Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ancient Germanic Tattoos and Cannabis Use

Comic book illustration by Kresse (1953)
I am reading the fifth book in the Warrior of Rome series by Harry Sidebottom, called The Wolves of the North. As well as being a novelist, Sidebottom is a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at the University of Oxford. His intimacy with ancient history means that he is often able to bring the ancient world to life, and what I have been reading about recently is particularly intriguing. He is describing the Heruli – an ancient Germanic tribe who are depicted as, inter alia, tattooed inhalers of cannabis. How much truth is there likely to be in this portrayal? Well, it seems to be quite feasible. 

Describing the Heruli ("utterly abandoned rascals")
Briefly put, the Heruli were one of a number of Germanic tribes who became a problem for Rome from the 3rd century onwards. Originally from Scandinavia, by the mid 3rd century they were living in the general area of modern day Ukraine. From there they spread themselves in a number of directions, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Procopius, a 6th century (Christian) Byzantine scholar, described the Heruli as ruthless barbarians who had a "love of money and a lawless spirit", though he acknowledged their bravery: 
“Eruli [Heruli] have neither helmet nor corselet nor any other protective armour, except a shield and a thick jacket, which they gird about them before they enter a struggle. And indeed the Erulian slaves go into battle without even a shield, and when they prove themselves brave men in war, then their masters permit them to protect themselves in battle with shields. Such is the custom of the Eruli.”
Curiously, he also suggested they practised homosexuality (more likely with their slaves than with each other, if they were anything like their Roman counterparts) and went so far as to suggest they engaged in bestiality as well:
“they mate in an unholy manner, especially men with asses, and they are the basest of all men and utterly abandoned rascals.”
It is difficult to know what to think of this line. It might just be that he was engaging in slander, but I tend to think it unlikely that he would have written this without having read or heard it elsewhere (perhaps from others who had an axe to grind). What is interesting about this line is that it is the only known (possible) allusion to homosexuality among the ancient Germanic tribes, of which I am aware, and the most likely reason for this is not because it didn't exist but because pre-Christian Greco-Roman commentators would have regarded it as unexceptional – unless it was practised in some kind of extreme or unusual way – and thus wouldn't have bothered to record it. 

What is perhaps more interesting than the unknowable sexual practices of the Heruli is the assertion that they were tattooed, which included the tattooing of their faces (Boissonnade), and the possibility that they may have used cannabis – something not normally associated with Germanic tribes.

The early history of cannabis use in Europe 
Cannabis originated in either central or eastern Asia. It is known to have been used in ancient China and India, as well as by the Scythians, an Indo-European tribe contemporaneous with the ancient Greeks and early Romans, who occupied territory from as far west as Ukraine to far east as the borders of China. Herodotus (died circa 425 BCE) records a purifying religious ritual involving cannabis inhalation by Scythians:
Scythian Cannabis tent and ritual items
“as for the people, when any one dies, his nearest of kin lay him upon a wagon and take him round to all his friends in succession: each receives them in turn and entertains them with a banquet, whereat the dead man is served with a portion of all that is set before the others; this is done for forty days, at the end of which time the burial takes place. After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woolen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. 
Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are. 
The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water. Their women make a mixture of cypress, cedar, and frankincense wood, which they pound into a paste upon a rough piece of stone, adding a little water to it. With this substance, which is of a thick consistency, they plaster their faces all over, and indeed their whole bodies. A sweet odour is thereby imparted to them, and when they take off the plaster on the day following, their skin is clean and glossy [The History of Herodotus, Book IV].”
Burial findings by Russian archeologist Professor Rudenko tend to confirm Herodotus’ record and Rudenko himself suggested that the Scythians used cannabis for both religious and recreational reasons. Further south, it seems hemp, as a fibre, was in widespread use by Roman times but it is unclear how popular cannabis use was – there are a number of Greco-Roman authors who refer to a plant that might be cannabis, but all too often we cannot be certain that this is the plant they mean.
“The probable truth is that the Greeks knew of cannabis, and its effects as a drug, but this knowledge either did not enter public ambit or was ignored by most, remaining of interest only to priests or scholars. Certainly, Greek doctors in the employ of the Romans possessed a knowledge of cannabis [Booth, Cannabis, A History at 48].” 
Shiva devotee smoking cannabis
By the 2nd century CE Galen, a Roman era physician from what is now Turkey, wrote that hemp cakes could be eaten to produce a state of well-being but warned that excessive consumption led to intoxication, dehydration and impotence. By this time cannabis was certainly being used medicinally east of the Roman empire and its use in Persia was already centuries old. A religious text said to have been written by Zoroaster places cannabis as the most important of all medicinal herbs, and I like to think that perhaps one of the practices of Mithraism, a major mystery religion of the Roman era inspired by Zoroastrianism, involved cannabis (the enclosed and apparently unventilated spaces that initiates worshipped in might have been well suited for cannabis inhalation) – but this is mere speculation.  Though certainly we know that cannabis can be used for religious purposes, including in our own times – in contemporary Hinduism cannabis is associated with Shiva; some Sahhus (holy men) use cannabis as a means to commune with Shiva and to purify the body.*

