Cannabis: Some History
Mel C Siff
While recently investigating
qi, ki, mystical powers and such phenomena, I came across many references
which showed some link between "mind-altering" plants
and mystical powers, unusual capabilities and altered states in all countries
of the world, including China, India and the East. Of course, this is fairly
well known to anyone who has researched the philosophies, religions and healing
systems of these countries, and I will not repeat it here.
What I would like to share with you is this information about the lesser known
use of cannabis in the Middle East and in Biblical times. Here are some excerpts
from the following website (yes, this site has a hidden agenda to extol some
of the virtues of this weed, but the information, nevertheless is worthy of
THE ROOTS OF KANEH-BOSM
The first solid evidence of the Hebrew use of cannabis was established in 1936
by Sula Benet, a little known Polish etymologist from the Institute of Anthropological
Sciences in Warsaw (1).
The word cannabis was generally thought to be of Scythian origin, but Benet
showed that it has a much earlier origin in Semitic languages like Hebrew,
and that it appears several times throughout the Old Testament. Benet explained
that "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 (2)."
Benet demonstrated that the word for cannabis is kaneh-bosm, also rendered
in traditional Hebrew as kaneh or kannabus. The root 'kan' in this construction
means "reed" or "hemp", while bosm means "aromatic".
This word appears five times in the Old Testament; in the books of Exodus,
the Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
The word kaneh-bosm has been mistranslated as calamus, a common marsh plant
with little monetary value that does not have the qualities or value ascribed
to kaneh-bosm. The error occurred in the oldest Greek translation of the H
ebrew Bible, the Septuagint in the third century BC, and was repeated in the
many translations that followed (3).
THE HIDDEN STORY
When we take a chronological look at biblical references to kaneh-bosm, we
reveal more than just the story of cannabis in the Old Testament. Another exciting
and concealed story emerges as well, that of the suppression of the worship
of Astarte, also called Ashera, known to the ancient Semites as the Queen of
The First Reference to Kaneh-Bosm
MOSES & MARIJUANA
The first mention of kaneh-bosm in the Old Testament appears with the prophet-shaman
Moses. At the beginning of his shamanic career, Moses discovered the angel
of the Lord in flames of fire from within a bush. It is later in his life however,
that a definite reference to cannabis is made. Sula Benet explains this reference
as follows: 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 secular. The anointment of sacred objects
was an ancient tradition in Israel: holy oil was not to be used for secular
Above all, the anointing oil was used for the installation rites of all Hebrew
kings and priests.
This first reference to kaneh-bosm is the only that describes it as an ointment
to be applied externally. However, anointing oils made with cannabis are indeed
psychoactive and have been used by such seemingly diverse groups as 19th century
occultists and medieval witches (4). Closer to Moses' own time, cannabis was
used as a topical hallucinogen by the ancient worshippers of Asherah, the Queen
of Heaven. Asherah has also been referred to as the Hebrew Goddess (5).
The shamanistic Ashera priestesses of pre-reformation Jerusalem mixed cannabis
resins with those from myrrh, balsam, frankincense, and perfumes, and then
anointed their skins with the mixture as well as burned it (6).
Then the Lord said to Moses, "take the following fine spices: 500 shekels
of liquid myrrh, half as much of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of kannabosm,
500 shekels of cassia - all according to the sanctuary shekel - and a hind
of olive oil. Make these into make these into a sacred annoiting oil, a fragrant
blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred annointing oil.
Then use it to anoint the tent of the meeting, the ark of the testimony, the
table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of
incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with
its stand. You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever
touches them will be holy.
Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as preists.
