The Sacred Uses of Cannabis by Ancient Cultures

by | Apr 22, 2024 | Cannabis Culture, Pain Management

marijuana in religious rituals

At times, you may feel sorry for cannabis plants. Throughout human history, cannabis went from being venerated as a natural healing herb to being the victim of propaganda and accused of corrupting American youth. Thanks to advocacy and state legalization, the tide has slowly turned, centering the cannabis plant as an alternative medicine with therapeutic value.

Cannabis cultivation is nothing new. In fact, for centuries, humans harvested wild cannabis and eventually propagated the plant for medicinal use. In some cases, cannabis was also used by ancient cultures for spiritual or religious rituals.

Despite prohibition in many countries and conflicts between state and federal law in the United States, cannabis has played an important part in human history. Let’s dive into some fun facts about how ancient civilizations used cannabis and why marijuana has always been an important part of human culture.

cannabis in ancient china

The Earliest Evidence of Cannabis Use Was 2500 Years Ago

A research paper titled “The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs” was published in Science Advances on June 12, 2019. Researchers confirmed that cannabis was one of the oldest plant species cultivated by humans in East Asia.

Archaeologists were excavating the Jirzankal Cemetary, located on the Pamir Plateau in western China. They uncovered ten (10) wooden bowls that contained small stones inside. There was evidence that the stones and bowls had been exposed to high heat, which concluded that they were used for ritualistic practices, such as burning incense.

That wasn’t particularly surprising, as incense was commonly used during all religious rituals in Chinese culture. What did surprise them, however, was that the rocks and bowls contained trace amounts of cannabis.

The First Version of a Modern-Day Bong

In effect, they had uncovered the earliest version of a cannabis pipe in human history. According to the researchers, it is believed that the wooden bowls were exposed to heat, which transferred to the rocks and created cannabis smoke. Plant material was placed on top of the rocks to create vapor for inhalation.

When you think about it, there is nothing harder than losing a loved one. Grief can be overwhelming, so the idea of medicating family members with cannabis to ease their emotional pain makes a lot of sense. Moreover, samples showed that East Asian ancestors cultivated cannabis with high terpenophenolic secondary metabolites.

That meant not only was cannabis regularly used during religious rituals 2,500 years ago, but our ancestors were already selectively cultivating strains with desirable attributes, particularly plants that had higher-than-average psychoactive chemicals. Nine out of the ten bowls had cannabis residue.

The Sacred Uses of Cannabis by Ancient Cultures

Cannabis Use By Ancient Egyptians

Egypt has some of the toughest cannabis laws in the world, and it is illegal to consume cannabis in the country. However, cannabis use is very common among residents living in the country, and you can easily find people consuming it in cafes.

The United States is not the only country to have conflicting federal and state or community laws regarding cannabis possession and use. However, archaeologists have proven that cannabis has been a cultural fixture in Egypt since 3000 BC.

Cannabis was an agricultural product in ancient Egypt, with the majority of products allocated for creating hemp ropes. However, historical records reveal that “mystic Islamic travelers” originating from Syria during the 12th century AD (Ayyubid dynasty) introduced hashish to the Egyptian population.

David Ben Solomon IBN Abi Zimra noted in 1525 that “they eat cannabis leaves in Egypt and are inebriated thereby, and they say that it makes one happy. They eat it raw and plain; in some places, they also use it like linen to make garments.” Zimra (also called Radbaz) was a Chief Rabbi and author of more than 3,000 scholarly written works.

The Vikings Regularly Used Cannabis For A Variety of Purposes

Did you catch the Vikings series on Netflix? If you watched it, you already know how advanced the Vikings were in engineering and medical triage. If you belong to a civilization that is raiding and pillaging on the regular, chances are you pick up a thing or two about using herbal medicine for healing wounds and other health problems.

