CANNABIS CULTURE: Was Dionysus a God of Wine as well as Cannabis, and other Psychoactive plants?
Dionysus was the ancient Greek God of Intoxication, and this has generally been assumed to have been limited to his obvious relationship with the Grape, but could cannabis and other additives have played a role as well?
This article will explore the evidence that indicates just that, with a thorough discussion of ancient Greek references to such infusions, and a look at the history of the cult in the ancient world. Indications of Dionysus worship with other cultures and sects known for their use of cannabis in ancient times, will be examined, such as evidence of the Dionysian cult among the Scythians, Thracians, ancient Jews and worshippers of Shiva in India who were said to have recognized Dionysus as their own God Shiva, when Alexander the Great rolled into India! We will follow the trail back further to the claims of a connection between Dionysus to the Vedic Soma which a number of scholars have suggested for over a century. Finally, new archeological evidence of wines infused with cannabis as well as henbane, opium and other ingredients, in regions known for the worship of Dionysus, shall be examined.
The Myth and Cult of Dionysus
The mythology has it that Dionysus appeared in the Grecian provincial town of Thebes, after extensive travels through Central Asia and the even more mysterious India. The effeminately dressed, long haired youth, angered city officials by proclaiming himself a god, but even more by introducing strange rites and initiating others with the sacraments he brought back from the East. Horrified by rumours of frenzied orgies taking place among Dionysus followers, the Maenads, the dour king, Pentheus, had the youth sent to prison. Shortly after a messenger from distant snow peaked mountains [the land of the Scythians?]approached Pentheus, and bade him to reconsider his decision:
O King, receive this Spirit, who’er he be,
To Thebes in glory. Greatness manifold
Is all about him; and the tale told
That this is he who first to man did give
The grief-assuaging vine. Oh, let him live;
For if he die, then Love herself is slain,
And nothing joyous in the world again!
Dionysus was not imprisoned long before a magical incantation was heard from behind the jail walls; “Kindle flame of blazing lightning – Burn, burn, the house of Pentheus to the ground!” Within an instant lightning pierced the jail-house, destroying it with a thundering explosion. Dionysus casually walked out unhurt, and invited the now curious Pentheus, to view for himself the secret rituals performed in the mountain woods. After dawning women’s clothes so that he could view the rites undetected amongst the all female worshippers, Pentheus was led by Dionysus, who assumed the form of a Bull. They came upon a clearing in the woods where Dionysus’s devotees were singing and dancing ecstatically. Interrupted, in the midst of their frenzied ritual, the Maenads, now including the king’s own mother, set upon Pentheus and tore the unrecognized politician into pieces.
The worship of the fertility god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is thought to go have originated around 1500-11000 BCE with Mycenean Greeks. His cult was known for ritual madness, and religious ecstasy, and these states have generally been attributed to the cults use of wine. However, numerous sources agree that Dionysian wine was more than pressed grapes from the descriptions recorded.
This myth was closely connected with religious experience, and ritual. It provided a charter and sanction for an ecstatic cult. That the ecstatic religious experience described was a reality in ancient Greece is not disputed. As with ecstatic rituals of India and the Mid East where people slash themselves with knives, or walk on coals in ecstatic states, or the behaviour of Evangelicals under the influence of the Holy Spirit speaking in tongues, the ecstatic and frenzied behaviour of the followers of Dionysus was interpreted as a sort of divine possession, here by the God of Intoxication. Plato attributed such ‘madness’ to poets inspired by the Muses, and to the priestess possessed by Apollon when she delivered her prophesies in trance.
A ritual reenactment of his myth was part of the rites of Dionysus, whose main followers were women, known under the name Maenads. Plutarch, the 1st century C.E. philosopher and Delphic priest, who was also said to have been initiated into the cult if Dionysus, refers to the “divine possessions” and “frenzy” of the Maneads during the rites of Dionysus, where potent Greek wine was consumed in honour of the God. Plutarch’s Mulierum Virtutes, makes it clear this was not a constant state for these women, describing the women eventually falling asleep in unison after a frenzied night of Bacchnallian festivities, in a market place in Amphissa. When they awoke it was clear they had returned to reason, and also like the ganja smoking saddhus and fakirs of India, also known for their wild antics, that they were revered figures of religious devotion by other members of the culture. As Plutarch describes, the townswomen were keen to take this moment of sobriety to make offerings of kindness to the Maenads.
The wives of the men of Amphissa, fearing, because their city had become allied with the Phocians, and numerous soldiers of the despots were present there, that the Thyads [another name of the Maenads]might be treated with indignity, all ran out into the market-place, and, taking their stand round in silence, did not go up to them while they were sleeping, but when they arose from their slumber, one devoted herself to one of the strangers and another to another, bestowing attentions on them and offering them food. (Plutarch)
Clearly the effects of the Dionysian infusion wore off. When we come to see some of the wine infusions in use in ancient Greece, we can better understand their potential to induce such states.
The Encyclopedic ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott states that Dionysus is “erroneously regarded to be the god only of alcoholic inebriation owing to a misunderstanding of the natures of Greek Wines, potent infusions of numerous Psychoactive plants, in which the alcohol served as a preservative, rather than as inebriating principle, and which often required dilution to be drunk safely” (Ott,1995). Dr. David Hillman, who holds the combined degrees of a Ph.D. in Classics and a M.S. in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin, where he studied the medicine and pharmacology of antiquity, has also noted that “Dionysus actually possessed his followers, and Euripides’ Greek audience clearly equated this act with the use of mind-altering drugs” (Hillman, 2008).
More recently Brian Muraresku has made much of an entheogenic potion, “the spiked grape elixir of Dionysus”, following in the footsteps of his mentor Professor of Classics, Carl Ruck, suggesting in The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name an influence of such a potion on not only the Greek, but even the Christian Mysteries, “with Dionysus’s wine as the vehicle for the psychedelic kick” (Muraresku, 2020). I have looked at similar ideas in earlier works, such as Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010), and Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001) and it is from these books this article was adapted, with the addition of some new research material.
Infused Wines in ancient Greece
As the Classics Professor, and entheogenic history pioneer, Carl Ruck has noted:
Ancient people were fascinated by herbs and their healing powers and knew much more about them than we do; at least about mixing herbs to release their potency.
Ancient wines were always fortified, like the ‘strong wine’ of the Old Testament, with herbal additives: opium, datura, belladonna, mandrake and henbane. Common incenses, such as myrrh, ambergris and frankincense are psychotropic; the easy availability and long tradition of cannabis use would have seen it included in the mixtures. Modern medicine has looked into using cannabis as a pain reliever and in treating multiple sclerosis. It may well be that ancient people knew, or believed, that cannabis had healing power.
Much of their knowledge, passed down through an oral tradition, has been lost and to some extent it is the modern prejudice against drugs that has stopped us looking for it…”
“Was There a Whiff of Cannabis About Jesus?” The Sunday Times, Jan. 12, 2003
The Greeks were well aware of the plants around them, and the idea that they contained not only medicinal but magical properties, was widespread. Because it was believed that “that certain drugs could secure the passionate love of another. Indian hemp, mandrake, opium, strychnos varieties, and others were greatly used as love charms and as stimulating aphrodisiacs (Parsons, 1899)”
Pliny, the Roman writer, says the properties of these drugs became manifest even when merely taken into the hand, but more so when taken in dry wines; and that “overindulgence in them will cause death.” This proves that most of these substances were no doubt stimulants and narcotics.(Parsons, 1899).
We have to consider the herbal knowledge of humanity of this era, at least on par of the knowledge of other indigenous people, such as the tribal people of South America, who learned how to mix a powerful combination of otherwise non-psychoactive plants, into the potent medicinal brew known as ayahuasca, as well as identifying countless active medicinal plants in the jungles they live in. One of the beautiful things about cannabis, is its lack of deadly effects, and we can be sure this was noted by ancient psychonauts in regards to some of the more deadly things like mandrake and henbane, that we know were in use. As Luigi Arata noted in ‘Nepenthes and Cannabis in Ancient Greece’:
“Greek people knew about its fumes, obviously, and about its effects. The fact that almost nobody directly described abuse of this stupefacient was perhaps due to its rarity (cannabis was not a Greek product, it seems) or its unusual utilization. Yet, it is not at all strange if we bear in mind the silence of our sources about the drugs that were used by the Maenads in Bacchic mysteries and by the initiates in Orphic mysteries. We know that those people who found their way of happiness celebrating those rites tried to come into communion with gods through orgies and narcotics. Sex and drugs were thus the media through which men and women became gods or, better, similar to gods…. Who knows? Perhaps, nepenthes or cannabis were the drugs that were used in those rites, and this would be the reason why we know so little of them and about how they were used.” (Arata, 2004)
When we consider that the majority of scholars identify Nepenthe with cannabis, a cannabis infused wine in fact, this suggestion for Dionysian infusions, becomes even stronger.
Nepenthe was an ancient herbal infused wine, that appears in Homer’s famous tale The Odyssey. Its use to quell grief in a funerary setting has caused many researchers to identify it with cannabis. Opium has been discounted here, as the Greeks of this time were well familiar with its use and effects.
“Then Helen, daughter of Zeus… cast a drug into the wine whereof they drank, a drug to lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfullness of every sorrow. Whoso should drink a draught thereof, when it is mingled in the bowl, on that day he would let no tear fall down his cheeks, not though his mother and his father died, not though men slew his brother or dear son with the sword before his face, and his own eyes beheld it. Medicines of such virtue and so helpful had the daughter of Zeus, which Polydamna, the wife of Thon, had given her, a woman of Egypt, where earth the grain-giver yields herbs in greatest plenty, many that are healing in the cup, and many baneful. There each man is a leech skilled beyond all human kind…”
The historian Diodorus Siculus, who lived in the 1st century B.C., noted that still in his time, more than 7 centuries after the composition of Homer’s Iliad, “people say that the Egyptian women make use of the powder (of this plant, scil. the nepenthes) and they say from ancient times only those women who lived in the ‘Town-of-Zeus’ [i.e. Thebes, which was also known as Diospolis] had found medicines which cure wrath and grief”. Later, “in the second century AD, Plutarch would say that it was in imitation of Homer’s Helen that people in his day mixed ‘ox-tongue’ plant [unidentified]in wine to cause cheerfulness and happiness’ (Nelson, 2005).
As Prof. Carl Ruck has noted “It is generally assumed that the drug, which Helen is supposed to have learned in Egypt, was opium, but the effects as described in the poem are much more like Cannabis, which was also widely employed in Egypt and throughout the Near East” (Ruck, et al., 2007). Numerous researchers have seen nepenthe as a cannabis concoction. An idea first put forth by the French Pharmacist Joseph Virey (1775—1846) who suggested in 1813 that hasheesh was Homer’s nepenthe (Bulletin de Pharmacie). Many others have since concurred: “The opinions entertained by the learned, on the nature of the Nepenthe of the ancients have been various. By Th. Zwinger, and… by Sprengel, in his history of botany, it is supposed to be opium… But the best authorities, with whom our author coincides, are of opinion that the Nepenthe was derived from the Cannabis sativa of Linnaeus” (Christen, 1822); “the famous nepenthe of the ancients is said to have been prepared by decocting the hemp leaves” (Watt, 1853); “nepenthe which may reasonably be surmised was bhang from the far east” (Benjamin, 1880). As the authors of The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians also concluded: “Nepenthes… Perhaps the Bust or Hasheesh, a preparation of the Cannabis sativa” (Wilkinson & Birch, 1878). See also (Walton, 1938; Burton, 1894; Lewin, 1931; Singer and Underwood, 1962; Oursler, 1968; Wills, 1998). It is clearly the Nepenthe that Prof Richard Evans Schultes and Prof. Albert Hofmann are referring to when they wrote in a chapter on cannabis “In ancient Thebes the plant was made into a drink with opium like effects” (Schultes & Hofmann, 1979). Ancient Egyptian wine amphorae have been recovered from Sˇaruma, which held black organic residues inside containing the pollen of cannabis, but it is unclear if this is indications of an infusion, or merely picked up in the air during the wine making process, which itself indicates at least the presence of cannabis in the area (Rosch, 2004).I have discussed this and other potential linguistic evidence further connecting nepenthe with cannabis in another article.
