Oh yeah. We’re going there. And we’re not taking Hippocrates.
Instead we’re gonna focus on two other ancient legends: one, a nature loving hippie/scholar/politician named Pliny the Elder; the other, a vainglorious physician who shaped nearly every aspect of rational medicine that came before and after him name Galen of Pergamon. I’m gonna do a whole post on the latter sometime soon, as he was highly influential on medicine up until the modern era – as much as I hate to further contribute to his ego. Anyway. Cannabis. Hemp. Pot. Ganja. Weed. Mary Jane. Whatever you want to call it, the ancients were familiar and employed this plant in a variety of uses. They made rope, they ate the seeds and, oh yes, the used it medicinally. In a few passages from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, we can see just a few of the ways the plant was employed: “Hemp is sown when the spring west wind sets in; the closer it grows the thinner its stalks are. Its seed when ripe is stripped off after the autumn equinox and dried in the sun or wind or by the smoke of a fire. The hemp plant itself is plucked after the vintage, and peeling and cleaning it is a task done by candle light. the best is that of Arab-Hissar, which is specially used for making hunting-nets. Three classes of hemp are produced at that place: that nearest to the bark or the pith is considered of inferior value, while that from the middle, the Greek name for which is ‘middles’, is most highly esteemed. The second best hemp comes from Mylasa. As regards height, the hemp of Rosea in the Sabine territory grows as tall as a fruit-tree.” – Pliny the Elder, Natural History 19.173-174 He’s also got some advice on how to grow it – an activity which, unless you’re living in certain states, I do not endorse. And evidently the processing of the plant was pretty meticulous and the strength of the rope is dependent upon how its made and by who. Who knew? Pliny did. That’s who. But that’s not all ol’ Pliny had to say about hemp: “Hemp at first grew in woods, with a darker and rougher leaf. Its seed is said to make the genitals impotent. The juice from it drives out of the ears the worms and any other creature that has entered them, but at the cost of a headache; so potent is its nature that when poured into water it is said to make it coagulate. And so, drunk in their water, it regulates the bowels of beats of burden. The root boiled in water eases cramped joints, gout too and similar violent pains. It is applied raw to burns, but is often changed before it gets dry.” – Pliny the Elder, Natural History 20.259 Here we can see some of the uses of the plant according to Pliny, as well as some of the positive and negative effects. The latter, obviously, being impotence when the seeds are ingested, the former being pain relief when tea is made with the roots of the plant (a treatment some still advocate today). You can also regulate the BMs of your livestock using the juice or remove all those pesky critters from your ears. For the record – I’m willing to risk the headache.
Side note: Pliny the Elder was an absolute ledge. Apart from being a badass Roman officer and a topnotch politician, Pliny spent his spare time being a natural historian extraordinaire. He was like the ancient lovechild of Indiana Jones and David Attenborough. His last, and most impressive, work was his Naturalis Historia (cited above as Natural History, not a direct translation but we can talk the genitive later if you like) – 37 books where, literally, no rock was left un-turned.
One of my favorite nuggets of info shared by Pliny in this massive work is what he has to say about beavers (NH 8.47): evidently, back in the day, castoreum – a substance that was thought to be produced in the testicles of beavers – was highly prized and eventually, according to Pliny and others, the beavers figured out that this is why all their bucktoothed brethren were being hunted and killed. So they formulated a plan. A cunning plan: when a male beaver was being hunted for his, ahem, castor oil, he would use his sharp teeth to snip ’em off and then flick them at the hunter using his wide, beavery tail. Once more for emphasis: the beaver would bite off his own testicles and launch them at the hunter using his tail. This story was legit believed all throughout the Middle Ages (for more info and a lot of fun, check out the Medieval Bestiary).
