Though cannabis is becoming a newly accepted part of our culture, there’s nothing new about cannabis—in fact, it’s ancient. With so many myths and misunderstandings surrounding cannabis, few of us are familiar with its widespread human use across continents and millennia. The fascinating, multidimensional history of cannabis predates the 1960s and the American hippy, the racist motivation of “Reefer Madness” and the Tax Act of the 1930s, even the formation of the United States as a country. Through time and space, cannabis has played many important roles in human societies and its relationship with humans has been rhizomatic and complex, texturing the very fabric of our existence.
Signs of Ancient Cannabis Use
Cannabis may well be one of the first agricultural crops, as signs of its cultivation date back about 10,000 years in certain areas of the world (about the same time that agriculture began to be implemented). Modern humans have been around for approximately 250,000 years and lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers until about 10,000 years ago when agricultural practices harkened to the beginning of modern society. Astronomer Carl Sagan theorized that the cultivation of cannabis led to widespread agriculture and therefore, modern society.
History of Cannabis in China
The land we currently call China has perhaps the longest and most intimate history with cannabis. Hemp cordage was used to decorate pottery at the site of an ancient village near modern-day Taiwan has been dated to about 8,000 BCE, The Stone Age. Around 6,000 BCE as agricultural cultivation spread, hemp seed, and hemp seed oil became important food sources, and by about 4,000 BCE most clothing, textiles, and even shoes in China were made from hemp fiber. Cannabis was so integral to this burgeoning culture that they referred to their country as the “land of mulberry and hemp” and eventually hemp fibers were used to make paper, another major advancement for civilization. In 2,737 BCE, the first written record of cannabis appeared as mystical emperor Shen-Nung published Pen Ts’ao, a Materia Medica of his writings and studies of natural healing elements, from vegetable, animal, and mineral sources. Cannabis was recommended and used for many maladies, including as an anesthetic for early surgery.
History of Cannabis in India and Central Asia
As in China, Cannabis grew wild in India and Central Asia but was perhaps one of the first cultivated crops. In the area of India, cannabis is called “Ganja” or “Bhang” (dried cannabis leaves, seeds, and stems) which is mentioned in the Hindu sacred text Atharvaveda, written around 2000 BCE. Atharvaveda describes Bhang as one of the “five kingdoms of herbs… which release us from anxiety.” Used medicinally, in celebration, and ritually as an offering to Siva, Cannabis played an integral part in the lives of ancient Indians. In India, Bhang also refers to the name of a beverage containing Cannabis and other herbs that are still consumed today and are important in the culture and religion. Likewise, in current-day Iran and surrounding areas, bhanga, which means Cannabis, was similarly historically revered. Turkey is perhaps the farthest west where evidence of ancient Cannabis has been found; archaeologists discovered fabric made of hemp fibers dating back to about 1000 BCE in an excavation of Gordion, a prehistoric city near present-day Ankara.
History of Cannabis in Ancient Greece
Though the ancient Greeks remained largely ignorant of the intoxicating and medicinal effects of Cannabis until the 19th century, they did appreciate the plant for its fine fiber, and as early as 6 BCE, used it widely as a textile and for making rope. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the Scythians, a tribe of Aryans who settled near Macedonia around the 5 BCE, and their use of cannabis vapor tents–tents in which participants would immerse themselves in the smoke from burning cannabis seeds and flowers–as a purification tool after a grizzly mass sacrifice commemorating a fallen chief. Though there is extensive and detailed literature, we see little other mention of cannabis in ancient Greek society, aside from a few references to the edible nature of the seeds and the somewhat relieving use of the leaves as an external backache remedy.