Other such infusions were known in ancient Greece, and these as well are generally believed to have contained cannabis, under the names “thalassaegle,” “potammaugis” and “gelotophyllis” which were recorded by Democritus (c.a. 460 b.c.) and later referred to by Pliny. “The gelotophllis of Pliny… a plant drunk in wine among the Bactrians, which produced immoderate laughter, may very well be identical with hemp, which still grows willd in the country around the Caspian and Aral Seas” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993). Pliny (23-79 a.d.) quotes the following description from Democritus:
Taken in drink it produces delirium, which presents to the fancy visions of a most extraordinary nature. The theangelis, he says, grows upon Mount Libanus in Syria, upon the chain of mountains called Dicte in Crete, and at Babylon and Susa in Persia. An infusion of it imparts powers of divination to the Magi. The geolotophyllis, is a plant found in Bactriana , and on the banks of the Borysthenes. Taken internally with myrhh and wine all sorts of visionary forms present themselves, excite the most immoderate laughter.
Interestingly, Bactria, mentioned in the quote from Pliny, is part of the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC) a site where the Russian archeologist Victor Sarianidi has claimed to have found ancient temples where there was evidence of the preparation of a sacred drink which was made from cannabis and ephedra, and in some cases, opium containing poppies. Sarianidi suggests this site was an outpost for the preparation of haoma, the sacred drink of the Avesta, in Persia and identical with the soma of the Vedas, of ancient India.
Prof. Patrick McGovern, a Professor of Anthropology and Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, referring to the work of Sarinainidi at the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex has suggested in Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (2009) that soma/haoma was likely a wine or mead like infusion. McGovern based his view on later Zoroastrian accounts, such as the Book of Arda Wiraz, has cannabis (bhanga, or mang) mixed into wine, or in some accounts has haoma. “From a chemical standpoint, the advantage of using an alcoholic beverage is that it dissolves the plant alkaloids” (McGovern, 2009).
When I first considered wine as the most likely vehicle for haoma, it was under the assumption that the Margiana sites were within the sphere of the wine culture that is so well attested to in the Fergana Valley, even deeper in Central Asia…. The archeological and botanical evidence from the… excavations provide new clues for identifying haoma, at least in prehistoric Central Asia. If we accept Sarianidi’s premise that a special beverage was being prepared… with the reading that wine and a hallucinogen were mixed together in the Arda Wiraz story, then the evidence of ephedra, hemp and poppy pollen in the pottery vessels… begins to make sense… these plants… have been well known since antiquity as medicinal and narcotic agents in Central Asia…. With more archeological and chemical investigation, we should be able to re-create the ancient haoma/soma or central Asian grog, which was probably much stronger than modern versions. (McGovern, 2009)
Interestingly as we shall see later, a number of researchers have suggested a connection between soma/haoma and Dionysus.
The quote from Pliny as well mentions Persia, and notes that such an “infusion of it imparts powers of divination to the Magi” a name generally associated with the ancient Zoroastrians, who grew out of the Avestan religion which used haoma, and who we know from surviving texts, infused cannabis resins into wine, resulting in very potent effects. The Zoroastriasn texts refer to a substance variously known as bhanga, or in Pahvlavi as mang. Bhanga is still used in Persia to identify cannabis and the related Indian term bhang is still used for cannabis as well. It is this same concoction that McGovern referred to in regards to the Book of Arda Wiraz.
In reference to Zoroastrian expeditions into the world of the afterlife, Shaul Shaked noted that “The preparation of this journey was done… by administering to the officiant a dose of mang (hemp), mixed with wine” (Shaked, 1999). “Zoroaster is commonly said to have spiked the haoma with mang, which was probably hashish. It would have prolonged the intoxication and further stimulated the imagination of the drugged man. Of such are the wonders of Heaven” (Oliver, 1994). In the Zoroastrian tale “…the Artak Viraz Namak… Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the rewards bestowed on the good, and the punishment awaiting the sinner are here described in a vision induced by hashish” (Campbell, 2000). Referring to this same account, van Baaren and Hartman, in their Iconography of Religions, also noted the hero “imbibes an intoxicant composed of wine and hashish and after this his body sleeps for seven days and nights while his soul undertakes the journey” (van Baaren & Hartman,1980).
Gherardo Gnoli, a noted expert on the history of religions, and Iran, recorded: “bang was… an ingredient of the ‘illuminating drink’ (rōšngar xwarišn) that allowed Wištāsp to see the ‘great xwarrah’ and the ‘great mystery.’ This mang ī wištāspān (Pahlavi Vd. 15.14…) was mixed with hōm (Dēnkard 7.4.85) or wine (Pahlavi Rivayat 47.27). It was an integral part of the ecstatic practice aimed at opening the ‘eye of the soul’ (gyān čašm….)” (Gnoli, 1979). In relation, in India the drinking of bhang, a cannabis beverage, by devotees is still believed to open up the “eye” of Shiva, i.e the “third-eye.” I have presented a more thorough analysis of the Zoroastrian references in the article The Herb of the Magi: Zoroaster’s Good Narcotic.
The Egyptian-born Greek alchemist and Gnostic mystic, Zosimos of Panopolis who lived at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century AD. was also said to have made reference to such infusions. surviving translation of Zosimos work, have the ancient sage identify references to cannabis infused wines and beers. “…wines can be made in a multitude of ways, [as shown]through many accounts that authors have left to us, and nature, and art such things, that is, grown wines from the vineyard and medicinal, or by adding various spices like palm, cannabis seed, etc …”; “Certainly brewers of Egyptian beer [‘zythi’], which is more powerful [then our beers]are not lacking in the false and wicked arts, and might be better used for intoxication. This [concoction]includes: borage, cannabis seeds and leaves, helenium, ivy leaves, strychnine, and darnel.”
As Tom Hatsis, who translated the above citation, has noted of this :
“Interestingly, he uses “lolium temulentum” for “darnel” (a known psychoactive), which specifically draws attention to the intoxicating powers of the plant (temelentum means “intoxication”)! He is also comparing the addition of things like cannabis, darnel, and strychnine to the magical arts!!! I mean, he calls them “false and wicked arts,” but that is EXACTLY how writers commented on magical works. He is OPENLY recognizing the use of cannabis and darnel in potions by magicians!” (Hatsis, 2016).
I should note here in regards to cannabis, it is often seeds that are noted in both texts and archaeological evidence, and seeds themselves are not psychoactive. What was likely identified in ancient descriptions was seeded buds, or seeds with the brackets still intact, which are psychoactive. In regards to archeological finds, with the way that plant matter deteriorates, seeds, are often what evidence is left, especially burnt seeds.
Varieties of psychoactive plants were used in such infusions. According to Dioscorides, and his commentator Matthiolus, one could “boil the root of mandrake in wine down to a third part, and preserve the decoction, of which they administer a cyathus (about a fluid ounce and a half), to produce sleep, and to allay severe pains of any part; and also before operations with the knife, or the application of the actual cautery, that the operation should not be felt.” Theophrastus and Dioscorides are thought to have been the the first to directly mention the aphrodisiac and soporific properties of mandrake (Atropa mandragora). Dioscorides also informs us that one dram of the root of “manic” nightshade (Atropa belladonna), taken in wine, elicits “empty forms” and “images of not unpleasant kind”, but he adds that a double dosage can bring mental disorientation for three whole days.
Some of the more frenzied behaviour of the Maenads may well be explained by the inclusion of such potent infusions.
The Kapnoabtai ’smoke walkers” of Thrace and the Cult of Dionysus
It should be noted that Dionysus’ origins are uncertain, and his cults took many forms in the various areas he came to be worshipped. Some sources claim ancient Thrace as the origins of his worship, others as Greek. However most accounts say Dionysus arrived in Greece as a foreigner, evidence from the Mycenaean period of Greek history indicate that he is one of Greece’s oldest attested gods. Dionysus’ attribute of “foreignness” as an arriving outsider-god may be an essential part of the myth to his cults, as he is a god of epiphany, sometimes called “the god that comes”.
Renaissance man, ethnobotanist and poet, Dale Pendell noted of this; “Dionysus’s home was usually assumed to be Thrace… whose shamans used hemp smoke to induce visions and oracular trances. Hemp probably came to Thrace through Central Asia and the Caucasus. A…similar route may have been followed by the grapevine…It is…possible that…Dionysus carried not only the vine but ganja as well” (Pendell 1995).
Pendell is by no means out on the fringe with this view, Professor Mircea Eliade, a respected source on the history of religions, referred to elements of shamanism in the Thracian cult of Dionysus, and suggested their use of cannabis:
Prophecy in Thrace was connected with the cult of ‘Dionysus’, a certain tribe, that of the Bessi, managed the oracle of ‘Dionysus’, the temple was on a high mountain, and the prophetess predicted the future in ‘ecstasy’, like the Pythia at Delphi.
Ecstatic experiences strengthened the conviction that the soul is not only autonomous but that it is capable of unio mystica with the divinity. The separation of soul from body, determined by ecstasy, revealed…the fundamental duality of man…[and]the possibility of a purely, spiritual post-experience…Ecstasy could…be brought on by certain dried herbs… (Eliade,1982)
In a foot note to dried herbs, Eliade referred to the use of hemp among the Thracians, stating that the Kapnobatai (Those who walk in Smoke) were “dancers and ‘shamans’ who used the smoke of hemp to bring ecstatic trances” (Eliade, 1982).
Shamanistic ecstasy is described as ‘one in which the spirit leaves the physical body’ and it has been widely suggested that cannabis was utilized to induce this state on the Thracian plains almost 3,000 years ago. The Thracians deeply influenced Greek culture in a number of ways. A fact demonstrated by the Thracian connections to two figures prominent in Greek mythology; the god of intoxication, Dionysus and the shaman-prophet, Orpheus, the founder of Mysteries and earthly high priest of Dionysus. A red haired, fair skinned people, the Thracians were a well-organized group of horseman and hunters who held “a belief in the soul and a hereafter comparable to the Christian heaven…Their shamans, known as Kapnobatai, used hemp smoke to induce visions and oracular trances” (Emboden 1972). Such a technique of ecstasy amongst a group that held so much of an influence over the Greek Magical Philosophies could hardly have gone unnoticed. Andrei Oisteanu, a researcher at the Romanian Academy of at the Institute for History of Religions, also wrote about hallucinogenic, psychotropic plants amongst the Thracians and other groups, noting the ritual fumigations with cannabis, which he viewed as the magic cure…, a cure able to heal the soul, and used in the quest for immortality (Oisteanu 1997).
The Kapnobatai, or Smoke-walkers, burned cannabis believing that the living entity within the plant reassembled itself inside their bodies to give divine revelations. In the 1925 English translation, of the German work, Psyche, Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen (1890–1894); Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks, in a chapter on ‘The Thracian Worship of Dionysus’ Erwin Rohde, points to their likely use of cannabis. Rodhe was one of the great German classical scholars of the 19th century, known today chiefly for his friendship and correspondence with fellow-philologist Friedrich Nietzsche. [Nietzsche’s own troubled relationship with hashish is discussed here].
Referring to the set and setting of Dionysian ritual, Rohde described that it was “something more than a mere drama, for it can hardly be doubted the players themselves were possessed by the illusion of living the life of a strange person”:
The awe-inspiring darkness of night, the music, especially that of the Phrygrian flute, to which the Greeks attributed the power of making its hearers ‘full of the god’, the verities whirl of the dance—all these may very well, in suitably disposed natures, have rally led to a state of visionary exaltation in which inspired persons saw all external objects in accordance with his fancy and imagination. Intoxicating drinks, to which the Thracians were addicted, may have increased the excitement; perhaps they even used the fumes derived from certain seeds, with which the Scythians and Massagetai knew how to intoxicate themselves. We all know how even to day in the East the smoke of hashish may make men visionaries and excite religious raptures in which the whole nature is transformed for the enthralled dreamer….
