Marijuana – The First Twelve Thousand Years
Ernest L. Abel
The complete history of the cannabis plant and it’s relationship with mankind
I. The Early Years: Cannabis in the Ancient World
Millions of years ago, humanoid creatures descended from the trees in Africa. These first men stood erect, their eyes peering into the beyond, their hands grasping rudimentary weapons and tools, ready to bend nature to their will.
The descendants of these first men wandered into almost every corner of the earth and evolved into four main racial groups: the Negroids, Australoids, Mongoloids, and Caucasoids. Each race, living under different climatic conditions and in virtual isolation from one another, developed special physical characteristics to enable them to survive in their particular part of the world. Along with these physical traits there emerged rudimentary cultures as distinct as the colors of their skins. Some communities relied primarily on hunting for survival, refining their skills and weapons through the ages to capture prey and eventually to conquer and enslave rival communities. Others subsequently discovered that the seeds and leaves of certain plants would appease hunger and sustain life. Once they became farmers, men gave up their spears and knives for plowshares and permanent settlements came into being.
The earliest civilizations sprouted along the banks of great rivers – the Hwang-Ho in China, the Indus in India, the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia (where biblical scholars have sought in vain for traces of the Garden of Eden), and the Nile in Egypt. The soil along these riverbanks was particularly suited for agriculture, being rich and deep and invigorated annually by new deposits of silt.
Whether they remained hunters or became farmers, the people who lived long before the written word was invented, discovered through trial and error the best materials for shaping, molding, bending, twisting, and sharpening objects into tools. In each civilization these discoveries were much the same; the only differences were the materials at hand.
On the basis of artefacts and the history of China in its later years, archaeologists now assure us that hemp has been a familiar agricultural crop in China from the remote beginnings of settlement in that part of the world down to our own time. When the Chinese went about testing materials in their environment for suitability as tools, they most certainly would have looked into the possibility of using hemp whenever they required some kind of fiber.
Cannabis in China
The earliest record of man’s use of cannabis comes from the island of Taiwan located off the coast of mainland China. In this densely populated part of the world, archaeologists have unearthed an ancient village site dating back over 10,000 years to the Stone Age.
Scattered among the trash and debris from this prehistoric community were some broken pieces of pottery the sides of which had been decorated by pressing strips of cord into the wet clay before it hardened. Also dispersed among the pottery fragments were some elongated rod-shaped tools, very similar in appearance to those later used to loosen cannabis fibers from their stems. These simple pots, with their patterns of twisted fiber embedded in their sides, suggest that men have been using the marijuana plant in some manner since the dawn of history.
The discovery that twisted strands of fiber were much stronger than individual strands was followed by developments in the arts of spinning and weaving fibers into fabric – innovations that ended man’s reliance on animal skins for clothing. Here, too, it was hemp fiber that the Chinese chose for their first homespun garments. So important a place did hemp fiber occupy in ancient Chinese culture that the Book of Rites (second century B.C.) ordained that out of respect for the dead, mourners should wear clothes made from hemp fabric, a custom followed down to modern times.
While traces of early Chinese fabrics have all but disappeared, in 1972 an ancient burial site dating back to the Chou dynasty (1122-249 B.C.) was discovered. In it were fragments of cloth, some bronze containers, weapons, and pieces of jade. Inspection of the cloth showed it to be made of hemp, making this the oldest preserved specimen of hemp in existence.
The ancient Chinese not only wove their clothes from hemp, they also used the sturdy fiber to manufacture shoes. In fact, hemp was so highly regarded by the Chinese that they called their country the “land of mulberry and hemp”.
The mulberry plant was venerated because it was the food upon which silkworms fed, and silk was one of China’s most important products. But silk was very expensive and only the very wealthy could afford silken fabric. For the vast millions of less fortunate, cheaper material had to be found. Such material was typically hemp.
Ancient Chinese manuscripts are filled with passages urging the people to plant hemp so that they will have clothes. A book of ancient poetry mentions the spinning of hempen threads by a young girl. The Shu King, a book which dates back to about 2350 B.C., says that in the province of Shantung the soil was “whitish and rich…with silk, hemp, lead, pine trees and strange stones…” and that hemp was among the articles of tribute extorted from inhabitants of the valley of the Honan.
During the ninth century B.C., “female man-barbarians,” an Amazon-like dynasty of female warriors from Indochina, offered the Chinese emperor a “luminous sunset-clouds brocade” fashioned from hemp, as tribute. According to the court transcriber, it was “shining and radiant, infecting men with its sweet smelling aroma. With this, and the intermingling of the five colors in it, it was more ravishingly beautiful than the brocades of our central states.”
Ma, the Chinese word for hemp, is composed of two symbols which are meant to depict hemp. The part beneath and to the right of the straight lines represent hemp fibers dangling from a rack. The horizontal and vertical lines represent the home in which they were drying.
As they became more familiar with the plant, the Chinese discovered it was dioecious. Male plants were then clearly distinguished from females by name (hsi for the male, chu for the female). The Chinese also recognised that the male plants produced a better fiber than the female, whereas the female produced the better seeds. (Although hemp seed was a major grain crop in ancient China until the sixth century A.D., it was not as important a food grain as rice or mullet.)
Hemp fiber was also once a factor in the wars waged by Chinese land barons. Initially, Chinese archers fashioned their bowstrings from bamboo fibers. When hemp’s greater strength and durability were discovered, bamboo strings were replaced with those made from hemp. Equipped with these superior bowstrings, archers could send their arrows further and with greater force. Enemy archers, whose weapons were made from inferior bamboo, were at a considerable disadvantage. With ineffectual archers, armies were vulnerable to attack at distances from which they could not effectively return the hail of deadly missiles that rained upon them. So important was the hemp bowstring that Chinese monarchs of old set aside large portions of land exclusively for hemp, the first agricultural war crop.
In fact, every canton in ancient China grew hemp. Typically, each canton tried to be self-sufficient and grow everything it needed to support its own needs. When it couldn’t raise something itself, it grew crops or manufactured materials that it could trade for essential goods. Accordingly, crops were planted around homes not only because of the suitability of the land, but also because of their commercial value. The closer to the home, the greater a crop’s value.
Because food was essential, millet and rice were grown wherever land and water were available. Next came vegetable gardens and orchards, and beyond them the textile plants, chiefly hemp. Next came the cereals and vegetables.
After the hemp was harvested by the men, the women, who were the weavers, manufactured clothes from the fibers for the family. After the family’s needs were satisfied, other garments were produced for sale. To support their families, weaving began in autumn and lasted all winter.
The Invention of Paper
Among the many important inventions credited to the Chinese, paper must surely rank at the very top. Without paper, the progress of civilization would have advanced at a snail’s pace. Mass production of newspapers, magazines, books, notepaper, etc, would all be impossible. Business and industry would come to a standstill without paper to record transactions, keep track of inventories, and make payments of large sums of money. Nearly every activity we now take for granted would be a monumental undertaking were it not for paper.
According to Chinese legend, the paper-making process was invented by a minor court official, Ts’ai Lun, in A.D. 105. Prior to that time, the Chinese carved their writings onto bamboo slips and wooden tablets. Before the invention of paper, Chinese scholars had to be physically fit if they wished to devote their lives to learning. When philosopher Me Ti moved around the country, for example, he took a minimum of three cartloads of books with him. Emperor Ts’in Shih Huagn, a particularly conscientious ruler, waded through 120 pounds of state documents a day in looking after his administrative duties! Without some less weighty writing medium, Chinese scholars and statesmen could look forward to at least one hernia if they were any good at their jobs.