Ancient cannabis was nowhere near the potency that you can purchase today at a licensed dispensary. But cannabis use was prolific in the Viking culture. There is also evidence that the Vikings cultivated different strains, using cannabis seeds to extract oil used for healing, as a moisturizer, lamp oil, and for treating or preserving animal hides.

The Scandinavian tradition of drinking hemp tea is still alive and well, passed down from Viking culture. Today, we know that hemp contains high concentrations of non-psychoactive cannabidiol and can help reduce inflammation. They didn’t know how it worked, but the Vikings understood that cannabis plants and hemp seeds were beneficial for health and wellness.

Odin Was a Big Fan of Cannabis

Imagine sitting in a sauna, immersed in soothing cannabis vapors. The Vikings were found to have steam baths or sweathouses where raw cannabis leaves would be added to the fire. What was good for the Gods was also good for Norsemen, apparently.

In Norse mythology, Odin, the supreme God of all things (including poetry and war), hung himself upside down from the World Tree for nine days and nights. During his private hangout, he consumed only mead and cannabis. How is that for a legitimate product endorsement?

marijuana in religious rituals

Cannabis Introduced By Greeks to the Ancient Roman Culture

The ancient Greeks and Romans were explorers, sailing to new regions and converting (and conquering) new civilizations that they discovered. At one point, much of the world as we know it belonged to the Roman Empire.

By AD 117, Rome had achieved peak influence over Asia Minor, Northern Africa, and much of Europe. By AD 286, the empire was split into Eastern Europe and Western regions, with separate emperors.

The Greeks Explored Medical Marijuana

Greece is the undisputed birthplace of philosophy, and some of the world’s most intelligent people lived there. From developing mathematics and astronomy to mastering chemistry and engineering, architecture, and medicine, Greece was responsible for advancing human skills and knowledge. The Greek culture also created delicious food we still enjoy today.

When it comes to cannabis use, both the Romans and the Greeks were late adopters. Cannabis was already widely used in Asia before the Greeks discovered it. Since SUVs weren’t invented, the most important asset you had in ancient Greece was your horse. The Greeks commonly used cannabis to dress sores and wounds on their horses.

Cannabis-infused beverages are all the rage today and may one day replace alcoholic drinks as a healthier alternative. The Ancient Greeks used to collect green cannabis seeds and steep them in water or wine, using the beverage to treat inflammation, ear infections, and more.

Our ancestors were using medical cannabis years before we got around to legalizing it. The medicinal use of cannabis migrated from Greece to Italy, but no one is sure when that occurred.

The Roman’s Use of Cannabis

When it came to preferred substances, Romans preferred wine. But there is evidence that, like other ancient civilizations, Romans believed in the medicinal use of cannabis and enjoyed it as a recreational drug.

There are texts that prove Ancient Romans had knowledge of cannabis. It was referred to as both cannabis and “cannabos” in Latin. There are references to using cannabis in Roman medical records to help with pain and inflammation and as a sedative to resolve sleep disorders.

Integrating cannabis culture into ceremonial or religious rituals wasn’t popular in Ancient Rome. There is very little evidence to suggest that cannabis had any kind of spiritual importance back then. But Romans cultivated hemp, used it to make ropes, clothing, and other textiles, and fed their livestock discarded hemp plant fibers.

ancient use of cannabis root

Cannabis Use By Pre-Columbian American Civilizations

In the Americas, ancient civilizations like the Mayans, Incas, and the Aztecs used ancient cannabis strains as both medical marijuana and in religious rituals. For those indigenous tribes, the cannabis plant was revered, and every part of the plant was used, including cannabis seeds.

Aztec Mayan cannabis use

How Did The Mayans Use Cannabis?

The Mayans, a Mesoamerican civilization known for their advanced understanding of agriculture, astronomy, and architecture, utilized cannabis for both medicinal and ritual purposes. Medicinally, the Mayans likely used cannabis to treat various ailments such as pain, inflammation, and gastrointestinal issues. It’s believed that cannabis was consumed in different forms, including as a tea or a paste, to alleviate symptoms and promote healing. Additionally, cannabis may have played a role in Mayan religious ceremonies and rituals, although specific details are not as extensively documented as in some other ancient cultures.

