The intersection of medicine and religion


Religion and psychoactive plants have been linked to medicine and healing for millennia. (See “Finding God in a Plant”). Our ancestors, of course, were largely unaware of how pain or disease was produced in the human body. So when a person experienced pain, especially without evidence of injury, spiritual healers would develop fanciful myths to explain the cause of the pain or illness.

The causes of illness and mental illness were mysterious and often attributed to evil magic or divine beings. Those who attempted to heal often promised to intervene with the gods. Today, religion still overlaps with medicine, as offering spiritual consolation to the sick and dying. A priest is no longer expected to be able to cure depression or psychosis by inhaling the smoke of incense.

In ancient times, most treatments were derived from natural sources. Hot water or oil decoctions were prepared from the bark of a willow or myrrh shrub or by inhaling the smoke of burning hemp seeds. These treatments reduced inflammation and pain, and sometimes produced feelings of joy. Through trial and error, it was soon discovered that these natural sources were more effective if they were dissolved in fats or oils and then rubbed into the skin.

For example, the original “flying ointment” used by medieval witches was probably an herbal recipe that contained extracts of the Datura and Mandrake plants, as well as poplar leaves and chimney soot, all of which were held together with clove oil. In a ritual performed naked, witches rubbed the ointment on their foreheads, wrists, hands or feet.

According to Abramelin the Magus (1362-1460), a Jew from Würzburg, Germany, who wrote a series of books on magic and the occult, women “would also anoint a staff and ride on it … or anoint each other. under the arm and in other hairy places. The sensation produced by these plant extracts would include both visual hallucinations and a feeling of floating and dizziness; it is not difficult to understand why these women were able to report an experience like flying in the sky while riding their brooms.

The ability of these oil-based concoctions to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, “fly in the sky” and induce euphoria has given them a special place in society. These topical oils, or anointing oils, were used for medicinal, symbolic, sacramental, religious, and magical purposes. The administration of drugs via anointing oils avoided the problems of low bioavailability, gastric instability, high dose side effects associated with oral administration.

The act of anointing for religious purposes is incredibly old. Five thousand years ago, anointing oils were used in the Akkadian religion which worshiped Bel, the god of order and fate. The sun god Istanu (circa 1600 BCE) anointed the Hittite king to exalt him. The Hebrew Bible treats the anointing as a rite of passage among the Hittites. In the Old Testament, the priest Zadok is described as anointing Solomon.

Extracts from the cannabis plant were often included in these ancient anointing oils. The earliest reference to the use of cannabis comes from the masonry of the twenty-seventh century BCE in the Old Kingdom of Egypt. In 430 BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote that the Scythians burned seeds and inhaled smoke during funerals to allay sadness. The plant is mentioned several times as “kaneh-bosem», In the Old Testament, for example according to the instructions of Yahweh to Moses in Exodus 30:23. Cannabis was also used as a barter material and was used as incense. Why was cannabis added to the anointing oils?

The therapeutic potential of anointing oils containing cannabis is most likely attributable to cannabidiol (CBD), delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and cannabinol (CBN). When dissolved in fatty oils, these molecules can enter the vascular system of the dermis. Two recent studies reported that significant plasma concentrations of these cannabinoids were observed after application of transdermal gel. CBN is a mildly psychoactive cannabinoid; psychoactively relevant amounts are formed as a metabolite of THC in the presence of heat and light. THC and CBN can bind to cannabinoid receptors expressed in several types of skin cells. CBD may also have antibacterial activity against Propionibacterium acnes, a bacteria that causes acne.

Thus, anointing oils containing cannabis extracts would have had psychoactive and curative actions for common medical conditions, including dermatitis, sunburn, muscle spasms, schizophrenia, epilepsy and headaches.


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