With about 195 countries in the world, it’s only natural that cultural practices would vary widely from one to the next. Experiencing and understanding the customs of other lands is second nature to some folks, while others prefer to analyze the reasons behind certain actions before interacting. Taking the time to grasp another’s experience of life adds a unique perspective to our own. Cultural anthropologists are tasked with studying human nature over time, and their work reveals that it’s fascinating just how much we all really have in common.
One of the coolest cultural unifiers happens to be a leafy character known as cannabis and its very close cousin hemp. These benevolent rulers of the plant kingdom have been intertwined with human life dating back to the Middle Stone Age. Amid a stone-tool evolution, early civilizations recognized the value of cannabis and began incorporating it into daily life.
As time passed and humans began to disperse throughout the world, cannabis and hemp took on very different roles in various cultures, but we relied on both in countless ways for survival. Many factors played into the specific uses of the plant in different geographic locations. Everything from religion, location, and politics to healing practices, climate, and industry (just to name a few) had its effect on the way history chose to paint the green goddess.
Reflecting on the colorful past of this incredibly versatile industrial and healing plant sheds light on the varying modern-day relationships with cannabis all over the globe. Some consider it a miracle cure-all (or “cannacea”), while others revile it as the scourge of Satan. So what does it all come down to? Culture is one of the main influencing factors, and this exploration of different continents and countries on planet earth examines the reign of Queen Mary Jane throughout the ages.
Our trek begins in China, where some of the earliest known cannabis legends foster the belief that this is where human use of the plant originated. Hemp, too, plays a huge role in China’s history—it is today the world’s leading producer—and at one point the country was even called “the land of mulberry and hemp.”
Archaeologists discovered an ancient coastal village on what is now the island nation of Taiwan that reveals a culture revolving around the plant nearly 10,000 years ago. Included in art and everyday aspects of life, cannabis and hemp later became known as the “liberator of sin”, according to the father of Chinese Medicine, Shen Nung, and his famous pharmacopoeia. In the 28th century B.C., Shen Nung began cultivating hemp for use in medicinal ways, and the rest is “history”.
Eventually, use of the plant transformed and became part of a Taoist ceremony believed to serve those seeking immortality. Revered for its therapeutic properties and incorporated into everything from clothing to rope, hemp and cannabis teamed up to transform the literal fabric of these ancient civilizations. One of the most important inventions ever created—paper—is credited to hemp, mulberry, and a man from China.
In many parts of Africa, cannabis is held sacred and has been woven into various religious and social customs for more than six centuries. Considered to be magical, the plant is believed to heal many ailments and cure a variety of diseases. Cannabis serves as the ultimate symbol of peace and friendship, which remains one of the common denominators of the herb across cultures. The negative social stigma maliciously attached to marihuana (the original Spanish spelling with the H wasn’t foreign-looking enough for early 20th-century bigots, so they inserted a J instead) is a relatively recent fabrication fueled by anti-Mexican hatred. Far more time has been spent reaping the benefits of the plant than plowing them under.
Cannabis has been growing for nearly 1,000 years in Egypt and has spread to many other parts of Africa. Archaeological evidence in Ethiopia dates back to the 14th century. There, two ceramic smoking bowls (clearly used for cannabis) were discovered, though it is believed the practice of inhalation originated with throwing the plant onto campfires. Facing varying legal issues throughout history, cannabis has had its highs and lows on the continent. Trade routes eventually introduced the plant to the more southern parts of the continent, literally changing countless lives.
In India cannabis is synonymous with cultural custom and is considered to have magical properties. Yet again, we see a group of people considering cannabis to be a lifesaver in medical and religious forms. For thousands of years the country has infused the herb into their customs and way of life, which in turn has brought it to other parts of the world. India has the perfect conditions for growing copious amounts of cannabis, making it a low-maintenance staple of life.
Many religious connotations are associated with the plant, and a sacred drink known as bhang is at the heart of ceremonies. This concoction of cannabis leaves, milk, sugar, and spices represents documented edible consumption, socially acceptable for centuries. In traditional Hinduism alcoholic beverages are forbidden, so a substitute was needed. Many people in modern societies are choosing cannabis over alcohol as well.
This nectar of the god named Shiva became as popular in India as booze was in the west, with many partaking in bhang ceremonies during special occasions, social gatherings, and in the privacy of their own homes. The unique custom of offering the cannabis-infused drink as a sign of hospitality was openly practiced until the 1940s.
