Shemshemet: Cannabis in Ancient Egypt

CANNABIS CULTURE – Up until recent times, many Egyptologists, failed to acknowledge much of a role for cannabis in ancient Egypt beyond that of a source of fiber for ropes, but recent research identifying a plant in the Egyptian texts with fibrous and medicinal properties, as well as edible seeds, under the name shemshemet, or sm-sm-t, are now generally regarded as identifying cannabis.

Excerpted from Cannabis and the Soma Solution.

In ancient Egypt the healing herb shemshemet was believed to have been a creation of the Sun God Ra. Besides this linguistic source, pollen analysis of ancient soil layers and deep tissue samples from Egyptian mummies, have indicated that in Egypt, like much of the rest of the ancient world, cannabis held an important role.

In fact from about around 3000 BC onward there is evidence of cannabis pollen in Egypt. According to the Codex of Ancient Egyptian Plant Remains, (1997) pollen has been identified at Egyptian sites dating from the Predynastic period (c.3500-3100 BCE); the 12th Dynasty (c.1991-1786 BCE) includes not only pollen, but also a hemp “fibre (ball)”; from the 19th Dynasty (c.1293-1185 BCE) found on the Mummy of Ramses II; and the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BCE) (Vartavan & Asensi, 1997).


shemshemet the Egyptian word for cannabis

There is general agreement with the view of Dawson (1934a) that shemshemet means cannabis, and the identification was strongly supported by the use of hempen rope making. As a drug, it has remained in active use since pharaonic times. It… was administered by mouth, rectum, vagina, bandaged the skin, applied to the eyes, and by fumigation. However, these applications provide no clear evidence of awareness of the effects of cannabis on the central nervous system. (Nunn, 2002)

Although most modern Egyptologists acknowledge a role for cannabis as a source of fiber and as a medicine, few see a role for hemp as a ritual intoxicant, and many researchers claim that the Egyptians were unaware of these properties. As noted in The Mummy Congress:

Under the reign of the pharaohs, Egyptian traders had bartered avidly for seeds of Cannabis sativa. Their Asian neighbors prized the plant for its hempen fibers, and the Egyptians seem to have taken a similar interest. They retted the stems and twisted the fibers into sturdy ropes and ground the plant to make a soothing eyewash, a treatment they recorded in the medical papyri. But the Egyptians made little mention of the other parts of C. sativa—the flowering tops and leaves that yielded marijuana or the dark resin that produces hashish. (Pringle, 2001)

Prof. Jan Kabelik noted of shemsemet; “From the Egyptian medical papyruses, information has been gained about a plant from which cordage could be made, and it was probably cannabis which was referred to”:

But no records could be found on its narcotic action. The preparations made from it (in all probability from the cannabis shoots) were applied externally-namely, exclusively as antiseptics – and then perhaps even as analgetics, in the same way as in Hellenic medicine. Cannabis extracts have been employed for irrigation in diseases of the anus, and in form of compresses the drug has been applied to sore toenails. In Rhamses’ papyrus, washing sore eyes with extracts from cannabis and also from some other plant is recommended. The papyrus of Berlin recommends fumigation with cannabis in some undefined disease. (Kabelik, 1955)

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to identify narcotic use of hemp under the name shemshemet, but then as we shall see, with the Egyptians, as with other cultures, ritual knowledge was secret knowledge, and thus evidence of such use likely lays in veiled references. Realistically, even medical applications were imbued with magical and religious connotations. “…[M]ost physicians in Egypt were priests… elements of religion and magic were closely intertwined with drug use, incantations routinely being uttered prior to administration in order to confer the healing property upon it” (Spencer, 2000). Like the temple gardens of the Assyrians, where the ‘tree of life’ was reputed to grow, the Egyptians also likely cultivated shemshemet and other sacred plants:

Considering the Egyptians’ highly developed pharmacopeia they must have had ‘physics gardens’, most likely in connection with a temple, for it was among the priests that knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants was concentrated. (Manniche, 1989)

Egyptian medical texts that include references to cannabis include The Ramesseum III Papyrus (1700 BC), Eber’s Papyrus (1600 BC), The Berlin Papyrus (1300 BC), The Chester Beatty VI Papyrus (1300 BC). Possibly due to the sticky and adhesive quality of honey a number of Egyptian topical medical preparations required it as an admixture to cannabis based medicines. According to the ancient papyri such topical cannabis preparations were used to treat inflammations of the vagina, and to treat ingrown toe and finger nails (Ghalioungui 1963). Egyptian medical applications of cannabis show an astute knowledge of the efficacy of herbal remedies, and virtually all of their remedies containing it utilize it in a way in which cannabis has been known to be medically effective (Russo, 2006/2007).

