How Marijuana Thrived in Certain Cultures: Part 7 – Ancient Egypt

We take a look at the history of weed in ancient Egypt
MarijuanaBreak Staff MarijuanaBreak Staff / Updated on February 6, 2019

cannabis in ancient egypt

The mysteries of ancient Egypt only really began to become uncovered at the beginning of the 20th century. The ancient Egyptian civilization as we know it can be traced back to approximately 3100 – 3050 BC, in what is known as the Early Dynastic Period. Relatively little is known about this era of history. There is even dispute as to the identity of the first Pharaoh, who was probably called Nemes.

The age of the pharaohs ended when Octavian became the first Emperor of Rome, and Egypt became a province of the new Roman Empire in 30 BC. Up until recently, it was assumed that marijuana wasn’t widely used in ancient Egypt, but recent evidence shows that this isn’t the case at all.

When Did the Ancient Egyptians Begin Using Weed?

It is interesting to note that most books on ancient Egypt before the 1930s completely omitted any mention of cannabis use. It was a lack of knowledge that led to this oversight. Remember, archaeologists only began to learn how to decipher hieroglyphics in the middle of the 19th century and were unable to properly identify all of the medicines mentioned in papyruses.

Historians only discovered and understood evidence of marijuana use in ancient Egypt from 1934 onward. It was in this year that an article by Warren Dawson mentioned cannabis sativa when discussing ancient Egypt. He wrote that its use was ‘rare,’ but it was given as a treatment for uterine contraction, a sore toenail, irrigating the rectum, and fever. Scrolls dated to approximately 2000 BC found in Kemet (ancient Egypt) seem to say that weed was used to treat cataracts and sore eyes.

The next mention of medical cannabis in ancient Egyptian literature comes from the Ramesseum III Papyrus which is dated to 1700 BC. It is a collection of medical documents found in the temple of the Ramesseum. You can now view the papyrus in the British Museum. It mentions that weed was used in the treatment of glaucoma.

The next important scroll is the Ebers Papyrus dated 1550 BC. It contains the inscription of a prescription which mentions marijuana and its use in the treatment of obstetrics. Apparently, the Egyptians ground the weed in honey and introduced it into the vagina to keep the uterus cool. It is extremely likely that cannabis was used as an anti-inflammatory.

The Ebers Papyrus also states that cannabis was used to treat sore toenails. Physicians apparently combined weed with hedjouresin, ibou plant, honey, and ochre to create a mixture to dress the wound.

Both the Berlin Papyrus and Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus VI are dated to around 1300 BC. In the Berlin scroll, marijuana is mentioned as an ointment to relieve fever; and it is also mentioned for its use as a suppository!

Other Uses of Marijuana in Ancient Egypt

Cannabis was not just used for medicinal purposes in ancient Egypt. It was quite possibly used for recreational purposes as well. The mummy of the legendary pharaoh, Rameses II, was discovered in 1881. The famed Egyptian ruler died in 1213 BC, and traces of cannabis pollen were found on his body. Pieces of hemp were also found in the tomb of Amenophis IV who died in 1379 BC. Traces of weed have been found in several other mummies since.

The Egyptian Goddess of Wisdom, Seshat, is depicted with a marijuana plant leaf above her head in numerous paintings from the era. Bastet, the feline Goddess of War, is also linked to marijuana use in the region. It is probable that worshippers of several Egyptian gods consumed weed in religious festivals and activities.

Hemp is also part of the cannabis sativa plant and was possibly used in ancient Egypt to make rope, textiles, fine linen, and sails. There are references to cannabis hemp in the writings of the pyramids. It has also been suggested that ‘three-ply hemp cord’ was found in the ruins of El Amarna, the city of the infamous pharaoh, Akhenaton (the heretic) who ruled Egypt from 1353 BC to 1336 BC. The fiber probably came from Deccan hemp rather than cannabis sativa, however.

There is a suggestion that hemp fiber was used in ancient Egypt as early as 2500 BC. This is the date given to the creation of the famous Khufu Boat, which was sealed into a pit in the Giza pyramid complex. The ship gets its name because it was almost certainly built for Pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops. It seems as if the cedar timbers of the hull were tied together with hemp rope using a technique used by shipbuilders until the modern era.

It is likely that ancient Egyptian workers used a special technique to break down huge boulders which involved hammering down dry cannabis fiber into the cracks of the rocks. Next, the fiber and rocks were soaked in water until the fabric expanded enough to fracture the boulders fully.

Doubts Over Marijuana Use in Ancient Egypt

A significant number of historians are skeptical about the likelihood of weed being used in ancient Egypt. Other findings have uncovered traces of nicotine and cocaine in the tombs of pharaohs. This goes against everything we know about world history to this point. It is believed that there was little or no contact between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ world in the pre-Columbian era (before 1492).

If ancient Egyptians really used nicotine, weed, and tobacco, it would not only show that there WAS contact between the Old and New Worlds thousands of years before we now assume, it would also imply significant trade links which remain undiscovered. It is important to note that certain Old-World plants produce tiny amounts of cocaine and nicotine.

In any case, marijuana use in ancient Egypt would mean that civilizations from the Middle East made the journey to Egypt; not an impossibility since the likes of the Aryans would not need to travel overseas to make it from Iran to Egypt.

Even so, several prominent academics responded to the studies of Balabanova, Pirsig, and Parsche which outlined the discovery of weed, nicotine, and cocaine in Egyptian mummies. Cocaine and tobacco are indigenous to America, and it seems incredibly unlikely that there was any trade link between the two continents so early in history.

The Ebers Papyrus does not mention any drug that could be classified as tobacco or cocaine, and it mentions poppy seeds rather than marijuana according to a researcher called Professor Hertting of Freiburg, Germany. There are potentially several reasons why traces of drugs were found in tombs.

Nicotine is a powerful insecticide and could have been used to preserve the mummies in modern times. Indeed, contamination of tombs is common, and we don’t know how many discovered tombs had been raided before. There is also a lack of understanding regarding neurobiochemical and neurochemical processes during mummification. For all we know, cocaine-like substances appear naturally during artificial mummification.

Post-Pharaoh Use

There is enough evidence to be confident of marijuana use in ancient Egypt, and there is no doubt as to its use from at least the first century BC. A Greek historian by the name of Diodorus Siculus who probably lived from 90 BC to 30 BC, wrote that Egyptian women used marijuana as a form of medication to relieve sorrow, treat insomnia, and as a painkiller.

The Vienna Papyrus is from approximately 200 AD and is a composite of ALL other ancient Egyptian medical knowledge up to that point. The Roman Emperor Aurelian, one of the most underrated military commanders of all time, ruled Rome from 270 to 275 AD. During his reign, marijuana use was so prevalent in Egypt that he decided to put a tax on it!

Final Thoughts on Marijuana Use in Ancient Egypt

There is some debate as to whether cannabis was actually used in ancient Egypt at all. Mentions of weed occur in several scrolls from up to 4,000 years ago, and cannabis pollen was found on the mummies on pharaohs. However, there is a possibility that contamination is responsible.

Yet it isn’t as unlikely as Egyptians somehow having access to nicotine and cocaine which were only available thousands of miles away at that time. Marijuana was widely used in the Middle East by 1500 BC, so it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that it made its way to Egypt at around the same time.

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