The use of cannabis seed as a source of food and oil can be traced back to the very beginnings of civilization. In sixth-century Persia a preparation of cannabis seed was named Sahdanag, meaning Royal Grain. This demonstrates the high regard the ancient Persians held for the nutritious seeds, which came from the same plant which provided them with their spiritual drink, banga.1
Sometime after the Persian Empire took control of the ancient world, the Jews adopted this Persian preparation of cannabis seed and retained its name of Sahadanag. Like their Persian benefactors, the Hebrews already had a long and beneficial relationship with the useful plant, known to them as qaneh-bosm, (the root name for our cannabis).
It has also been suggested that the formerly unidentified Hebrew word, Tzli’q, (Tzaddi, Lamed, Yod, Quoph), makes reference to a Jewish meal of roasted cannabis seeds, which was popular into medieval times and sold by Jews in European markets. (The first part of the name means roasted, the final Quoph is an abbreviation of qaneh).
At the same time as countless Jews and Persians were feasting on “Royal Grain” in the Near East, in the Far Eastern land of China cannabis was celebrated as one of the seven main food grains, and was popularly used up until the sixth century AD in a variety of oriental recipes.2
By the fourteenth century, cannabis had become an important Chinese medicine. A large section of the famous Chinese pharmacopoeia text, the Pen T’sao Kang Mu, was devoted to cannabis seed. In his discussion of cannabis seed as both a food and medicine, compiler Li Shih Chen referred to works from previous authors, dating back centuries before his own time.
According to Li Shih Chen, the Chinese had hybridized cannabis to such an extent that seeds grew as large as garden peas, and was reputed to have been of the highest quality. The ancient text recommended cannabis seed for everything from urinary problems, blood flow, palsy, increasing the amount of mother’s milk for suckling infants, the growth of muscle fiber, both dysentery and constipation, and a variety of other applications.3
In India, according to the legends of Mayhayana Buddhism, Buddha subsisted on a single cannabis seed a day during the six steps of asceticism which led him to enlightenment.4
In modern India, cannabis seed is still eaten by many of India’s poor people. Along with other seeds, it is said to make all vegetables more palatable and complete foods.5
The ancient physician Claudius Galen (130-200 AD) wrote of a cannabis seed dessert that was popular with the Romans. In this case the preparation likely included the whole flowering tops, as it was reported to leave the guests feeling warm and elated.
A century or so earlier the Roman historian Pliny (23-79 AD) recorded cannabis seed oil’s use in the extraction of “worms from the ears, or any insect which may have entered them.” (Pliny likely refers to the common earache, which was believed to have been caused by burrowing parasitic worms.) Cannabis seeds were also believed to be beneficial in the treatment of gout and other maladies.
In medieval Europe, cannabis seed became a key ingredient in the forerunner of the modern medicinal pill, as well as a key ingredient in a number of therapeutic applications. Many complex recipes included cannabis seeds, including the exotically titled “Pelotus of Antioch” (the pellet or pill of Antioch). It was also used as part of salve for the dressing of wounds, and in a variety of ointments, salves and plasters.
The well known medieval nun and poet Hildegard of Bingen recommended cannabis seed for the relief of pain in her Physica.
Cannabis was commonly used in English medicinal recipes of the 14th and 15th centuries, and records of the St John the Baptist Hospital in Winchester report a whopping 36 gallons of seed being purchased “for the use of the sick.”6
In his still popular and in print Complete Herbal, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) wrote that a preparation of cannabis seeds was used to ease the suffering colic, in the treatment of certain bowel problems and to stop “bleeding at the mouth, nose and other places.”
The 1794 edition of the Edinburgh New Dispensatory referred to an emulsion of hemp seed oil in milk that was given as treatment for venereal disease and as a cough remedy.
Porridges, soups and gruel
In medieval Europe, many porridges, soups and gruels contained cannabis seed and some monks were required to eat hemp seed dishes three times a day.7
A soup made from hemp seeds called semientiatka is eaten ritually on Christmas Eve in Poland and Lithuania. In Latvia and Ukraine a similar meal is eaten in the celebration of Three King’s Day, possibly a cultural remembrance of the Persian King’s Grain.2
In South Africa, Suto women not only burn cannabis flowers as an aid in childbirth, after the baby is born they also grind up the seeds with bread or mealie pap and give it to children when they are being weaned.8
In this last aspect, the Suto women may have instinctively tapped into the fact that hemp seed contains rare gamma linoleic acid, a substance found in human mother’s milk and few other sources.
