Spreading the Seed
Wherever the people of the ancient world roamed, they carried with them the seeds of the precious cannabis plant. From China in the east to the Rhone Valley in the west, the seeds were spread. Cold weather, hot weather, wet or dry, fertile soil or barren, the seeds were not to be denied. Except in India and China, most of the ancient world was completely ignorant of the intoxicating properties of the plant. Ancient European legends and herbals had little to say regarding its peculiar psychological effects. If Europeans saw any magic in cannabis, it was its fibers, not its intoxicating power that aroused their awe and admiration. Farther to the south, however, cannabis eventually inspired sentiments of a different kind in a people who challenged Europe for world domination.
A black ship of the Achaeans, painted by David Claudon, is based on an ancient Greek pottery painting. A major structure is the Library of Celsus that once contained hundreds of scrolls, many of hemp. Today, the two-storey front facade and part of the other walls remain. The farthest west hemp fibers have ever been found in the ancient world is Turkey. Archaeologists who sifted through artifacts dating back to the time of the Phrygians (a tribe of Aryans who invaded that country around 1000 B.C.) unearthed pieces of fabric containing hemp fibers in the debris around Gordion, an ancient city located near present-day Ankara.
Although the Scythians had contacts with the people of Babylonia, who lived to the west of the Phrygians, no hemp fiber or definite mention of hemp (Cannabis sativa) to the west of Turkey can be found until the time of the Greeks. In the ruins of El Amarna, the city of Akhenaton (the Pharaoh who tried to introduce monotheism to ancient Egypt), archaeologists found a “three ply hemp cord” in the hole of a stone and a large mat bound with “hemp cords”, but unfortunately they did not specify the type of hemp. Many different bast fibers were called hemp and no one can be certain that the fibers at El Amarna are cannabis, especially since Deccan hemp (Hibiscus cannabinus) grows in Egypt.
The earliest unmistakable reference to cannabis in Egypt does not occur until the third century A.D., when the Roman emperor Aurelian imposed a tax on Egyptian cannabis. Even then, however, there was very little of the fiber in Egypt. While the ancient Greeks remained ignorant of the intoxicating properties of the cannabis plant, they were not slow to appreciate the durability and strength of its fiber. As early as the sixth century B.C., Greek merchants whose Milesian colonies served as a middle station between mainland Greece and the eastern coast of Asia Minor, had been carrying on a lucrative business transporting cannabis fiber to the ports along the Aegean.
The Thracians, a Greek-speaking people living in the Balkans who were likely more closely related to the Scythians than to the Greeks, were especially adept at working hemp. Writing around 450 B.C., Herodotus says of their clothes that they “were so like linen that none but a very experienced could tell whether they were of hemp or flax; one who had never seen hemp would certainly suppose them to be linen.”
Cannabis Moves West
Some garments, particularly undergarments, were made of linen, hemp, or nettlecloth, and many such smocks and the occasional coat have been found. Most of Rome’s hemp came from Babylonia. The city of Sura was particularly renowned for its hempen ropes. Other cities such as Colchis, Cyzicus, Alabanda, Mylasa, and Ephesus, which had been leading producers during the Greek empire, continued to produce and export hemp as their chief product under the Romans. Most Romans, however, had little familiarity with cannabis seed. Very little hemp was raised in Italy. If anything, the Romans were interested in the plant because of its fiber, for with good strong fiber, Rome could outfit its expanding navy and keep it at sea longer.
Rome, Greece, Babylonia, Palestine, and Egypt
India was not the only country to be invaded by the Aryans. By 1500 B.C., Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece had been overrun and the Aryans were establishing permanent settlements as far west as France and Germany. Although the people who settled in these countries eventually developed into different nationalities, with different customs and traditions, their common Aryan ancestry can still be traced in their languages which collectively are called Indo-European.
For example, the linguistic root ‘an’, which is found in various cannabis-related words, can be found in French in the word ‘chanvre’ and in the German ‘hanf’. Our own word cannabis is taken directly from the Greek, which in turn is taken from ‘canna’, an early Sanskrit term.
The earliest reference to cannabis among the Jews actually does not occur until the early Middle Ages when the first unmistakable mention of it is found in the Talmud. The Jews of Talmudic times were particularly concerned about certain precepts which prohibited the mingling of heterogeneous substances, and on at least one occasion the sages argued over whether hemp seeds could be sown in a vineyard. The majority opinion was that such intermingling was permissible, indicating that they recognized a certain similarity between cannabis and the grape. This similarity could not have been due to the appearance of the two plants and must have centered around the intoxication produced by each.
A similar question likewise arose concerning the purification of wicker mats which were placed over grapes during wine pressing to keep them from scattering. The decision rendered by the rabbis was that if the baskets were made of hemp they could be used, provided they were thoroughly cleaned. However, if they were made of some other material, the rabbis ruled that they could not be employed in wine pressing until twelve months had elapsed since the time they were last used. Dacians, or Getae, in what is now modern day Romania, shown burning their town because of an oncoming Roman army invasion. This region has been a renowned region for hemp cultivation since Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great invaded the region in 359 B.C. In the third century B.C., Hiero II (270-15 B.C.), ruler of the Greek city-state of Syracuse, did not send his envoys to the Black Sea city of Colchis which supplied many Greek cities with hemp, but to the far-off Rhone Valley in France. So sophisticated about the various characteristics of hemp fiber was he that only the most superior varieties were to be used to make ropes for his proposed armada. This incident is the earliest reference to cannabis in Western Europe known to historians.
