from "Cannabis and Culture," Rubin, Vera & Comitas, Lambros, (eds.) 1975.



Despite the growing volume of literature on the subject of hemp, the
historical routes of its diffusion remain obscure and there is scant
reference to its ubiquitous role in folk ritual, magic and medicine among
European peasantry.

The term cannabis, itself, has been considered to be of
Indo-European origin. The paper re-examines the origin of the term
cannabis to demonstrate its derivation from Semitic languages. Both the
word and its forms of use were borrowed by the nomadic Scythians from
peoples of the Near East and diffused among the people with whom they came
in contact. Ritual and other folk uses are described.

Hemp, one of the most versatile and important plants discovered by man and
used for millennia, has been long neglected in scientific literature. Not
until society's recent concern with drug addiction has the existing body of
knowledge about hemp become so readily available. In the past, such
information could be found in pharmacopoeia, in occasional historical
references, or in ritual folkloristic material.

Although the body of literature concerning hemp has grown rapidly
in the last decade, the exact origin of the plant has yet to be
established; the historical routes of its diffusion remain obscure, and
there is barely any reference to the role it played in the life of the
European peasantry. The latter should be of special interest in view of
the ubiquitous use of hemp in folk ritual, magic, and medicinal practices.
A major reason for the obscurity as well as confusion that becloud the
issue is that previously suggested theories of diffusion have been repeated
and elaborated without critical examination of their historical sources.
For example, the German scientists, Schrader, Hehn, and Bushan, as well as
learned biblical commentaries and modern botanists, have claimed that
ancient Palestine and Egypt did not know hemp and its uses (Dewey 1913;
Moldenke 1952).

In this paper, I propose to reconsider the origin of the term
cannabis to demonstrate that it is derived from Semitic languages and that
both its name and forms of its use were borrowed by the Scythians from the
peoples of the Near East. We will thus discover that the use of cannabis
predates by at least 1000 years its first mention by Herodotus. Next, we
will examine the diffusion of the plant to Europe and its continued use in
peasant rituals, magic, and medical practices.

Western scholars have universally considered the term cannabis to
be of Indo-European, specifically Scythian, origin. This widely-held
opinion not only credited the Scythians with the name for hemp (which
Linnaeus categorized as Cannabis sativa) but also with the initial
introduction of the plant into Europe and Asia. There was barely any
history of cannabis before the Greek historian Herodotus, in the fifth
century B.C., observed that the Scythians used the plant to purge
themselves after funerals by throwing hemp seeds on heated stones to create
a thick vapor, inhaling the smoke and becoming intoxicated. "The Scythians
howl with joy for the vapour bath" (Herodotus, IV: 142). To the Western
world, Herodotus' account is the earliest source of knowledge of the ritual
use of cannabis.

Tracing the history of hemp in terms of cultural contacts, the Old
Testament must not be overlooked since it provides one of the oldest and
most important written source materials. In the original Hebrew text of
the Old Testament there are references to hemp, both as incense, which was
an integral part of religious celebration, and as an intoxicant (Benet
1936) Cannabis as an incense was also used in the temples of Assyria and
Babylon "because its aroma was pleasing to the Gods." (Meissner 1925
(II): 84).

Both in the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and in the
Aramaic translation, the word 'kaneh' or ' keneh' is used either alone or
linked to the adjective bosm in Hebrew and busma in Aramaic, meaning
aromatic. It is 'cana' in Sanskrit, 'qunnabu' in Assyrian, 'kenab' in
Persian, 'kannab' in Arabic and 'kanbun' un /chaldean. In Exodus 30: 23,
God directed Moses to make a holy oil composed of "myrrh, sweet cinnamon,
kaneh bosm and kassia." In many ancient languages, including Hebrew, the
root 'kan' has a double meaning --- both hemp and reed. In many
translations of the Bible's original Hebrew, we find 'kaneh bosm' variously
and erroneously translated as "calamus" and "aromatic reed," a vague
term. Calamus, (Calamus aromaticus) is a fragrant marsh plant. The
error occurred in the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible,
Septuagint, in the third century B.C., where the terms 'kaneh, kaneh bosm'
were incorrectly translated as "calamus." And in the many translations
that followed, including Martin Luther's, the same error was repeated. In
Exodus 30: 23 'kaneh bosm' is translated as "sweet calamus." In Isaiah
43: 24 'kaneh' is translated as "sweet cane." although the word "sweet"
appears nowhere in the original. In Jeremiah 6: 20 'kaneh' is translated
as "sweet cane." In Ezekiel 27: 19 'kaneh' is translated as "calamus."
In Song of Songs 4: 14 'kaneh' is translated "calamus."