Every detail confirms the picture of a condition of wild excitement in which limitations of ordinary life seem to be abolished. These extraordinary phenomena transcending all normal experience were explained by saying that the soul of a person thus ‘possessed’ was no longer ‘at home’ but ‘abroad’, having left its body behind. This was the literal and primitive meaning understood by the Greek when he spoke of ‘ekstasis’ of the soul in such orgiastic conditions of excitement. This ekstasis is ‘a brief madness’, just as madness is prolonged ekstasis. But the ekstasis, the temporary alienatio mentis of the Dionysian cult was not thought of as again purposeless wandering in the region of pure delusion, but as a hieromania, a sacred madness in which the soul, leaving the body, winged its way to union with the god. It is now with the god, in the condition of enthusiasmos ; those who are possessed… have their being in the God. While still retaining the finite ego, they feel and enjoy to the full the infinite power of all life. (Rohde, 1925)
In foot notes to the above section, Rohde further explains that there can be “no doubt” that it was cannabis used by the Thracians. Referring to ancient Latin references from the 1st century recorded by Pomponius Mela: “epulantibus ubi super ignes quos circumisident quaedam semina ingesta, similis ebrietati hilaritas ex nidor contingit“, which directly refers to how “certain seeds are heaped on the fires” and the fumes resulting bringing on a state of “drunkenness” and “good cheer”.
There can be no doubt it was hemp-seed [ie seeded buds]… which had this effect… the Thracians knew hemp. It was thus with a sort of hashish that they intoxicated themselves… The Thracians… may very well have used intoxication through hashish-fumes as a means of exciting themselves to their ecstatic religious dances.—The Ancients were quite familiar with the practice of inhaling aromatic smoke to produce religious hallucinations….
We have only to read the accounts derived from personal experience of the hallucinatory states accompanying hashish-smoking… to have a complete parallel to the condition which underlay Bacchic excitement… It only requires the special tone and character given the hallucinations and illusions by deep-rooted religious or fanciful conceptions—and the external machinery for cultivating such illusions—to make an exact equivalent of the delirious condition of… the nightly festival of Dionysus. (The helpless state of impressionability to outward—e.g. musical—and inward influences is a marked feature of the intoxication and fantasia of hashish.) Other narcotics also have similar effects. (Rohde, 1925)
Other evidence of Thracian use of cannabis can be found in Sophocles (496-406), who used “the word Cannabis, apparently to add ethnic detail for his Thamyras tragedy, which tells the tale of the Thracian shaman-singer who contested the Muses …” (Ruck, et al. 2007). As also noted of this by Professor Jan N. Bremmer, a Dutch academic and historian, who served as a professor of Religious Studies and Theology at the University of Groningen, specializing in history of ancient religion, especially ancient Greek religion and early Christianity.
According to a Greek dictionary in Roman times, the Antiatticista, which recorded words acceptable to use by those who wanted to write correct Greek, Sophocles mentioned the word kannabis in his tragedy Thamyras… This drama about the defeat of the Thracian singer Thamyras in a singing match against the Muses contains references to ecstatic dancing… but unfortunately we can hardly be certain about a single scene, except that apparently Thamyras broke his lyre after his defeat… As… the dictionary explicitly mentions that the word kannabis occurred in Herodotus and Sophocles, the latter’s debt to Herodotean ethnography is considerable and the Antiatticista would hardly select kannabis as a routine reference for clothing, the conclusion seems reasonable that Sophocles somehow connected the Thracian Thamyras with an ecstatic use of cannabis. It fits in with this conclusion that Posidonius mentions Thracian ‘smoke-walkers’ (kapnobatai) and that Pomponius Mela reports the use of certain seeds by the Thracians which results in a similis ebriatati hilarities… (Bremmer, 2002)
Archeological evidence from within the area which Thrace occupied, indicates cannabis was used in the region in funerary rituals as far back as 5,000 BCE, through a find of skeletal remains and burnt cannabis seeds recovered at a burial mound at modern day Gurbăneşti, Romania. (Rosetti, 1959). Similar practices can be found among a variety of ancient Indo-European groups, such as the Gushi in Central China, and the Scythians, as shall be discussed.
Orpheus, the High Priest of Dionysus
According to the Orphics, Orpheus was said to be Dionysus’ chief priest, and their strong connection is attested to in other sources as well. Some sources also suggesting it was the lyre playing poet Orpheus who first brought the Mysteries of Eleusis to the Greeks.
As, the 1st century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, explained Orpheus had learned the rites of Dionysus from earlier Thracian kings, who themselves had received them directly from Dionysus, whom had been collecting these initiatory rites on his own travels through the Mid East and India. Since Orpheus later modified and passed them on to all, Dionysiac rites are often referred to as ‘Orphic’.
As Diodorus Siculus, who was referred to earlier in regards to the Egyptian herbal wine infusion nepenthe, recorded:”This god (Dionysus) was born in Crete, men say, of Zeus and Persephone, and Orpheus has handed down the tradition in the initiatory rites….” (Diodorus Siculus V, 75). Besides this Thracian connection through Orpheus, there may well be other cultural influences, such as Egyptian. Diodorus, following the works of Herodotus, recorded that the rites of Osiris were identical to those of Dionysus whose priestly representative was Orpheus. Similar claims were made about the Eleusinian Mysteries regarding the commonalities with the rites of Isis and Demeter. This is interesting in regards to the sacraments of infused beverages used in these cults and what was discussed earlier about the nepenthe. As Diodorus explained:
Orpheus, for instance, brought from Egypt most of his mystic ceremonies, the orgiastic rites that accompanied his wanderings, and his fabulous account of his experiences in Hades. For the rite of Osiris is the same as that of Dionysus, and that of Isis very similar to that of Demeter, the names alone having been interchanged; and the punishments in Hades of the unrighteous, the Fields of the Righteous, and the fantastic conceptions, current among the many, which are figments of the imagination, all these were introduced by Orpheus in imitation of Egyptian funeral customs.
The musician prophet Orpheus was considered to be the hero-incarnation of Dionysus. Grecian relics show Orpheus surrounded by Thracian followers. The “Dionysiac religion, like Orphism, was of northern Thracian provenance, and was fraught with orgiastic-mystic elements, on which Orphism fastened, adopting its emotionalism, its doctrine of Enthousiamos, and of possession by the deity, rejecting its wild frenzy, and transforming its savage ritual into a sacramental religion” (Angus,1975).
From the 6th century BC onward, Orpheus, was known as the ‘founder of initiation’. “Orphism was steeped in sacramentalism, which flooded the later Mysteries and flowed into Christianity. Salvation was by sacrament, by initiatory rites, and by an esoteric doctrine….Orphism was the most potent solvent ever introduced into Greek religious life” (Angus,1975). Unlike the placebo-sacraments of later Christianity, the Orphic references to the ecstatic state of Enthusiamos (from where we get the word enthusiasm), was obviously produced by a powerful entheogen. Such ecstatic rites leave little wonder why Orphism competed with Christianity for popularity with the masses through the first few centuries AD.
Orphics believed in reincarnation, teaching release from ‘the sorrowful wheel’ of life through ascetic contemplation and astral-projection type journeys, i.e.-shamanistic ecstasy. Ward Rutheford commented, “[H]istory provides several examples of…ritualized shamanistic initiation. Typical is the case of Orphism…derived from the…musician-prophet Orpheus. He was almost certainly a Kapnobatai…who induced trance by smoking possibly hemp” (Rutherford 1993).
‘Smoke’ was apparently an element in the Mystery initiation of the Orphics. Most explicitly in Euripides’ Hippolytus tragedy, Theseus in accusing his son of perfidy, saying, “You who have Orpheus for your lord: go on, get ecstatic, owing your allegiance to the smokes in their many scriptures.” There were indeed numerous holy scriptures amongst the Orphics, but ‘smoke’ in the context of ecstasy certainly does not mean that they were unsubstantial or worthless… (Ruck, et al., 2007)
Referring to Orphic worship, researcher Frederick Dannaway suggests that pagan elements of Greco-Roman worship were considerably “infused with psychoactive smoke rituals… due to the heavily ‘shamanic’ component… [of]much of their mystery traditions… The Orphic hymns contain a highly systematic array of fumigations containing some highly pungent, psychoactive substances that would synergize to be more potent in combination…” (Dannaway, 2009). We can be sure through the Thracian origins of Orpheus, that his cult would have included cannabis in such preparations. That such combinations would have come to be combined in the sacramental wine of Dionysus, seems all to likely.
The Thracians may have been influenced by another culture in regards to their use of cannabis, the nomadic Scythians who have been largely accredited with spreading the use of cannabis around much of the ancient world. The two cultures had centuries of interactions, and it was by no means all hostile, and their influences on each other are well established. The Scythians burned cannabis and inhaled the fumes in enclosed tents, but they were also known to have drank infusions of cannabis in a ritual setting as well.
The Scythian connection
An often referred to story relating to the Dionysiac cult among the Scythians is Herodotus’ tragic story of the Scythian king Scyles. He had a Greek mother, was fond of Greek customs and eventually chose to be initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus. The story is generally viewed as an illustration of the reservations of the Scythians towards Greek culture, however as told by a Greek author, the reverse could equally be seen as true. As the story goes, when the Scythians learn whom their king has been worshipping, Scyles is forced to escape to Thrace, only to be rendered back and executed. Herodotus is not particularly precise as to the nature of the initiation, however it has been suggested that Scyles was most likely initiated into Dionysiac mysteries of the so-called Orphic type, which was popular in many parts of the Greek world in the Classical age. Herodotus also recorded that the Geloni, a half-Greek and half-Scythian people, did worship Dionysus.
…for there are temples of Greek gods among them, furnished in Greek style with images and altars and shrines of wood; and they honor Dionysus every two years with festivals and revelry… and they speak a language half Greek and half Scythian. (Herodotus 4.108)
Now, I should be clear here, the name ‘Scythian’ and its Persian counterpart ‘Saka‘ have been applied to a very broad group of interacting Indo-European tribes, and these people were in no way dogmatic in their beliefs as a whole, and different views came to be held in different regions, in different time periods. Just as some Scythian groups became associated with the Persian Haoma, thus the regional name ‘haomavarga’ (haoma gatherers) so to in some areas the worship of Dionysus was embraced. Evidence of Dionysian worship has been found at the ancient Israeli site of Scythopolis, named after the God’s Scythian followers, and now the site of the modern city, Beit She’an. As well as in relics such as a Rhyton with Dionysus head found at a Scythian tomb, as well as other Dionysian relics.
Cannabis was an integral part of the Scythian cult of the dead wherein homage was paid to the memory of their departed leaders. In a famous passage written in about 450 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus describes the funeral rites that took place when a king died among the Scythians. After burial, he recorded, the Scythians would purify themselves by setting up small tepee-like structures covered by rugs which they would enter to inhale the fumes of hemp seeds (and the resinous flower calyxes surrounding the seeds) thrown onto red-hot stones.
The burial completed, the Scyths cleanse themselves in the following manner. They soap their heads and wash their hair, and then to cleanse their bodies they do as follows: they set up three sticks leaning together which they cover with woolen felts, and in the circular shelter created as best they can they put stones heated in a fire into a vessel set within a shelter… In Scythia they grow hemp…And then the Scyths take some of its seeds, creep under the felt and scatter the seeds over the hot stones, which gives off greater clouds of steam than in any Greek steam bath. The Scyths delighted by the steam, are loudly exultant. (Herodotus)
It is most likely the seeds described by Herodotus, were seeded buds, and the charred carbonized seeds found by archaeologists, what was left over from the burnt buds. Archeological evidence of this ritual has been recovered from a number of Scythian sites.
In the frozen Paryzyk tombs, the Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko found some metal censors designed for inhaling smoke which did not appear to be connected with any religious rite. As Rudenko noted in Frozen Tombs of Siberia: The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen “smoking hemp, like smoking hashish, took place without a doubt not just as a ceremony of purification after burial but in ordinary life; hashish was used as a narcotic. Not without reason Hesychius of Alexanandria in his Lexikon… calls hemp ‘the Scythian smoking which has such strength that it brings out in a sweat anyone who experiences it. They burn hemp seeds’” (Rudenko, 1970). From the accounts of Herodotus and Hesychius it seems likely that the Scythians introduced their method of intoxication to a variety of different cultures throughout the ancient world.