As a first alternative to these cumbersome tablets, the Chinese painted their words on silk fabric with brushes. But silk was very expensive. A thousand silkworms working day in and day out were needed to produce the silk for a simple “thank you” note.
Ts’ai Lun had a better idea. Why not make a table out of fiber? But how? Producing writing tablets the way clothes were manufactured, by patiently intermingling individual fibers was not practical. There had to be some other way to get the fibers to mix with one another in a lattice structure that would be sturdy enough not to fall apart.
No one knows how Ts’ai Lun finally discovered the secret of manufacturing paper from fiber. Perhaps it was a case of trial and error. However, the method he finally devised involved crushing hemp fibers and mulberry tree bark into a pulp and placing the mixture in a tank of water. Eventually, the fibers rose to the top all tangled together. Portions of this flotsam were then removed and placed in a mold. When dried in such molds, the fibers formed into sheets which could then be written on.
When Ts’ai Lun first presented his invention to China’s arm-weary bureaucrats, he thought they would react to it with great enthusiasm. Instead, he was jeered out of court. Since no one at court was willing to recognize the importance of paper, Ts’ai Lun decided that the only way to convince people of its value was through trickery. He would use paper, he told all who would listen, to bring back the dead!
With the help of some friends, Ts’ai Lun feigned death and had himself buried alive in a coffin. Unknown to most of those who witnessed the internment, the coffin contained a small hole; through it, a hollow bamboo shoot had been inserted, to provide the trickster an air supply.
While his family and friends mourned his death, Ts’ai Lun patiently rested in his coffin below the earth. Then, some time later, his conspirators announced that if some of the paper invented by the dead man were burned, he would rise from the dead and once again take his place among the living. Although highly sceptical, the mourners wished to give the departed every chance, so they set a sizable quantity of paper ablaze. When the conspirators felt that they had generated enough suspense, they exhumed the coffin and ripped of the cover. To the shock and amazement of all present, Ts’ai Lun sat up and thanked them for their devotion to him and their faith in his invention.
The resurrection was regarded as a miracle, the power of which was attributed to the magic of paper. So great an impression did the Houdini-like escape create that shortly thereafter the Chinese adopted the custom, which they still follow to this day, of burning paper over graves of the dead.
Ts’ai Lun himself became an overnight celebrity. His invention was accorded the recognition it deserved and the inventor was appointed to an important position at court. But his fame was his undoing. As the new darling at court, rival factions sought to win him over to their side in the never-ending squabbles of life among the rich and powerful. Without meaning to, Ts’ai Lun became embroiled in a power battle between the empress and the emperor’s grandmother. Court intrigue was simply too much for the inventor, and when he was subsequently summoned to give an account of himself, instead of appearing before his inquisitors, his biography states that he went home, took a bath, combed his hair, put on his best robes, and drank poison.
Although entertaining, the story of Ts’ai Lun’s invention is apocryphal. The discovery of fragments of paper containing hemp fiber in a grave in China dating back to the first century B.C., puts the invention long before the time of Ts’ai Lun. Why Ts’ai Lun was given credit for the invention, however, is still a mystery.
The Chinese kept the secret of paper hidden for many centuries, but eventually it became known to the Japanese. In a small book entitled A Handy Guide to Papermaking, dating back to the fifth century A.D., the author states that “hemp and mulberry… have long been used in worshipping the gods. The business of paper making therefore, is no ignoble calling.”
It was not until the ninth century A.D. that the Arabs, and through them the rest of the world, learned how to manufacture paper. The events that led to the disclosure of the paper-making process are somewhat uncertain, but apparently the secret was pried from some Chinese prisoners captured by the Arabs during the Battle of Samarkand (in present-day Russia).
Once the Arabs learned the secret, they began producing their own paper. By the twelfth century A.D., paper mills were operating in the Moorish cities of Valencia, Toledo, and Xativa, in Spain. After the ousting of the Arabs from Spain, the art became known to the rest of Europe, and it was not long before paper mills were flourishing not only in Spain, but in France, Italy, Germany, and England, all of them using the ancient Chinese system “invented” by Ts’ai Lun.
During the course of its long history in China, hemp found its way into almost every nook and cranny of Chinese life. It clothed the Chinese from their heads to their feet, it gave them material to write on, and it became a symbol of power over evil.
Like the practice of medicine around the world, early Chinese doctoring was based on the concept of demons. If a person were ill, it was because some demon had invaded his body. The only way to cure him was to drive the demon out. The early priest-doctors resorted to all kinds of tricks, some of which were rather sophisticated, like drug therapy, which we will examine shortly. Other methods involved outright magic. By means of charms, amulets, spells, incantations, exhortations, sacrifices, etc., the priest-doctor did his utmost to find some way of getting the upper hand over the malevolent demon believed responsible for an illness.
Among the weapons to come out of the magical kit bag of the ancient Chinese conjurers were cannabis stalks into which snake-like figures were carved. Armed with these war hammers, they went to do battle with the unseen enemy on his home ground – the sickbed. Standing over the body of the stricken patient, his cannabis stalk poised to strike, the priest pounded the bed and commanded the demon to be gone. If the illness were psychosomatic and the patient had faith in the conjurer, he occasionally recovered. If his problem were organic, he rarely improved.
Whatever the outcome, the rite itself is intriguing. Although there is no way of knowing for sure how it came about, the Chinese tell a story about one of their emperors named Liu Chi-nu that may explain the connection between cannabis, snakes, and illness. One day Liu was out in the fields cutting down some hemp, when he saw a snake. Taking no chances that it might bite him, he shot the serpent with an arrow. The next day he returned to the place and heard the sound of a mortar and pestle. Tracking down the noise, he found two boys grinding marijuana leaves. When he asked them what they were doing, the boys told him they were preparing a medicine to give to their master who had been wounded by an arrow shot by Liu Chi-nu. Liu Chi-nu then asked what the boys would do to Liu Chi-nu if they ever found him. Suprisingly, the boys answered that they could not take revenge on him because Liu Chi-nu was destined to become emperor of China. Liu berated the boys for their foolishness and they ran away, leaving behind the medicine. Some time later Liu himself was injured and he applied the crushed marijuana leaves to his wound. The medicine healed him and Liu subsequently announced his discovery to the people of China and they began using it for their injuries.
Another story tells of a farmer who saw a snake carrying some marijuana leaves to place on the wound of another snake. The next day the wounded snake was healed. Intrigued, the farmer tested the plant on his own wound and was cured.
Whether these stories had anything to do with the idea that marijuana had magical power or not, the fact is that despite the progress of Chinese medicine far beyond the age of superstition, the practice of striking beds with stalks made from marijuana stems continued to be followed until the Middle Ages.
Although the Chinese continued to rely on magic in the fight against disease, they also gradually developed an appreciation and knowledge of the curative powers of medicines. The person who is generally credited with teaching the Chinese about medicines and their actions is a legendary emperor, Shen-Nung, who lived around the twenty-eighth century B.C.
Concerned that his priests were suffering from illness despite the magical rites of the priests, Shen-Nung determined to find an alternate means of relieving the sick. Since he was also an expert farmer and had a thorough familiarity with plants, he decided to explore the curative powers of China’s plant life first. In this search for compounds that might help his people, Shen-Nung used himself as a guinea-pig. The emperor could not have chosen a better subject since he was said to possess the remarkable ability of being able to see through his abdominal wall into his stomach! Such transparency enabled him to observe at firsthand the workings of a particular drug on that part of the body.
