Ah the devil’s lettuce, Satan’s salad, the ol’ whacky baccy. Love it or hate it, marijuana has been around for literally thousands of years, but what were our ancient ancestors across the world doing with it? Was Augustus a pothead??? Did Cleopatra wake and bake??? Could Nefertiti get stoned?? Is that how they built the pyramids?? Well it’s probably a no to all of those things. But it’s NOT a no to the question “IS THERE GLOBAL EVIDENCE OF THE ANCIENT USE OF MARIJUANA?” (- clunky but funky). So let’s dive right in all you cool cats and kittens, and get exploring the wonderful world of weed.
When we talk about the history of weed, there are pretty much two separate parts of the discussion, relating to its different purposes. See a lot of the sources we have talk about the physical use of the cannabis plant (like for making ropes), but not about its recreational or medicinal benefits, which is pretty much why a lot of us care about it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we’re travelling to ancient China, where the emperor Shen-nung supposedly first taught his subjects about the perks of the whacky baccy (or, as he called it, ‘ma’) in around 2700 BCE, with it later being recorded in the Pen Ts’ao Ching – basically a massive ancient book on medicine. Shen-nung identified over one hundred different uses of weed, from the medical (like to cure rheumatism), to the religious (communicating with spirits). This cultic purpose is actually one of the most common uses of cannabis consumption that we know about – with our first actual ancient weed being found preserved in the grave of a shaman of the Jushi peoples in northern China, at around the same time.
As cultures come into contact, so do their practices, and so it’s not surprising that we soon see mentions of cannabis and its use spreading across Asia. In ancient India, Sanskrit and Hindi sources both talk about this amazing wonder plant around 3500 years ago, and how different parts of the plant can be used as cures for virtually all diseases. In fact, ganja was thought to have been created when the god Shiva dropped the nectar of immortality on the earth – pretty much exactly like that scene in Tangled. It’s not surprising then that it was thought to relieve everything from anxiety, to fevers – with Hindu and Ayurvedic worshippers either smoking hashish, or drinking bhang (like a cannabis-infused cocktail) to get those medical benefits.
Over in ancient Assyria meanwhile, in the seventh century BCE, tons of tablets were being engraved with records of azallu, qunnabu and gan-zi-gun-nu (which we’re pretty sure all meant weed). The Assyrians used cannabis in a whole bunch of interesting ways, for ‘female ailments’ (period pain? endometriosis?), kidney stones, depression, and – a quirky outlier – for combatting witchcraft.
Need weed to cure your glaucoma à la Zach Galifianakis in Due Date? Well you’d be right at home in ancient Egypt, where the first evidence of medical marijuana as a cure for various eye issues has been preserved on papyri. The Egyptians also reportedly used it cannabis as incense (which I imagine would’ve been pretty divisive), and potentially even gave it to women during childbirth, to help ease their pain.
I’ve actually saved my favourite part of ancient weed history for last – this time, we’re heading back to the Middle East, to an ancient grave located near Jerusalem. Preserved in this tomb are the remains of a young woman who died in childbirth, with a whole load of weed surrounding her – probably used to try and help the birthing process. Why is this so interesting you ask? Well her tomb was only found around 20 years ago, and was massively significant to the world of old testament scholars, because it finally provided evidence that the “kanna-bosm” referred to in the Hebrew Bible, might have been cannabis.
Kanna-bosm was apparently used as a central ingredient in holy anointing oil, used both by Hebrew and early Christian mystics and religious healers. In fact this oil is also linked to the anointing oil that Jesus gives to his disciples when encouraging them to go out and heal – with some scholars arguing that they probably were the same thing. How cool is that?? Jesus might’ve smoked joints.
So what about the Greeks and Romans, they’ve stayed suspiciously quiet throughout this article. Interestingly, we actually have no evidence that either the Greeks or the Romans ever did blaze it in 420 BC. In fact, pretty much the only record of ancient Greeks talking about marijuana we have is from a guy called Herodotus, who recorded how a different group of people – some Eurasian nomads called the Scythians – burned cannabis to get high. And that’s pretty much it. Crazy right? The only way that the Greeks and Romans used cannabis was to make rope, and other hemp products. Who’d have thought it?
Despite the squares over in Greece and Rome, evidence for the use of marijuana in the ancient world is immense. From China to Egypt, medical professionals have been using weed for over 5000 years to cure depression, glaucoma, arthritis, and tonnes more. Its use as medicine for thousands of years is a stark difference to its contemporary criminalisation – and maybe sheds some light on the campaign for its legalisation. After all, if it was good enough for our ancient ancestors, it’s probably good enough for us hey? This historical rollercoaster of marijuana usage dating back to over 5000 years ago has highlighted its use in curing a million and one different mental and physical illnesses – and hey! what a wonderful world of weed it is.