1st high: Ancient Israelites at Biblical shrine used cannabis to spark ‘ecstasy’
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Study intimates it may have been used in J'lem Temple too

1st high: Ancient Israelites at Biblical shrine used cannabis to spark ‘ecstasy’

Researchers find resin on altar at Tel Arad is marijuana mixed with animal dung, used 2,700 years ago ‘as deliberate psychoactive’ – first evidence of ritual cannabis use in region

A photo of the two altars found at the entrance to a shrine at Tel Arad in southern Israel, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Israel Museum/Laura Lachman)
A photo of the two altars found at the entrance to a shrine at Tel Arad in southern Israel, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Israel Museum/Laura Lachman)

Israeli researchers examining residue on an altar from a Biblical-era shrine in southern Israel have found it contained a mixture of cannabis and animal dung, likely intended to “stimulate ecstasy” in Israelite worshipers, and said it constitutes the earliest known use of marijuana in the region.

The discovery also suggests cannabis may have been used in rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem, the researchers intimated.

Clumps of organic material were found in hollows on two altars that stood at the entrance to the heart of a shrine at Tel Arad, a “fortress mound” from the Kingdom of Judah that was excavated by Israeli architects between 1962 and 1967.

The materials were investigated at the time, but the technology was not available to accurately identify them, so researchers — Eran Arie of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Baruch Rosen, and Dvory Namdar — re-conducted the examinations, publishing their findings on Thursday in “Tel Aviv,” the academic journal of Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology.

Material on the smaller limestone altar from the Iron Age-era shrine, believed to have been in use from around 760 to 715 BCE, contained cannabidiol (CBD), and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), along with an unspecified animal dung likely used to burn the cannabis, the study said.

Residue on the top of this altar contains compounds found in cannabis (Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection/The Israel Museum)

The paper noted that because the fragrance of marijuana does not lend itself to use as incense, it was almost certainly burned for its drug properties.

“Arad provides the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East. Hallucinogenic substances are known from various neighboring cultures, but this is the first known evidence of hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah,” the study said.

“The use of [other] psychoactive materials is also well known in ancient Near Eastern and Aegean cultures since prehistory. It seems likely that cannabis was used at Arad as a deliberate psychoactive, to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies. If so, this is the first such evidence in the cult of Judah.”

The use of the dung, which burns at a relatively low temperature, also indicates that the organizers knew what they were doing.

“To induce a high you need the right temperature, and they clearly knew this well, just as they knew which fuel to use for each substance,” Namdar, of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization–Volcani Center in Bet-Dagan, told the Haaretz daily.

The researchers said the find opens a window into the religious practices of the First Temple era, and suggested that cannabis could have played a role in rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem, noting that the Arad fortress was a scaled down version of the Biblical description of King Solomon’s Temple.

Today, the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock stand on the Temple Mount, limiting archaeologists’ access to the holy site.

“The Arad shrine was compared to the First Temple in Jerusalem… and it seems that the two indeed share similar architectural characteristics (e.g., the east−west axis and the division of the architectural spaces),” the researchers wrote. “This may allude to similarity in cultic rituals performed in these structures.”

Excavations at Tel Arad in the Negev Desert seen on March 16, 2006. (CC BY-SA Wikimedia commons)

The researchers said that, as no cannabis seeds or pollen have been found during excavations in the region, the substances most likely was transported to the area in the form of dry resin, or hashish.

On the larger altar, which like the smaller one is now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, residue of frankincense was found, which the study noted was often burned as incense in cult activities.

Here, too, marks the first known use of the spice for worship, which would have had to be brought to the region through trade from Arabia, the study found.

“Arad presents the earliest known identification of frankincense in a clear cultic context,” they said of the resin, best known from the New Testament as one of the gifts brought by the Magi after the birth of Jesus.

Animal fat was also found on that altar, apparently to generate the higher heat needed to evaporate the frankincense.

To avoid cross contamination, the samples were each tested twice at separate labs at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Givat Ram.

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