Cannabis in Ancient Greece
Cannabis in Ancient Greece by Chris Bennett.
Excerpted from the book Cannabis and the Soma Solution republished under permission from the author. (c) by Chris Bennett.
CANNABIS CULTURE – The myths and philosophy of ancient Greece have influenced Western Society and Sciences in many profound ways. Considering the metropolitan nature of Greece, it would is hard to believe that they too, would not have come under the spell of a magical plant that was so clearly popular in the ancient world and surrounding cultures.
Especially considering that Egyptian, Persian, and Scythian influences on Greek culture are well documented. Medical references in Greek literature are definite and clear, magical references however, require pulling back the veil to reveal the ancient secrets of the Greek inner sanctum…..
Clearly Greek knowledge of the plant went far beyond its use as a fibre. As Michael Lahanas records in his well researched essay «Examples of Ancient Greek Medical Knowledge», «The ancient Greeks used cannabis as a remedy to treat inflammation, earache, and edema (swelling of a body part due to collection of fluids)» (Lahanas, 2006).
Other medical uses of cannabis are attested though: its root is believed to treat inflammations and melt corns (Diosc. 3, 149; cf. Eup. 1, Luigi Arata 4554), and it is one of the ingredients of a medicine used against tumors of various types (Aet. 15, 7; Orib. Syn. 3, 29). In veterinary medicine, it seems to have been used in cataplasms against inflammations (Hippiatr. Berol. 10, 11, Hippiatr. Paris. 154, 219) or as a cathartic of wounds (Hippiatr. Paris. 216), especially of the rachis (Geop. 16, 15; Hippiatr. Cantabrig. 17, 3) or even against taenias (Hippiatr. Cantabrig. 70; it is interesting to observe that a portion of cannabis is said to be useful against taenias in human beings by Archigenes fr. 17) or for injuries (Hippiatr. Paris. 270). (Arata, 2004)
Clearly cannabis had a place in the Greek Pharmacopeia, thus it would be curious that a plant with combined medical and psychoactive applications would escape the more magically minded members of the society. As Christian Ratsch has noted: «It is… possible that hemp as “Scythian fire”…, was used as an incense in the cult of Asclepius, the god of healing» (Ratsch, 2005). As Professor of Classical Mythology Carl Ruck and co-authors have so eloquently noted:
It is generally assumed that the Greeks of the Classical Age were unaware of Cannabis until Herodotus, and then were not particularly interested in it. It is, however, hard to imagine how a plant that was so widely employed among their trading partners and the neighboring peoples for its valuable fibers as well for its medical applications and intoxicating fumes could have remained outside their own cultural traditions. The Scythians, in fact, were employed as mercenaries to supply the police force of Athens in the Classical Age, and hence they lived as alien residents within the city… It is impossible to assume that these foreigners did not bring their native customs and deities with them. (Ruck, et al., 2007)
In relation, Luigi Arata of the University of Genoa, in his essay Nepenthes and Cannabis in Ancient Greece notes; «Given the connection made in medical tradition between the effects of cannabis and wine and taking into consideration that cannabis was used as a stupefacient by Scythians, as we have seen in Herodotus, we must suspect that ancient Greeks knew that cannabis could have neurological effects because they observed it. In fact, cannabis was firstly burnt or toasted and then reduced to powder in almost all medical receipts» (Arata, 2004).
Among the confounding factors in the search for Greek cannabis references, as we shall show, is that there are a plethora of names that may have been used to identify the plant. The first Greek botanist Theophrastus (4th century BCE) likely knew the plant as dendromalache or «tree-mallow» and he gave an accurate account of its effect, but a Greek version of the name «cannabis» was also used and a variety of other names have been suggested. There was also a desire for secrecy amongst the cults that would have used it for ritual purposes, as magic revealed is magic lost.
Theophrastus – Statue in the Palermo Botanical Garden.
