At the end of the tenth century, the various tribes living in what is now southern Russia were deciding what religion to embrace.
They had perfectly good religions already, of course, but there were strong incentives to convert to one of the big monotheistic religions coming up from the south. First off, one thing that the native religions didn't offer was an organized priesthood. And a religious heirarchy could confer upon a ruler a level of legitimacy that simple personality and force of arms never could.
Organized religion gave you backing from a higher authority than the sword - backing that challengers to your authority found much harder to take up. It also gave you a certain pomp and circumstance, including elaborate rituals such as coronation which strengthened your rulership. With a priesthood backing him, an unimpressive heir could become king without the almost certain fate of being knocked off by someone stronger or more persuasive. Priests allowed kings to create dynasties.
In addition to this, it was also important to consider the southerners who were bringing these new religions. Adopting their religion made them happy, and since they were the major source of trade wealth, there were substantial benefits to good relations with them. Constantinople was the greatest city in Christendom, and converting to Christianity paid off not only in terms of short-term cash and long-term trade preference, but also in terms of access to Byzantine craftsmen, priests, and scholars. Similar benefits derived from a relationship with the Muslims of Baghdad.
There was also a sense of something grand about these new religions. Wotan had nothing like the Hagia Sophia, the great mosques; to visit Baghdad or Constantinople was to be impressed. Although that sword cut both ways; the Norse probably took much longer to convert because they were simply so successful. Why turn from Odin, who had proved His worth in bringing victory, wealth, and conquest, and to the Christian god of the people you kept beating, over and over?
But the first two inducements, at least, were undeniable. And polytheism had a weakness that monotheism didn't, namely, you could get your feet wet. If a monotheist changes gods, it's an all-or-nothing venture. But a polytheist could pick up a new god, try him out, and if things didn't work out he hadn't really given up his previous gods. Throw Jesus in there with the mix and see if things turn out better. As an Icelandic writer of the twelfth century said, on land I worship Christ, but at sea I pray to Thor. With polytheism, the door was open.
So for all of these reasons, the pagans on the Russian steppes were thinking about converting. But to which religion? Christianity or Islam? They both had organized priesthoods, they both had links with rich cultures in the south. Both had missionaries wandering around the area.
The Khazars, interestingly enough, picked Judaism. That's right, a large tribe of Turkomen nomads converted to Judaism. It had few real long-term effects, but for a while around the year 1000 there was a major Jewish kingdom on the steppes.
But Khazars aside, there were basically two options. And what determined the tribes' choice was their favorite drug.
You see, Mohammed had spoken against alcohol.
For the Turkomen, the nomadic steppe-dwelling tribes, this wasn't a big problem. They weren't an alcohol-based culture. They had to carry everything with them as they moved around, as they raided, and alcohol and stills aren't particularly portable.
Dried herbs, on the other hand, are wonderfully light and portable. So the Turkomen smoked hash. And Islam had no particular problem with that. There was already a culture of smoking in the Muslim world, and the use of hashish was already practiced by various Muslim mystics. So when the missionaries came and told the Turkomen that alcohol was frowned upon, the Turkomen shrugged and everyone lit up.
The pagans residing in the forested areas and who lived in small farming villages however, didn't use much hash. They drank vodka. Lots of it. And there was simply no way they were going to spend the long Russian winters indoors without their vodka. Hash was harder to get, more expensive, and made the huts reek. Vodka was easy to make out of the food they already had, and kept them warm inside. And the Christian missionaries had no problems with vodka at all.
So that's basically how they split; the Vodka-Hashish line. The nomadic hash-smoking Turkomen largely became Muslims, and the sedentary vodka-swilling Slavs became Christians.
They didn't live happily ever after, but they didn't always mind so much.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra