Are you wanting a Cannabis History 101? Before hippies, where did it even come from? Well, it has a much longer and richer history than you might think.
- According to the Columbia History of the World (1981), the earliest woven fabrics were made of hemp fiber between 8,000 – 7,000 BCE.
- According to Chinese medicine, there are accounts of medical properties of cannabis as far back as approximately 1,500 BCE, with tales of a mythical emperor first learning of the plant in 2,700 BCE, though this tale is hotly debated. Archeological digs have uncovered a stash of cannabis used for psychoactive properties dating back to 700 BCE. There it was known as Ma, and the flowers were known as Mafen. The (ca. 100 CE) Chinese pharmacopeia Shennong Ben Cao Jing (Shennong’s Classic of Materia Medica) described the use of mafen 麻蕡 “cannabis fruit/seeds”.
- Japanese culture has a long history of cannabis use, from 10,000 BCE. In 8th century AD poetry, ninja used to train by leaping over the tall plants. Shintoism used the plant for cleansing, and brides wore veils made from cannabis to symbolize purity.
- In 1213 BCE, Egyptians were using cannabis to treat Glaucoma, inflammation, and enemas. Pollen from the plant was found on the mummy of Ramses II.
- In 1,000 BCE, Indians were using bhang, a drink made with cannabis, as an anesthetic and anti-phlegmatic. The term angaja ( origin of the term ganja?) comes from the belief that Shiva created cannabis to purify the elixir of life. Using bhang in religious rites is believed to cleanse sins.
- Ancient Persian religious text mentions bhang and also lists cannabis as the most important of 10,000 medicinal plants.
- The Vikings considered cannabis (and hemp) significant, with seeds found in burial mounds and it being referred to as “the beginning and the end” as it was used in both swaddling cloth and burial shrouds. It was also used in religious rites, as the Norse believed the plant tied to the goddess Freyja.
The oldest written account depicting cannabis usage is from the Greek historian Herodotus. His Histories (c. 440 BCE) records:
“The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed [presumably, flowers], and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.”
Use spread through the Greeks and Romans, and the practice spread throughout the Islamic empire into North Africa. In 1545, cannabis spread to the western hemisphere when Spaniards imported it to Chile as a source of fiber.
First modern record
The first botanical description of what we know as cannabis was written in Hortus Malabaricus, a compendium of plants made in 1678. The book, published in Amsterdam, was filled with the detailed drawings and information of 780 medical plants from the territory of Dutch Malabar, governed by the Dutch East India Company. The book referenced its use as a source of fiber and nutrition, as well as its medicinal properties, and even mentioned the practice of smoking it. In the book, the plant was called Kalengi-Cansjava or Tsjeru-Canjava.
The name cannabis
The originator of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, was the developer of the system of naming, ranking, and classifying organisms in 1753 that we still use today. This Swedish scientist gave the plant the name “cannabis” from the Greek word Kannabis, and “sativa” a botanical term meaning cultivated. His pressed specimens are still preserved at the Linnean Herbarium and the George Clifford Herbarium.
The diversification of the species
Linnaeus’s system of classification defined only one species of the plant, with several genres according to region, but over the years, scientists have added and subtracted other species,sub-species, and genres from the genus based on region and other characteristics, but modern day scientists generally use a classification of only a few. These are Cannabis indica L., Cannabis sativa Lam. , and Cannabis ruderalis Janisch.
The first scientist to separate the plant into distinct species was Jean-Babtiste Lamarck, in his Encyclopédie méthodique: botanique published in 1783. It was his detailed descriptions of the difference in European cannabis sativa and Indian cannabis indica that first gave rise to the fundamental notice of different species.
Cannabis in Africa
There is a long tradition in Africa of smoking the herb in gourd pipes, and it was used as an antiseptic, as well as treatment for hydrophobia, delirium tremens, infantile convulsions, neuralgia, cholera, labor pains, hemorrhoids treatment, rheumatism, and a host of other ailments. There were also several cults dedicated to the plant.
In 1884, the King of the Baluka tribe established a “riamba”, or cannabis smoking cult in place of fetish worship. The Bashilenge tribe called themselves Bena Riamba or “sons of hemp”, and greeted each other with the expression “moio”, meaning both “hemp” and “life”. No important event was enacted without it, from wars to trade agreements.
America in the early years
In 1607, the colony of Jamestown, Virginia was founded. Less than 12 years later, the first cannabis law was enacted, which made growing fibrous hemp mandatory. Other mandatory growing laws were passed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Chesapeake Colonies. People actually went to jail for not growing it! Considered a legal form of tender, you could even pay your taxes with it.
During the American revolution, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and the first American flag was woven out of it. The US Pharmacopoeia of 1851 even listed it as a medicine effective in treating a number of illnesses. Up until the end of the 1800’s, it was a common ingredient in many medications, often as a tincture or extract. It wasn’t until the racist monetary scheming of Harry Anslinger in 1937 that it was demonized and made illegal.
The rest, as they say, is history. What will that history say about this century, and what we have done with cannabis? Only time will tell.
What meaning does the cannabis plant have in your local culture? When did you first “discover” the herb? Share your tales on social media or in the comments below.