The view that «there is no evidence that cannabis was used by ancient Greeks for commercial, ritual, or euphoric purposes,» has clearly been the prevailing one amongst Greek scholars. The reasoning being «Since mention of its psychotropic properties is so sparse, either the Greeks must not have valued it or used it very little for that purpose» (Touw, 1981). Alternatively, in his The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, D.C.A. Hillman suggests that cannabis and other psychoactives played an important role in ancient Greece, and explains another possible reason why there is so little written on the subject:
Recreational drugs had a significant impact on ancient society, but they are still—and probably always will be — the ugly duckling of Classical studies. Drugs are an academic hot potato. Few Classicists ever choose to study this scandalous topic, and far fewer will ever choose to admit the prevalence of drugs in ancient society. (Hillman 2008)
As Hillman has also noted, the main obscuring factor in regard to the role of entheogens in the Classic world has been the intervening 1,700 years of institutionalized Christianity, where from the suppression of pagan and Gnostic sects that used such psychoactive sacraments up until the dawn of the Dark Ages, was followed through with a global suppression of Shamanism and shamanic plants globally, most notably, much later, in the «New world». These originally religious prejudices, with the passage of time, became cultural prejudices and then later academic prejudices. Fortunately a new, more «enlightened» age of Greek studies is upon us, and as Hillman, Prof. Ruck, and other scholars are starting to demonstrate that there are clear indications the Greeks were fascinated by the magical properties of their botanicals, and there is evidence that cannabis and other substances played a prominent role in such applications. «The Classical world was thoroughly convinced that mind-altering drugs were an avenue to spiritual realms that were typically inaccessible to mortals, and that people who were completely intoxicated were closer to the gods that the rest of us; their madness was a sign of their proximity to the divine» (Hillman, 2008).
Shamanistic ecstasy is described as «one in which the spirit leaves the physical body’ and cannabis was utilized to induce this state on the Thracian plains almost 3,000 years ago. Although closely related to Scythian tribes, the Thracians are included in this Chapter, as the Thracians deeply influenced Greek culture in a number of ways. A fact demonstrated by the Thracian origin of two figures prominent in Greek mythology; the god of intoxication, Dionysus and the shaman-prophet, Orpheus, the founder of Mysteries. A red haired, fair skinned people, the Thracians were a well-organized group of horseman and hunters who held «a belief in the soul and a hereafter comparable to the Christian heaven… Their shamans, known as Kapnobatai, used hemp smoke to induce visions and oracular trances» (Emboden 1972). Such a technique of ecstasy amongst a group that held so much of an influence over the Greek Magical Philosophies could hardly have gone unnoticed.
There is a classic Greek term, cannabeizein, which means to smoke cannabis. Cannabeizein frequently took the form of inhaling vapors from an incense burner in which these resins were mixed with other resins, such as myrrh, balsam, frankincense, and perfumes. (Emboden, 1972)
As Ratsch notes: «Another word from the period is methyskesthai, “to become inebriated through drug use”; Herodotus used this word to describe the inebriation that the inhabitants of an island in Araxes… produced by smoke» (Ratsch, 2005). The Araxes River travels through areas frequented by the Scythians, Thracians and other related tribes.
Andrei Oisteanu, a researcher at the Romanian Academy of at the Institute for History of Religions, also wrote about hallucinogenic, psychotropic plants amongst the Thracians and other groups, noting the ritual fumigations with cannabis, which he viewed as the magic cure from the Thracian High-God Zalmoxis, a cure able to heal the soul, and used in the quest for immortality (Oisteanu 1997).
The Kapnobatai, or Smoke-walkers, burned cannabis believing that the living entity within the plant reassembled itself inside their bodies to give divine revelations. The 1925 book, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks, Erwin Rohde states that «The Thracians knew hemp. It was thus with a sort of hashish that they intoxicated themselves… The Thracians… may very well have used intoxication through hashish-fumes as a means of exciting themselves to their ecstatic religious dances.—The Ancients were quite familiar with the practice of inhaling aromatic smoke to produce religious hallucinations» (Rohde, 1925). Sophocles (496-406), used «the word Cannabis, apparently to add ethnic detail for his Thamyras tragedy, which tells the tale of the Thracian shaman-singer who contested the Muses …» (Ruck, et al. 2007).
