Wyrtlār: Hemp/Cannabis

Hemp (Cannabis Sativa) is an annual herbaceous plant which was originally endemic to Eastern Asia [1]. In Old English, the plant was referred to as hænep, which comes from Proto-Germanic *hanapiz [2], which, in turn, derives from Ancient Greek, kánnabis [3]. It’s uncertain at what point the word was adopted into the Germanic language, but it was affected by Grimm’s law, shifting *k to *h and *b to *p [4], suggesting a fairly early transmission.

In terms of Old English medicinal usage, the plant is referenced a total of 4 times in the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms in conjunction with other herbs for treatment of a variety of issues.

A mention of hænep occurs in Lacnunga 63, where it is employed alongside a whole host of other herbs and “black snail’s dust” to produce a holy salve with apotropaic properties. Lacnunga 63 also lists the recitation of a so-called snake-charm 9 times.

“acre acre arnem nona ærnem beoþor ærnem nidren arcum cunaþ ele harassan fidine”[5]

This charm follows the typical Germanic pattern of utilizing the number 9, and some scholars have noted similarities between this charm and Gaelic charms found elsewhere – though none have been able to successfully decipher its meaning [6][7].  

In Herbarium 26, hemp is combined with wolf’s comb, raven’s foot and hart clover, pounded into a fine powder and mixed in wine to create a diuretic to treat “watersickness” (wæterseocnysse); an archaic term for dropsy or interstitial edema [8].

In Herbarium 27, we are provided with two uses for hænep in the form of an analgesic. In the first usage, cannabis is recommended to be pounded and laid into an open wound, or “if the wound be very deep then take the sap and wring it into the wound.”  In the second part, the writer suggests cannabis should be drunk to take away “pain of the innards” – a treatment which makes sense considering how effective endocannabinoids and cannabinoids appear to be in treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)[9].

In the Hellenic world, cannabis and its medicinal applications were well-known. In his De Materia Medica, Dioscorides provides us with information about two plants; kannabis emeros and kannabis agria. The first plant, emeros, likely refers to cannabis sativa, a plant which was employed for a variety of uses.

“Cannabis is a plant of considerable use in this life for twisting very strong ropes. It bears leaves with a bad scent, similar to the ash; long hollow stalks, and a round seed. Eaten in quantities these quench conception. The herb (juiced while green) is good for earaches. It is also called cannabium, schoenostrophon, or asterion; the Romans call it cannabis.” [10]

The second plant, kannabis agria, may refer to hibiscus cannabinus, datisca cannabina, or cannabis sativa indica, according to Osbaldeston [11]. Cannabis sativa indica seems a rather likely choice when we look at the anti-inflammatory properties presented in the excerpt below.

“Cannabis sylvestris bears little stems similar to those of althea but darker, sharper and smaller. The leaves are similar to the cultivated but sharper and darker. The reddish flowers are similar to lychnis, with the seed and root similar to althea. The root (boiled and applied) is able to lessen inflammation, dissolve oedema, and disperse hardened matter around the joints. The bark of this is suitable for twining ropes. It is also called hydrastina, the Romans call it terminalis, and some, cannabis.” [12]

As in Herbarian 26, cannabis is used here to treat edema (swelling), as well as some sort of unspecified inflammation of the joints – perhaps a reference to gout or pseudogout.

In his Histories (440 BCE), Herodotus gives us a glimpse into the entheogenic usage of cannabis among the Scythians.

They make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed. … The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, 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, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water” [13]

Herodotus’ account – at least the portion regarding their use of cannabis – is supported by archaeological evidence. In 2013, archaeologist Andrei Belinski unearthed a number of Scythian artifacts from a kurgan found in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. Two golden vessels filled with a black residue were discovered among the grave goods. When Belinski sent samples of the residue in for analysis, he found they contained remnants of opium and cannabis. Belinski believes the vessels originally held an opium-derived concoction which was consumed while cannabis was burned as a form of incense nearby. Archaeologist Anton Gass of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation supports Belinski’s theory, saying “that both drugs were being used simultaneously is beyond doubt.” [14]

The Thracians and Dacians were also not strangers to cannabis, which is unsurprising given their contact with the Scythians. Herodotus suggests the Thracians were skilled in the weaving of hemp garments, which he claimed closely resembled linen to those unfamiliar with the plant fibres.

In his Geography, Strabo makes reference to a people called the Kapnobatai, or “Those who walk among the smoke/clouds.” While it is unknown whether the Kapnobatai were a shamanic cult or an organized priesthood, we are provided with a brief look at their practices.

