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Ancient Israelites used cannabis to arouse “religious ecstasy”

Jerusalem, Israel

A new archeological study reveals that ancient Israelites used cannabis during worship to evoke some form of “religious ecstasy.” The study, conducted on the 8th century BCE shrine in Tel Arad, revealed that early worshippers not only burned frankincense but also marijuana as part of their religious rituals.

Evidence of marijuana during worship

According to the Israeli media report, this is the first evidence of cannabis being used in ancient Jewish worship. The Tel Arad fortress, which was the site of the study, is believed to be part of the southern Kingdom of Judah, formed after the death of King Solomon. 

In an excavation done in the 1960s, scientists discovered evidence of a religious shrine in the Negev desert, about 95km (59 miles) south of Israel’s capital Tel Aviv. In the temple, scientists discovered a room with cult objects including two stone altars containing a black clump of organic stuff carefully put on top of each one. 

Nearly 50 years down the lane, scientists conducted a new chemical analysis of the organic stuff in the two altars, which had been preserved at the Israel Museum. Their findings revealed that the larger altar contained frankincense while the smaller one contained traces of 9-teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and cannabinol (CBN)—all compounds present in marijuana. On Wednesday this week, details of the findings were published in the Tel Aviv journal.

Ancient Israelites used cannabis
The two altars. Collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, by Laura Lachman

According to Eran Arie, the study’s lead author, the discovery was “the most amazing surprise.” He added it was most likely that the early Jewish worshippers used cannabis during their cult rituals to arouse some form of “religious ecstasy.”

“The fact that they were probably bringing cannabis from afar, bringing it into the temple and putting it onto a different altar, is why we assume that it was for the purposes of this ecstasy and not anything else,” said Arie, who is also the curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archeology at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Cannabis in the religious context

Based on the findings of the study of the Arad temple, Ancient Israelites used cannabis in a religious context. The researchers found the two altars on a staircase leading to the innermost part of the shrine, popularly referred to as the holy of holies. 

Arie believes the presence of cannabis on an altar to the temple’s holy of holies helps validate its religious nature. In 2019, scientists also discovered the presence of THC in funerary incense burners in central Asia, which equally pointed to the use of marijuana in a religious context.

I don’t think there is any doubt about the cultic context of the find. Ecstasy or a religious state of consciousness was part of the cult of Judah, Arie said.

Even as today’s scientists continue to find new uses of cannabis and all its chemical compounds, the findings at Arad show that humans have been getting creative with the pot plant for centuries. 

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