According to a Greek dictionary in Roman times, the Antiatticista, which recorded words acceptable to use by those who wanted to write correct Greek, Sophocles mentioned the word kannabis in his tragedy Thamyras… This drama about the defeat of the Thracian singer Thamyras in a singing match against the Muses contains references to ecstatic dancing… but unfortunately we can hardly be certain about a single scene, except that apparently Thamyras broke his lyre after his defeat… As… the dictionary explicitly mentions that the word kannabis occurred in Herodotus and Sophocles, the latter’s debt to Herodotean ethnography is considerable and the Antiatticista would hardly select kannabis as a routine reference for clothing, the conclusion seems reasonable that Sophocles somehow connected the Thracian Thamyras with an ecstatic use of cannabis. It fits in with this conclusion that Posidonius mentions Thracian «smoke-walkers» (kapnobatai) and that Pomponius Mela reports the use of certain seeds by the Thracians which results in a similis ebriatati hilarities… (Bremmer, 2002)
Likewise, noted theologian Mircea Eliade also commented on elements of shamanism in the Thracian cult of Dionysus, and referred to their use of cannabis:
Prophecy in Thrace was connected with the cult of «Dionysus», a certain tribe, that of the Bessi, managed the oracle of «Dionysus», the temple was on a high mountain, and the prophetess predicted the future in «ecstasy», like the Pythia at Delphi».
Ecstatic experiences strengthened the conviction that the soul is not only autonomous but that it is capable of unio mystica with the divinity. The separation of soul from body, determined by ecstasy, revealed…the fundamental duality of man…[and]the possibility of a purely, spiritual post-experience…Ecstasy could…be brought on by certain dried herbs… (Eliade,1982)
In a foot note to dried herbs, Eliade referred to the use of hemp among the Thracians, stating that the Kapnobatai were «dancers and «shamans» who used the smoke of hemp to bring ecstatic trances» (Eliade, 1982).
Orpheus surrounded by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic from Palermo now in the Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo.
The musician prophet Orpheus was considered to be the hero-incarnation of Dionysus. Also «Significantly, Orpheus was supposedly a Thracian priest of Apollo…» (Ruck, et al., 2007). Grecian relics show Orpheus surrounded by Thracian followers. The «Dionysiac religion, like Orphism, was of northern Thracian provenance, and was fraught with orgiastic-mystic elements, on which Orphism fastened, adopting its emotionalism, its doctrine of Enthousiamos, and of possession by the deity, rejecting its wild frenzy, and transforming its savage ritual into a sacramental religion» (Angus,1975).
The Lyre playing poet-hero, Orpheus, was said to have descended to the underworld, in search of his wife, Eurydice, who ended up there after being bitten by the proverbial «snake in the grass». Although he failed to save his beloved, Orpheus returned from his sojourn in Hades with the secrets on which he based his system of initiation.
From the 6th century BC onward, Orpheus, was known as the «founder of initiation» and credited with instituting the famous Eleussian mysteries. «Orphism was steeped in sacramentalism, which flooded the later Mysteries and flowed into Christianity. Salvation was by sacrament, by initiatory rites, and by an esoteric doctrine….Orphism was the most potent solvent ever introduced into Greek religious life» (Angus,1975). Unlike the placebo-sacraments of later Christianity, the Orphic references to the ecstatic state of Enthusiamos (from where we get the word enthusiasm), was obviously produced by a powerful entheogen. Such ecstatic rites leave little wonder why Orphism competed with Christianity for popularity with the masses through the first few centuries AD.
Orphics believed in reincarnation, teaching release from «the sorrowful wheel» of life through ascetic contemplation and astral-projection type journeys, i.e.-shamanistic ecstasy. Ward Rutheford commented, «[H]istory provides several examples of…ritualized shamanistic initiation. Typical is the case of Orphism…derived from the…musician-prophet Orpheus. He was almost certainly a Kapnobatai…who induced trance by smoking possibly hemp» (Rutherford 1993).
