A Joyful Toke Unto The Lord
An overview of the intimate link between cannabis and religious ritual.

By DEAN CHRISTOPHER

Last time we reviewed the history of the use of cannabis in religious rituals in the earliest civilizations. Here we take a brief look at its use in later societies, including present-day America.

THOSE CIVILIZED GREEKS
Who Says Religion Can’t Be Fun?

The Ancient Greeks are not known as a “head” culture. Generally non-smokers, they sought their “mood elevation” mainly in their bracing wines. Hemp was used mainly as a fabric, only occasionally as an ingestible. But, as we tend to find throughout history, there were exceptions.

The most sacred religious festival in Ancient Greece was called The Eleusinian Mysteries. This yearly devotion to the goddess Demeter (wife of Zeus) and their daughter Persephone (goddess of the Underworld) continued for about 2,000 years. Scholars believe that the ingestion of cannabis helped the celebrants commune with the goddesses.

Pilgrims flocked from all over Greece (and elsewhere) to participate in ceremonies and initiations that have remained secret right down to the present. (Revealing the secret was a capital offense.)

Although his reputation rests on his stature as “The Wine God,” Dionysus was considered an overall sensual, openminded kind of god. His followers supposedly celebrated a Dionysian “sacrament” by quaffing wine they enriched with psychoactive substances, probably cannabis. They believed that this draught was literally the lifeblood of the god, which would heighten their consciousness and endow them with special powers.

Communion has appeared in many forms over the millennia!

THE VANISHED SCYTHIANS
The little-remembered land of Scythia existed from the 8th to the 4th Century, stretching from Eurasia, north of the Black Sea, west to the Danube in Europe. A nomadic, horse-oriented people, they brought cannabis (and its related goddess-worship) to Europe and the Caucasus. About their cannabis usage, the Greek historian Herodotus writes:

Scythians… take (some) hemp-seed and…
throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately
it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no
Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths,
delighted, shout for joy…

In this early depiction of second-hand smoke, “Hemp-seed” most probably refers to the cannabis flower.

EARLY CHRISTIANITY
Bringing New Meaning To Sunday School.

Another example of multiple uses of hemp comes from earliest Christian times, when priests used cannabis oil not only as a medicine, but also for baptism. Anointing oil is physically (as well as symbolically) present in many Christian rituals.

In recent centuries, the Catholic Church has strongly disapproved of marijuana. One of the charges that brought Joan of Arc (1412-1431) to the stake was her alleged use of cannabis and other “witchlike substances,” to which the Inquisition attributed her hearing voices and seeing visions.

Incense, still used in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox High Mass, may well have originated in the ancient ritual smoking of cannabis. And might the Bible’s “Tree of Life,” be reasonably interpreted as “Plant of Life”?

Pre-Biblical versions of the Eden myth differ from the Genesis story, which is viewed by some as counter-propaganda to more cheery pagan accounts. In those, the serpent symbolized wisdom, Eve ate a “magic fruit” (cannabis flowers or buds?) – and Adam ended up as a happy, godlike creature.

ISLAM

Most orthodox Muslims, Sunni and Shi’a alike, consider cannabis to be as forbidden a substance as alcohol. The Holy Qur’an rejects the use of “intoxicants,” although it does not specify cannabis. This detail has led some hair-splitting Muslims to permit themselves occasional toking on the grounds that it is not intoxicating, just … therapeutic.

The mystic Muslim Sufi sect is known to use cannabis as an aide to consciousness expansion, citing the plant’s spiritual benefits, and noting that the Qur’an declares plant life to be wholesome an acceptable.

NATIVE AMERICANS
Beyond The Peace Pipe.

Besides everyday Plain Mary Jane “loco weed,” a psychoactive plant much loved by Native Americans is peyote cactus. It is widely used in many tribes, including the Comanche and Kiowa, for religious rituals and in conjunction with funerals, childbirth and healings. The Native American Church uses peyote for Holy Communion in their regular services.

Psychedelic mushrooms were favored by Aztecs and other Central American peoples, offered as “flesh of the gods.” Their natural ingredients are like the components of LSD. Anthropologists note the appearance of these mushrooms in indigenous statuary, testament to their importance to Mesoamerican civilizations.

MODERN CANNABIS RELIGIONS

Though not widespread, or even condoned, by Christian churches in general, some sects continue using cannabis in conjunction with worship.

Rasta Men Inhale.
Jamaica’s Rastafarians – many of whom generally endorse a Christian culture – use ganja as a basic tenet of their religion (which many prefer to call their “way of life”), but disapprove of alcoholic beverages. (Marijuana is surpassed only by bauxite and bananas – neither product closely associated with worship – as Jamaica’s largest export.)

So Do Ethiopian Copts.
An example of one Christian group that may legally use marijuana in its rituals in the U.S. is the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, whose faithful consider cannabis the Holy Eucharist.

In an uncommon extension of First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court of Florida, in the 1979 case Town v. State ex rel. Reno, ruled that:

(1)… the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church represents a religion within the
First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States; and (2) the use of
cannabis is an essential portion of the religious practice. Further, the Ethiopian
Zion Coptic Church is not a new church or religion but the record reflects it is
centuries old and has regularly used cannabis as its sacrament.

Note that the favorable ruling is rooted in the historical longevity of the church, and the fact that cannabis has consistently been essential to the worship all that time. The bench specifies that it is “not a new church or religion.” Presumably new religions are not considered worthy or legitimate under the law, therefore not afforded the same Constitutional protections. This attitude continues to be challenged in the courts.

So the question arises: How long must a religion exist before being considered
legitimate in the eyes of the law?

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One Response

  1. John

    It’s absurd if the law would only recognize cannabis use for consciousness expansion as legitimate if done within the context of practicing a long-standing religion.

    Most,if not all religions have outdated belief systems.

    Compared to religious people, non-religious humans who engage their minds with reason and facts and scientific knowledge, in some ways are probably better equipped to see the life-enriching qualities of entheogens because we can more aptly apply a well rounded perspective to possibly make sense of the experiences we have… and through this we can offer our herb inspired insights to the world in ways that are mentally digestible to a wider group of fellow humans.

    Hopefully Roger Christie will be deemed by the law as a legitimate sacramental cannabis consumer, and set a precedent for anybody who chooses to explore a similar path.

    The following links help reveal how things are going with Roger Christie and his supporters:

    http://the-last-marijuana-trial.com/

    http://www.thc-ministry.org/

    http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=roger+christie&aq=f

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