Cannabis the Once and Future Tree of Life

CANNABIS CULTURE – A fascinating current archeological theory proposes that a variety of ancient depictions of vegetation as the “Tree of Life” are ancient illustrations identifying cannabis use as an ancient entheogen.  Interestingly, this is a connection I myself first proposed in my 2001 book, Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible.

More recently  Diana Stein, a British archeologist, has suggested that the ancient Mesopotamian Tree of Life images are likely related to cannabis. In two articles, ‘Winged Disks and Sacred Trees at Nuzi: An Altered Perspective on Two Imperial Motifs‘ (2009) and ‘The Role of Stimulants in Early Near Eastern Society: Insights through Artifacts and Texts’ (2017) Stein has made the suggestion that, early depictions of sacred tree flanked by Goats and other creatures may identify cannabis

In common with the cannabis plant’s original habitat, the tree on Proto-Elamite, Nuzi, and Middle Assyrian seals grows in the mountains (fig. 10a–c and f, fig. 18a–b). The Proto-Elamite trees are often short and have a thin stem with irregular branches like cannabis seedlings (fig. 10a and fig. 11). Proto- Elamite, Akkadian and Late Bronze Age examples can be round (fig. 18a–b, fig. 19c–d) or conical like certain cannabis varieties (fig. 10b and fig. 12). Others resemble flowering shoots (fig. 13), a single leaf (fig. 14), or an individual blade (fig. 15). The clusters of flowers that hang from flowering male plants may be rendered schematically as hanging bulbs or volutes on trees from Nuzi (fig. 16 and fig. 17a–c).(Stein, 2009)

She goes on to note that the sacred tree of these earlier images, was adapted into later more refined Assyrian images of the Tree of life, and still retained their sacred association with cannabis.

…[I]t seems unlikely that the sacred tree motif, a central feature in the state iconography of the Assyrian empire, represents the date palm, [a common hypothesis]  a quintessentially southern species that does not grow north of Samarra. By the first millennium BCE, the goats, the hunters, and the worshippers, who had flanked the sacred tree and the Qunnabu, the probable Assyrian word for cannabis, is attested in texts of the first millennium BCE. It occurs in a Neo-Assyrian recipe for perfume, and a contemporary letter refers to its use in ritual contexts.

A later Neo-Babylonian text records the delivery of large quantities of qunnabu to the great temple of Eanna and Ebabbar, and there are recipes in which hemp is an ingredient of aromatic oil used for cultic purposes.So cannabis was available in Mesopotamia during the sixth century BCE at the time when the Hebrew Bible was compiled in Babylon. There are no laws or records of court cases concerning the misuse of cannabis or of any other psychotropic plant. But given the central role of magic and divination in everyday Mesopotamian life,it is conceivable that those who could not afford the services of the court diviner, prophet, or magician turned to other methods or mediums. The use of drugs in urban contexts without the traditional ritual constraints of tribal societies not only poses a threat to organized religion, it also raises the long-standing controversy over the religious potentialities of psychedelic drugs. Do drugs like LSD reproduce the same state of timeless bliss as aesthetic practices, notably meditation, as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and others famously claimed in the 1950s to 1970s?  I suggest that this ongoing debate lies at the heart of Genesis 3, and that the fruit tree described by Eve as a source of beauty, food, and knowledge was, in fact, a potent but dangerous source of enlightenment. If that is the case, the authors of the story, in common with leaders of most established religions, take the stand that knowledge of the spiritual kind cannot or should not be attained by means of hallucinogens. (Stein, 2009)winged disk on provincial seals of the past, are replaced by the king, and these two familiar symbols are modified once again, this time perhaps to reflect the king’s own image as a means toward enlightenment as well as enlightenment itself. (Stein, 2009)

Image – Assyrian Tree of Life with the King

Stein’s research has garnered attention as of late, through new interest in the role of psychoactive substances that has been generated by recent studies of residues in ancient Near eastern artifacts that  reveal that psychoactive substances such as cannabis and opium, were used ritually in ancient times.

