Cannabis has been used in an entheogenic context—a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context—in India and Nepal since the Vedic period dating back to approximately 1500 BCE, but perhaps as far back as 2000 BCE. There are several references in Greek mythology to a powerful drug that eliminated anguish and sorrow. Herodotus wrote about early ceremonial practices by the Scythians, thought to have occurred from the 5th to 2nd century BCE. Itinerant Hindu saints have used it in Nepal and India for centuries.
The earliest known reports regarding the sacred status of cannabis in India and Nepal come from the Atharva Veda estimated to have been written sometime around 2000–1400 BCE, which mentions cannabis as one of the "five sacred plants".
There are three types of cannabis used in India and Nepal. The first, bhang, a type of cannabis edible, consists of the leaves and plant tops of the marijuana plant. It is usually consumed as an infusion in beverage form, and varies in strength according to how much cannabis is used in the preparation. The second, ganja, consisting of the leaves and the plant tops, is smoked. The third, called charas or hashish, consists of the resinous buds and/or extracted resin from the leaves of the marijuana plant. Typically, bhang is the most commonly used form of cannabis in religious festivals.
The sinologist and historian Joseph Needham concluded "the hallucinogenic properties of hemp were common knowledge in Chinese medical and Taoist circles for two millennia or more", and other scholars associated Chinese wu (shamans) with the entheogenic use of cannabis in Central Asian shamanism.
The oldest texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine listed herbal uses for cannabis and noted some psychodynamic effects. The (ca. 100 CE) Chinese pharmacopeia Shennong Ben Cao Jing (Shennong's Classic of Materia Medica) described the use of mafen 麻蕡 "cannabis fruit/seeds":
Later pharmacopia repeated this description, for instance the (ca. 1100 CE) Zhenglei bencao 證類本草 ("Classified Materia Medica"):
The (ca. 730) dietary therapy book Shiliao bencao 食療本草 ("Nutritional Materia Medica") prescribes daily consumption of cannabis in the following case: "those who wish to see demons should take it (with certain other drugs) for up to a hundred days."
Cannabis has been cultivated in China since Neolithic times, for instance, hemp cords were used to create the characteristic line designs on Yangshao culture pottery). Early Chinese classics have many references to using the plant for clothing, fiber, and food, but none to its psychotropic properties. Some researchers think Chinese associations of cannabis with "indigenous central Asian shamanistic practices" can explain this "peculiar silence". The botanist Li Hui-lin noted linguistic evidence that the "stupefying effect of the hemp plant was commonly known from extremely early times"; the word ma "cannabis; hemp" has connotations of "numbed; tingling; senseless" (e.g., mamu 麻木 "numb" and mazui 麻醉 "anesthetic; narcotic"), which "apparently derived from the properties of the fruits and leaves, which were used as infusions for medicinal purposes." Li suggested shamans in Northeast Asia transmitted the medical and spiritual uses of cannabis to the ancient Chinese wu 巫 "shaman; spirit medium; doctor".
The use of Cannabis as an hallucinogenic drug by necromancers or magicians is especially notable. It should be pointed out that in ancient China, as in most early cultures, medicine has its origin in magic. Medicine men were practicing magicians. In northeastern Asia, shamanism was widespread from Neolithic down to recent times. In ancient China shamans were known as wu. This vocation was very common down to the Han dynasty. After that it gradually diminished in importance, but the practice persisted in scattered localities and among certain peoples. In the far north, among the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Siberia, shamanism was widespread and common until rather recent times.
Both early Greek history and modern archeology show that Central Asian peoples were utilizing cannabis 2,500 years ago.
[T]hey 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. … 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.
What Herodotus called the "hemp-seed" must have been the whole flowering tops of the plant, where the psychoactive resin is produced along with the fruit ("seeds").
Several of the Tarim mummies excavated near Turpan in Xinjiang province of Northwestern China were buried with sacks of cannabis next to their heads. Based on additional grave goods, archaeologists concluded these individuals were shamans: "The marijuana must have been buried with the dead shamans who dreamed of continuing the profession in another world." A team of scientists analyzed one shamanistic tomb that contained a leather basket with well-preserved cannabis (789 grams of leaves, shoots, and fruits; AMS dated 2475 ± 30 years BP) and a wooden bowl with cannabis traces. Lacking any "suitable evidence that the ancient, indigenous people utilized Cannabis for food, oil, or fiber", they concluded "the deceased was more concerned with the intoxicant and/or medicinal value of the Cannabis remains." The Chinese archaeologist Hongen Jiang and his colleagues excavated a circa 2,400-2,800 BP tomb in northwest China’s Turpan Basin and found the remains of an approximately 35-year-old man with Caucasian features who had been buried with thirteen 1-meter cannabis plants, placed diagonally across his chest. Jiang said this is the first archeological discovery of complete cannabis plants, as well as the first incidence of their use as a burial shroud.
According to Alfred Dunhill (1924), Africans have had a long tradition of smoking hemp in gourd pipes, asserting that by 1884 the King of the Baluka tribe of the Congo had established a "riamba" or hemp-smoking cult in place of fetish-worship. Enormous gourd pipes were used. Cannabis was used in Africa to restore appetite and relieve pain of hemorrhoids. It was also used as an antiseptic. In a number of countries, it was used to treat tetanus, hydrophobia, delirium tremens, infantile convulsions, neuralgia and other nervous disorders, cholera, menorrhagia, rheumatism, hay fever, asthma, skin diseases, and protracted labor during childbirth.
In Africa, there were a number of cults and sects of hemp worship. Pogge and Wissman, during their explorations of 1881, visited the Bashilenge, living on the northern borders of the Lundu, between Sankrua and Balua. They found large plots of land around the villages used for the cultivation of hemp. Originally there were small clubs of hemp smokers, bound by ties of friendship, but these eventually led to the formation of a religious cult. The Bashilenge called themselves Bena Riamba, "the sons of hemp", and their land Lubuku, meaning friendship. They greeted each other with the expression "moio", meaning both "hemp" and "life."
Each tribesman was required to participate in the cult of Riamba and show his devotion by smoking as frequently as possible. They attributed universal magical powers to hemp, which was thought to combat all kinds of evil and they took it when they went to war and when they traveled. There were initiation rites for new members which usually took place before a war or long journey. The hemp pipe assumed a symbolic meaning for the Bashilenge somewhat analogous to the significance which the peace pipe had for American Indians. No holiday, no trade agreement, no peace treaty was transacted without it. In the middle Sahara region, the Senusi sect also cultivated hemp on a large scale for use in religious ceremonies.
In ancient Germanic paganism, cannabis was associated with the Norse love goddess, Freya. The harvesting of the plant was connected with an erotic high festival. It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant's feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force. Linguistics offers further evidence of prehistoric use of cannabis by Germanic peoples: The word hemp derives from Old English hænep, from Proto-Germanic *hanapiz, from the same Scythian word that cannabis derives from. The etymology of this word follows Grimm's Law by which Proto-Indo-European initial *k- becomes *h- in Germanic. The shift of *k→h indicates it was a loanword into the Germanic parent language at a time depth no later than the separation of Common Germanic from Proto-Indo-European, about 500 BC.
The Celts may have also used cannabis, as evidence of hashish traces were found in Hallstatt, birthplace of Celtic culture. Also, the Dacians and the Scythians had a tradition where a fire was made in an inclosed space and cannabis seeds were burnt and the resulting smoke ingested.
Hashish is known as the real Dionysos "wine".
As the seeds of cannabis contain no psycho-active chemicals, it is believed the Scythians were actually casting cannabis flowers onto the stones.