According to the stories told about him, Shen-Nung ingested as many as seventy different poisons in a single day and discovered the antidotes for each of them. After he finished these experiments, he wrote the Pen Ts’ao, a kind of herbal or Materia Medica as it later became known, which listed hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal, and mineral sources.
Although there may originally have been an ancient Pen Ts’ao attributed to the emperor, no original text exists. The oldest Pen Ts’ao dates back to the first century A.D. and was compiled by an unknown author who claimed he had incorporated the original herbal into his own compendium. Regardless of whether such an earlier compendium did or did not exist, the important fact about this first-century herbal is that it contains a reference to ma, the Chinese word for cannabis.
Ma was a very popular drug, the text notes, since it possessed both yin and yang. The concepts of yin and yang that pervade early Chinese medicine are attributed to another legendary emperor, Fu Hsi (ca, 2900 B.C.) whom the Chinese credit with bringing civilization to the “land of mulberry and hemp”. Before Fu Hsi, so the legends say, the Chinese lived like animals. They had no laws, no customs, and no traditions. There was no family life. Men and women came together instinctively, like salmon seeking their breeding ground; they mated, and then went off on their separate ways.
The first thing Fu Hsi did to produce order out of chaos was to establish matrimony on a permanent basis. The second thing was to separate all living things into the male and female principle – the male incorporating all that was positive, the female embodying all that was negative. From this dualistic principle arose the concept of two opposing forces, the yin and the yang.
Yin symbolized the weal, passive, and negative feminine influence in nature, whereas yang represented the strong, active, and positive masculine force. When these forces were in balance, the body was healthy. When one force dominated the other, the body was in an unhealthy condition. Marijuana was thus a very difficult drug to contend with because it contained both the feminine yin and the masculine yang.
Shen-Nung’s solution to the problem was to advise that yin, the female plant, be the only sex cultivated in China since it produced much more of the medicinal principle than yang, the male plant. Marijuana containing yin was then to be given in cases involving a loss of yin from the body such as occurred in female weakness (menstrual fatigue), gout, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness.
The Pen Ts’au eventually became the standard manual on drugs in China, and so highly regarded was its author that Shen-Nung was accorded the singular honour of deification and the title of Father of Chinese Medicine. Not too long ago China’s drug guilds still paid homage to the memory of Shen-Nung. On the first and fifteenth of each month, many drugstores offered a 10 percent discount on medicines in honor of the legendary patron of the healing arts.
As physicians became more and more familiar with the properties of drugs, ma continued to increase in importance as a therapeutic agent. In the second century A.D., a new use was found for the drug. This discovery was credited to the famous Chinese surgeon Hua T’o, who is said to have performed extremely complicated surgical procedures without causing pain. Among the amazing operations he performed are organ grafts, resectioning of intestines, laparotomies (incisions into the loin), and thoracotomies (incisions into the chest). All these difficult surgical procedures were said to have been rendered painless by means of ma-yo, an anaesthetic made from cannabis resin and wine. The following passage, taken from his biography, describes his use of cannabis in these operations:
But if the malady resided in the parts on which the needle [acupuncture], cautery, or medicinal liquids were incapable of acting, for example, in the bones, in the stomach or in the intestine, he administered a preparation of hemp [ma-yo] and, in the course of several minutes, an insensibility developed as if one had been plunged into drunkenness or deprived of life. Then, according to the case, he performed the opening, the incision or the amputation and relieved the cause of the malady; then he apposed the tissues by sutures and applied linaments. After a certain number of days the patient finds he has recovered without having experienced the slightest pain during the operation. Although modern research has borne out marijuana’s anaesthetic properties and has shown that alcohol does indeed augment many of marijuana’s actions, it is unlikely that Hua T’o could have produced total insensibility to pain by the combination of these drugs unless he administered so much of them that his patients lost consciousness.
While ma’s stature as a medicinal agent began to decline around the fifth century A.D., it still had its advocates long into the Middle Ages. In the tenth century A.D., for example, some Chinese physicians claimed the drug was useful in the treatment of “waste diseases and injuries”, adding that it “clears blood and cools temperature, it relieves fluxes; it undoes rheumatism; it discharges pus”.
An Early Psychedelic
Since the Chinese are the first people on record to use the marijuana plant for their clothes, their writing materials, their confrontation with evil spirits, and in their treatment of pain and disease, it is not surprising that they are also the first people on record to experience marijuana’s peculiar psychedelic effects.
As so many other testimonials to marijuana’s multifaceted past have been found interred deep within the bowels of the earth, so too was the proof of China’s early flirtation with marijuana’s intoxicating chemistry found buried away in an ancient tomb. Rather than any piece of cloth or handful of seeds, however, the evidence takes the form of an inscription containing the symbol for marijuana, along with the adjective or connotation meaning “negative”.
Unfortunately, we will never know what the gravediggers had in mind when they were chiselling these words in granite. Was it just a mindless piece of graffiti? Even if it were, it indicates that the Chinese were well aware of marijuana’s unusual properties from very ancient times, whether they approved of them or not.
Many did not approve. Due to the growing spirit of Taoism which began to permeate China around 600 B.C., marijuana intoxication was viewed with special disdain. Taoism was essentially a “back to nature” philosophy which sought ways of extending life. Anything that contained yin, such as marijuana, was therefore regarded with contempt since it enfeebled the body when eaten. Only substances filled with yang, the invigorating principle in nature, were looked upon favorably.
Some Chinese denounced marijuana as the “liberator of sin”. A late edition of the Pen Ts’au asserted that if too many marijuana seeds were eaten, they would cause one to “see demons”. But if taken over a long time, “one can communicate with the spirits”.
However, by the first century A.D., Taoists became interested in magic and alchemy, and were recommending addition of cannabis seeds to their incense burners. The hallucinations thus produced were highly valued as a means of achieving immortality.
For some people, seeing spirits was the main reason for using cannabis. Meng Shen, a seventh-century physician, adds, however, that if anyone wanted to see spirits in this way, he would have to eat cannabis seeds for at least a hundred days.
The Chinese have always been a highly reserved people, a nation rarely given to excesses. Temperance and restraint are cherished virtues of their society. But these are ideal traits, not always easy to live up to. And on more than one occasion, the waywardness of segments of the Chinese population was denounced by the authorities.
In a book attributed to Shen-Nung’s successor, the “yellow emperor”, for example, the author felt that alcoholism had truly gotten out of hand:
Nowadays people use wine as a beverage and they adopt recklessness as usual behaviour. They enter the chamber of love in an intoxicated condition; their passions exhaust their vital forces; their cravings dissipate their essence; they do not know how to find contentment with themselves; they are not skilled in the control of their spirits. They devote all their attention to the amusement of their minds, thus cutting themselves off from the joys of long life. Their rising and retiring is without regularity. For these reasons they reach only one half of the hundred years and then they degenerate. Alcohol, in fact, was a much more serious problem in China than marijuana, and opium overshadowed both in the attention it later received. The Chinese experiment with marijuana as a psychoactive agent was really more of a flirtation than an orgy. Those among the Chinese who hailed it as the “giver of delight” never amounted to more than a small segment of the population.
As in China, hemp fiber was highly regarded among the Japanese and figured prominently in their everyday lives and legends.
Hemp (asa) was the primary material in Japanese clothes, bedding, mats and nets. Clothes made of hemp fiber were especially worn during formal and religious ceremonies because of hemp’s traditional association with purity in Japan. So fundamental was hemp in Japanese life that it was often mentioned in legends explaining the origins of everyday things, such as how the Japanese earthworm came to have white rings around its neck.
