The way it looks, almost every country in the world has a rich history of cannabis. One of the most fascinating civilizations is the ancient Egypt. Until recently, many Egyptologists did not agree, that hemp in ancient Egypt had a larger role besides a source of fiber. However, recent research of ancient texts discovered it was used also for medicinal purposes and seeds in their diets.
Ancient Egypt lasted for around 30 centuries. It all began around 3.100 BCE, when multiple parts of Egypt merged and ended, when Alexander the Great conquered it around 332 BCE. Egypt ruled as the strongest and most influential civilization of the known world for millennia. It is a bit humorous to imagine cannabis prohibition in USA starting in the 1930s, in the light of the war on drugs. As USA existed for less than 200 years. Meanwhile, cannabis friendly ancient Egypt flourished and dominated the world for about 3.000 years.
HEMP IN ANCIENT EGYPT: BEGINNINGS
During their reign, the ancient Egyptians learned quite a few things themselves. A part of the knowledge is also the use of hemp. This is discussed in the research work of the main conservator in Coptic Museum of Cairo, Mr. Venice Ibrahim Attia. During his years of research, he gathered many scientific resources on the use of hemp in ancient Egypt. They include the use for ropes, sails, food, oil, and as an ingredient used in medicine.
The specific timeline is not yet known, however the ancient Egyptians most probably used hemp ranging 5.000 years in the past. Although, evidence of hemp use is rare or hard to access, there is enough of them to confirm its use on the above-mentioned areas and religious-cultural ceremonies. From 3.000 BCE forward there are evidence of hemp pollen in Egypt. Under the Ancient Egyptian plant remains codex (1997), pollen has been found on various locations dated from:
Pre-dynastic era (approximately 3.500 – 3.100 BCE),
12th dynasty (1.991 – 1.786 BCE) – including ball of cannabis fiber,
19th dynasty (1293 – 1185 BCE) – found on mummy of Ramesses II., and
Ptolemaic era (323 – 30 BCE).
Although many civilizations prior to ancient Egyptians already used cannabis, they were the first to completely adopt the holistic use of cannabis. Furthermore, this was confirmed by the content found on papyrus scrolls in ancient tombs, wall paintings in Karnak and Abu Simbel temples, and many references from historians visiting this region and their writings on ubiquity of hemp within the culture.
CANNABIS IN RELIGION OF ANCIENT EGYPT
Many believe that “shemshemet” (the name of cannabis on the Egyptian hieroglyphs) became popular even before Egyptians built the pyramids. It is supposed to be created by the Sun God Ra. Unfortunately, the fall of the ancient superpower completely diminished the importance of this plant and after some time it completely vanished from everyday lives of the inhabitants.
In 1981, when pharaoh Ramesses II. Mummy was examined, they found traces of cannabis on his mummified body. Moreover, after this find, archeologists found many other mummies with similar traces of the plant in their systems. Researchers also found traces of THC in the lungs of mummified Egyptians, which points to the fact they may have used cannabis for medicinal purposes before their death. These discoveries confirmed the suspicion, that cannabis in ancient Egypt was a very important part of the culture.
Another proof of importance of hemp in ancient Egypt are historical texts that mention the enforcement of cannabis tax by the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. Moreover, we can also find depictions of cannabis on ancient ruins and artwork. For example, artists commonly portraited Sheshat, the goddess of wisdom and writing, with a seven-pointed, star shaped leaf above her head. Many believe this is also a sign of hemp importance.
The cat goddess Bastet was also connected to the use of cannabis in the region. However, this was connected more to witchcraft. There is also evidence of ancient Egyptian’s cannabis use in various forms during rituals and religious festivals.
Many experts believe that the term from ancient Egyptian texts Shemshemet (sm-sm-t), is referred to cannabis or hemp, and academics found this word in various sources during years of research. The use of hemp in ancient Egypt can be classified into two categories. On one hand, we know that Egyptians used hemp for textiles/fiber and seed production. On the other hand, they used it for its psychoactive and therapeutic properties, for healing and spirituality.
Cannabis Use in Egyptian Medicine
Firstly, the context that led the medical practice needs to be discussed in ancient Egypt. Their understanding of the human body was way ahead of their time and also very advanced. Although, thousands of years separate them and Paster’s germ theory, they prioritized cleanliness. These theories brough some traditions, such as embalming with them and contributed to understanding of the human physiology.
The same medical knowledge also created a real treasury of medical plant use. In the beginnings, Egyptians had a foggy understanding of medicine and science separation. The early “doctors” were magicians, as the Egyptian culture believed, that disease comes due to entry of evil forces to our bodies. This perspective gave an ideal position for the plant-based medicine to be used.
