Scythia and cannabis
3 min

The Scythians & Cannabis

3 min

The Scythians used cannabis and hemp for clothing, food and religious rituals and introduced the drug widely across Europe and Asia.

Cannabis and hemp, despite the prohibition of the 20th century, have been used by mankind for thousands of years – and for many purposes. Many of these uses were utilitarian – like the use of hemp for clothing. However, cannabis was never “just” a one-ring circus. More than one religious sect and society – far beyond the modern Rastafaris in Jamaica, used cannabis for religious purposes. Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, all used the drug for religious purposes.

So did a tribal group called the Scythians – who may have adopted the use of cannabis from any of these religions into their own culture. The earliest historical evidence of cannabis indicates, that this drug can be found in both Japan and Eastern Europe as early as 10,000 years ago. That said, given the breadth of the tribes’ influence, the Scythes might have also been the culture that introduced the regular use of the drug into both European and Far Eastern cultures and religions. They most certainly were the group of people who began to regularly use it in everyday life, as well as trade it.


The Scythians were a group of warlike Eurasian tribes, who existed at least a thousand years before the birth of Christ and rose to prominence during Roman times – specifically between 700–100 BC. They ranged throughout Europe and Asia and established important trade routes connecting Europe with the Far East. Archaeological evidence of their existence has been found from the Mediterranean through Central Russia and Asia.

Their mobility also allowed them to spread their culture – including the use of cannabis - across the ancient world. There is significant evidence that they were the culture that introduced both cannabis and hemp into Europe and the idea of cannabis as a ritual drug throughout Middle Eastern cultures and societies. One of the earliest dates proving cannabis was used in Europe comes from an urn that was found near modern day Berlin – dating back to 500 BC – or the height of the Scythians' influence in the region.

As they were mostly a nomadic culture, they left no cities or dwellings behind. In fact, most of what is known about them comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, as well as their burial mounds that are still being found throughout the Eurasian region. That said, they also kept livestock that moved with them. Those tribes who were less nomadic also cultivated both hemp and cannabis. In a stunning find in 2013 in Russia, for the first time, actual physical evidence was found of their use of inhaled cannabis as well as medicinal and agricultural hemp.


hemp clothing

Like many other cultures, the tribes used hemp for clothing. According to Herodotus, the Scythians’ clothes were of high quality and “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".


The Scythians also used cannabis for medicine and to relax (for pleasure). In 2013, archaeologists stumbled across a burial site in Southern Russia during the construction of a power line that was then kept secret to preserve it from looters as the gold artefacts were extracted for the next two years. When scientists did a chemical analysis of the residue found in the gold bowls they had unearthed, they also discovered real proof that Herodotus’ writing about their use of the herb for other purposes than clothing and cooking was also accurate.

According to his book Histories: “They make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible; inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp seeds. The Scythians take some of these hemp seeds, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour bath can exceed; the Scythes, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water.”


Sacred cannabis

A great deal has been written about the tribes’ use of cannabis for religious purposes. Sorcerers would burn the female cannabis flowers to induce trances and to create other “mystical” experiences. Cannabis has also been found at elaborate burial sites, entombed with the dead to ease their passage into the next world. At one such site, on the borders of Siberia and Outer Mongolia, archaeologists found a burial trench about 50 meters in the square and 6 meters deep, filled with the skeletons of horses, an embalmed man and a cauldron filled with burnt cannabis seeds.

Herodotus also writes that the Scythians believed that cannabis held magical powers. Hemp was also thrown into fires to ward off evil spirits.


Fighting Scythia woman

Women played an unusual role in Scythian society. Many of them fought alongside the men, were tattooed, and according to the Greek historian Diodorus, had their right breasts removed as infants in order to develop strong pectoral muscles and thus brandish swords with greater strength.

Both sexes were also highly skilled at archery from horseback. The remains of both male and female shamans have also been found buried with cannabis seeds and artefacts that contain them. Women also apparently used cannabis to medicate menstrual cramps and cannabis was also burned in closed tents which were used to “purify” those who spent time in them. Archaeological excavations have also unearthed cooking vessels with the residue of hemp and hemp seeds still clinging to the metal surfaces.


As the Scythian culture began to be systematically challenged by the Roman Empire, their influence, along with the tribes themselves, began to die out. That said, the use of cannabis continued in other cultures they had come in contact with, starting with the Romans, up until the beginnings of the 20th Century. In this, the tribe was certainly one of the most influential groups of people to carry knowledge of the plant – in all its uses - into the modern day.


  Marguerite Arnold  

Written by: Marguerite Arnold
With years of writing experience under her belt, Marguerite dedicates her time to exploring the cannabis industry and the developments of the legalisation movement.

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Luke Sumpter
Luke Sumpter
With a BSc (Hons) degree in Clinical Health Sciences and a passion for growing plants, Luke Sumpter has worked as a professional journalist and writer at the intersection of cannabis and science for the past 7 years.
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