Tradition in India maintains that the gods sent man the Hemp plant so that he might attain delight, courage, and have heightened sexual desires. When nectar or Amrita dropped down from heaven, Cannabis sprouted from it. Another story tells how, when the gods, helped by demons, churned the milk ocean to obtain Amrita, one of the resulting nectars was Cannabis. It was consecrated to Shiva and was [the godess] Indra’s favourite drink. After the churning of the ocean, demons attempted to gain control of Amrita, but the gods were able to prevent this seizure, giving Cannabis the name Vijaya (“victory”) to commemorate their success. Ever since, this plant of the gods has been held in India to bestow supernatural powers on its users.
The partnership of Cannabis and man has existed now probably for ten thousand years – since the discovery of agriculture in the Old World. One of our oldest cultivars, Cannabis has been a five- purpose plant: as a source of hempen fibres; for its oil; for its akenes or “seeds,” consumed by man for food; for its narcotic properties; and therapeutically to treat a wide spectrum of ills in folk medicine and in modern pharmacopoeias.
Mainly because of its various uses, Cannabis has been taken to many regions around the world. Unusual things happen to plants after long association with man and agriculture. They are grown in new and strange environments and often have opportunities to hybridize that are not offered in their native habitats. They escape from cultivation and frequently become aggressive weeds. They may be changed through human selection for characteristics associated with a specific use. Many cultivated plants are so changed from their ancestral typed that it is not possible to unravel their evolutionary history. Such is not the case, however, with Cannabis. Yet, despite its long history as a major crop plant, Cannabis is still characterised more by what is not known about its biology than what is known.
The botanical classification of Cannabis has long been uncertain. Botanists have not agreed on the family to which Cannabis belongs; early investigators put it in the Nettle family (Urticaceae); later it was accommodated in the Fig family (Moraceae); the general trend today is to assign it to a special family, Cannabaceae, in which only Cannabis and Humulus, the genus of Hops, are members. There has even been disagreement as to how many species of Cannabis exist: whether the genus comprises one highly variable species or several distinct species. Evidence now strongly indicates that three species can be recognised: C. indica, C. ruderalia, and C. sativa. These species are distinguished by different growth habits, characters of the akenes, and especially by major differences in structure of the wood. Although all species possess cannabinols, there may possible be significant chemical differences, but the evidence is not yet available.
We cannot known now which of the several uses of Cannabis was earliest. Since plant uses normally proceed from the simpler to the more complex, one might presume that its useful fibers first attracted man’s attention. Indeed remains of hempen fibers have been found in the earliest archaeological sites in the cradles of Asiatic civilisation: evidence of fiber in China dating from 4000 B.C. and hempen rope and thread from Turkestan from 3000 B.C.. Stone beaters for pounding hemp fiber and impressions of hempen cord bakery into pottery have been found in ancient sites in Taiwan. Hempen fabrics have been found in Turkish sites of the late eighth century B.C., and there is a questionable specimen of Hemp in an Egyptian tomb dated between three and four thousand years ago.
The Indian vadas sang of Cannabis as one of the divine nectars, able to give man anything from good health and long life to visions of the gods. The Zend-Avesta of 600 B.C. mentions an intoxicating resin, and the Assyrians used Cannabis as an incense as early as the ninth century B.C..
Inscriptions from the Chou dynasty in China, dated 700-500 B.C., have a “negative” connotation that accompanies the ancient character for Cannabis, Ma, implying its stupefying properties. Since this idea obviously predated writing, the Pen Tsao Ching, written in A.D. 100 but going back to a legendary emperor, Shen-Nung, 2000 B.C., may be taken as evidence that the hallucinogenic properties at very early dates. It was said that Ma-fen (“Hemp fruit”) “if taken to excess, will produce hallucinations [literally, ‘seeing devils’]. If taken over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.” A Taoist priest wrote in the fifth century B.C. that Cannabis was employed by “necromancers, in combination with Ginseng, to set forward time and reveal future events.” In these early periods, use of Cannabis as an hallucinogen was undoubtedly associated with Chinese shamanism, but by the time of European contact 1500 years later, shamanism had fallen into decline, and the use of the plant for inebriation seems to have ceased and had been forgotten. Its value in China then was primarily as a fiber source. There was, however, a continuous record of Hemp cultivation in China from Neolithic times, and it has been suggested that Cannabis may have originated in China, not in central Asia.