Ìf the hieroglyph ‘smsm.t’ in the ancient medical papyri of Egypt indicates cannabis, it was used as an incense, as an oral medication for ‘mothers and children’, (in childbirth?), in enemas, in eye medications, and as an ointment in bandages. This may be its first mention in world literature as an eye medication. (Mathre, 1997)

The reference to eye medicine identified by Mathre, occurs in the Ramesseum III Papyrus (1700 BC), and is thought to occur in a prescription for the treatment of glaucoma, and has been translated as „Ein Heilmittel für die Augen:“A treatment for the eyes: celery; shemshemet [cannabis]is ground and left in the dew overnight. Both eyes of the patient are to be washed with it in the morning.”

Fragments of the the Ramesseum III papyrus

Although the existing copy of the Eber’s Papyrus is dated at about 1600 BC, making it the oldest known complete medical textbook, many scholars believe that it is copied from an even older text dating approximately 3100 BC. The Eber’s Papyrus refers to “A cure for the uterus to cool: Hanf wird in Honig zerstoßen und in die Vagina gefüllt.Hemp [shemshemet]is crushed in honey and stuffed into the vagina. Dies verursacht eine Kontraktion des Uterus.“This causes a contraction of the uterus.” The Ebers Papyrus also refers to a topical application of cannabis for ingrown toe or finger nails and mixed with carob for use in an enema or combined with other remedies and used as a poultice. The Berlin Papyrus (1300 BC) records a topical treatment for swelling: “A remedy to treat inflammation: “Blätter (oder Blüten?) des Hanfs und reines Öl.Leaves of hemp and pure oil. Gebrauch es als Salbe.” Use it as an ointment.”

The Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC) identifies cannabis in an enema infusion and as a topical poultice for infection. For more on cannabis medicine in ancient Egypt see the Antique Cannabis Book.

In the second millennium BC hemp fiber was used for ropes, but the term shemshemet occurs as early as in the Pyramid Texts, written down a thousand years prior to that, again in connection with rope making. “Pieces of hemp have been identified at the tomb of Amenhopis IV (Ahkenaten) at el-Armana” (Manniche, 1989). As with the ritual use of fibers associated with Haoma/Soma and the Assyrian Tree of Life, it is interesting to note that here in Egypt, shemshemet was considered a sacred fiber and was referred to in the context as a means of bridging the gap between heaven and earth.

A Rope Ladder to the Heavens

In the pyramid text of Unas, which seems to concern the king’s ascension into the heavens through the northern passageway of his pyramid, hemp ropes seem to be the means for climbing into the starry sky. In the ancient inscription, the devotee is commanded to say the following words in praise of Unas a celestial Bull, who is the guide of the dead to the heavens:

This Unas is the bull of double brilliance in the midst of his Eye. Safe is the mouth of Unas through the fiery breath, the head of Unas through the horns of the lord of the South. Unas leads the god… Unas has twisted the SmSm.t-plant into ropes. Unas has united (zmA) the heavens…

Or as Budge translates it: “He raises up the cords (fibres?) of the shemshemet plant, he unites the heavens” (Budge, 1911). A similar indication regarding hemp ropes may be found in the mythology of the Goddess Seshat, who appears to be holding a rope and a stalk in the below depiction. More interesting is the image that appears above the head of the ancient Goddess.

Seshat, the Egyptian goddess of writing and measurement, possibly holding a hemp rope to the heavens, a cannabis stalk for measuring, and with a cannabis leaf above her head?

A number of different researchers have noted the similarity between a cannabis leaf and the symbol attached to the head of the Goddess Seshat in Egyptian images. Seshat was the Egyptian Goddess of temple architecture and mistress of scribes, presiding over the “House of Life,” also known as the “House of Books.” This temple was a sort of library and school of knowledge, and served as a store place of texts regarding tradition and rituals. Since very early Egyptian times, Seshat’s main function was to assist the king in “stretching the cord” for the layout of temples and royal buildings.

Author and researcher H. Peter Aleff has put forth an intriguing theory that this symbol is associated with the use of hemp cords. “It was… consistent with the ancient Egyptian visual canon that the artists who portrayed Seshat the rope-stretching goddess of measuring and geometry would have labeled her with pictures of her principal tools, or with easily recognizable symbols for these. Indeed, they combined evocations of these tools ingeniously in her emblem”:

Many Egyptologists have long speculated about the emblem which Seshat wore as her head dress. Sir Alan Gardiner described it in his still category-leading “Egyptian Grammar” as a “conventionalized flower (?) surmounted by horns.” His question mark after “flower” reflects the fact that there is no likely flower which resembles this design. Others have called it a “star surmounted by a bow,” but stars in the ancient Egyptian convention had five points, not seven like the one in Seshat’s emblem. This number was so important that it caused king Tuthmosis III (1479 to 1425 BCE) to give her the name Sefkhet-Abwy, or “She of the seven points.”

There is no need for such groping speculations because the various elements in Seshat’s emblem simply depict the tools of her geometer’s trade in the hieroglyphic manner.

