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Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog

The outlandish, the anomalous and the curious from the last five thousand years

Ancient Saunas with Cannabis January 29, 2016

What is the first recorded use of cannabis? There follows what is unquestionably the first European reference, though it relates to a Steppe people. Herodotus (4,73) is here describing the Scythians, the barbarians beyond the Black Sea, a region note that Herodotus may have visited: certainly he had lots of surprisingly accurate information about Scythian culture. The reference to cannabis appears in relation to a mortuary ritual: one that is curiously unbloody given the habits of the Scythians. Note that the dead body was almost certainly embalmed: much as Herodotus previously describes kings being hollowed out and preserved (earlier in the same chapter 4,73).

As for the people, when any one dies, his nearest of kin lay him upon a wagon and take him round to all his friends in succession: each receives them in turn and entertains them with a banquet, whereat the dead man is served with a portion of all that is set before the others; this is done for forty days, at the end of which time the burial takes place.

So far, so normal. Probably preferable to our thrice decade visits to the tombs of those we loved. But what is remarkable is the purification ceremony.

After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: 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-seed.

So in brief the Scythians strip naked, build a sauna and fill it with smoke from cannabis seeds. Herodotus continues

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, 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 Scythians, 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. Their women make a mixture of cypress, cedar, and frankincense wood, which they pound into a paste upon a rough piece of stone, adding a little water to it. With this substance, which is of a thick consistency, they plaster their faces all over, and indeed their whole bodies. A sweet odour is thereby imparted to them, and when they take off the plaster on the day following, their skin is clean and glossy.

So this is a perfumed sauna then. The question is: were the cannabis seeds supposed to intoxicate; or were they just to give an edge to the air? The Scythians note were ‘delighted’ and ‘shout for joy’, is this Herodotus (conceivably a witness to these events) describing at first or fifth hand some barbarian stoners or is it just a chance reference to the happiness of the wake: the mortuary rituals are over and we can return to life? Drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

Seeds are not, by any means, the most pungent part of cannabis: cannabis seeds are often sold today to get around legal regulations, not to be smoked in their own right. If you had wanted to intoxicate yourself in a sauna almost certainly you would drop the dried leaves onto the hot stones. Of course, it is quite possible that the Scythians threw seeds and leaves and that Herodotus’s description here is inadequate.

Note that there is very good archaeological evidence from ‘Scythia’ for the preservation of hemp seeds at Scythian digs and even at Scythian grave sites.

25 Feb 2016: Jim T writes ‘Regarding the Scythian cannabis saunas and seeds. I’m not sure if you are familiar with the botany of the cannabis plant. But basically the cannabis product that is sold for smoking purposes these days is the flowers of the female plant that usually produce seeds. These are the most potent part of the plant. These flowers (buds) ,become even stronger if they are forced to grow without pollination, thus producing more of the ‘resin’ that contains the thc and cannaboids that get you ‘stoned’. Modern growing technology and botany have got this down to a fine art, producing a potent, compact product that is easy to sell. and consume. So when Herodotus mentions cannabis seed being thrown onto the hot rocks,I am sure he is talking about the seed producing flowers of the plant. Even if the female flowers have been pollinated by the male flowers and are producing seeds, it is still the most potent part of the plant, with enough of the good stuff to make you ‘shout with joy’. Did the scythians separate the male and female hemp plants,thus producing a much stronger smoke for their saunas? This will be interesting to try and research. P’s. I think the Scythians had some tattoos that hipsters of today would be proud to flaunt.’

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