“Poseidonius goes on to say of the Mysians that in accordance with their religion they abstain from eating any living thing, and therefore from their flocks as well; and that they use as food honey and milk and cheese, living a peaceable life, and for this reason are called both “god-fearing” and “capnobatae”…” [15]

In A Treasury of Hashish, Dr. Alexander Sumach says this of the Kapnobatai:

The sorcerers of these Thracian tribes were known to have burned female cannabis flowers (and other psychoactive plants) as a mystical incense to induce trances. Their special talents were attributed to the “magical heat” produced from burning the cannabis and other herbs, believing that the plants dissolved in the flames, then reassembled themselves inside the person who inhaled the vapors.” [16][17]

Eliade also touches on Thracian cannabis use in his work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.

“Only one document appears to indicate the existence of a Getic shamanism: it is Strabo’s account of the Mysian kapnobatai, a name that has been translated, by analogy with Aristophanes’ aerobates, as ‘those who walk in the clouds,’ but which should be translated ‘those who walk in smoke.’ Presumably the smoke is hemp smoke, a rudimentary means of ecstasy known to both the Thracians and the Scythians. The kapnobatai would seem to be Getic dancers and sorcerers who used hemp smoke for their ecstatic trances.” [18]

The Scythian and Thracian fondness for cannabis may have been transferred to the Goths during their time on the Pontic Steppe. The earliest Greek accounts of the Goths refer to them as Scythian – a blanket identifier which was likely used due to their close proximity and shared nomadic lifestyle [19].

Herwig Wolfram makes mention of this shared affinity in his History of the Goths, where he touches on possible shamanic practices associated with the Goths.

“ We must not, however, see the entire ‘Gothic special vocabulary’ – namely, all words that have no direct corresponding words in Germanic or Indo-European languages – as the ‘genuine remains of the shamanic vocabulary.’ By no means must everything that remains unexplained be a reminder of a shamanic experience. Such a generalization would certainly be greatly exaggerated. But the intoxicating ‘cannabis sauna,’ which Herodotus noted among the Scythians, was not unknown to the Thracians and probably also sent the Gothic shamans on the desired ‘trip’.” [20]

The Egyptians utilized cannabis for various ailments. Cannabis is listed as a medicinal herb on several papyri, the most well-known of which, the Ebers papyrus, was recorded in 1550 BCE [21].  The Ebers papyrus presents cannabis as a remedy for issues associated with the female reproductive system and suggests the herb should be ground and mixed with honey and inserted as a vaginal suppository to alleviate “heat of the uterus.”  While “heat of the uterus” could refer to a fairly extensive list of reproductive issues, Egyptologist Paul Ghalioungui believed the suppository would have been utilized as an obstetric aid. This usage mirrors 19th century treatments which employed cannabis in a similar fashion to treat migraines and gynecological disorders [22].

In the  Ramesseum III Papyrus, dated to 1700 BCE, hemp is ground, mixed with celery and left out overnight to collect dew. This dewy concoction is then rubbed into the eyes the following morning to treat an unspecified eye-related issue [23]. This usage calls to mind one of the earliest modern uses of medical marijuana as treatment for glaucoma [24].

The Berlin Papyrus, dated to 1300 BCE, recommends cannabis be used topically to reduce fever and treat inflammation [25] – a practice we still see today with CBD infused ointments and lotions.

In the Chester-Beatty VI papyrus, cannabis is referenced twice as a component of a suppository to treat colorectal-related issues, such as hemorrhoids [26].  

The Hearst Papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE, provides us with three formulas utilizing cannabis for the treatment of foot-related difficulties. In one of the excerpts, cannabis is employed to treat what appears to be a gangrenous infection of the toenail where maggots have taken hold.

“”If you find a painful finger or a toe, from water having been around them (serosity), their odor being malignant, whereas they have formed maggots [worms], you must say to this patient: “A problem that I can treat”. You must prepare for him treatments to kill the vermin [. . .]. Another for the toenail: honey: 1/4; ochre 1/64; cannabis: 1/32; hedjou resin: 1/32, ibou plant: 1/32. Prepare as for the preceding, and dress with it”. [27]

The use of cannabis as an antibiotic is supported by modern science, since THC, CBD, CBN, CBC and CBG have all been shown to possess antibiotic properties and may be used in place of current medications due to increasing antibiotic resistance [28][29].

Cannabis has a long history in China, being used for both entheogenic and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Shennong’s  Ben Cao Jing describes the plant as having the ability to induce hallucinations and to cause those who ingest it to “throw themselves about like maniacs.” the author goes on to say that the plant, if taken over a long period, can provide the user with the ability to communicate with spirits and can cause their body to “become light” [30].

In another part of the book, the author gives us a description of the plant itself, which he claims possesses poisonous leaves and fruits.

The flowers when they burst (when the pollen is scattered) are called 麻蕡 [mafen] or 麻勃 [mabo]. The best time for gathering is the seventh day of the seventh month. The seeds are gathered in the ninth month. The seeds which have entered the soil are injurious to man. It grows in [Taishan] (in [Shandong] …). The flowers, the fruit (seed) and the leaves are officinal. The leaves and the fruit are said to be poisonous, but not the flowers and the kernels of the seeds.” [31]

The belief that cannabis was a means of communicating with the dead appears to have been widespread in ancient China. T’ao Hung Ching’s Ming-I Pieh Lu describes the plant as being utilized by necromancers in their work and when combined with ginseng, allows the practitioner the ability to fast forward time and peer into the future [32]. The Zhenglei bencao and Shiliao bencao  give a similar use and suggest the plant allows users to perceive spirits if “taken for 100 days” [33][34].