Her seven-pointed “flower” or “star” is an accurate image of a hemp leaf. This leaf is made up of seven pointed leaf parts that are arranged in the same pattern as the most prominent sign in Seshat’s emblem. Hemp is, and has long been, an excellent material for making ropes with the low-stretch quality required for measuring cords, particularly when these are greased to reduce variations in their moisture content which would influence elongation.

The characteristic leaf of the plant used in making these ropes was thus a logical choice for the emblem designer who wanted an easily recognized reference to Seshat’s job. This leaf is so unique that its picture allows no confusion with other items…. the hemp leaf in Seshat’s emblem is unmistakable evidence that the ancient Egyptian rope- stretchers used hemp for their measuring cords, and that Seshat cannot deny her now illegal patronage and ownership of this psycho-active plant.

Add to this flagrant evidence that in Coffin Texts Spell 10, “Seshat opens the door of heaven for you” (7), and the case against her is solid enough to get her busted if she still plied her trade today. (Aleff, 1982/2008).

Both the references in the account of Unas the Bull, and that of Seshat may symbolically indicate hemp as a means of reaching the heavens. In relation it is interesting to note that Catherine Graindorge mentions cannabis in a funerary offering: “some Theban tombs mention an offering of… plants to the deceased… [including]smsmt [shemsemet, cannabis]… According to the tomb of Neferhotep… the smsmt-plant was created by Re” (Graindorge, 1992). Unfortunately it is unclear as to what the nature of this offering was (fiber?, food?, incense?, Beverage?), but apparently it occurred during “certain activities concerned with private funerary worship”, where “the priests of the ka, or the family of the Theban deceased, make libations and fumigations in the chapel of the tombs” (Graindorge, 1992). A situation which certainly brings to mind the Scythian Funerary rites and fumigations with burning hemp referred to earlier.

Evidence of Entheogenic Use of Hemp in Ancient Egypt?

Not all Egyptologists agree with the view that the ancient Egyptians were unaware of hemp’s potentially potent narcotic effects, a property of the plant highly esteemed by many of the cultures with whom the Egyptians traded. As Rosalie David, Keeper of Egyptology, for the Manchester Museum, has noted, the Egyptians are known to have used a variety of psychoactive substances:

The lotus was a very powerful narcotic which was used in ancient Egypt and presumably, was widespread in this use, because we see many scenes of individuals holding a cup and dropping a lotus flower into the cup which contained wine, and this would be a way of releasing the narcotic.

The ancient Egyptians certainly used drugs. As well as lotus they had mandrake and cannabis, and there is a strong suggestion the also used opium…. [these]elements were certainly in use. (David, 1996)

Considering that the Egyptians traded with cultures that used cannabis for its intoxicating properties, it is hard to accept that these considerably advanced herbalists, who had clear knowledge of cannabis’ medical effects, somehow failed to recognize the provocative state which could be produced from burning or ingesting the plant, a quality highly prized by their trading partners.

In this author’s view there are a number of indications of the use of cannabis for entheogenic use that can be inferred from the accumulated knowledge of ancient Egyptian lore. Possible sources for this sort of use of cannabis include the Kyphi incense and perfume, the drink Nepenthe, the ‘Sacred Shrub’ and the Maat Plant.

I have discussed the mythical infused wine for grief, Nepenthe, at length in another article, and as noted there, a cannabis infusion has been largely suggested from the evidence and description presented.

Kyphi, the Scent ‘Welcome to the Gods’

Offering Incense

Some sources have suggested that cannabis was an ingredient in the ancient incense and perfume of the Pharaohs, known as kyphi. Kyphi was used as an offering to the Gods. As the sun set, Egyptian worshippers would burn this fragrant mind altering preparation to the Sun God RA (who created cannabis) praying for his return the following morning. Indicating the medical qualities of it’s ingredients, Kyphi was applied on the skin to heal wounds. It was also considered to be a potent relaxant and an aphrodisiac. Unlike the ointments of the Assyrians, the Kyphi was a rather solid and wax like concoction. A cone of kyphi was placed on the top of the head, and as the hot Egyptian Sun and body temperature of the devotee warmed it, the potent ingredients of the preparation would slowly melt and drip down off the head and onto the body.

Researchers have suggested more than 50 natural ingredients for making the Kyphi, the most popular probably being: Aloeswood, Benzoin, Cannabis Resin, Cardamom Seeds, Cassia, Cedar, Cinnamon, Copal, Frankincense, Galangal Root, Ginger, Honey, Juniper, Lemongrass, Mastic, Mint, Myrrh, Orris, Pistachio, Raisins, Red Wine, Rose Petals, Saffron, Sandalwood, Storax Balsam. Archeologist Joel Zias, who has found evidence of the use of psychoactive substances at sites of ancient Near Eastern cultures, notes that “the Egyptians wrote a lot about medicine however the formula is always a bit of this a bit of that etc., therefore one can never know the exact method of replicating it. Hash was very common as was opium” (Zias, 2005).

