Egypt has a rich history of cannabis that spans millennia.
Though many early cultures cultivated the plant, the Egyptians were one of the first who truly embraced its holistic use. We know this to be true because of the contents within papyrus scrolls discovered in ancient tombs, wall paintings in Karnak and Abu Simbel temples, and many references by historians who visited the region and commented on its ubiquitous use within the culture.
Many believe that shemshemet – as varieties of the cannabis plant were called in the Egyptian hieroglyphs – found popularity even before the Egyptians built the pyramids. However, Egypt’s decline as an ancient superpower resulted in its diminished significance and eventual disappearance from the people’s daily lives.
Cannabis in Egyptian Religion
When the mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses II was unearthed and examined in 1981, they discovered the remains of cannabis. Following that, archaeologists have found numerous mummies that contain similar traces of the plant within their systems. These discoveries confirmed the suspicion that cannabis indeed was an integral part of ancient Egyptian culture.
Seshat, the goddess of wisdom and writing, is often depicted in paintings, thousands of years old, with a cannabis leaf above her head. The feline goddess of war, Bastet, was also connected to cannabis use in the region, though this was more in line with witchcraft. There is also proof that the Ancient Egyptians consumed cannabis in different forms during rituals and religious festivals.
Exploring Cannabis Use in Ancient Egypt
Though the specific timeline is not crystal clear, Egyptians probably used cannabis as far back as 5000 years ago. It has been quite challenging to unearth the evidence to back these claims, but we can still shed some light on how they used cannabis.
You can broadly classify uses of ‘shemshemet’ in Ancient Egypt into two categories:
On the one hand, we know that the Egyptians used it for textile/fiber and seed production. On the other hand, they utilized the psychoactive and therapeutic properties of cannabis for medicine and spirituality.
Cannabis use in Egyptian Medicine
It is first crucial to grasp the context that guided Egyptian medical practices. The culture’s understanding of the human body was far ahead of its time and comparatively advanced. Though there were thousands of years between them and Pasteur’s germ theory, they prioritized cleanliness. These theories gave birth to customs like embalming and contributed to their understanding of human physiology.
This same medical knowledge created an avenue for their use of medicinal plants. At first, the Egyptians had blurred the understanding between medicine and science. The earliest “doctors” were magicians because the Egyptian culture believed that illness was due to evil forces entering the body. Such beliefs positioned plant-based medicines as ideal cures for ailments.
Eventually, the Egyptians cannabis was discovered to be one of the most powerful of these plant-based concoctions available. It had both healing and psychoactive effects, all of which may have accounted for its popularity.
The Ebers papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts, lists several medicinal uses of the herb, with several formulas for pain-relief. Cannabis salves helped in glaucoma, and eyesores treatment, a use that modern medicine’s discovery of its ability to reduce intraocular pressure has validated.
Hemp use in Egyptian Industry
Hemp is the variety of cannabis that has low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. It has been used in many cultures for industrial purposes before its relationship with marijuana resulted in its criminalization.
It would be odd if you have not yet learned about hemp’s use in the production of fabric, rope, and sails. Hemp use was so widespread in Egypt that when they became part of the Roman Empire, The Romans imposed a hefty tax on the production of hemp
Ancient workers applied a meticulous technique in breaking down large rocks with hemp fibers before transporting them to construction sites. They would fit in chunks of dry hemp into cracks within the stone, then soak them in water till the hemp swells up and splits the rock. Some even speculate that the Egyptians even used ropes made from hemp to pull blocks of limestone to build the Pyramids!
Considering ancient civilizations were so open to using cannabis to boost their economies and quality of life, it truly is unfortunate that modern societies have laid heavy stigma on its use. We cannot overlook this plant’s versatility, although there is still so much to learn about it. Thankfully, positive changes are on the way regarding its place in our lives, and we will continue to find more ways to use hemp to benefit society.