Narcotics in Scythia

Talk of the ancient inhalation and use of narcotic substances is a fairly widely discussed topic in Classical Studies. With references abounding to the trance like states of Oracles and Prophets, the possession of Poets or Rhapsodes and of course, the clear propensity for wine the Ancients had, it’s with little doubt one can say that narcotics were in some way very likely present, and even taken during those times.

However, a particular line of Herodotus always stood out to me.

οἱ Σκύθαι τῆς καννάβιος τὸ σπέρμα ἐπεὰν λάβωσι, ὑποδύνουσι ὑπὸ τοὺς πίλους, καὶ ἔπειτα ἐπιβάλλουσι τὸ σπέρμα ἐπὶ τοὺς διαφανέας λίθους τῷ πυρί: τὸ δὲ θυμιᾶται ἐπιβαλλόμενον καὶ ἀτμίδα παρέχεται τοσαύτην ὥστε Ἑλληνικὴ οὐδεμία ἄν μιν πυρίη ἀποκρατήσειε.

(Herodotus IV.75)

The gist of this passage is as follows: the Scythians are accustomed to throwing cannabis seeds onto heated braziers were they emit a smoke with thereby intoxicates them to ecstasy. But the last line in particular is intriguing… the vapour emitted from the brazier (heated stones) are such that no Greek vapour could surpass it. If these drug rituals existed in Scythia, then it seems the phenomenon of taking narcotics such as this was one not unfamiliar to the Hellenes Herodotus is referring to. However, as it is with Herodotus, it is often difficult to ascertain the truth, and separate myth from truth. The following paragraph may help expel any lingering doubt.

Now it has – albeit lately – come to my attention that archaeologists have uncovered vessels in a Scythian kurgan (burial mound) which have been found to actually contain traces of cannabis and opium on the inside. This finding from the Caucasus mountains in the Southern region of Russia should be seen as a breakthrough in understanding much of the more prophetic aspects of ancient religions around this time. The often-cited gibberish from the mouths of Apollo’s oracles and priestesses should now be attributed to the use of narcotic substances with less doubt that ever. Obviously, the theory that the inhalation of sulphuric fumes led to these utterings is still prevalent, but cannabis and/or opium should not be ruled out. Furthermore, this finding could lead to a fuller understanding of how the ancients in not only Scythia, but Greece too, relaxed beyond the wine and sex so often used as an explanation for their leisure time and hedonistic satisfaction. Narcotics too, and stronger ones than just cannabis, clearly existed in their cultures if the tests which came back to affirm this from the vessels pictured below are to be believed.

Vessels with traces of narcotics
Scythian vessels containing traces of Cannabis and Opium

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