After exploring the story of cannabis throughout ancient east and south Asia, a question comes up – what, if anything, was the role of cannabis in ancient Europe and the ancient Biblical world? The use of hemp fabrics in Europe seems to have an uninterrupted history, most famously as the material which made up the sails on the great ships of the so-called “Age of Discovery”. Hemp was one of the first crops planted in Jamestown - an early European colony in what is now Virginia - valued for its incredibly strong fiber, used in ropes, sails, and clothing. But what about the medicinal and psychoactive values of cannabis?
The modern use of cannabis for its psychoactive and medicinal properties was only reintroduced to Europe in the late 1840s, when Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy published his research on cannabis from his time in British India. This sparked the medicinal cannabis craze that preceded its prohibition in the 1930s. But what was Europe’s relationship to cannabis in ancient, pre-Christian times? Was cannabis part of the natural medicine of early pagan Europe? What about ancient societies in Greece and the Middle East?
The Aryans - protagonists of the story of cannabis in India - expanded as far as Persia, Iraq, Greece, Germany, and eastern France by 1500 B.C. Their cultural influence loomed large on the Assyrians in Mesopotamia by 900 B.C, who called cannabis “qunubu”, meaning “the drug for sadness.” Hemp fabrics were found all over the Mesopotamia during this period, and it has also been suggested that cannabis was one of the ingredients - mentioned in the Old Testament - of an anointing oil which God instructed Moses to create. It has even been suggested that cannabis was used in ancient Hebrew culture as a trance-inducing holy oil, widely used in temples until the reign of King Josiah in 621 B.C, at which point it was suppressed. However, some scholars also believe Christ later used cannabis for its healing properties to treat skin and eye illnesses.
Another iteration of the Aryans - known in this migration as the Scythians - brought cannabis as far west as Greece. Herodotus, one of the world’s first historians, wrote an account of Scythian funeral customs. He visited a Scythian settlement in north-eastern Macedonia and observed a custom in which funeral goers would sit in a covered pit with heated stones, in which they “took the seeds of hemp and cast them upon the redhot stones where they smouldered and gave off more steam than a Greek steam bath: transported by the fumes, they shouted in their joy.” (Booth) Despite the Herodotus account describing hemp seeds, many have speculated that they were actually using cannabis flower, as the seeds contain no psychoactive material. Other archaeological evidence found in high-ranking burial sites as far as Asia supports the notion of the Scythians using cannabis. The Greeks also observed cannabis use in nearby Thrace, where the inhabitants “burnt the tops of a plant resembling oregano, inhaling the fumes, becoming intoxicated and eventually falling asleep” – something we can all relate to.
Greek literature also makes references to cannabis like substances. For example, Homer’s classic epic The Odyssey contains numerous references to a plant, for which the Greek name (nepenthe) was simply the word for anxiety, with a negative prefix – sort of like the term “anti-anxiety” and was described as a drug that “banishes sorrow”. Legend has it that Helen of Troy herself would serve it to any of her distraught guests who quickly cheered up. Though the details are few, historical speculation has at times turned to cannabis, as well as opium in searching for the identity of this sedative. The highly fractured nature of cultures in Europe at the time makes it somewhat more difficult to pinpoint cannabis with any certainty in the historical record. There was no region-wide consensus on what cannabis was or what to call it at this point in history, unlike in ancient China and India. Botany and medicine at the in Europe simply was not as developed as it was in Asia – not to mention written language itself. Most likely, knowledge of cannabis in Greece was scattered and limited to priests, some doctors, explorers, and those studying in a handful of specialized fields.
A few centuries later, however, it becomes much clearer that the Romans, and the Greek doctors working for them, had a working knowledge of cannabis – including its psychoactive properties. Around A.D 70, a Greek doctor working with the Roman army named Pedanius Dioscorides, published De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters), which became one of the most important medical texts in Europe for the next millennium, long after the fall of Rome. The lasting popularity of this text led to cannabis’s role as a home remedy throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Male and female cannabis plants, named separately in the text, were said to produce a juice used to treat earache and suppress sexual urges. In AD 160, Claudius Galen, a doctor who focused on gladiator injuries, wrote that ‘hemp cakes’ produce a feeling of well-being when eaten in moderation, but will cause intoxication, dehydration, and impotence when taken in excessive doses.
Very little hemp was grown in Italy during the Roman era, and it is unlikely most Roman citizens knew much about the psychoactive properties of cannabis – but they traded in vast quantities of hemp for its use as a fabric. By the fall of the Roman empire, hemp cultivation had been brought as far afield as Britain. However, evidence also suggests that cannabis was important to pre-Roman societies in Europe as well. In the mythology of Germanic/Norse paganism, cannabis was considered the domain of Freya, Norse goddess of love. Its harvest was tied to an erotic festival in her honor. Freya was believed to dwell as a divine force in the female flowers of cannabis, and those who consumed the flowers became influenced by her divine force. Furthermore, the word hemp derives from the Old English hænep, which itself comes from the Proto-Germanic word hanapiz – from the same Scythian word from which the term ‘cannabis’ comes from. On top of all this, the Celts are thought to have used cannabis as well – traces of hashish were found in Hallstatt, considered the birthplace of Celtic culture.
Ancient Europe had vastly different geography and culture as compared to that of ancient Asia which makes telling the story of cannabis a bit more complex. Written language was not widespread in many places until the Romans brought it. This meant it was up to the Romans and the Greeks to tell the story of all the Europeans they encountered at the time - and their understanding of cannabis and other cultures in general, was somewhat limited, and came with its own bias. Unfortunately, we have only the word of a few explorers, coupled with archaeological evidence with which to tell the story of cannabis for most of the continent. Accounts of cannabis in biblical Israel have been distorted by centuries of agendas – both pro and anti-cannabis. But through all of this, we have enough evidence to know it was used and appreciated - especially in the pre-writing cultures of northern Europe. Given the millennium of Christian anti-pagan censorship after the fall of Rome, it also seems like a safe bet that the crusades of medieval Christendom most likely went out of their way to stamp out more natural medicinal practices alongside the other aspects of pagan culture. Given the small amount of evidence that did manage to survive, I’d bet on fairly widespread religious and medicinal cannabis use in pre-Christian Europe, speculative as that conclusion may be it seems likely given the trends seen in other regions of the world as well as in ancient literature.