Writing in 1920, the Occultist Oliver Bland, after naming many of the suggested ingredients of the Kyphi and demonstrating some knowledge of its preparation, put forth the following unverified, but interesting, etymological suggestion:

The clue to the secret of the ancient incense lies not in what we have been able to recover from the papayri, but in the word itself. Kyphi is recognizable to-day in “keef,” the popular name for the smokeable variety of the herb Cannabis Indica or Indian Hemp.

Cannabis Indica is none other than our friend hashish…. It is not after all, a far cry from the mysteries of Osiris, in Egypt…. Osiris… “died” annually, and mimicry of the symbolic event was the basis of all ritual. In the mysteries the initiate “died,” too: but the death was no mere formula, but an actually induced state of stupor or deep trance brought about by the fumes of keef. (Bland, 1920)

This was a view shared by the occultist Aleister Crowley, who lamented that his magick powers may have been lessened by lack of hashish, using the name Kyfi in this context.

Bowls of incense being offered to an Egyptian god.

More recently, a European news story reported on the efforts of a well known perfume company to recreate the Ancient Kyphi: Ananova, Monday, 7th October, 2002, ‘Scientists recreate the perfume of the pharaohs.

Scientists in France say they have recreated the perfume of the pharaohs which they believe was used by the ancient Egyptians to boost their love-lives.

But as the ingredients of Kyphi perfume, said to be an aphrodisiac which helps wearers relax, include cannabis it cannot be commercially produced.

Experts from L’Oreal and C2RMF, the Centre for Research and Restoration of French Museums, succeeded in recreating the legendary Kyphi perfume.

French researcher Sandrine Videault, who for years had attempted to recreate the aroma, was finally able to do so with the help of Greek historiographer Plutarch.

The Greek writer had written that Kyphi had the power “to send someone to sleep, to help them have sweet dreams, to relax them, to drive away the worries of the day and to bring peace.”

The numerous ingredients include pistachios, mint, cinnamon, incense, juniper and myrrh.

Videault says all previous attempts to use traces of the perfume found in Egyptian museums had failed because not enough was provided for analysis.

The expert says the recreation of the aroma is a long process because there are many different recipes for it: “In some samples only ten ingredients are used, in others up to 50,” she said.

According to written documents, the perfume, which came in block form and unlike modern-day scents was not alcohol based, was worn by ancient Egyptians in their hair and in intimate places to boost their sex lives.

But Videault said: “Kyphi will never be sold because some of the ingredients are illegal substances. In any case the smell is probably much too pungent for the modern world.”

The Maat Plant

Another possible source of Egyptian use of cannabis may be indicated in inscriptions regarding the Maat Plant, depicted in the lower parts of the following stele being tended by devotees and eyed by a waiting harvester with the traditional Scythian hemp harvesting tool the Scythe in hand. Generally this stele has been interpreted as identifying the activities of the dead in the after-world, but often such myths were acted out by devotees on the material plane, so indications of some sort of sacred rite involving earthly offerings of the Maat Plant cannot be easily dismissed.

Egyptian Stela with the Soma like Maat Plant

The Egyptians associated the Maat plant with Osiris, as we see here from the scenes and texts which are here reproduced from the alabaster coffin of Seti I… In the middle register we see the wicked tied to the jackal headed standards… In the register below we see figures of men engaged in tending a plant… and one figure has a scythe, which indicates he was the reaper of the plant. In the register above we some men carrying on their heads a loaf, and others a feather, symbolic of Maat, the goddess of Truth. The former group of beings (Second Register) are the blessed whose ‘Kau (i.e. dispositions) have been washed clean,’ and who have been chosen by Osiris to live with him in the house of ‘holy souls’. The latter group of beings (Third Register) are the ‘labourers in the wheat field of the Tuat’ (i.e. Other World), and the plants they tended and reaped are said to be ‘the members of Osiris’. The plant was Osiris, and Osiris was the plant, and the blessed in eating ‘the bread of everlastingness’ which was made from the grain of the plant ate Osiris. But Osiris was Maat, i.e. Truth, therefore in eating the bread they ate Truth. In eating his body they became one with him and therefore eternal… (Budge, 1925)

Curiously, Budge interpreted the plant image in the lower part of the Egyptian stele as a “colossal ear of wheat.” More likely it represents some other plant, one that was harvested with the Scythian tool the Scythe, one which held divine properties and an association with immortality as well as rites for the dead. In relation to this depiction and the suggestion that the Maat plant was prepared into some sort of sacramental loaf, the body of the lord Osiris, it is important to note that in Persia cannabis was also known by the name Sahdanag – Royal Grain; or King’s Grain, and was prepared in a number of confections (Low, 1926).

