Cannabis Use in Ancient Egypt

Original Art by Sarah Weiss

By Sarah Weiss

Despite existing nearly 2000 years ago, Ancient Egypt remains one of the world’s most popular cultural fixations. This fixation may be due, in part, to just how much modern society has in common with this ancient civilization. One example of this commonality: regular use of the cannabis plant.

Temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu, Egypt | Photo by Jeremy Zero

The time period we think of as ancient Egypt took place between 3100 B.C. and 332 B.C.

Why has our fascination with ancient Egypt held the tests of time? Perhaps it’s the fascination with the construction of the Great Pyramids. Maybe it’s the colorful polytheistic religion that is so starkly different from modern mainstream Christianity. But, more than likely, it’s because Ancient Egyptians created their own written language, known as hieroglyphs, consisting of pictures and symbols carved into stone. Because the stone carvings withstood the test of time, historians have been able to translate their writings and have gained first-hand insight into life in Ancient Egypt.

It’s because of these very writings that we have come to realize that we might have more in common with this ancient civilization than we think. For example, much like us, ancient Egyptians found methods of using the cannabis plant medicinally.

The first mention of cannabis historians came across was in The Ramesseum Papyrus, an ancient artifact considered to be one of the oldest medical records ever found, dating to approximately 1750 B.C. This document detailed the treatments used for all types of illnesses and ailments, everything from minor burns to childbirth. One of the treatments within this document calls for the use of cannabis. However, historians believe ancient Egyptians used the word “shemshemet” instead of modern-day terms like cannabis and marijuana.

The Ramesseum Papyrus describes a treatment for glaucoma that calls for a mixture of celery and cannabis. The plants were to be ground together and left to sit overnight. The mixture was then used to wash the eyes of the afflicted. It is incredible to see cannabis used to treat glaucoma almost 4000 years ago because it is still used today. we now have scientific evidence of the effectiveness of THC at reducing intraocular pressure, a key component of treating the disease.

Ancient Egyptians also used cannabis in the treatment of menstrual discomfort.

The Ebers Papyri, another set of ancient medical documents, also contains treatments involving cannabis. It describes a practice in which cannabis was ground in honey before being applied to the inside of the vagina to “cool the uterus.” Cannabis has well-documented anti-inflammatory properties that are more than likely responsible for the efficacy of this treatment. This practice wasn’t left behind in ancient times either, as today we’re beginning to see more cannabis-infused tampons & personal lubricants hit the dispensary shelves – often aimed at relieving menstrual or sexual discomfort.

Historians believe cannabis was used in ancient Egypt because of translated medical documents, but hard science exists to back up the presence of cannabis as well.

Multiple mummies, including that of the Pharaoh Ramses the Great, were discovered to have traces of THC in their tissue, along with traces of nicotine and cocaine. The THC was most concentrated in the lung tissue, implying a somewhat regular inhalation of cannabis smoke.

We know cannabis was used in medicinal applications because of the discovered medical documents. However, it is thought that it may have been used recreationally, as well as in religious ceremonial practices.

PHOTO BY SHVETS PRODUCTION ON PEXELS - https://www.pexels.com/@shvets-production/collections/

The Egyptian Goddess of Cannabis

It is nearly impossible to discuss ancient Egypt without noting its colorful polytheistic mythology. Ancient Egyptians worshiped an array of gods and goddesses. There are well over 2000 individual deities documented. Some of the most popular figures from the mythos include Osiris (the god of the underworld), Bastet (the goddess of pleasure), and Ra (the god of the sun). However, when it comes to cannabis, there has been discussion around the goddess Seshat.

Seshat was the goddess of writing, scribe to the pharaohs, and protector of the libraries. 

With written language at the center of ancient Egypt’s culture, Seshat was a prominent deity. Seshat is one of the few Egyptian deities that appear human and is not associated with any particular animal, and therefore is identifiable through one prominent feature: her seven-pointed headdress. Seshat is depicted wearing a headdress composed of a seven-pointed star beneath what is believed to be a crescent moon. However, there is a lot of modern discussion over whether the seven-pointed star may be a cannabis leaf. This could suggest that cannabis had a larger role in their religious practices and day-to-day lives than we originally imagined. (We’ve included some photos of carvings of Seshat. I don’t know about you, but we think that’s a pretty funny-looking star).

Photo by Karen Green on Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/19479358@N00/4416472934/

Whether or not Seshat was indeed the god of cannabis, it is through her supposed gift of written language that we are able to understand just how valuable the cannabis plant was in ancient Egypt. Despite the centuries that lay between us, the medicinal properties of cannabis have persevered – possibly making cannabis one of the most modernly beloved wonders of the ancient world.