After discussing the drinking culture of highly respected ancient civilizations like the Incas and the Egyptians it’s now time to have a look at a far less well known tribe: the Scythians. This was actually a bunch of nomadic tribes that originated from modern day Iran and roamed the steppes of Central Asia between 900 and 200 BC from the Northern banks of the Danube river to Mongolia and China. Although respected as fearless warriors their more civilized enemies were digusted by their barbaric drinking habbits. The Scythians drank their wine undiluted and to excess. And to top things off they only bathed in saunas filled with hemp vapor, while they used the skulls of the enemies they killed as drinking cups.
And to think that in the beginning the Scythians weren’t even big drinkers. Like most nomads from Central Asia they drank horse milk, so if they knew any alcoholic beverage it must have been some version of kumis. Unfortunately they didn’t have any writing themselves and as true nomads they left very little things behind. Most we know about the Scythians comes from observations by the Greeks, Persians, Assyrians and Chinese. Ironically these were exactly the same people that introduced these tribes of horsemen to wine. Especially the Greeks were horrified about the way these “barbarians” treated the gift of Dionysus. Where the Greeks mixed their wine with water to keep a clear mind, the Scythians drank their fermented grape juice undiluted and with the clear goal to get drunk. A fun example of how this behavior was perceived in ancient Greece is a poem by Anacreon, who claimed unmixed wine just led to uproar and disorder. Here are the lyrics as translated by professor Francois Lissarrague.
Boy, bring me
A cup, to drink at a gulp
Mix ten measures of water and five of wine
So that once again and peacefully
I may honor Dionysus
Let’s not fall
Into riot and disorder
With our wine, like the Scythians
But let us drink in moderation
Listening to lovely hymns
Image is everything
It became such a thing that Scythians were even adopted in the ancient Greek language. When someone would drink a bit to fast or too much it was said “he drank like a Scythian”. And when someone would not mix his wine with water it was looked down upon and called “drinking in the Scythian fashion”. Also in many theatre plays in Athens the drunkards were usually dressed up in typical Scythian clothes, so their role was clear to the audience from the moment they got on stage. Now most people in Athens never saw a real Scythian in their entire life, as the nomads thanked their reputation mostly to reports from Greek settlements north of the Black Sea.
But the most detailed information came from Herodotus who wrote his famous Scythian logos. For example how the nomads got their tableware for their drinking sessions. “The skulls of their enemies, not indeed of all, but of those whom they most detest, they treat as follows. Having sawn off the portion below the eyebrows and cleaned out the inside, they cover the outside with leather. When a man is poor, this is all he does; but if he is rich, he also lines the inside with gold; in either case the skull is used as a drinking cup. They do the same with the skulls of their own kith and kin if they have been at feud with them, and have vanquished them in the presence of the king. When strangers whom they deem of any account come to visit them, these skulls are handed round, and the host tells how that these were his relations who made war upon him, and how that he got the better of them, all this being looked upon as proof of bravery.”
Herodotus also wrote down how the Scythians never washed more than their face. Instead of bathing they took what can be best described as “marihuana saunas”. First they placed 3 large poles in a triangle construction against each other and covered those with woolen mats or blankets. They put some red-hot coles in the middle and started throwing hemp on it. The vapor that was released not only cleaned them but also got them in quite a happy mood.
But the main vice for Scythians was still booze. Especially at funerals and other large happenings everyone got pretty hammered. A yearly tradition was when the local leader of a district would mingle a large bowl of wine of which every Scythian who slayed an enemy that year could take a cup. Those who killed many even got 2 cups of which they both drank. Those who didn’t manage to slay anyone that year stayed empty handed and that was a big humiliation.
Return of the skull cup
Long after the name Scythians was no longer used and many other tribes came and went, the skull cup made a great come back in the 9th century. When the Bulgarian khan (tsar) Krum defeated the Byzantine army in an ambush and killed emperor Nikephoros, he had him beheaded, his skull lined with silver and used it as a drinking cup. At this time the ritual was not a tradition anymore in the region around the Danube, but still it can be seen as a small revival.
Read more tales about history and mythology on Lords of the Drinks