Photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman.
Almost lost in the news cycle this weekend is a story from Israel, where scientists found traces of cannabis residue on an altar in a 2,700-year-old temple in the Negev desert south of Jerusalem.
The study, published in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, is the first archeological confirmation of the use of cannabis by the Israelites during their religious ceremonies.
“Two limestone monoliths, interpreted as altars, were found in the Judahite shrine at Tel Arad,” the authors write. “Unidentified dark material preserved on their upper surfaces was submitted for organic residue analysis at two unrelated laboratories that used similar established extraction methods. On the smaller altar, residues of cannabinoids such as Delta 9-teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were detected, along with an assortment of terpenes and terpenoids, suggesting that cannabis inflorescences had been burnt on it.”
To find the charred remains of cannabis alongside the better-known Biblical chemicals’ frankincense and myrrh on a hilltop fortress outpost in the kingdom of Judah is significant. The researchers further postulate that since the altar’s layout was “a scaled-down version of the biblical descriptions of the Temple supposedly built by King Solomon,” that cannabis might have been used in services in Jerusalem.
There are a few ifs and mights and supposedlys in that last paragraph, but really, should we be surprised? Anybody who uses cannabis on a regular basis comes to the realization that there’s a lot more going on than just eating a bag of potato chips and falling asleep on the couch watching cable. And we know that human interaction with the cannabis plant goes back thousands of years in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Cannabis is mentioned as medicine in Egyptian medical texts. In 2016, researchers in northwest China’s Gobi Desert found cannabis plants among the burial artifacts of a 35-year-old, blue-eyed, Caucasian shaman. It’s always been around, but unlike other substances like alcohol, cannabis has lingered on the fringes of civilization. This could change that concept forever.
The new find is certainly no revelation to Chris Bennett, a historian who has published several books on the use of cannabis in religion, ritual and magic. Bennett has been studying evidence of religious ceremonies that date back before the Israelis. At one point or another, he says, cannabis has been used as part of all major religious traditions—Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Judaism.
He has found numerous references to cannabis, often called Kaneh Bosm, in Exodus and other books of the Old Testament. Though some scholars have scoffed, this evidence, from scientists with no skin in the cannabis game, certainly buttresses that claim.
Bennett argues that the origin of all religions was based around the individual using entheogens (psychedelic, mind-altering substances like peyote, mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca and psilocybin) to enhance the religious experience, and that gradually, over time, that changed. “It became a threat to fundamental religion, just as Darwin was to Adam and Eve,” he told me. “Magicians and shamans even today use the plant as something bigger than yourself. That is something that Abrahamic religions have eliminated.”
Bennett discusses his history and reactions to the new research in a new essay. Though the concept of ancient priests using cannabis in religious ceremonies might seem bewildering to believers inundated for decades with cannabis negativity, anyone who’s spent any time around the plant is not surprised at all at this particular find.