In June of 2020, in the midst of a world seized and distracted by a pandemic and the Twitter account of an American President gone mad, some revelatory headlines passed through the world’s news agencies. Considering the implications of these headlines regarding the origins of some of the world’s oldest and largest religions, they fell short of the sort of impact they might have held in less intense times.
The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, Volume 47, May 28, 2020 – Issue 1, published the paper Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad, by Eran Arie, Baruch Rosen & Dvory Namdar. The article studied the analysis of unidentified dark material preserved on the upper surfaces of two altars that were used at a 2,800-year-old Jewish temple site. This temple was located in a larger fortress complex located in Jerusalem, known as the ‘fortress mound’ of Tel Arad, which had guarded the Judahite kingdom’s southern border.
This academic paper did not go completely unnoticed and led to some pretty potent headlines. As the Newsweek article ‘Cannabis Discovered in Shrine from Biblical Israeli Kingdom May Have Been Used in Hallucinogenic Cult Rituals’ noted
“We can assume that the fragrance of the frankincense gave a special ambiance to the cult in the shrine, while the cannabis burning brought at least some of the priests and worshippers to a religious state of consciousness or ecstasy,” Arie [one of the authors of the paper on the altar] said. “It is logical to assume that this was an important part of the ceremonies that took place in this shrine.”
Arad is marked as a Jewish archeological site, not just through its location but rather due to archeological finds of numerous inscriptions found on pottery shards known as ‘ostrica,’ dating back to the 6th century B.C.E., just before the kingdom fell to the Babylonians. One of the ostrica, read “the house of YHWH,” i.e., a place of worship dedicated to the Hebrew God, likely in reference to the shrine located within the fortress.
The temple site at Arad is seen by researchers as a sort of miniature Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple of Jerusalem, where the High Priest conferred with God.
The inner chamber of the Temple at Arad, as reconstructed at the Israel Museum from the original archaeological finds. The larger altar on the left held residues of frankincense and the smaller altar on the right cannabis resins. (Image from Cannabis and Frankincense at the Judahite Shrine of Arad, 2020) “Tel Arad is the first locale where incense from Iron Age Judah has been successfully examined. Two different incense components and two different fuel beds were defined on two altars from an 8th-century B.C.E. shrine. The results show that the larger altar contained frankincense that was mixed with animal fat for evaporation. On the other altar, cannabis substance was mixed with animal dung to enable its mild heating.” (Photo-original article)
As the authors of the original study noted:
“Based on the finds unearthed here and in comparison with other Near Eastern temples, it was concluded that the cella [inner chamber] was the heart of the shrine; it was therefore termed ‘Holy of Holies’ or debir. The Arad shrine was compared to the First Temple in Jerusalem…, and it seems that the two indeed share similar architectural characteristics… This may allude to a similarity in cultic rituals performed in these structures.”
The altars had residues from the resins of material burnt upon them, which due to their deliberate burial and the dryness of the desert, were considerably well preserved. These residues were submitted for analysis at two unrelated laboratories using similar established extraction methods. The authors of the paper on the altar believe the evidence suggests “that the use of cannabis on the Arad altar had a deliberate psychoactive role… The frequent use of hallucinogenic materials for cultic purposes in the Ancient Near East and beyond is well known and goes back as early as prehistoric periods… These psychoactive ingredients were destined to stimulate ecstasy as part of cultic ceremonies. As shown in this study, 8th century Judah may now be added to the places where these rituals took place.”
In this respect, it should be noted that the size of the inner ‘Holy of Holies’ in Arad was about the size of a typical walk-in closet, and the altars were about knee-high. The perfect size for a fumigation ritual, what in modern times might be seen as a ‘hot box’ situation where a car, closet, or other small space holds the smoke of cannabis in place.
Eran Arie, the curator for archaeology of the Iron Age and Persian Period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which now houses the ancient artifacts from the shrine in Arad and a co-author of the paper on the altars from Arad, stated in an interview with Haaretz: “This may reflect the cultic activities in Jerusalem, in Judah and possibly in the broader region… If the shrine … was built according to the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, then why shouldn’t the religious practices be the same?” Co-author Dvory Namdar, a chemist, and archaeologist, also see this use as indicating a mainstream practice that had been sanctioned and financed by the Jewish monarchy.
Ancient Prohibition at Arad?
Interestingly, this is a history that may have been intentionally suppressed, as the authors of the paper on the Arad altars have noted: “The excavator of Arad assumed that the two altars (and the entire shrine) were deliberately buried for ritual reasons… The motivation for this cultic interment is debated.”
