2: Cannabis: Ganga, the Sacred River of the Sadhu

“A similar case can be made for the use of hemp (Cannabis sativa) as an intoxicant in prehistoric Europe. Hemp seeds have been found at a variety of Neolithic sites in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Romania. Like the opium poppy, hemp grows as a weed, and its proximity to prehistoric communities was a factor in its domestication” (Rudgley 28). One of our oldest cultivars, Cannabis has been a five-purpose plant: fiber, seed oil, for its seeds as food, for its psychoactive properties, and therapeutically as a medicine (Schultes & Hofmann 92).

“In several parts of eastern Europe decorated pottery “polypod bowls’ have been found, dating from the early third millennium BC. The earliest of these bowls, often interpreted as braziers ‘ came from the Pontic Steppes. Examples found in the Carpathian Basin and then in Czechoslovakia and southern Germany are somewhat later, indicating that this type of pottery spread from east to west. Cannabis sativa, too, is generally thought to have originated on the steppes and subsequently to have spread into Europe. Could it be that these polypod bowls, rather like the earlier ‘vase-supports’, were braziers for the ritual burning of an intoxicant? Two further finds of associated artefacts add weight to the possibility of a later Neolithic cannabis cult. A pit-grave burial of the later third millennium in Romania was discovered to include an item described as a ‘pipe cup’ which itself contained charred hemp seeds. Another ‘pipe cup’ from the same period and belonging to the north Caucasian Early Bronze Age was found with hemp seed present. Although the seeds are not themselves psychoactive, they are the most heat-resistant part of the plant, and these two finds suggest that the intoxicating flowers and leaves had been burnt away” (Rudgley 28).

Cannabis sativa (Schultes and Hofmann 1979)

“Contemporary with the rise of the polypod bowls on the steppe was the development of a novel style of pottery ornamentation. While the bowl was still wet, cord was wrapped around it in order to impress it with a pattern. … Sherratt has suggested that this cord decoration may have been a way of celebrating the contents of the bowls. In this case it was not by imitating the shape of the Cannabis satiza plant (as the Cypriote juglets imitated the opium poppy) that the contents of the vessels were announced, but by decoration applied by the use of hemp cord.”

Both the fibre and intoxicating qualities of hemp were exploited by later cultures such as the Thracians. A Greek source informs us that they made their garments from its fibre” and it is known that their shamans (Kapnobatai) used cannabis to induce states of trance.

“As the polypod bowls decorated with cord impressions began to be used further westward, they entered cultural areas with a tradition of alcohol use. It is possible that in such regions the two substances were used together to produce a new psychoactive effect. just as it can be shown that the use of opium was widespread in the early historical period in the east Mediterranean, there is also sufficient evidence that hemp was being used as an intoxicant by the Iron Age. Cannabis has been discovered in the grave chamber of the Hochdorf Hallstatt waggon-burial near Stuttgart in Germany (circa 500 BC), and also at Scythian sites on the steppes” (R 30).

To Earth’s far-distant confines we are come,
The tract of Scythia, waste untrod by man.
Aeschylus – Promethus Bound

Neolithic bowls probably used as brazziers for Hemp.
The Scythian Goddess holds the Tree of Life before a horseman.
Scythian Hemp brazziers and ‘tripod’ (half-size) (Schultes & Hoffmann 1979, Rudgley).
In the eighth century BC Scythian groups from the east began to migrate westward with their flocks and herds. After a successful alliance with the Medes, which resulted in the sacking of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in 613 BC, both the Asiatic and the European Scythians began a series of conflicts with the Persian kings of the Achaemenian Dynasty. Among the tribute-bearing delegations depicted on Achaemenian reliefs at the royal site of Persepolis is a people named saka tigraxauda, or ‘pointed- hat Scythians’, on account of their distinctive headgear. Another group that features in a number of trilingual inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian’ is the saka haitinaiaixa or ‘hao a-drinking Scythians’ after Haoma (R 35).

