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Ancient Cannabis

By Ryan Logan August 15, 2017


   When visiting a local dispensary, one can become overwhelmed with the shear variety or edibles, concentrates and smoking contraptions. These simply represent the modern means of ingesting the medicinal and recreational benefits that ancient civilizations also consumed.People throughout the ages have used cannabis in many different ways, 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. Below are six of the most interesting ancient cannabis practitioners.


In the Kara Kum desert, near the Hindu Kush mountains, a Zoroastrian temple was recently excavated.The city was an oasis along the Silk Road, between Asia and Europe, and 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 have found residue of cannabis, ephedra and opium poppy in different pottery at Margiana, dated to over 3000 years ago.


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 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 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.

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) as well. 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.


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