The First Cultivated Crop
Ancient and modern historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and philologists all agree that cannabis is one of mankind’s oldest cultivated crops. The weaving of hemp fibre began 10,000 years ago, at approximately the same time as pottery making and prior to metal working.1
In his book The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan has speculated that cannabis may have been the first crop cultivated by stone age man.2 He based this assertion upon the example of the pygmies. The pygmies were basically hunter-gatherers until they started planting the cannabis which they used for religious purposes. The pygmies say that they have been smoking cannabis “since the beginning of time.”
Professor Richard E. Schultes, the director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University and a prominent researcher in the field of psychoactive plants, wrote an article titled Man and Marijuana in which he states:
…early man experimented with all plant materials that he could chew and could not have avoided discovering the properties of cannabis (marijuana), for in his quest for seeds and oil, he certainly ate the sticky tops of the plant. Upon eating hemp, the euphoric, ecstatic and hallucinatory aspects may have introduced man to an other-worldly plane from which emerged religious beliefs, perhaps even the concept of deity. The plant became accepted as a special gift of the gods, a sacred medium for communion with the spiritual world and as such it has remained in some cultures to the present.3
The effects of cannabis was proof to the ancients that the spirit and power of the gods (or goddesses) existed in this plant and that it was literally a messenger (angel), or actually the flesh and blood and/or bread of the god/s, and therefore a holy sacrament.
A Shaman’s Drug
Considered to be sacred, cannabis has been used in religious worship from before recorded history. Many modern users do not realize the ecstasies available to users of visionary doses of cannabis, but this has not always been the case.
Dr. M. Aldrich stated in High Culture:
There is a myth that pot is a mild and minor drug. Usually in the context of American usage it is, but it doesn’t have to be. The hard part about expressing this, however, is that the prohibitionists who pose visions of disaster about hashish or about legalizing the stronger forms of cannabis are also wrong. There’s nothing wrong with cannabis being a potent hallucinogen; this has certainly accounted for its vast popularity through these many centuries. When one seeks a shaman’s drug one generally wants something more powerful than a mild hallucinogen.
Of course, knowing when and where to use cannabis at a dosage or strength suitable for real visions is also important. It’s obviously not a good idea to have visions in an unrefined social context, or when working in the fields or factory. This use of cannabis has traditionally been confined, by rational custom in ancient societies, to rituals which help define and control, the raw experience.4
According to William A. Embolden in his book Ritual Use of Cannabis Sativa L.:
Shamanistic traditions of great antiquity in Asia and the Near East have as one of their most important elements the attempt to find God without a vale of tears; that cannabis played a role in this, at least in some areas, is born out in the philology surrounding the ritualistic use of the plant. Whereas Western religious traditions generally stress sin, repentance, and mortification of the flesh, certain older non-western religious cults seem to have employed cannabis as a euphoriant, which allowed the participant a joyous path to the Ultimate; hence such appellations as “heavenly guide”.5
Due to the societal prejudice innate in the vast majority of accepted academic historians, the role of cannabis and other psychoactive plants in the development of religious thought has been largely ignored.
The Child of Language
It is the human ability for self-reflection which makes us unique when compared with the vast majority of life found in the animal kingdom. How did this capacity develop? The thinking mind is the child of language. No deep interior thinking or reasoning could take place until we had mastered the use of words and had enough of them to make the structure of a language. Words evolved from a series of root sounds and were used to transmit information between two or more individuals. They were originally a means of interaction, not self-reflection.
For no thought of man made Gods to love and honor
Ere the song within the silent soul began,
Nor might earth in dream or deed take heaven upon her
Till the word was clothed with speech by lips of man.6
The Origin of Consciousness
A little known book by psychologist Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, offers an interesting explanation of how the development of consciousness took place. Although Jaynes fails to fully recognize the strong role that plant-drugs may have played in the development of consciousness, he has come up with what I think is a most revolutionary concept. It is explained on the book’s back cover as follows:
Based on recent laboratory studies of the brain and a close reading of the archeological evidence, psychologist Julian Jaynes shows us how ancient people from Mesopotamia to Peru could not `think’ as we do today, and were therefore not conscious. Unable to introspect, they experienced auditory hallucinations – voices of gods, actually heard as in the Old Testament or the Iliad – which, coming from the brain’s right hemisphere, told a person what to do in circumstances of novelty or stress. This ancient mentality is called bicameral mind… Only catastrophe and cataclysm forced mankind to `learn’ consciousness, and that happened only 3000 years ago.7
It was in Terrence McKenna’s Food of the Gods, that I was first introduced to Jaynes’ book, and McKenna’s articulate description of Jaynes’ theory is worth quoting.
