Aha! Here we go...
From Renate Rolle's well-known "The World of the Scythians" (Univ. of Calif.
translation, 1989, ISBN 0 520 06864 6). I give the whole passages, as it's
got all sorts of interesting things in it ;-)
In his dictionary written in the fifth century AD the Greek grammarian
Hesychio of Alexandria gives the word 'hemp' a synonym which translates as
'Scythian incense'. The author is referring here to a well-known episode
After his impressive account of a Scythian royal burial, Herodotus describes
an activity which he assumes to be a particularly effective kind of vapour
bath (Book IV,73): the Scythians crawl into little felt tents, in the middle
of which are red hot stones. On to these they throw hemp seeds, which they
cultivate themselves, and inhale the smoke. Presumably the heat inside the
little tents caused the participants to sweat, which Herodotus (or his
informant) found particularly noteworthy.
This account reveals that the 'Father of History' had never smoked pot
himself: his interpretation of events would otherwise have seemed less
naive. The fact that the Scythians "howled with pleasure" would not have
been attributed by him to their enjoyment of the 'vapour bath'; he would
have realized that they were simply high.
Ever since, whole sets of hemp-inhaling equipment were found in the frozen
tombs of the Altai, proving Herodotus' account to be accurate, his account
has not be questioned. Evidence was found there of a culture directly
related to that of the Scythians ('Altai Scythians'); it corresponds down to
the last detail to the ancient description:
Tents approximately 4 1/2 ft (1.2m) high constructed of a frame with six
poles tied together at the top, which could be erected quickly and easily;
finely decorated felt or leather rugs to cover the frame; bronze cauldrons
which contained the hot stones, as can be seen from the heat cracks on their
surfaces. To prevent scorching, the handles of the cauldrons were thickly
bound with birch bark.
A leather bag filled with hemp seeds, and more seeds among the stones, some
of them charred, lead us to conclude that the 'incense' vessels were
actually smouldering when the mourners left the tombs, so that the dead
remained behind wreathed in hemp smoke. Besides hemp seeds (cannabis
sativa), seeds of melilot (melilotus) indicate further use of intoxicants.
The question of course arises as to whether this practice had a purely
ritual purpose or whether it was an everyday pleasure enjoyed by the
Scythians. The ingenious (sic) interpretation that only priests indulged in
hashish-inhaling during the funeral rites, can no longer be accepted with
its limiting implications. Since it was clearly a matter of course for both
men and women to be buried equipped with working apparatus for
hemp-inhaling, it is obvious that this intoxicant was also used deliberately
for non-religious purposes. The inhaling of hashish - pure hemp seeds at
that! - with its manifold effects such as time distortion and the deadening
of pain could, amongst other things, have been a useful substance to take
during preparations for battle.
We know from written sources that the Thracians, from the country bordering
on the west of Scythia, went into battle under the influence of intoxicants.
A neighbouring tribe on the eastern border - the saka haumavarga
('hauma-drinking' Sakas) - probably used fly agaric sediment which may have
had intoxicating effects similar to the frenzy of the berserker (sic).
Reports of hemp-growing come from Scythia itself, and we know of miniature
tents found in the Altai, complete with the necessary burning equipment. It
is clear that the modern stigma attached to drug-taking did not apply in
antiquity, and their use before battle (similar to that of the later
assassins) may have played an important role, possibly even contributing to
Rolle also provides drawings of "Hemp-inhaling equipment from the Pazyryk
kurgans" - tent poles, a round bronze cauldron with handles wrapped in birch
bark, and what looks like a small square brazier on four feet. The source
sited for this is Artamonov, M.I.: 'Goldschatz der Skythen in der
Eremitage', Prague, 1970.
I shall risk fanning the flames of controversy a little by adding this from
T. Sulimirski's "The Scythian Age in the USSR" (Bulletin of the INstitute of
Archaeology no.10, 1970,pp99-140), essentially a literature guide.
Several Soviet scholars are of the opinion that the indigenous agricultural
population of ancient Scythia, subdued by the nomad Scythians, was
proto-Slavonic. Such views were expressed by A.I. Terenozhkin in his several
articles, in particular in the paper read at the Warsaw Congress of Slavonic
Archaeology ('Tezisy', pp24-26, MKAS pp225-228 in Russian and English). In
this context\ the work by L.Zgusta, 'Die personennamen Griechischer Stadte
der noerdlichen Schwarzmeerkueste' (Prague, 1955) should be mentioned. In
the study of a few thousands of personal names recorded in Greek North
Pontic colonies, only names of Greek, Scytho-Sarmatian and Thracian, and a
small number of other origin, appear, but definitely none which in any way
could be derived from the Slavonic. This fact fact entirely dismisses any
theories considering as Slavonic the indigenous population of ancient
Scythia. I have commented on this question (in English) in Acta
Baltico-Slavica V (Bialystok, 1967, pp1-17).
Incidentally, the recently published 'Encyklopedie slovanskych bohu a mytu'
(Profant & Profantova, 2000, Prague, Libri, ISBN 80-7277-011-X) has entries
neither for drugs nor for hemp (Cz. konopi), although other plants are
mentioned, e.g. Valerian (Cz. Kozlik lekarsky, Lat.Valeriana officinalis),
used to produce a drink that guarded maidens against corruption or unwanted
love, and known under then name 'odolan' from as early as 1088. (Note that
it is now used as a sedative, to treat sleeplessness and as a painkiller...
not usre how far this agrees with its perceived use at the time!!!).
Alastair Millar BSc (Hons)
Translation & Consultancy for the Heritage Industry
P.O. Box 685, CZ 111 21 Praha 1, Czech Republic