Say to the Israelites, "this is to be my sacred anointing oil for the
generations to come. Do not pour it on men's bodies and do not make any oil
with the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred. Whoever
makes perfume like it and whoever puts it on anyone other than a priest must
be cut off from his people." (Exodus 30:22-33)
THE PRIESTS OF POT
The above Old testament passage makes the sacredness of this ointment quite
clear. Moses and the Levite priesthood jealously guarded its use, and enforced
this discriminatory prohibition with God's commandment that any transgressors
be 'cut off from his people'. This law amounted to a death sentence in the
SMOKE IN THE TENT
Lacking the invention of pipes, it was the practice of some ancient peoples
to burn cannabis and other herbs in tents, so that more smoke could be captured
and inhaled. In the last installment of this column we discussed such a group,
the ancient Scythians. The Scythians were a nomadic people who travelled and
settled extensively throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and
Russia. They burned cannabis inside small tents and inhaled the fumes for ritualistic
and recreational purposes.
Moses and his priests burned incense and used the holy ointment in a portable
'tent of meeting', the famous Tent of the Tabernacle. As cannabis is listed
directly as an incense later in the Bible, it seems likely that Moses and the
Levite priesthood would have burned cannabis flowers and pollen along with
the ointment and incense which God commanded them to make.
And Aaron shall burn incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he
shall burn incense upon it. And when aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall
burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the lord throughout your generations.
THE SCYTHIAN CONNECTION
Given that the Scythians and Israelites were involved in a trade of goods and
knowledge, it is not surprising to find the similar technique of using tents
to retain smoke. Benet commented on the often overlooked connections between
these two groups.
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 BC. The reason for the confusion and relative obscurity of the role
played by the Scythians in world history is the fact that they were known to
the Greeks as Scythians but to the Semites as Ashkenaz.
The earliest reference to the Ashkenaz people appears in the Bible in Genesis
10:3, where Ashkenaz, their progenitor, is named the son of Gomer, the great-grandson
GOD WITHIN A CLOUD
A reading of the Old Testament reveals that Yahweh "came to Moses out
of the midst of the cloud" and that this cloud came from smoke produced
by the burning of incense. As scholar Ralph Patai commented in his book The
Hebrew Goddess, "Yahweh merely put in temporary appearances in the tent
of meeting. He was a visiting deity whose appearance in or departure from the
tent was used for oracular purposes."
One is reminded of the ancient Persian sage Zoroaster, another monotheist like
Moses, who heard the voice of his god, Ahura Mazda, while in a state of shamanistic
ecstasy produced by cannabis. The Greek oracle of Delphi also reve aled her
prophecies from behind a veil of intoxicating smoke.
The insights achieved from the use of cannabis, whether inhaled in the Tent
of the Tabernacle or applied topically, could have been interpreted by Moses
as messages from God. This is similar to modern shamans who interpret their
experiences with plant hallucinogens as containing divine revelations......The
Second Appearance of Cannabis
The next Biblical account of cannabis comes under the name kaneh and appears
in relation to King Solomon. In Solomon's Song of Songs, one of the most beautifully
written pieces in the Old Testament, Solomon mentions kaneh in describing his
Come with me from Lebanon, my bride, come with me from lebanon. Descend from
the crest of amana, from the top of senir, the summit of hermon..... How delightful
is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than
wine, and the fragrance of your ointment than any spice!. . .
The fragrance of your garments is like that of Lebanon..... Your plants are
an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and
saffron, kaneh and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree.....
SOLOMON AND THE QUEEN OF HEAVEN
In The Temple and the Lodge by Baigent and Leigh, the authors
state that Solomon's 'Song of Songs' is a hymn and invocation
to the Phoenician mother goddess Astarte. Astarte was known
as "Queen of Heaven", "Star of the Sea" and "Stella
The authors show us that Astarte was conventionally worshipped on mountains
and hilltops, and then point to a quote from I Kings 3:3.
Solomon loved Yahweh; he followed the precepts of David his father, except
that he offered sacrifice and incense on the high places.
I Kings 11:4-5 offers an even more explicit example of Solomon's ties to Astarte:
When Solomon grew old his wives swayed his heart to other gods; and his heart
was not wholly with Yahweh his god as his father David's had been. Solomon
became a follower of Astarte, the goddess of the Sidonians.