History of Cannabis in The West
Cannabis reached the western world rather late, not until about 1545, when the Spanish brought Cannabis to Chile to cultivate for hemp fiber. In 1607, the first colonists to the U.S. were required by British law to grow Cannabis as a crop to make clothes, sails, and rope; later the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Not until the early 1800s did Cannabis begin to gain notoriety as a recreational substance in Europe, and later, the Americas; this knowledge was spread mainly by the Indian and African slave trade. Africans were likely introduced to the psychoactive effects of Cannabis by early Arab traveling groups. In Ethiopia, smoking pipes with traces of Cannabis were carbon-dated to around 1320. W. B. O’Shaughnessy is credited as the first Western man to study cannabis as a medicine, which he did while living in Calcutta. O’ Shaughnessy was an Irish physician who, like the ancient Chinese, concluded that Cannabis could be a remedy for many ailments, including as an anesthetic during surgery.
Religious Use of Cannabis
Cannabis has long been used as a religious accompaniment, sometimes for its psychoactive properties, often as an offering or in ritual, and occasionally as a way to bridge the gap between our mortal world and a higher one. This can be observed across vastly different religions, in very different areas of the globe. The earliest mention of cannabis is in ancient Taoist scripture, which mentions the use of burning cannabis as incense, used to achieve a state of balance and openness to divinatory channels.
Rastafari or Rastafarianism is an Abrahamic religion and social movement which originated in Jamaica. Less than a century old, Rastafari became recognizable in the 1930s, and while it lacks certain features of organized religion, like clergy or any central authority, today it boasts about a million followers. One of the most well-known features of Rastafari is the promotion of cannabis use. The religion was internationally popularized by singer Bob Marley in the 1960s and 70s, and was built around the worship of Ethiopian king Haile Selassie as the Second Coming of Christ, and a post-slavery Pan-African sentiment. Rastafari believes that most intoxicating substances like alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine are detrimental and should be avoided, but that cannabis is a healing herb that relaxes the mind and allows people to think and reason clearly. Jamaicans were introduced to “ganga” and its spiritual properties by Hindu slaves forced to work alongside Jamaican slaves in Jamaica by the British.
Judaism & Early Christianity
Unlike its more Eastern counterparts, the records we have of Judaism and Early Christianity do not make much mention of cannabis, and the religions do not welcome the use of cannabis. Unless, of course, there is truth to the theory that the Hebrew “kaneh-bosm” which was traditionally translated as “Calamus” actually refers to “Cannabis,” in which case cannabis is mentioned many times throughout the Old and New Testaments. Those in favor of this theory cite passages of Jesus performing healing miracles using the Holy Oil, containing “kaneh-bosm,” positing that these afflictions (skin problems, rheumatism, epilepsy) are helped by the use of cannabis. Additionally, it is interesting to note that Assyrian records predating Jesus describe a cannabis-containing topical ointment used in the treatment of an ancient malady called “Hand of the Ghost” which is now thought to be epilepsy. The ingredients were: “Cannabis, styrax, oak, ricinus, oenanthe, linseed, kelp, myrrh, wax of honey, lidrusa-plant, sweet oil. Together thou shalt mix, anoint him therewith with oil.”
As mentioned above, one of Hinduism’s Vedas, Atharvaveda, mentions cannabis as one of five sacred herbs. Thought to be born of the deity Shiva’s own body in order to purify the elixir of life, “gangja” is seen as a gift to humankind, bestowed with compassion, to eliminate fear, bring happiness, and enchant the senses. Each plant is thought to house a guardian angel in its leaves who can provide relief from hunger, thirst, and heat exhaustion. Consuming “Bhang,” a concoction made from cannabis, poppy seeds, chai spices, rosebuds, milk, and several other herbs has religious significance and is thought to bring good fortune and protection. It is a holy act to drink Bhang during the spring festival of Holi when the beverage is widely distributed to this day. “Charas,” a fresh plant, a hand-rolled form of hashish, is another form of Cannabis consumed in Hindu religious practices. Charas is generally smoked from a chillum or long pipe.
A Hindu sect called The Shaivs who worship Shiva as their supreme God often depict him smoking a chillum, and smoking charas during their rituals, chanting the names of Shiva in prayer.