‘All of Gaul is divided into three parts,’ wrote Julius Caesar at the start of his Gallic Wars. ‘No, four,’ corrected one author writing slightly later, ‘for one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the Roman invaders.’
It was, of course, the French comic-book hero Asterix’s unnamed Breton village. The secret of the success of Asterix and his fellow villagers was their superhuman strength – that is, when their druid was willing to make them some of his secret potion. One gulp made Asterix’s Gauls invincible, irresistible in attack and extraordinary in defence. The only thing the potion could not cure was the village bard, Cacophonix, whose terrible voice alone was immune to the magic drug of Getafix, the village’s druid and superchemist.
Having grown up reading the Asterix books, I wondered about supplements that turned normal soldiers into heroes. Valour, bravery and virtue were all prized characteristics in the ancient texts that captivated me. In fact, in Greek and Latin, the words for courage (‘ἀνδρεία’ and ‘virtus’) derive from the word for man (‘ἀνδρὸς’ and ‘vir’).
Being a man in the classical world meant being brave. Heroes such as Hector, Ajax, Agamemnon and Odysseus relied on their wits, muscles and character alone. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Augustus likewise took difficult decisions, earning the respect of both their lieutenants and their foot-soldiers.
Further east, Kings of Persia presented themselves as just and brave rulers. In China, the philosophy of Mengzi (Mencius) taught men to consider personal bravery as an essential part of a purposeful life. Being strong meant being blessed by the gods – or even being part-divine, as was the case with Herakles, son of Zeus, or Achilles, son of the nymph Thetis. Ancient heroes sometimes turned to substances in order to alter their moods, or their minds.
In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus and his men find themselves in the land of the Lotus Eaters, which is populated by ‘men who make food of flowers’. The Lotus Eaters are extraordinarily relaxed. Odysseus’s scouts sink into repose as soon as they taste the ‘honeyed fruit’ of the lotus flower, which makes Odysseus’s men so deeply indolent that they refuse to return to their own camp. Resolving not to move, they ignore all orders and give up any thought of returning home.
Ancient China, the Arabic-speaking world and Europe all showed deep interest in the remedial and medicinal qualities of plants and seeds. For example, cinnamon was used in treatments of the heart, stomach and head in China, Persia and the Eastern Mediterranean, where it was prescribed by Dioscorides 2,000 years ago as being helpful in establishing regular cycles of menstruation. Cinnamon was also prescribed in medieval medical manuals as helping ‘the man whose head is heavy and stuffed’ with mucus.
Later pharmacy books produced in Spain outlined at length how useful nutmeg oil was as a treatment for diarrhoea and vomiting, as well as fighting the common cold, and also reported that cardamom oil soothed the intestines and helped reduce flatulence.
The list of uses of spices and herbs is a long one. In the eighth century, Charlemagne ordered the large-scale cultivation of mallow after becoming convinced of its healing powers when it came to battlefield wounds. Some ancient medical research extended beyond the treatment of injuries into more adventurous pursuits.
An Arabic manual written in the Middle Ages contains a chapter entitled ‘Prescriptions for Increasing the Dimensions of Small Members and for Making them Splendid’. It suggests rubbing a mixture of honey and ginger onto the private parts. The medical manual promised an effect so powerful and productive of such pleasure that the man’s sexual partner would ‘object to him getting off her again’.
Roughly contemporary to the Homeric epics are the Sanskrit Rig Vedas. More than 3,000 years old, they espouse cannabis as ‘a source of happiness’, ‘a liberator’ from anxiety, and ‘a joy-giver’, such that a guardian angel was said to live within its leaves. Ancient Chinese texts that mention hemp say nothing about the effects of cannabis – until the first century BC, when one text, the Pen Ts’ao Ching, notes that ‘if taken in excess [the fruit of the hemp] will produce hallucinations (literally ‘seeing devils’). If taken over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.’
The use of cannabis as an intoxicant was known in India and Iran 3,000 years ago, and became so widespread in the Middle East that some practitioners warned of the long-term effect of regular usage. Not all listened. In the late 11th century, young men flocked to a charismatic leader named Hasan i-Saban.
Marco Polo referred to i-Saban as ‘the old man of the mountain’. According to the Venetian traveller, he gave his followers copious amounts of hashish (literally, ‘grass’ in Arabic). He also supplied them with sensuous women, and – in return – they murdered Hasan’s political rivals. His followers became known as the Hashishiyans, lending their name to today’s assassins.
he ‘was quarrelsome and fought with one of the wooden pillars of the porch until he had little skin upon the knuckles of the fingers’
Importantly, cannabis is not a stimulant. That means it is highly unlikely that cannabis served as the key to the assassins’ success designing and carrying out brilliantly planned and daring strategic operations. The effects of cannabis are more likely to be stupefying.
That is why one sultan of Syria in the 14th century ordered that all cannabis plants be uprooted and destroyed, and that those who ate hashish should have their teeth pulled out as a warning about how the mellifluous effects ultimately rendered able-bodied men useless.
In short, cannabis usage was hardly likely to improve performance in battle. Take the case of Thomas Bowery, a 17th-century English merchant sailor. In India, he and his friends bought a pint of ‘Bangha’, a cannabis-infused drink. One ‘sat himself down upon the floor and wept bitterly all afternoon’; another, ‘terrified with fear… put his head in a great jar and continued in that posture for four hours or more’; ‘four or five lay upon the carpets highly complimenting each other in high terms’, while another ‘was quarrelsome and fought with one of the wooden pillars of the porch until he had little skin upon the knuckles of the fingers’.
Such effects of drug use were well known. They did not lend themselves to warfare, in contrast to the exceptional situation of Asterix’s (fictional) little village, and its druid chemist, in northern Gaul.
The world of the Vikings was more cosmopolitan and dangerous. Arabic and medieval Greek accounts make clear the Vikings’ extensive activity and engagement with societies around the Black Sea and the Islamic world between 800-1000 AD. The Viking way combined elements of the street gang with that of the organised crime cartels.
First, the Vikings looked scary: ‘from the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green, with designs and so forth’, wrote a 10th-century Arabic writer. The same writer noted that Scandinavians always carried ‘an axe, a sword and a knife’. They behaved as hardened criminals, never trusting each other and showing no hesitation to steal or kill anyone, even one another. Another Arabic commentary noted that the Vikings ‘never go off alone to relieve themselves, but… with three companions to guard them, sword in hand, for they have little trust in each other.’ These were tough men for tough times.
The Vikings – like later successful conquerors such as the Mongols – revelled in the fear that their very names struck into the hearts of men. Like the Mongols, the Vikings meant to terrify, and this fear gave them an advantage. As modern sportsmen understand, scared and nervous opponents are easier to defeat than confident, strident ones. Also like the Mongols, the Vikings liked to present themselves as invincible, as imminent victors.
The self-presentation helped both groups establish great empires. For the Vikings, that meant not only control of the North Sea and the British Isles, and a small North America outpost, but also vast lands to the east. Ambitious Vikings headed south along the Volga, Dnieper and Dniester river systems. There, they made fat profits from trade, protection rackets and human trafficking. In due course, they founded the cities of Kiev, Novgorod and Chernigov. Ultimately, these cities wove together to become important lineaments of the Russian state.
Neither fire nor sword had any effect on them. This was what ‘Berserkergang’ was.
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