In the account of the Maat Plant and its association with the dead, one is again reminded of the role of cannabis in Scythian funerary rites, as does the Eucharistic elements involving it invoke the mythology of the Soma and Haoma, the original Eucharistic sacrament. It should also be noted that Maat’s symbol was a green feather, and this symbolism has also been used to identify the Soma. “In RV X.89.5 the Soma is called simivat. In the context it should be translated as feathered, literally it means ‘like simi or sami’… The pinnate leaves of the sami… look like a feather…The feather in relation to the Soma-Plant is mentioned in RV IV.27.4” (Richter-Ushanas, 1997). That the spears of a cannabis leaf look like a feather could also be said. As Homer Smith noted in Man and his Gods:

Those who lived by the laws of Maat took a sacramental drink, comparable to the Hindus’ Soma or its Persian counterpart Haoma, which conferred ritual purity… Egyptian scribes writing in the third millenium B.C. wrote: “My inward parts have been washed in the liquor of Maat.” (Smith, 1952)

Interestingly in the 4th century AD the alchemist Zosimos would write about the use of cannabis, darnel and other plants as infusions in Egyptian beers and wines. However it is unclear how long this practice was in place. However recently Archeologists have uncovered a 5,000 year old brewery in Egypt, and perhaps analysis of the remnants will reveal what sorts of ingredients were in use then. Recently researcher Brian Muraresku has been raising some interesting discussion about potentially entheogenic beers in the ancient world with his best selling tome The Immortality Key.

According to myth the God Osiris taught humanity the art of brewing. Interestingly there is an unidentified ancient entheogen named after this god ‘Osiritis’.


Osiritis was also known as ‘cynocephalia’ and 3rd century AD Egyptian Gnostic texts describe it being put into the mouths of participants in a magic ritual. Pliny mentions this same plant for divination. Pliny claims to have heard from Apion the Grammarian, notorious resident of Egypt, “that the plant cynocephalia, known in Egypt as “osiritis,” is useful for divination, and is a preservative against all the malpractices of magic, but that if a person takes it out of the ground entire, he will die upon the spot. He asserts, also, that he himself had raised the spirits of the dead”. The reference to death if you pull the plant whole out of the ground, is reminiscent of the mythology of mandrake, which is also psychoactive and has been used in magic rituals.

Drug Testing Mummies

Indicating that Egypt was a depot of the ancient Silk Road, is the “recent discovery of a strand of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy, which a combination of infrared and chemical analysis strongly suggests came from China. If correct this means that Chinese silk reached the eastern Mediterranean around 1000 B.C., centuries before the traditional date” (Allsen, 1997). Recent archeology has confirmed that cannabis, opium and other drugs travelled these same trade routes.

Other research has opened up the possibility that ancient trade routes were not only older, but considerably wider than has been traditionally thought. The results from tests on hairs of Egyptian mummies dating back as far as 1000 B.C. showed positive results for not only copious use of cannabis, but, opening up a hot bed of controversy, evidence interpreted as indicating the use of New World Plants Coca and Tobacco as well!

Research by German scientist, Dr Svetla Balabanova in the early 1990’s has continued to baffle Egyptologists, and call into question whole areas of science, archeology, chemistry and botany, as well as current drug testing techniques. In 1992 researchers in Munich, who were using the latest scientific techniques on mummified remains in order to understand more about the lives of ancient Egyptians, decided to test for evidence of ancient drug use. In this quest they turned to respected toxicologist Dr Svelta Balabanova, who had developed groundbreaking methods for the detection of drugs in hair and sweat.

Dr Svetla Balabanova

In order to make sure that the tests on the mummies were beyond reproach, Balabanova used the supposedly reliable and standard hair shaft test. Drugs and other substances consumed by humans make their way into the hair protein, where they stay for months, even after death. To ensure there is no contamination hair samples are washed in alcohol and the washing solution itself is then tested. If the testing solution is clear, but the hair tests positive, then the drug must be inside the hair shaft, which means the person consumed the substance during their lifetime. The hair shaft test is considered proof positive against contamination before or after death. As British toxicologist Dr. John Henry has noted: “The hair shaft test is accepted. If you know that you’ve taken your hair sample from this individual and the hair shaft is known to contain a drug, then it is proof positive that the person has taken that drug. So it is accepted in law. It’s put people into prison” (Henry, 1996).

As a toxicologist and endocrinologist at the Institute of Forensic Medicine, in Ulm Germany, Balabanova, who also worked closely with the German Police, was more than familiar with postmortem techniques. Samples from the mummies were taken by Balabanova, pulverized and dissolved into a solution. As with the still standard drug testing technique, she used antibodies to detect the presence of drugs and other properties. As a backup the samples were also put through the GCMS machine which can accurately identify substances by determining their molecular weight. The unexpected results of both tests, which Balabanova in disbelief ordered to be redone a number of times, have embroiled the German researcher in a hot bed of controversy for over a decade.

Although Balabanova was not particularly surprised at the evidence of THC, the active chemical of the Old World plant cannabis, results indicating new world plants such as Coca, and Tobacco sent the researcher reeling. “The first positive results, of course, were a shock for me. I had not expected to find nicotine and cocaine but that’s what happened. I was absolutely sure it must be a mistake” (Balabanova, 1996). After repeating the tests and later publishing the results, Balabanova found herself in a hotbed of controversy that has followed her career ever since.