Rudenko points to both recreational and ceremonial use of cannabis amongst the Scythians. Others have commented more on the ritualistic implications of the hemp-rite, such as Geo Widengren, who was a Swedish historian of religions, professor of history of religions at Uppsala University, specializing as a orientalist and Iranist. “…[T]his purification had no mundane meaning, rather it corresponds to a shamanistic ritual, by which the shaman escorts the dead soul to the underworld. In fact the shaman is not mentioned in Herodot’s [sic] description, but all the crucial details recur otherwise in the Scythian purification: cult of the dead, use of hemp, ‘baths’ and howling together constitute a complex ritual whose aim is ecstasy” (Widengren, 1965).
“…[T]he ecstasies and trances produced by intoxication among the adepts of Bachus, and the delirium of the Corbybantes when they celebrated the Great Goddess of Phrygia and Asia Minor, had their equivalent in those provoked by Indian hemp in the vapour baths in which Scythians indulged.” (Charriere, 1979)
Besides their use of cannabis, the Scythians were well known for their love of wine and excessive drinking. As noted in the Guardian story of the British Museum’s Scythian exhibit, it was “wine, weed and war” that is most identifiable in the relics of the ancient culture.
The Scythians are not unknown to history – or myth. They flourished from about 900 to 200BC, ranging from their Siberian homelands to the Black Sea and China, a nomadic people who pioneered sophisticated saddles that let them fight more effectively on horseback than any of the settled civilisations they encountered. They fought off the Persians and scared the ancient Greeks. It is even possible they inspired the Greek myth of the centaur, a half-horse, half-human creature.
The idea becomes much more believable when you see the elaborate armour and helmets they created for a horse to wear, to carry its owner into the afterlife… a Scythian riding into battle really might have looked to awestruck witnesses like a centaur.
In Greek mythology, centaurs go mad when they drink wine. Objects recovered from their tombs reveal how the Scythians learned about wine from Greece and got addicted to it. If heavy drinking was big in their culture, so was smoking weed. The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BC, is often accused of making up his outlandish stories. One tale he tells about the Scythians is that they loved to smoke hemp, which they burned under a kind of tent that you could put your head into. One such device is in this exhibition, recovered from a Scythian tomb. Herodotus got this one right. (Jones, 2017)
In The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe (2005) Max Nelson explains:
Hieronymus of Rhodes in his work On Intoxication wrote that ‘”to do the Scythian’ is “to become intoxicated’” since the Scythians were known for their overindulgence, and further suggested that the drinking cup known in Greek as skyphos was originally the skythos…. we learn… from Strabo in the first century BC that nomads… in Scythian territory… bought wine from Greeks, and presumably this trade had been going on for many hundreds of years, as is perhaps confirmed by greek Vessel finds in Scythian tumuli as early as the seventh century BC. (Nelson, 2005)
in this context, the idea that the Scythians may have combined the two intoxicants they enjoined, seems not only likely, but probable. The Scythians may have been practicing the Old World tradition of mixing aromatic plants such as cannabis, with wine. “…[T]he mixing bowl… had,… among the Scythians, ceremonial and funerary functions… [T]he nomads authorized to take part in royal libations were those who had scalped enemies and could produce the heads as evidence. Then,… the heroes poured themselves great drafts… and drank them at one go—Russian fashion… Impressive receptacles were therefore needed for mixing water with a strong, full bodied wine that was usually flavoured with resin and aromatic plants” (Charrier, 1979). This is a suggestion I have noted elsewhere, and has also been proposed by other researchers, notably Prof. Patrick McGovern, who commented on the Scythian evidence unearthed by Rudenko “They would have had access to some of the ancient ingredients likely used in ancient haoma/soma. At Pazyryk, the preferred beverage thus appears to have combined a marijuana high with an alcoholic buzz” (McGovern, 2009).
If the assumption that the Scythians were drinking cannabis infused preparations is right it would offer an explanation to the inclusion of ritual cups and vessels in Scythian tombs as described by V.A. Kisel in Herodotus’s Scythian Logos and Ritual Vessels of the Early Nomads. Kisel suggests that there was a style of ritual cup used by the Scythians, that was based on the shape of braziers they burnt cannabis in:
Some censers are small. Therefore, rather than being receptacles for heated stones, they served a different purpose. Possibly they were used for burning crushed dry plants or for ritual drinks. This is quite likely since the function of vessels changed with time or similar specimens may have been functionally different. (Kisel, 2007)
Kisel points to a Scythian legend involving Dionysus’ father, the god Zeus, about a fiery golden cup which fell from the sky and that would burst into flames when approached unless the recipient was the future king, who in the myth is the progenerator of Scythian culture and the direct ancestor of Scythian royalty.
Kisel concluded that despite having a common mythological heritage, the ritual life of European and Asian Scythians held some differences, notably involving their purification rites and objects of adoration. “European Scythians did not practice the vapour bath described in the Scythian logos, and their principal sacral vessel was a round bowl or a dipper, which often had segment-shaped handles. Asian nomads commonly practiced purification with hemp-vapor, and their most sacral vessels were a cauldron, a dipper, and a censer, most of which are vessels used by large groups of people, possibly clan members…” (Kisel, 2007). Kisel also noted it was likely “that saucers, like most nomadic stone altars, served as press stones for expressing Soma-Haoma, because in this case, too, both plants and fire could have been used” (Kisel, 2007).
In this regard, it should be noted that both Scythians and the cult of Dionysus, as shall be discussed, have their own connections to the soma/haoma beverages of the Vedic and Avestan religions, with the name Haumavargā ‘haoma gatherer’ applied to some Scythian groups, and the accusation they both burnt and drank haoma.
The Russian archeologist referred to earlier in relation to the Soma cult evidence to be found in the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex, Victor Sarianidi pointed to the Scythian’s other name of, “‘Saka-Haomovarga’ or in other words ‘Saka who prepare haoma’… according to Helanik they lived in the environs of Margiana…. The ancient Persian scribes knew… the distant and mythical Saka… prepared haoma….” (Sarianidi, 1978).
It is extremely important to add that in the temples of Margiana… especially in the tremenos of Gonur, [particularly associated with large finds of cannabis evidence]typical Andronovo vessels (or their fragments) were found in the rooms associated with the preparation of the soma-haoma type beverages… the presence of these articles in all three temples confirms the conclusion that the predecessors of Scythian-Sakas, that is the Andronovo tribes, were familiar with the ritual drink as early as the second millennium B.C.
… Herodotus witnesses that Scythians used to make fire in their tents and threw hemp on the scorching stones and then “the Scythians screamed loudly in the pleasure of inhaling it”… The same custom was practiced by the Altai Scythians (the Pasyryk tombs).This means that Scythians used narcotics that were traditional for those Andronovo tribes that had close contacts with the Margiana tribes which apparently could have borrowed this custom from them. (Sarianidi, 1978)
Ritual cups were a big part of Scythian worship in fact, and golden cups that contained residue of both cannabis and opium have been recovered from a Scythian site. At least one of the Russian archeologists involved in the find, suggested these were ritual cups for consuming haoma. In relation a bone cup was discovered in a Paryzyk tomb, image below, which botanist Robert C. Clarke describes as “8 inches tall, crafted from neatly sewn plates of steamed and bent horn – contained ceremonial drink *includes cannabis, -light, -portable, unbreakable” (Clarke, 1998).
This brings to mind a vessels discovered by the Russian archeologist Rudenko, described as a “leather flask containing hemp” (Rudenko, 1970). Flasks are generally used for storing liquid, but Rudenko is unclear as to the form of the hemp in the flask. Unfortunately there is also no reference to any analysis of any residue found in the accompanying vessels. Rudenko suggests a milk infusion or milky vodka, unfortunately the other finds do not discuss what liquid was used for the infusions.
This 4th century BC Scythian rhyton with the head of Dionysus on its tip offers physical evidence that the cannabis consuming Scythians, like their close relatives the Thracians, also included Dionysus in their pantheon. As the March, 2009 eBay description of this priceless antiquity (which held a starting bid of $10,500,000.00) described this: “Scythian, Greek gold Rhyton… depicting Greek God Dionysus is one of the rarest privately owned treasures in the world! Half of the Rhyton is made from pure gold with most beautiful ornaments at both ends. The other half is a silver alloy in the form of magnificent botanic stem that becomes a head of Greek God Dionysus. The cultural aspect of this artefact cannot be measured. This is an international rarity that transcends borders and continents. Rhyton is in very good condition considering it is 2400 years old!”
In The Immortality Key, Muraesku makes much of an ancient Israelite site know for the worship of Dionysus, and named after his Scythian followers, noting that in this area “Dionysus figurines have been unearthed”. In relation to infused wines, it should be noted that the ancient Jews seem to have had some acquaintance with these preparations as well. Similar to the potent Greek infusions mentioned above is the Biblical “strong drink” (shekar): “An inebriating Potion described in the Old Testament; but distinct from Wine; probably a Soporific or visionary vinous infusion, analogous to ancient Greek Wines, of one or many Psychoactive plants”(Ott 1995).
In regards to Scythians and Cannabis, it should be noted that there was a likely a cultural exchange here that resulted in the the archeological find of burnt cannabis resins on a temple altar in Arad, Jerusalem. A Scythian influence has also been identified in regards to a Hebrew word, that has been suggested as identifying cannabis, ‘Kaneh Bosm’. Also, of interest are the connections between ancient Jewish culture and Dionysus, and the use of infused wines.
The Jews and Dionysus
In A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature. Kitto noted: “The palm wine of the East… is made intoxicating… by an admixture of stupefying ingredients, of which there was an abundance… Such a practice seems to have existed amongst the ancient Jews…” (Kitto, 1846). Talmudic reference indicate this use as well: “The one on his way to execution was given a piece of incense in a cup of wine, to help him fall asleep” (Sanh. 43a). A 19th century edition of The Medical News explained further:
Jews were more humane in their method of dealing with condemned criminals than the Greeks or the Romans. In the Talmudic writings there are several passages which seem to show that it was the practise to ease the pain of torture and death by stupefying the sufferers. Thus: “If a man is led forth to death, he is given a cup of spiced wine to drink, whereby his soul is wrapped in night;” and again: “Give a stupefying drink to him that loseth his life, and wine to those that carry bitterness in their hearts.” According to tradition, while the Roman conqueror held sway in Palestine, and crucifixion was a common punishment of malefactors, the Jewish women, with the sanction of the Sanhedrin, were wont to ease the death–agony of the sufferers by giving them something in the nature of a “wine of the condemned “upon a sponge. It is probable that the “wine mingled with myrrh,” which, according to St. Mark (xv. 23), was offered to Christ while he was hanging on the cross, was a narcotic draft intended to make death painless.
Such preparations were apparently used by the ancient Jews, for ritual intoxication, and for easing pain. A Reverend E. A Lawrence, in an essay on ‘The wine of the Bible’ in a 19th century edition of The Princeton Review noted that:
It appears to have been an ancient custom to give medicated or drugged wine to criminals condemned to death, to blunt their senses, and so lessen the pains of execution. To this custom there is supposed to be an allusion, Prov. xxxi. 6, ‘Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish,’ …To the same custom some suppose there is a reference in Amos 2:8, where the ‘ wine of the condemned’ is spoken of… The wicked here described, in addition to other evil practices, imposed unjust fines upon the innocent, and spent the money thus unjustly obtained upon wine, which they “quaffed in the house of their gods”…
Mixed wine is often spoken of in Scripture. This was of different kinds… sometimes, by lovers of strong drink, with spices of various kinds, to give it a richer flavour and greater potency (ls. v. 22; Ps. lxxv. 8). The ‘ royal wine,’ literally wine of the kingdom… Esther i. 7), denotes most probably the best wine, such as the king of Persia himself was accustomed to drink. (Lawrence, 1871)
This was a considerably widespread view in the 19th century, The New York Dental Journal reported: “Among the Hebrews and Egyptians, it was customary to give a preparation of hemp to a condemned prisoner, just previous to his execution; some of the Biblical commentaries assert that the gall and vinegar, mentioned in Scripture as having been given to Christ on a sponge, was in reality what the Prophet Amos calls ‘wine of the condemned,’ doubtless the Bhang of the Hindoo Suttee at the present day” (Roberts, 1862).
