The Ancient Origins of Cannabis
In this article, we will dive into the ancient origins of cannabis. Cannabis is one of the most versatile plants ever to be discovered with a history rich in diverse uses that spans over twelve-millennium. Written history of its use by humans dates back to at least the third millennium BCE, and by archaeological evidence much further back. Humans have had a long, diverse history and relationship with Cannabis that likely goes back to the advent of our species.
With its remarkable range of medicinal, dietary, and practical uses word of Cannabis spread through a network of trade routes across an ancient world intersecting with numerous cultures in the process. Cannabis spread to China, India, The Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Wherever Cannabis was introduced, it had a tendency to stay.
Cannabis In Traditional Chinese Medicine
Cannabis was one of the 50 fundamental herbs in the traditional Chinese medicine toolkit. The first reference material we have when it comes to Cannabis is in the form of the Chinese Materia Medica.
Written by Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, in 2737 BCE. Prior to Shen Nung’s discovery of Cannabis it was called “MA” by the Chinese. It had been used for many centuries for its fiber in producing cloth, paper, rope, and even in the production of pottery.
Over the course of history in China, hemp found its way into many aspects of Chinese life. It provided clothing and shoes. It gave them material to write on, and it became a symbol of power over evil. The character for the Hemp plant basically shows plants drying in a shed or shack.
The Hemp Goddess
To continue with the fascinating ancient origins of cannabis, the Chinese wrote about a “Hemp Goddess” named “Magu”. Magu’s name combines the Chinese character MA – meaning hemp, with the character GU, a kinship term for woman or goddess, which is also used in religious titles like Priestess.
Magu was a legendary “immortal; transcendent” associated with the elixir of life. She was a symbolic protector of women in Chinese mythology. There are many stories that describe Magu as a beautiful young woman with long birdlike fingernails. Her gown was an unwoven shimmering, dazzling pattern of colors described as “not of this world”.
Archaeologists found scraps of hemp cloth that dates to 8,000 BC in Mesopotamia. Then around 6,000-4,000 BC in ancient China where the first evidence of hemp seed and extract use as a food was found. Ancient manuscripts are filled with passages urging people to plant hemp so that they will have clothes.
Why Hemp Was Prized In The Ancient World
The mulberry plant was also highly regarded because it was the food for silkworms that made silk fabric, which was one of China’s most important products. But silk was very expensive and only the very wealthy could afford it. Because of this, hemp material was used for those who could not afford silk. For this reason the Chinese called their country the “land of mulberry and hemp.” Of all the cultures where hemp is found, China has the longest and most continuous history of hemp production.
The Chinese may have been the first people to make use of medical cannabis and hemp fiber, but in India more uses of the plant were first fully appreciated. Indian mythology says that hemp was present with Shiva at the beginning of the world. It is said that the warriors were known to drink “bhang” to calm their nerves before battle. Cannabis and Hemp was cultivated and used to cure a wide range of illnesses, and of course they also used it to make fabric.
Cannabis In Ancient Egypt
By the third millennium BC, Ancient Egyptian texts show a hieroglyph known as the “shemshemet” to depict cannabis. It is likely that cannabis is one of the first plants ever cultivated, along with wheat and other staple grains. The Egyptians used hemp plant fibers for fabric, rope and cordage.
Cannabis is referenced in the ancient Egyptian pyramid medical texts that cited treatment guidelines and instructions on preparing cannabis. Pieces of hemp material were found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and pollen on the mummy of Ramses II has been identified as cannabis. Hemp was also used in the construction of the pyramids, not only to pull blocks of limestone, but also in quarries, where the dried fiber was pounded into cracks in the rock. Then they wet the fiber and as it swelled, the rock broke.
The Egyptians had the most advanced medical system in the ancient world, which included written medical guidelines. Medical texts from Egypt indicate that the primary use for cannabis was gynecological to assist women during childbirth. Cannabis pollen was found in mummies, in addition to their written legacy.
The Ancient Origins of Cannabis In Arab Culture
As Egyptian culture gave way to Arab culture, the medical use of cannabis was incorporated in varying forms. Ninth and Tenth Century Islamic medical texts refer to cannabis as “hashish”, “the royal grain” and “shadanaj”. While Shaaria law strictly prohibits the use of intoxicants, hashish made its way through the years and is still common in Muslim countries today. Modern Egyptian universities continue to research the medical uses of this sacred and ancient plant, upholding a long tradition of their culture.
The Scythians and Cannabis
As time went on, the Scythians carried hemp from Asia through Greece and Russia and into Europe. Later the Arabs brought hemp from Africa into Spain and other ports of entry on the Mediterranean Sea. Hemp fiber was widely used in the Roman Empire, much of which they imported from Babylonia, thus adding more proof of the ancient origins of cannabis.
Although cannabis was not a major crop in early Italy, hemp seed was a common food. Carbonized hemp seeds were found in the ruins of Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Romans helped spread hemp through Europe. The Vikings relied on hemp as rope, sailcloth, caulking, fish line and nets on their daring voyages. Nature also had a part in spreading global cannabis & hemp cultivation. As birds migrated across the world they spread hemp & cannabis seeds along the way.
The stigma surrounding Cannabis & Hemp is truly an aspect of modern history. Weighing a twelve-millenium history of industrial and medicinal use against an 80 year ban raises some interesting questions.
With the understanding of the ancient origins of cannabis, it’s no wonder that over the last few years, the Cannabis & Hemp industries are making a comeback. It was over 80 years ago when Cannabis & Hemp was legal in America and the government actually promoted and encouraged people to grow it. It was used for many things necessary in the war such as rope, sails, and clothing. When we look back through time… the Cannabis plant was a staple in many cultures.
Today, we are fighting to gain back the rights to grow the Cannabis plant. It is a commodity that could provide us with so many products that currently use other precious resources, such as: paper, fabric, plastics, building materials, food source and more. There are actually around 25,000 products that can be made from the hemp plant. During prohibition, all sources of hemp used in America was imported from other countries where growing hemp is legal. View our Interactive Cannabis History Timeline here for even more ancient and modern hemp history.