According to Japanese legend, there were once two women who were both fine weavers of hemp fiber. One woman made fine hemp fabric but was a very slow worker. Her neighbor was just the opposite – she made coarse fabric but worked quickly. During market days, which were held only periodically, it was customary for Japanese women to dress in their best clothes, and as the day approached, the two women began to weave new dresses for the occasion. The woman who worked quickly had her dress ready on time, but it was not very fashionable. Her neighbor, who worked slowly, only managed to get the unbleached white strands ready, and when market day came, she didn’t have her dress ready. Since she had to go to market, she persuaded her husband to carry her in a large jar on his back so that only her neck, with the white undyed hemp strands around it would be visible. In this way, everyone would think she was clothed instead of being naked inside the jar. On the way to the market, the woman in the jar saw her neighbor and started making fun of her coarse dress. The neighbor shot back that at least she was clothed. “Break the jar”, she told everyone who could hear, “and you will find a naked woman”. The husband became so mortified that he dropped the jar, which broke, revealing his naked wife, clothed only in hemp strands around her neck. The woman was so ashamed as she stood naked before everyone that she buried herself in the earth so that she would not be seen and she turned into an earthworm. And that, according to the Japanese, is why the earthworm has white rings around its neck.
Hemp fiber also played a part in love and marital life in Japan. Another ancient Japanese legend tells of a soldier who had been romancing a young girl and was about to bid her farewell without giving her as much as his name, rank, or regiment. But the girl was not about to be jilted by this handsome and charming paramour. Unbeknownst to her mysterious lover, she fastened the end of a huge ball of hemp rope to his clothing as he kissed her farewell. By following the thread, she eventually came to the temple of the god Miva, and discovered that her suitor had been none other than the god himself.
Besides its roles in such legends, hemp strands were an integral part of Japanese love and marriage. Hemp strands were often hung on trees as charms to bind lovers (as in the legend), gifts of hemp were sent as wedding gifts by the man’s family to the prospective bride’s family as a sign that they were accepting the girl, and hemp strands were prominently displayed during wedding ceremonies to symbolize the traditional obedience of Japanese wives to their husbands. The basis of the latter tradition was the ease with which hemp could be dyed. Just as hemp could be dyed to any color, so too, according to an ancient Japanese saying, must wives be willing to be “dyed in any color their husbands may choose”.
Yet another use of hemp in Japan was in ceremonial purification rites for driving away evil spirits. As already mentioned, in China evil spirits were banished from the bodies of the sick by banging rods made from hemp against the head of the sickbed. In Japan, Shinto priests performed a similar rite with a gohei, a short stick with undyed hemp fibers (for purity) attached to one end. According to Shinto beliefs, evil and impurity cannot exist alongside one another, and so, by waving the gohei (purity) above someone’s head the evil spirit inside him would be driven away.
India: The First Marijuana-Oriented Culture
ndia has known little peace. Invaded from both land and sea, it has seen many conquerors and has witnessed many empires come and go. Cyrus and Darius of Persia sent their armies there. On the heels of the Persians came Alexander the Great. After Alexander came more Greeks, then Parthians from Iran, Kushans from beyond the mountains in the north, then Arabs, followed by Europeans. Unlike China, which remained remote and isolated from the rest of the world for much of its history. India was known to all the great nations of the ancient world.
Although the inhabitants of India are descended from a people known as the Aryans or “noble ones”, the Aryans were not the original natives of the Indian subcontinent but instead invaded it from north of the Himalayas around 2000 B.C. Before the Aryans, who were light-skinned and blue-eyed, a dark-skinned and dark-eyed people, Australoid in origin, inhabited India. When the Aryans entered the country, they found a complex civilization, including well-designed housing, adjoining toilet facilities, and advanced drainage systems. The early inhabitants worked with gold and silver, and they also knew how to fashion tools and ornaments from copper and iron.
When the Aryans first settled in India they were predominantly a nomadic people. During the centuries that followed their invasion, they intermarried with the original inhabitants, became farmers, and invented Sanskrit, one of man’s earliest written languages.
A collection of four holy books, called the Vedas, tells of daring exploits, their chariot battles, conquests, subjugation of enemy armies, eventual settlement in the land of the Indus, and even how their god Siva brought the marijuana plant down from the Himalayas for their use and enjoyment.
According to one of their legends, Siva became enraged over some family squabble and went off by himself in the fields. There, the cool shade of a tall marijuana plant brought him a comforting refuge from the torrid rays of the blazing sun. Curious about this plant that sheltered him from the heat of the day, he ate some of its leaves and felt so refreshed that he adopted it as his favorite food, hence his title, the Lord of Bhang.
Bhang does not always refer to the plant itself but rather to a mild liquid refreshment made with its leaves, and somewhat similar in potency to the marijuana used in America.
Among the ingredients and proportions of them that went into a formula for bhang around the turn of the century were:
Cannabis 220 grains
Poppy seed 120 grains
Pepper 120 grains
Ginger 40 grains
Caraway seed 10 grains
Cloves 10 grains
Cardamon 10 grains
Cinnamon 10 grains
Cucumber seed 120 grains
Almonds 120 grains
Nutmeg 10 grains
Rosebuds 60 grains
Sugar 4 ounces
Milk 20 ounces
Two other concoctions made from cannabis in India are ganja and charas. Ganja is prepared from the flowers and upper leaves and is more potent than bhang. Charas, the most potent of the three preparations, is made from flowers in the height of their bloom. Charas contains a relatively large amount of resin and is roughly similar in strength to hashish.
Bhang was and still is to India what alcohol is to the West. Many social and religious gatherings in ancient times, as well as present, were simply incomplete unless bhang was part of the occasion. It is said that those who spoke derisively of bhang are doomed to suffer the torments of hell as long as the sun shines in the heavens.
Without bhang at special festivities like a wedding, evil spirits were believed to hover over the bride and groom, waiting for an opportune moment to wreak havoc on the newlyweds. Any father who failed to send or bring bhang to the ceremonies would be reviled and cursed as if he had deliberately invoked the evil eye on his son and daughter.
Bhang was also a symbol of hospitality. A host would offer a cup of bhang to a guest as casually as we would offer someone in our home a glass of beer. A host who failed to make such a gesture was despised as being miserly and misanthropic.
War was another occasion in which bhang and more potent preparations like ganja were often resorted to. Indian folksongs dating back to the twelfth century A.D. mention ganja as a drink of warriors. Just as soldiers sometimes take a swig of whiskey before going into battle in modern warfare, during the Middle Ages in India, warriors routinely drank a small amount of bhang or ganja to assuage any feelings of panic, a custom that earned bhang the cognomen of vijaya, “victorious” or “unconquerable”.
A story is told of a guru named Gobind Singh, the founder of the Sikh religion, which alludes to bhang’s usage in battle. During a critical skirmish in which he was leading the troops, Gobind Singh’s soldiers were suddenly thrown into a panic at the sight of an elephant bearing down on them with a sword in its trunk. As the beast slashed its way through Gobind Singh’s lines, his men appeared on the verge of breaking rank. Something had to be done to prevent a disastrous rout. A volunteer was needed, a man willing to risk certain death to accomplish the impossible task of slaying an elephant. There was no shortage of men to step forward. Gobind Singh did not take time to pick and choose. To the man closest to him he gave some bhang and a little opium, and then watched as the man went out to kill the elephant. Fortified by the drug the loyal soldier rushed headlong into the thick of battle and charged the sword-wielding elephant. Deftly evading the slashing blows that could easily have severed his body in two, he managed to slip under the elephant and with all his strength he plunged his own weapon into the unprotected belly of the beast. When Gobind Singh’s men saw the elephant lying dead in the field, they rallied and soon overpowered the enemy. From that time forth, the Sikhs commemorated the anniversary of that great battle by drinking bhang.
