other ideas and bamboozled the Persian infantry with hit and run tactics. Eventually, Darius was forced to retreat. The Scythians were able to run amok in the Central Eurasian region for a few more centuries.
Sustained assaults by Celts and Thracians did severe damage to the Scythian Empire. While the Scythians remained active for a few more centuries, further defeats to Mithridates VI of Pontus, the Sarmatians, and the Huns ensured that they were practically finished as a threat by the third century AD. They were possibly assimilated by the Goths, Sarmatians, and Alans.
However, their traditions never truly disappeared. Scythian riding and archery skills persist in some semi-nomadic and nomadic Central Asian groups! Remember, the Scythians achieved everything while enjoying getting high from time to time!