Scythians & Cannabis

The Scythians and Cannabis

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...

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.

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...

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.

- from The Scythians - High Plains Drifters by Chris Bennett (1995)

Scythian Cannabis Coin
Scythian Pectoral