By Emily Ledger
The cannabis plant has become recognisable the world over for a variety of reasons, from its recreational popularity to its ongoing medicinal and industrial uses. This use dates back millennia since the plant’s origins in China around 10,000 years ago.
In our ‘Cannabis Use in the Ancient World’ series, we have already discovered how the Ancient Chinese made use of the plant, reviewed Ancient Hindu medical scripts, and discussed the sacred place of cannabis in Ancient Egypt. In this article, we will be travelling back to Classical Greece in order to learn more about how the plant was used in this innovative and influential society.
While there is significant evidence of the plant’s use in many ancient societies, such as Egypt and India, less information has survived from the time of the Classical period (510-323BC). Nonetheless, the evidence that does remain reveals some interesting facts about the Greeks use of cannabis.
An Introduction to Cannabis?
Ancient and classical Greece remains one of the most influential societies in the history of the world, thanks to the ancient people’s contribution to art, literature, politics, and philosophy, among many other things. The society also belonged to a vast trading network which reached from the Mediterranean shores of Spain, Italy, Egypt and Libya to the Middle East and Asia.
It is thought that cannabis was introduced to the Greeks through these trading relationships – notably with the Scythians, Egyptians, and Persians. Surprisingly, cannabis use doesn’t appear to have caught on in Greek society until the classical age (after the period commonly referred to as Ancient Greece).
The Scythians were a nomadic people who inhabited lands from the Black Sea through to China and Southern Siberia. It was their use of the cannabis plant that appears to have first caught the eye of the Greeks around the 5th century BC. However, while the plant may not have escaped the notice of Herodotus, as he describes an experience with the plant in his Histories – Book 4, there is little evidence to suggest that the plant gathered much popularity among the Greeks in general at this time.
While it is unlikely that the cannabis plants used by the Ancient Scythians and their neighbours would have been like the high-THC varieties commonly used for recreation today, Herodotus referenced the spiritual use of the plant among the Scythians. During a funeral ceremony, the “Company” burned the seeds of the plant, like an incense:
“In this country a sort of HEMP grows, very like to flax; only longer and thicker; and much more excellent than ours, whether sowed or produced by Nature … The Scythians put the Seeds of this HEMP under the bags, upon the burning stones; and immediately a more agreeable vapor is emitted than from the incense burnt in Greece. The Company extremely transported with the scent, howl aloud.”
However, there remains little evidence that such practices were adopted by the Greeks at this time. While hemp may have been utilised for industrial purposes similar to those practised in other regions, such as the production of rope, clothing, and other textiles, it seems that recreational and spiritual uses of the plant did not catch on.
Medical Cannabis in Classical Greece
In the world of ancient and classical Greece, the theory and practice of medicine were much different than it is today. Ancient Greek medicine widely revolved around the theory of the humors. A state of good health was believed to come from a perfect balance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.
However, this ancient society apparently did appreciate the medicinal potential of the cannabis plant. Various records state the use of cannabis seeds or flowers – these terms were used interchangeably and referred to the seed-bearing effloresces of the plant – in various medical remedies.
Among the ailments for which an ancient or classical Greek citizen might find themselves prescribed cannabis are inflammation, earache, or edema (the swelling of a body part due to a build-up of fluid). Other records show how the Greeks also used the plant to dress wounds and sores on their horses
Cannabis was often ground up with other ingredients to make a medicinal preparation for such ailments. Some records state the use of cannabis with wine – a preparation that was also used in Ancient China as an early-era anaesthetic. According to James Butrica in his article ‘The Medical Use of Cannabis Among the Greeks and Romans’, cannabis seeds were steeped in water or wine, pressing out the liquid “which when warmed was instilled into the ear as a remedy for pains and inflammations associated with blockages”.
So, while references to cannabis in Ancient Greek texts remain few and far between, there is growing evidence to suggest that the Greeks may have used the plant just as much as their ancient neighbours in other parts of the world. Although there remains little evidence that cannabis use caught on widely for recreational or spiritual purposes, it appears that the Ancient and Classical Greeks also recognised the benefits of the plant.