One reason for this suppression may be that Arad holds evidence of polytheistic cultic activities and that besides the two altars at the site, there are indications that originally there were two standing stones. This reconstruction brought about the conclusion that two deities were worshipped at the shrine, and this has suggested to some researchers a divine couple. Ziony Zevit, an American scholar of biblical literature and Northwest Semitic languages and a professor at the American Jewish University, explained in The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches: “Evidence for the worship of more than one deity, usually in the form of redundant or paired appurtenances such as altars, stands, and steles, is indicated at the temple of Arad XI (ninth century) … My own interpretational preference for the phenomenon of ‘twoness’… is to consider it a reflection of the worship of YHWH and Asherah, lord and lady of the Israelite pantheon” (Zevit, 2001).
I first wrote about Asherah in the 1990s; at that time, it seemed so radical and unbelievable, fringe academia at best, that the God of the Bible, for most of what would be considered the Old Testament period, had a wife. It had been some time since I had delved into the topic prior to the discovery of cannabis resins at Arad, but the acceptance of this unavoidable reality, due to increasing archeological evidence of Goddess worship in ancient Israel, seems to have now won the day. It is generally now accepted by the majority of historians and archeologists that Yahweh was initially not a monotheistic figure, and like other deities of the Near East that headed a pantheon, he was coupled with a Goddess.
Raphael Patai, in his groundbreaking book, The Hebrew Goddess (1967), did much to establish the paramount role that Ashera played in ancient Semitic culture, particularly among the Hebrews, where at times she was worshipped right alongside Yahweh as his consort. In fact, tenth-century B.C.E. inscriptions from Judea invoke the blessing of “Yahweh and his Asherah,” testifying to their combined cult.
The American archaeologist, Old Testament scholar, and historian, William Dever explained in his book Did God Have a Wife? (2005) compiled archeological evidence, such as inscriptions and the numerous clay female figures found throughout Israel, as a clear indication of the popularity of Goddess worship in the region throughout the Biblical age of kings. Dever explains that Asherah was recognized as the “Queen of Heaven.” Dever specifically points to the shrine of tel Arad and the indications there of polytheistic practices, two altars, standing stones, as well as figurines of the goddess recovered at the site, as evidence of the combined worship of Yahweh and Asherah.
Ellen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), likewise explains in her article Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol? explains, “This popular connection between Yahweh and Asherah, and the eventual purging of Asherah from the Israelite cult, is likely a reflection of the emergence of monotheism from the Israelites’ previous polytheistic worldview” (White, 2021).
Asherah at Arad
Prior to the study of the altars, tel Arad had long been viewed by many scholars as a site indicating the combined worship of Yahweh and the Goddess as Asherah. Religiously biased historians and archeologists have seized upon this in response to claims that the ritual use of cannabis in Arad, was an indication of what took place within the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem. The evidence of ritual cannabis use at Arad, is seen here instead as further evidence of polytheistic heresy and a reason for the original sites’ cancelation’ and burial.
Numerous female clay’ pillar figures’, believed by many historians to represent the Goddess Asherah, have been found throughout the area, attesting to the popularity of the Goddess with the ancient Hebrews. A number of such pillar figurines were found at the Arad Temple site. The disappearance of these figurines from the culture coincides with the cancelation and burial of the two altars at Arad, and many scholars see a solid connection here and more evidence of the suppression of a Goddess, once recognized as the wife of Yahweh, the God of the Bible.
In light of the findings in Arad, it is interesting that Asherah has been connected to cannabis. The Botanist William Emboden stated that “There is a classic Greek term, cannabeizen, which means to smoke Cannabis. Cannabeizen frequently took the form of inhaling vapors from an incense burner in which these resins were mixed with other resins, such as myrrh, balsam, frankincense, and perfumes; this is the manner of the shamanistic Ashera priestesses of pre-reformation Jerusalem, who anointed their skins with the mixture as well as burned it” (Emboden 1972).
The Haaretz article, Ancient Israelites Used Cannabis as Temple Offering asks –
“So if the ancient Israelites were joining in on the party, why doesn’t the Bible mention the use of cannabis as a substance used in rituals, just as it does numerous times for frankincense?”
“One possibility is that cannabis does appear in the text, but the name used for the plant is not recognized by researchers, Arie says, adding that hopefully, the new study will open up that question for biblical scholars.”
The Lost Word: Kaneh Bosm
These stories were of particular interest to me, as for more than three decades, I have been suggesting that there are indications of the ritual use of cannabis in the Biblical narrative. However, this theory was based purely on etymological evidence regarding a Hebrew term, “kaneh bosm”, that a little-known Polish Anthropologist and linguist, Sula Benet, first suggested in a 1936 paper were references to cannabis. What is most interesting is how closely what we know about the finds of cannabis resins at the shrine in Arad, parallels the story told by the kaneh and kaneh bosm references identified by Sula Benet.