In the fifth century BC Herodotus travelled widely in the area to the north of the Black Sea and includes the following account of Scythian intoxication in his Historics: “On a framework of tree sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woollen cloth. Inside this tent they put a dish with hot stones on it. Then they take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians are so delighted they shout for joy.”

Like other cultures, the Scythians gradually passed throught the transition to alcohol use. It is however mentioned occasionally by the Greeks. Democritus around 400 BC noted its use occasionally with wine and myrrh to produce visionary states. The Assyrians were also during the first millennium BC known to use Hemp as an incense.

The Chinese emperor Shen-Nung 2737 BC prescribed Cannabis. Ruderalis, indica and sativa.
A minature from 15 th cent The garden of heavenly delights of the Hashishim (Schultes & Hofmann 1979).
Tradition in India maintains that the gods sent man the Hemp plant so that he might attain delight, courage, and have heightened sexual desires. When nectar or Amrita dropped down from heaven, Cannabis sprouted from it. Another story tells how when the gods, helped by demons churned the mile ocean to obtain Amrita one of the resulting divine nectars was Cannabis, able to give man anything from a good health and a long life to visions of the gods. It was consecrated to Shiva and was Indra’s favourite drink. Cannabis bears the name Vijaya for the victory the gods had over the demons in retaining guardianship of Amrita. Ever since the plant has been held in India to bestow supernatural powers on its users (S&H 92). As Bhang it was thought to deter evil, bring luck and cleanse man of sin.

Hemp fibre can be found from 4000 BC in China and 3000 BC from Turkestan, and a possible specimen from early Egypt (S&H 93). It is described as Ma-fen (Hemp-fruit) in China where a legendary emperor of 2000 BC said “If taken to excess, it will cause you to see devils. If taken over a long time it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body”. Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung in 2737 BC noted its bisexual nature and recommended for a variety of uses from malaria to absent-mindedness. A Taoist priest in 500 BC noted that Cannabis “was employed by necromancers, in combination with Ginseng to set forward time and reveal future events” (S&H 95). In later China, this use seems to have disappeared.

Hashish is also associated with the Old Man of the Mountain and his garden of paradise which was to convince kidnapped young men that if they obeyed his orders as assassins, they would gain such a reward. It was descxribed as a physical realization of Muhammad’s paradise promised to the followers of Islam: “In a beautiful valley between two mountains [Aloedin] formed a luxurious garden, with delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub … with streams of milk and honey and beautiful damsels accomplished in the arts of singing and playing on all sorts of instruments, dancing, dalliance and amorous allurement”. However historical accounts of the Ismali leader Hasan-i Sabah say he built the castle Aluh Amut ‘the eagles teaching’ on an eyrie and was a recluse learned in geometry, astronomy and magic. As an opponent of the caliph who did commit assasinations, he has been fancifully denigrated by his Sunni opponents (R101). It is thus very doubtful whether hashish should receive the stima of the assassin.

Despite Islam’s unambiguous stand against alcohol, the use of Hemp spread widely in the Islamic world, and into Africa, subsequently spreading throughout the globe through movements of both slaves and migrants.

Children having a ritual smoke in the Rastafarian church.
Children are also invited to three peyote meetings in the
Native American Church during their childhood (Cohen D).
Cannabis is also the sacred herb of the Rastafarians, setting an unusual biblical tradition of being cannabis-smoking followers of Yahweh. The Ethiopian tradition also runs through through the Shulamite Queen of Sheba.

“The psychoactive effects of Cannabis and its preparations vary widely, depending on the preparation the user and the background. Perhaps the most frequent characteristic is a dreamy state. Long-forgotten events are often recalled and thoughts occur in unrelated sequences. Perception of time and occasionally space are altered. Visual and auditory hallucinations follow the use of large doses. Euphoria, excitement and inner happiness – often with hilarity and laughter are typical” (S&H 101). Schultes comments: “it behooves us to consider the role of Cannabis in [our] past and learn what lessons it can teach us … for it appears the it will be with us for a long time”.


Henry Sapiecha

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