Since the Greeks had become so knowledgeable about the kinds of fibers produced by cannabis growing in different geographical regions, they would no doubt also have mentioned the intoxicating properties of the plant had they been aware. Although there are references to cannabis both as a delicacy and a remedy for backache in Greek literature dating back to the fourth century B.C., no mentio was made of medicinal uses in this eras records.
The Holy Plant of India
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, which had been summoned in the 1890s to investigate the use of cannabis in India, concluded that the plant was so much an integral part of the culture and religion of that country that to curtail its usage would certainly lead to unhappiness, resentment, and suffering.
To the Hindu the hemp plant is holy.
A guardian lives in the bhang leaf.
To see in a dream the leaves, plant, or water of bhang is lucky.
No good thing can come to the man who treads underfoot the holy bhang leaf.
A longing for bhang foretells happiness.
The earliest allusion to bhang’s mind-altering influence is contained in the fourth book of the Vedas, the Atharvaveda (“Science of Charms”). Written some time between 2000 and 1400 B.C., the Atharvaveda (12:6.15) calls bhang one of the “five kingdoms of herbs… which release us from anxiety.” But it is not until much later in India’s history that bhang became a part of everyday life. By the tenth century A.D., for example, it was just beginning to be extolled as an indracanna, the “food of the gods”. A fifteenth-century document refers to it as “light- hearted”, “joyful”, and “rejoices”, and claims that among its virtues are “astringency”, “heat”, “speech-giving”, “inspiration of mental powers”, “excitability”, and the capacity to “remove wind and phlegm”.
In the Rajvallabha, a seventeenth-century text dealing with drugs used in India, bhang is described as follows: India’s food is acid, produces infatuation, and destroys leprosy. It creates vital energy, increases mental powers and internal heat, corrects irregularities of the phlegmatic humor, and is an elixir vitae. It was originally produced like nectar from the ocean by churning it with Mount Mandara. In as much as it is believed to give victory in the three worlds and to bring delight to the king of the gods (Siva), it was called vijaya (victorious). This desire-filling drug was believed to have been obtained by men on earth for the welfare of all people. To those who use it regularly, it begets joy and diminishes anxiety.
Yet it was not as a medicinal aid or as a social lubricant that bhang was preeminent among the people of India. Rather, it was and still is because of its association with the religious life of the country that bhang is so extolled and glorified. The stupefaction produced by the plant’s resin is greatly valued by the fakirs and ascetics, the holy men of India, because they believe that communication with their deities is greatly facilitated during intoxication with bhang. (According to one legend, the Buddha subsisted on a daily ration of one cannabis seed, and nothing else, during his six years of asceticism.) Taken in early morning, the drug is believed to cleanse the body of sin. Like the communion of Christianity, the devotee who partakes of bhang partakes of the god Siva.
Although the inhabitants of India are descended from a people known as the Aryans or “noble ones”, the Aryans were not the original natives of the Indian subcontinent but instead invaded it from north of the Himalayas around 2000 B.C. Before the Aryans, who were light-skinned and blue-eyed, a dark-skinned and dark-eyed people, Australoid in origin, inhabited India. When the Aryans entered the country, they found a complex civilization, including well-designed housing, adjoining toilet facilities, and advanced drainage systems. The early inhabitants worked with gold and silver, and they also knew how to fashion tools and ornaments from copper and iron. When the Aryans first settled in India they were predominantly a nomadic people. During the centuries that followed their invasion, they intermarried with the original inhabitants, became farmers, and invented Sanskrit, one of man’s earliest written languages.
The Beauty of Bhang
A collection of four holy books, called the Vedas, tells of daring exploits, their chariot battles, conquests, subjugation of enemy armies, eventual settlement in the land of the Indus, and even how their god Siva brought the hemp plant down from the Himalayas for their use and enjoyment. According to one of their legends, Siva became enraged over some family squabble and went off by himself in the fields. There, the cool shade of a tall marijuana plant brought him a comforting refuge from the torrid rays of the blazing sun. Curious about this plant that sheltered him from the heat of the day, he ate some of its leaves and felt so refreshed that he adopted it as his favorite food, hence his title, the Lord of Bhang.
Bhang does not always refer to the plant itself, but rather to the mild liquid refreshment made with its leaves. Among the ingredients and proportions of them that went into a formula for bhang around the turn of the century were:
Cannabis 220 Grains
Poppy Seed 120 Grains
Pepper 120 Grains
Ginger 40 Grains
Caraway Seed 10 Grains
Cloves 10 Grains
Cardamon 10 Grains
Cinnamon 10 Grains
Cucumber Seed 120 Grains
Almonds 120 Grains
Nutmeg 10 Grains
Rosebuds 60 Grains
Sugar 4 Ounces
Milk 20 Ounces
All ingredients are boiled together.
Bhang was and still is to India what alcohol is to the West. Many social and religious gatherings in ancient times, as well as present, were simply incomplete unless bhang was part of the occasion. It is said that those who spoke derisively of bhang are doomed to suffer the torments of hell as long as the sun shines in the heavens. Without bhang at special festivities like a wedding, evil spirits were believed to hover over the bride and groom, waiting for an opportune moment to wreak havoc on the newlyweds. Any father who failed to send or bring bhang to the ceremonies would be reviled and cursed as if he had deliberately invoked the evil eye on his son and daughter. Bhang was also a symbol of hospitality. A host would offer a cup of bhang to a guest as casually as we would offer someone in our home a glass of beer. A host who failed to make such a gesture was despised as being miserly and misanthropic.