Even cooler (as morbid as this may be) is the story of the Elder’s demise, as told by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, in his letters to Tacitus. The story goes that Old Pliny had recently been appointed a fleet commander of the Roman Navy and stationed at Misenum, near Pompeii. On the fateful day that Vesuvius decided to blow her top, did Pliny the Elder run? Oh heck no! He went to check out this magnificent wonder of nature and set sail across the Bay of Naples (during his preparations he had also received a call for help from his friend Rectina, so he thought he would pick her up while he was there gathering samples and sciencing and such). Clouds of ash and pumice started to fall upon the ships as the Roman ship crossed the bay and the sailors began to wonder if they should turn around. “No!” that old badass Pliny shouted, “Fortune favors the brave!” And they sailed on to the beach of Stabiae, strapping pillows on their heads to protect them from the debris. Once they got there, they figured out that because of the winds, they couldn’t leave – so what did Pliny do? He through a freaking feast to reassure his men and keep ’em calm ’til the wind changed. Unfortunately, Pliny was kind of old, and kind of fat, and really asthmatic, and although no one is quite sure what exactly happened, he never made it home from the beach of Stabiae – his body was later recovered from under the ash and rubble. Anyway! I have gotten super off topic. But Pliny the Elder is just so cool! And let’s be honest: he probably, um, empirically researched when it came to hemp. Some more information about the ancient and medical uses of cannabis comes from the work of Galen: “Although the hemp plant in some ways resembles the chaste tree, the seeds do not have the same power, but are completely different, for they are hard to digest, disagree with the stomach, cause headaches and contain bad juices. All the same, some people eat the seeds after they have been roasted with the side dishes. What I mean by side dishes are those foods eaten for pleasure after dinner during the drinking. They are particularly heating and so affect the head, when just a few too many have been eaten, by sending up to the head a hot and medicinal vapour.” Galen, On the Powers of Foods 6.549-50. Galen notes that the seeds of the hemp plant are tough to digest – so in addition to Pliny’s impotence, you’re gonna get a tummy-ache when consuming these bad boys. What is more interesting in this passage, however, is Galen’s assertion that because of their hot quality, cannabis seeds, when being digested, send a *medicinal vapour* to the head. What I can’t discern from this passage is whether Galen thinks this was a good or bad thing. Galen was a buzzkill. He probably disapproved. So, on a completely unrelated note, I decided to include in this post my good friend Jen’s recipe for vegan brownies. I know, I know. Half of you are super excited. The other half, like my boyfriend, probably think these things are going to taste like mulch. Well, you would be wrong – because they taste like delicious. And they are now a staple in our house. They are (and I loathe to use this word) moist and chocolaty and super easy to make. This simple recipe is wonderful by itself or can be dressed up with any accoutrements you desire!
- 2 cups all purpose flour, sifted
- 2 cups sugar
- 3/4 unsweetened cocoa powder (people of the UK – make sure you get the legit cocoa powder, not hot chocolate – these are very different and the latter will un-veganify it)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- berries, nuts, chocolate chips or any other additions you might like
Preheat your oven to 350F/170C. Mix up the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder and salt) in a big ol’ bowl. Add in the water, vegetable oil and vanilla and mix again until blended and smooth. Pour into a 9×13 inch pan that has been greased and lined with parchment. Add any toppers you might want. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the top of the brownies no longer look shiny/raw. Let it cool and then stuff your face. This recipe is easily halved if, like me, you can’t trust yourself to have an entire tray of brownies scooting around. I just throw in a heaping 1/3 cup of cocoa instead and call it good because I’m bad at fractions.
After this post was published a dear friend of mine, and fellow nerd, Juan was kind enough to point out this amazing excerpt from Herodotus‘ Histories:
“The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, crawling in under the mats, throw it on the red-hot stones, where it smoulders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapor-bath could surpass it.  The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapor-bath. This serves them instead of bathing, for they never wash their bodies with water.” Herodotus, Histories 4.75
Is it just me or does Herodotus sound a little sad that Greek bath houses aren’t quite as raucous?