Food, paint, varnish
In the first half of the twentieth century, one of the few sane voices that spoke out against the de-hemping of America was Ralph Loziers of the National Oil Seed Institute. In 1937, Loziers testified to the unhearing bigots of the US Marijuana Tax Act committee that “hemp seed? is used in all the Oriental nations and also in a part of Russia as food. It is grown in their fields and used as oatmeal. Millions of people every day are using hemp in the orient as food. They have been doing that for many generations, especially in periods of famine?”
As Loziers noted, it wasn’t just the possibilities of an important food industry which would be squashed by the Marijuana Tax Act, but also the paint and varnish industry would be greatly affected, as cannabis seed oil was a valuable drying agent. In the two years prior to the installation of the Tax Act, 179 million pounds of cannabis seed had been imported into the US for this purpose alone.
Nature’s perfect food
With the hemp seed’s long-standing relationship with humanity, it is interesting to learn that modern science has revealed that they contain all the essential amino acids and essential fatty acids necessary for human life, as well as a rare protein known as globule edestins, which are very similar to the globulin found in human blood plasma. Because of this, cannabis seed has been touted by some as “Nature’s perfect food for humanity”.
Four short years after the Marijuana Tax Act passed in the US, a researcher writing for a 1941 edition of Science lamented the loss of access to the cannabis seed’s rare and important globule edistins. “Passage of the Marijuana Law of 1937 has placed restrictions upon trade in hempseed that, in effect, amount to prohibition? It seems clear that the long and important career of the protein is coming to a close in the United States.”
Still, research continued elsewhere, and in 1955 the Czechoslovakian Tubercular Nutrition Study concluded that cannabis seed was “the only food that can successfully treat the consumptive disease tuberculosis, in which the nutritive processes are impaired and the body wastes away.”5
Hemp seeds contain the most balanced and richest natural single source of essential oils for human consumption. The EFA’s not only help to restore wasting bodies, but also improve damaged immune systems, so it is not so surprising that modern researchers have studied them in relationship to the modern immune attacking AIDS.9
Hemp seed salmon?
With the advent of Canada’s new hemp industry, it is interesting to note that in the future, the biggest consumer of the seed may not be humans, but livestock, and more curiously fish! Cannabis seed cake, the byproduct of pressed seed oil, already has a long history as animal feed, and it has been estimated that it could provide an almost complete diet for domesticated animals, birds, and much livestock.
Research has also been done in the aquaculture industry, into using cannabis seed in the feed of carp and farm-salmon. Interestingly, salmon are rich in EFA’s, just like cannabis seed.
Currently, a common additive in farm salmon feed is flaxseed, sometimes up to 50%. Perhaps a legal hemp industry will see a change in commercial fish farm food recipes, as well as the human diet.
Chris Bennet is the author of Green Gold, the History of Marijuana and Religion, and the upcoming Sex, Drugs and Violence in the Bible. With his partner Tracy Chester he founded Mama Indica’s Hemp Seed Treats in 1991, now distributed across North America.
1 Low, Immanuel; Die Flora Der Juden, (Georg Olms Verlagsbuch handlung Hildesheim 1967; originally published as Flora der Juden in 1926). The English interpetation of Low’s work concerning cannabis was provided to the author by Sabina Hotz.
2 Abel, Ernest, MARIHUANA, THE FIRST TWELVE THOUSAND YEARS, (Phenum Press 1980).
3 Jones, Kenneth, NUTRITIONAL AND MEDICINAL GUIDE TO HEMP SEED, (Rainforest Botanical Laboratory 1995).
4 Schultz. Richard & Hoffman, Albert, Plants of the gods: origin of hallucinogenic use, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
5 Robinson, Rowan, THE GREAT BOOK OF HEMP, (Park Street Press 1996)
6 SHARP 1989, Soutra Hospital Archaeoethuopharmacological Research Project: The Third Report on Researches into the Medieval Hospital at Soutra, ISBN 0 9511 888 2 8
7 Herer, Jack, THE EMPEROR WEARS NO CLOTHES, (Queen of Clubs, 1985).
8 Ames, F., MD. A Clinical and Metabolic Study of Acute Intoxication with Cannabis Sativa…?(1958). In the MARIJUANA MEDICAL PAPERS, Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D., (Medi-Comp Press, 1973)
9 (Eidlman, M.D., Hamilton, ED.D, Ph.D 1992)