Stuff from Way Back #8: Got Any Scythian Gold, Man?

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, for a time in the 5th century BC an inhabitant of Athens, is generally considered the Father of History, inasmuch as his work is the first extant history (from ἱστορία – inquiry).  The theme of his work is the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 and 480-479, but he leads up to those wars with an exhaustive examination of the Persian Empire and the lands and peoples in and around it.  One of those peoples is the Scythians, a collection of barbarian tribes inhabiting a broad swathe of land from the Danube basin to the southern steppe, and they apparently had a hauntingly familiar custom.

 Moreover it is said that other trees have been discovered by them which yield fruit of such a kind that when they have assembled together in companies in the same place and lighted a fire, they sit round in a circle and throw some of it into the fire, and they smell the fruit which is thrown on, as it burns, and are intoxicated by the scent as the Hellenes are with wine, and when more of the fruit is thrown on they become more intoxicated, until at last they rise up to dance and begin to sing. (1.202.2)

The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and creep under the felt coverings, and then they throw the seed upon the stones which have been heated red-hot: and it burns like incense and produces a vapour so thick that no vapour-bath in Hellas would surpass it: and the Scythians being delighted with the vapour-bath howl like wolves. (4.75.1)

(trans. G.C. Macaulay)

Well, what do we have here?  In the first passage he refers to “trees” and “fruit” and in the second “hemp” and “seeds,” but the similar descriptions of ingestion and result make it almost certain that the same botanical is being described in both.  And for anyone of a certain age the identity of that botanical is immediately apparent, a conclusion clinched by the Greek word translated as “hemp” – cannabis (κάνναβις).

What we have here is the first account of dope-smoking in western literature and yet another reminder that the classics contain some very cool stuff.