He proposes that through Homeric times people did not have the kind of interior psychic organization we take for granted. Thus what we call ego was for the Homeric people “god”. When danger threatened suddenly, the god’s voice was heard in the individual’s mind: an intrusive and alien function was expressed as a kind of metaprogram for survival called forth under moments of great stress. This psychic function was perceived by those experiencing it as the direct voice of a god, of the king, or of the king in the afterlife. Merchants and traders moving from one society to another brought the unwelcome news that the gods were saying different things in different places, and so cast early seeds of doubt. At some point people integrated this previously autonomous function, and each person became the god and reinterpreted the inner voice as the `self’ or, as it was later called, the `ego’.8
In his book Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna writes of the potential evolutionary catalysts available to mankind in the form of the psilocybin mushroom and other sacred plants. McKenna vastly expands on Jaynes’ theory, by suggesting that psychoactive plants, like the psilocybin mushroom and cannabis, acted as catalysts and accelerators for mankind’s transition into consciousness and self reflection. The hallucinations and mystical insights experienced by those who consumed these plants convinced the ancient worshippers that they had come into contact with the divine.
A High Brow Receptor
Interestingly, some of the active cannibinoids in THC mimic a little known human essential fat, enabling it to attach itself to receptor sites in the frontal brain, especially in the area of higher thinking. According to Miles Herkenham, who was quoted in an article on the THC receptor sites that appeared in the August, 1989 issue of Omni:
What really struck me was the front brain loading. It’s sort of a high brow receptor. The binding sites are numerous compared with other neurotransmitter systems, which suggests they are receptors for an important, ubiquitous transmitter.9
In Marihuana; The Forbidden Medicine by L. Grinspoon, M.D., and J. Bakalar we find:
the receptors are found mainly in the cerebral cortex, which governs higher thinking, and in the hippocampus, which is the locus of memory.10
Jack Herer, author of the groundbreaking The Emperor Wears No Clothes, has stated that these unique receptor sites indicate that “…man and marijuana have a precultural relationship.” 11 Indeed, perhaps our very civilization and our ability for self-reflection grew out of our relationship with this mysterious plant. Not surprisingly, records of the use of cannabis as both a drink and an incense can be traced back to some of the earliest civilizations and cultures, as we shall see with a look at cannabis incense in the Ancient World.
As ancient Mesopotamia was the home of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, a knowledge of the history of this region and its inhabitants is essential in the study of history and religious ideas. The earliest known information about a number of religious institutions, conceptions and techniques are preserved on Sumerian texts. These writings date back to the third millennium, but are also reflections of even more archaic beliefs.
Many of the world’s modern religions have their origins in this area, as do many of the world’s popular myths and fairytales. There is still much being learned about the origin and history of early Mesopotamia, but it is not the intention of this study to record what is already known about it. I would rather bring to light the little known references to cannabis in the surviving literature of this area.
The Great Gods
The early ancient Mesopotamians worshiped a number of different deities. Most were usually thought of as being identified with a different phenomenon, such as weather and the growth of different crops, and the great gods were identified with planets. Later, the entities that represented these forces and objects to were anthropomorphisized into human forms.
Of more interest to our study than these great gods however, are the `personal’ gods worshiped by the early Sumerians.12 Compare the following comments from Professor Helmer Ringgren’s, Religions of the Ancient Near East, especially the comments on the tutelary deity, with the development of consciousness hypothesis that was discussed earlier:
Of special interest are the personal tutelary deities which certainly the king, and possibly all men, are thought of as having. This may be one of the inferior deities or a quite separate god. He is spoken of as `my god’, and it is expected that when necessary he will take the part of the protege before the great gods, and make intercessions for him. Pictures show the individual’s god leading his protege by the hands to one of the great gods. A poem which is sometimes called the Sumerian Job speaks of how a suffering man is finally helped and restored after persistent prayer to `his god’.
Jacobsen takes the view that this personal tutelary deity was originally a personification of a man’s `luck’, his capacity for thinking and acting, which was only gradually identified with one of the minor deities in the pantheon. While this cannot perhaps be proved, it is certain that it is the special tutelary deity of an individual and family that we are dealing with. `To acquire a god’ is a phrase which is used for striking success. It is said also that without a (personal) god man cannot earn his living or be courageous in battle, and again:
When thou dost plan ahead, thy god is thine, When thou god dost not plan ahead, thy god is not thine.13
It would seem that these tutelary gods had much to do with forethought and planning, the abilities of an advanced thinking mind. An ancient hymn reveals that the burning of incense has much to do with the worship of these personal, `indwelling’ gods.
