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The potheads of ancient Iran


May 17, 2005

On the inside wall of the doorway of my walk-in pantry is a ceramic representation of “Miss Poppea,” an artifact from Italy that, according to the friend who gifted it to me, represents bliss. It has three exposed breasts, from two of which a babe may suckle milk, and wine from the third. Lately this ornament and the place where it hangs have acquired far greater meaning than art and architecture.

In a recent essay [Of wine and war] I stated the view that the “hom” consumed by the ancient Iranian people known as Saka Homavarka (Haumavarga) was probably wine, a product that the Saka (Scythians), according to Herodotus [Histories, Rawlinson’s edition], used in their rituals. I also wrote on that occasion of the Massagetae, a people considered, according to Herodotus, to be of the Saka race. When Cyrus the Great wanted to face the Saka after the fall of Babylon he faced the Massagetae.

Among the letters that I received from readers one came from the one whom I shall call here Proficere. It contained far more information, argument, encouragement and insight that I possibly could have received from a team of reviewers of so-called “scholarly” journals and their smug and over-specialized gatekeepers.

This brings me to two points -- the reason for knowledge and proper conduct of discourse. On the first one, I merely state the obvious -- for the most of us, the primary role of knowledge is to better understand our world. On the second point, I state simply two points. First, the proper conduct of discourse, or reviewing another’s work, is not to issue dismissive declarations without the slightest effort to correct or offer hints for improvement. Secondly, for every categorical rejection of a point, intellectual courtesy requires that one supply a reasoned alternative view.

To illustrate the point: A few months ago, a reviewer commented on my “wine theory” by stating tersely that “hom” did not mean wine. Period. Contrast that response with the care taken by Proficere: “It is well known by now,” she wrote “that haoma was made from the ephedra plant, probably mixed with hashish to reduce the exhilarating effects of ephedra. However, it seems that, on the steppes the intoxicating drink was made with a mushroom.”

Excavations in Turkmenistan, she continued, “ have revealed a room in the temple devoted to the preparation of the haoma drink... [and] in Herat they still use the word ‘hom’ or ‘hauma’ for ephedra.” Still, gently so as to leave room for fresh speculation on the subject, Proficere wrote, “It is possible to give a new interpretation for hauma ... however ... it is unlikely that the identification will hold.”

I wrote back to Proficere and expressed my doubt that “hom” would have been an opiate, as opiates would have been inhaled or eaten, while “hom” was drunk. I eluded also to the practice by the Saka (Herodotus, I:75) by which they got under a felt cover and threw hemp-seeds on red hot stones and bathed in its strong vapor -- delighted, they would shout for joy. Suspecting that these were among the world’s first potheads, I queried to Proficere, “cannabis?”

Proficere rejoined with a mouth-watering recipe: “Hom was definitely mixed with a liquid potion, milk, but also pomegranate juice is mentioned ... the substance [hom] was pounded before mixed with a liquid.”

“The mummies, who were Indo-Europeans,” she concluded, “were often buried with a bunch of ephedra held in their fist. As for hemp, it was added to the ephedra, to reduce the ‘high’ produced by the latter.”

The weight of the evidence has suggested that “hom” was an opiate, mixed with milk. This is certainly true of the Avestan practice of mixing hom with milk. It is tantalizing to suggest that perhaps the Homavarka were the first Zoroastrians, a possibility that has excellent geographical probability in light of the opinion that Zoroastrianism originated in northeastern part of ancient Iran and western Central Asia.

The question I have is this: Was the taking of “hom” so pervasive at the time of Darius the Great so as to justify the calling of an entire nation Hom-takers? We know from Darius’ inscriptions that Saka Tigraxauda were so-called because they bore a tall pointed hood (tigra=high, xauda=hood=hat). The representations of their fallen king Skuxa at Bisotun, national delegate at Apadana’s eastern stairway and throne bearers at Naqsh-e Rostam all were shown with a tall pointed hood as if the headgear was a part of everyday attire.

