3 Theses, Third Thursday: Hard History

Categorizing People is Tricky

In The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade, Maria Aubet makes the point that people are prone to separating out Punic history, Carthaginian history, Phoenician history, and Caananite history in a way that is probably not terribly authentic to the realities of how the culture and politics of this group of people are interconnected through time. If we’re comfortable calling Cleopatra “Egyptian” and Byzantium the “Eastern Roman Empire,” then Aubet basically argues that in a very real way, the mere fact that Carthage overtook Tyre and the other Phoenician city-states (which are inextricably linked to the Caananites, here’s a great r/AskHistorians thread about why Phoenicia was considered the “land of milk and honey” by the ancient Israelites) in terms of prestige doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a natural continuation of their leadership.

Carthage’s early years, before it became the ascendant Phoenician city-state, saw it acting as essentially just one more Tyrian colony; they definitely would have traded heavily with the mother city and its trading partners, but we separate out the Carthaginians from the Canaanites from the Phoenicians in our categories, yet consider the Egyptians to still be “the Egyptians” despite Hittite conquest and act as though “China” was one continuous empire stretching back all the way to the Yellow River civilization, despite conquests and civil war and fragmentation and all sorts of other issues.

Era Classification Is Difficult

The three-age Stone-Bronze-Iron system for classifying and studying ancient societies could just as easily be set up to focus on things like the “Pottery Age” and “Loom Age,” according to The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair, and I agree with her. China and Egypt mostly use the Dynasties to differentiate between eras, but both of these methods are pretty useless for, say, the Americas. One of my most prized timelines (by Schofield and Sims) does its best but honestly “who had access to what metals” seems like such an arbitrary way to classify human civilizations, especially when you figure that Ötzi the Iceman, a man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE, was found with a copper axe. Meanwhile, the Inca forged “one of the greatest imperial states in human history” without the wheel, draft animals, or iron.

But “Ritual Uses” is a Cop Out

u/05-weirdfishes over at r/AskHistorians asked whether there was ever any recreational drug use in the ancient &/or medieval world and it reminded me of one of my biggest pet peeves: history books default to “historians aren’t totally certain what this object is, but it may have had ritual uses” way too often. It feels like a cop-out, like saying “modern Americans watch football for ritual purposes” or “humans use forks for ritual purposes.” Sure, on some level that’s probably technically true, but it puts a weirdly othering tilt on things.

Anyway one of the things I like about Adrienne Mayor is her way of handling this sort of thing. In The Amazons, she specifically says that cannabis was valuable for spiritual and recreational purposes.

According to Mayor (and I have no reason to doubt her), Herodotus discusses cannabis use among the Scythian tribes he is familiar with, and the translation I’ve got in front of me gives no indication that it’s intended for a particularly ritual or religious purpose: Herodotus compares inhaling cannabis smoke in large gatherings to the Greek use of wine as an intoxicant.

In terms of material evidence, there were also apparently hemp-burning kits found in the graves of Pazyryk culture men and women in the Altai region. These hemp kits were mixed in with other regular daily tools (i.e. not obviously ritual items), so Mayor says that “the archaeologists conclude that cannabis inhalation was not restricted to ritual use but was part of everyday Scythian life.”

It feels like the exception that proves the rule, honestly.


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

You may also like...

Let me know what you think!