For centuries cannabis’ complex relationship with the early days of Hinduism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Judism, Christianity, and Islam has been shrouded in mystery. But thanks to Chris Bennett’s relentless research, we now know the plant had a powerful impact on them all. This story starts on the banks of the Dnieper River, near the world’s shallowest sea, (the Sea of Azov) in the Ukraine, around 4,000 BC. Recent evidence suggests that it was here that the horse was first domesticated, and it is here that cannabis spirituality emerges from pre-history, for there is a possible connection between the first riders and the early use of hemp to make rope. Today, this culture is known as “Sredny Stog,” after the Ukrainian village near where some of the best artifacts have been uncovered.
In fact, early use of the horse may be the primary reason why cannabis spread out of Russia and through Europe, the Middle East, China and India, writes Bennett in his groudbreaking book, Cannabis and the Soma Solutions. “With the spread of cannabis, came a religious cosmology often based around the plant itself. The late Archaeologist Andrew Sherratt referred to the discovery of a 5,500 year old smoking-cup which may be the oldest existing evidence of the use of cannabis for its psychoactive properties.”
Over a few thousand years, the Sredny Stog culture evolved into the “Sakas” or “Scythians,” named after an agricultural tool likely invented for hemp harvesting. Thanks to a Greek historian writing in 430 BC, they have gone down in history as the world’s first documented stoners.
“Hemp grows in Scythia,” wrote Herodotus. “It is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant… The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy…”
Although hemp intoxication may have started with flowering tops being thrown on open fires and eventually burned indoors in pottery braziers and metal censers, at some point it evolved into a beverage. “Sherratt was the first to suggest the cannabis-burning braziers eventually went to the way side,” says Bennett, “replaced by a beverage, although he believes that cannabis use continued through this cultural shift. The disappearance of ceramic braziers was followed by the appearance of pottery drinking vessels ornamented with impressions of twisted cord.” Some researchers believe the hemp-like decoration suggests these drinking vessels contained a cannabis-infused drink.
It now appears likely that a cannabis and milk beverage first used in Russia and Europe, spread all the way to China and then returned via India and Afghanistan as a worshipped deity. This beverage set off waves of religious fervor in China, India and the Middle East, where it was known respectively as soma, huma and hoama, before being prohibited by both Catholics and Buddhists. And eventually the identity of the original sacrament of some of the world’s major religions would become so muddied that, until recently, its very identity remained in doubt.
According to Ethnobotanist Christian Ratsch, the ancient pagan culture of Germany honored the Goddess Freya through cannabis: “It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant’s feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force.” These traditions would have been handed down directly from the Sakas, whose extensive trade routes once stretched from Germany in the West, to China in the East, to Egypt in the South. Had they ever unified, they would have been a dominating empire; instead they remained clustered in nomadic tribes. And little is known for sure because they never developed a written language.
Since it’s now indisputable that some of our most respected spiritual traditions once considered cannabis a central part of their culture, continued research will be required to understand how and why all knowledge of the plant’s contributions to the evolution of religion seem to have been systematically hidden or ignored through history.
THE HORSE PEOPLE
Considering they laid down a cultural foundation still evident in myths and rituals today, it’s amazing how obscure the Sakas are to most of their descendants on the planet. In their day, Sakas were immediately recognizable by their distinctive pointed caps, the sort of gear later associated with witches. In Europe, their immediate descendants became known as Goths, Saxons and Juts. Sakas wore a lot of gold, most of which was fashioned into ornate jewelry and armor embellished with fantastic animal motifs, including griffins and other mythical creatures. These images were also tattooed on their arms and shoulders, and some of it bears an eerie resemblance to psychedelic imagery of the Sixties counterculture.
The Sakas were formidable warriors and one of the few cultures that allowed women to fight alongside men. But when not at war, they were famous for being law-abiding and civil. They wore trousers and drank an early version of bhang in ceremonial cups, some of which were fashioned from the skulls of their enemies. Their highly regarded shamans were called “enarees,” which translates as “men-women” or “halfmen.” The enarees spoke with high-pitched voices, wore women’s clothes, and employed cannabis as part of their magical rituals.
The first recorded encounter with the Sakas occured when the Persian King Darius invaded their lands in 514 BC. Since they built no cities or temples, and lived in covered wagons pulled by oxen, the Sakas simply withdrew as a Persian army of 700,000 advanced into their territory. Darius repeatedly tried to force battle but the Sakas just kept withdrawing. Finally, Darius sent an envoy to the Saka chief and received the following message: “There is nothing new or strange in what we do. We follow our mode of life in peaceful times. We have neither towns nor cultivated lands in these parts which might induce us, through fear of their being ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight you. But if you must needs come to blows with us speedily, look about you, and behold our fathers’ tombs. Attempt to meddle with them and you shall see whether or not we will fight with you.” Eventually, Darius was forced to retreat back to Persia, at which point the Sakas turned around and dogged his every step back home. Darius would never dare invade the Russian steppes again.