This is the first study which shows the presence of cocaine, hashish and nicotine in Egyptian mummies, dating back to about 1000 BC. This means that these three organic substances are capable of surviving in hair, soft tissue and bones for ca. 3000 years under favorable conditions. However, it cannot be determined at present whether the concentrations measured represent the original amount of these drugs during life or immediately after death, or what kind of decomposition might have taken place in the past 3000 years. (Balabanova et al. 1992)

Not surprisingly academic criticisms poured in from all quarters. As Balabanova described, “I got a pile of letters that were almost threatening, insulting letters saying it was nonsense, that I was fantasizing, that it was impossible, because it was proven that before Columbus these plants were not found anywhere in the world outside of the Americas” (Balabanova, 1996).

The presence of cannabinoids in the tissues of Egyptian mummies brings up the possibility that Cannabis was used recreationally/religiously or medicinally by the early Egyptians. However, most of the controversy centers around the reports of cocaine and nicotine contents in these Egyptian mummies predating Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World. The plant genera Erythroxylum (the sole source of cocaine) and Nicotiana (the sole source of nicotine) are both considered to have only a New World distribution prior to European contact during the 15th century, much later than the dates (ca. 3000 BP) of the mummies analyzed by Balabanova et al. (1992). These results are so unusual that they cast some doubt over the cannabinoid findings as well. (Clarke & Fleming, 1998)

Representing the view of the vast majority of Historians, Prof. John Bains an Egyptologist with Oxford University, commented on the speculations that were growing around the findings of Balabanova. “The idea that the Egyptians were travelling to America is, overall, absurd. I don’t know of anyone who is professionally employed as an Egyptologist, anthropologist or archeaologist who seriously believes in any of these possibilities, and I also don’t know anyone who spends time doing research into these areas because they’re perceived to be areas without any real meaning for the subjects” (Bains, 1996).

“In examining the mummified body of Ramses II, Dr. Lescot was given samples of the fragments found stuck within the fibers of the mummy’s bandages. After analyzing the fragments, she found that they were actually fragments of plants. When she studied the sample under a microscope, she made a stunning discovery – the fragments were from a tobacco plant.
Traces of what was supposedly a New World plant were found on an ancient mummy from the Old World. This led some people to ask how the deceased body of a 3000-year-old Egyptian ruler managed to get a hold of fragments of a tobacco plant when mainstream history insists that there was no way that ancient Egypt had established transoceanic trade relations with the people in the Americas during that time. In short, how on earth did Ramses II get his hands on some tobacco?” (Chen, 2017)

Although, like the taboo subject of drugs in the ancient world, a minority of researchers such as Prof. Alice Kehoe, of Marquette University seem more open to the possibility of pre-Columbian transatlantic trade. “I think there is good evidence that there was both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific travel before Columbus. When we try to talk about trans-oceanic contact, people that are standard archeologists get very… skittish, and they want to change the subject… They seem to feel that it’s some kind of contagious disease they don’t want to touch, or it will bring disaster to them” (Kehoe, 1996). It should be noted that prior to the discovery of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland in 1965, the theories about Viking voyages to America were likewise dismissed as fantastical nonsense.

As the makers of the sensational TVF documentary The Cocaine Mummies commented “If the cocaine found in mummies could not be explained by contamination or fake mummies or by Egyptian plants containing it, there appeared to be only one remaining possibility… An international drug trade whose links extended all the way to the Americas.”

At the center of an unexpected controversy that threatened her professional reputation, Balabanova combed the historical record to see if any other researchers had ever recorded similar results. She was encouraged to find potential corroboration in a story about a scientific team trying to salvage the badly deteriorating body of Ramses II in 1976. The bandages with which Ramses II was wrapped with needed replacing and botanists were given pieces of the fabric to analyze what they were made from in order to replace them. One researcher, Dr. Michelle Scott found some plant fragments in her piece, and on closer analysis she detected the tiny crystals and filaments which were the unmistakable indications of a plant that should clearly not have been there.

I prepared the slides, put them under the microscope and what did I see? Tobacco. I said to myself, that’s just not possible – I must be dreaming. The Egyptians didn’t have tobacco. It was brought from South America at the time of Christopher Columbus. I looked again, and I tried to get a better view and I thought, well, it’s only a first analysis. I worked feverishly and I forgot to have lunch that day. But I kept getting the same result. (Scott, 1996)

Placing herself in a storm of controversy identical to that in which Balabanova would find herself in, Dr. Michelle Scott found little support for her findings. Most researchers saw the tobacco find as a clear case of contamination. Indeed, the explanation of Prof. Nasri Iskander, Chief Currator of the Cairo Museum seems more than plausible: “According to my knowledge and experience, most of the archeologists and scientists, who worked on these fields, smoked pipes. And I myself have been smoking pipes for more than 25 years. Then maybe a piece of the tobacco dropped by haphazard or just anyway and to tell this is right or wrong we have to be more careful” (Iskander, 1996).