Interestingly, independently I came to almost identical conclusions about these ancient sacred tree images in my 2001 book, Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible :

A religious symbol which undoubtedly comes from the ancient east is the Tree of Life. This is found in some of the earliest Sumerian art, and continues throughout Mesopotamian history, being very prominent in the Assyrian friezes of the first millennium B.C. The mythological conception of the Tree of Life is also found in Genesis iii:22.(Saggs 1962).

Like the potential entheogenic references to the Tree of Knowledge, the original Sumerian word for the Tree of Life contained etymological references to intoxicate. “In Sumerian the words for ‘live’ and ‘intoxicate’ are the same, TIN, and the ‘tree of life’, GEShTIN, is the ‘vine'”(Allegro 1970).  The Hebrew word used for life, (as in the Tree of Life), ‘chay’, has more to do with enlivening, fresh, or merriment, and the continued fecundity of nature rather than personal immortalization.

In his discussion of the Eden mythology, Harold Bloom points out and questions that “Everything depends upon those two trees, of life and of knowing good and bad, or are they after all only one tree? Pragmatically they are, since only the tree of knowing good and bad is involved in the catastrophe, and also is J’s own invention. The Tree of Life is prevalent in the literature of the ancient Middle East, and I suspect that J interpolated this traditional tree into…[the]text as an interpretive afterthought”(Bloom 1990). A view that has has been held by other scholars;

“The principle of mythic dissociation, by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in the Bible is expressed in a dissociation of the Tree of knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both of Europe and of the Orient, the Tree of knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life, and, moreover, still accessible to man.”(Campbell 1964)


Fig 1: The Basalt Stela of King Essarhaddon.

….An ancient world symbol for the tree-of-life can be found in the Basalt stela of Assyrian king Esarhaddon, in the form of the elaborate looking plant directly behind the ancient monarch (fig-1). In Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995) we used this for the depiction in the upper level where “king Esarhaddon stands before an elaborate incense chamber with smoking…censer pictured in cut-away in the lower portion of the chamber, the upper chamber is tent-like with an opening,” (Bennett et. al. 1995). The tent was used to hold the smoke of cannabis incense, which the king would inhale by placing his head inside of it; a common means of marijuana inhalation in the ancient world, and an act of worship. “Cannabis as an incense was burned in the temples of Assyria and Babylon ‘because its aroma was pleasing to the Gods.'” (Benet 1975) An ancient Babylonian inscription reads: “The glorious gods smell the incense, noble food of heaven; pure wine, which no hand has touched do they enjoy”. In Babylonian religious rites, “Inspiration was… derived… by burning incense, which, if we follow evidence obtained elsewhere, induced a prophetic trance. The gods were also invoked by incense.”(Mackenzie 1915).

“The Chaldean Magus used artificial means, intoxicating drugs for instance, in order to attain to this state of excitement, for it was only then that he succeeded, so to speak, in deifying himself, and received the homage of genii and spirits of nature…This doctrine prevailed also in the Accadian (Babylonian) magic books. This furnishes an affinity of conceptions and beliefs which is of great importance… These incantations, most of which go back to the deepest antiquity, were gathered in collections such as those we have fragments of… Acts of purification and mysterious rituals increased the power of the incantations… Among these mysterious rituals must be counted the use of enchanted potions… which undoubtedly contained drugs that were medically effective.”(Lenormant 1874).

In the second quarter of the first millennium B.C., the “word qunnabu (qunapy, qunubu, qunbu) begins to turn up as for a source of oil, fiber and medicine”(Barber 1989). In our own time, numerous scholars have come to acknowledge qunubu as an early reference to cannabis. “It is said that the Assyrians used hemp as incense in the seventh and eighth century before Christ and called it ‘Qunubu'”( Schultes & Hoffman 1979).