«Smoke» was apparently an element in the Mystery initiation of the Orphics. Most explicitly in Euripides’ Hippolytus tragedy, Theseus in accusing his son of perfidy, saying, «You who have Orpheus for your lord: go on, get ecstatic, owing your allegiance to the smokes in their many scriptures». There were indeed numerous holy scriptures amongst the Orphics, but «smoke» in the context of ecstasy certainly does not mean that they were unsubstantial or worthless… (Ruck, et al., 2007)
Referring to Orphic worship, researcher Frederick Dannaway suggests that pagan elements of Greco-Roman worship were considerably «infused with psychoactive smoke rituals… due to the heavily «shamanic’ component… [of]much of their mystery traditions… The Orphic hymns contain a highly systematic array of fumigations containing some highly pungent, psychoactive substances that would synergize to be more potent in combination…» (Dannaway, 2009). We can be sure through the Thracian origins of Orpheus, that his cult would have included cannabis in such preparations.
As noted, Orpheus arose under the joint signs of Dionysus and Apollo, whose cult has also been connected with the use of psychoactive substances, including cannabis. «Tacitus, for example, visited the oracle of Apollo at Claros about AD 100 and described how the entranced priest listened to his decision-seeking petitioners; he then «…swallows a draught of water from a mysterious spring – though ignorant generally of writing and of meters – delivers his response in set verse» (Jaynes, 1976). Apollo’s priestess at Delphi, was reported to inhale certain inspiring fumes, rather than drink a magical potion:
Dr. Charles Winick, director of the Narcotics program for the American Health Association, suggests… Apollo may have been the first celebrity to use cannabis… as witness the exhilaration of his priestess at Delphi. (Oursler 1968)
In The Greek Myths, scholar and poet Robert Graves wrote that in Delphi through to Classical times «the Pythoness had an attendant priest who induced her trance by burning barley grains, hemp, and laurel over an oil lamp in an enclosed space, and then interpreted what she said… but it is likely that the hemp, laurel and barley were once laid on the hot ashes of the charcoal mound, which is a simpler and more effective way of producing narcotic fumes» (Graves 1955).
The visionary priestess of Greece’s oldest oracle, Delphi, was known as the Pythia, in reference to the serpent power believed to speak through her. She was chosen from amongst peasant women to prophesize at the Temple of Apollo and was consulted on all matters of national importance until its closure in the fourth century a.d. by the prohibitions of the Christian Emperor Theodosius (who left the sacred site to be later destroyed by rampaging Christian monks).
Figured monuments show the Pythia in a calm, serene, concentrated state, sitting at a stool, breathing in fumes that rose from an open fissure in the floor that were believed to produce a «pneuma enthusiastikon» or an «ecstatic exhalation». As Mircea Eliade commented «By what means she attained this second state remains a mystery. The laurel leaves that she chewed, fumigations with laurel, the water from the spring Cassotis that she drank, have no intoxicating properties and do not explain the trance. According to tradition, her oracular tripod was placed over a cleft (chasma) in the ground from which vapors with supernatural virtues arose. Excavations, however, have brought to light neither a fissure in the ground nor the cavern into which the Pythia descended… the fact is we know nothing about it». (Eliade 1978)
With the disassociated trance-like state produced from the vapors and Thracian influence on the Delphic Oracle, it can be conjectured that the Pythia likely put forth her revelations from behind a veil of cannabis smoke, that arose from brazier beneath the floor, and this idea has been suggested by a variety of different sources (Oursler, 1968, Littleton, 1986). «Delphi is heavily linked with psychoactive substances… and Cannabis/Scythian and Indo-European Soma associations…» (Dannaway, 2009). Professor C. Scott Littleton explored this possibility in a 1986 essay «The Pneuma Enthusiastikon: On the Possibility of Hallucinogenic Vapors at Delphi and Dodona».
