West of the Dead Sea, nestled in the unforgiving and rocky Negev desert, hidden deep within the fortified remains of what was once an ancient Canaanite city and surrounded by bronze age ruins, lay a pair of limestone altars containing an extraordinary archaeological find: burnt cannabis.
The site, called the “Holiest of the Holies”, was discovered in 1963 in the Beersheba Valley in Israel’s Tel Arad. The archaeological site is divided into an upper and lower chamber, and within is a shrine dedicated to Yahweh.
For decades, scientists wondered what the burnt substance on the altars was - initial analyses in the 60s proved inconclusive. But with the wonders of modern science, we now know: it’s cannabis. Further analysis showed that there was indeed enough cannabis to get those in the room properly stoned.
The information provides some insight into ancient Jewish rituals, and how the world’s most popular mind-altering plant might have fit in.
Blaze Be Unto Him
The findings may just recontextualize how historians view these ancient religious rituals. "We know from all around the Ancient Near East and around the world that many cultures used hallucinogenic materials and ingredients in order to get into some kind of religious ecstasy," stated Eran Arie, an archeological curator at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
"We never thought about Judah taking part in these cultic practices. The fact that we found cannabis in an official cult place of Judah says something new about the cult of Judah."
After all, they’re fairly certain that they weren’t simply burning cannabis for the lovely scent.
"If you really wanted only the odor or the fragrance of cannabis, you could've burned sage. Only when you are burning cannabis are the [psychoactive ingredients] released into the air. So it's not a matter of smell like with the frankincense; it's a matter of the ecstasy and the hallucinogenic effects from the burning cannabis,” Arie said.
Used the World Over
This is hardly the first time the psychoactive effects from cannabis have been used in religious ritual.
Cannabis was used by many pagan and shamanistic cultures to aid in religious enlightenment or to achieve deep thought, ancient Taoist texts make reference to using the plant in censers, and during the popular festival Holi, Hindus consume a substance called bhang, made from cannabis, milk, and assorted spices.
It's a substance used the world over in religious rituals, so it actually shouldn't come as that big of a surprise it was used in ancient Jewish rituals as well.
As the move to legalize it grows in the United States, some as even taking their love of the plant and turning that into a faith all its own. In April 20th, 2017 the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors. The Elevationists (as they call themselves) seek self-improvement and enlightenment through the use of cannabis. They host daily meetings of the congregation in a repurposed Lutheran church complete with a repainted ceiling. And while they've been accused of simply using the church as an excuse to get stoned, they refute that. "If that were the case, this would be an expensive and inefficient way to get stoned," said one member, Lee Molloy. "We're interested in building something larger here a community that supports each other as we each discover our own paths."
After all, aren't they following in a storied religious tradition, practiced by many faiths the world over?
What do you think? With the knowledge that faiths 'round the globe have used cannabis for centuries to seek deeper truths, and knowing that Congress is (again) considering nationwide legalization, where do you stand?
Should we legalize it?