Herodotus’ name for the Saka Tigraxauda was Orthocorybantes, literally referring to high or tall hats. Yet in his description of the Saka in Xerxes’s army, who also wore tall hats, Herodotus spoke of Saka who were Amyrgian, so-named after the plains they inhabited. Considering that the Achaemenian records in Susa and Naqsh-e Rostam identified the Saka as Homavarka and Tigraxauda, I must conclude that Herodotus’ Amyrgian Saka was a reference to Saka Homavarka. On the other hand Amyrgian and Homavarga are not phonetically that far apart, for the first name to be the corruption of the second one.

Can we accept that Saka Homavarka were a nation of potheads, so much so that they will be known by that trait? The Avesta chapter on “Hom” makes it apparent that the product was a sacrament and was probably reserved for the high and mighty, including the priests, who partook in hom.

On Proficere’s urging I consulted Mallory and Mair’s work on “The Tarim Mummies” and found that in the settlements south of the Aral Sea and dating to about 2000 BC the hom ritual had been around long before Zoroastrianism: Its preparation was a temple activity, along with extracting of juices from poppy, hemp and ephedra. It is clear that the whole consumable was called “hom” and that the word did not correspond to the name of a specific ingredient. Among the effects of the ephedra itself was to speed up the metabolism and raise the blood pressure.

The discourse with Proficere about hom opened up yet another area of exploration for me. I now can pinpoint to my satisfaction the geographical point of origin of the Saka Homavarka mentioned in Achaemenian times. The map of the conventional wisdom about Iran during Achaemenian times has the Saka Tigraxauda located east of the Caspian Sea (present-day Turkmenistan), while the Massagetae and Saka Homavarka are shown as having been beyond Syr Darya (Jaxartes) in present-day Uzbekistan (see Map No. 11 in Cook’s article on the rise of Achaemenians in the Cambridge History of Iran, volume 2, pp. 282-283). I think this map and the information that it conveys about the Saka and Massagetae is incorrect.

Based on the Achaemenian records themselves and Herodotus’ description alone, I believe that Massagetae and Homavarka were one and the same and they inhabited the region east of the Caspian Sea and west of the Aral Sea, an area watered by Gorganrud and Atrak in the south and the Oxus (Amu Darya) and Syr Darya in the north, both of which according to the ancient geographers emptied into the Caspian Sea. While they may have been called Amyrgian by the Greeks for the name of the plain they inhabited, I consider the Homavarka, against the weight of authority, to be the “Saka of the marshes (waters)” mentioned in Darius the Great’s Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions found at Susa (statue) and Suez (stele). The Saka Tigraxauda then were the same as “the Saka of the plains” mentioned in the same Egyptian documents.

Herodotus placed the Massagetae in the plains that stretch eastward of the Caspian Sea (I:204), against whom Cyrus the Great led an expedition right after the taking of Babylon according to an itinerary that Herodotus described in terms of Cyrus’s wish to take on Babylon, Bactria, Saka and Egypt after taking Sardis (I: 153). In reaching the Massagetae/Saka, Cyrus crossed the Araxes. I believe that in antiquity Araxes described as one watershed area the rivers that we now know as Aras, which flows eastward into the Caspian, and Gorgan and Atrak that flow westward into the Caspian. I should note that in the hieroglyphs that represent the saka of the waters, the symbol for “water” or “marsh” is a lagoon-looking shape (diagramed like a stomach) with two rivers connected to it, just like the southern Caspian could be represented today.

The mention of Saka and Massagetae as a coincidental part of Cyrus’ expeditionary plans is one reason to conclude that Massagetae was just another name by which Herodotus knew the Saka. Three other factors connect the two names. First, there is Herodotus’ statement that Massagetae were viewed according to some as a nation belonging to the Saka race (I:201).

Second, etymologically, many have concluded that the name Massagetae meant “Great Saka” and offer all sorts of self-serving explanations for this connection (see for example a brief discussion of this in Mallory and Mair, pp. 98-99). Massagetae, the reasoning goes, referred to Saga/Saka and “ma” meant “big” or “great” so the whole name meant “Great Saka.” One Sir H.M. Elliot is quoted in an internet site as saying that “massa” means “great” in the Pehlevi language of Persia or Central Asia.” Another explanation states that “massa” meant “great” in “old Iranian, language of the Saka” while Geta was the name of a tribe. Another explanation can state that “ma” was from the “maha” of Sanskrit for “big.” In other explanations Geta is identified with Jat of India, German Goth , and Guti of Mesopotamia!