To be sure, Cannabis was neither a generally recognized component of the ancient Greek pharmacopoeia nor widely noted in classical antiquity for its hallucinogenic effects … However, the plant has been cultivated in Greece for millennia… and would have been readily available. Moreover, its hallucinogenic potential was almost certainly appreciated in at least a few esoteric circles… and, as Delphi was perhaps the most important single religious establishment in Greece, it is highly probable that some members of its priesthood were privy to the knowledge that Cannabis sativa can alter one’s state of consciousness – especially in light of the inherently shamanic character of what went on there…. I suggest that the practice of inhaling hemp smoke managed to diffuse from the steppe cultures to Greece – or at least to the Delphic Hosioi and their counterparts at Dodona and perhaps elsewhere – at some point well before the middle of the first millennium B.C.. (Littleton, 1986)
Littleton noted that «It should be emphasized that the foregoing is still highly conjectural, and will remain so until the residue in the omphalosst one is chemically analyzed. Several chemist colleagues (via personal communications) have indicated that such an analysis might be possible if a sample of that residue were subjected to state-of-the-art spectrometry, even after 23 centuries…» (Littleton, 1986). Unfortunately, as Littleton later lamented «the Greek authorities wouldn’t let me take a scraping» (Littleton, 2008).
The mystery in regards to the Pythia’s vapors, however, may have been brought to light by recent archaeological and geological research, and the possibility of cannabis, at least partially, put to rest. More current geological research by De Boer, et al. (2001), strongly suggests that a «fragrant» natural hallucinogenic gas, ethylene, did issue from some newly discovered fissures beneath the Temple of Apollo (not available at the time Eliade wrote his comments above) and has led Littleton to question the hypothesis he put forth in 1986, when the consensus among geologists was that there were no naturally occurring fumes at Delphi. However, Littleton still regards the «possibility that cannabis fumes may have been mixed with the naturally occurring ethylene so as to augment the hallucinogenic impact on the Pythia. This is reinforced by the fact that cannabis was well-known in ancient times, from Western Siberia (e.g., Pazyryk) to Western Europe; indeed, its use as a psychotropic drug may well date from Proto-Indo-European times, ca. 3500-4000 B.C.E.» (Littleton, 2008).
Although this new evidence regarding ethylene is interesting and may denote the use of subterranean emissions as an entheogen, as Dr. Littleton noted, it does not necessarily preclude a role for the shamanic use of cannabis in ancient Greece, even amongst the Pythia. Indeed, substantiating evidence showing the use of cannabis in Grecian Oracles can be found in the fascinating book The Mystery of the Oracles, by Phillip Vandenberg, who in discussing the archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris finds in the excavation of the 4th-3rd-century Nekyomanteion (a place for consulting the dead) on the River Acheron (one of the most famous entrances to the netherworld) notes: «The black lumps of hashish that Dakaris discovered by the sackful leave no doubt that clients of the oracle were drugged into an incubatio, a kind of temple sleep, so they could experience the dreams and revelations that they should while close to the dead and the divine forces. Temple sleep was customary among the Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks…» (Vandenberg, 1982). As the 19th century author John Porter Brown noted of such rites: «The peculiar pleasures affecting especially the nerves, and produced by narcotics… belong apparently to modern times — that is to say, that it is only in modern times that we find them in general use. Amongst the ancients there is very little doubt of their existence, but they were the secrets of the priests, or of the initiated. We read, for instance, of certain temples in Cyprus or in Syria, to which the votaries thronged from all parts of the world, in expectation of having their wishes gratified. Those wishes generally were in such cases interviews with some beloved object, or visions of future happiness. The votary was bathed, dressed in splendid robes, given some peculiar food, after which he inhaled a delicious odour, and was then laid on a couch strewn with flowers. Upon this he probably went to sleep; but in all events such an intoxication of the mind was produced that the next morning he rose satisfied that in the night all his desires had been realised». (Brown, 1868)
Unfortunately, little can be found on Vandenberg’s alleged find of Greek Hashish. James Wiseman in his review of Dakaris’ work omits any reference to hashish; likewise for the on-line web-site of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture’s page for this archaeological site, which makes no reference to these sacks of hashish. Such censoring leaves one to believe that here again we may find academic prejudice acting as superstitious flaming cherubim, blocking the way to historical fact. If reports of this find are indeed correct, then here in a Grecian temple we have our oldest examples of hashish. As noted entheobotanist Christian Ratsch has noted of Dakaris’ alleged find: «It is entirely possible that the temple sleepers at Acheron were administered a hemp preparation so that their dreams would be especially vivid» (Ratsch, 2005). Vandenberg still referred to Dakaris’ find of ancient Greek hashish in the 2007 edition of Mysteries of the Oracles, so one might conclude that this claim holds, and has simply been ignored (Vandenberg, 2007).