As the controversy around Balabanova’s results continued to brew, the original researchers who requested that she test the mummies distanced themselves from her. As Dr Alfred Grimm, Curator, The Egyptian Museum, Munich, from where the mummies came commented “It’s not absolutely proven and I think it’s not absolutely scientifically correct” (Grimm, 1996). After trying to gain access to the mummies, the makers of The Cocaine Mummies concluded that “it seemed that the museum wanted nothing more to do with the research they politely pointed out was far from respectable.”

As a result of the controversy, even researchers from other Museums were barred from further examination of the mummies, such as Rosalie David, the Keeper of Egyptology, Manchester Museum. David, who was completely skeptical of the results turned in by Balabanova, unable to acquire test material from the same subject matter as Balabanova, due to the reluctance of her Munich colleagues, decided to test different mummies and was herself astounded when the test material came in: “We’ve received results back from the tests on our mummy tissue samples and two of the samples and the one hair sample both have evidence of nicotine in them. I’m really very surprised at this” (David, 1996).

Results that were more than welcome by Balabanova “The results of the tests on the Manchester mummies have made me very happy after all these years of being accused of false results and contaminated results, so I was delighted to hear nicotine had been found in these mummies, and very, very happy to have this enormous confirmation of my work” (Balabanva, 1996).

In the 1994 paper, Presence of drugs in different tissues of an Egyptian mummy, Franz Parsche and Andreas Nerlich came to almost identical biochemical conclusions as Balabanova through deep tissue, bone and internal examination of a mummy that was dated at approximately 950 B.C.. Using the techniques of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, these researchers reported that “significant amounts of various drugs were detected in internal organs (lung, liver, stomach, intestines) as well as in hair, bone, skin/muscle and tendon. These analyses revealed a significant deposition of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), nicotine (and its metabolite cotinine) and cocaine in the tissue from the mummy….” (Parsche and Nerlich, 1994).

The major finding was that the drugs (and some of their metabolites) could clearly be identified in the tissue samples analyzed, indicating that these substances are stable over an unexpectedly long period of time… we observed that significant amounts of various drugs were present in several different tissues. Although the absolute values of the drug concentrations may show considerable interbatch variation in particular when tested by the immunoassay system, the intrabatch analysis, as in this study, reflects correct relative proportions. Thus, our analysis of the concentrations of various drugs in different mummy tissues sheds some light on historic therapeutic measures… the evidence for the nicotine metabolite cotinine, which was… found in the present material, argues in favour of an intravital consumption of nicotine (with subsequent metabolization) rather than simply a contamination by nicotine post mortem. Furthermore, these findings are well in accordance with previous observations on bone samples from other Egyptian mummies… The observation of significant concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol which represents the psychoactive substance of drugs as in hashish in the lungs with values above those of the other internal organs, argue for a preferential incorporation of this substance by inhalation. This is in accordance with the reports by medical papyri indicating smoking ceremonies, e.g. with hashish. The accumulation of THC in skin/muscle tissue may be due to contamination during the postmortal embalming procedure. The way of cocaine and nicotine consumption which has remained unclear until now may have been uncovered by the analysis of this “case”: Since these drug concentrations were found to be highest in the stomach and the intestine, this observation points to an oral ingestion of these substances. (Parsche and Nerlich, 1994)

Parsche and Nerlich findings of strong concentrations of THC in the lungs of the Mummy fit well with the view that the popular Egyptian perfume and incense, kyphi, contained cannabis. Likewise, the “accumulation of THC in skin/muscle tissue” which the authors suspect was “due to contamination during the postmortal embalming procedure,” ties in with the idea that cannabis was used in Egyptian funerary rites, as discussed earlier.

In relation to the finds of nicotine Parsche and Nerlich pointed ou that contemporary “analyses on the nicotine content of various vegetables yielded significant amounts of nicotine in some plants other than the tobacco plant, like aubergines, tomatoes and others”

Furthermore, it has recently been shown that in Southern Africa a nicotine containing plant (Nicotiana Africana) occurs, which may have been accessible to ancient Egyptians. Thus, the use of these substances as therapeutic drugs may have had a firm place in the old Egyptian medicals’ repertoire. (Parsche and Nerlich, 1994)

Sandy Knapp, of the herbarium at the Natural History Museum feels that the test results only identify the family from which tobacco comes, and not the specific plant, pointing to other members of the tobacco family, which existed in ancient Egypt, such as henbane, mandrake or belladonna. “I think that they [Balabanova, Parsche, etc.] had a certain amount of evidence, and they took the evidence one step farther than the evidence really allowed them. Sometimes you can only go so far down the road towards telling what something is, and then you come against a wall and you can’t go any farther, otherwise you start to make something up” (Knapp, 1996).