I cannot find an example of the word “massa” in any of the Old Persian texts available on The only word I know that would have meant great is “meh” or “mah” but in Persian that dated to Middle Persian, as did “amavand” (powerful). I tend to believe that the equation of “massa” with “great” or “heavy” or “big” or “powerful” is being tainted by Latin notions or connotations for “massa,” “mass” or “mas.” If quantity were the game, then a more appropriate word for it in Pahlavi would be “s*g” (see MacKenzie’s “Concise Pahlavi Dictionary”), which meant “numerous;” “mah” would have been “moon.”

To understand what Herodotus meant by the name Massagetae should be left to Herodotus to answer. The same way that Herodotus did not refer to Saka Tigraxauda and Homavarka by their Persian names (he used Orthocorybantes and Amyrgian instead), one should not expect him to have referred to Massagetae by their Persian name either. At best, Massagetae is Greek (Herodotus’s Greek) for a nation that was known to the Achaemenians by another name, as we do not find any direct by-name reference to a group called Massagetae in Achaemenian records.

All we do know with lot less uncertainty is that the Massagetae lived in the plains east of the Caspian Sea, and we know that the Amyrgian (or Homavarka) variety of the Saka also inhabited a plain, as some have suggested that Amyrgia was the name of a plain too, which probably got its name from the Homavarka who inhabited it. We do know however that the word “nomas” in Greek means pasture, and therefore Massagetae may well have referred to Saka of the pastureland.

The third factor that points to Massagetae and Homavarka being one is found in the role that milk played in their culture. For the Massagetae “Milk is what they chiefly drink,” wrote Herodotus. For the Homavarka the importance of milk is established in connection with the preparation of hom, which according to one passage in the Avesta is mixed with milk. By itself, this does not prove anything -- my cat also enjoys a nice warm dish of milk every now and then.

If “hom” were indeed the kind of stimulant or opiate akin to ephedra, then one ought to be able to pinpoint a reason better than getting “high” for its existence in, let us say, Massagetae rituals. The substance could also kill, induce a heart attack. According to Herodotus (I:216) Massagetae offered in sacrifice the kinfolk who had grown very old. I imagine that a dose of hom or ephedra could have hastened and rendered one’s demise painless. If that were the practice of the Saka Homavarka also, to take poisonous narcotic to die in old age, then I can see how Darius the Great could name a people by this practice.

I believe the key to the meaning of “Massagetae” then ought to be in the possibility of it being a Greek rendition of Homavarka -- in which “homa” appears in the form of the first syllable “ma” and Saka is represented in “sagetae” or “saketae”. Herodotus’s Massagetae therefore was a direct translation of “Homa Saka.”

The relocation of Saka Homavarka (Amyrgian and Massagetae of Herodotus) to a region immediately east of the Caspian Sea is consistent with Darius the Great’s scheme of imperial administration. According to Herodotus, the method of administration employed by the Medes and later adopted by the Persians was to rule directly their immediate neighbors and then let the neighbors rule the peoples and lands farther out.

When Darius the Great smote the Saka Tigraxauda he appointed for them another chief. It is not said whom he selected as the new chief over them, but soon thereafter in Darius’ records (Susa, Naqsh-e Rostam) we see the name Saka Homavarka appear and take precedence over the mention of the Saka Tigraxauda. This would have made perfect sense within the linear administrative method: The Saka Homavarka, who were closer to the Persian heartland (east of the Caspian) were put in charge of Saka Tigraxauda farther away in the plains beyond Soghdia in Central Asia.

I may be completely wrong, but I also know that in the business of knowledge, where the most profit comes to those who are at the same time teacher and pupil, I am still learning. With this thought, I turn off the light in my pantry, where Mama Poppea stands guard with open arms.

Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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