Why The Incas Prized Cannabis Plants

The Inca civilization, centered in the Andean region of South America, also employed cannabis for medicinal and religious purposes. Medicinally, the Incas likely used cannabis to treat conditions such as pain, fever, and wounds.

Cannabis may have been prepared in different forms, including as a poultice or a decoction, for topical or oral administration. In religious ceremonies, cannabis possibly had a ceremonial significance, although precise details about its use in Inca rituals are limited. Given the spiritual importance of various plants in Inca culture, cannabis may have been regarded as sacred and incorporated into many different healing, burial, and bereavement ritualistic practices.

The Aztecs Worshipped the Healing Herb

The Aztecs, renowned for their sophisticated society and religious practices, utilized cannabis both medicinally and as part of their ritualistic ceremonies. Medicinally, the Aztecs likely used cannabis to alleviate pain, induce relaxation, and treat various ailments.

Cannabis may have been consumed orally or applied topically in the form of ointments or poultices. In religious rituals, cannabis held a significant role, particularly in ceremonies dedicated to the worship of their God, Xochipilli, the deity of art, beauty, and love.

Cannabis was believed to facilitate communication with the divine and induce altered states of consciousness conducive to spiritual experiences or spirit-walking trances. Therefore, the Aztecs likely regarded cannabis as a sacred plant essential for connecting with the divine realm during religious ceremonies.

Cannabis Use in Ancient India

In ancient India, cannabis, known as “bhang” or “ganja,” held significant cultural, religious, and medicinal importance. Its use can be traced back thousands of years, with references found in ancient texts such as the Vedas and Hindu scriptures dating back to around 1500 BCE.

Cannabis was associated with several Hindu deities, most notably Lord Shiva, one of the principal gods of Hinduism. Shiva is often depicted with a chillum (a traditional smoking pipe) and is said to have a fondness for bhang, which is believed to enhance meditation and facilitate spiritual experiences.

Ancient Indians were likely familiar with different strains of cannabis, although specific cultivation practices and strain differentiation from that period are not extensively documented. However, it’s plausible that various regions may have cultivated cannabis with different characteristics suited for specific purposes, such as medicinal use or religious rituals.

The cultivation of cannabis for its fiber (hemp) was also prevalent in ancient India, with hemp being used to make ropes, textiles, and other practical items. Overall, cannabis played a multifaceted role in ancient Indian society, serving as a sacrament in religious rituals, a remedy in traditional medicine, and a symbol of spiritual enlightenment.

marijuana in ancient middle east

Modern Interpretations of Cannabis Vary By Culture

Several countries have implemented strict laws banning cannabis use and imposing severe penalties for its possession, cultivation, or distribution. Examples include countries in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, where possessing even small amounts of cannabis can result in harsh penalties, including fines, imprisonment, or even corporal punishment.

In the Middle East, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stringent anti-cannabis laws with severe punishments, including lengthy prison sentences and heavy fines. In some African countries like Nigeria and Egypt, cannabis use is illegal, and those caught in possession can face imprisonment or other punitive measures.

Conversely, countries like Canada and Uruguay have federally legalized both medical cannabis and recreational use. Uruguay was the first country to legalize recreational use at the federal level in 2013. Canada followed suit in 2018, legalizing recreational use after medical cannabis was federally legalized in 1999.

In North America, polls show that many people believe cannabis should be legalized for medical and recreational use. However, many states in America have punitive legal consequences for cannabis possession and personal use.

The efforts to reschedule cannabis on the Controlled Substances Act would be a positive step forward in the United States. This is one that our ancient forefathers would likely approve of because, historically, humans have benefited from cannabis Sativa. When used responsibly, cannabis is one of the safest psychoactive substances that can improve physical and emotional well-being.


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