The History of Cannabis

Part 2: Ancient Civilizations

Cannabis use dates back to at 8,000 BCE and has been widely used throughout ancient civilizations. As cannabis originated in Central Asia, it spread first through Asia and the lower Asian subcontinent before making its way to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
The plant was used in its entirety; psychoactive properties used for religious, ceremonial or medicinal purposes and hemp grown for materials. In fact, hemp fabrics and ropes have been found at archeological sites from China to Persia.

We’ll explore cannabis use throughout the eras leading up to modern times. In this blog, we’ll explore how cannabis was used in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

The map shows how cannabis may have spread from its place of origin in Central Asia throughout the world. (Image credit: Barney Warf, University of Kansas)

Cannabis in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian hieroglyphs refer to the plant as shemshemet. Hemp was grown for fibers and textures, and early doctors found many uses for cannabis. Plant residue has been found on artifacts dating back to 4,000 years ago. Amazingly, ancient Egyptian doctors are known to have used cannabis salves on the eyes to treat glaucoma and sores as early as 2,000 years ago. (Today science has shown that cannabis is a potent anti-inflammatory in reducing interocular pressure.) References to cannabis were even discovered on the Ramesseum Papyri, the oldest medical records ever discovered. (estimated ~ 1750 BCE)

Cannabis was heavily featured in the Ebers Papyri, the world’s oldest complete medical book dating back to 1500 BCE. It recommends dozens of cannabis formulas treating issues ranging from feminine health to a painful finger or toe. By 1300 BCE, records show the Egyptians were using cannabis formulas to treat fever and inflammations. (These anti-fever, anti-inflammatory properties are today proven and cannabis is currently being explored as a potential treatment for endometriosis pain). By 200 AD, cannabis was recorded as a treatment for tumors, ear pain, and fevers.

In addition to its plethora of medicinal uses, cannabis also has ritualistic purposes in ancient Egyptian society, with remains of mummified Egyptians, most notably Ramses the Great containing traces of the plant. Many believe the Egyptian Goddess Sheshat, the deity of writing and record-keeping, was also the goddess of cannabis, ad she is depicted with a 7-pointed leaf above her head.

Cannabis in Ancient Greece & Roman Empires

In ancient Greek and Roman societies, there is ample documentation that hemp was an essential fiber, used for everything from boat sails and ropes to wicker-work, clothes and shoes. However, documented use of cannabis in medicinal or recreational purposes is spotty at best and can be downright controversial.

There is suggested evidence that cannabis was used in wines in Roman times, but most of what we know comes from Greek writers who report using cannabis in dressing sores on horses and wounds on humans. They also mention it as effective against nosebleeds, tapeworms, earaches and (most interestingly) stopping nocturnal emissions in teen boys. Cannabis was mentioned by Grecian comic poets as a delicacy food as early as the 1st century BCE.

What’s important to note here is that most of these references speak to the seeds of the plant, rather than the buds. That being said, we do have evidence of psychoactive properties even in the seeds from Galen, a Roman physician and surgeon who describes feeling “overcome in the head… a warm and drug-like vapor” from consuming toasted seeds.

Smoking the buds of the cannabis plant are a fairly modern way of consuming this truly ancient plant, but that doesn’t mean that our ancestors didn’t find a multitude of ways to benefit from cannabis.


Published by Jessica Reilly, Writer

Writer, cannabis aficionado, and poetry lover

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