About 500 B.C. the Greek writer Herodotus described a marvelous bath of the Scythians, aggressive horsemen who swept out of the Transcaucasus eastward and westward. He reported that “they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined toward one another, and stretching around them woollen plets which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is place upon the ground into which they put a number of red hot stones and then add some Hemp seed … immediately it smokes and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy….”
Only recently, archaeologists have excavated frozen Scythian tombs in central Asia, dated between 500 and 300 B.C., and have found tripods and pelts, braziers and charcoal with remains of Cannabis leaves and fruit. It has generally been accepted that Cannabis originated in central Asia and that it was the Scythians who spread it westward to Europe.
While the Greeks and Romans may not generally have taken Cannabis for inebriation, there are indications that they were aware of the psychoactive effects of the drug. Democritus reported that it was occasionally drunk with wine and myrrh to produce visionary states, and Galen, about A.D. 200, wrote that it was sometimes customary to give Hemp to guests to promote hilarity and enjoyment.
Cannabis arrived in Europe from the north. In classical Greece and Rome, it was not cultivated as a fiber plant. Filter for ropes and sails, however, was available to the Romans from Gaul as early as the third century B.C.. The Roman writer Lucilius mentioned it in 120 B.C.. Pliny the Elder outlined the preparation and grades of hempen fibers in the first century A.D., and hempen rope was found in a Roman site in England dated A.D. 140-180. Whether the Vikings used Hemp rope or not is not known, but palynological evidence indicates that Hemp cultivation had a tremendous increment in England from the early Anglo-Saxon period to late Saxon and Norman times – from 400 to 1100.
Henry VIII fostered the cultivation of Hemp in England. The maritime supremacy of England during Elizabethan times greatly increased the demand. Hemp cultivation began in the British colonies in the New World: first in Canada in 1606, then in Virginia in 1611; the Pilgrims took the crop to New England in 1632. In pre-Revolutionary North America, Hemp was employed even for making work clothes. Hemp was introduced quite independently into Spanish colonies in America: Chile, 1545; Peru, 1554.
There is no doubt that hempen fiber production represents an early use of Cannabis, but perhaps consumption of its edible akenes as food predated the discovery of the useful fiber. These akenes are very nutritious, and it is difficult to imagine that early man, constantly searching for food, would have missed this opportunity. Archaeological finds of Hemp akenes in Germany, dated with reservation at 500 B.C., indicate the nutritional use of these plant products. From early times to the present, Hemp akenes have been used as food in eastern Europe, and in the United States as a major ingredient of bird food.
The folk-medicinal value of Hemp – frequently indistinguishable from its hallucinogenic properties – may even be its earliest role as an economic plant. The earliest record of the medicinal use of the plant is that of the Chinese emperor herbalist Shen Nung who, five thousand years ago, recommended Cannabis for malaria, beri-beri, constipation, rheumatic pains, absent-mindedness, and female disorders. Hoa-Glio, another ancient Chinese herbalist, recommended a mixture of Hemp resin and wine as an analgesic during surgery.
It was in ancient India that this “gift of the gods” founded excessive use in folk medicine. It was believed to quicken the mind, prolong life, improve judgement, lower fevers, induce sleep, cure dysentery. Because of its psychoactive properties it was more highly valued than medicines with only physical activity. Several systems of Indian medicine esteemed Cannabis. The medical work Sushruta claimed that it cured leprosy. The Bharaprakasha of about A.D. 1600 described it as antiphlegmatic, digestive, bile affecting, pungent, and astringent, prescribing it to stimulate the appetite, improve digestion, and better the voice. The spectrum of medicinal uses in India covered control of dandruff and relief of headache, mania, insomnia, venereal disease, whooping cough, earaches, and tuberculosis!