I think it is very unlikely that tobacco has an alternative history, because, I think we would’ve heard about it. There’d be some use of it present in either literature, temple carvings, somewhere there would’ve been evidence to point and say ‘Ah, that’s tobacco’, but there’s nothing. (Knapp, 1996)

Balabanova herself entertained the idea of a lost species of tobacco, possibly even some extinct species of plant. The suggestion that a plant could have been harvested into extinction is more than plausible, and we have the contemporary example of the Egyptian Blue Lotus, prized by the ancient Egyptians for its narcotic properties, which was nearly harvested into extinction due to it’s popularity. As has been noted “many medical plants have become extinct through overuse. For example, the demand for silphium, a plant prized for its medicinal and contraceptive properties, was so great in ancient Greece that it was extinct by the third or fourth century AD” (Peters, et al., 2005).

But even with the suggestion of an alternative source of nicotine, Balabanova was still puzzled by the high concentrations of the substance found in Egyptian mummies, as much as 35 times that of the typical smoker of today. Such levels would have been potentially lethal, had tobacco been consumed in such quantities in life.

Balabanova felt these high doses of nicotine in Egyptian bodies could be explained if the nicotine containing substance as well as being consumed in life, had also been used in the mummification process. High levels of nicotine in tobacco can kill bacteria, and it is more than conceivable that some lost plant, or even other members of the tobacco family such as those suggested by Dr. Knapp and others could well have been part of the secrets of embalming that Egyptian priests kept so closely guarded for over 3000 years of practice.

As well, in regards to the evidence of nicotine, the possibility of contamination from early pipe smoking archeologists can still not be ruled out completely. The authors of The Biomarkers Guide refer to tests conducted by exposing a nicotine free femur from the Bronze-age to environmental exposure to tobacco smoke for a period of six weeks, analyzing the bones before and after washing. “Surprisingly, the unwashed sample contained 11.6 ng nicotine per gram of bone, while the washed sample contained 35.5 ng/g… [The researchers] attributed this increase to tobacco smoke deposits being rinsed from the surface into the bone’s interior during the washing step, thus concentrating the nicotine” (Peters, et al., 2005).

It would be nice if one could end with just the open question of a nicotine containing plant, but as Dr. Svelta Balobanova, still holding her results as accurate lamented: “The cocaine of course remains an open question. It’s a mystery – it’s completely unclear how cocaine could get into Africa. On the other hand, we know there were trade relationships long before Columbus, and it’s conceivable that the coca plant had been imported into Egypt even then” (Balabanova, 1996). A situation even this broad minded student of ancient history would have a hard time accepting.

A much more likely suggestion for the evidence of cocaine was noted by the authors of The Biomarkers Guide, “Tropane alkaloids that are structurally related to cocaine are present in henbane, mandrake, and nightshade and may have been altered during the mummification process into a cocaine like compound” (Peters, et al., 2005). As Heather Pringle notes in The Mummy Congress:

…[I]n the absence of any other compelling explanation, it now seems likely that Balobanova’s findings were thrown off by conditions that few other hair testers have to contend with. When Egyptian embalmers smoothed handfuls of spices, oils and plant resins on the flesh of the dead, they anointed the body and its tresses with a complex chemical cocktail that mummy experts have yet to describe, much less fully understand. Conventional hair tests were never designed to deal with such concoctions, nor were they intended to deal with an immense, almost unfathomable span of time. Over centuries and millennia of entombment, compounds in these concoctions could have easily broken down, yielding substances that could easily pass for cocaine today. (Pringle, 2001)

But unfortunately confounding the situation even further and reasonably calling into question all previous results, research from Balabanova and Parsche, published elsewhere, identified these same three substances, THC, cocaine, and nicotine in pre-Columbian mummies which dated from about 115 A.D. to 1500 A.D. (Balabanova, Parsche, Pirsig, 1992: 1993). In this case, evidence of traditionally South American plants such as tobacco and coca was to be expected, but THC, indicating the traditionally Old World plant source of cannabis, opens up the whole can of worms, that the just discussed evidence of Coca and Tobacco in ancient Egypt did. Having researched the subject extensively, I can say there is nothing reliable in the way of archaeological or historical evidence I have seen that supports the position that cannabis was available in ancient Peru. Possibly these tests turned up evidence of endocannabinoids naturally produced in the human body and these were mistaken for plant cannabinoids due to the deteorization process.

With such controversial findings through supposedly state-of-the-art methods, it is hard not to share the view of Egyptologist John Baines, “it struck me that these days there must be a lot of drug convictions of people for possessing substances they had not in fact had.” Indeed, it would be surprising if some savvy lawyer did not at some point raise these very issues in a court of law.

Despite these mixed results, from the accounts of shemshemet recorded in the ancient papyri, we can be sure that the Egyptians used cannabis both medicinally and as a fibre. Accounts of Kyphi, Nepenthe and the Maat plant indicate that as with their ancient world neighbours, the Egyptians also likely used cannabis as a ritual intoxicant, along with other plants. Hopefully with continued archaeology and scientific investigations in the area the ultimate role of cannabis and other entheogens in ancient Egypt will one day be more fully uncovered from the desert sands.

Latest posts