High History: Cannabis in the Ancient World

When you walk into a cannabis dispensary, you notice the variety of products and extractions. Edibles, flower, concentrates and tinctures line the display cases. These medicinal and recreational products are just like the ones used during the Victorian times in America and Europe.

People throughout the ages have utilized cannabis in many forms, from tribal shamans to Victorian women. These ingestion methods and applications find their origin in the ancient world, where cannabis was used in medicine, magic, religion and recreation. These earliest civilizations cultivated and traded the psychoactive plant.

The ancients discovered cannabis in their search for ropes, textiles, foods and pharmaceuticals. Some varieties were not fit for fabric and rope, but their sticky psychotropic flowers had a better purpose. The plant was typically harvested and either juiced or smoked. Wine infusion, water extraction and fumigating the dried flower were the most common methods of ingestion. Recent archaeological evidence and surviving documents gives us a window into the historical use of cannabis.

We begin with the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, whose Assyrian and Babylonian culture left behind a large cache of cuneiform clay tablets, dated between 1,000 and 500 BCE, some describing medical and religious practices. The cuneiform word for cannabis was azullu. It was used for treating depression, as well as in different medical recipes. Under the name kunubu, it was one of the ingredients in their religious incense, which they traded with Egypt and Judaea.

The Mesopotamians were likely importing cannabis from Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan and Turkmenistan), where Zoroastrian priests prepared the plant as an ingredient in their religious drinks, called Haoma (Vedic: Soma). Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions known, flourished among pre-Iranian cultures around the 7th century BCE, although its roots go back to the second millennium BCE.

In the Kara Kum desert, near the Hindu Kush mountains, a Zoroastrian temple was excavated in the ancient city of Margiana. The city was an oasis along the Silk Road, an informal trade route across Asia and China. Cannabis was traded along the mountain routes of northern Asia.

Cannabis and psychoactive drinks were exported from Margiana into India and other places, possibly even Egypt and Judaea. Scientists found residue of cannabis, ephedra and opium poppy in different pottery at Margiana, dated to about 1,000 BCE.

In ancient India, cannabis was called bhang and ganjha (twisted rope). Their pharmaceutical texts (ca. 1600 BCE) prescribe the plant for treating anxiety, among other common ailments. It was likely an ingredient in Soma and appeared in their Vedic texts.

Cannabis usage in Egypt is first mentioned during the New Kingdom (ca. 2350 BCE). The hieroglyphic symbol shemshemet indicated cannabis and hemp. Other terms were employed in Egyptian medicine. It was used in their pharmacy up to the 1800s CE.

In ancient Judaea, cannabis appears as one of the ingredients in holy incense and anointing oil under the name kaneh bosm in Exodus (30:22-25), dating to 9th or 8th century BCE. The Talmud, another Hebrew text, contains a recipe for wine infused with cannabis and myrrh.

Cannabis hash burnt over the body of a deceased young woman was found in a tomb in Judaea, dating to the Roman Empire (ca. 4th century CE). The drug was applied either as medicine for her child-birth or as part of the funeral ritual.

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew about the region of Bactria and the cannabis plant. The ancient Greek god of wine and intoxication, Dionysus, came from this area. This mythical land of Nysa was said to be filled with potent drugs and medicines. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) wrote about the nomadic Scythians and their fumigation of cannabis flowers. They regularly traveled throughout the Silk Road areas, including Bactria, southern Siberian Russia and northwestern China.

Herodotus describes a funeral tradition of the Scythians, where they fumigated cannabis on hot coals inside tents. He mentions another related tribe, the Massagetae, who consumed it in the same way. It was an ancient version of clam-backing or hot-boxing; the Greeks called it a vapor-bath. These neighboring tribes influenced the ancient Greek world and their available psychoactive botanicals because extensive trade existed between them.

A Thracian oracle in the Greek city of Epirus (the Thracians were related to the Massagetae), also used cannabis as part of the religious experience. Burnt remains of cannabis were found in the caves below the temple. The plant was consumed at the oracle to commune with the dead.

The Scythians traveled on horseback, along ancient trade routes, between Eastern Europe, India and China. Archaeologists have excavated Scythian graves in Southern Siberian Russia which contained remains of burnt cannabis, tent poles and small coal stoves. The artifacts in many ways match up to the accounts from Herodotus.

The Scythians were in contact with distant tribes in Northwest China called the Subeixi culture (in the modern day Xinjiang province of China), who cultivated the plant. Ancient cannabis remains of 16 intact female plants were found in a grave, lain across the deceased body as a burial shroud. Another grave in a nearby cemetery contained a little under two pounds of processed and cut cannabis. This grave belonged to a shaman.

The Subeixi people were semi-nomadic and flourished between 1,000-200 BCE. They had contact with cultures as far away as India and Bactria and traded cannabis with the rest of China. The culture used the plant in their religion, medicine and funeral rites.

Cannabis was well known and widely used in the Roman Empire.

From the time of Pliny the Elder and into the late Roman Empire, cannabis appears in various medical and pharmacological texts. The Roman naturalist Pliny (23-79 CE) mentioned cannabis in several passages, including medical usages. In his work Natural History, he wrote about the infusion of “laughing- weed” (gelotophyllis) with wine which grows in Bactria and was known to induce intoxication.

There are many references to cannabis in the medical writings of the Roman doctor Galen (2nd century CE). He writes in his On the Properties of Foods that it was cooked into desserts and eaten at parties for recreation. Ancient medicinal cannabis was used to treat a variety of symptoms and ailments, including ear blockage, burns and cuts, inflammations, tumors, gastro-intestinal issues, the eyes, muscle aches, gout and tremors. It was also used to treat illnesses in domesticated farm animals.

This ancient trend towards using cannabis continued in Europe into the Middle Ages and beyond. The plant was often used in ancient pharmacy, beverage making and religious incense.

There are more details to the story about cannabis usage in ancient times. I am completing a book on cannabis in the ancient Greek and Roman world, which will be out in 2018. Until then, here is a reading list.

Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany by Robert Clarke and Mark Merlin

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages by Patrick McGovern

History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science and Sobriquet by EB Russo

The Analytical Chemistry of Cannabis by Brian Thomas and Mahmoud ElSohly

High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis by Barney Warf

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