Another piece of evidence regarding the use of the word 'kaneh' in
the sense of hemp rather than reed among the Hebrews is the religious
requirement that the dead be buried in 'kaneh' shirts. Centuries later,
linen was substituted for hemp (Klein 1908).

In the course of time, the two words 'kaneh' and 'bosm' were fused
into one, 'kanabos' or 'kannabus,'known to us from Mishna, the body of
traditional Hebrew law. The word bears an unmistakable similarity to the
Scythian "cannabis." Is it too far-fetched to assume that the Semitic
word 'kanbosm' and the Scythian word 'cannabis' mean the same thing?

Since the history of cannabis has been tied to the history of the
Scythians, it is of interest to establish their appearance in the Near
East. Again, the Old Testament provides information testifying to their
greater antiquity than has been previously assumed. The Scythians
participated in both trade and wars alongside the ancient Semites for at
least one millennium before Herodotus encountered them in the fifth century
B.C. The reason for confusion and the relative obscurity of the role
played by the Scythians in world history is explained by the fact that they
were known to the Greeks as Scythians but to the Semites as Ashkenaz.
Identification of the Scythian-Ashkenaz as a single people is convincingly
made by Ellis H. Minns (1965) in his definitive work on Scythians and
Greeks. The earliest reference to the Ashkenaz people appears in the Bible
in Genesis 10: 3, where Ashkenaz, their progenitor, is na;med as the son of
Gomer, the great-grandson of Noah. The Ashkenaz of the Bible were both
war-like and extremely mobile. In Jeremiah 51: 27, we read that the
kingdoms of Ararat (known later as Armenia), Minni (Medea), and Ashkenaz
attacked Babylonia. In 612 B.C. Babylonians with the aid of the Medeans
(Medes) and Scythians, coming from the Caucasus, dealt a deadly blow to
Assyria (Durant 1954). Referring the threat of war, Herodotus reports
that Scythians attempted to invade Egypt by way of Palestine and they
withdrew only after the Pharaoh paid them to retreat.

There is evidence of the presence of the Scythians in Palestine.
The city known as Beizan in modern times was originally called Bethshan and
later renamed Scythopolis by the Greeks during the Hellenistic period,
since many Scythians settled there during the great invasion of Palestine
in the seventh-century B.C.

The importance of the geographical position of Palestine cannot be
overlooked when considering the trade routes through which caravans moved,
laden with goods and precious "spices." Palestine was situated along the
two most vital trade routes of the ancient world. One was between Egypt
and Asia and the other ran west from Arabia to the coastal plain, from
there branching off to Egypt to Syria. In the original Hebrew of the Bible
(Ezekiel 27: 19), in a description of Tyre, the royal city of the
Phoenicians, famous in antiquity for its far-flung trade, it is noted that
"Vedon and Yavan traded with yarn for thy wares; massive iron, cassia and
kaneh were among thy merchandise." (The markets of Tyre were frequented by
the Jews. Biblical quotation from "The Holy Scriptures," The Jewish
Publication Society of America.) King Solomon, a contemporary and friend
of King Hiram of Tyre (960 B.C.), ordered hemp cords among other materials
for building his temples and throne (Salzberger 1912). Rostovtzeff
(1932) describes lthe caravan trade between Babylonia, Egypt, Syria, and
Asia Minor. Among the goods there was incense for the "delection of gods
and men."

In addition to the caravan trade, the mobile, warlike Ashkenaz
carried their raid to the Caucasus i the north and westward to Europe,
taking with them their knowledge of the use of hemp as well as their
dependence on its intoxicating qualities. So mobile were the Scythians
that there is a good probablilty that as they spilled across much of Europe
and Asia; they were the ones to introduce the natives to the ritual use of
the plant and the narcotic pleasures to be derived from it. The Scythians
apparently did not use hemp for manufactures such as weaving and
rope-making. Yet, despite the plentiful quantity of wild hemp, the
Scythians cultivated the plant in order to increase the amount available
for their use. Apparently their need for it was great indeed.

Since hemp was originally used in rituals, it may be assumed that
the Scythians spread their custom among the people with whom they came into
contact. The Siberian tribes of Pazaryk in the Altai region (discovered
by the Soviet archaeologist, S. Rudenko) left burial mounds in which
bronze vessels containing burnt hemp seeds to produce incense vapors were
found. Rudenko believes that these objects were used for funeral
purification ceremonies similar to those practised by the Scythians
(Emboden 1972: 223).

