Cannabis Has Always Played an Important Role in Religion

An op-ed piece I wrote about Cannabis and religion has been published by the popular news website Opposing Views.

Click here to read the article on Opposing Views.

I read Jacob Sullum’s article ‘Can Smoking Marijuana be Considered a Religion?!‘ with some interest, as I myself currently have a case against the Canadian Government in response to their refusal to grant me an exemption for my own spiritual use of cannabis. As well, the historical role of the religious use of cannabis has been a subject I have personally researched for 20 years, having written 3 books on the subject, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and the forthcoming Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); as well as dozens of published articles on this same subject, and some of this material has been reviewed in a report prepared by the Canadian Justice Department. Thus it is clearly a subject I have put some thought into, and which I have considerable knowledge about.

In regards to the sacramental use of cannabis and religious freedom, I would first point out the right to cannabis, indeed all plants, cacti and fungi, is a natural right that supersedes even the religious use issue, more akin to our right to air, earth and water – this is about life on earth and indigenous natural relationships. I can say to you with confidence, there is no religious doctrine not transcribed by the hand of man, but no matter what god or goddess one believes in, they should also believe that god created the plants of the earth. Indeed, in the case of the popular belief of our own culture, the Biblical God quite clearly states: “Behold, I have Given you Every Herb Bearing Seed which is Upon the Face of all the Earth” (Genesis 1:29).

That said, historically cannabis has played a paramount role in the spiritual life of man, dating further back than any existing religion. The late archaeologist Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, pointed to the use of cannabis incenses at a gravesite of a group known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the Kurgans, who occupied what is now Romania 5,000 years ago. The discovery of a smoking-cup which contained remnants of charred hemp seeds at the site documents that at 3,500 years before Christ humanity had already been using cannabis for religious purposes for millennia.

These same people were the first to domesticate the horse, and it was with them that we find the linguistic roots of the term ‘cannabis’, which comes from an ancient Proto- Indo-European root word, “kanap”; the “an” from this root left traces in many modern terms for cannabis, such as French “chanvre”, German “hanf”, Indian “bhang”, Persian “bhanga”, Dutch “Canvas”, Greek “Kannabis,” and so on. Through their high mobility, these ancient ancestors of numerous modern cultures spread not only the plant and name, but also the religious and magical connotations that had grown around it. Evidence of this has even left their traces in some of the world’s oldest existing religions.

Anthropologist Sula Benet initiated decades of theological debate by identifying the Hebrew terms keneh, and keneh bosem , (cane, fragrant cane) as cannabis, noting the similarities to the modern term cannabis, and also the name used by contemporary Assyrians for the plant, qunubu, as well as the similar way they used it. In Assyria, qunubu was not only a widely used medicine , but also a key ingredient used in incenses and other preparations for the “Sacred Rites” and a means to commune with God: ‘So that god of man and man should be in good rapport: – with hellebore, cannabis and lupine you will rub him'”

Interestingly, a similar scenario appears in the Biblical narrative, where the Lord, who curiously first appears to Moses as a burning bush, commands him to make a holy anointing oil with roughly 6 pounds of cannabis, mixed with myrrh, and cinnamon into about a gallon and a half of olive-oil. When Moses is to seek the Lord’s advice, he enters the enclosure of the “Tent of the Meeting” anoints his body with this cannabis infused preparation (THC is fatty soluble and such topical preparations have been reported to have a psychoactive effect), as well as anointing the alter of incense, and then proceeds to talk to the Lord in the pillar of smoke that forms over the incense altar! Adding the factor of a psycho-active substance into this scenario produces some troubling alternatives to current theological beliefs, and turns Moses into a Shamanic figure that used plants to achieve spiritual insights. Even at the time of Moses, its use was strictly prohibited to the priest caste and then later extended to kings.

Ironically later Old Testament references to cannabis via Benet’s identifications, indicate that as the Israelites went from a wandering nomadic tribe to a settled kingdom with a huge infrastructure, such shamanic visionaries took the backseat to establishing laws and taxation amounts, and by the time of Jeremiah cannabis had clearly fallen into disfavour amongst the ruling Hebrews . According to Sula Benet an error later occurred in the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Texts “where the terms kaneh, kaneh bosem were incorrectly translated as ‘calamus'” and that this error followed through in later translations down to modern times.

Despite these early prohibitions, use of the Holy Oil re-emerged during the early Christian period, particularly amongst Gnostic sects. Indeed, the Greek term “Christ” is a translation of the Hebrew “messiah,” and means the “Anointed One”. New Testament and Gnostic texts indicate a role for the cannabis-infused Holy Oil and incenses for both healing and enlightenment , only to again be later repressed by the machination of the Roman Catholic Church and the inception of the Dark Ages.

Recent archaeological finds in China indicate that Indo-European culture also penetrated the Han Chinese region much earlier than previously thought. From 2000-400 BC, China hosted the Indo-European Gushi culture, who cultivated and collected potent strains of female cannabis for spiritual and likely medicinal purposes, as attested to the over two pounds of the herb which accompanied a 2700 year old Shaman’s tomb . Undoubtedly the Gushi culture came into contact with indigenous Han Chinese users, who recognized cannabis as the “plant of immortality” and where it had a huge influence on the Taoist religion .