The fame of Cannabis as a medicine spread with the plant. In parts of Africa, it was valued in treating dysentery, malaria, anthrax, and fevers. Even today the Hottentots and Mfengu claim its efficacy in treating snake bites, and Sotho women induce partial stupefaction by smoking Hemp before childbirth.
Although Cannabis seems not to have been employed in medieval Europe as an hallucinogen, it was highly valued in medicine and its therapeutic uses can be traced back to early classical physicians such as Diosco-rides and Galen. Medieval herbalists distinguished “manured hempe” (cultivated) from “bastard hempe” (weedy), recommending the latter “against nodes and wennes and other hard tumors,” the former for a host of uses from curing cough to jaundice. They cautioned, however, that in excess it might cause sterility, that “it drieth up… the seeds of generation” in men “and the milke of women’s breasts.” An interesting use in the sixteenth century – source of the name Angler’s Weed in England – was locally important: “poured into the holes of earthwormes [it] will draw them forth and… fishermen and anglers have used this feate to baite their hooks.”
The value of Cannabis in folk medicine has clearly been closely tied with its euphoric and hallucinogenic properties, knowledge of which may be as old as its use as a source of fibre. Primitive man, trying all sorts of plant materials as food, must have known the ecstatic hallucinatory effects of Hemp, and intoxication introducing him to an other-worldly plane leading to religious beliefs. Thus the plant early was viewed as a special gift of the gods, a sacred medium for communion with the spirit world. Although Cannabis today is the most widely employed of the hallucinogens, its use purely as a narcotic, except in Asia, appears not to be ancient. In classical times it euphoric properties were, however, recognised. In Thebes, Hemp was made into a drink said to have opium-like properties.
Galen reported that cakes with Hemp, if eaten to excess, were intoxicating. The use as an inebriant seems to have been spread east and west by barbarian hordes of central Asia, especially the Scythians, who had a profound cultural influence on early Greece and eastern Europe. And knowledge of the intoxicating effects of Hemp goes far back in Indian history, as indicated by the deep mythological and spiritual beliefs about the plant. One preparation, Bhang, was so sacred that it was thought to deter evil, bring luck, and cleanse man of sin. Those treading upon the leaves of this holy plant would suffer harm or disaster, and sacred oaths were sealed over Hemp. The favourite drink of Indra, god of the firmament, was made from Cannabis, and the Hindu god Shiva commanded that the word Bhangi must be chanted repeatedly during sowing, weeding, and harvesting of the holy plant. Knowledge and use of the intoxicating properties eventually spread to Asia Minor. Hemp was employed as an incense in Assyria in the first millennium B.C., suggesting its use as an inebriant. While there is no direct mention of Hemp in the Bible, several obscure passages may refer tangentially to the effects of Cannabis resin or Hashish.
It is perhaps in the Himalayas of India and the Tibetan plateau that Cannabis preparations assumed their greatest hallucinogenic importance in religious contexts. Bhang is a mild preparation: dried leaves or flowering shoots are pounded with spices into a paste and consumed as candy – known as maajun – or in tea form. Ganja is made from the resin-rich dried pistillate flowering tops of cultivated plants which are pressed into a compacted mass and kept under pressure for several days to induce chemical changes; most Ganja is smoked, often with Tobacco. Charas consists of the resin itself, a brownish mass which is employed generally in smoking mixtures.
The Tibetans considered Cannabis sacred. A Mahayana Buddhist tradition maintains that during the six steps of asceticism leading to his enlightenment, Buddha lived on one Hemp seed a day. He is often depicted with “Soma leaves” in his begging bowl and the mysterious god-narcotic Soma has occasionally been identified with Hemp. In Tantric Buddhism of the Himalayas of Tibet, Cannabis plays a very significant role in the meditative ritual used to facilitate deep meditation and heighten awareness. Both medicinal and recreational secular use of Hemp is likewise so common now in this region that the plant is taken for granted as an everyday necessity.
Folklore maintians that the use of Hemp was introduced to Persia during the reign of Khursu (A.D. 531-579), but it is known that the Assyrians used Hemp as an incense during the first millennium B.C..