Another custom connected with the dead in parts of Eastern Europe
is the throwing of a handful of seeds into the fire as an offering to the
dead during the harvesting of hemp --- similar to the custom of the
Scythians and of the Pazaryk tribes, two-and-a-half thousand years ago.
There is no doubt that some of the practices, such as funeral customs, were
introduced by the Scythians during their victorious advance into southeast
Russia, including the Caucasus, where they remained for centuries.

Hemp never lost its connection with the cult of the dead. Even
today in Poland and Lithuania, and in former times also in Russia, on
Christmas Eve when it is believed that the dead visit their families, a
soup made of hemp seeds, called 'semieniatka,' is served for the dead souls
to savor. In Latvia and the Ukraine, a dish made of hemp was prepared for
Three Kings Day.

Since the plant was associated with religious ritual and the power
of healing, magical practices were connected with its cultivation. In
Europe, peasants generally believed that planting hemp should take place on
the days of saints who were known to be tall in order to encourage the
plant's growth. In Germany, long steps are taken while sowing the seed
which is thrown high into the air. In Baden the planting is done during
the "high" hours, between 11:00 a.m. and noon. Cakes baked to stimulate
hemp growth are known as 'hanfeier.'

Following the planting, magical means are applied to make the hemp
grow tall and straight. The custom of dancing or jumping to promote the
growth of the plant is known throughout Europe. In Poland, married women
dance "the hemp dance" on Shrove Tuesday, leaping high into the air. The
hemp dance ('for hemp's sake') is also danced at weddings by the young
bride with the 'raiko,' the master of ceremonies (Kolberg 1899). In the
wedding rituals of the Southern Slavs, hemp is a symbol of wealth and a
talisman for happiness. When the bride enters her new home after the
wedding ceremony, she strokes the four walls of her new home with a bunch
of hemp. She is herself sprinkled with hemp seeds to bring good luck. In
Estonia, the young bride visits her neighbors in the company of older women
asking for gifts of hemp. She is thus "showered" with hemp.

The odor of European hemp is stimulating enough to produce euphoria
and a desire for sociability and gaiety and harvesting of hemp has always
been accompanied by social festivities, dancing, and sometimes even erotic

Women play a leading role in the festivities. In Poland,
initiation ceremonies are held during the harvest. Young brides are
admitted into the circle of older married women on payment of a token fee.
Since the Catholic Church never deemed it necessary to interfere with these
festivals, it must have regarded them as harmless and perhaps even socially
benevolent. In Eastern Europe hemp is evidently not considered addictive
and no case of solitary use among the peasants has been reported: it is
always used in a context of group participation. In many countries, hemp
gathering is an occasion for socializing. The Swiss call it 'stelg'
(Hager 1919). Young men come to the gathering wearing carnival masks and
offer gifts to the girls.

Hemp gathering rituals also reveal the sacred character of the
plant. In certain areas of Poland, at midnight, a chalk ring is drawn
around the plant which is then sprinkled with holy water. The person
collecting the plant hopes that part of the flower will fall into his boots
and bring him good fortune. The flower of a hemp plant gathered on St.
John's Eve in the Ukraine is thought to counteract witchcraft and protect
farm animals from the evil eye.

Although it is believed that witches can use the plant to inflict
harm, they are not likely to do so in fact, and hemp is often used against
persons suspected of witchcraft. In Poland, it is used for divination,
especially in connection with marriage. The eve of St. Andrews (November
30th) is considered a most propitious time for divination about future
husbands. Certain magical spells, using hemp, are believed to advance the
date of marriage, perhaps even signal the very day it will occur. Girls in
the Ukraine carry hemp seeds in their belts, they jump on a heap and call

Andrei, Andrei,
I plant the hemp seed on you.
Will god let me know
With whom I will sleep?

The girls then remove their shirts and fill their mouths with water to
sprinkle on the seed to keep the birds from eating them. Then they run
around the house naked three times.
The sacred character of hemp in biblical times is evident from
Exodus 30: 22-33, where Moses was instructed by God to anoint the meeting
tent and all its furnishings with specially prepared oil, containing hemp.
Anointing set sacred things apart from the secular. The anointment of
sacred objects was an ancient tradition in Israel: holy oil was not to be
used for secular purposes.

And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, "This shall be a
holy anointing oil unto me, throughout your generations." (King James
Version, Exodus 30:31).

