Ritualistic History of Cannabis

For thousands of years, different societies considered cannabis to be a sacred plant with medicinal properties for the body and soul.

One of the first mentions of marijuana’s therapeutic uses appears in an ancient Chinese recipe book, Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu. The tome’s exact origins are unknown and likely lost to history, but some legends credit the writings to the Red Emperor, Sheng Nung, in 2737 BC. However, archeologists found evidence of marijuana rituals which date back to 8000 BC in the Romanian region. Other evidence includes a leather basket with seeds and leaf fragments next to a mummified shaman dated about 2500 to 2800 years old, found in northeastern China.

Other ancient texts from Egypt, Tibet, Greece, Israel, and Palestine, document the historic therapeutic usage of cannabis. For example, the Atharvaveda, a sacred Hindu text, describes how the plant bloomed when ragweed fell from the sky. In Brahmanical traditions, cannabis is thought to grant the ability to speed up thoughts, extend longevity, and potentialize sexual drive. The plant was used in Nepal and Tibet in the memorable Yogi era in the development of medicines. Devout males used cannabis as a sign of fertility and consumed the drug in groups by infusing it in drinks in a ceremonial context. Other rituals with religious contexts include dagga in Africa, where Pygmies, Zulus, and Hottentots used the plant in rituals and as herbal remedies. In more medicinal contexts, marijuana was used mainly for the treatment of insomnia, fever, dry cough, and dysentery.

The exact uses of marijuana differ depending on the tastes and traditions of the country or region, which often remain consistent with the different methods of consumption seen today. These uses include edibles, CBD oil inserted into vaporizers, or smoked cannabis, which all have historical precedents. For example, in Nepal, users processed the cannabis plant by rubbing it down with their hands until they obtained fine fragments. In India, people developed different drinks such as the bhang. Iranians, however, preferred edible versions and prepared cakes using butter. In other places such as Libya and the Congo, people smoked the plant using empty pumpkins. Another tradition with cannabis originated from the non-Muslim area of Botswana, in southeast Africa, where people placed a mixture of marijuana and manure in holes in the ground which were covered with clay skullcaps. The heat generated by the fermentation process produced a slow combustion of the hemp, creating a steady burn. The smoke was then inhaled through ventilation channels.

Although the Swiss medic and philosopher Paracelsus mentions the use of cannabis for health purposes, the first article written regarding the analgesic, antispasmodic, and muscle relaxing properties of cannabis was published in 1839 by British professor Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. During the next 70 years, the world witnessed more than 100 scientific studies regarding the properties of marijuana until the plant was banned in 1937. In the United States, cannabis was an integral component in more than 30 pharmaceutical products. Once the government outlawed the drug, the work in medical use was frozen.

Recently, worldwide interest in the medicinal use of cannabis is growing. Even with the Schedule I classification and limitation at the federal level, the legalization of recreational and medical use by some state governments in the United States allows scientific research to continue, and such examination is producing positive results. Given the historical context, the revival of interest in the therapeutic aspects of cannabis and future scientific inquiries conducted in an objective manner will provide insight into the knowledge and wisdom of ancient civilizations.

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