Although at first prohibited among islamic peoples, Hashish spread widely west throughout Asia Minor. In 1378, authorities tried to extirpate Hemp from Arabian territory by the imposition of harsh punishments. As early as 1271, the eating of Hemp was so well known that Marco Polo described its consumption in the secret order of Hashishins, who used the narcotic to experience the rewards in store for them in the afterlife.
Cannabis extended early and widely from Asia Minor into Africa, partly under the pressure of Islamic influence, but the use of Hemp transcends Mohammedan use. It is widely believed that Hemp was introduced also with slaves from Malaya. Commonly known in Africa as Kif or Dagga, the plant has entered into primitive native cultures in social and religious contexts. The Hottentots, Bushmen, and Kaffirs used Hemp for centuries as a medicine and as an intoxicant. In an ancient tribal ceremony in the Zambesi Valley, participants inhaled vapours from a pile of smouldering Hemp; later, reed tubes and pipes were employed, and the plant material was burned on an altar. The Kasai tribes of the Congo have revived an old Riamba cult in which Hemp, replacing ancient fetishes and symbols, was elevated to a god – a protector against physical and spiritual harm. Treaties are sealed with puffs of smoke from calabash pipes. Hemp-smoking and Hashish-snuffing cults exist in many parts of east Africa, especially near Lake Victoria.
Hemp has spread to many areas of the New World, but with few exceptions the plant has not penetrated significantly into many native American religious beliefs and ceremonies. There are, however, exceptions such as its use under the name Rosa Maria, by the Tepecano Indians of northwest Mexico who occasionally employ Hemp when Peyote is not available. It has recently been learned that Indians in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Hidalgo, and Puebla practice a communal curing ceremony with a plant called Santa Rosa, identified as Cannabis sativa, which is considered both a plant and a sacred intercessor with the Virgin. Although the ceremony is based mainly on Christian elements, the plant is worshipped as an earth deity and is thought to be alive and to represent a part of the heart of God. The participants in this cult believe that the plant can be dangerous and that it can assume the form of a man’s soul, make him ill, enrage him, and even cause death.
Sixty years ago, when Mexican labourers introduced the smoking of Marihuana to the United States, it spread across the south, and by the 1920s, its use was established in New Orleans, confined primarily among the poor and minority groups. The continued spread of the custom in the United States and Europe has resulted in a still unresolved controversy.
Cannabis sativa was officially in the United States Pharmacopoeia until 1937, recommended for a wide variety of disorders, especially as a mild sedative. It is no longer an official drug, although research in the medical potential of some of the cannabinolic constituents or their semi-synthetic analogues is at present very active, particularly in relation to the side-effects of cancer therapy.
The psychoactive effects of Cannabis preparations vary widely, depending on dosage, the preparation and the type of plant used, the method of administration, personality of the user, and social and cultural background. Perhaps the most frequent characteristic is a dreamy state. Long forgotten events are often recalled and thoughts occur in unrelated sequences. Perception of time, and occasionally of space, is altered. Visual and auditory hallucinations follow the use of large doses. Euphoria, excitement, inner happiness – often with hilarity and laughter – are typical. In some cases, a final mood of depression may be experienced. While behaviour is sometimes impulsive, violence or aggression is seldom induced.
In relatively recent years, the use of Cannabis as an intoxicant has spread widely in Western society –
especially in the United States and Europe – and has caused apprehension in law-making and law-
enforcing circles and has created social and health problems. There is still little, if any, agreement on
the magnitude of these problems or on their solution. Opinion appears to be pulled in two directions:
that the use of Cannabis is an extreme social, moral, and health danger that must be stamped out, or
that it is an innocuous, pleasant pastime that should be legalised. It may be some time before all of the
truths concerning the use in our times and society of this ancient drug are fully known. Since an
understanding of the history and attitudes of peoples who have long used the plant may play a part in
furthering our handling of the situation in modern society, it behooves us to consider the role of
Cannabis in man’s past and to learn what lessons it can teach us: whether to maintain wise restraint in
our urbanised, industrialised life or to free it for general use. For it appears that Cannabis may be with
us for a long time.