Cannabis Was Used in Hallucinogenic Cult Rituals, 2,700-Year-Old Shrine Reveals

This cannabis and animal feces mixture might be the earliest evidence for the use of marijuana in the Ancient Near East.
Derya Ozdemir

Scientists in Israel may have found evidence of worshipers at a Jewish temple dating back more than 2,700 years likely have used cannabis during cultic ceremonies, thanks to ancient Israeli limestones.

These worshippers were not only burning frankincense during their cult rituals but also they were, most possibly, getting lit. 

Cannabis Was Used in Hallucinogenic Cult Rituals, 2,700-Year-Old Shrine Reveals
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The findings from the Iron Age shrine, dating back to 750-715 B.C., represent the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East.


History of the biblical site

The shrine is a part of the "fortress mound" at Tel Arad, which is believed to be the southernmost stronghold for the Kingdom of Judas, formed after the death of King Solomon.

Cannabis Was Used in Hallucinogenic Cult Rituals, 2,700-Year-Old Shrine Reveals
During excavation. The two altars are in their original position, Source: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, S.J. Schweig Collection

This site, located in southern Israel's Beersheba Valley, was first excavated in the early 1960s, and scientists had found a room containing cult objects and two stone alters with a "black clump of organic material" that were located on top of each, Inverse reports.

Cannabis Was Used in Hallucinogenic Cult Rituals, 2,700-Year-Old Shrine Reveals
The two altars in the museum. The larger altar had frankincense. The smaller had traces of marijuana and feces, Source: Collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, by Laura Lachman

Frankincense, marijuana, and animal feces

Apparently, after the excavation, the plant remains couldn't be identified and remained forgotten. The shrine is, currently, on display at the Israel Museum. Now, as years have passed and archeology has become more interviewed with technology, the scientists were able to exactly determine what was happening in those altars.

Now, after more than half a millennia, a new chemical analysis of that black clump has revealed that one alter contained frankincense. The other, however, had traces of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabinol (CBN), and animal feces.

By analyzing gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, scientists were able to exactly determine the plant compounds. The frankincense was mixed with animal fat, which they stated was to encourage evaporation. The "cannabis altar" had terpenes which is the chemical that gives cannabis its fragrance. This suggested that cannabis flowers had been burned.

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Another finding they had was the evidence of animal dung. According to the researchers, cannabis resin was mixed with feces to promote burning.

Cannabis to evoke religious ecstasy

The study's lead author Eran Arie told Inverse that this discovery came as a "the most amazing surprise." This suggests that there is a high possibility of cannabis being involved in cult rituals in biblical Judah, by his saying, to evoke a type of "religious ecstasy." 

He said, "The fact that they were probably bringing cannabis from afar, bringing it into the temple and putting it into a different altar, is why we assume that it was for the purposes of this ecstasy and not anything else."

Arie states while frankincense is normal for that time period and has been consistently mentioned in Assyrian texts and the Bible, the cannabis is a new find that has given more insight into the religious practices of the ancient world. 

The findings were published in the journal Tel Aviv.

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