In China, the local indigenous name hu-ma term stuck to the plant, and was exported with it into the Bactria-Margiana region of Afghanistan, where the discovery of a 4000 year old temple has shown that a mixture of cannabis and Ephedra was made in to drink known as Haoma , the sacrament of the Avestan religion, and later Zoroastrians. From Afghanistan cannabis and the sacred beverage made from it were travelled with the Indo Europeans to India, where linguistic changes resulted in its name Soma, the psychoactive beverage that inspired the Vedic religion, and as a result the sacramental use of hemp has survived in Indian religions such as Hinduism and Sikhism. and through both Indian Persian Zoroastrian influences cannabis use filtered into the Islamic Sufi movement.

Thus in answer to the question “Can Smoking Marijuana be Considered a Religion?!”, I would state: Cannabis – the once and future tree of life – is the inspirational fountain from which whole religions have sprung forth!
“Religious use of psychedelic plants is a civil rights issue; its restriction is the repression of a legitimate religious sensibility. In fact, it is not a religious sensibility that is being repressed, but the religious sensibility, an experience of religion based the plant-human relationships that were in place long before the advent of history.” –Terrence Mckenna (1946-2000)

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in magic and religion for over a quarter century, his books include 'Green Gold the tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion' (1995); 'Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible' (2001); 'Cannabis and the Soma Solution' (2010. He Currently resides in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where he runs his ethnobotanical shop The Urban Shaman.

Comments

10 Comments

  1. Anonymous on

    Wow you guys speak of everything on this Article http://www.cannabisculture.com/backissues/cc11/christ.html
    which is freakishly seems to fit everything except you guys were unaware of it’s true healing potential and that is why it is so powerful.

    Adapted from Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible: The Pagan Origins of the Judaic and Christian Traditions (Volume 2, The New Testament and Related Literature). By Chris Bennett and Neil McQueen

    It was awesome and I imagine you have much added..

  2. Anonymous on

    In your text written Cannabis and the Christ: Jesus used Marijuana you talk about people in the partially copied sacred texts we call the Bible and their visions after the Oil. They did completely cover them in this Oil but perhaps at one point someone would tilt your head back and fill you with it, Only then are you purified inside and out.

    Then you would speak to the angels or I AM.

  3. Covey on

    I guess this might be confirmation as to possibly why the Oil was so sacred. :)
    Sorry that me above to, forgot name.

  4. Anonymous on

    Chris, I really hope you take this information to heart, maybe already or deep down it’s something you’ve always suspected.
    Go out and make the Oil and Join this fight with a knowledge that’s incredible and will bring your freinds home earlier.
    You have access to many people willing to help maybe it’s time for you to be a physician first, heal their body and then heal their minds and souls.

    You have so much knowledge and it was you who got me first started over 4 years ago, a big bald dude from Alberta staying at a freinds families hotel to do some upgrading and their for a month.
    It was the greatest time in my life and of memories and it was you who first through the statements to me when I sat and you spoke and later before I left when you shared me that wonderful Volcanic Vaporizer.
    All of you moved me becasue you knew nothing of me and the feds had just left a few weeks before I got their. My appearance is Goatee and bald 250 lbs that sometimes confuses people, I’m sure you can imagine.
    You all opened your arms and your hearts and I will always be grateful to everyone of you who started me on this wonderful journey.
    I sat in The Museum and the CC store with a whole group of you and listened to the most incredible things at first I had very little belief in, then gradually I heard the same from others which led me to studying some to verify to feel more confident. You all showed me how to arm myself and made me feel no longer alone.
    This knowledge I try and share is only an accumulation of some of what you all starting me on a journey in which instead of dispelling or disproving made me want more.
    I’ve felt elated, freed able to stand my ground and tell people why I beleive they are wrong and it’s you people who gave me this.
    Thank you all, thank God for each and everyone of you.

    I will continue to share with all of you as I can.

  5. Anonymous on

    oh yeah! Great article, well researched! Thank you.

  6. Anonymous on

    All that mystic mumbo jumbo can’t compete with todays religeon…MONEY! As of today 38 BILLION dollars has been spent by the US on the war on drugs this year alone! You can keep an eye on the $ hemmoraging from our tax laden asses here : http://www.drugsense.org/wodclock.htm

  7. B.C. on

    I’m with you on this, Chris. Cannabis is probably the most sacred plant on earth. It induces a transcendental state which is profound without being overwhelming. I think Christians would profit greatly by putting some buds in with the sacramental wine and letting it steep a while.

    Another interesting subject is the Greek drink Kykeon. I’m sure Chris has read about the theory that its activity was derived from Ergot. By simply heating Ergot with alkali in alcohol its alkaloids are converted to LSA, the active ingredient in Morning Glory Seeds.

    You would be hard pressed to find an ancient religion that did not employ some kind of psychoactive plant as an aid to communion with the divine. Christianity is a freak religion. That’s what happens when you leave out the herbal sacraments. You get crazy and act like idiots. Christianity is just a bunch of idiots chanting passages from a book. What the hell’s that supposed to accomplish? Is it intended to bore you into a coma in which God may appear to you? Without the sacraments, it’s just a bunch of people sitting in a building together passing the time in meaningless ways. Reading a book isn’t very likely to induce a state of heightened consciousness.