The riddle like oracles given by at Delphi were deciphered by a priesthood that, in times of corruption, interpreted them to suit their own agendas. Pythagoras (d. c. 497 B.C.), the Greek philosopher and mathematician, reformed this priesthood through purifying rituals, and despite angry protests from the male priests, he went against tradition and initiated the female Pythia, Theocla. Interestingly, The Book of Lists, has Pythagoras first on a list of marijuana users, and Iamblichus referred to «libations and sacrifices with fumigations, and incense, being performed by his initiates» (Guthrie 1987).
As Dannaway has noted, «psychoactive», i.e., magical, Thymiamata (that which is burnt as incense) of exotic ingredients are used by Pythagoras («who could prophesize with frankincense)» (Dannaway, 2009). Commenting on the word frankincense, which means pure-incense aromatherapy expert Susanne Fischer-Rizzi noted that: «We once called all herbs burnt as incense «frankincense» (Fischer-Rizzi 1990). That ancient incense blends sold at considerable cost as «frankincense» could have contained the highly aromatic and «magically» effective cannabis seems likely. Today the word frankincense has come to specify the gum resin from the North African tree Boswellia and Fischer-Rizzi points out that this modern source also contains psychoactive properties, comparable in some ways to those of cannabis, and that its use in modern churches helps to instil a chemically induced feeling of religious awe.
The suggestion that Pythagoras received inspiration from cannabis was first put forth by the 19th century author and hashish experimenter, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who suggested elements like Pythagoras hearing his name called out in the gurgling of a stream along with taking on the identity of deities and other events, indicate, as in Ludlow’s own experience with the drug, intoxication with hemp : «It would be no hard task to prove… that the initiation to the Pythagorean mysteries, and the progressive instructions which preceded it… consisted in the employment… of hasheesh» (Ludlow, 1856). Pythagoras based his system around the hemp using Thracian Orphic teachings, and he himself can clearly be described as a shaman–as Pythagoras had the ability to leave his body while in trance.
Pythagoras traveled throughout the ancient world and studied under the Babylonian Magi, a group renowned for their plant-magic. «Pythagoras and Democritus journey to Egypt, Ethiopia, Arabia, and Persia, visiting sects of drug-using wise men, known as Magi; the very same religious group that visited Jesus according to the Gospels; and wrote extensively about the potent psychotropic substances with which they experimented» (Hillman, 2008). Porphyry recorded that the Greek philosopher personally met the Persian shaman «Zaratus [Zoroaster] by whom he was purified from the pollutions of his past life» (Guthrie 1987). (Scholars have long noted Zoroaster’s use of cannabis to achieve ecstasy, and the mythology around the Persian Psychopomp shows that he initiated others into its use).
Also of interest is that Pythagoras considered Abaris, a Scythian shaman who came to learn from him, so experienced that he didn’t compel him to wade through the complicated introductory period involved with his teachings but contrarily considered him fit to be an immediate listener to his doctrines, and instructed him in the shortest possible way. As discussed in Chapter 7, the Scythians were renowned for using cannabis for ritual purposes. Pythagoras’s teachings were surrounded in secrecy and his quick acceptance of the Scythian shaman Abaris may indicate that the mutual use of cannabis constituted a meeting point of some kind.
The glory of ancient Greece, was one of the heights of the ancient world; its ideals have influenced the political development of our Western culture at least as much as Christianity has religion, if not more. Clearly, despite the lack of recognition of past scholars, cannabis was a part of the Greek social fabric, both as a medicine and as a magical plant that operated as a gateway between worlds.
The unstigmatized use of drugs was just one aspect of the ideal society the Athenians strove to achieve. For these Greeks, a free state allowed its citizens to make their own decisions, especially when it came to what they chose to do with their own bodies. Democracy and individual liberty went hand in hand, the freedom to consume alcohol or drugs was no less or more important to Athens than the right to speak one’s mind or to vote in the assembly… [F]reedom-loving Athenians,… unlike their Spartan counterparts, considered their individual liberties the foundation of a good society. (Hillman, 2008)
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