This connection was not limited to 19th century fancy either, as Kenneth Walker noted in The Story of Medicine, the “drug, hashish… is of venerable age, and when Amos wrote (around 700 B.C.) on the subject of the ‘wine of the condemned’, he was probably referring to it” (Walker, 1955).
That this this infused wine, not only had pain numbing qualities, but was also “quaffed in the house of their gods” gives clear indication it was sought after for entheogenic effects as well. That it is compared to the wines of the King of Persia, also brings us back to the cannabis infused wines of the Zoroastrian period, such as that taken by Arda Viraf, referred to earlier. It has been suggested by scholars, that the Biblical Prophet Ezra, used this means of Persian entheogenic induction (Brown, 1890; Dobroruka, 2002).
In The A to Z of Prophets in Islam and Judaism, Scott B. Noegel, Brannon M. Wheeler “The use of drugs, especially alcohol… as a means of inducing or enhancing the prophetic experience is attested periodically throughout the ancient Near East, and is probably related to the mantic’s role as an herbalist and medical practitioner” (Noegel & Wheeler, 2010).
Evidence for opium use has been found throughout the ancient Near East, especially on Cyprus, thought its connection to Cypriot cults has been questioned. The practice of inhaling intoxicating substances like cannabis and incense also appear… Texts from Mari demonstrate that at least some prophets partook in excessive wine drinking as a means of accessing the divine. Ugartic tablets also detail the events of the marzeah feast, a repast in which… dead kings were summoned to wine and dine with the living… (Noegel & Wheeler, 2010)
Like Amos’ condemnation of those who quaffed such mixtures in the House of the gods, Isaiah condemned those who seek oracles from the dead through inebriation (Isaiah 28:7-22). These references show, even though in a negative light, that such cultic practices were both known and taking place in the region.
Interestingly, cannabis could be grown alongside grape vines. This is notable as it indicates that cannabis did not violate the prohibitions of Kil’ayim (Hebrew: כלאים, lit. “mixture,” or “diverse kinds”) which defined the prohibitions in Jewish law which proscribe the planting of certain mixtures of seeds, grafting, the mixing of plants in vineyards, the crossbreeding of animals, the mixing of wool with linen in garments, and other details.
The Sages of Israel have described the prohibition of growing diverse kinds of crops in a vineyard, and referred to only to two grain varieties (such as wheat and barley), or either to hemp and arum, or similar plants which reach maturity with the grain, being permitted. [Aharon HaLevi (1958), mitzvah # 548; Meiri (2006), p. 94, Kiddushin 39a, s.v. וכלאי הכרם; Ishtori Haparchi (1999), chapter 56, p. 265] By a rabbinic prohibition, it was not permitted to plant or maintain a vineyard while the vineyard shares the same immediate ground with any vegetable or seed-crop grown for food. The allowing of cannabis to be grown, would have been designated by some sort of shared association with the vine, and likely in this case it was ‘intoxication’.
Rabbi Immanuel Löw, a rabbi and scholar, in Die Flora Der Juden, (1967); [originally published as Flora der Juden (1924)], referred to a later Jewish recipe (Sabb. 14. 3 ed. Urbach, 9th-11th century) that indicates the continued use of such infusions into the medieval period, and which called for wine to be mixed with ground-up saffron, Arabic gum and hasisat surur, “I know ‘surur’ solely as a alias for the resin the Cannabis sativa,” (Löw, 1924). Löw made no comment on the word “hasisat” which is very reminiscent of the name for cannabis resins in the medieval Arabic world “hasis” (hash- ish), and the term is generally thought to have been derived in that period. In Liber 420 I discuss 13th century Jewish alchemical references to various herbal wine infusions, known as a Quintessence.
A number of ancient sources recorded the widespread belief of their time, that the god worshiped by the Jewish people, Yahweh, was identifiable as Dionysus. Notably, Tacitus, Lydus, Cornelius Labeo, and Plutarch all either made this association, or discussed it as an extant belief. The Jewish Encyclopedia makes it clear, that at times, and likely under force for many of the Jews did in fact worship Dionysus, particularly during the time of the Maccabes.
The general statement in I Maccabees (i. 51, 54, 55) that Antiochus Epiphanes forced the Jews to sacrifice in the Greek fashion, is amplified in II Maccabees (vi. 7; compare III Macc. ii. 29) into the statement that the Jews were forced to take part in the festivals of Dionysus and to deck themselves with ivy (κίσσος); hence Hippolytus (“De Antichristo,” pp. 33-35, § 49), a Church father of the second century, regards Antiochus Epiphanes as the prototype of Antichrist… the Dionysia were celebrated in every country that had come under the influence of Greek culture. Antiochus XI. even bore the by-name “Dionysus” (Josephus, “Ant.” xiii. 15, § 1; “B. J.” i. 4, § 7); and Nicanor, the general of Demetrius, threatened to consecrate a Temple at Jerusalem to Dionysus unless Judas Maccabeus was delivered to him (II Macc. xiv. 33).
According to Plutarch.
A myth of Dionysus is connected with the Palestinian city of Scythopolis. Pliny (“Historia Naturalis,” v. 18, § 74) and Solinus (ed. Mommsen, ch. 36) derive the name of this city from the Scythians, who were settled on that spot by Dionysus in order to protect the tomb of his nurse who was buried there. The Greeks and the Romans were firmly convinced that the Jews had a cult of Dionysus, basing this opinion on some external point of similarity. Plutarch thinks that the name of the Jewish Sabbath is derived from σάβος, the cry of the ecstatic Bacchantes. More important still is his further statement that the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, as celebrated in the Temple at Jerusalem, was really a form of Dionysus worship. He reasons as follows: “The Jews celebrate their most important feast in the time of the vintage; they heap all sorts of fruit on their tables, and they live in tents and huts made chiefly from branches of the vine and from ivy; the first day of this festival they call the Feast of Tabernacles. A few days later they celebrate another feast, invoking Bacchus no longer through symbols, but calling upon him directly by name. They, furthermore, have a festival during which they carry branches of the fig-tree and the thyrsus; they enter the Temple, where they probably celebrate Bacchanalia, for they use small trumpets; and some among them, the Levites, play on the cythara” (“Symposium,” iv. 5, § 3). Plutarch evidently had certain ceremonies of the Feast of Sukkot in mind. See Crown in Post-biblical Times. The accusation of Tacitus (“Hist.” v. 5) is similar:
“As their priests sing to the accompaniment of flutes and kettle-drums, and as they deck themselves with laurel, and as a golden vine was found in their Temple, many people believe that they worship Bacchus, the conqueror of the East; but the two cults have nothing in common, for Bacchus has established a brilliant and joyous ritual, while the customs of the Jews are bizarre and morose.”
Plutarch, furthermore, deduces the Jewish worship of Bacchus from the garment of the high priest, who wears bells on his mantle, like those that were used in the Bacchanalia at night; he refers also in ambiguous terms to a thyrsus and to drums (τνμπανα) which the high priest wears in front (on the frontlet or on the breastplate?) (ib.). Grätz (“Gesch.” 2d ed., ii. 254) assumes a barrel-opening festival (πιθογία = “vinalia”), which, however, can not be substantiated.
In describing the garment of the high priest, Plutarch purposely uses expressions reminiscent of the Dionysus worship, and it is probable that just such equivocal expressions, which he may have read in a Hellenistic work, led him to make the impossible assertion that the Jews had a cult of Dionysus. As a matter of fact the palm-branch prescribed for the Feast of Tabernacles was called by the Hellenists θύρσος (Josephus, “Ant.” xiii. 13, § 5; II Macc. x. 7), which could easily remind a Greek of the Dionysia. He also intimates that he knew something about the “Feast of the Drawing of Water,” which in its free joyousness resembled the Bacchanalia (Suk. v. 2; Tosef.: iv. 1-5; Bab. 51b; Yer. 55b). Neither the statements of Tacitus nor those of Plutarch lead to the conclusion, as some scholars assert, that they used as their sources anti-Jewish Alexandrian works, for their statements contain nothing that is hostile to the Jews. A Greek, on the contrary, would consider it a vindication for the Jews if he could derive ceremonies of the Jewish worship from pagan practises. (Gottheil & Krauss, 1906)
A 4th century BC, coin on exhibit in the British Museum. Labelled either “YHW” (Yahu) or “YHD” (Judea), and thought to be the only physical representation of Yahweh from ancient Israel, has been connected with Dionysus. Stephen Herbert Langdon, an American-born British Assyriologist, wrote in his Mythology of All Races – Semitic (1931) explains:
“A coin from Gaza in Southern Philista, fourth century BC, the period of the Jewish subjection to the last of the Persian kings, has the only known representation of this Hebrew deity. The letters YHW are incised just above the hawk(?) which the god holds in his outstretched left hand. He wears a himation, leaving the upper part of the body bare, and sits upon a winged wheel. The right arm is wrapped in his garment. At his feet is a mask. Because of the winged chariot and mask it has been suggested that Yaw had been identified with Dionysus on account of a somewhat similar drawing of the Greek deity on a vase where he rides in a chariot drawn by a satyr. (Langdon, 1931)
In The Jews and their God of Wine, Jonathan Kirkpatrick explains:
In the period between the two revolts of the Jews of Palestine against Roman rule some non-Jews sought to identify the God of the Jews with their own god of wine, Dionysus or Liber. The actual evidence suggests three things. The cult of the Temple at Jerusalem was seen by outsiders to be characterised by an association with, and the use of, wine, an impression Jews did nothing to counteract. Second, outsiders acted on this impression, both as part of the cognitive step of identifying the God of the Jews with Dionysus, and, possibly, making gifts to the Temple, while it stood, of wine-related dedications. Third, this was a characterisation Jews were willing to embrace themselves, even at times of revolt. (Kirkpatrick, 2013)
The Immortality Key has recently suggested that Jesus was influenced by Dionysian rites that involved infused wines, and made much of the Dionysus worship in the ancient Israeli city of Scythopolis, as a potential connection point. Muraresku is not alone here, numbers of scholars have made similar suggestions. Notably, In an article titled “The Wine God in Palestine,” Professor Morton Smith, who was an American professor of ancient history at Columbia University, offered considerable evidence for the influence of Dionysiac cult and myth on Jewish and early Christian material. it is worth noting that indications of infused wines are indicated in the early Christian period as well, administered by Jesus himself in the 3-4th century text The Second Book of Jue, and identified in the Church Fathers condemnation of the Gnostic figure Marcus, as I have discussed in earlier books and in the article ‘Early Christianity’s Drug Fuelled Magic Rituals‘. It has even been long suggested that Jesus himself quaffed such a preparation in his own moment of doubt and pain.“
Some high biblical commentaries maintain that the gall and vinegar or myrrhed wine offered to our Saviour immediately before his crucifixion was a preparation, in all probability, of hemp, which was in these, as well as in later times, occasionally given to criminals before punishment or execution–while 700 years previously it is spoken of… by the prophet Amos as the “ wine of the condemned.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica: Or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature, Volume 5 (1854): see similar comments in –The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1860).
Accusations of using such infusions may have even been directed at Jesus in New Testament accounts. “The commonly attested connection between mantic behaviour and alcohol probably explains the reference in the New Testament that some people thought Jesus to be a wine-bibber (Matt 11:19). The use of drugs was so closely tied to mantic practice that the Greek word for ‘drug’ [Gk. pharmakea] eventually came to denote witchcraft (Gal 5:19-21)” (Noegel & Wheeler, 2010). The Immortality Key sees such early Christian activity as derived from the earlier Dionysian, and I will leave it to readers of that book to decide for themselves if there is a connection.
