Cannabis in the Greek world

The Greek World

In ancient Greece, hemp was probably already used in Dionysian rites and, as J.L. Brau says, everything suggests that it was also used in the Eleusinian liturgies to reveal to the initiates the arcana of the myth of Demeter. The priests, who bore the name Eumolpidae (= singers of beneficial melodies), were said to be children of the Moon, designated to be mediators between the Earth and the Sky, “come from the sphere where the bridge is thrown between the two regions, through which the souls come down and go back. From the beginning, their function was to sing in this abyss of misery the delights of the celestial stay, and to teach the means to find their way “. At the opening of the Great Mysteries there was a scene that closely resembles the Scythian ceremonies described by Herodotus: “The strangest scene, which was very similar to true magic, took place in a crypt in which a Phrygian priest (originally, therefore, of an area where hemp grew in abundance) dressed in an Asian wavy dress  with red and black vertical stripes, stood in front of a copper brazier that dimly lit the room with intermittent flashes. With a gesture that gave no chance of reply, he forced those who came to sit down and threw large handfuls of narcotic perfume into the brazier. Soon the room was filled with thick swirls of smoke, and there was only a confused mixture of changing forms, animals and humans. Sometimes they were long snakes that turned into sirens and wrapped themselves in an interminable roll; sometimes the busts of voluptuously arched nymphs with outstretched arms that turned into bats, or charming heads of adolescents turning into faces of dogs. And all these monsters, splendid and horrible, fluid, aerial, deceptive and unreal, quickly disappearing as they appeared, spinning, dazzling, giving vertigo and enveloping those seated as if to block the way for them. Sometimes the priest of Cybele spread his short wand in the midst of the vapors, and the effluvium of his will seemed to give the multiform round dance a swirling movement and a disturbing vitality ”

Equally probable, though not certain, is the identification with a cannabis drink of the Homeric Nepenthe. The Odyssey recounts the coming of Telemachus to Sparta at the Menelaus court; during the banquet in his honour Telemachus evokes the fate of his father Ulysses and all the guests fall into deepest melancholy. Helen then orders the servants to pour into the cups the nepenthe “drink that sends the pain of unhappiness into oblivion”. Soon the smile returns on the lips of Menelaus, of Telemachus and his companion Pisistratus, and the black thoughts disappear as the wonderful potion acts, that “the daughter of Zeus had received from the Egyptian Polydamna, wife of Thonis; because it is especially in Egypt that the fertile earth produces a large number of plants, some beneficial  and other mortals ”

Diodorus Siculus, historian of the time of Caesar, reports that the women of Thebes prepared a potion that acted like the nepenthe of Homer, and Strabo quotes the mystical Kapnobatai, which by analogy with the aristophanes areobates have been translated as ‘ those who walk in the clouds’ or more exactly ‘those who walk in the clouds of hemp smoke’, which was a means to reach the already known Thracian elation. ” Democritus calls the potamaugis hemp and describes it mixed with myrrh and wine, while it is not certain that it refers to the cannabis Theophrastus when he describes a ‘smelling calamus’ that grows in the plain between the chains of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon. Dioscorides talks about the hemp and the pleasing visions and hallucinations that it provokes, and says that the Indians eat its leaves both as an aphrodisiac and to regain their appetite.

“Pedanius Dioscorides (circa AD 40-90), a Greek physician who was a Roman army doctor and traveled widely on campaigns throughout the Roman empire, studied many plants, gathering his knowledge into a book he titled De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters). Published about AD 70 it became the most important medical tome of the next 1500 years. Irrefutably included in it was cannabis, bothkannabis emeros and kannabis agria, the male and female respectively. Dioscorides stated bluntly that the plant which was used in the making of rope also produced a juice that was used to treat earache and suppress sexual longing.”



Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.