What could Moses, Shiva, and the Great Leap Forward all have in common?
Cannabis growers often say that tomatoes and cannabis require similar conditions to flourish – the same density of soil, the same quality of light. But unlike cannabis, the tomato has been universally heralded as a cancer-preventer and Vitamin-C rush, as good for the testicles as for the heart, an anti-oxidant super-food and all-around pharmaceutical wonder.
But it was not always so.
For centuries the tomato was given a bum rap and banished from the table of decent consumables – just as cannabis often is today.
Consigned by the botanist and great grand-daddy of taxonomy, Carl Linneaus, to the Nightshade family, the tomato was put in a mostly edible group with a few dark cousins: Nightshade was a favorite poison at royal courts, and belladonna was used by women to dilate the pupils, simulating arousal.
The Germans called it the Wolf Peach – a reference to its peachy, bulbed shape and to a popular belief that a tomato’s scent would draw werewolves. The French called it the ‘Love Apple,’ as it was thought to incite the passions. Perhaps because of its hot, devilish color, the tomato was regarded as dangerous – likely to cause nymphomania, mouth-frothing, and general agony.
Finally, in 1830 – so the story goes – a New Jersey man consumed for a crowd an entire basket of tomatoes to prove they would not cause sudden death, or at the very least, a bout of hard, angry promiscuity. Tomatoes were accepted as a respectable food source thereafter.
Like the former sex-and-death legacy of the tomato, the subjective effects of the cannabis plant – sensual, psychedelic, and sacred – touch on the great nerve centers of human experience and searching.
It is in this arena of transcendent experience that cannabis historian Chris Bennett has spent more than two decades of his life exploring. Here he talks about his theories on the shamanic roots of major world religions, and why cannabis remains in the popular imagination, something of a Wolf Peach.
Q & A
B: Tell me what inspired your study of cannabis’ role in spirituality and religion?
CB: About 25 years ago I was living on the West Coast of Vancouver, and at the time there was a lot of controversy around over-logging. I smoked cannabis, but a friend also turned me on to the industrial uses of hemp – such as paper and cloth. And one night I was skimming through a Bible that was kicking around, and read a passage about the Tree of Life and its “many manners of fruit,” and its healing powers. I had a powerful feeling that what it was referencing was the cannabis plant.
So that set me off on a path of research. I found scholars who said there were references to cannabis in ancient Hebrew and around the inception of many world religions including Sikhism, Taoism, and Buddhism, Islam and Christianity and Hinduism. There were references in the ancient cuneiform tablets; The term in Assyrian is cannabu, and the term in the Hebrew is canna-basem. I researched the context of these references, and built on that over the next quarter century.
B: One thing I took from your work was that you seem to view cannabis as a vehicle of culture.
CB: Well, culture begins with agriculture. Many have argued that cannabis was our first agricultural crop. There is evidence from as far back as 35,000 BC of tools used for stripping the fibers from cannabis stalks.
And this was at the time of what historians and anthropologists call the ‘Great Leap Forward.’ A time of advances like the wheel and fire and the use of tools.
It’s interesting that cannabis has always been associated with divergent thought – which is simply putting two unrelated things together in a new context. This is thought to be the source of creativity in consciousness. And there are some who have put the thought forward that cannabis contributed to the Great Leap.
So culture comes from agriculture: As we cultivate cannabis, cannabis cultivates us.
B: You move through millennia in your work, and I’d like to focus in on two epochs. Let’s start with the use of Soma in India.
CB: There was a recent archeological find of a 4,000 year-old temple in the Bactria region – in Afghanistan. They found evidence of a drink prepared with ephedra, cannabis and poppy. Ephedra is still used as an inhalant during some ceremonies. And this use spread into India and became ‘Soma’ or ‘Haoma.’
And cannabis use eventually moved to the cult of Shiva; The use of bhang and ganga in the cult of Shiva comes from the same root as the Soma cult.
It’s important to remember that many spiritual and religious texts – like the Vedas – are composed in verse with elaborate rituals and drumming.
It’s like inspired poetry; The creative aspect of consciousness comes through people in those states and cannabis is sometimes a tool for getting there.
B: So let’s jump forward. You talk a lot about the historical figure of Jesus as somebody who ‘anointed’ disciples essentially with a cannabis oil or gave them a cannabis tincture.
CB:I found the work of a Polish anthropologist and etymologist, Sula Bennett, who found Biblical references to cannabis. In the first of these God – who appears to Moses in the flames of a burning bush – commands him to make a holy anointing oil and incense. In the recipe there’s about 6.5 lbs. of cannabasem mixed with myrrh and cinnamon in a gallon and a half of olive oil.
Every time Moses is to speak to the Lord, he covers himself in anointing oil; cannabis is fat soluble, and can penetrate the skin in this way.
What I’m suggesting is that when there are accounts of Jesus healing – he is applying something. It’s not just hocus-pocus. These are ailments similar to what people are using medical cannabis for now.
B: So do you think that peoples’ experiences of the plant’s effects are any different?
I think it’s really about set and setting. A sadhu smoking a chillum along the Ganges River in India is having a different experience than some hip-hopper doing a dab in a café lounge. It depends on the intent of the user, but it’s still the same substance.
B: When I was reading your work, I began thinking about this very human desire we seem to have to disorient ourselves, to be freed from our own perspective.
CB: Well, you begin to learn the history of this amazing plant, and it starts cloaking itself in that; it becomes part of the set and setting. And so we’re accessing a level of mythic memory, of collective memory. We’re tapping in to that.
Chris Bennett is the founder of Forbidden Fruit Publishing, through which he has published three explorations of the role cannabis might have played in ancient religion: Cannabis and the Soma Solution, Sex, Dugs, Violence, and the Bible, and Green Gold the Tree of Life. He is also the founder of an online store specializing in ‘sacred entheogens,’ The Urban Shaman www.theurbanshaman.net in Vancouver, B.C.