THE SPIRIT OF THE SCYTHIANS
Solomon's practice of burning incense on high to the Queen of Heaven may have
been a custom done in the same spirit as that of the Scythians, who burned
cannabis in mountain caves and consecrated the act to their version of the
Great Goddess, Tabiti-Hestia (9).
Archeological finds show that the worship of the old Canaanite gods was an
integral part of the religion of the Hebrews, through to the very end of Hebrew
monarchy. The worship of the Goddess played a much more important role in this
popular religion than that of the gods.
The Third Reference to Cannabis
GOD WANTS HERB
The next direct reference to kaneh-bosm appears in Isaiah, where God is reprimanding
the Israelites for, among other things, not supplying him with his due of the
You have not brought any kaneh for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offences.
The Fourth Reference to Cannabis
KANEH FROM A DISTANT LAND
The fourth appearance of cannabis in the Old Testament is in Jeremiah, by which
time it seems that Yahweh's taste for the herb had declined. In the same way
that God rejected Cain's offering of grain in favour of Abel's blood sacrifice,
the cannabis also is rejected.
What do I care about incense from sheba or kaneh from a distant land? Your
burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.
(Jeremiah 6: 20) ...............
The Final Reference to Cannabis
TRADING WITH TYRE
The final Biblical reference to kaneh appears in Ezekiel 27, in a passage called
A Lament for Tyre. The kingdom of Tyre had fallen into disfavor with Yahweh,
and cannabis appears as just one of many of the wares received by Tyre, the
merchant of peoples on many coasts.
Both of these passages refer obliquely back to the story of King Solomon. The
mention of Sheba brings to mind Solomon's love affair with the Queen of Sheba,
and the King of Tyre played a pivotal role in Solomon's building of the temple.
Danites and Greeks from Uzal bought your merchandise; they exchanged wrought
iron, cassia and kaneh for your wares.
FROM FAVOUR TO DISFAVOUR
Of these five references to kaneh and kaneh-bosm, the first three have cannabis
appear in Yahweh's favour, the fourth definitely in his disfavour, and the
fifth on a list from a kingdom that had fallen from grace in the eyes of the
Israelite God. One might wonder at the reason for these apparent contradictions,
and the answer can be found within the story of the suppression of the cult
of Ashera, or Astarte, the ancient Queen of Heaven.
In "The Chalice and the Blade", Riane Eisler explains this as follows:
There are of course some allusions to this in the Bible itself. The prophets
Ezra, Hosea, Nehemiah, and Jeremiah constantly rail against the "abomination" of
worshipping other gods. They are particularly outraged at those who still worship
the "Queen of Heaven". And their greatest wrath is against the "unfaithfulness
of the daughters of Jerusalem," who were understandably "backsliding" to
beliefs in which all temporal and spiritual authority was not monopolized by
men. But other than such occasional, and always pejorative, passages, there
is no hint that there ever was - or could be - a deity that is not male.
The ties between cannabis and the Queen of Heaven are probably most apparent
in Jeremiah 44, where the ancient patriarch seems to be concerned by the people's
continuing worship of the Queen of Heaven, especially by the burning of incense
in her honour.
Keep in mind the documented use of cannabis by the shamanistic Ashera priestesses
of pre-reformation Jerusalem, who anointed their skins with cannabis mixtures
as well as burning it as incense....
Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; ye have seen all the evil
that I have brought upon Jerusalem, and upon all the cities of Judah; and behold,
this day they are a desolation. . .
Because of their wickedness which they have committed to provoke me to anger,
in that they wanted to burn incense, and to serve other gods..... Therefore
now..... Wherefore commit ye this great evil against your souls..... In that
ye provoke me to wrath with the works of your hands, burning incense unto other
gods in the land of Egypt?
Then all the men which knew that their wives had burned incense unto other
gods, and all the women that stood by, a great multitude, even all the people
that dwelt in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah, saying, as for the word
that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the lord, we will not hearken
But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth,
to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour drink offerings unto
her, as we have done. We, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the
city of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then we had plenty of victuals,
and were well, and saw no evil.
(Jeremiah 44:15-23) .....
Mel C Siff