Honoring the smoke

Fuck, I just realized I overlooked something pretty significant in the passage I posted back at the start of the month:

Asterios conceived a bastard passion for the strange country, being hard of heart. He was not again to see his native land and the cave of the Idaian mount shimmering with helmets; he preferred a life of exile, and instead of Dikte he became a Knossian settler in Skythia. He left greyheaded Minos and his wife; the civilized one joined the barbaric tribes of guest-murdering Kolchians, called them Asterians, they whose nature provided them with outlandish customs (NonnosDionysiaka 13.238-252)

What stood out for me then was the Minotaur deciding to immigrate from Crete to somewhere between the modern Ukraine and Georgia. (Let’s split the difference and say that he came to live among the Sanni.) Once I got over the pure WTF factor of the quote I took it as confirmation that I’m on the right track with all this Starry Bear stuff. 

And then it struck me. 

Ονομα Αστεριος. 

Do you know who said that?

No, not a Bacchic Orphic initiate from Thurii – though good guess!

Some Orphic shaman in Skythia, stinking of reefer.

Let’s jump back a bit, specifically to a temple of Hera in the northeastern Peloponnese:

Fifteen stades distant from Mycenae is the Heraion. Beside the road flows the brook called Water of Freedom. The priestesses use it in purifications and for such sacrifices as are secret […] On its banks grows a plant, which is called asterion. They offer the plant itself to Hera, and from its leaves weave her garlands. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.17.1-2)

The reason this plant is called “Starry” is because of the distinctive shape of its leaves. Perhaps you’ve even seen it before:


The asterion plant in the elder Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, as in many of his contemporaries is called cannabis or hemp. 

κάνναβις is a plant of considerable use in this life. It is good for twisting very strong ropes. It bears leaves with a bad scent, similar to the ash; long hollow stalks, and a round seed. Eaten in quantities these quench conception. The herb (juiced while green) is good for earaches. It is also called cannabiumschoenostrophon, or asterion; the Romans call it cannabis. (Pedanius Dioscorides, De Materia Medica)

Most Greco-Roman authors focus on its medicinal properties, without mentioning recreational or religious usage. A notable exception to this comes in Herodotos’ account of Skythian customs in the Histories:

When a Skythian dies his nearest kin lay him upon a waggon 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.

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 woollen 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 plentifully in Skythia: 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 Skythians, 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 Skyths, delighted, shout for joy, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath. (4.72-75)

Nor were the Skythians alone in enjoying the psychoactive properties of the asterion plant, according to Poseidonios:

Poseidonios goes on to say of the Mysians that in accordance with their religion they abstain from eating any living thing, and therefore from their flocks as well; and that they use as food honey and milk and cheese, living a peaceable life, and for this reason are called both Theosebes (“God-fearing”) and Kapnobatai (“walkers-in-smoke”) and there are some of the Thracians who live apart from womankind; these are called Ktistai, and because of the honour in which they are held, have been dedicated to the Gods and live with freedom from every fear. (Strabo, Geography 5.3.3)

Scholars such as Dan Attrell believe that Poseidonios is describing a group of religious specialists who employed entheogens to communicate with their Gods, Spirits and Ancestors:

As the undisputed masters of healing herbs (according to the Greeks), the Thracians were no strangers to the shamanic techniques of ecstasy well known among other cultures of the steppe. Working from the texts of Posidonius, Strabo reported that the Mysians, a Thracian group from north-western Anatolia, possessed members of their society called both θεοσεβεις (“those who fear god”) and καπνοβαται (“those who walk in smoke”) who practiced strict vegetarianism and consumed nothing but honey and dairy products. This reference to the “walkers in smoke” may allude to the ecstasy achieved by mass cannabis consumption as reported by Herodotus among the Scythians. […] One Orphic bone inscription from Olbia dated to the 5th century BC reads “for Dion(ysos) and Psyche,” revealing the importance of a transcendent soul in connection with the Greek god of intoxication in Thracian territory. Another of these bone inscriptions containing the words “Βιος Θανατος Βιος” and marked with little “Z” pictograms (which might represent little orphic serpents) reveals the widespread and consistent nature of Dionysian symbolism reaching as far north as modern Ukraine. In the shamanic mystery initiations as practiced by the Orphic cults, near-death experiences and the use of dangerous doses of hallucinogenic plants went hand in hand. Whereas the Divine Bridegroom Sabazios (Dionysus) was primarily the god who presided over ecstasy and entheogenic intoxication, the Thracians held him in equally high regard as a dying-and-rising saviour god and a master over the souls of the deceased. Long before the introduction of alcohol, shaman exploited the ecstatic and oracular properties of hallucinogenic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria and various types of coprophilic Psilocybin-containing mushrooms); opium (Papaver somniferum); “jimsonweed,” “horsemad,” or “thornapple” (Datura stramonium); mandrake root (Mandragora officinarum); cannabis; deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna); and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). The experience of death and the ecstatic evacuation of the soul from the body appears commonly in the Thracian funeral iconography on which is depicted the Tree of Life. To be in a state of ekstasis – that is, to stand outside the body – was to experience death itself. (Dead Kings and Saviour Gods – Euhemerizing Shamanism in Thracian Religion)

Their diet certainly fits in with certain accounts of what was called the bios Orphikos, for instance in Plato:

Again, the practice of men sacrificing one another still exists among many nations; while, on the other hand, we hear of other human beings who did not even venture to taste the flesh of a cow and had no animal sacrifices, but only cakes and fruits dipped in honey, and similar pure offerings, but no flesh of animals; from these they abstained under the idea that they ought not to eat them, and might not stain the altars of the Gods with blood. For in those days men are said to have lived a sort of Orphic life, having the use of all lifeless things, but abstaining from all living things. (Plato, Laws 6.782)

While I have argued in the past that Orphism does not require vegetarianism (on the contrary, certain ceremonies preclude it) you will note I mentioned there may have been specific states and types of work where it was temporarily necessary. In my own practice when I ingest heavy psychedelics I generally avoid any animal products, sometimes for a couple days leading up to the session. Not only does this help me feel lighter, cleaner and more open to the Spirits of the Green Way but the heightened somatic awareness they produce can make it rather unpleasant to be carrying around a bunch of half-digested carcasses in my gut. Also, depending on the entheogen, nothing aids in transitioning back like a big old juicy cheeseburger and they taste even better when you’ve been denying your natural carnivorous instincts. So yeah, I can totally see why that might be a thing.

Entheogen, by the way, means “God-producing,” as in:

Doing the bacchus: he boasts of knowing the foolishness of many books. For having been caught makes it become a terrible practice; ‘honoring the smoke’: this adds he is possessed by the deity. (Scholiast on Euripides’ Hippolytos 954.1)

Which experience, I believe, was beautifully expressed by Aelius Aristides:

For there was a feeling as if taking hold of the God and of clearly perceiving that he himself had come, of being midway between sleeping and waking, of wanting to look, of struggling against his departure too soon; of having applied one’s ears and hearing some things as in a dream, some waking; hair stood straight, tears flowed in joy; the burden of understanding seemed light. What man is able to put these things into words? Yet if he is one of those who have undergone initiation, he knows and is familiar with them. (Orations 48.32)

As well as Plato:

There was a time when with the rest of the happy band we saw the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we saw shining in pure light, pure ourselves. (Phaedrus 250)

Back when I was working with Starry Bull folks we were in the process of developing a Green Way strain of the tradition, under the aegis of Orpheus and Medeia. I’m not sure how far they’ve gotten with it since we stopped talking, but that quote about Asterios relocating to Skythia and Kolchis has me thinking I should develop a Starry Bear version; after all Hera and Dionysos aren’t the only Gods to whom the plant is sacred. (And why it’s these two specifically I’m going to let you piece together for yourself from the Theoi.com entry on Pasithea. Waits for cries of “Oh no! I can’t unsee it!” and heads exploding. Don’t blame me; I already warned you fuckers.) 

2 thoughts on “Honoring the smoke

  1. I recall a post a couple of years ago where you told a tale of Dionysos and Pasithea clad in furs and wandering north. In another, while Dionysos had traveled to Olympos to convince Zeus of the danger to come, Hera asked about their daughter. I wish I could remember the title of the post.

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