Eventually, they discovered cannabis and found, that it is one of the strongest medicines originating from the world of plants. It had healing and psychoactive effects, which placed cannabis on the top of popularity list.
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN INDUSTRIAL HEMP USE
Industrial hemp is a type of cannabis with very low content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In many cultures it was used for industrial purposes before its relationship to the “stronger” cannabis led to its criminalization.
Ancient workers used a precise technique of dividing large rocks with hemp fiber, before transporting them to the construction site. They filled the cracks in the rocks with dried hemp and soaked it with water for it to spread and break the rock. Furthermore, some researchers also speculate that ancient Egyptians used hemp rope to transport the blocks used to build the pyramids.
From the pyramid writings of Unas, connected to the ascension to heaven through the north passageway of this pyramid, hemp ropes are the means to climb up to the starry sky. In the ancient text, the believer is commanded the following words in honor of Unas, the Bull of heaven, who leads the dead to the heaven:
This Unas is the bull of double brilliance in the midst of his Eye. Safe is the mouth of Unas through the fiery breath, the head of Unas through the horns of the lord of the South. Unas leads the god… Unas has twisted the SmSm.t-plant into ropes. Unas has united the heavens…
THE »MAGICAL« USE OF MEDICINAL CANNABIS
Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts states various “magical spells”, that Egyptian doctors could use to heal people. They include cannabis for diverse range of use and also include many recipes for pain mitigation.
For example, Ramesseum Papyri, one of the oldest discovered medical documents states: “Celery, cannabis is ground and left in the dew overnight. Both eyes of the patient are to be washed with it in the morning”. As it seems doctors used this preparations or cannabis ointment to treat glaucoma and other eye related problems – modern medicine also confirmed the ability of cannabis to reduce internal eye pressure.
Maybe they were not aware of all the details, however they were on the right path of thinking of potential uses of cannabis for medical purposes. Egyptologist Lise Manniche writes in her book “An Ancient Egyptian Herbal”, that cannabis is one of many plants Egyptians used in their culture, which emphasized plant-based medicine.
Experts examining these ancient texts, put forth some of the possible ways of cannabis use by the Egyptians:
As a part of an ointment for vaginal use, which “cools the uterus and eliminates its heat”, a seeming reference to treating menstrual pain.
Used as an ingredient in an ointment to mitigate pain from finger and toe injuries.
As an ingredient in a preparation for mitigating hemorrhoid pain.
Attia also points out that Diodorus Siculus (Sicilian-Greek historian) mentions the use of cannabis as a cure for sorrow, bad humor, insomnia, and as anesthetic and for mitigating pain by the Egyptian women. This essentially describes the uses of cannabis in the modern time.
KYPHI, THE SCENT “WELCOME TO THE GODS”
Some sources suggest that cannabis was an ingredient of an ancient fragrance and perfume of the pharaohs known as Kyphi. It was used as a gift for Gods. At sunset worshipers burned the fragrant preparation, which alters the state of mind in honor of the Sun God Ra (who supposedly created cannabis). With this they prayed his prayer the next morning. Furthermore, Kyphi demonstrated its medical effects when applied on the skin to treat wounds. It was also known as a strong relaxant and aphrodisiac. Contrary to Assyrian ointments, Kyphi was firmer and had a structure similar to wax.
Researchers suggested more than 50 natural ingredients to produce Kyphi, including some of the most probable ones: Aloeswood, Benzoin, Cannabis Resin, Cardamom Seeds, Cassia, Cedar, Cinnamon, Copal, Frankincense, Galangal Root, Ginger, Honey, Juniper, Lemongrass, Mastic, Mint, Myrrh, Orris, Pistachio, Raisins, Red Wine, Rose Petals, Saffron, Sandalwood, Storax Balsam.
Archeologist Joel Zias, who found evidence of cannabis use of ancient cultures of the near East on various locations added, that Egyptians wrote a lot about medicine, however the formulas always include some of this and some of that. We can never know the exact recipe for replication. Additionally, hashish and opium were common as well. It is very interesting to know that a French perfume producer created a modern Kyphi, however due to cannabis content, they could not get it into commercial use.
LET’S LEARN FROM HISTORY
Looking at the strong affinity of ancient civilizations towards hemp use to boost their economies and quality of life it is truly sad, that modern society created such a negative outlook towards hemp. It is impossible not to see the diverse usability of this plant, even though there is still much to learn. Luckily, it seems positive changes are coming related to its position in our lives and we will find new ways of using hemp to benefit the entire society. While there are still a lot of secrets of ancient Egypt left to uncover it is clear, that ancient Egyptians used cannabis in different parts of their lives . As far as the civilization is concerned, I think they did pretty well.