Medical Use before the Modern Era


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All the famous Old-World cradles of civilization put cannabis to medical use-China, Mesopotamia, Greece, India, and maybe Egypt. The Scythians, a tribe of migrants who inhaled cannabisinfused steam for ritual purposes, migrated out of their Siberian homeland around 800 BC. They lacked a written language, but their word for Cannabis has been reconstructed as kanab, kanap. konaba, or kannabis. The Scythians influenced civilizations in China, India, and Mesopotamia at the cusp of history, Physician and historian Ethan Russo has visited a tomb in the Yanghai burial ground that contained nearly a kilo of cannabis. It was crudely manicured flowering tops, leaves, and seeds, and no stems. The grave did not contain hemp fiber. It dates to 766-416 BCE. Scythians are buried nearby. Yanghai lies in the Turpan Basin, now part of China.

The ancient Chinese knew cannabis as "ma." Their pictogram for má represents two plants hung upside down to dry, Combining má with the character vào (drug) means "narcotic" or "anaesthetic."

The legendary physician Shennóng writes extensively about má in his Daoist-flavored medical text, Shennóng | Bến Cảo Jing (also know T1 as Pen Tsao Ching). He warned, "Taking much of it may make one behold ghosts and frenetically run about. Protracted taking may enable one to communicate with the spirit and make the body light." Shennóng supposedly lived about 4000 years ago, but the man's legendary existence went unmentioned until about 130 BCE.

The Scythians entered history when they invaded Mesopotamia during the reign of King Sargon II (722-705 BCE). After the Scythians invaded Assyria, a new word appeared in Neo-Assyrian cuneiform. The word, which means "hemp." transliterates as qurubs or qunnab. The word appears in contexts that hint of use by shamans, which strengthens the Scythian connection. Herodotus, the Greek "father of history." wrote extensively about the Scythians around 440 BCE. Herodotus coins the word vuaßic from a word he adopted from the Scythians. He described them using xiußic for cordage and cloth. and vaporizing xivalic in small tents.

In India there are more than 50 words for Cannabis and cannabis products. Archeologists working in the Ganges River basin have unearthed Cannabis seeds from at least 1300 BCE. The Atharvaveda, compiled around 900 BCE, gives the name bhanga to a plant that many experts believe is Cannabis. These dates preceded the arrival of the Scythians, whose earliest presence in the Hindu Kush may date to the 7th century BCE.

Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563-483 BCE), the Buddha of our historie era, wasan Indo-Scythian. He supposedly subsisted on one hemp seed per day during his six steps of asceticism. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine. India's traditional system, recommend the herb to counter pain, insomnia, and loss of appetite.

The Egyptian hieroglyph Smit has been interpreted as Cannabrs. The word appears in the Pyramid Texts of 2350 BCE. "the cords (or ropes) of the Smit plant." However, tlax and not hemp was the primary fiber crop of ancient Egypt. Other authors interpretimimit as Corchorus olitorias, a fibrous herb whose leaves are eaten and used medicinally in Egypt. The word also resembles 3mm, the Arabic word for sesame. Good evidence of Cannabis in Egypt begins in the Romanera.

Noted Polish anthropologist Sara Benet (nee Benetowa) argues that kaneh bosm (qaneb bosem) is Cannabis in the Old Testament, Exodus 30:22-25. The word is usually translated as "aromatic cane." Moses used kaneh bosm for a sacred anointing oil. Benetowa notes "the astonishing resemblance" between Semitic kanbos and the Scythian word for Cannabis. But the Book of Exodus was composed around the 8th or 9th century BCE, and the Scythians did not invade the Land of Israel until 630 BCE. By then the Israelites had already been scattered and exiled by the Assyrians.

Cannabis is not native to the Fertile Crescent. Kanbos, which also transliterated Bambas or annabbôs, first appears in Mishnah, written in the 1st century BC.

Given the evidence that cannabis products were widely used to treat illnesses in the ancient world, the real mystery is why it fell out of favor-a historical phenomenon that Ethan Russo dubbed "Cannabis interruptus." Seeking an explanation, Russo cited "the perishable nature" of the historical record, and "humanity's propensity toward constant warfare, invasion, and cultural conflict."

It's as if prohibitionists have always existed in every society, and from time to time they prevail over the physicians and patients who have put cannabis products to good use. One theory is that in many cultures, members of the priestly class viewed psychoactive plants as a threat to their role as proper intermediaries between the material and spiritual realms. They didn't want people having visions and creative insights with out their supervision. In modern times, prohibition of cannabis has provided an effective method of social control mechanism for funding and arming the police and a marker for disobedience among the citizenry.

The pattern of cannabis proving medically useful but getting banned continued in various parts of the world throughout the Middle Ages. In Islamic Egypt. according to Russo, "While many derided its psychoactive effects on the basis of a ban on intoxicants in Muslim sharia law, a begrudging acknowledgment was frequently made of its abundant medical attributes."

An Egyptian king imposed a prohibition in the 13th century, but by the time Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, use of the herb was widespread and the French saw fit to impose a ban of their own. Thirty years later a French physician, Aubert-Roche, reported that during an outbreak of plague in Alexandria, cannabis alleviated fever, agitation, pain. bronchitis, and insomnia. And so the pendulum kept swinging between proscription and prescription.
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