The Scythians, who maintained a powerful nomadic state north of the Black Sea during the classical period, have been interpreted in many ways. As we saw in the previous post, historian Christopher Beckwith go so far as to credit them with the origin of philosophy. Ancient Greek thinkers usually viewed Scythians as quintessential barbarians – the cultural opposite of the Greeks themselves. But some Greek thinkers turned the table, portraying the Scythians, or at least some of them, in highly positive terms. According to the historian Ephorus (cited by Stabo), “[T]he modes of life of the Scythians are unlike, for, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever, … and excel all other men in justice …” The original vision of the “noble savage” thesis is arguably found in the pro-Scythian views of some ancient Greeks. Alfonso Moreno** writes of continuing depictions of “the Scythians of Homer and the Ephorus: the justice and wisest, drinkers of mare’s milk, frugal, nomadic, wagon-dwellers, strangers to money making, communists, invincible warriors, lords of wheat and livestock, the people of Anacharsis …” But as is true of all such “noble savage” depictions, the aim is not that of accurate description but that of criticizing one’s own society. The ancient Scythians of the fourth-century BCE, after all, were very familiar with money-making and their society organized in a class- or even caste-based manner.
Such alternative visions of Scythian society persist to the present. Rather than emphasizing formidable Scythian warriors, some modern writers turn instead to Scythians shamans and healers, especially the enarei. The enarei, a caste-like group, are traditionally depicted as transvestites, as they were biological men who wore women’s clothing and acted in a feminine manner; today they would be more precisely depicted as transsexuals. As such, they are now in fashion – literally. The design firm Lila Bare, for example, offers a clothing line called “The Enarei,” marketed as the “epitome of non-binary clothing.” The feminine nature of the enarei is also attracting attention. It has been reported, for example, that “Ovid wrote about Scythian shamans known as ἐναρής who were born male, presented as women/feminine, and feminized their bodies using a potion made from the urine of mares in heat.”
The Scythians, and especially their religious practitioners (whether transsexual or not), have also been linked to the use and spread of cannabis as a drug. Recent genetic research indicates that cannabis was domesticated in China, where it was valued for its fibers, seeds, and medicinal properties. Breeding high-THC cannabis for mind-altering purposes, however, is usually credited to either the Scythians or earlier Indo-European pastoral peoples of Central Asia. For interesting and informative YouTube videos on this subject, I recommend “Survive the Jive’s” “Scythian Gods” and “Ancient Cannabis Cult.”
The Scythian use of mind-altering drugs is also linked to that of their Indo-Iranian forebears, who referred to themselves as Aryans. Both the Rig Veda and the Avesta, the earliest accounts of Indic and Iranian peoples, refer to a powerful ritual substance known as soma and haoma respectively. The mystery of the source of soma/haoma has not been solved, and several interpretations are still debated, ranging from the currently favored Epheda, a simple stimulant, to Amanita muscaria, a powerful psychedelic mushroom, to Syrian rue, another hallucinogenic substance. Some writers have speculated that it might have been a combination of cannabis, ephedra, and opium, the residue of which has been archaeologically attested from ritual vessels. It has also been argued that Soma/Haoma was not used by the earliest Indo-Europeans, but was rather borrowed from the people of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, who had an urban-agricultural society and interacted extensively with the early Indo-Iranians.
** Cannabis was not directly smoked by the ancient Scythians. Rather, it was burned in braziers in enclosed spaces, where the fumes were inhaled.
* Alfonso Moreno, 2007. “Athenian Wheat Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture. In The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges, edited by Vincent Gabrielsen and John Lunn. Aarhus University Press