Above all, the anointing oil was used for the installation rites of all
Hebrew kings and priests. Dr. R. Patai (1947) expresses the opinion that
the use of sacred oil is based on the belief in its nourishing, conserving
and healing powers. Dr. Patai discusses the spread of this custom from the
ancient Near East to most of Africa where we find the ritual of anointing
among other parallels in the rites of installation of kings.

Almost all ancient peoples considered narcotic and medicinal plants
sacred and incorporated them into their religious or magical beliefs and
practices. In Africa, there were a number of cults and sects of hemp
worship. Pogge and Wissman, during their explorations of 1881, visited the
Bashilenge, living on the northern borders of the Lundu, between Sankrua
and Balua. They found large plots of land around the villages used for the
cultivation of hemp. Originally there were small clubs of hemp smokers,
bound by ties of friendship, but these eventually led to the formation of a
religious cult. The Bashilenge called themselves: Bena:Riamba --- "the
sons of hemp,: and their land Lubuku, meaning friendship. They greeted
each other with the expression "moio," meaning both "hemp" and "life."

Each tribesman was required to participate in the cult of Riamba
and show his devotion by smoking as frequently as possible. They
attributed universal magical powers to hemp, which was thought to combat
all kinds of evil and they took it when they went to war and when they
traveled. There were initiation rites for new members which usually took
place before a war or long journey. The hemp pipe assumed a symbolic
meaning for the Bashilenge somewhat analogous to the significance which the
peace pipe had for American Indians. No holiday, no trade agreement, no
peace treaty was transacted without it (Wissman et al. 1888). In the
middle Sahara region, the Senusi sect also cultivated hemp on a large scale
for use in religious ceremonies (Ibid).


Hemp, both because of its psychoactive properties and its mystical
significance, became a popular and widely-utilized plant in the folk
medicine of Europe and Asia. Since ancient times its soothing,
tranquilizing action has been known. The Atharvaveda (1400 B.C.)
mentions hemp as a medicinal and magical plant. In the Zend-Avesta, hemp
occupies the first place in a list of 10,000 medicinal plants given to a
doctor Thrita. According to Dioscorides (100 A.D.), the resin of fresh
hemp is an excellent treatment for earaches (Dioscorides 1902). In an old
Germanic catalogue of medicinal plants, hemp is listed as a tranquilizer
(Hoffer n.d.). An edition of Diocletian also mentions the use of cannabis
as a medicament (Bretschneider 1881). Medieval Arab doctors considered
hemp a sacred medicine which they called 'schahdanach,' 'schadabach' or
'kannab' (Dragendorff 1898). Syrenius wrote in 1613 that ointment m;ade
from hemp resin is the most effective remedy for burns (Syrenius 1613)
and that diseased joints could be straightened with the roots of hemp
boiled in water.

In Russia and Eastern Europe hemp was widely used in folk medicine,
and references can also be found to its use in Western Europe. In Germany
for example, sprigs of hemp were placed over the stomach and ankles to
prevent convulsions and difficult childbirth, and in Switzerland hemp was
also used to treat convulsions. In Poland, Russia and Lithuania, hemp was
used to alleviate toothache by inhaling the vapor from hemp seeds thrown on
hot stones (Biegeleisen 1929). Szyman of Lowic (16th century) gives the
following prescription: "For worms in the teeth, boil hemp seeds in a new
pot and add heated stones. When this vapor is inhaled the worms will fall
out." This method is varied somewhat in Ukranian folk medicine, the fumes
of cooked hemp porridge are believed to intoxicate the worms and cause them
to fall out. In Czechoslovakia and Moravia, as in Poland, hemp was
considered an effective treatment for fevers. In Poland, a mixture of hemp
flowers, wax and olive oil was used to dress wounds. Oil from crushed hemp
seeds is used as a treatment for jaundice and rheumatism in Russia. In
Serbia, hemp is considered an aphrodisiac (Tschirch 1911). Hemp is also
thought to increase a man's strength. In the Ukraine there is a legend of
a dragon who lived in Kiev, oppressing the people and demanding tribute.
The dragon was killed and the city liberated by a man wearing a hemp shirt.

Hemp is also used to treat animals. A cat that eats mukhomor, a
poison mushroom, is kept in a hemp field to eat the plant until it "comes
to its senses." And if chickens are given hemp seeds on Christmas Eve,
they will lay all year round.

