By Emily Ledger
Cannabis, in all its forms, has played an important role in many societies across all corners of the globe for millennia. To honour the versatility of the plant, we have been taking a look at how cannabis was used in some of the most distinct societies of the Ancient world.
This time we will be finding out how the Ancient Egyptians may have made use of cannabis throughout their long history…
Ancient Egypt remains one of the most recognisable and familiar of ancient societies, being referenced in popular culture through film, television, and music throughout much of modern times. We have learned to recognise Egyptian hieroglyphs and even Egyptian gods and deities, yet many Egyptian accomplishments remain relatively unpopularised.
For example, the Egyptians were revered for their medical capabilities in ancient times with notable figures from Greece and Rome commending the medical knowledge and ability of the people. For example, in The Odyssey, Homer notes that “everyone in Egypt is a skilled Physician”. This may refer to the fact that women, as well as men, were able to practise medicine in Egypt, a privilege not shared by women in many other ancient societies.
While the topic is still under debate, many historians and archaeologists believe that cannabis may have been included in a number of ancient Egyptian treatments for a variety of ailments.
Evidence of Cannabis Use in Ancient Egypt
Much of our knowledge of the lives and customs of the Ancient Egyptians comes from various surviving papyrus accounts from the time. Papyrus parchment was made from the woody hurds of the plant of the same name – a name that has since evolved into ‘paper’.
These ancient parchments have successfully preserved many secrets from the period, from political and legal subjects to agriculture and medical techniques. Occasionally, the word ‘Shemshemet’ crops up in these texts – particularly in reference to medicine. Many experts believe that Shemshemet is the name given to cannabis.
How was cannabis used medicinally?
In many ways, ancient Egyptian medicine was far ahead of its time, earning the civilisation renown amongst its contemporaries. However, the basis of Egyptian medical practise was built on the belief that illness and disease were caused by an evil force entering the body. Egyptian doctors believed that certain combinations of plant and animal products could help to expel these evil forces.
The Ramesseum papyrus is believed to be one of the oldest medical records ever discovered, dating from around 1750 BCE. These documents contain information on how various illnesses and ailments were treated in Ancient Egypt, including childhood illnesses, volcano-induced injuries, and the birthing process as well as information regarding human anatomy.
One of the most notable instructions for the use of cannabis was to grind the plant with celery and leave overnight. This preparation would then be used the following morning to wash the eyes of patients suffering from glaucoma.
Amazingly, there is modern evidence to support the idea that cannabis compounds could aid in the treatment of glaucoma. Glaucoma is an eye condition that causes an increase in intraocular pressure which can cause significant damage to the eye. THC – the most common cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant – has been found to have the potential to reduce intraocular pressure. However, as a sole treatment, cannabis is not considered to be an effective option.
The Ebers Papyri is celebrated as the oldest complete medical journal ever discovered, dating from around 1500 BCE. One medicinal formulation identified in this document calls for Shemshemet (cannabis) to be ground in honey before being applied inside the vagina to “cool the uterus and eliminate its heat”.
The well-documented anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of cannabis likely played a role in this treatment, as well as for other treatments used by Egyptians at the time. Interestingly, cannabis is now being explored for its potential to treat menstrual pain and discomfort as well as endometriosis.
Other Medical Uses
Another use of cannabis was described in the Ebers Paryri for the treatment of a painful “finger or toe”. For this preparation, cannabis was combined with honey, ochre, hedjou resin and the ibou plant to create a dressing for the affected area, likely once again making use of the anti-inflammatory properties of the plant.
Another ancient Egyptian papyrus, the Berlin Papyri, shows that Shemshemet (cannabis) may also have been used in “an ointment to prepare for driving away the fever”.
The Chester Beatty Papyri also believed to have been written around 1300 BCE, also makes multiple references to cannabis. In this case, cannabis seeds were potentially used in the treatment of some colorectal diseases, likely including cholera.
Spiritual and Ceremonial Uses
The funereal rituals of the Ancient Egyptians may be the most well-known of all ancient societies. The process of mummification and burying notable figures with their valuable belongings to be used by them in the afterlife. However, scientists and archaeologists were initially surprised to discover cannabis pollen on the remains of Ramses the Great, Pharao in 1213 BCE.
Traces of cannabis have also been discovered in other ancient Egyptian mummies. For example, a number of studies from the 1990s discovered traces of THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) in the remains of several mummies. One mummy who is believed to have been buried around 950 BCE had a significant deposition of THC, along with nicotine and cocaine, within its tissues.
The highest concentrations of THC were found in the lungs, suggesting that cannabis smoke was inhaled by the ancient person. Cannabis smoke may have been used in spiritual or ceremonial rituals or as a medicinal application for a number of illnesses and ailments.
The Egyptian Goddess, Sheshat, the deity of writing and record-keeping, was often depicted with a seven-pointed star-shaped leaf above her head. Many believe that this is an illustration of the cannabis leaf, indicating the importance placed on cannabis in ancient Egyptian society.
While the ancient Egyptians appear to have made unique use of cannabis in comparison to their contemporaries, the plant was also widely used for more common applications. Hemp fabrics and ropes have been found at ancient sites all over the world from China to Persia, and Egypt is no exception.
It is believed that cannabis fibre was even used by workers as part of an ingenious way to break down larger stones. Hemp fabric was crammed into the cracks of a large rock and covered in water. When the fabric began to expand, so did the crack, resulting in a break in the stone!
So there you have it! The ancient Egyptians are known for their impressive knowledge and innovation in ancient times, and their use and understanding of cannabis is no exception. To learn more about how cannabis was used in the ancient world, read our articles on Ancient China and Ancient India!