Cannabis in Ancient Literature

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 literature 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.

Cannabis in Ancient literature of 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 delight.

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:

cannabis in ancient literature
Image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra , Courtesy of Flickr

In the History of 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

Cannabis in Ancient Literature of 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 Relation with Cannabis

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.