“The use of Cannabis as an hallucinogenic drug by necromancers or magicians is especially notable. It should be pointed out that in ancient China, as in most early cultures, medicine has its origin in magic. Medicine men were practicing magicians. In northeastern Asia, shamanism was widespread from Neolithic down to recent times. In ancient China shamans were known as wu. This vocation was very common down to the Han dynasty. After that it gradually diminished in importance, but the practice persisted in scattered localities and among certain peoples. In the far north, among the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Siberia, shamanism was widespread and common until rather recent times.” [35]

Apart from its widespread necromantic uses, cannabis was also among the 50 fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine [36]. As medicine, cannabis was used to treat a long list of ailments, including: tapeworm, blot clot, constipation and hair loss.

“Every part of the hemp plant is used in medicine … The flowers are recommended in the 120 different forms of (風 feng) disease, in menstrual disorders, and in wounds. The achenia, which are considered to be poisonous, stimulate the nervous system, and if used in excess, will produce hallucinations and staggering gait. They are prescribed in nervous disorders, especially those marked by local anaesthesia. The seeds … are considered to be tonic, demulcent, alternative [restorative], laxative, emmenagogue, diuretic, anthelmintic, and corrective. … They are prescribed internally in fluxes, post-partum difficulties, aconite poisoning, vermillion poisoning, constipation, and obstinate vomiting. Externally they are used for eruptions, ulcers, favus, wounds, and falling of the hair. The oil is used for falling hair, sulfur poisoning, and dryness of the throat. The leaves are considered to be poisonous, and the freshly expressed juice is used as an anthelmintic, in scorpion stings, to stop the hair from falling out and to prevent it from turning gray. … The stalk, or its bark, is considered to be diuretic … The juice of the root is … thought to have a beneficial action in retained placenta and post-partum hemorrhage. An infusion of hemp … is used as a demulcent drink for quenching thirst and relieving fluxes.” [37]

Like China, India too has a long history of cannabis use stretching back millenia. In Atharvaveda, cannabis – here referred to as bhang – is listed as one of the 5 sacred plants that deliver men from woe.

“To the five kingdoms of the plants which Soma rules as Lord we speak.
Darbha, cannabis, barley, mighty power: may these deliver us from woe.”

The Vedas also speak highly of the plant and refer to it as “liberator,” “joy-giver” and a “source of happiness” and the Raja Vallabha suggests hemp was sent from the heavens to provide humanity with delight, courage and a boost of libido. The use of cannabis as a form of aphrodisiac appears to be legitimate, given recent research by the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) into the relationship between sex and cannabis has revealed that people who smoke marijuana appear to have more sex on average than those who abstain.

“The researchers noticed a correlation between how often people smoked marijuana and how often they had sex. More specifically, people who used marijuana had 20 percent more sex than those who did not, and this applied to both genders.

Women who refrained from having marijuana in the past year reported having had sex six times, on average, in the past 4 weeks, while for marijuana users, this number was 7.1.

Men who abstained from marijuana had sex 5.6 times in the past 4 weeks, while men who used marijuana daily reported an average number of 6.9 times.” [38][39]



[1] Florian, Mary-Lou E. Kronkright, Dale Paul. Norton, Ruth E. The Conservation of Artifacts Made from Plant Materials
[5]Pollington, Stephen. Leechcraft
[6]Pollington, Stephen. Leechcraft
[7]Grattan, John H. G. Singer, Charles J. Anglo-Saxon magic and medicine
[9]University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Cannabis link to relieving intestinal inflammation explained.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 August 2018.
[10]Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston
[11]Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston
[12]Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston
[13]Herodotus. Histories 4.75
[15]Strabo. Geography.
[17]Sumach, Alexander. A Treasury of Hashish
[18]Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.
[19]Kulikowski, Michael. Rome’s Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric
[20]Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths
[30]Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China
[31]Bretschneider, Emil. Botanicon Sinicum: Notes on Chinese Botany from Native and Western Sources. Part III, Botanical Investigations in the Materia Medica of the Ancient Chinese.
[32]Touw, M. The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. Journal of psychoactive drugs
[33]Li Hui-Lin.  The Origin and Use of Cannabis in Eastern Asia: Linguistic-Cultural Implications, Economic Botany
[34]Shiliao bencao
[35]Li Hui-Lin. An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China
[36]Wong, Ming. La Médecine chinoise par les plantes.
[37]Smith, Frederick Porter. Chinese Materia Medica: Vegetable Kingdom.[38]https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319907.php


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