If you look around at modern weed culture – with its focuses on legalization, aesthetics, and emerging strains – you might find it easy to forget that pot has a long and storied history dating all the way back to the ancient world. People have been using cannabis for recreational, medicinal and religious purposes for as long as there’s been agriculture. Indigenous to India and central Asia, hemp is thought by many scientists to be one of the earliest cultivated plants.
History has no shortage of examples of pot cropping up as an artifact, whether it’s Spanish colonizers cultivating hemp in South America in the 1500s or Napoleonic troops smoking hash in Islamic countries where booze wasn’t available. But let’s take a look at one of weed history’s more interesting crossroads – its relationship to the domestication of ancient wild horses.
For that, we turn to the Scythians.
The Scythians were a nomadic tribe in what historians call the pre-Common Era and what most of us simply know as the time before Christ. Residing on the Eurasian steppes starting around the 8th Century BC, they were the precursors to other, more well-known tribes and super-tribes, like the Huns and the Mongols. Scythia stretched from the Black Sea in the west to China in the east, and their workmanship and styles of warfare were known throughout the ancient world.
Two things the Scythians were good at: Empire-building and shooting arrows. We know this because the land they conquered – after defeating the Cimmerians and other nomadic tribes in the area – stretched so far, and because the name “Scythian” is derived from an ancient word meaning “propel” or “shoot” – leading many to believe they were widely known as expert archers.
But what’s even more impressive is the Scythians’ use of horses – both for riding and as draft animals or beasts of burden. Long before Genghis Khan conquered the known world, the Scythians were the reigning horselords of the Eurasian steppe. Their armies had the highest ratio of horsemen to infantry of the ancient world. Even Alexander the Great’s army had a ratio of one cavalry rider to every six infantrymen; the Scythians had one horsemen for every two foot soldiers.
What Scythians didn’t do, though, was keep a written history of themselves, or even any kind of written records, diaries or literature. Written language was simply not part of their culture. So most of what we know about them comes from writers and historians who were contemporaneous with the Scythians. Namely, a guy named Herodotus.
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian often referred to as the “Father Of History,” indicating his contribution to the foundations of the field. He studied and wrote about the Scythians extensively in Histories, a series of writings about the politics, geography and culture throughout western Asia, northern Africa and Greece.
Herodotus wrote a lot about the Scythians, but for our purposes, here’s the most interesting part:
After the burial the Scythians cleanse themselves as follows: they anoint and wash their heads and, for their bodies, set up three poles leaning together to a point and cover these over with wool mats; then, in the space so enclosed to the best of their ability, they make a pit in the center beneath the poles and the mats and throw red-hot stones into it. . . . the Scythians then take the seed of this kannabis and, crawling into the tents, throw it on the red-hot stones, where it smoulders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapor-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath.
According to Herodotus, the Scythians were really dedicated cannabis users – and they didn’t just use it to chill out after a hard day of animal husbandry. Weed was more than that. For Scythians, it was central to their concept of life, the universe and everything.
Scythians were practitioners of what anthropologists call ethnogenic use of cannabis, which basically means they used pot as part of their religious rituals. Anyone who’s ever been to a Catholic mass understands this; those services use bread and wine to symbolically represent the resurrection of Jesus. But the big difference here is that Catholics are only using wine as a reference to the blood of Christ; they’re not actually using alcohol for its mind-altering properties.
The Scythians used pot for a very specific service: After their kings died and were buried, the Scythians would purify themselves by inhaling cannabis fumes inside a tent. It’s likely the seeds described in Histories were seeded buds. In later centuries, archaeologists found charred seeds near burial sites. What’s more, later archaeological finds revealed that Scythians didn’t just limit their cannabis use to religious services; they actually did use it to chill out.
And because of all the horses, they also had high mobility – meaning they were able to spread their culture and love of cannabis all throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, Central Asia and Russia.
One such group was the Thracians, a Greek-speaking tribe of nomads that the Scythians had a long relationship with. Herodotus also pointed out that Thracians used hemp fibers to make fine clothes. They also burned cannabis flowers (along with other brain-altering plants) to induce mystical trances, believing that they dissolved in flame then re-formed inside the body after a user inhaled the smoke.
The Scythians weren’t necessarily the first ancient tribe to use cannabis; without a time machine, we’ll never know who that was. But they may have done more work to spread awareness and use of weed to the far corners of ancient Europe and Asia.