“To the Hindu the Hemp Plant Is Holy”
The earliest allusion to bhang’s mind-altering influence is contained in the fourth book of the Vedas, the Atharvaveda (“Science of Charms”). Written some time between 2000 and 1400 B.C., the Atharvaveda (12:6.15) calls bhang one of the “five kingdoms of herbs… which release us from anxiety.” But it is not until much later in India’s history that bhang became a part of everyday life. By the tenth century A.D., for example, it was just beginning to be extolled as a indracanna, the “food of the gods”. A fifteenth-century document refers to it as “light-hearted”, “joyful”, and “rejoices”, and claims that among its virtues are “astringency”, “heat”, “speech-giving”, “inspiration of mental powers”, “excitability”, and the capacity to “remove wind and phlegm”.
By the sixteenth century A.D., it found its way into India’s popular literature. The Dhurtasamagama, or “Rogue’s Congress”, a light farce written to amuse audiences, has two beggars come before an unscrupulous judge asking for a decision on a quarrel concerning a maiden at the bazaar. Before he will render his decision, however, the judge demands payment for his arbitration, In response to this demand, one of the beggars offers some bhang. The judge readily accepts and, tasting it, declares that “it produces a healthy appetite, sharpens the wits, and acts as an aphrodisiac”.
In the Rajvallabha, a seventeenth-century text dealing with drugs used in India, bhang is described as follows:
India’s food is acid, produces infatuation, and destroys leprosy. It creates vital energy, increases mental powers and internal heat, corrects irregularities of the phlegmatic humor, and is an elixir vitae. It was originally produced like nectar from the ocean by churning it with Mount Mandara. Inasmuch as it is believed to give victory in the three worlds and to bring delight to the king of the gods (Siva), it was called vijaya (victorious). This desire-filling drug was believed to have been obtained by men on earth for the welfare of all people. To those who use it regularly, it begets joy and diminishes anxiety. Yet it was not as a medicinal aid or as a social lubricant that bhang was preeminent among the people of India. Rather, it was and still is because of its association with the religious life of the country that bhang is so extolled and glorified. The stupefaction produced by the plant’s resin is greatly valued by the fakirs and ascetics, the holy men of India, because they believe that communication with their deities is greatly facilitated during intoxication with bhang. (According to one legend, the Buddha subsisted on a daily ration of one cannabis seed, and nothing else, during his six years of asceticism.) Taken in early morning, the drug is believed to cleanse the body of sin. Like the communion of Christianity, the devotee who partakes of bhang partakes of the god Siva.
Cannabis also held a preeminent place in the Tantric religion which evolved in Tibet in the seventh century A.D. out of an amalgam of Buddhism and local religion. The priests of this religion were wizards known as lamas (“superiors”). The high priest was called the Dalai Lama (“mighty superior”).
Tantrism, a word that means “that which is woven together”, was a religion based on fear of demons. To combat the demonic threat to the world, the people sought protection in the spells, incantations, formulas (mantras), and exorcisms of their lamas, and in plants such as cannabis which were set afire to overcome evil forces.
Cannabis was also an important part of the Tantric religious yoga sex acts consecrated to the goddess Kali. During the ritual, about an hour and a half prior to intercourse the devotee placed a bowl of bhang before him and uttered the mantra: “Om hrim, O ambrosia-formed goddess [Kali] who has arisen from ambrosia, who showers ambrosia, bring me ambrosia again and again, bestow occult power [siddhi] and bring my chosen deity to my power.” Then, after uttering several other mantras, he drank the potion. The delay between drinking the bhang and the sex act was to allow the drug time to act so that it would heighten the senses and thereby increase the feeling of oneness with the goddess.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, which had been summoned in the 1890s to investigate the use of cannabis in India, concluded that the plant was so much an integral part of the culture and religion of that country that to curtail its usage would certainly lead to unhappiness, resentment, and suffering. Their conclusions:
To the Hindu the hemp plant is holy. A guardian lives in the bhang leaf… To see in a dream the leaves, plant, or water of bhang is lucky… No good thing can come to the man who treads underfoot the holy bhang leaf. A longing for bhang foretells happiness.
…Besides as a cure for fever, bhang has many medicinal virtues… It cures dysentry 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… It is inevitable that temperaments should be found to whom the quickening spirit of bhang is the spirit of freedom and knowledge. In the ecstasy of bhang the spark of the Eternal in man turns into light the murkiness of matter… Bhang is the Joygiver, the Skyflier, the Heavenly-guide, the Poor Man’s Heaven, the Soother of Grief… No god or man is as good as the religious drinker of bhang… The supporting power of bhang has brought many has brought many a Hindu family safe through the miseries of famine. To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so holy and gracious an herb as the hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance and to large bands of worshipped ascetics, deep-seated anger. It would rob the people of a solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness, of a guardian whose gracious protection saves them from the attacks of evil influences… So grand a result, so tiny a sin!
India was not the only country to be invaded by the Aryans. By 1500 B.C., Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece had been overrun and the Aryans were establishing permanent settlements as far west as France and Germany. Although the people who settled in these countries eventually developed into different nationalities, with different customs and traditions, their common Aryan ancestry can still be traced in their languages which collectively are called Indo-European. For example, the linguistic root an, which is found in various cannabis-related words, can be found in French in the word chanvre and in the German hanf. Our own word cannabis is taken directly from the Greek, which in turn is taken from canna, an early Sanskrit term.
When the Aryans first settled in Persia (modern-day Iran, “the land of the Aryans”), they separated into two kingdoms – Medea and Parsa (Persia). Four centuries later, Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Parsa, unified the country, and with the combined forces of the Medes and Parsa behind him, he led his armies eastward and westward. By 546 B.C., the Persian or Achaemenid Empire as it was called (from Achaemenes, Cyrus’ ancestor), reached from Palestine to India. Twenty years later, the Persians defeated Egypt and extended their control over that great kingdom as well.
It was not until 331 B.C. that the Persian empire finally collapsed; its nemesis – the Greeks and their brilliant leader – Alexander the Great.
The Aryans who settled in Persia came from the same area in central Russia as their cousins who invaded India, so it is hardly surprising that the Persian word bhanga is almost identical to the Indian term bhang.
The Zend-Avesta is the Persian counterpart to the Vedas. However, unlike the Vedas, many of the books that were once a part of the Zend-Avesta have disappeared. The book itself was said to have been written by the Persian prophet Zoroaster, around the seventh century B.C., and reputedly was transcribed on no fewer than 1200 cowhides containing approximately two million verses!
Professor Mirceau Eliade, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the history of religions, has suggested that Zoroaster himself may have been a user of bhanga and may have relied on its intoxication to bridge the metaphysical gap between heaven and earth. One of the few surviving books of the Zend-Avesta, called the Vendidad, “The Law Against Demons”, in fact calls bhanga Zoroaster’s “good narcotic”, and tells of two mortals who were transported in soul to the heavens where, upon drinking from a cup of bhanga, they had the highest mysteries revealed to them.
The Vendidad also contains a cryptic reference to bhanga’s being used to induce abortions, but this seems not to have been an accepted usage of the drug in ancient Persia since the abortionist is called an old hag, not a doctor.
