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Western Europe: Cannabis Culture Through the Ages

By Alex Baker

Western Europe: Cannabis Culture Through the Ages

The exact date when cannabis first entered Europe is unknown, although scholars believe it to have been very early. In fact, one of the oldest known objects associated with cannabis—a hemp rope dating to 26,900 BC—was discovered in 1997 in what was then Czechoslovakia. Cannabis was used in one form or another in countries across Europe as far back as the Middle Ages when hemp ropes first appeared on Italian ships.

But records and artifacts exist that suggest cannabis was in use in Europe even well before then. In Berlin, an urn dating from 500 BC was found containing cannabis leaves and seeds. One study tells of cannabis seeds being discovered in the “remains of Viking ships dating to the mid-ninth century.” During the Renaissance, French physician and author François Rabelais spoke of cannabis’ medicinal effects in his series of novels, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel. In England, the monarch Henry the VIII issued a decree under which farmers who didn’t raise hemp could be fined.

Cannabis in the Netherlands

Across the channel, early residents of the low-lying marshlands that eventually became the Netherlands cultivated hemp plants for use as fuel, food and fiber for clothing, rope and other goods. The cannabis shift in the Netherlands in the wake of the 1960s—when Holland transformed from being a fairly conservative lowland country into one of the most progressive nations in the West— is well known, but evidence suggests that cannabis was used in Holland for hundreds if not thousands of years.

People smoked the leaves of hennep, the Dutch word for hemp, during the Dutch Golden Age when masters like Rembrandt established the Netherlands as Europe’s artistic center and when Dutch sea power and trading ruled the globe. As teas, spices and other exotic goods flooded in from around the world, Dutch farmers would blend their expensive imported tobacco with hemp leaves to make it last longer. It is not clear, however, how much THC was present in the plants being smoked at the time.

Cannabis in Ancient Greece

Despite cannabis laws that are among the strictest on the continent today, Greece has a history with cannabis that predates much of the rest of Europe. Because of its proximity to the Mediterranean, Greece has long been a conduit between East and West. Consequently, the Greek Isles have a long history of cannabis cultivation and use. One oft-cited passage from the historian Herodotus, dating from between 450 and 420 BC, documents the use of cannabis among nomadic Scythian tribes. Hemp rope from several hundred years earlier was also uncovered in tombs found in northern Greece.

As teas, spices and other exotic goods flooded in from around the world, Dutch farmers would blend their expensive imported tobacco with hemp leaves to make it last longer.

While cannabis is present throughout the Ancient Greek period, little evidence exists that it was used for its psychoactive effects, save for the Greek philosopher Democritus describing a wine, cannabis and myrrh blend called potamaugis that apparently brought on hallucinatory states. The Greeks generally preferred alcohol when it came to recreational substances, but there are passages from Homer that have been interpreted as references to cannabis. There is also extensive evidence charting the use of medical cannabis in Ancient Greece. Noted physician Dioscorides made reference to cannabis in his pharmacopeia.

The word cannabis itself has Greek roots, i.e., κάνναβις, the transliteration of which is kánnabis. Regarding its origin, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications noted that the classical Greek expression cannabeizein meant to “inhale hemp smoke.” Historians and word nerds debate the full etymology of cannabis, and some suggest that the Greek word was adopted from the Scythians or others. Cannabis entered the English language via Latin in the 18th century.

The Paris Hash Eaters

In 1798, General Napoleon led the French army into Egypt in an attempt to disrupt British trade with India. Many of the soldiers adopted Egypt’s cannabis culture and ultimately brought it back to France. During the 19th century, the use of hash and opium became fashionable among the intellectual elite, and many wrote about their experiences with psychoactive substances. The most prominent group was Club des Hashischins in Paris. The Hashish Eater’s Club, as they are known in English, were a group of noted intellectuals who consumed cannabis in various formulations, including cooked confections. Participants included drug researcher Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau, French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix, authors Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Norte-Dame) and Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers), and poets Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire. More widespread use of cannabis and opium did not occur until in the 1960s after soldiers returned home from French Indochina, now known as Vietnam.

Spain

In today’s Europe, Spain arguably rivals the Netherlands as Europe’s preeminent cannabis tourist destination. This is due to drug laws being loosened and an explosion of cannabis social clubs in cities like Barcelona. Spain, in fact, has a history with cannabis that dates back more than a thousand years.

The Hashish Eater’s Club, as they are known in English, were a group of noted intellectuals who consumed cannabis in various formulations, including cooked confections.

Like Henry the VIII during the Renaissance, King Philip of Spain issued a similar decree that cannabis be grown throughout his empire. It is the Spanish who are credited with first introducing cannabis to the western hemisphere when Spanish ships brought hemp to Chile and Peru to be used as fiber.

When compared to parts of Asia and the Middle East, Europeans were rather late in discovering cannabis. The plant was not widely used for recreational purposes in Europe until the 20th century, but the continent can still claim a longstanding relationship dating back thousands of years.

Mural photo by Brendan Howard/Shutterstock

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