Further, the pioneering research of etymologist Sula Benet led to the claim that “The ritual use of hemp as well as the name, cannabis… originated in the Ancient Near East”(Benet 1975)….This ancient Assyrian name qu-nu-bu, is the phonetic equivalent of the ancient Hebrew name for hemp, quaneh-bosm,  [also translated as Kaneh Bosm]and the strong connections between the two can be seen in the similar ways both Mesopotamian and Hebrew worshippers utilized the plant.

In a letter written in 680 BC to the mother of the aforementioned king Esarhaddon, reference is made to qu-nu-bu, that give clear indications as to what substance was burning in the king’s incense tent. In response to king Esarhaddon’s mother’s question as to “What is used in the sacred rites”, a high priest named Neralsharrani responded that “the main items…. for the rites are fine oil, water, honey, oderous plants (and) hemp [qunubu]”. As was mentioned, the symbol behind king Esarhaddon, which also appears in numerous other depictions, has “in modern literature on the subject…[,been] often described as the tree of life…but unfortunately no texts are known which describe in more detail the contents of these pictures”(Ringgren 1973).

Likewise, not one single item from all of the existing ancient pictorial inscriptions has ever been suggested as an illustration of the ancient qunubu, which by all accounts played a very important role in both life and worship in the ancient Near East, particularly in the Sacred Rites, which likely are what the aforementioned inscriptions represent. This study proposes that the unidentified symbol of the sacred plant, and the undepicted plant for the word qunubu, are in fact a word and picture that describe the same thing— Cannabis, which was grown and revered as the Tree of Life in the ancient Near East.

The reason that this connection has not been noted before may be due to the fact that in the Ancient Near East matters involving religious and technical methods were considered closely guarded secrets. Professor H.W.F. Saggs noted that texts dealing with such matters ended with instructions such as; “Let the initiate show the initiate; the non-initiate shall not see it. It belongs to the tabooed things of the great gods”. Such holy knowledge was either only passed along verbally and not committed to writing, or “were written in a manner which was deliberately obscure…”(Saggs 1969). The image of the Tree of Life and its divine association with the king, as well as the use of cannabis as an holy incense and entheogen both fall into such a category

Amongst the first to connect the sacred and unnamed tree in Assyrian art with the mythical Tree of Life, was Sir A.H.Layard, who described and commented on the symbol over a century and a half ago. “I recognized in it the holy tree, or tree of life, so universally adored at the remotest period in the East, and which was preserved in the religious systems of the Persians to the final overthrow of their Empire…. The flowers were formed by seven petals”(Layard 1856) The “seven petals”, referred to by Layard, can be seen to be more likely stylized depictions of the seven distinct spears of the cannabis leaves, just as the pine cone like objects held by the figures often surrounding the plant, represent the pine cone like buds of the sacred qunubu.(See Fig. 2)


Fig 2

Behind the sacred tree and Esarhaddon in fig. 1, sits the Bull of Creation, while below are the early tools of ancient agriculture, perhaps indicating an intimate connection between the three symbols….

As the oldest known piece of woven fiber was made from hemp, along with the fact that the agricultural history of cannabis, extends far-back beyond recorded history, there has been speculation cannabis was indeed the first crop of ancient man. Cannabis’ hybridizing, whether for narcotic or fiber purposes, is certainly known to predate recorded history. Indeed, with its useful fiber, nutritious seeds, and fragrant incense it could have easily been conceived of as a Tree of Life in the ancient world. In line with this view, are the words of the feminist Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky, which would seem to indicate an intimate connection between weaving and the forbidden tree, possibly hinting at a candidate offering both entheogenic and fibrous properties.

The coming of knowledge is stated very simply: “the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked”, a category they had not perceived in their childlike innocence, but, in addition, they are now able to sew themselves loincloths out of the available fig leaves. Somehow the knowledge of this skill of sewing, the beginnings of cultural knowledge, has come with the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of all things.(Frymer-Kensky 1992).

As Harvard University Professor of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes has commented: “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 the 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.” We can be sure that such effects were attributed to the plant by its ancient Near Eastern partakers, just as they have been by partakers of the plant the world over.