In her essays’ Tracing One Word Through Different Languages’ (1936) and ‘Early Diffusions and Folk Uses of Hemp’ (1975), Benet demonstrated that the Hebrew terms ‘kaneh’ and ‘kaneh bosm’ identified cannabis. The root “kaneh” in this construction means “cane~reed” or “hemp,” while “bosm” means “aromatic.” This word appeared in Exodus 30:23, whereas in the Song of Songs 4:14, Isaiah 43:24, Jeremiah 6:20, Ezekiel 27:19 the term ‘kaneh’ is used without the adjunct ‘bosm’. As Sula Benet has explained, the Hebrew word kaneh-bosm was later mistranslated as calamus, a common marsh plant with little monetary value that does not have the qualities or value ascribed to kaneh-bosm. This error occurred in the oldest of the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts, the Septuagint, in the third century B.C., and then repeated in following translations.
In the first of the references to kaneh bosm, noted by Sula Benet, it appears in a recipe for a holy anointing oil, which is placed on the body, and poured over the altar of incense. Moreover, this Holy Oil was to be used specifically in the Tent of the Meeting, where the angel of the Lord would “speak” to Moses from a pillar of smoke over the altar. From what can be understood by the descriptions in Exodus, Moses and later High Priests would cover themselves with this ointment and also pour some on the altar of incense before burning it and during the ritual. As Dr. Ethan Russo has noted, “Besides its role in anointing, the holy oil of the Hebrews kaneh bosm was burned as incense, and its use was reserved to the priestly class” (Russo, 2007). This use would be identical to that which was suggested for the cannabis burnt on the altar in the Arad, ‘Holy of Holies.’
However, this all fell out of favor with the Israelites about five centuries after the alleged time of Moses, due to the use of cannabis by the worshippers of Asherah. In Jeremiah 6:20, we read, “What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet cane (fragrant cannabis) from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please me.” Here we see both cannabis and frankincense being rejected, the exact substances found on the altars at Arad! Moreover, this comes in association with the Goddess.
References in Jeremiah 44, where the angry prophet confronts a group of Israelites living in Egypt, and blames them for the fall of Jerusalem, indicate this was over their worship of the Goddess! and the burning of incense to her as the Queen of Heaven, as had been the practice in the region for generations prior.
As Dvora Lederman Daniely, a lecturer and researcher at the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem, noted recently in the recent article “Who’s Afraid of the Goddess of Ancient Israel?”
“Many studies on Asherah in the Bible have concluded that Asherah was a popular and beloved Mother-Goddess in the religion of Israel. Asherah was regarded as…the “Queen of Heaven”..; who bestows abundance and protection to the people. The human queens were in charge of Asherah’s worship and hosted her priests. The worship of Asherah, as the Book of Kings itself disapprovingly attests, was conducted within the Holy Temple itself alongside the worship of Yahweh… (2 Kings 21).””Although biblical authors cast worship of this divine spouse as idolatry… this characterization was contrary to the prevalent cultic religion in the early days of Israel. This portrayal was intended to preserve the appearance of monotheism. It suited the spirit of religious reform that prevailed in… the seventh century… that abolished all divinities other than Yahweh. This monotheistic outlook took a central place in the edited version of the Bible. Essentially, biblical editors presented a new, more stringent cult, in which monotheism was present from the beginning of time, when in fact it was not.” (Daniely, 2022)
As Ariel David noted on this ancient decommission of the Arad temple in Haaretz:
“Scholars have long debated why the temple at Arad was decommissioned and… the two altars, carefully buried….it is… likely connected to the religious reforms that were carried out by Hezekiah in the early days of his reign, just around 715 B.C.E.”
“According to the Biblical account, which finds some support in the archaeological record, Hezekiah attempted to centralize the cult of Yahweh at the Temple in Jerusalem and ordered the destruction of competing holy sites throughout his kingdom. Acting on his orders, the Israelites’ tore down the high places and altars throughout Judah… until they were all destroyed.’ (2 Chronicles 31:1) (David, 2020).
As William G. Dever, noted in his 1984 article, Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet Ajrfid, the silence regarding Asherah as the consort of Yahweh in the existing Old Testament narrative, “may now be understood as the result of a near-total suppression of the cult by 8th-6th century reformers” (Dever, 1984). 2 Kings 18:3-4, tells us how the Yahweh alone worshipping king Hezekiah “did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it.”