There are amazing parallels between the Sakas and the American West. When threatened, they would arrange their four and six-wheeled mobile homes into large circles. They took scalps in battle and hung these grisly souvenirs from their bridles to display their prowess. They had no stirrups but were famous for being able to shoot arrows in rapid fire while riding horseback, a technique that involves holding several arrows with one hand and shooting off the outside of your thumb. They built teepees and used these primarily as cannabis inhalation tents. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, who established vast pantheons of Gods and Goddesses, the Sakas recognized only the sacred energies of earth, sky, sun, moon, fire, water, peace and war. One can only imagine the impact one of their wagon-trains might have had upon arriving at communities unfamiliar with horses, wagons or psychedelic tattoos.
CELTS IN CHINA
Cannabis had a major impact on the development of religion and medicine in China. The ancient Chinese glyph for cannabis is the primordial “Ma,” symbolized in writing by two plants hanging upside down (as if being dried for intoxicating purposes).
Shen Nong was Emperor of China nearly 5,000 years ago. Today, he is venerated as the founder of Chinese agriculture and traditional Chinese medicine. His name translates as the Emperor of the Five Grains. He is believed to have introduced the technique of acupuncture and was the first person in recorded history to scientifically study herbs for medicinal qualities. He also was reportedly the first person to brew tea. Shen Nong classified cannabis as one of the “Superior Elixirs of Immortality” and recommended “chu-ma” (female cannabis) for absentmindedness, constipation, malaria, beri-beri, rheumatism and menstrual cramps.
Two thousand years after the reign of Shen Nong, Taoists in China created the first modern pharmacopoeia. Tao Hongjing re-organized the “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” adding 365 herbs, which brought the total number of known medicines to 730. Interest in medicine was closely guarded by the Taoists, who at time were associated with the highest levels of government and royalty. According to historian Joseph Needham, Yang Hsi attributed the founding of the first major Taoist center to a cannabis-based vision. And in the sixth century, Taoist Wu Shang Pi Yao, recomended two types of cannabis be burned in the ceremonial incense braziers called boshanlus. One branch of Taoism, the Mao Shan, or “Supreme Clarity,” elevated cannabis into a Goddess known as “Ma Ku” or “Miss Hemp.” Miss Hemp was depicted as a beautiful young woman with bird’s claws in place of feet.
However, theories about the origins of hemp intoxication in China are currently being revised because hundreds of caucasian mummies from the Bronze Age have been discovered along the ancient silk road in the Taklamakan Desert in Western China. Some mummies were dressed in Celtic-style Tartan cloth nearly identical to clothing in use in Austria over 3,000 years ago. One of the women was wearing a conical hat, the distinctive emblem of the Sakas. “Archaeologists found a sack of marijuana leaves buried alongside one mummy,” writes Bennett, in reference to a find of two pounds of 2,700 year old female cannabis flowers, “as well as a mortar and pestle that was used for grinding the plant matter.” The mortar and pestle would indicate a soma-like beverage may have been consumed by Sakas in Western China who are believed to have lived there since 1800 BC.
THE RIG VEDA
The Rig Veda is one of the oldest religious documents in the world, the old testament of both Hinduism and Buddhism. And there is a central sacrament in the Rig Veda: soma, which is referred to as “the king of the healing plants.” Many researchers throughout history have suggested the obvious: soma is bhang, an intoxicating beverage still widely used in India today, especially at ceremonies honoring Shiva. However, in the 1960s, an amateur historian named R. Gordon Wasson became the first to theorize soma was actually the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Before he retired in 1963, Wasson had been a Vice President at J.P. Morgan, one of the world’s most powerful international banks. His contacts in the publishing world were extensive, and despite having a poor understanding of Sanskrit, Wasson was able to convince many Western historians to accept his mushroom theory. However, Bennett shows without a doubt that Wasson’s theory was seriously flawed. In fact, the Rig Veda clearly describes soma as a greenish-gold plant, not a mushroom. Today, in India, one finds the world’s largest spiritual event, the Kumbeh Mela, which happens every three years. While smoking cannabis and drinking of bhang is widespread in India and at Kumbeh Mela, mushroom use is rare. It is difficult to understand why Wasson and other Western researchers on Vedic culture seem to have had such an intense aversion to recognizing the central role of cannabis in the Rig Veda.
After the Dead Sea Scolls were discovered, they were kept hidden for years and one of the few allowed to see the scrolls would release a book claiming Jesus as a mushroom. Were these attempts to lead people astray from the Christian connection to cannabis?
