Hemp’s Illustrious Past
Continuing our History of Hemp series, we edge closer to the contemporary age of hemp, taking a look today at cannabis’ and hemp’s use in ancient China and Greece and its adoption by the originators of modern medicine during the Renaissance.
In our last piece we pointed out that hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) has been a cultivated crop dating back 10,000 years. Through trial and error early farmers, ancient physicians, botanists, and shaman came to conclusions that cannabis held many valuable properties, both for textile and medicinal use.
The validity of cannabis’ value in healing and wellness has stood the test of time.
Ancient physicians were on to something when using cannabis and hemp to treat ailments. Although practices were often guided by theory and paranormal deduction rather than scientific observation and medical logic, they were witnesses to the positive results cannabis had in treating a ranging list of health conditions including malaria, gout, and rheumatism.
Some cultures did incorporate the psychoactive effects of marijuana and THC during rituals, religious worship, royal gatherings, and certain systems of medicine like ayurveda, but in other health-related practices, it was hemp, not marijuana that was used as a treatment method for common and rare health conditions of the time.
In the region that is now China, which has little noted history of utilizing the psychoactive properties of cannabis, recipes relied more on hempseed than on the marijuana flower. Hua Tuo, a Chinese surgeon, used a mixture of wine and grounded cannabis as an anesthesia. Early Chinese physicians used the hemp root, leaves, and oil to treat blood clots, tapeworm, and constipation.
Adoption by Modern Medicine
As the use and experimentation of cannabis stretched globally, it was in ancient Greece where Hippocrates—the “Father of Modern Medicine”— began working with the logical processes of medicine in understanding disease and treatments. He recorded that general health was best sustained with a balance of external and internal factors including; diet, exercise, drinks for flushing the body’s systems, and botanical medicines for homeostasis support. His observations, interventions, and symptom treatment practices included the use of cannabis to varying degrees for both humans and animals.
Great strides in medicine were being marked by the year in Europe. And then the Dark Ages hit, stunting the growth of science and medicine and dimming the mainstream adoption of cannabis’ and hemp’s use in that section of the world, with the exception of scattered factions. Elsewhere though, the use of cannabis in herbal medicine became more prevalent.
In India, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia hemp was not only aiding advancements in medicine and wellness, but it helped expand trade opportunities and transportation of information. Muslim botanist and physician, Ibn Baitar claims sailors routinely used hashish to control sickness, allowing them to travel by ship in unfavorable sea conditions. It’s noted this travel advantage allowed for faster Muslim conquest of the Mediterranean and helped Muslim empires to dominate spice and trade routes with India and Asia.
Hemp seed is also discussed in great depth in the sixteenth-century Chinese manuscript Pen T’sao Kang Mu by Li Shih-Chen. He compiled a variety of earlier writings and credited hemp seed with the power to increase the inner chi and slow human aging, stimulate and enhance circulation, and increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.
As the use of hemp and cannabis was flourishing in many pockets of the world, in Europe the practice and understanding of medicine, treatment, and general health shifted back to a scientific approach during the Renaissance. An age of great creativity and intellectual exploration there was a desire to uncover truths through empirical study rather than relying on theory or folklore.
Anatomists, scholars, physicians, and philosophers applied observation and analysis to the study of healing and health. A major development was the inception and adoption of anatomical knowledge. Physicians began to discover more about the human body, its complex systems, and the body’s interconnectedness with the environment. With advanced knowledge about how the human body functions, physicians began testing the scientific credibility of traditional healing remedies, including cannabis.
With the advent of the printing press and safer and faster means of travel, observation and studies about cannabis’ medical use and its benefits was exchanged between scientific minds at a quicker rate. The Guttenberg Bible, known as the world’s first book printed on a moveable type printing press was actually printed on hemp paper.
Referencing and trading of medical conventions and publications widened knowledge of cannabis and its uses in medical and health practices. Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta in his The Compleat Herbal of 1645 suggested cannabis for jaundice and ague, colic, inflammations, burns, and hot or dry cough. Supporting these claims was the Edinburgh New Dispensatory of 1794 and Culpeper’s pharmacopoeia, the Complete Herbal.
The consistent inclusion of cannabis and hemp during the transition from ancient to classical medicine is a testament to the plant’s utility. A plant that was once used to ward off demons became a standard prescription for common and even rare health conditions. Hemp bridged the gap of medical advancements, never falling out of favor in holistic and classical medical circles.
In Part IV of our History of Hemp series we’ll cover cannabis’ rise in contemporary society as a vital cash crop and its further adoption in areas of medicine, like psychotherapy and psychology.