One of the titles of Asherah, was “the lady of the serpent.” Interestingly, the patriarchal monotheistic takeover, which saw her image and priestesses removed from the temple in Jerusalem by the same historical figures suggested to be behind the cancelation of the shrine in Arad, gives us some interesting insights into some potent Biblical mythology.
The Brazen Serpent brings to mind another serpent in the Bible, one that, in the myth of Genesis, swayed the first woman with the fruits of a forbidden tree. Interestingly, Asherah’s main symbol was the tree of life, which was later depicted as prohibited in the Garden of Eden. Although placed at the front of the Bible as the story of Creation, the account of Eden was not composed till after many of the events we have been discussing. And a number of modern scholars see the myth as a form of propaganda against the cult of Asherah.
In his article ‘Yahweh’s Divorce from the Goddess Asherah in the Garden of Eden’ Arthur George notes:
“As noted by numerous biblical scholars, the Goddess is also seen in the figure of Eve herself… In the Eden story she is given the epithet ‘the mother of all living,’ an epithet like those given to various ancient near Eastern goddesses, including… Asherah… Eve’s actual name in Hebrew (ḥawwâ), besides meaning life (for which goddesses were traditionally responsible), is also likely wordplay on an old Canaanite word for serpent (ḥeva). The name of the goddess Tannit (the Phoenician version of Asherah) means ‘serpent lady,’ and she had the epithet ‘Lady Ḥawat’ (meaning ‘Lady of Life’), which is derived from the same Canaanite word as Eve’s name (ḥawwâ). At the end of the story, Eve is punished by having to give birth in pain, whereas goddesses in the ancient Near East gave birth painlessly.”
Indeed, as we have seen, the Goddess worshippers likely used the sacred cannabis of the Goddess in preparation for birth, and cannabis use in the Holy Land for this purpose has been shown by a later archeological dig in Bet Shemesh.
An ancient ivory cosmetic casket lid from the 14th-century site of Minet al-Beida, depicts the goddess herself in the role of the Tree of life, offering two caprids, holding vegetation that clearly resembles buds of cannabis, but has been erroneously described as both ears of wheat or corn. As Professor John Gray explains in Near Eastern Mythology: Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, “This [depiction] seems to indicate finally the explanation of the Biblical references to the ‘asherah as a natural or stylized tree in the fertility cult. This was the symbol of the mother-goddess, now known from the Ras Shamra texts as Ashera, the counterpart of Mesopotamian Ishtar…. The tree of life…is called the asherah in the Old Testament.” (Gray 1969).
Now, the prohibition and demonization of cannabis here is something of profound later consequence, but the reality is that this pales in comparison to the demonization of the divine feminine and how it has made women second-class citizens for millennia.
With the combined rise of women’s liberation and cannabis legalization, we may be experiencing what the late Terrence McKenna called an Archaic Revival. Indeed, a driving force in legalization on all fronts and in industry has been women who have reclaimed their power and the medicines of their grandmothers and our paving the way for the return of the once and future tree of life, kaneh bosm, that was sacred to the Goddess for millennia. Like us, cannabis occurs in both male and female forms a differentiation that marks higher forms of both botanical and animal species. As Mckenna wrote, “Propagation of the female species… is the total concern of the grower interested in the narcotic power of the plant. It is thus a kind of happy coincidence that the subjective effects of cannabis and the care and attention needed to produce a good resin strain both conspire and accentuate values that are oriented toward honoring and preserving the feminine.” (McKenna 1992). Coincidence or divine providence?
Interestingly, Sula Benet, the woman who first identified kaneh bosm as cannabis, connected the ritual use of cannabis worship to the Goddess cults that preceded the rise of Yahweh and Patriarchal monotheism. “Taking into account the matriarchal element of Semitic culture, one is led to believe that Asia Minor was the original point of expansion for both the society based on the matriarchal circle and the mass use of hashish” (Benet, 1936). It is fitting that a woman pioneered this area of research, and it is rewarding to see her contributions confirmed by the archeological evidence from Arad, Jerusalem.
Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity for more than three decades. He is co-author of Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and author of Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); and Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult (2018). He has also contributed chapters on the the historical role of cannabis in spiritual practices in books such as The Pot Book(2010), Entheogens and the Development of Culture (2013), Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances (2014), One Toke Closer to God (2017), Cannabis and Spirituality (2016) and Psychedelics Reimagined (1999). Bennett’s research has received international attention from the BBC , Guardian, Sunday Times, Washington Post, Vice and other media sources. He currently resides in Nova Scotia, Canada.