Fig.3 Basalt Stela of King Assurbanipal and the Tree of Life

Engravings from the time of Assurbanipal, another ancient Assyrian king associated with cannabis, also depict the sacred tree shown in the basalt of his father, king Esarhaddon. Professor Widengren postulates that every temple had a holy grove, or garden with a Tree of Life that was taken care of by the king, who functioned as a ‘master-gardener’. By watering and caring for the Tree of Life, the king gained power over life (Widengren 1951). As a scribe of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal recorded in 650 B.C.: “We were dead dogs, but our lord the king gave us life by placing the herb of life beneath our noses,” (Ringgren 1973). This last points to an incense, and by its name, the “herb of life”, we can easily visualize it as the plant depicted in the ancient stone engravings. Interestingly, we find that Assurbanipal’s ancient cunieform library contained recipes for hashish incense which “are generally regarded as copies of much older texts” and this archeological evidence “serves to project the origins of hashish back to the earliest beginnings of history.”.(Walton 1972)

Generally the pine cone like buds, held by the birdmen have been associated with “pollination” of the sacred Tree, however in other depictions they are being used in association with the King in the same manner. What we suggested in Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible, is that these pinecones were stylized buds being collected from the Sacred Tree by the birdmen (themselves representing costumed winged shaman who could travel between worlds), and this is why they carry woven baskets,  and then its power transferred to the King. Moreover, we know that cannabis was used in Assyrian rituals that revolved around these images. Particularly in association with a god known variously as Ea, Enki, Oannes and other names, and whom more than  a few researchers have suggested was the prototype for Eden’s Serpent, and his mythology for other aspects of the myth.

…the features of Ea’s idealistic homeland Dilmun “may underlie the Hebrew accounts of Paradise.”(Hooke 1963). Reminiscent of the serpents role in the Garden of Eden story, the myth of Dilmun records how the goddess Ninhursag “makes eight plants spring up…in spite of a prohibition Enki eats all eight of them….There are obviously certain similarities between this myth and the biblical picture of paradise…the eating of the forbidden plants is distantly reminiscent of the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden.”(Rinngren 1973). In another tale, Enki angers the goddess mother of mankind and like the devil the serpent is said to represent, he is “exiled from the earth to the abyss.”(Campbell 1962).

Ea\En-ki\Oannes, is depicted as a fish-man, having his roots in the living-water, but more importantly, he has connections with a sacred tree similar to that which is described in the Garden of Eden. In the ancient Sumerian texts, Ea\Enki\Oannes is described as being wise like the biblical serpent and as he “who knows the plant of life and the water of life.”(Ringgren 1973). Professor Mackenzie, also noted this in 1915, commenting that “In a fragmentary Babylonian charm there is a reference to a sacred tree or bush at Eridu [Eridu is thought to be the cradle of Sumerian civilization]. Professor Sayce has suggested that it is the Biblical ‘Tree of Life’ in the Garden of Eden… It may be that Ea’s sacred bush or tree is a survival of tree and water worship.”(Mackenzie 1915):

“Ea is…the god of wisdom, ‘the king of wisdom, who creates understanding’, ‘the experienced one (apkallu) among the gods’, ‘he who knows everything that has a name’. It is he who gives the king wisdom. He is also the god of the art of incantation. In his temple ‘the house of Apsu’ in Eridu there was a notable tree, kiskanu, whose branches were used in ritual sprinklings…The incantation priest was the representative of Ea.” (Ringgren 1973)

R. Campbell Thompson, of the British Museum, disagreed with Sayce’s theory, mentioned above, that the kiskanu was the original Tree of Life. This difference was based on what Thompson saw as Sayce’s misinterpretation of the etymological evidence. However the Sumerian name of the tree, kiskanu, which would seem to be at the base of the disagreement between the two scholars, serves as our connection between the Tree of Life and cannabis. The kiskanu tree “was the central point of various rites. A holy grove in the temple is…mentioned.” (Ringgren 1973). The second part of the name of this notable tree, kis-kanu has phonetic similarities with the early names for cannabis, through the linguistic root an, “which is found in various cannabis related words”(Abel 1980); such as the ancient Sanskrit name for hemp kana, or kene, Persian canna,… [and other variations]…