Of the ancient Israelite home of Dionysus, Muraresku states “the ancient city of Scythopolis was the legendary birthplace of Dionysus himself. For that reason it was also called Nysa…” . In fact Scythopolis was later renamed Nysa after the area Dionysus was raised as a child, the god was not born there. This designation of Scythopolis as Nysa was was a later tribute and the mythology has the Greek god born born on Mount Pramnos on Ikaria.
In Greek mythology, the mountainous district of Nysa (Greek: Νῦσα) was variously identified as Ethiopia, Libya, Tribalia, Arabia, and notably for our use India, by Greek mythographers. Nysa was the traditional place where the rain nymphs, the Hyades, raised the infant god Dionysus, the “Zeus of Nysa”. Nysa was said to have been named originally after Dionysus childhood nanny. Significantly, as we shall see, Alexander the Great thought he had rediscovered Nysa in India, where it was believed Dionysus was worshipped under the name Shiva.
Dionysus and Shiva
The Scythians dominated Northern India from about the first century BC to the 3rd century AD, leaving some to deem this The Scythian Period, also known as the as the Kushan era many of them adopted the worship of the Indian God Shiva, whose own cult is known for their ritual use of cannabis.
The above is a gold coin in my personal collection, from Northern India and dating from the 2nd-3rd century CE. The 1st century BC to the 3rd century CE in Northern India is known as The Scythian Period. This coin has on one side an image of a Kushan Scythian King, holding a trident of Shiva, as well as other regalia of the Indian God. On the flip side there is a picture of Shiva and his bull Nandi.
As noted by V. A. Smith of these coins in his essay ‘Greco-Roman Influences’ in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 58 (1889).
“The Indo-Scythian coin series affords obvious and conclusive evidence that about the beginning of the Christian era the religions of India and those of the neighbouring countries to the west were acting and re-acting upon each other. The worship of Siva was certainly then established among other cults, in India, and the figure of the god, armed with his trident, and standing beside his sacred bull, is, perhaps, the commonest mythological device of the Indo-Scythian coins. But he is not exactly the Siva of the mediæval Puráņas, a Hinduized aboriginal demon… the Greek writers on India themselves perceived that he was akin to Dionysus. Dr. Windisch shows that all the Sanskrit plays are associated with the worship either of Siva or his consort Gauri, and that they were generally performed, like the Greek dramas, at the spring festival. It seems probable that the Hellenistic settlers in India transferred to Siva some of the honour due to Dionysus, and the idea of the Indian deity must have been influenced by the Greek conception of those gods in the Olympic pantheon who most nearly resembled him.” (Smith, 1889)
Since then, numbers of researchers have connected this Indian Lord of Bhang (cannabis) with the Greek God of Wine, Dionysus, and this connection itself was apparently made when the two cultures greeted each other through the expedition of Alexander the Great.
In Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus, the noted Orientalist scholar Alain Danielou, the first Westerner initiated into the cult of Shiva, also points to the similarities between Dionysus and the Indian god of hemp, Shiva, suggesting the two have their origin in the same figure; “Greek texts speak of Dionysus’ mission to India, and Indian texts of the expansion of Shivaism to the West…Innumerable similarities in mythological accounts and icongraphic survivals leave no doubt as to the original unity of Shivaism and the wide extent of its influence” (Danielou 1992).
As Robert Cowann noted in The Indo-German Identification: Reconciling South Asian Origins and European Destinies (2010):
Roman writers would associate the Greek god Dionysus with the Hindu Siva [Shiva]…. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and mystical ecstasy was purported to have journeyed to India, subdued the Aryan and Dravidian peoples, absorbed their philosophies, and returned to Europe with their chief ideas. Euripides describes Dionysus in Bacchae (406 B.C.) as a provider of knowledge and the conqueror of Arabia, Persia and Bactria.
….Polyaenus goes so far as to say that Dionysus got the Indians drunk before attacking them and used baccanatic orgies as part of his military strategy for subjugating all of the Asian continent….
The observation that such ancient writers did identify Dionysus with Siva has won the almost unanimous approval of scholars… because of the many similarities between the cult of Dionysus and that of Shaivite devotees… both are said to cure the sick and to have provided the Indians with weapons; both are associated with plowing, with figs and vineyards, with mountains, and with dancing; and both are depicted as having long, bushy hair and carrying a spear or trident. (Cowan, 2010)
Dionysus and Shiva share the totem animals snake, lion, and bull as well as strong elements of phallic (lingam) worship. Likewise, Shiva’s blue skin and holy markings have similarities among the Thracians, as demonstrated by ancient references to their tattooed shaman, and surviving artefacts depicting blue gods. There is clear evidence that the mutual use of cannabis may have been another meeting point of the two Gods.
As Percy Gardner and Frank Byron Jevons explained in A Manual of Greek Antiquities (1898):
“The cultus of Dionysus became in the hands of Alexander the Great a weapon of considerable political avail. It served as a bond between Greek and Asiatic; for the Greeks still retained in their worship of Dionysus rites. In the Cabul valley in North India the Macedonian army found a people who cultivated the vine and loved its juice, and who were willing to let the Greeks believe that they had been settled there by Dionysus. With these tribes the Greeks seem to have become friendly; and from this period there prevailed those stories of the Indian campaigns of Dionysus, which were so largely current in later Greece, and which are related by Nonnus. In fact it is likely that the deity of Indian origin, whom the people of Cabul were ready to identify with Dionysus, was Siva.” (Jevons & Gardner, 1898)
We can be sure that Alexander was well acquainted with the ecstatic rites of Dionysus. Plutarch referred to the participation of Alexander’s own Mother in Macedonia, to such activities, recording in his Life of Alexander, “All the women of these parts were addicted to the Orphic rites and theorgies of Dionysus from very ancient times”, imitating he recorded “the practices of the … Thracian women”. It should be remembered that Dionysiac initiation here, was limited to the women for the most part. As noted earlier, Plutarch specifically mentions “divine possession”, he also gives clear descriptions of the effects of the sacraments wearing off and the ecstatic women eventually surrendering to sleep and waking to their senses.
It was recorded during the time of Alexander, that when the cult of Dionysus travelled to India, the Greek god was recognized by the followers of Shiva, as one and the same. Even in pre Alexandrian existing Greek myth, it was seen that Dionysus may have been raised in India, with Alexander believing he had rediscovered the mythical place of Dionysus’ childhood, Nysa there. Nysa (Greek: Νῦσα), was the traditional place where the rain nymphs, the Hyades, raised the infant god Dionysus, the “Zeus of Nysa”. When you look at the wealth of animal/man metamorphosis in India this respect, compared to the sorts of human/animal cross breeds in images of Dionysus, it does seem plausible there may have been an earlier cross-cultural pollination of some sort.
As noted on the historical website Livius.org, the identification of Nysa with India, played a significant role at the time of Alexander:
In 327/326, Alexander invaded the Indus valley, where he discovered in Gandara a town called Nysa that was dedicated to the god Dionysus. (Probably, this was the Indian god Shiva. The mountain Meru mentioned below was the center of the Indian universe.) The only description of the temple is to be found in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana by the Greek author Philostratus (more). The story of the discovery is told by the Greek author Arrian of Nicomedia, whose Anabasis (section 5.1.1-2.2) was translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt.
The myth of Nysa
[5.1.1] In the country on Alexander’s route between the river Cophen and the Indus lay the city of Nysa, supposed to have been founded by Dionysus, at the time of his conquest of the Indians.
[5.1.2] Nobody knows, however, who this Dionysus was, nor the date of his invasion of India, nor where he started from, and I myself should hardly care to say if this Theban deity marched with his army against the Indians from Thebes or from Tmolus in Lydia, or how it was that after passing; through the territories of so many warlike peoples unknown to the Greeks of that date, he fought and conquered only the Indians. However, one should not inquire too closely where ancient legends about the gods are concerned; many things which reason rejects acquire some color of probability once you bring a god into the story.
[5.1.3] The people of Nysa, upon Alexander’s approach, sent their chief, Acuphis, to him accompanied by thirty of their most distinguished men with instructions to ask him to leave their city to its god.
[5.1.4] The story is that when they entered Alexander’s tent, they found him sitting there dusty and travel-stained, still wearing his equipment, his helmet on his head and a spear in his hand. The sight of him sitting thus surprised them so much that they prostrated themselves upon the ground and for a long time spoke never a word. At last, however, Alexander bade them get up and not be alarmed; whereupon Acuphis addressed him in the following words.
[5.1.5] “Sire, it is the request of the people of Nysa that you show your reverence far Dionysus by leaving them free and independent. For when Dionysus, after his conquest of the Indians, was on his way homeward towards the Greek sea, he founded this city as a memorial of his long journey and his victory, leaving to inhabit it those of his men who were no longer fit for service – who were also his Priests. He did but as you have done; for you too founded Alexandria in the Caucasus and Alexandria in Egypt and many other cities as well, and will found yet more hereafter, in that you will have surpassed the achievements of Dionysus.
[5.1.6] Dionysus named this city Nysa and this land Nysaea in memory of his nurse, who bore that name; and to the mountain near the city he gave the name Meru – or the Thigh – because legend has it that he grew in the thigh of Zeus. Ever since that time Nysa has been free; we who live in it have made our own laws – and obeyed them, as good men should. If you wish for a proof that Dionysus was our founder, here it is: this is the only place in India where ivy grows.”
[5.2.1] Alexander found what Acuphis said highly agreeable; he would have liked very much to believe the old tale about Dionysus’ journey and his founding of Nysa, for then he would have had the satisfaction of knowing that he had already penetrated as far as Dionysus did, and would presently advance yet further; he felt moreover that his Macedonian troops would consent to share his hardships a little longer, if they knew they were in competition with Dionysus. Accordingly he granted to the people of Nysa the continuance of their freedom and autonomy.
The Myth of Nysa, was not the only tale inspired by Alexander’s travels in India. As noted by Blake Smith, in ‘When a Greek God Brought Wine to India: An ancient epic poem recounts the ‘Indian war’ of Dionysus‘:
The impact of the encounter between Alexander’s Greek army and the Indian world was enormous. From the ‘Greco-Bactrian‘ kingdom of Central Asia to the legends of Alexander’s dialogue with a Brahmin, the Macedonian leader’s campaign shaped politics and culture across the ancient world for centuries to come. One of the strangest and most striking products of that legacy emerged several hundred years later, in the form of ancient Greek literature’s last and longest epic poem: the Dionysiaca… Its author, Nonnus of Panopolis, wove dozens of myths around a central story: the conquest of India…. The India-conquering hero of Nonnus’s great poem was not Alexander, but Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Legends had long connected Dionysus with Asia. He was supposed to have come to Greece from the East on a chariot pulled by exotic panthers, after having taught the art of wine-making to various Asian cultures
The story of the Dionysiaca begins with Zeus, leader of the Greek gods, ordering Dionysus to travel to India, whose inhabitants refuse to worship him… Worse still, they refuse to drink wine, Dionysus’s “care-forgetting vintage”….His foe is Deriades…scorns Dionysus’s beverage, insisting that “my wine is the spear”. Helped by Brahmins versed in sorcery, Deriades fights several battles with Dionysus before finally succumbing to the god’s power. Like Alexander, Dionysus then returns home after his victory… (Smith 2017)
In a ‘Translation of the Indica of Arrian’ published in Indian Antiquary, Volume 5, the Greek view of Dionysus influence on India is clear. The Indica of Arrian, was an account of a short military history about interior Asia, particularly the Indian subcontinent, which was written by Arrian in 2nd-century CE and which covered the expedition of Alexander the Great that occurred between 336 and 323 BCE, about 450 years before Arrian.