The Cult of the Dead
Around the seventh century B.C., yet another swarm of Aryan warriors came out of central Siberia looking for new lands upon which to graze their animals. This time they claimed a vast territory stretching from northern Greece and beyond the Black Sea to the Altai Mountains in central Siberia as their new homeland.
Known as the Scythians, these conquerors, like their Aryan ancestors before them, were skilled in warfare and renowned for their horsemanship. And also like their ancestors who settled in India and Persia, the Scythians were no strangers to the intoxicating effects of marijuana. According to Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived in the fifth century B.C., marijuana was an integral part of the Scythian cult of the dead wherin homage was paid to the memory of their departed leaders.
Herodotus’ passion for detail and devotion to fact has often provided scholars with their only contact with long-forgotten people and their customs. Nowhere was this more true than in the case of the Scythians. Were it not for Herodotus’ description of the funerary customs of the Scythians, for example, one of the best known instances of the use of marijuana in the ancient world would never have been recorded.
The funereal practice alluded to by Herodotus took place among the Scythians living northeast of Macedonia on the first anniversary of the death of one of their chiefs. The ceremony that commemorated that passing was a rather grisly affair, not one for the faint of heart, but of course the Scythians could hardly have been accused of being faint-hearted. First, it called for the death of fifty of the chief’s former bodyguards, along with their horses. The bodies of these men were then opened, their intestines and inner organs were removed, various herbs were placed in the open cavities, and the bodies were then stitched back together. Meanwhile, their horses, each fully bridled, were killed and impaled on stakes arranged in a circle around the chief’s tomb. The dead bodies of the chief’s erstwhile protectors were then lifted onto the horses and were left to rot as they stood their last watch over the tomb of their former leader.
Following this sobering rite, all those who had assisted in the burial cleansed themselves in a unique purification ritual. First, they washed their bodies thoroughly with cleansing oil. Then they erected small tents, into which they placed metal censors containing red-hot stones. Next, the men crawled into the tents and dumped marijuana seeds onto the hot stones. The seeds soon began to smolder and throw off vapors, which in the words of Herodotus, caused the Scythians to “howl with joy”. Seemingly, the purification was the Scythian counterpart to the hard-drinking frazzled Irish wake, with marijuana instead of alcohol as the ceremonial intoxicant.
Even though Herodotus’ accuracy in recording history has often been borne out by other historical documents, scholars found this bizarre burial custom including the marijuana-induced intoxication too incredible to be true.
But in 1929 a Russian archaeologist, Professor S.I. Rudenko, made a fantastic discovery in the Pazyryk Valley of central Siberia. Digging into some ancient ruins near the Altai Mountains on the border between Siberia and Outer Mongolia, Rudenko found a trench about 160 feet square and about 20 feet deep. On the perimeter of the trench were the skeletons of a number of horses. Inside the trench was the embalmed body of a man and a bronze cauldron filled with burnt marijuana seeds! Clearing the site further, Rudenko also found some shirts woven from hemp fiber and some metal censors designed for inhaling marijuana smoke which did not appear to be connected with any religious rite. To Rudenko, the evidence suggested that inhalation of smoldering marijuana seeds occurred not only in a religious context, but also as an everyday activity, one in which Scythian women participated alongside the men.
Although he does not identify them, Herodotus had also heard of another tribe of nomads who used marijuana for recreational purposes. Speaking of these people, Herodutus states that when they “have parties and sit around a fire, they throw some of it into the flames. As it burns, it smokes like incense, and the smell of it makes them drunk, just as wine does. As more fruit is thrown on, they get more and more intoxicated until finally they jump up and start dancing and singing.”
The Scythians eventually disappeared as a distinct national entity, but their descendants spread through Eastern Europe. While remembrances of their ancestors were lost, memories of ancestral customs were still retained, although, of course, these were modified down through the centuries. It is in this regard that anthropologist Sula Benet’s comment that “hemp never lost its connection with the cult of the dead” takes on added significance since she has traced the influence of the Scythians and their hemp funerary customs down to the modern era in Eastern Europe and Russia.
On Christmas Eve, for instance, Benet notes that the people of Poland and Lithuania serve semieniatka, a soup made from hemp seeds. The Poles and Lithuanians believe that on the night before Christmas the spirits of the dead visit their families and the soup is for the souls of the dead. A similar ritual takes place in Latvia and in the Ukraine on Three Kings Day. Yet another custom carried out in deference to the dead in Western Europe was the throwing of hemp seeds onto a blazing fire during harvest time as an offering to the dead – a custom that originated with the Scythians and has seemingly been passed on from generation to generation for over 2500 years.
Babylonia, Palestine, and Egypt
The farthest west marijuana fibers have ever been found in the ancient world is Turkey. Sifting through artefacts dating back to the time of the Phrygians, a tribe of Aryans who invaded that country around 1000 B.C., archaeologists unearthed pieces of fabric containing hemp fibers in the debris around Gordion, an ancient city located near present-day Ankara.
Although the Scythians had contacts with the people of Babylonia, who lived to the west of the Phrygians, no hemp fiber or definite mention of hemp (Cannabis sativa) to the west of Turkey can be found until the time of the Greeks. There are some vague references, however, which may or may not be cannabis. In a letter written around 680 B.C. by an unknown woman to the mother of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon, for example, mention is made of a substance called qu-nu-bu which could be cannabis.
There is also very little evidence that the Egyptians ever cultivated the plant during the time of the Pharaohs. Papyrus documents from ancient Egypt list the names of hundreds of drugs and their plant sources, but there is no unequivocal mention of marijuana in any of its forms. While some scholars have contended that the drug smsm t, mentioned in the Berlin and Ebers papyri, is cannabis, this opinion is conjecture. No mummy has ever been discovered wrapped in fabric made from cannabis. In the ruins of El Amarna, the city of Akhenaton (the Pharaoh who tried to introduce monotheism to ancient Egypt), archaeologists found a “three ply hemp cord” in the hole of a stone and a large mat bound with “hemp cords”, but unfortunately they did not specify the type of hemp. Many different bast fibers were called hemp and no one can be certain that the fibers at El Amarna are cannabis, especially since Deccan hemp (Hibiscus cannabinus) grows in Egypt.
The earliest unmistakable reference to cannabis in Egypt does not occur until the third century A.D., when the Roman emperor Aurelian imposed a tax on Egyptian cannabis. Even then, however, there was very little of the fiber in Egypt.
There is no evidence that the ancient Israelites ever knew of the plant, although several attempts have been made to prove that they did. Because the Arabs sometimes referred to hashish as grass, some writers have argued that the “grass” eaten by Nebuchadnezzar was actually hashish. Another contention is that the phantasmagoria of composite creatures and brilliant colors seen by Ezekiel are unintelligible except from the standpoint of hashish intoxication.
In the most recent attempt to infuse marijuana with biblical antiquity, the Old Testament has been tickled, teased, and twisted into surrendering secret references to marijuana that it never contained. From the fact that the Scythians had made contact with the people of Palestine during the seventh century B.C., it has been suggested that knowledge and usage of the plant was passed on to the Israelites through some kind of cultural exchange. Linguistic arguments are then advanced to prove that the Israelites were users of marijuana.
For example, because the Hebrew adjective bosm (Aramaic busma), meaning “aromatic” or “sweet-smelling”, is found in connection with the word qeneh (which can also be written as kaneh or kaneb) and because of the similarity between kaneh and bosm, and the Scythian word kannabis, it is argued that they are one and the same.