That the kiskanu tree was used in ritual sprinklings such as those indicated in the ancient depictions of the Tree of Life and it’s eagle headed genies, is of particular interest—For…  [it has long been suggested that ]the ancient Hebrews utilized kaneh-bosm (fragrant cane–cannabis, in some biblical passages the single word kaneh is used) as an entheogen in their holy anointing oil, a practice adopted from the Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and other groups from the ancient near east….

In mythology, one of Ea’s servants and adopted “son”, the hero and temple fisherman, Adapa, was referred to as the “ointment priest”, indicating the importance of the rite. The ancient mythology has it that Adapa’s “command was like the command of Ea”. It was the ritual anointing of the priesthood of Ea, that empowered them to act as the god’s representative. Through this shamanic rite they became “he whose ear Enki [Ea] has opened”. Religious scholar John Gray commented upon the Sumerian pantheon’s chief god, Anu’s resentment of Ea’s giving the knowledge of the god’s to a mere human, Adapa,as being “strongly reminiscent of the divine resentment at Adam for presuming to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”(Gray 1969).

A ritual enactment of Ea and Adapa’s relationship was applied to kings, who received their wisdom from Ea. Thus, it is not surprising that Ea appears in hymns from both Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon with special reverence, or that the two kings are compared and connected to Ea’s anointing priest, Adapa. The mythology surrounding the god also indicates that he could ‘open the ear’ of his initiates if they burned incense to him, indicating a similar psychoactive ingredient to that found in the anointing oil. Likewise it was the ritual anointing of Moses and the Levite priesthood with the sacred cannabis ointment, along with burning the oils and vegetable matter of the plant before the ark of the covenant, which enabled them to speak on behalf of the Lord. (Bennett & McQueen, 2001)

Assyriologist R campbell Thompson noted that the kiskanu tree was quite prevalent as the ancient texts refer to the the “kiskanu, which ‘grows like a forest’ or ‘grove’” (Thompson, 1903). Referring to an incantation text regarding the kiskanu R. Campbell Thompson described:

This document… indicated to the magician, who was about to treat his afflicted patient, that a certain kind of plant or tree, the original which… grew in Eridu, and… contained magical qualities; and acting on this information the magician was directed to make use of a potion of the kiskanu plant or tree on behalf of the said patient. The text actually states the gods themselves made use of this plant to work a miracle of healing, and the implication is that the kiskanu plant was on this occasion of great benefit, it may again be made to perform the healing of a sufferer… provided that suitable words of power were recited… and appropriate ceremonies were performed, before the plant itself was used as a remedy. (Thompson, 1903)

Images from Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible Depicting Ea/Enk/Oannes with the Sacred Tree and images of the woven basket used to collect the pine cone like buds from it. Note the disembodied eye over the tree, an image that has been associated with states of sacred intoxication.

As I noted in Cannabis and the Soma Solution:

In the 19th century George Rawlinson noted of the pine cone like buds from the Assyria Tree of Life, that it is “as though it were the medium of communication between the protector and protected, the instrument by means of which grace and power passed from the genius to the mortal which he had under his care” (Rawlinson, 1881). As Rawlinson’s contemporary Francois Lenormant noted, “Often … it is held under the king’s nose, that he may breathe it” (Lenormant, et al., 1881). A scribe of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal recorded in 650 BC: “We were dead dogs, but our lord the king gave us life by placing the herb of life beneath our noses” (Ringgren, 1973).

