Nicole Richter / Updated on October 18, 2018
You might think of cannabis as a medicinal and recreational substance, but did you know it also has a long and varied history as a spiritual herb?
This infamous plant has been a key component in the rituals and ceremonies of religions spanning the globe for several thousand years. Its spiritual characteristics have been recognized by societies ranging from ancient Chinese Taoists to modern-day Rastafarians, and everything in between.
In this article, we will explore the spiritual history of cannabis and take a look at its religious uses in our modern world.
Cannabis as a Spiritual Herb
The many spiritual uses of marijuana are no doubt related to its psychoactive compound Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When consumed, this chemical causes a number of physiological and psychological effects, including relaxation, euphoria, and a sense of general well-being.
Since the third millennium BC, various civilizations have utilized these properties to aid rituals, ceremonies, and meditation. To this day, the more spiritually aware among us have taken advantage of these effects, with some even believing that regular cannabis use will help them to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Cannabis in Ancient China
Some of the earliest evidence of marijuana as a sacred herb dates back to ancient China. However, this evidence was not revealed until around 20 years ago when farmers discovered the mummified remains of a man in the area now known as Xinjiang in western China. The man was well dressed and obviously of high social status. Along with his body, other items were found including a harp, archery equipment, and some other items which led historians to believe he must have been a shaman. Among his possessions was a large amount of marijuana – 789 g to be exact!
Radiocarbon dating placed the remains at 2700 years old, but despite this, the plant matter was preserved so incredibly well that scientists were able to positively identify it as cannabis and confirm the presence of THC in its leaves. These intriguing findings have led researchers to believe that in this case, the herb was probably used for its psychoactive properties, possibly to aid divination or other shamanistic rituals.
The curious thing about this man is that, although he was found in China, he was actually of Caucasian ethnicity. It is unclear exactly who this man was or how he came to be there, but it seems most likely that he came from a nomadic Indo-European tribe known as the Gushi.
And the Gushi were not the only people using cannabis in China at that time. By the first to second century AD, marijuana had already been listed as a medicinal herb in the Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica. Here it was described as having many different medicinal uses, but the author also states that it can cause one to see ghosts, and that “prolonged consumption frees the spirit light and lightens the body.”
This statement is almost certainly a reference to the plant’s psychoactive properties, and a similar claim was made in the 16th-century text Compendium of Materia Medica which recommends cannabis for people “seeking to see ghosts.”
Cannabis has also frequently been linked with Taoism, an ancient Chinese spiritual practice based on the teachings of the Tao Te Ching. The word tao means “the way” in Chinese, and the Taoists would have used cannabis as an incense, helping them to progress on their spiritual journey beyond the mortal plane.
In modern-day China, cannabis remains an integral part of the Uighur culture. The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. They originate from the western provinces, but can now be found living all over the country and have a reputation for dealing hash.
Cannabis and Hinduism
Just as cannabis use was becoming more common in China, the spiritual use of marijuana was also becoming widespread elsewhere in Asia, especially India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. As it spread across the subcontinent, cannabis began to play a significant role in Hinduism. It is mentioned in the Atharva Veda, an important Hindu text compiled between 1200 and 1000 BC. Here it is listed as one of five sacred plants with medicinal and spiritual properties. Marijuana is often associated with the Hindu god Shiva, who is said to use the herb to aid his meditations.
Marijuana is still associated with Hinduism today, and there are three types of cannabis preparation which are commonly used in India. The first is known as bhang, a preparation which is usually mixed with milk and drunk. The second is ganga, the flowers and sugar leaves of the female plant which are smoked. The final preparation is charas, also known as “black gold” or “finger hash.” Charas is a form of resin extracted by rolling almost-mature flower buds slowly between the palms.
Of the three preparations, it is charas which is considered most special, and it often plays a role in festivals such as Holi. Charas is smoked in a pipe called a chillum, sometimes mixed with tobacco. Cannabis is also often used by Sadhus, holy men who have renounced their material possessions to seek spiritual enlightenment.
Cannabis and the Scythians
The Scythians were people originating from central Asia and the area now known as southern Siberia. They were nomadic warriors, skilled archers, and horsemen, but also apparently enjoyed nothing more than a good smoke.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Scythians’ ingenious use of cannabis, saying that they would construct a temporary structure similar to a tent, throw marijuana onto hot stones underneath, and bathe in the smoke. It is unclear whether they were doing this as a spiritual practice, some form of cleansing, or both. However, the Scythians were said to “howl with joy” as they inhaled the cannabis vapor, suggesting that it was more than just a practical activity.
Other evidence has since been found of the Scythians reverence for marijuana, with seeds being discovered in leather pouches at their burial sites. It is also thought that it may have been the Scythians who first introduced cannabis to Europe.
Little is known about the spiritual use of cannabis in Europe, as Europeans primarily saw it as a medicinal herb. However, it did play a role in Norse paganism and was linked to Freya, the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility.
Cannabis in the Middle East
Marijuana was also a popular spiritual herb in the Middle East. It was first associated with the Zoroastrians, an ancient religious group originating in Persia long before the birth of Islam. Cannabis is mentioned in the Zoroastrian sacred text the Avesta, where it is referred to as the “good narcotic.”
The Assyrians came from an area which encompasses parts of modern day Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. There have been reports of the Assyrians using cannabis as an incense, with references found in books from as early as the 7th century BC.
Cannabis is also mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, where it is said to have euphoric properties. By the 11th century, cannabis use was spreading fast across the Middle East. It was used by Islamic mystics known as Sufi and even gets a mention in the famous 1001 Arabian Nights. One of the reasons why marijuana became so popular in this area is the large population of Muslims, who used it to replace alcohol which is forbidden by Islamic law.
Cannabis in the Bible
Some people believe that cannabis also features heavily in the Bible. They suggest that the Hebrew word kaneh bosm (meaning cannabis) may have originally been mistranslated as calamus, another plant which is more closely related to the iris than cannabis. If this is the case, then cannabis is mentioned several times throughout the Old Testament, including the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Song of Songs. In Exodus, God even instructs Moses to create a sacred oil using kaneh bosm along with other herbs including myrrh, cassia, and cinnamon leaves mixed together in olive oil. Cannabis has also been associated with the biblical King Solomon, a man who was considered to possess great wisdom and knowledge. According to legend, marijuana was found growing on his grave years after his death.
Cannabis and Rastafarianism
The religion which is probably most associated with spiritual cannabis use is Rastafarianism, a relatively new religion based on the teachings of the Old Testament.
Marijuana has become a core element of Rastafarianism due to their interpretation of various passages of the Bible. For example “eat every herb of the land” is interpreted to mean that all herbs, marijuana included, were put on Earth by God for man to use as he pleases. Rastafarians believe that cannabis brings them closer to Jah (God), and they smoke it in ceremonies known as “reasonings.” These involve deep meditation, prayer, debates, and discussions with peers. Reasonings are serious affairs, a far cry from the stereotypical image of a Rasta sitting on a beach and listening to reggae with a huge joint hanging out of his mouth.
Final Thoughts on the Spiritual History of Cannabis
Cannabis has been used for many thousands of years by members of different religions across the world. Due to the presence of THC in its leaves and buds, cannabis has psychoactive properties which allow it to bring about a sense of deep relaxation and, for some, spiritual realization.
Whether you use cannabis for religious, recreational, or medicinal purposes, it certainly is an extraordinary herb. So next time you light up, why not take a moment to think about the more spiritual side of cannabis, and how it has truly stood the test of time.