The Hazy History of Cannabis: Ancient Times

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With the cannabis industry set to revolutionize the world as we know it, there has been a growing interest in the recreational and medicinal purposes of the plant. It has long been known that cannabis induces a tranquil and intoxicating effect, also providing relief to hundreds of health conditions, while even sparking recovery in certain ailments.

Although the exact origin of cannabis is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, it is thought to have evolved approximately 28 million years ago. Indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, the first known traces of cannabis were found by archeologists on the Tibetan Plateau. A close relative to the hop plant (for which beer is famous) cannabis still grows wild throughout Central Asia.

While we will never know who the first human to get high was, what we do know is that the cannabis plant has been used by humans for millennia.

It is speculated that early civilizations used the plant as medicine, a food source and as part of ancient religious ceremonies. Archeological evidence also indicates the cultivation of hemp, which was among the first plants to ever have been grown agriculturally. The amazing Hemp plant was grown predominantly for its fibers, with which to weave clothing and ropes

As far as the history of recreational cannabis goes, Scientists have recently uncovered evidence of such an event some 2500 years ago. At the site of a group of ancient Chinese tombs (located in the Jirzankal cemetery near the Himalayas) archeologists excavated traces of THC in incense burners positioned around the graves.

It seems that pollen samples confirmed the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol in as many as ten incense burners located at the site. According to the Science Advances Journal “the vessels are the first evidence of people using marijuana recreationally.” The traces were analyzed and found to measure “at higher levels than found in wild cannabis plants,” suggesting that the cannabis had been specifically cultivated.

But the early uses of cannabis far surpass your average history lesson, with the legendary psychoactive properties being used to heighten sensory perceptions…

The team of scientists who made the discovery have speculated that the marijuana was used as part of a funeral ritual, to assist with communing with the sacred realms as the souls passed from this world and into the next. Although this is the first known discovery of marijuana in terms of archeological evidence, in all likeliness the substance has been used around the globe for similar purposes.

Sacred Rituals and Religious Ceremonies

In recent years, hundreds of items have been uncovered by archeologists and anthropologists which indicate that cannabis has long been used by Mexican, Mayan and Aztec civilizations. Along with mescaline, magic mushrooms, and a host of other psycho-active plants, cannabis has long been a part of religious and cultural rituals alike.

The first written mention of cannabis as a spiritual substance (or entheogen) dates back to the Vedic period in around 2000 BCE. The sacred texts of the Atharva Veda refer to cannabis as one of “five sacred plants… which release us from anxiety.” The Vedas also describe the sacred cannabis plant as having a guardian angel living inside its leaves as follows: 

"A guardian lives in the bhang leaf… To see in a dream the leaves, plant, or water of bhang is lucky… A longing for bhang foretells happiness.”

If you have ever smoked cannabis, you might well agree with this ancient legend, for the inhalation of marijuana has a euphorically intoxicating effect! This state of heightened awareness gives rise to inspiration and philosophical contemplation that is said to lead to Moksha, or the Liberation of the ego-mind. 

For this reason Cannabis has been used by a myriad of cultures and religions to reflect on deeply sacred subjects, and to unravel the unknown mysteries of the conscious and subconscious mind. Pagan and shamanic cultures used the plant as a means to divine higher guidance, and also as a ritualized aphrodisiac during orgies! 

Spiritual Intoxication and Shamanic Origins

It has been noted throughout history that the seeds of cannabis, often referred to as nirvana seeds, were the source of prophecies and divine visions. According to the Shennong bencao jing, cannabis lifts the veil between the physical and spiritual realms, allowing users to see demons and shift “in touch with the spirits” over a period of time.

As far as historical evidence of entheogenic (spiritual) intoxication goes, burnt cannabis seeds have been discovered in Chinese and Siberian shamanic graves dating back to 500 BC. Herodotus (the great Greek historian) is also known to have described a group of Scythian nomads in Central Asia inhaling vapour from smoldering marijuana flowers to get high.