However the word kaneh or qeneh is a very vague term that has disconcerted more than a few biblical scholars. A reference to qeneh in Isaiah 43:24 refers not to a “sweet-smelling” but a “sweet-tasting” plant. Few people would ever say that marijuana leaves taste sweet. Because of this reference to a sweet-tasting plant, some biblical scholars and botanists believe that qeneh is probably sugarcane.
Although the Bible states that qeneh came from a “far country” (Jeremiah 6:20), sugar grew in India, which is in keeping with the passage from Jeremiah. The reference to qeneh as a spice in Exodus 30:23 also suggests sugar rather than cannabis.
The earliest reference to cannabis among the Jews actually does not occur until the early Middle Ages when the first unmistakable mention of it is found in the Talmud.
The Jews of Talmudic times were particularly concerned about certain precepts which prohibited the mingling of heterogeneous substances, and on at least one occasion the sages argued over whether hemp seeds could be sown in a vineyard. The majority opinion was that such intermingling was permissible, indicating that they recognized a certain similarity between cannabis and the grape. This similarity could not have been due to the appearance of the two plants and must have centered around the intoxication produced by each.
A similar question likewise arose concerning the purification of wicker mats which were placed over grapes during wine pressing to keep them from scattering. The decision rendered by the rabbis was that if the baskets were made of hemp they could be used, provided they were thoroughly cleaned. However, if they were made of some other material, the rabbis ruled that they could not be employed in wine pressing until twelve months had elapsed since the time they were last used.
The Birthplace of Democracy
Greece: land of myth and beauty, home to some of the greatest minds the world has ever known – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – birthplace of democracy; Greece was all of these and more. It gave the world its first great art, literature, theater, political institutions, sporting events, scientific and medical discoveries – the list is endless.
Yet despite these monumental achievements, Greece was a turbulent country and war was no stranger to its inhabitants. When they were not fighting among themselves, the Greeks faced the threat of invasion from empires like that of Darius and Xerxes. When Alexander the Great came to power, the Greeks in turn became world conquerors.
Alexander’s was not the first campaign outside the Greek mainland. The Trojan war (ca. 1200 B.C.) saw Greek armies encamped on the shores of the Dardanelles in Asia Minor almost ten centuries before Alexander.
According to the Greek poet Homer (ca. 850 B.C.), who described the events of that war in the Iliad, the war was fought over a woman, the most beautiful mortal in the world – Helen, daughter of the great god Zeus and his human paramour. The Iliad tells of the great battles that took place before the walls of Troy, and the great heroes who fought them. It ends, however, not with the fall of Troy, but with the death of Hector, the Trojan prince, at the hands of the great Achilles. The actual conquest of Troy and the homeward journey of the Greeks is chronicled in Homer’s other great epic, the Odyssey. Although it is primarily the story of the events that befell the great hero Odysseus as he tries to return to his island-home of Ithica, the story contains a brief scene in which some readers believe they have come across one of the earliest references to cannabis in Greek literature.
The Mysterious Nepenthe
On their way back from Troy, Helen, who had been reunited with her husband, Menelaus, stopped off in Egypt for a brief layover. While Menelaus took on new supplies, his wife went about exploring what was even in those times an ancient civilization. During this brief visit to the land of the Pharaohs, Helen paid a visit to a woman by the name of Polydamna. Polydamna was a dealer in drugs.
Many years later, during a magnificent party thrown by Menelaus in his palace in Sparta, the conversation naturally turned to the recent war in Troy. Someone remarked how sad it was that Odysseus, who had been a great friend of Menelaus’ as well as many of the guests at the party, had not been heard of since his departure from Troy. The mention of Odysseus cast a shadow over the festivities and everyone started to become morose. The more the guests spoke of the lost hero, the sadder they became. The party was turning into a wake.
As spirits plummeted, Helen herself started feeling remorseful, not because of any grief she felt over the missing Odysseus, but because all this sadness and melancholy were spoiling her party. If she did not do something quickly, the party would die, the guests would go home, and, sooner than she cared for, she would have to return to the boring life of being a woman in an age when women were seen, made love to, but rarely heard or spoken to.
The situation called for emergency measures and Helen met the situation head on. Reaching into her bag of tricks, she came up with a drug given her by Polydamna. Secretly, she placed the compound into the wine of her guests. The drug, which Homer only identifies as nepenthe (“against sorrow”), was a compound with the power to suppress despair. Whoever drank this mixture, Homer wrote, would be incapable of sadness, even if his mother and father lay dead, or his son were slain before his very eyes.
The drug was an instant success. The guests forgot their sorrow and regained their spirits. Although the conversation still revolved around Odysseus, it no longer evoked any grief. Helen even told the guests how she and Odysseus had once spent some compromising moments together. All the while her husband listened to the news that he had been cuckolded by his best friend, he remained calm and indifferent, so great was the power of Polydamna’s drug.
What was this soporific, this stupefying drug that restrained even the deepest sense of grief and sorrow? No one really knows. There is no reason for Homer not to have identified it if he had some specific drug in mind.
To add even more mystery to this enigma, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, who visited Egypt in the first century B.C., also refers to a “nepenthic” drug from that country which brought forgetfulness of all sorrows. Like Homer, he too never gives this drug a name.
Conjecture always lurks in the shadow of uncertainty, and throughout the ages many have tried to identify Homer’s elusive nepenthe. One of the more interesting guesses is that the drug was cannabis.
For example, when poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge invited a friend to come for a visit, he coaxed him to bring along some drugs “and I will give a fair trial to opium, henbane, and nepenthe. By the bye,” he added, “I have always considered Homer’s account of nepenthe as a banging lie.” At the time he wrote this letter in 1803, Coleridge was one of the few Europeans who were acquainted with the Indian beverage bhang. His pun indicates that, as far as he is concerned, nepenthe and bhang were one and the same.
E.W. Lane, editor of The Thousand and One Nights, was similarly convinced: “‘Benj’, the plural of which in Coptic is ‘nibendji’, is without doubt the same plant as the ‘nepenth’, which has so much perplexed the commentators of Homer. Helen evidently brought the nepenthe from Egypt, and benj is there still reported to possess all the wonderful qualities which Homer attributes to it.”
Not everyone agreed. Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater, rejected cannabis as the sorrow-killing agent mentioned by Homer preferring his own favorite, opium, which he regarded as a “panacea, a pharmakon nepenthes” for all woes.
While no one will ever know what drug Homer had in mind, it is certain that it was not cannabis since cannabis was not known in Egypt until more than a thousand years after Homer wrote his stirring epics. On the other hand, opium is mentioned in ancient Egyptian writings, and of all the possibilities that have been suggested it still remains the most likely.
While the ancient Greeks remained ignorant of the intoxicating properties of the cannabis plant, they were not slow to appreciate the durability and strength of its fiber. As early as the sixth century B.C., Greek merchants whose Milesian colonies served as a middle station between mainland Greece and the eastern coast of Asia Minor, had been carrying on a lucrative business transporting cannabis fiber to the ports along the Aegean.
The Thracians, a Greek-speaking people living in the Balkans who were probably more closely related to the Scythians than to the Greeks, were especially adept at working hemp. Writing around 450 B.C., Herodotus says of their clothes that they “were so like linen that none but a very experienced could tell whether they were of hemp or flax; one who had never seen hemp would certainly suppose them to be linen.
Herodotus does not say whether the Thracians used any of the other parts of the plant, but Plutarch (46-127 B.C.), writing some 400 years later, mentions that after their meals, it was not uncommon for the Thracians to throw the tops of a plant which looked like oregano into the fire. Inhaling the fumes of this plant, the people became drunk and then so tired they finally fell asleep.