THE BMAC TEMPLES
Located in the Kara Kum desert in Turkmenistan, near where cannabis is believed to have originated, lies the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, a recently-discovered, football-field-sized temple devoted to the drinking of soma. Dated at 2000 BC, it is the oldest and most elaborate temple devoted to the most influential pre-Biblical sacrament in world history. After remains of cannabis, ephedra, and poppies were discovered in vessels used to prepare the ceremonial drink, Wasson’s forty-year-old mushroom theory should have been forever laid to rest. Unfortunately, the ramifications of these recent findings at Kara Kum have not yet fully penetrated the mainstream, but these discoveries continue to support the hypothesis that a cannabis cult exploded out of the Hindu Kush and spread east to India and west to Iran, sparking cannabis-based religious cultures to blossom in both areas.
Zoroastrianism was the world’s most powerful religion between 500 BC to 650 AC. It had a major influence on the development of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religious faiths. According to historian Mary Boyce, “It has had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith.” Think of Zoroastrianism as the Old Testament of the Old Testament. The Magi who attend the birth of Christ are Zoroastrian Priests. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a central sacrament in Zoroastrian culture, a milk-based intoxicant called haoma. And, according to the Avesta (the Zoroastrian bible), haoma is a tall, fragrant, greenish-gold plant with leaves, stems and fiber, that grows like a weed, heals, and stimulates awareness and sensuality without negative side effects. Later Zoroastrian literature also makes mention of mang, an intoxicating drink long assumed to be the Iranian versions of bhang. Bennett theorizes that the prophet Zarathustra made changes in the official haoma recipe after its use became too widespread. This theory is based on the fact that although haoma appears as a central part of the Avesta, it does not appear in later official text. In fact, over the years many attempts seem to have been made to muddy the waters on haoma’s original identity, which is undoubtedly cannabis-based and related to the Indian soma. Such a change in the haoma recipe is supported by the findings at Kara Kum, where cannabis seems to have been eventually replaced by ephedra and, in some cases, possibly the addition of poppies. Today, most mainstream Zoroastrians recognize only ephedra as being part of the haoma ceremony, just as some renegade sects have always recognized only cannabis.
CHRISTIANS AND JEWS
In February, 2003, Bennett published a groundbreaking article in HIGH TIMES, “Was Jesus a Stoner?” This article looked at evidence of cannabis use as revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Jesus portrayed in these scrolls is a much different figure than the one that described in the Bible of the Catholic Church. Bennett concluded Jesus had been anointed with a sacred oil by John the Baptist and the recipe for this oil could still be found in Exodus 30:23. In Exodus, Moses is instructed by the voice of God—emanating from a burning bush—to mix an oil of myrrh, cinnamon and six pounds of cannabis (“250 shekels of keneh bosem”) mixed into about a gallon and a half of olive oil. “The Greek title ‘Christ’ is the translation of the Jewish term ‘Messiah,'” says Bennett, “which in English becomes ‘the anointed one’ and makes specific reference to the cannabis-based oil described in Exodus. In fact, there is evidence that many of the so-called miracles performed by Jesus and his followers were accounts of actual medical applications of this topical oil.”
According to Bennett, the sacred anointing oil had fallen into disrepute with the Jewish priesthood during the time of Jeremiah, and was not revived until the emergence of John the Baptist. In the hundred years following Jesus’ execution, dozens of Christian sects appeared, many of which were Gnostic, which means they placed an emphasis on knowledge rather than faith. Many Gnostics were also involved with sacramental drug use involving cannabis and mushrooms. This trend peaked with the rapid spread of Manichaeism, a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity that eventually became intensely persecuted by all three religions.
Bennett’s theories on the use of cannabis in the Bible received a major boost when one of the foremost scholars in the field, Carl P. Ruck, professor of classical mythology at Boston University, was interviewed by the London Sunday Times agreeing with Bennett. Ruck is most famous for being part of the team that coined the term “entheogen.” “There can be little doubt about a role for cannabis in Judaic religion,” said Ruck. “There is no way that so important a plant as a fiber source for textiles and nutritive oils and one so easy to grow would have gone unnoticed…the mere harvesting of it would have induced an entheogenic reaction.”
In fact, over the years many attempts seem to have been made to muddy the waters on haoma’s original identity, which is undoubtedly cannabis-based and related to the Indian soma. Such a change in the haoma recipe is supported by the findings at Kara Kum, where cannabis seems to have been eventually replaced by ephedra and, in some cases, possibly the addition of poppies. Today, most mainstream Zoroastrians recognize only ephedra as being part of the haoma ceremony, just as some renegade sects have always recognized only cannabis.