In central Asia, for cure or pleasure, hemp is eaten, chewed,
smoked, rubbed over the body, inhaled and made into numerous elaborate
concoctions. Since lthe Soviet Union leads a determined fight against the
use of hashish, the subject is taboo, and the literature on 'nasha,' as
hemp is called in central Asia, is virtually nonexistent. Prof. Antzyferov
(1934) wrote a short but most interesting report on the use of hashish in
central Asia. Hemp has also been used for the cure of chronic alcoholics
in central Asia quite successfully, according to Dr. Antzyferov.

At the time of his report, Prof. Antzyferov was the head of the
State Hospital at Tashkent where he collected among his patients and their
relatives and friends numerous recipes for 'nasha.' All of his informants
believed that a great deal of fat taken in food counteracts any harmful
effect of 'nasha.' Some recipes are family secrets, others are well known
and used for centuries by the general public, native and European settlers

A mixture of lamb's fat with 'nasha' is recommended for brides to
use on their wedding night to reduce the pain of defloration. The same
mixture works well for headache when rubbed into the skin; it may also be
eaten spread on bread.

A candy called 'guc-kand,' popular among women for a "happy
mood," is made of hemp boiled in water, put through a sieve with added
sugar, saffron and several egg whites. The ingredients are mashed and
formed into small balls and then dried in the sun. The candy is given to
boys before circumcision to reduce pain and to children to keep them fro
crying. An ointment made by mixing hashish with tobacco is used by some
women to shrink the vagina and prevent fluor alvus.

There is also "the happy porridge" made of the following
ingredients: (1) almond butter mixed with 'nasha,' (2) dried rose
leaves, (3) root of Anacyclius pyrethrum, (4) carnation petals, (5)
crocus, (6) muscut nut, (7) cardamon, (8) honey, and (9) sugar.
This mixture is the most expensive of all hashish preparations. It is
eagerly sought by men who consider it the strongest aphrodisiac.
The use of hemp in Europe and Asia is, of course, much older than
archaeological, historical or linguistic evidence would indicate. Early
man roaming around in search of edible plants must have easily discovered
the seeds and powerful odor of the ripened tips of the weeds.

There is considerable difference of opinion concerning the place of
origin of the plant and its diffusion, specifically, its appearance in
Eastern Europe, but it is generally understood that it should be searched
where it grows in the wild. (Editor's note: see article by Schultes in
this volume.) The Russian botanist, N. Vavilov (1926) considers the
region where the greatest number of varieties of a particular plant grow is
the center of its evolutionary differentiation and variation. The common
mid-European hemp is known as "Russian" or "German" hemp. This variety
is spread over most of Europe except for the southern part. Hemp belongs
to the group of plants which are self-planting and self-fertilizing.
Yanishevski observed that it draws to its fatty tissue a bug, Pirrhocoris
apterus L., which clings to the base of the hemp seeds. The Pirrhocoris
and birds contribute to the dissemination of hemp seeds. The Pirrhocoris
and birds contribute to the dissemination of hemp seeds. De Candolle
(1883), seeing the wild plant in the Black Sea and Aralian regions,
concluded that this was the place of origin. We now know that hemp is also
indigenous to the Russian plains, the Caucasus, Transcaucasia, the Crimea
and the Urals, in fact, the whole area from China to the Balkan Peninsula
(Vavilov 1926).

We must, therefore, conclude that there was not one but probably
several origin sites and that whenever man discovered hemp he used it for
food and probably as a stimulant. However, the ritual use of hemp as well
as the name, cannabis, in my opinion originated in the Ancient Near East.
>From there in the middle of the second millennium B.C. through trade
contacts, migrations and wars, the ritual uses of the plant were carried to
Egypt and Africa, westward to Europe, and eastward to central Asia.
Whether India received the plant from China or central Asia is not clear.
Hemp, as used originally in religious rituals, temple activities,
and tribal rites, involves groups of people rather than the solitary
individual. The pleasurable psychoactive effects of hemp were then, as
now, communal experiences.

I believe that the acceptance of tobacco in Europe was undoubtedly
enhanced by European familiarity with smoking hemp. Tobacco was, in many
ways a counterpart to hemp, all the familiar features were there. Brought
to Spain from the New World as a medicinal plant, it came to be regarded as
a cure-all; the Amerindian ritual use of tobacco may also have been known,
and eventually also its psychoactive qualities. Even the use of pipes for
smoking tobacco in the Near East was adopted from the water-pipes used for
smoking hemp. Like hemp, tobacco is chewed, sniffed and smoked.
Perhaps the spread of tobacco was so rapid and overwhelming in the
Old World, because a receptive ground had been laid by the traditional folk
uses of hemp.


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"Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."