How Cannabis Became a Part of Ancient Cultures: Part 9 [The Vikings]

The Vikings were legendary Norse warriors who raided and traded their way across Europe and even made an impact in the Middle East and North Africa. The Viking Age is commonly said to have begun with raids on Lindisfarne in England in 793, and ended in 1066 with the Norman Conquest; although it effectively ended in Norway in the aftermath of the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030.

These Norse raiders are often associated with barbarity and are erroneously depicted as wild-haired savages. While they were certainly vicious (the 795 AD raids at Lambay Island in Dublin is a testament to this fact), the Vikings were also cultured thinkers. Given their reputation for fighting and conquest, it came as a surprise to many to learn that the Vikings grew and used hemp.

The Sosteli Cannabis Farm

One of the largest scale cannabis growing areas in Viking culture was discovered at the Sosteli Iron Age Farm in Southern Norway. The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen has stored samples from Sosteli excavations for more than half a century. Archaeologists discovered that it was common for the Vikings to cultivate cannabis, and analysis showed that hemp was grown at Sosteli between 650 and 800 AD.

While other Viking excavations amounted to little more than pollen grains, the findings at Sosteli indicated widespread growth and usage of cannabis. What historians can’t determine is how the Vikings used the seeds, fiber, and oil of the hemp seeds they grew. The most likely scenario is that they used hemp to make textiles and ropes.

Another reason why Sosteli stood out is that it is far away from other sites where Viking Age cannabis was found. Even the discovery was pure chance. In the 1940s, a joint Norwegian and Danish research project took place, and scientists took samples of pollen from a bog. The data was stored in the National Museum’s archives and forgotten for half a century before scientists studied the findings and made the staggering discovery.

As hemp pollen doesn’t travel very far with the wind, the research team believes the Viking farmers planted the seeds very close to where archaeologists found the samples. There is no evidence that the Vikings at Sosteli used hemp as a drug, and it is far more likely that it was used in textile production.

Marianne Vedeler from Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History is an expert on textiles from the Viking Age, and she said that hemp could be used like flax. Back then, flax was used to make linen, so it would make sense if hemp were used for the same purpose.

Interestingly, archaeologists had also found evidence of hemp seeds in Eastern Norway dating back to the fifth century, long before the Vikings decided to expand.

The Oseberg Mound

Excavators of the Oseberg burial mound discovered the body of a woman aged at least 70. There were cannabis seeds in her small leather pouch. What is fascinating about this discovery is that the woman showed signs of an illness, which means the seeds could have been used to treat her pain.

The mound has been dated to 834 AD and is by far the biggest Viking Age treasure trove that has ever been discovered. It was excavated way back in 1904 and is a Viking ship with two women buried in it. Aside from the elderly lady, there was also a woman aged around 50.

What is particularly startling about Oseberg is the sheer number of items on the ship. Remember, there were only two women buried on board, but the ship also had seven beds, four horse sleighs, a chariot, numerous woven tapestries, animal bones from up to 15 horses, a cow, four dogs, a woodcock, a red-breasted merganser, and a bull.

Despite being buried for almost 1,100 years, the artifacts were extremely well preserved because they were buried in dense clay and peat. Archaeologists even discovered a bucket of apples that still retained their red coloring! What’s obvious is that these were women of high standing because ordinary Vikings would not receive such a luxurious funeral.

When you bear in mind that once a person reached adulthood during this era (discarding the high child mortality rate), they seldom reached 60 years of age, it is clear that the elderly lady lived a good life to reach her mid to late seventies. She was, of course, the center of attention because of the cannabis pouch.

Although we can’t be sure, it seems likely that her illness caused her severe pain and she probably used the cannabis in her pouch as a painkiller. There is also a suggestion that she was a religious leader which would mean weed had a spiritual use and was possibly used in rituals.

It is worth noting that the Vikings had an exceptional knowledge of the medical qualities of plants, and were also aware of the plants that acted as intoxicants, such as marijuana. The other possible reason why the woman had cannabis in her pouch is that hemp was used to make clothes and rope. Perhaps it was supposed to be used as a building material in the afterlife?

Why Did the Vikings Use Cannabis?

The most obvious reason is that hemp fibers made a strong rope. If you recall, the Vikings relied heavily on ships; especially during their period of expansion. Hemp makes extremely strong ropes, and the Vikings would have been delighted to find a material that prevented their ropes from rotting quickly while at sea.

The discovery of cannabis at the Oseberg mound suggests the Vikings used cannabis as a painkiller. It has been suggested that they used the herb to relieve pain during childbirth, and perhaps even to cope with toothaches. Over in Germany, tribes paid homage to the same gods as the Vikings and used cannabis in spiritual rituals.

Of course, the question we really want answered is: “Did the Vikings use marijuana to get high?” Based on the evidence discovered so far, it is highly likely that they grew hemp for textile purposes only. One colorful myth suggests that the Vikings took hallucinogenic mushrooms along with reindeer urine to get high before battle to numb pain and fear.

Therefore, the only link between the Vikings and using weed to get stoned or for religious ceremonies comes from the fact that they met various cultures who were known for using marijuana. In the Middle East, Sikh warriors are said to have used weed to treat battle wounds, while the Chinese used weed for medicinal purposes.

The Vikings met all of these peoples at some point during their expansion, so maybe they copied their marijuana usage? It remains an open question, and there is little or no evidence to back it up.