In Egypt, the medicinal use of cannabis dates back thousands of years
While many different primitive cultures cultivated cannabis, the ancient Egyptians set an example of a truly holistic use of the plant. It's even possible that cannabis, Egyptian hieroglyphics called it shemshemet, became popular before the Great Pyramids were built.
Egypt's use of shemshemet appears to be versatile on the one hand, hemp may have been used for fiber and textile; on the other hand, the more psychoactive components of cannabis may have been used for medical purposes. While many sources today seem to be authoritative in their claims that the ancient Egyptians used hemp for this and cannabis for that, further examination of the evidence is needed.
Let's take a journey through Egyptian history, which begins around the year 3000 BC.
While the exact timeline is far from clear, it is likely that cannabis was used in ancient Egypt 5000 years ago. Some speculate that depictions of the Egyptian goddess of writing, Sheshat, are brimming with cannabis-inspired themes. In many paintings, she is depicted with a star-shaped leaf on her head and a fibrous cord in her hand. Was Sheshat's creative ability made possible with the help of hemp? It's a fun theory, but let's move on to more concrete examples.
First of all, it is important to understand the context in which Egyptian medicine found itself. The understanding of the human body in this culture was extraordinarily advanced for its time. Although the Egyptians of antiquity is preceded. Although the ancient Egyptians predated Pasteur's germ theory by thousands of years, they nevertheless placed great importance on cleanliness and hygiene. And customs like embalming gave the Egyptians a better understanding of how the human body works.
This same medical knowledge lent itself to the extensive use of medicinal plants. At first, this custom blurred the lines - even merged them - between science and religion. As the notes Egyptologist Barbara Watterson, “The first 'doctor' was a magician, because the Egyptians believed that diseases and ailments were caused by an evil force entering the body”. Fortunately, herbal incantations seemed to be the perfect cure.
Very quickly, cannabis was understood, intuitively, to be one of the best and most potent herbal preparations. Its dual psychotropic and curative properties probably made cannabis popular among the double physician magicians of ancient times. And although it is not known exactly when cannabis use first became common, residues of the plant have been found in Egyptian artefacts dating back over 4 years.
Around 2000 years before our era, cannabis ointments were used to treat eye injuries and glaucoma. Today, science has proven what the ancient Egyptians learned over the centuries: Cannabis is a powerful anti-inflammatory that reduces intraocular pressure. Another Egyptologist, Lise Manniche, notes in her book An Ancient Egyptian Herbal that several texts dating from the 18th century BC encouraged readers to “plant medicinal cannabis”.
Cannabis referenced in ancient manuscripts
It is now common knowledge that Egypt was a pioneer in the development of papyrus and parchment paper. With these scrolls came the ability of culture to write and document - and our ability to peek into their world. Papyri have been found to cover everything from legal matters to mythological tales to medical records, and naturally medical papyri sometimes mention cannabis.
The papyri Ramesseum | According to the British Museum, the Ramesseum papyri “have been described as“ the most valuable papyri find ”from Pharaonic Egypt”. As this is one of the oldest medical records ever discovered (circa 1750 BC), it is likely that these accounts reflect an accumulation of healing techniques from previous generations.
The Papyri of Ramesseum take their name from their origin: the ancient city of Ramesseum. Researchers have discovered countless other gems of this city built by Ramses II, almost all of which bear witness to the educational prowess of the time.
The Papyri themselves also point this out. They contain information on childhood illnesses, anatomy, healing of wounds caused by the volcano and the childbirth process. The Ramesseum III papyrus plate A26 describes this eye treatment: “celery, cannabis is crushed and left in the dew overnight. Both eyes of the patient should be washed with cannabis in the morning ”. Could this have been an effective treatment for THCA at the start of treatment?
The Ebers papyri | This remarkable collection of papyrus scrolls is the oldest comprehensive medical book in the world. Written around 1500 BC, it describes the most popular medicinal remedies of its time. The Ebers papyrus takes its name from the botanist George Ebers, who obtained it in the late 1800s. Like many others in his field, Ebers was understandably interested in gleaning all he could from the ancients. And with 700 medical and magic formulas spread over 110 pages, it seems like there's a lot to be gleaned.
Here is a formula for female health:
Formula # 821: Shemshemet (ie cannabis) had to be “ground in honey; introduced into her vagina to cool the uterus and remove its heat ”.
Another cannabis formula for “a sore finger or toe” is effective enough that doctors are instructed to encourage their patients - “you have to say to this patient, 'A problem I can treat'”.
Formula 821: “honey: 1/4; ocher 1/64; cannabis: 1/32; Hedjou resin: 1/32, owl plant: 1/32. Prepare as for the previous one, and dress [the affected area] with it. ”
The Berlin Papyri | This somewhat more recent scroll (circa ~ 1300 BC) indicates the development of cannabis as a medicine. It wasn't just good for eye problems, female problems, or inflamed extremities - cannabis could also be used to treat fever and inflammation.
The 81st formula of the papyri shows that cannabis was prescribed as an “ointment to prepare the escape of fever”. Today, modern medicine has demonstrated these same anti-fever and anti-inflammatory qualities.
Chester Beatty's papyri | Chester Beatty's papyri was also written around 1300 BC This artefact is primarily intended for the treatment of colorectal diseases. He probably mentions the shemshemet at least twice and prescribes the crushed seeds of the plant as a valuable remedy. There are even instructions on using cannabis suppositories for digestive purposes.
Overall, examples of cannabis use in papyrus records are rather rare. But those who are present are also very revealing. As Dr Ethan Russo quotes in a magazine of 2007 from the Journal of Chemistry and Biodiversity, “as a drug it [cannabis] has been in active use since Pharaonic times. It does not appear very often in medical papyri, but it was administered by mouth, rectum, vagina, by bandages on the skin, applied to the eyes and by fumigation ”.
The Egyptian pharaohs may also have used cannabis for more ceremonial purposes. The remains of Ramses the Great (Pharaoh in 1213 BC) contain traces of cannabis, as do the remains of other mummified Egyptians. In the 1990s, a series of studies by Nerliche, Parsche et Balabanova reported on this surprising discovery. Nerliche's study noted that the mummies had a significant deposition of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and concluded that this was likely obtained through cannabis smoke. As you can imagine, these studies were very controversial when they were first published.
Over time, the use of cannabis for medical purposes in Egypt continued to expand. AD, it seems that even the Egyptian people understood the potential benefits of the plant. Unfortunately, there is relatively less historical data on cannabis use during this time.
Could the understanding of cannabis by the ancient Egyptians have spread to other areas related to health and the body? Perhaps. In his epic work The Odyssey, Homer notes that “everyone in Egypt is a competent doctor”. Everyone, in this case, even includes women - which was very rare at the time. Indeed, some of the first Egyptian doctors were women appreciated for their care, others were qualified midwives.
A final document written on papyrus surfaced around AD 200: the Vienna Papyri. He seems to mention cannabis as a treatment for tumors, ear pain, and fevers. In some cases, the Vienna papyri recommend using acacia and cannabis together. Although not really old, this one distills information gathered in earlier times.
Difficulties in translation make it difficult to fully understand the medical use of cannabis in Egypt, although researchers like Dr Greg Gerdeman agree that earlier references to shemshemet most certainly refer to cannabis. What can be said with confidence is that the ancient Egyptians were leaders in the medical world of their time - and they achieved this leadership through their devotion to medicinal plants like cannabis.
It is likely that practical lessons can be learned from their devotion, too. Perhaps Dr Russo's journal says it best: “Information gleaned from the history of the administration of cannabis in its various forms can provide useful starting points for research”. In the future, the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians may come full circle.