Greeks rocking the Hempseed like the Japanese

The unique chunk of knowledge i add to the collective consciousness of all things cannabis is the comprehensive documentation of the practical history of hemp use in Japan.

Much of my research came in field – meaning living with people in the hills (Tottori, Nagano) and learning the oral history from them while harvesting crops (mostly rice) and walking in the hills (mostly in search of matsutake), while other info comes from scouring literature, art and history texts and sometimes it’s just a matter of reflecting new light on a passage from a book or a new interpretation of a cave painting.

In meeting with other hempsters over the years (see HempenRoad photos from Vancouver Commercial Industrial hemp Sympoisum 1998), i’ve found similarities from other cultures in the ways seeds, stalk and leaf were used in traditional ways. This “people’s history” passed along a folklore and custom is often the key to finding out the ways the cultures actually lived rather than the filtered views of the human condition permeated by the propagandists and text book writers. Learn from the Grammas!

Via the quotable Malta-resident, D. Barefoot, I came across a wee reference of the use of hemp seed in ancient Greece in The Histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus written in 440 BCE.db serves it up his post Herodotus on The Wacky Tabacky with a bit of humour – from which i shall refrain – and instead lay out a couple of translations for the record to set up a bit of juxtaposition between the old-timey Greeks and Japanese.

Here's an old Grandma in the hills of japan

First, the translation Darren offers up (no edition cited):

Now they have a wild hemp in their country like flax, except that the hemp grows taller and stouter by far [goes on to explain how it makes good cloth].

The Scythians, then, take the seed of this hemp, and creeping under the felt covering of the tent they throw the seed on the stones glowing with the heat from the fire, and there it smolders and makes such a steam as no vapour-bath in Greece could surpass, and the steam makes the Scythians howl for joy.

And here is the other translation he references from MIT’s Internet Classics Archive version of The History of Herodotus, this one translated by George Rawlinson [and running a little longer to give some more context]:

Such, then, is the mode in which the kings are buried: as for the people, when any one dies, his nearest of kin lay him upon a waggon and take him round to all his friends in succession: each receives them in turn and entertains them with a banquet, whereat the dead man is served with a portion of all that is set before the others; this is done for forty days, at the end of which time the burial takes place. After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves, which they do in the following way. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies, they act as follows: they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed.

Hemp grows in Scythia: it is very like flax; only that it is a much coarser and taller plant: some grows wild about the country, some is produced by cultivation: the Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so, indeed, that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen, and if he has, unless he is very experienced in such matters, he will not know of which material they are.

The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, 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, and this vapour serves them instead of a water-bath; for they never by any chance wash their bodies with water. Their women make a mixture of cypress, cedar, and frankincense wood, which they pound into a paste upon a rough piece of stone, adding a little water to it. With this substance, which is of a thick consistency, they plaster their faces all over, and indeed their whole bodies. A sweet odour is thereby imparted to them, and when they take off the plaster on the day following, their skin is clean and glossy.

Going back to Japan, significantly, hemp is used a symbol of purity in various Shinto (the pagan-ish, animistic quasi-religion) rites (i.e. emperor coronations) as well as Buddhist ceremonies (funerals) in Japan – this is not news per se but seems like an eerily similarity of reverence for this plant between the the two cultures – occurring in different areas at different times with no (as far as we know) cultural exchange.

Here’s are a couple of snippet from my research on Hemp Culture in Japan:

In another old tradition, rooms of worship were purified by burning hemp leaves by the entrance. This would invite the spirits of the departed, purify the room and encourage people to dance. An account of this event states: “On the first evening fires of hemp leaves are lighted before the entrance of the house, and incense strewed on the coals, as an invitation to the spirits. At the end of the three days the food that has been set out for the spirits is wrapped up in mats and thrown into a river. Dances of a peculiar kind are a conspicuous feature of the celebration, which is evidently an old Japanese custom.” (Moore).

The Japanese wound paths around their country as they travelled long distances for salt, enlightenment and pilgrimages. In olden times, these wandering pilgrims and traveling believers were obliged to leave an offering of rice and hemp leaves to the path-side phallic-fertility statues of the Sahe no Kami (protective deities) before embarking on a journey.

“These deities were represented by phalli, often of gigantic size, which were set up along highways and especially at cross roads to bar the passage against malignant beings who sought to pass . . . Standing as they did on the roadside and at cross-roads, these gods became the protectors of the wayfarers; travellers prayed to them before setting out on a journey and made a little offering of hemp leaves and rice to each one they passed.” (Moore)

{note: Moore. Religions of Japan by George Foot Moore. 1913. quoted after:}

Japanese Graves

Seems to me the people in times past were no doubt more tuned into the power of plants and indeed went to great lengths to find out what the strengths and sources of the plants were and how they could use these characteristics to enhance their lives (medicine, mediation, clothing, sustenance). Somehow though, these customs grew taboo and this historical plant is singled out as a scourge and much human potential has been squandered on the enforcement against the cultivation and use of recreational, religious and industrial use. Remember, this illicitness is a modern phenomenon.

Did the Greeks know something about tolerance and joy that is lost on the modern world? Were the Japanese onto some ability of the hemp plant that modern world has forgotten? I, wonder. Do you?

Whatcha think?