Dionysus… when he came and had conquered the people, founded cities and gave laws to these cities, and introduced the use of wine among the Indians, as he had done among the Greeks, and taught them to sow the land, himself supplying seeds for the purpose-either because Triptolemus, when he was sent by Demeter to sow all the earth, did not reach these parts, or this must have been some Dionysus who came to India before Triptolemus, and gave the people the seeds of plants brought under cultivation. It is also said that Dionysus first yoked oxen to the plough, and made many of the Indians husbandmen instead of nomads, and furnished them with the implements of agriculture; and that the Indians worship the other gods, and Dionysus himself in particular, with cymbals and drums, because he so taught them ; and that he also taught them the Satyric dance, or, as the Greeks call it, the cordax, and that he instructed the Indians to let their hair grow long in honour of the god, and to wear the turban; and that he taught them to anoint themselves with unguents: so that even up to the time of A lexander the Indians were marshalled for battle to the sound of cymbals and drums. (Indica of Arrian, 2nd century CE)
In Ancient Indian And Indo-Greek Theatre (1981) M.L. Varadpande has explained that like those of Dionysus, “the festivals and rituals associated with the cults of Shiva and Krishna (whom the Greeks identified with Dionysus and Heracles respectively) are full of dance an music”:
The Pashupata Sutra …enjoins the devoteess to sing and dance with abandon and make love in public… loud laughter… singing songs to the glory of Shiva… dancing… and roaring like a bull… constitute the… worship of Shiva. Making obscene gestures at the sight of beautiful women… behaving against social norms… and making meaningless vlgar speech… are prescribed for the devotees. The devotees are… supposed to carry a phallic symbol signifying… Shiva… dancing groups of Shiva’s attendants should be worshipped with raw meat and wines of different kinds. According to Indian tradition it is Shiva who embellished the dramatic performance with dance” (Varadpande, 1981).
This is all very familiar of the dancing, drinking, erotic play, eating of raw flesh and ecstasy of Dionysus own phallic procession. “The Dionysian cultic practices resemble Indian Tantric rituals and other rituals connected with the fertility cult” (Varadpande, 1981). Comparatively, Euripides The Bacchae describes:
…women leaving home to frisk in mock ecstasies among the thickets of the mountain, dancing in honour of the latest divinity, a certain Dionysus. whoever he may be: In their midst stand bowls brimming wiht wine. And then, one by one, the women wander off to hidden nooks where they serve the lust of men. Priestesses of Bacchus the claim they are…
Shiva, the oldest continually worshipped God on Earth, is well known for his fondness for bhang (cannabis) . This relationship is very ancient, and its ritual offering to Shiva has continued to the modern day. In the Rudrayamal Danakand and Karmakand Shiva tells his consort: “Oh Goddess, Parvati, hear the benefits derived from bhang. The worship of bhang raises one to my position.” As the 19th century Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report recorded of Shiva’s cultic connection to cannabis:
It is chiefly in connection with the worship of Siva, the… great god of the Hindu trinity, that the hemp plant, and more especially perhaps ganja, is associated. The hemp plant is popularly believed to have been a great favourite of Siva, and… the drug in some form or other is… extensively used in the exercise of the religious practices connected with this form of worship… [R]eligious ascetics, who are regarded with great veneration by the people at large, believe that the hemp plant is a special attribute of the god Siva, and this belief is largely shared by the people… There is evidence to show that on almost all occasions of the worship of this god, the hemp drugs in some form or other are used… these customs are so intimately connected with their worship that they may be considered to form in some sense an integral part of it. (IHDCR, 1894)
This relationship between God and Plant, has generally been traced back to Shiva’s role in one of the most important myths of Hinduism the Samudra manthan or The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas (500-300 BC) and the story is still celebrated in the popular festivals known as the Kumbha Mela, where Shiva devotees can be seen parting of his holy cannabis in chillum pipes full of ganja, and draughts of the cannabis beverage bhang. Interestingly, this ancient myth, composed within about two centuries after the initial pogrom against Soma, seemingly takes sacramental hemp use out of the cult of Indra, soma and instills it with the devotees of Shiva. Shiva’s role in the story, also accounts for the origin of wine.
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk tells the story of the search for the elixir of immortality, “amrita” by both the gods in order to restore their waning strength. In this term, often associated with soma, we also find a connection to Greek myths, where ambrosia is the food or drink of the Greek gods. For instance, it was with ambrosia Athena prepared Penelope in her sleep.
It is well known and accepted that the Amrita, of Hindu mythology, a drink which confers immortality on the gods, is a cognate of ambrosia. The Greek ἀμβροσία (ambrosia) is semantically linked to the Sanskrit अमृत (amṛta) as both words denote a drink or food that gods use to achieve immortality. The two words appear to be derived from the same Indo-European form *ṇ-mṛ-tós, “un-dying”. Here again, we may have indications of an earlier cultural connection in myth and etymology.
With the triumph of Alexander, as Prof. Carl Ruck has noted “Dionysus … was also said to have returned triumphantly from travels to India, where he would inevitably have been assimilated with the god Shiva, with whom he shares many iconographic similarities, to the extent that they may have been originally the same deity, and both involved with the hemp sacrament (Ruck, et al., 2007).
“Since the wine of Dionysus is a mediation between the god’s wild herbal ancestors and the civilized phenomenon of his cultivated and manufactured manifestation in the product fermented from the juice of the grape, it is most probable that this was the way in which the Greeks incorporated hemp into their pharmacopoeia” (Ruck, 2007).
As Shiva’s cult is not only known for their use of cannabis, but also at times, wine and other potent narcotics such as henbane and datura, it is not surprising that many have suggested such ingredients in the Dionysian infusions as well. In Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy (2004) Wolf-Dieter Storl suggests that “It is possible that Shiva and Kali are historically connected with Dionysos and his mother—legend has it that the … of their cults. More likely, the tropane-alkaloid responsible for ancient Greek Dionysian revelry was derived from mandrake or henbane.” (Wolf-Dieter Storl, 2004)
After having reviewed the material, I can say that clearly, for well over a century, a number of respected religious scholars and historians have suggested that the Greek Dionysus, in the last analysis, can be connected to India, and that those who made the comparisons from the time period of Alexander with Shiva, were not necessarily deluding themselves when they recognized Shiva as Dionysus, or that it was merely a convenient form of cultural annexation which occurred through Alexander’s campaign in India. There may be an identical cross-cultural origin for Shiva and Dionysus in an earlier representation of the Gods.
For further reading on the various connections between these Greek and Indian gods, I recommend Alain Danielou’s excellent book, Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus. Although Danielou does not mention the use of cannabis by the cult of Dionysus, he does refer it in regards to Shiva’s cultic use of bhang, and connects it with the Vedic soma:
This ancient sacred drink was likely to resemble a drink what today is called bhang, made from the crushed leaves of Indian Hemp. Every Shivaite has to consume bhang at least once a year. The drink, which intensifies perceptivity, induces visions and above all leads to extreme mental concentration. It is widely used by Yogis. Details concerning its preparation are to be found as early as the Vedic period. The description of the way soma was prepared and its immediate use without fermentation, can only apply to bhang and is identical to the method employed today. (Danielou 1992)
Interestingly, a number of researchers going back more than a century, have suggested a potential common ancestry with the Dionysian cult, and the Vedic Soma cult, and in relation to Shiva’s own connection to both cannabis and soma, this may be a possible further evidence of an earlier common cultural origin for the Greek and Indian cults.
Remnants, and even descendants of Alexander the Great may still survive in the region. However, these people do not worship Shiva, although they are known for producing a hashish product that is considered by some, the best hashish in the world. Nestled in the peaks of the Himalayas, is the small town of, Malana, which is surrounded by steep cliffs and snow-capped mountains. Stories and legends fuelled by locals’ noticeably different physical features and their language, which are unlike that of any other local tribe, recount how Alexander the Great’s army took shelter in this isolated village in 326BC after they were wounded in a battle. There are surviving artifacts from the period, such as a greek sword kept in a local temple, but genetic tests have not been been done to confirm the ancestral connection. In relation to our study it is worth noting that this location, with strict cultural rules set to prevent contamination from outside cultures, is often sought out by cannabis connoisseurs to “consume what locals consider the holy herb and what outsiders see as a way to free the mind: the famed and award-winning Malana cream. This cannabis resin or hashish is renowned both for the hand rubbing-technique used to produce it and for its reportedly remarkable intoxicating effects” (Chakraborty, 2018). These people also press wine, generally its from apples, although vine growing is now also well known in the Himalayas, this is likely a later development.
Dionysus and Soma
As the German-American philologist, comparative mythologist and Indologist, Michael Witzel, Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University and the editor of the Harvard Oriental Series has noted:
When Alexander came across the vines in the eastern Hindu Kush, he immediately concluded that this area must have been that of Dionysus. Indeed, the inhabitants of Nuristan and Kashmir (both before Islam) and of the modern pagan Kalash Land (north-western Pakistan) still grow vines and press grapes there each fall. The new wine is still dedicated to Indra” (Witzel, 2012)
Indra, being the God of Soma, and King of the Gods, (a figure that in many ways, Shiva would later supplant). As Dr. Richard Stoneman, a professor of classics and ancient history, describes of the Greek connection in The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks:
“It is sometimes argued that this Dionysus is a form of Indra as first king, culture-hero of the Aryans, warrior-leader and bringer of agriculture. Martha Carter produces some compelling evidence that Alexander’s expedition may have wandered into the Indrakun festival in the Kafir lands, in November or January, which involved a dancer dressed as a horned goat, behaving lewdly, while wine was pressed and drunk.” (Stoneman, 2019)
The connection between Soma, Dionysus and the Christian mysteries are by no means new or novel. 19th century ancient world scholar François Lenormant, in The Beginnings of History According to the Bible and the Traditions of Oriental Peoples: From the Creation of Man to the Deluge referred to “the god Soma or Haoma, prototype of the Greek Dionysus” (Lenormant, et al., 1881). As William Dymock noted in the classic Pharmacographia Indica: A History of the Principal Drugs of Vegetable Origin, Met with in British India:
According to Greek tradition, Dionysus taught all nations to cultivate the vine and to drink wine The Dionysus of the Greeks and the Indra of the Hindus are symbolical of the productive, overflowing, and intoxicating power of nature which often carries man away from his usual quiet and sober mode of living. The Soma of the Hindus and the original wine of Greek tradition was doubtless the celestial Amrita or Ambrosia. (Dymock, 1890)
The Birth of Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus, has been compared to a Vedic account of Soma coming from the the thigh of Indra, and other various similarities, by a variety of researchers going back well over a century and a half. Thomas Lumisden Strange (1808–1884) the English judge and writer for the East India Company, wrote of the 19th century view on the connection between Soma and Dionysus:
The intoxicating Soma juice is an early Aryan divinity. It was the beverage of the gods, and made men like them immortal (Muir’s Sansk. Texts, V. 258, 262). Soma is addressed as the god giving future felicity. “Place me, O purified god, in that everlasting and imperishable world where there is eternal light and glory. … make me immortal in the world where king Vaivasvata (Yama, the king of death, the son of Vivasvat) lives, when in the innermost sphere of the sky” (Muir in Journal of As. Soc. New Ser. I. 138). Soma, says Dr Muir, was the Indian Bacchus (Idem, I. 135). Its worship may be identified with that of the Greek god Dionysus (Bacchus), who discovered and introduced to mankind the juice of the grape for the alleviation of their sorrows (Muir’s Sansk. Texts, V. 259, 260).(Strange, 1881)
In Essays on Iranian Subjects the authors note “Roman Bacchus or the Greek Dionysus bears a very close resemblance to that told of the Iranian Haoma or the Hindu Soma . In his gentler aspects he ( Dionysus ) is the giver of joy , the healer of sicknesses , the guardian against plagues” (Dhābhara & Dhabhar, 1955) Soma “had power to elevate the spirits, and produce a temporary frenzy, under the influence of which an individual was prompted to do, and found capable of doing, deeds beyond his natural powers. Soma was therefore deemed divine, and became a Deity, the myth running on parallel lines to that of Dionysus or Bacchus, who came from India into Hellas. (Cust, 1889). A Classical Dictionary of India Illustrative of the Mythology, Philosophy, literature of the Hindus, similarly recorded “Soma is the god who represents and animates this juice , an intoxicating draught which plays a conspicuous part in the sacrifices of the Vedic age . He is , or rather was in former times , the Indian Dionysus or Bacchus” (Garret, 1871).