However, Thrace was far from the center of Greek culture and most Greeks remained ignorant of cannabis’s intoxicating properties. Theophrastus, the famous Greek botanist (372-287 B.C.), does not list cannabis among the native plants of Greece and nowhere is there any reference to it in the Greek myths, although various drugs such as datura (Jimson weed), mandragora (mandrake), and hyoscyanus (henbane) are described as consciousness-modifying drugs in use at ancient Greek shrines and oracles.
In the third century B.C., Hiero II (270-15 B.C.), ruler of the Greek city-state of Syracuse, did not send his envoys to the Black Sea city of Colchis which supplied many Greek cities with hemp, but to the far-off Rhone Valley in France. So sophisticated about the various characteristics of hemp fiber was he that only the most superior varieties were to be used to make ropes for his proposed armada. (This incident is the earliest reference to cannabis in Western Europe known to historians.)
Since the Greeks had become so knowledgeable about the kinds of fibers produced by cannabis growing in different geographical regions, they would no doubt also have mentioned the intoxicating properties of the plant had these been known. Although there are references to cannabis both as a delicacy and a remedy for backache in Greek literature dating back tot he fourth century B.C., no notice of the plant as an intoxicant occurs until the nineteenth century.
The Roman Empire was the last and greatest colossus of the ancient world. At the summit of its glory, it extended from England in the west to Russia in the east. No fewer than 100 million people lived within its frontiers.
It was an empire primarily governed by a small elite aristocracy in Rome whose commands were dutifully administered by a well-oiled bureaucracy which could call upon a highly trained and devoted army whenever force was necessary.
Most of the everyday chores in the city were performed by slaves. About one-half million lived in Rome. A middle-class businessman might own about 10; the emperor owned about 25,000.
Wealthy Romans spent most of their time eating, bathing, gambling, and whoring. But some also had a taste for the arts. Since the Romans did not excel very greatly in the latter, prominent men would bring Greek writers, painters, philosophers, and scientists to Rome to work for them and to converse with whenever the feeling moved them. Of this Graecophilia, the Roman poet Horace observed: “Captive Greece has taken captive her rude conqueror.”
Among the eminent Greek scientists who found employment among the Romans was Pedacius Dioscorides. Born in Asia Minor in the early part of the first century A.D., he became a physician and spent much of his early career in the Roman army tending the needs of the soldiers as they travelled the world conquering new lands to add to the empire. During these campaigns, Dioscorides collected and studied the various plants he encountered in different parts of the world and eventually he put what he had learned into a herbal.
The first copy of this book was published in A.D. 70. Dioscorides called it a materia medica and it became to the Western world what the Pen Ts’ao was to the Chinese. It identified each of the plants listed according to its native habitat and the names by which it was known. Peculiar features were then noted, and finally, symptoms and conditions for which the plant had proven beneficial were described.
The book became an instant success and was subsequently translated into nearly all of the languages of the ancient and medieval world. For the next fifteen centuries it remained an important reference for physicians, and no medical library was considered complete unless it housed at least one copy of this herbal.
Among the more than 600 entries appearing in the book was cannabis. This plant, Dioscorides wrote, was not only very useful for manufacturing strong ropes, but the juice of its seeds was also very beneficial in treating earaches and in diminishing sexual desires.
Although this is all Dioscorides had to say on the subject, it was the first time cannabis had been described as a medical remedy in a Western medical text. And since Dioscorides’ herbal continued to be one of the most important books in medicine for the next 1500 years, cannabis became a common household remedy for treating earaches throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.
Another prominent physician whose work was to influence the course of medical science for the next fifteen centuries was Claudius Galen (A.D. 130-200). Born in Pergamum, a country located in modern-day Turkey, Galen was the son of a wealthy and ambitious landowner who dreamed one night that his son would become the most famous physician in the world. The lavish praise and attention bestowed upon him by his father made Galen an insufferable egotist. “Whoever seeks fame need only become familiar with all that I have achieved,” he once told his pupils.
Such a statement may seem conceited, but it was true. Galen was to become the most famous physician of the ancient and Middle Ages, and a thorough study of his writings was mandatory for any doctor.
To prepare his son for the future, Galen was recognized as the leading authority on anatomy and physiology. He was a prolific writer, his medical pronouncements were never challenged, and his writings became the standard references of the medical profession. These writings, along with Dioscorides’ herbal, were the most influential books in Western medicine for centuries.
Like Dioscorides, Galen had little to say about cannabis, but he does state that the Romans, at least those with money, used to top off their banquets with a marijuana-seed dessert, a confectionery treat which left guests with a warm and pleasurable sensation. To be avoided, however, was an overindulgence in this confection, for among the adverse after-effects of too many seeds were dehydration and impotence. Other properties Galen mentions are antiflatulence and analgesia. “If consumed in large amounts,” he says, it “affects the head by sending to it a warm and toxic vapor.”
Following Galen, Oribasius, court physician to the emperor Julian (fourth century A.D.), wrote that cannabis seeds “harms the head”, had antiflatulent effects, produced a “warm feeling”, and caused weight-reduction.
Most Romans, however, had little familiarity with cannabis seed. Very little hemp was raised in Italy. If anything, the Romans were interested in the plant because of its fiber, for with good strong fiber Rome could outfit its expanding navy and keep it at sea longer.
Most of Rome’s hemp came from Babylonia. The city of Sura was particularly renowned for its hempen ropes. Other cities such as Colchis, Cyzicus, Alabanda, Mylasa, and Ephesus, which had been leading producers during the Greek empire, continued to produce and export hemp as their chief product under the Romans.
The only other Roman author to give cannabis more than just a passing reference was the indefatigable encyclopedist of the ancient world, Caius Plinius Secundus (A.D. 23-79), otherwise known as Pliny the Elder. One of the best known members of the Roman establishment, Pliny preferred reading and writing to the more usual pastimes of the aristocracy. At the time of his death in A.D. 79, he left behind 160 manuscripts, many of which unfortunately have long since disappeared.
His most famous work, copies of which have been preserved down through the ages, was called the Natural History. These volumes are a collection of fact and fantasy which Pliny copied from other books or which he transcribed from conversations with various people throughout the empire. Most of the factual material was taken from Aristotle’s books. The fantasy included anything and everything. Nothing was too incredible to be recorded. Pliny records that there are some men without mouths who inhale the fragrance of flowers instead of eating food, that horses will commit suicide if they discover that they have engaged in an incestual relationship with a close relative, etc. Exotic animals such as the unicorn and the winged horses are also given their due.
But like his contemporaries, Pliny had very little to record about cannabis. The fibers of the plant, he noted, made superb rope. The juice of the cannabis seed was also useful for extracting “worms from the ears, or any insect which may have entered them.” While the seeds could also render men impotent, they were beneficial in alleviating gout and similar maladies.
Wherever the people of the ancient world roamed, they carried with them the seeds of the precious cannabis plant. From China in the east to the Rhone Valley in the west, the seeds were spread. Cold weather, hot weather, wet or dry, fertile soil or barren, the seeds were not to be denied.
Except in India and China, most of the ancient world was completely ignorant of the intoxicating properties of the plant. Ancient European legends and herbals had little to say regarding its peculiar psychological effects.
If Europeans saw any magic in cannabis, it was its fibers, not its intoxicating power, that aroused their awe and admiration. Farther to the south, however, cannabis eventually inspired sentiments of a different kind in a people who challenged Europe for world domination.