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Cannabis In Ancient Literature and Cultures


Cannabis is an ancient herb that is well known for its recreational properties. Apart from such use, the herb was also well-known to ancient healers for its medicinal properties. The mention of Cannabis in ancient texts tells a lot about the location’s culture and society. Almost all cultures of antiquity have notable comments about Cannabis. Let’s begin with India, one of the cradles of human civilization.

In India

Cannabis is rooted in the culture and
societal practices of many different sects that follow the Hindu way of life.
Cannabis is mentioned in the Vedas itself, one of the most important sacred
texts for Hindus. Cannabis is mentioned time and again as a person goes through
the legends and religious texts of the Indian culture. Such religious mention
of Cannabis can be dated as far back as 2000-1400 B.C. The Vedas even went to
the extent of putting a divine halo to the herb. It stated that the leaves of
the herb enjoyed the presence of a guardian angel. Furthermore, not only is
Cannabis one of the five sacred plants of these scriptures, but as the scholar
Abel points out, the texts celebrated Cannabis as a source of joy and happiness.
It was seen as a mighty liberator with the power to endow compassion and
empathy and let go of fears and anxiety and attain a rarely-felt kind of

This is by no means the only spiritual
connection cannabis enjoyed in ancient India. Indeed, the association with
Shiva of the Hindu trinity dates back to ancient times and continues today. In
the Indian tradition, the most popular and socially accepted form of cannabis
consumption is bhang. As per Indian legends, Shiva discovered the herb and its
great delights while breaking from domestic disturbances. Its rejuvenating
effect made the plant his favourite. The next painting tells it all and is more
than simply fascinating:

Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra , Courtesy of Flickr

In Greece

Evidence suggests that early periods of the
Greek Civilization too viewed Cannabis as a form of medicine. Archeological and
sociological evidence suggests Greeks treated various health issues like
earaches, inflammation, and edema by using it. In fact, the source of the very
word “cannabis” is perhaps the Greek word “kannabis.”

Herodotus, the father of history who
recorded the Greek way of life in 500 BC, states that Sychtians used to
cultivate help. He observed how the people crushed hemp seeds and vaped the
smoke after burning them atop stones. As he wrote, “immediately it smokes,
and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the
Scythians, delighted, shout for joy.”

In Egypt

The ancient Greeks and Indians were joined in their weed revelry by the ancient Egyptians too. For someone who has spent some time observing hieroglyphics, the idea of Egyptians enjoying their share of the pot should come as no surprise. The deep analysis of hieroglyphics reveals portrayals of “shemshemet” which is Egyptian for Cannabis. However, while we know that the Egyptians enjoyed a joint, it is not clear how the Egyptians started taking the substance. As an expert sums up,” While it’s unclear how early the ancient Egyptians began using Cannabis, it has remained in active use ever since pharaonic times. It does not appear very often in the medical papyri. Still, it was administered by mouth, rectum, vagina, bandaged to the skin, applied to the eyes and by fumigation.”

Image by Merrie P. Wycoff , courtesy of Pinterest

In China

Ma was the term ancient Chinese used to
refer to Cannabis. Hemp was particularly popular as a dress material for the financially
disadvantaged class. Common Chinese folk who could not afford delicate fabrics
like silk used it as a textile material. Shu King, the ancient book written in
about 2350 BC, chronicles how the modern-day Shandong province of eastern China
cultivated hemp. Interestingly the most ancient piece of paper (140-87 B.C.),
originally a Chinese invention, was derived from hemp. Ancient Chinese also
consumed hemp as a food, and it remained a part of the staple Chinese diet
right into the 10th century.

Apparently, the Chinese were aware of the medical
benefits of Cannabis, too or at least some of them. Chinese medical texts have
illustrated the use of Cannabis and its seeds for medical purposes for nearly
2000 and 1800 years, respectively. As per legends, Shen Nung, a Chinese empower,
was the first to discover its medicinal properties way back in 2700 BC.

The Persians

Hinduism is not the only religion to have
deep bonds with Cannabis. The Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, too, had
mention of the plant in its sacred texts. In fact, its prophet, the sage
Zoroaster, mentions the herb is one of his sacraments. So it is no surprise that
the Zend Avesta, a sort of Parsi holy book, mentions over ten thousand
medicinal plants, including Cannabis. However, as a primary sacrament, only the
priests were entitled to it. It remained out of bounds for ordinary Persians.


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