Cannabis in Ancient Medicine: Uncovering Historical Uses of the Plant

Cannabis in ancient medicine
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Cannabis, a plant known today for its controversial legal status and therapeutic potential, has a rich history that spans thousands of years. Ancient civilizations across the globe utilized cannabis for various medicinal purposes, laying the groundwork for many modern applications. By exploring these historical uses, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the plant and its potential benefits.

Cannabis in Ancient China

One of the earliest documented uses of cannabis dates back to ancient China around 2700 BCE. The Chinese Emperor Shen Nong, often referred to as the father of Chinese medicine, included cannabis in his pharmacopeia. He recognized the plant’s efficacy in treating ailments such as rheumatism, malaria, and absent-mindedness. Shen Nong’s herbal compilation, the “Pen Ts’ao,” noted the plant’s ability to relieve pain and its potential as a powerful healing agent.

Cannabis in Ancient India

In ancient India, cannabis was revered for its spiritual and medicinal properties. Known as “bhang,” the plant was used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Indian texts like the Atharva Veda, dating back to 1500 BCE, mention cannabis as one of the five sacred plants. It was believed to alleviate anxiety, improve digestion, and treat various ailments, including fever and dysentery. Cannabis was also used in religious ceremonies, highlighting its cultural significance.

Cannabis in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians utilized cannabis for both medicinal and practical purposes. Texts such as the Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1550 BCE, describe cannabis as a treatment for inflammation and glaucoma. The Egyptians also used cannabis topically to relieve pain and to treat wounds. The plant’s versatility made it a valuable component of Egyptian medical practices.

Cannabis in Ancient Greece and Rome

Ancient Greeks and Romans were also aware of the therapeutic potential of cannabis. The Greek physician Dioscorides, in his work “De Materia Medica,” documented the use of cannabis to treat earaches, inflammation, and edema. The Roman physician Galen echoed these uses, recommending cannabis for pain relief and as a remedy for flatulence.

Comparing Ancient Uses to Modern Applications

The historical uses of cannabis bear striking similarities to many modern applications. Today, cannabis is widely recognized for its pain-relieving properties, particularly in the treatment of chronic pain conditions. Medical cannabis is also used to reduce inflammation, manage anxiety, and improve appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Modern science has provided a deeper understanding of how cannabis works. Cannabinoids, the active compounds in cannabis, interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to regulate various physiological processes. This interaction underlies the plant’s ability to alleviate symptoms and improve overall health.

The Renaissance of Medical Cannabis

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in medical cannabis. Advances in research have led to the development of cannabis-based medications for conditions like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and PTSD. This renaissance mirrors the plant’s historical journey, as societies once again recognize its potential therapeutic benefits.


Cannabis has a long and storied history as a medicinal plant, with ancient civilizations harnessing its healing properties for a variety of ailments. By examining these historical uses, we can appreciate the plant’s enduring significance and its potential to improve modern medical practices. As research continues to uncover new applications, cannabis may once again become a cornerstone of natural medicine, bridging the gap between ancient wisdom and contemporary science.