After approximately 800 AD, the use of hashish spread like wildfire throughout Asia and the Middle East. The substance is still growing in popularity, and is a purified form of marijuana typically smoked in a pipe or joint. Hashish gained traction with the spread of the Islam religion which condemned the use of alcohol and other intoxicants, with cannabis being the exception to the rule.

Marijuana was also used by the ancient Assyrians, who knew its psychoactive capabilities, and referred to it as qunubu - or “way to produce smoke.” The shamans of numerous ancient cultures, who were known as the kapnobatai or “those who walk on clouds/smoke,” would burn cannabis in order to induce a trance-like state. 

From this state the shamans were known to communicate with ancestors, deities and spirits, which is an art form still practiced to this day. There are as many ways to include cannabis as part of a sacred ritual as there are stars in the sky. However, all you really need to do, is to set an intention and relax into the experience with peace in your heart. 

Traditional Plant Medicine

Cannabis has been used medicinally since ancient times, with physicians all over the globe combining cannabis with other medicines to treat pain and various health conditions. As the cannabis plant is indigenous to Asia, it is speculated to be the location where medicinal cannabis first found its origins. Botanist Hui-lin Li explains:

“The use of Cannabis in medicine was probably a very early development. Since ancient humans used hemp seed as food, it was quite natural for them to also discover the medicinal properties of the plant." In the Shennong Bencaojing (an ancient Chinese pharmacological encyclopedia on plants and agriculture), cannabis is referenced as “dama” or “ma.” 

In the pharmacopeia it is written that cannabis flowers are best harvested on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is recommended to collect the cannabis seeds in the ninth month. The book notes that seeds which have entered the soil may be harmful to man, while the buds and kernels of seeds collected from the plant were thought to be medicinal.

Cannabis as an Ancient Remedy

In a book written by Frank Dikotter, titled Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China, it is reported that “The medical uses were highlighted in a pharmacopoeia of the Tang, which prescribed the root of the plant to remove a blood clot, while the juice from the leaves could be ingested to combat tapeworm.” And used “against several ailments, ranging from constipation to hair loss.”

The book goes on to explain how the seeds of cannabis were reduced to powder and combined with rice wine. This concoction was used as an ancient anesthetic, with Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo being the first person in recorded history to administer cannabis for its anesthetizing properties. To this day, the Chinese term for “anesthesia” is directly translated to mean “cannabis intoxication.”

American scholar and archeological expert, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, states that Chinese evidence “proves a knowledge of the narcotic properties of Cannabis at least from the 1st millennium B.C." Linguistically, the Chinese term “ma” means “numb” or “senseless,” suggesting that the cannabis of the time held incredibly potent THC levels.

Yet although cannabis has its roots in Asia, the plant has been used medicinally by numerous countries all dating back to ancient times. The Netherlands, Egypt, Greece and India have all provided evidence of cannabis being used medicinally. In Egypt, ancient papyrus scrolls of approximately 2000 BCE mention cannabis as a means to treat hemorrhoids and sore eyes.

Cleopatra was also rumored to have bathed in hemp leaves, as part of her daily beautification rituals. It is said that the leaves held the “fountain of youth” and were reported to have been the reason for her well-renowned attractive appeal. Queen Nefertiti too, was known to combine hemp with neem leaves as an ancient face mask, so there is much history surrounding the powers of this enchanting plant.

In the ancient Vedas of India, philosophers reference cannabis as follows: “It cures dysentery and sunstroke, clears phlegm, quickens digestion, sharpens appetite, makes the tongue of the lisper plain, freshens the intellect and gives alertness to the body and gaiety to the mind. Such are the useful and needful ends for which in His goodness the Almighty made bhang.”

Bhang is an edible form of cannabis, dating back to ancient India, where Bhang eaters would combine it with food and drink. 

Part 2 coming soon!


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