Tantric and yogic aspects of the magical plant have been part of Indian rituals involving hundreds of thousands of willing participants. Shamans believe the plant can overcome evil when used properly. Complete prohibition has not occurred, as cannabis is still an integral part of the culture, though habitual use is not encouraged.
South America (Brazil)
The origin of cannabis in Brazil stems from one of the most unsavory chapters of human history, one still being written today: slavery. Smuggled onto ships by Angolan slaves, the origins of cannabis in South America are slightly different than in other cultures. Beginning in 1549, laborers were allowed to plant the herb among sugar cane crops and smoke it during their time off. The plantation owners felt that allowing captive men and women to partake in maconha (cannabis) increased productivity and decreased unhappiness among the workers.
Throughout time, society has viewed cannabis as a medicine for the poor, while hemp was used to make clothing for most members of society. The upper classes leaned on cannabis in times of need, and the Portuguese Royal Court is credited with distribution of cannabis in Brazil. The Catimbo Indians were believed to partake of cannabis in religious ceremonies during colonial times in order to heal the sick. The mystical properties of the flower appear to be a consistent correlating factor across many cultures throughout history. During the 19th century, cannabis use was prohibited in Rio de Janeiro but not strictly enforced, as many continued to grow the plant regardless. Personal use slowly became more commonplace through teas, edibles, and rituals, where the psychoactive properties of the herb were celebrated.
Jamaica shares a similar history as Brazil, slavery being the means by which it began cultivating cannabis within the country. The British began importing workers during the mid-19th century. With time cannabis became part of working-class culture and of the religion known as Rastafarianism. Cannabis is technically illegal in the country; still, in the eyes of the world, Jamaica and the herb go hand in hand, and the country recently decriminalized small amounts for personal consumption.
There are many societal constrictions that help regulate the use of the plant, as it is a cultural unifier and has become a widespread custom for many Jamaican residents. History tends to repeat itself, and cannabis use in Jamaica varies from medicinal to recreational to ceremonial, just as in many cultures worldwide. Many studies have shown just how common consuming the herb truly is, and it’s a wonder that it’s still deemed illegal.
Teas, tonics, and herbal remedies are popular delivery methods besides smoking. Cannabis is believed to have many health benefits and prevent disease with regular use, which happens to be the consensus among many supporters of the plant everywhere. A vast range of conditions from intestinal issues to glaucoma can be eased with cannabis, and Jamaicans view the plant as a medicinal wonder as well as a spiritual sacrament.
Imitation: the sincerest form of rebellion?
In an interesting parallel to American culture, Jamaican youths consume cannabis as a symbol of rebellion, even though many of their elders do it openly. A young man’s embracing of ganja is taken as a sign that he has entered a new phase of maturity and in time will not even be questioned. The social stigma and acceptance vary among households and serve as an intriguing rite of passage. Women who use cannabis are viewed in an entirely different (less favorable) light, which is an interesting departure from other cultures with open cannabis use.
Analyzing the impact of cannabis and hemp on countries around the world offers an in- depth look into how the plant has played an integral role throughout history. As we enter a new era of social acceptance in the United States, cannabis will no doubt continue to impact our daily lives. Understanding how it’s been embraced in other realms provides fresh perspective as we build a new relationship.
Many cultures have used inhalation as a means of cannabis administration, but edibles have become an increasingly more popular method. Ingesting the botanical has become an attractive option as health-conscious individuals pioneer a new frontier within the cannabis industry. MagicalButter is a company dedicated to creating a whole new world of delicious medibles with a mission to make enjoying the potent properties of cannabis easier than ever before. The MagicalButter machine offers up a convenient method of creating limitless treats through infusion right in the comfort of your home.
The rich history of cannabis is growing daily as we make strides towards legalization daily within our country. Cannabis has varied throughout time, and our fascination with the plant has only increased as we discover new properties of the plant on a daily basis. Welcome to a new age and brand new chapter for the plant that has the ability to change lives!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Garyn Angel is an inventor, award-winning financial consultant, and CEO of MagicalButter.com. His company makes the botanical extractor he invented for infusing cannabis into foods and lotions. Angel is committed to cannabis law reform and was named to the CNBC NEXT List of visionary global business leaders for his work on legal marijuana. He is also founder of the Cheers to Goodness Foundation, a charity that helps “medical refugees”—mainly veterans and children—who need cannabis therapy when traditional treatment options have failed.