Was God a Stoner?
Excavations at a 2,700-year-old temple in the Negev desert have uncovered a residue familiar to many a pothead.
Religious experience is in a class of its own. The opportunity to commune with God and come into contact with entities beyond oneself is, according to everyone who experiences one, profoundly moving and transformative.
Now, it turns out that the contact high of religious ritual may be a little more accessible than we thought: excavations at a 2,700-year-old temple in the Negev desert uncovered a well-preserved residue on an altar. Upon further testing, the substance turned out to be cannabis. And not just the calming CBD you can find in oils at the airport, the good THC kind for which you might need a prescription. This is the first and oldest example of ancient Israelites using psychotropic drugs as part of their religious rituals and really makes church attendance seem dull by comparison. It looks like ancient rituals were more fun than we knew.
In a recently published article on “Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine at Arad” in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, archaeologists Erin Arie, Baruch Rosen, and Dvory Namdar collected and tested residues found on two eighth century B.C. limestone altars found buried at Tel Arad. Tel Arad is located almost sixty miles to the south of modern-day Tel Aviv (which, just incidentally, is the party capital of modern Israel). In its heyday the religious center at Arad was part of a hilltop fortress positioned close to the southern border of the kingdom of Judah.
The temple at the site was first discovered in the 1960s, but this is the first time that archaeologists have tried to identify the substances on the altar. On one altar they found frankincense, an incense regularly mentioned in religious texts and one of the gifts the wise men gave to baby Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Analysis of the offerings found on the second altar, however, revealed something a little more unusual: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were all present. The arid heat of the desert means that part of some of these burnt offerings was preserved for millennia and available for scientific testing (an important life lesson for anyone trying to conceal their drug use in, say, Arizona).
All of these substances were once part of the burnt offerings (sacrifices burned on the altars of the temple as an offering to God). Liane Feldman, a professor of Judaic Studies at New York University and author of the forthcoming book The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source, told The Daily Beast “Burnt offerings were the most extravagant type of sacrifice that could be offered to a god. The entirety of the animal would be burned on the altar, leaving behind no meat or skin to be used or eaten by people. It’s difficult to tell how often they would have been offered in temples, in part because archaeological remains of animal bones don’t tell us how the animal was offered—just that it was. That being said, burnt offerings are the most frequently discussed kind of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible.” The presence of animal fat and dung on these altars shows that animal sacrifices were certainly performed at Tel Arad.
Practically speaking, the authors of the study suggest that the cannabis was burned in order to induce a high among participants in the ritual. But, religiously speaking, it’s difficult to say whether the THC was for the benefit of attendees, for God, or for both.
Feldman told me, “In general, at least in the ancient Middle East (Israel included), one of the main functions of sacrifice was to feed the gods. In several places in the Hebrew Bible, for example, sacrifices are described as “god’s food.” How, exactly, God would have eaten that food is never really discussed in biblical texts, but one of the most frequently noted characteristics of sacrifice is its smell.”
Over and over again, sacrifices are described as having a “pleasing aroma to Yahweh [one of the names for God used in the Hebrew Bible]”—especially the burnt offerings and incense offerings. In the case of the temple at Arad, the two altars in question are the ones just outside of the entrance to the holy of holies, meaning they are as close as you could get to the place where Yahweh was without trespassing on his space.”
In other words, given the location of the altars and the way that sacrifice functioned in general it’s highly probable that the burning of cannabis products was as least partially for God’s enjoyment.
Though this is the earliest evidence of people using cannabis in ancient Israel, this is hardly the only place in human history in which mind-altering substances are utilized in religious contexts. Some have argued that petroglyphs (Stone or Bronze age carvings) in northern Siberia reference the use of “mushrooms.” In the Odyssey, Helen is given a substance called nepenthe, the drug of forgetfulness or anti-sorrow, by the wife of an Egyptian noble. Though the precise nature of nepenthe is unknown, a number of scholars, including Oxford academic Philip Robson, the author of the book Forbidden Drugs, have identified the drug as opium. The drug soma was regularly used by the gods in the Hindu Vedas. Some have identified soma as cannabis or ephedra, but others think it was also amanita muscaria or the “fly agaric.” Amanita muscaria was a large, easily recognizable large mushroom that makes frequent cameos in children’s books and movies like Snow White. Awkward.
The phenomenon is actually the object of scientific study. In 1969 Timothy Leary travelled to Mexico, where he was introduced to hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms. His journey led to the birth of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. On Good Friday 1962, a group of Boston University students received either psilocybin or a placebo before attending the university’s service. Almost all of the students who received psilocybin reported having a religious experience.
The most infamous theory about the impact of mushrooms was John Allegro’s book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Allegro argued for a very broad ancient association of amanita muscaria with a fertility cult. The use of the mushroom was a closely guarded secret and its story was thus encoded in a symbolic story known to us as… the life of Jesus. According to Allegro’s philological analysis, Jesus the man never existed. His name means something like “semen” while “Christ” means something akin to “giant erect mushroom penis.”
Spoiler alert from your neighborhood academic killjoy: this is not what either of these words mean. Allegro’s thesis, which was published in 1970, has failed to find a following among the scholarly community. Christians were not terribly impressed with the idea that they had accepted a phallus shaped piece of fungus as their personal Lord and Savior.
To this day there are many who look for the divine or spiritual experiences by ingesting ayahuasca. There’s even some evidence that it improves brain health and possibly helps treat addiction, depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Rastafarians are well known for their use of cannabis, although they frown upon the use of alcohol. For those of us who belong to religious denominations that use incense, the discoveries at Tel Arad may make us feel that we are being sold a little short.