Worship your god every day with sacrifice and prayer which properly go with incense offerings. Present your freewill offering to your god for this is fitting for your gods. Offer him daily prayer, supplication and prostration and you will get your reward. Then you will have full communion with your god. Reverence begets favour. Sacrifice prolongs life, and prayer atones for guilt.14
The Encyclopedia Britannica makes the following comments about the use of incense in religious ritual:
…the ceremonial use of incense in contemporary ritual is most likely a relic of the time when the psychoactive properties of incense brought the ancient worshipper into touch with supernatural forces.15
Lacking the invention of pipes for smoking marijuana, the ancients would burn dried hemp on enclosed alters and inhale the fumes. Or they would make hashish by rubbing their hands on sticky cannabis tops, and collecting the resin for pressing into balls of incense, sometimes with other fragrant plants.
An ancient letter written at the time of the Assyrian King Assurbanipal states:
We were dead dogs, but our lord the king gave us life by placing the herb of life under our noses.16
The comment `Dead Dogs’, can be seen to mean the lack of self-reflection, something that was instilled in the ancient worshippers by the scent of `the herb of life’. Interestingly, archeological evidence indicates that cannabis inhalation in ancient Mesopotamia had been taking place long before this archaic letter had been written.
According to Licit and Illicit Drugs by the Consumer Union:
Ashurbanipal lived about 650 B.C., but the cuneiform descriptions of marijuana in his library “are generally regarded as obvious copies of much older texts”, says Dr. Robert P. Walton, an American physician and authority on marijuana. “This evidence serves to project the origin of hashish back to the earliest beginnings of history”17
Etymologist and historian Sula Benet quoted B.Meissner’s 1925 book, Babylonien und Assyrian, stating:
Cannabis as an incense was… used in the Temples of Assyria and Babylon `because its aroma was pleasing to the gods.’18 Benet also states that the original Assyrian term for cannabis was Kenab, and that the original Chaldean term was Kanbun.
From Professors R. E. Schultes and A. Hoffman in Plants of the Gods we learn that:
It is said that the Assyrians used hemp as incense in the seventh and eighth century before Christ and called it `Qunubu’, a term apparently borrowed from an old East Iranian word `Konaba’. the same as the Scythian name `cannabis’.19
This information clearly documents the use of cannabis incense to the very beginnings of recorded history, and shows that it could well have played a pivotal role in the development of the wonderful mind that so many of today’s people take for granted and don’t use. You need only look around at the sorry state of our once pristine planet to see that most modern people have lost the ability to think for themselves, and are more than willing to be led around by despicable leaders, and work their lives away in the name of consumerism.
Not surprisingly, many modern novice marijuana consumers complain that marijuana smoking gives them anxiety, and “makes them think unpleasant thoughts”. Perhaps the smoke has only awakened their conscience and sense of self, which in turn has challenged their feelings about themselves and their lives.
“Peace of mind, is very hard to find…” sang the great ganja-man, Bob Marley, “It’s got to come from within”.
About the Author
Chris Bennet has just finished a book titled Green Gold is the Tree of Life; Marijuana in Magick and Religion, with co-authors and editors Lynn and Judy Osbourne. Look for Green Gold this spring.
- Columbia History of the World; Harper & Rowe, NY, 1981
- The Dragons of Eden; Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books, NY, 1977
- Marijuana & the Bible; by the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, 1980, Jeff Brown
- High Culture; William Novak
- Ritual Use of Cannabis Sativa L.; William A. Embolden
- The Mystical Qabala; Dion Fortune, Samual Weiser Inc., York Beach, Maine, 1984
- The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; Julian Jaynes, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1976
- Food of the Gods; The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge; Terence McKenna, Bantam Books, NY, 1992
- Omni Magazine; Miles Herkenham, August 1989
- Marihuana, the Forbidden Medicine; L. Grinspoon and J. Bakalar, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993
- The Emperor Wears no Clothes; Jack Herer, HEMP Publishing, California, 1993
- An idea first suggested by hemp researcher Lynn Osburn in Green Gold
- Religions of the Ancient Near East; Helmer Ringgren, Westminster Press, Pennsylvania, 1973
- As reprinted in World Religions; From Ancient History to the Present; Geoffrey Parrinder ed., Facts on File, NY, 1971
- Encyclopedia Brittanica; 15th edition, “Pharmacological Cults”, 1978
- Religions of the Ancient Near East; Helmer Ringgren, Westminster Press, Pennsylvania, 1973
- Licit and Illicit Drugs, The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Hallucinogens, and Marijuana – Including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol; Edward M. Brecher & the editors of Consumer Reports, Little Brown & Company, Toronto-Boston, 1972
- Cannabis and Culture; Sula Benet, edited by Vera Rubin, The Hague: Moutan, 1975
- Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers; Richards Evans Schultes & Albert Hoffman, Healing Arts Press, Vermont, 1992