More recently Professor Patrick McGovern, as noted earlier, has suggested that soma itself may have been an infused wine, and based on the evidence of Sarianidi, that cannabis, ephedra and at times opium, were likely candidates of infusion.
The comparisons between the Greek and Indian cults are easy to make here, and if not a historical connection then at least archetypical. Soma is god and elixir of life just as “ Dionysus, himself a god, is poured out in offering to the gods, so that through him mankind receives his blessing” as Eurpides recorded in The Bacchae, and the parallel to the Vedic praises of Soma, both a god and a drink, is undeniable.
J.F. Hewitt suggested in an article on Northern India and Scythian domination in the region , in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 43, the spread of the worship of Bacchus/Dionysus came through the conquests of the nomadic Scythians, as did the Soma cult. Scythian involvement with soma/haoma is now well established as is cannabis as a candidate.
If the worship of intoxicating drink as the supreme god was…, introduced into India through Scythian agency, and if the Soma sacrifice was an altered form of the analogous animal sacrifice among the Scythians, it necessarily follows that it was among them that the Dionysiac myth originated, and that it was by their influence that it was diffused throughout all countries of the ancient world…
…The Dionysiac myth, like Soma-worship, originated in phallic worship. The Dionysos of the Eleusinian mysteries was a phallic god, and Elerod. ii. 48 tells us that in the ceremonies of the Dionysiac festivals, the phallus was a conspicuous object. The Bacchic orgies of the women also point to the old customs of tribal concubinage, which existed before marriage. Like that of the Soma festival, the history of the Dionysiac myth is an epitome of that of the evolution of religious thought. (Hewitt, 1890)
J. Wohlberg in the article Haoma-Soma in the world of ancient Greece. Wohlberg felt that:
While Iranian and Indian peoples preserved their original worship in their final settlements, Indo-European tribes, including the Thracians, the Phrygians, and the Greeks, after settling in Europe and Asia Minor, abandoned their ancestral worship of Soma (Sabazios) and substituted the Semitic (alcoholic) Dionysos. However, they retained traces of the original Soma worship in Dionysiac rituals. This modified Dionysiac worship spread throughout the Western world. Evidence of the worship of (nonalcoholic) Haoma-Soma in Iran and India… can be found in Greece and its neighboring lands. (Wohlberg, 1990)
Wohlberg used Six formal criteria to establish the identify of Soma with Dionysus:
(1) both cults had the same aim (to cause ecstatic behaviour); (2) both cults required the attainment of the same spiritual state (purity); (3) both cults had an idiosyncratic myth in common; (4) both cults showed the identical word root in the name of the worshipped god; (5) both cults had identical zoological and botanical associations with their god; and (6) the alcoholic god (Dionysos) was depicted as having the same physical effects on human beings as that of the ancient non-alcoholic god (Soma) (Wohlberg, 1990).
J. Rendel Harris, was an English biblical scholar and curator of manuscripts, who was instrumental in bringing back to light many Syriac Scriptures and other early documents. His Eucharistic Origins (1927), like Muraresku does later in The Immortality Key, suggests that this same connection may also be the foundation of the Christian Eucharist. In regards to Dionysus/Bacchus and Soma, Harris wrote :
….The great Aryan sacrament is older than the discovery of the vine. The first Bacchae in Greek lands were ivy-chewers or ivy-drinkers, in association with a fermented honey-drink, which we also find employed in the consecration of the Soma. For Graeco-Roman peoples, the Soma-plant is replaced by the vine… We do not, however, doubt that for the Indo-Germanic peoples, the original medicine which makes man immortal is the juice of the Soma-plant.
…. Since we find the ivy divinised in Greece as Bacchos-Dionysos (for Dionysos was an ivy-god before he was a vine-god), we may infer that the Soma of the Vedas, which is also the Haoma of the Zend-Avesta, is the same thing as the Nectar of the Greek gods. Nectar, also, is a drink which confers and sustains immortal life. We shall probably be safe in our philology, if we explain the first syllable of nec-tar as meaning death (cf. the Greek… nekus) and the second syllable as connected with the Greek… teiro, to wear away, to destroy; the Nectar or Soma is the death-destroyer; its religious use is, then, inevitable….The main point to be remembered is that,for all our race, the drink means immortality; it makes us like the blessed gods. The discovery of this intoxicant is, therefore, an epoch. (Harris, 1927)
A century ago, Frederick William Bussellreferred to “Soma-Dionysus” as well, noting that “It is now held by many that from he confines of the Caspain Sea the Aryans spread eastward to Hindustan and westward into Phrygria which is par excellence the chief home of the bacchic cult to which the Soma-draught bears undoubted resemblance…” (Bussell, 1918)
The Indian origin of Soma-Dionysus was held by Langlois (Memoire sur Soma Paris 1853) Maury (Hist. Relig. Gr. Paris 1857) and by Max Duncker the synoptic historian… Europe. (1.c.) is the first Greek to represent Dionysus as coming from India… later writers give him an indian campaign but hold that he came to India from Europe… Soma is a god of vegetation and ecstatic drunkeness in the older vedic stratum… c. 1300-1200 B.C…. the means of producing bacchic frenzy or exaltation would differ in each country… the vine is indigenous to the lower ranges of the Himilayas and was introduced thence into Europe as producing divine enjoymentand at the same time destroying sense and reason—it helps friends, while it maddens and destroys foes. Orgiastic excitement, a temporary self oblivion, was both in East and West the very essence of the cult… Thracians seem to have produced ecstasy by the use of indian hemp. Thus the principal of worship would be the same but the means employed would differ: the hypnotic trance of the primitive shaman is the prototype for all. Very oriental are the magical effects produced by the votaries and the hypnotic juggling with the senses of the audience in the Bacchae of Euripides. It seems likely that thus means of approaching the divine was blended a cult of plant-life and the god who promoted it…
It is clear that this hypothesis of a genuine connexion with the East is provisional, and its arguments tentative. We may be contented to note merely the affinities of thought and practice in the various branches of aryan stock; and to call attention to their common belief in a power to attain communion with the divine by ecstasy or inebriation. A man becomes most like God (as in shamanism) not when he obeys a moral or ritual law, but when (so far as he can) he ceases to be consciously human. (Bussell, 1918)
I have a 6 part series on Soma, that looks at various candidates such as Syrian Rue and Fly Agaric Mushrooms, as well as presenting archeological and textual evidence for cannabis in this regard, for those interested in learning more about this ancient entheogen.
Archeological evidence for Dionysian infused wine?
Both infused wines and Dionysus play a considerable role, in the recent New York Times bestseller, The Immortality Key, and one of the more intriguing pieces of evidence put forth by the author Brian Muraresku, was the discovery of an infusion, that contained a whole host of ingredients, including things like opium, cannabis henbane, alongside lizard and snake remains, walnuts, and other various spices and herbs. Although the authors of the archeological study of this find, Drug preparation in evidence? An unusual plant and bone assemblage from the Pompeian countryside, Italy have identified this as likely evidence of a theriac, a potent medical infusion that was the basis for later alchemical quintessences and arcanums, due to the area of preparation and the list of ingredients, Muraresku has suggested this may have been the sort of drink used in the Dionysian and potentially other Greek Mysteries.
The location of the archeological find referred to was in excellent condition, due to its preservation under pumice from the most famous volcano eruption in history. The structure on the site was a home that contained a wine press and threshing floor, wine cellar, and large vessels which contained thick organic deposits, which were identified as infusions of various plants, common fruits and nuts, and even bones of lizards, “suggesting the combination of plants, reptiles, and amphibians was steeped in wine” (Muraresku, 2020). As Muraresku notes however, “the real kicker was the distinctive medley of opium (Papaver somniferum), cannabis (Cannabis sativa) and two members of the nightshade family, white henbane (Hysoscyamus albus) and black nightshade (Solanum nigrum)” (Muraresku, 2020). A potent infusion indeed!
Although acknowledging the lack of clear context of the find, and the evidence it was for a medical preparation of the time such as theriac or mithrediatnium, Muraresku does speculates and questions whether this site could represent “a laboratory for the production of a Dionysian sacrament that could been used in the Villa of Mysteries that was within walking distance, just West across Pompeii?” (Muraresku, 2020)
In discussions with a archeologist who was directly involved on the ground level of the find, Muraresku garnered even further evidence than that put forth in the original paper. The archeologist involved suggested the site was “specifically designed for the production of drugs”, and from the discussion Muraresku says the resulting mixture “seems to be a boutique house wine not intended for mass consumption” (Muraresku, 2020). Indications from the garden remains outside of the structure, are that it was a site for producing a select variety of plants and herbs. Evidence of a “maceration tank for cannabis” would seem to indicate this was particularly a key component in the infusion.
There may be other archeological evidence as well. As Dionysian/Bacchic iconography on Roman silver cups and bowls have been unearthed in northern France, indicating that the god was well known by the Gauls of the first century A.D. it is worth noting the following French archeological find reported in the Wine Spectator article ‘2,000-Year-Old Cannabis Wine Discovered‘:
A 2015 excavation near the town of Cébazat in the heart of France (about 100 miles west of Lyon) of a tomb dating to the 2nd century B.C., led by researcher Hervé Delhoofs, yielded an earthenware vessel that once held a most potent potable: Analysis of plant material confirmed the presence of “biomarkers” for wine, resin and THC. Did the Gauls simply like the taste, or were they interested in a more, well, holistic experience? Researcher Nicolas Garnier told Unfiltered both “medicinal use or recreational use” were possible, and that the ethanol in wine made it a more efficient substance for infusion than water. “The wine-based medicinal preparations are common,” he explained via email. “Different recipes of many plants have been identified in tombs.”
According to Strabo (C1st B.C.E. to C1st C.E.), a Greek geographer,philosopher, and historian, there was a female cult dedicated to Dionysus in Gaul, Southern France:
“In the ocean, he [Poseidonios] says, there is a small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the River Leigeros [in Gaul]; and the island is inhabited by the women of the Samnitai, and they are possessed by Dionysos and make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances; and no man sets foot on the island, although the women themselves, sailing from it, have intercourse with the men and then return again.”
Discovered in Vienne on the upper Rhône, the archaeologists have been working on the site …excavated an exceptionally large area where the houses of a prosperous community once stood….
Dating to the first century AD, it is thought the area was occupied for 300 years until a series of fires drove its inhabitants out. The resulting layer of ash however, much like in the famous Campanian town of Pompeii, has wonderfully preserved parts of the buildings, and especially the mosaics, down the centuries.
One of the most impressive finds has been a mosaic in a home that has been dubbed ‘The Bacchanalian House’ and which features a dancing procession of ‘maenads’, the female followers of the god of wine Dionysus/Bacchus.
Translated literally, maenads means ‘raving ones’ and describes the frenzied and ecstatic state into which their devotion to the god supposedly drove them…. Also featured in the mosaic are satyrs, another essential component of Dionysus’ ‘thiasus’ – his euphoric retinue… The archaeologists believe it probably belonged to a wealthy merchant and, given the subject matter of the central mosaic, perhaps he dealt in wine? (Millar, 2017)
The find of cannabis infused wines in two sites close to areas associated with the worship of Dionysus is interesting circumstantial evidence, when combined with the textual references we have been looking at. Perhaps further study of such artifacts, such as residue samples of cups and vessels associated with the Dionysian cult, will in the future, reveal more on this, as the have done with artifacts at other ancient religious sites in recent years.
Clearly, as we have seen there are a number of cultural avenues through which the cult of Dionysus could have come into contact with cannabis, indeed, as some scholars have indicated, there may be a much more ancient Dionysian connection to cults such as Shiva’s and soma/haoma, and this as well seems likely to be connected with cannabis in its origins.
Perhaps it was a jade bud of holy hemp originally depicted on the end of Dionysus’s magical rod, rather than the pine cone usually described?
As Dale Pendell poetically commented “The true living Dionysus is hiding in the hemp plant not the wine bottle….we can spot the god’s young companions by their flutes and drums, by their dancing and the tie-dyed colors. We can watch the re-enactment of the ancient tragedy as we lock them away in our prisons” (Pendell 1995).