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a thick hemp plantation
Hemp is making a comeback after decades in the wilderness Image: M. Woike/blickwinkel/picture alliance

World Cannabis Day: A brief cultural history of hemp

Matthias Beckonert
April 20, 2022

Whether the Chinese emperor, the prophet Moses or the US founding fathers: the hemp plant has been part of people's everyday lives for millennia — and not just as an intoxicant.

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What does the Gutenberg Bible have in common with the American Declaration of Independence? Or a tapestry from the Viking age with Christopher Columbus' ship? And what connects the nomadic Scythians described by Greek historian Herodotus with the anointing ritual of the prophet Moses?

The answer to all these questions is very simple: hemp.

For thousands of years, the hemp plant has been part of daily life in diverse cultures around the world. Not only the mother plant of various narcotics, it has been used to make paper or textiles, and for medicinal purposes.

Some value it so highly, that April 20 has been deemed "World Cannabis Day."

As Germany plans to legalize cannabis, it is high time to dispel the myths surrounding the herb and take a look at its rich cultural history.

The origins of hemp

Researchers agree that hemp originally came from Asia, with archaeological excavations in Japan, for example, showing the plant may have been harvested there for at least 10,000 years.

While prehistoric hemp remains have also been found in India, Thailand and Malaysia, discoveries in what is now China prove that people in the region produced textiles from hemp fibers from around 4,000 BC at the latest.

One of the earliest written records of hemp being used as a medicine comes from ancient China, a knowledge attributed to the mythical emperor Shennong and his book "Ben Cao Jing."

Statue of Emperor Shennong in the mausoleum dedicated to him. In his left hand Shennong holds a utensil, in his right hand a fruit
Revered in China as a founding figure and father of agriculture: Emperor Shennong recommended drinking cannabis teaImage: Zhang Guosheng/HPIC/dpa/picture alliance

Said to have been compiled from oral traditions between about 200 BC and 220 AD, the book describes the medicinal and spiritual properties of hemp.

Not only does the herb allow communication with spirits, it also relaxes the body — though one risks seeing the devil if they take too much. 

Was God talking about cannabis?

It is likely that nomadic trading peoples then exported the hemp plant to the West. 

In 5th century BC, Greek historian Herodotus described the Scythian people who lived on the Eurasian edge of the western world, and where hemp also grew. Herodotus described burials where the Scythians would gather in a tent, throw hemp seeds onto red hot stones and then purify themselves in the steam bath.

"The Scythians rejoice in the sweat bath and howl with delight," Herodotus wrote. Incidentally, the Latin word cannabis is borrowed from the Scythian language.

Explainer: History of hemp cultivation

Language is an important guide to the early history of cannabis. The ancient Chinese employed extra characters for male and female hemp plants respectively carrying the seeds and the fruits, proving the intensive preoccupation with the plant — and its importance in everyday life.

Cannabis also may have been part of the holy anointing oil that God instructs the prophet Moses to produce in the Old Testament.

In addition to cinnamon, myrrh or olive oil, "kaneh bosm" was to be used. Anthropologist Sula Benet theorized that this Hebrew word was later mistranslated into Greek. So instead of calamus or spice cane, as labelled in the German standard translation of the Bible, it actually meant cannabis.

In 2020, researchers found evidence to back the theory: on the altar of the Jewish temple at Tel Arad in Israel, they found cannabis containing the active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which produces an intoxicating effect when smoked or ingested.

Basis for Europe's dominance

In Europe, hemp's narcotic properties hardly played a role in its early use. The abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) describes hemp seeds in her work "Naturkunde" (Nature Studies) primarily as being digestible.

At that time, hemp was mainly in demand for textiles, shipping, or paper production.

In 1909, during the renovation of a Swedish church, five roughly 3,000-year-old tapestries from the Viking era were rediscovered, some of which had been made from hemp. Fine clothing used as burial objects were also made of hemp fibers.

Ancient hemp clothing was also crucial to letterpress printing. Johannes Gutenberg's revolutionary printing press churned out Gutenberg Bibles printed on paper made from clothing rags and hemp fibers.

This was a blessing for posterity: Hemp paper is more durable than paper made from vegetable pulp commonly used today, and the precious Bibles were more resistant to time.

The first two drafts of the American Declaration of Independence were also recorded on hemp paper. For the final copy, however, the Founding Fathers opted for parchment made from animal skin.

Two Gutenberg Bibles presented open on red velvet
The Gutenberg Bible triggered a media revolution in EuropeImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

What's more, Christopher Columbus' fleet of ships typically relied on sails, nets and ropes made of hemp, partly since it does not rot or go moldy when damp.

Dawn of the hemp era?

Hemp's importance for textile production was later superseded by cotton and petroleum-based synthetic fibers.

With the expansion of motorized shipping, easier-to-process raw materials such as cotton could be imported in bulk and at cheaper costs, and the hemp industry shrank over the long term. By the mid-20th century, even ropes and sails were no longer made from hemp but synthetic fibers.

Hemp's demise happened with the active support of Harry Anslinger, who as head of the top US Drug Enforcement Administration promoted the demonization of cannabis for over 30 years. The oil industry rejoiced, but the war on hemp failed in the long run.

Not only are increasing numbers of countries worldwide legalizing the use of cannabis, but companies are also betting on hemp.

Beyond the booming medical marijuana business, the plant is seen as a means to reduce carbon emissions when used to replace high-carbon fossil fuel products.

Rediscovering and developing such non-petroleum-based technologies may not be the sole cure-all, but hemp could at least be a building block to a more sustainable economy. As history shows, it has worked before.

This article was translated from German. It is an updated version of an article originally published on January 31, 2022.

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