 When one reads the full passage regarding the qunnabu reference in the Sacred Rites in relation to the stella with Esarhaddon, the incense tent, Tree of Life, and the sacred ox, their connection is even more cemented, as is the imagery of the woven basket depicted in the other images of the Tree of Life:

“To the queen mother, my ‘lord’: your servant, Nergal-šarrani. Good health to the queen mother, my ‘lord.’ May Nabû and Marduk bless the queen mother, my ‘lord,’ May Tašmetu, whom you revere, take your hands. May you see 1,000 years of kingship for Esarhaddon.”

“As for what the queen mother, my Lord, wrote to me, saying: ‘What is going into the ritual?’ —”

“These are its constituents: sweet-scented oil, wax, sweet-scented fragrance, myrrh, cannabis [ŠEM.ŠEŠ ŠEM.qu-nu-bu], and ṣadīdu-aromatic. [I will] perform it [for a]ll [the … th]at the queen mother com[manded].”

“[On the xth] day, they will perform the whole-offerings: one ox, two white sheep, and a duck.”

“Damqaya, the maid-servant of the queen mother, will not be able to participate in the ritual. (Accordingly,) whomever the queen mother, my ‘lord,’ designates should open the basket and perform the ritual.”

So here we see cannabis, in association with both the sacred ox, or sacrificial “Great Bull that treadest the celestial herbage” in the stella from Esarhaddon, as well as a reference to the “basket” from the other depictions of the Tree of Life, making it clear a connection exists to the images of the sacred tree and cannabis.

It should be remembered that both Stein and I go into much more detail about all this in our work, and there is much more too it than can be presented here. I reached out to Dr. Stein, not to try to take credit for these theories, but out of excitement at the further independent confirmation. In a response she wrote. “The excerpts from your publications make fascinating reading, and I will follow up on some of your references. Yes, we seem to be moving along parallel paths. But whereas you are at liberty to pick and choose between pictures and textual references from different periods and cultures, I am more constrained by the rules of academia and have to explain the methodology and justify the reasoning behind every point I make.” A fair enough point, whereas she is constrained by academia to follow such protocols, I am a freelance researcher who began his own inquiry after a profound religious experience in 1990 where I felt it was revealed to me that cannabis was the Tree of Life of the Bible’s book of Revelation. As well, even the association of the Assyrian Tree of Life images being connected to cannabis was something that I now realize first came to me in a dream….

In the 90s I was in the habit of recording my dreams in a dream diary, although I am right handed I would record my dreams in my left hand, in an attempt to cause a synapses cross over between the right and left brain, that is why the hand writing and drawing are so particularly bad (although I am a messy writer). On April 7th 1994 I recorded the following dream and image:

Remembering that the image drawn was from a memory of a dream, it is a considerably close approximation of the Assyrian images. As well it was found along a river, which is symbolic of consciousness moving through time, a connection possibly indicated in the Book of Revelations reference to “Then he showed me a river of the water of life, [a]clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of [b]the Lamb,  in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations”. Indeed, it was reading those very words in 1990, and the recognition this was a reference to the cannabis plant and its many medical and industrial applications, that set my life course. I have travelled along many houses and read many books, and now it seems we are upon the doors of the University, a symbol of the academic world with this sort of research….. It was actually my own doubt of these experiences that led to my researching the history of cannabis, a subject I have covered in 4 books and dozens of articles. For I figured if there was anything to these revelations I had, then somebody else sometime or somewhere would know as well…   And what I say to you after that nearly 3 decades of study on the subject is, there is a place where science and the spiritual world of Humanity meet, and in that place, you will find the most sacred of earth’s plants growing, and that herb is a revelation in both realms, offering new medicines to heal the sick, ways to change industry so it benefits the planet instead of harming it as well as new ways of perceiving the Human Experience and the Religions of Man, and it is the Universal Spirit’s love letter to you, as well as a sacred gift from our ancestors.  Not surprisingly an increasing amount of spiritually minded cannabis activists have adopted this symbolic analogy, many drawing their own independent conclusions on it,  and have begun to make way for the once and future Tree of Life and the healing of the nations which it offers humanity.