All of the above information lends credibility to Sidebottom’s description of the Heruli as cannabis users, as by the 3rd century the Heruli occupied lands previously ruled over by the Scythians and cannabis use was popular enough by this time to have spread beyond the old lands of the Scythians in any case. However, even if the Heruli did use cannabis, this does not mean they used the drug frequently and the means of use may not have induced the intense high later associated with the drug. All of that said, cannabis use is clearly far more ancient and widespread than popularly understood, and it is somewhat mind bending to realise that it is entirely possible, even likely, that a number of ancient Romans and east Germanic tribesmen, among others, used cannabis. Meanwhile, the possibility of using cannabis for religious purposes, as is still the case in India, is intriguing.**

Ancient Indo-European tattoos 
What of the possibility that the Heruli were tattooed? Well that is even more likely – in fact it is almost certainly true. Tattoos are known to have been common among Roman soldiers, the Celts of Britannia, Gaul and Hispania, as well as in Thrace and Dacia, which were just south-west of where the Heruli lived in the 3rd century CE. Herodotus tells us that among the Scythians tattoos were a mark of nobility, and in the 4th century CE Claudian recorded that the Geloni (neighbours of the Heruli, who lived on lands that had been part of Scythia) tattooed their limbs. It is also said that the Goths, with whom the Heruli allied themselves, were tattooed. This may have been a bit of a thing among the warriors who strayed out of Scandinavia and went east – both the Heruli and the Goths were probably originally from Scandinavia, and centuries later the Rus Vikings were described by an Arab chronicler as being tattooed with dark green figures from their toes to their necks.

More than this, a number of archeological finds confirm that certain Indo-European groups, in particular, those belonging to the R1a Y-DNA Haplogroup, were extensively tattooed (ancient Germanic tribes were predominately a blend of R1b, R1a, I1 and I2 Y-DNA Haplogroups – the eastern Germanic tribes are thought to have been at least 15-25% R1a, if not more so). These findings give us an amazingly privileged insight as to the kinds of tattoos that may have been around in ancient Europe – particularly among tribes living in the east, such as the Heruli. The most famous of these are associated with Scythian mummies from the Pazyryk burials in Siberia.

Siberian Ice Maiden (aka Princess Ukok)
Detail of Ice Maiden's arm tattoo
Illustration of arm tattoos on Ice Maiden

Warrior found near the Ice Maiden
Same warrior from a different angle

Tattoo from the arm of another Pazyryk warrior
Illustration of arm tattoos as shown immediately above

Illustration of body tattoos for the same man as shown above
Tattoos on another Pazyryk warrior
Another famous set of ancient R1a/Indo-European mummies were found in NW China, on the silk route. A number of these mummies are tattooed.

Another possible hint at what ancient European tattoos looked like are the traditional tattoos of Croatians in Bosnia and Herzegovina (note that I2 and R1a are the predominant Y-DNA Haplogroups amongst Croatians). While these tattoos came to be very specifically associated with Christianity some of the designs are not obviously Christian looking and the history of these tattoos is suggestive of the continuation of an ancient tradition. I can't help noticing that their style is similar to traditional Scandinavian embroidery and Icelandic sigils 
To conclude
If you think about it, it would make sense for Indo-Europeans to be tattooed. Firstly, we know that the early Indo-Europeans were very pale skinned, which is the perfect canvas for tattoos. Secondly, Indo-Europeans were notoriously war-like. Imagine flame haired quasi-giants (many ancient Indo-Europeans were uniquely red haired and unusually tall for the age), covered in tattoos, riding towards you with sharp and powerful weapons. It would have been terrifying, and tattoos would have lent an other-worldly quality to their already strange appearance. Achieving an outlandish appearance, presumably to intimidate enemies, as well as to mark oneself out as belonging to a particular group (it was important to be able to easily identify who you were fighting and who were your brothers-in-arms in the chaos of battle), was definitely the kind of thing the Heruli, along with other eastern Germanic tribes, were into – for, not only were they very possibly tattooed, many of them engaged in a practice that amounted to cranial deformation, and thus their skulls were unusually elongated. Truly, these guys were hardcore.
Skull of a Germanic woman from the 6th century who practiced cranial deformation

As a side-note, in the post Roman era, cannabis use was apparently around in medieval Europe but it was probably not widespread, possibly because it came to be associated with demon worship and was thus condemned by the (Catholic) Church. Islamic nations adopted a much more liberal attitude and its widespread use in Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s invasion, as well as in British India, created a means for post-enlightenment Europe to discover cannabis as a means of experimentalism and recreation.
** Though let us not discount too cheaply the warnings by contemporary psychiatrists of a possible link between cannabis use and mental illness, particularly among younger people, whose brains are not fully grown: Royal College of Psychiatrists.


Appendix - Copies of the Pazyryk Tattoos


If you like this post you may like my post on Tacitus on Indigenous Germanic Religion; you may also like the Roman Pagan Facebook page


  1. I don't like tatoos but I must recognize these are really beautiful designs. Maybe a t-shirt...

    1. That hadn't occurred to me - but I looked it up and there are all sorts of Pazyryk inspired items out there for sale:)

  2. Even in death you can see that these people were a good-looking race with beautiful high cheekbones. Even though I don't like people to have tattoos because of their permanency, I do love these beautiful designs. The picture above of the more older woman with the headdress is like a picture of my Serbian grandmother who lived in the same area as the woman above. They even might be relatives as the resemblance is uncanny. I didn't know that they tattooed their bodies for protection so that they would not be kidnapped by the Turks. This is the first time I have read about something like this. Thank you for such an interesting article and for more insight into my history.