A History Of Hemp

The hemp plant has incredible applications in all areas of industry; it has been used as a medicine, in a religious context and as a fundamental material for thousands of years. Here we explore the history of hemp, showing how important the hemp plant is and has always been. It’s been in use since the very beginnings of civilization itself. We know this because of a fragment of hemp cloth found in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). It is one of the oldest archaeological finds in existence, dating back to around 8000 BC. Ancient Mesopotamia was the Middle Eastern centre of culture, it was here that the earliest forms of civilization developed; from agricultural villages to the first cities. Hemp has helped to build society as we know it, appearing throughout human history, all over the world.

the ancient history of hemp

Chinese Hemp History

China actually provides us with the first written records of hemp use, dating back 6000 years ago [1]. Hemp was initially used for rope and fishing nets because of its natural resistance to salty seawater. The Chinese appreciation for the crop is reflected well in their literature, here are a few notable examples:

Hemp Field at Hempen

In the Shu Ching, which roughly translates as ‘Official or Classic History’ an authentic 3rd century work and one of the oldest writings of its kind, hemp was listed alongside silk and lead [2]. It’s also mentioned in the Pen-Ts’ao Ching (first century BC), the oldest existing Pharmacopoeia (an official book of medicine), with details of where hemp grew before becoming common everywhere. It was so commonplace that the Chi-chiu-pien, a text used to teach reading and writing, also features hemp. Yet, this plant’s benefits are anything but common, which is reflected through the response of the rulers themselves. During the Han Dynasty, hemp paper was invented and presented to the Emperor, paper has been in widespread use ever since. Emperor Shen Nung also advised the cultivation of the female plant (which contains more cannabinoids), due to its greater medicinal value. It was even considered to be one of the ‘Superior Elixirs of Immortality’. While we can’t confirm hemp will help you live forever, we do recommend our Organic CBD Coconut Oil as a wonderful anti-aging balm!

China’s hemp deity was the Goddess Magu, her name translates as ‘Hemp Maiden’ and there are tales of how she used the plant for its healing properties, both spiritual and physical. Deities have long been associated with the Taoist landmark Mount Tai [3], the area is well known for the wild hemp that grows along the stone steps that lead to the summit.

Hemp in the first botany book.
Hemp Textiles Examples

Indian Hemp History

In India, hemp (or bhang) reached an almost ethereal level of appreciation [4]. Bhang became an integral part of the Hindu religion and inseparable from Shiva, the deity known as the ‘Supreme Being’. Outside of this religious setting, the word bhang appears in literal locations: Bengal translates as ‘Bhang land’ and Bangladesh ‘Bhang land people’. Their warriors even drank a concoction containing bhang to calm their nerves before battle. Here at Hempen, we’re considering reviving this practice before heading out to speak about our campaign to Grow Hemp. Yet, that didn’t save their warriors from the Scythians, who, after invading India, swept across the Middle East and into Europe. So, perhaps we’ll hold off on drinking those bhang beverages for the time being… Unless it’s a cup of of our Organic Hemp Tea of course.

European Hemp History

Yet, all was not lost for the use of hemp. The Scythians were renowned for sowing hemp seeds as they travelled and helped spread the popularity of hemp along the way. An account by the Greek historian, Herodotus, details how they threw the seeds on to hot coals, then ‘shriek with delight at the fumes’ [5]. He records it as a vapour bath unlike anything that could be found in Greece. This alludes to his unfamiliarity with cannabis, which may explain his limited understanding of its uses [6].

Roman familiarity with the plant, however, is well established [7]. From Pliny’s account of hemp’s medicinal properties [8], to Galen’s cannabis cakes, hemp seems to have become an accepted part of life. The importance of this plant to the Scythians is reflected in archaeological finds [9]. A number of their burial mounds were found to contain various forms of hemp. One being the thousand-year-old grave of a Scythian Princess: who was buried with six fully harnessed horses, a hollowed tree trunk decorated with leather animal figures and last but not least, a small pot of cannabis seeds [10]. I imagine she’d have loved a pack of our Organic Whole Hemp Seeds.

African and Middle Eastern Hemp History

African hemp history has its most remarkable finds in Egypt. The Egyptian word for hemp varies from source to source. However, references to hemp (SmSm, Smsmt or Shemshemet) are found within the Pyramid Texts [11]. Here, hemp fibre was recorded as being used to make the ropes which pulled the limestone blocks that built the Pyramids. Ramses II’s mummy was found to contain traces of cannabis pollen spores, and a piece of papyri buried with Ramses III contained medicinal remedies, some of which featured cannabis as an ingredient [12].

Hashish, on the other hand, was well known in the Arab lands but became particularly associated with the Sufis. Their views differed from those of other Muslims, mainly due to their belief that spiritual enlightenment could only be achieved through altered states of consciousness. Thus, forming a connection between hashish and Arabic spirituality. In North Africa, it is common for people to smoke keef (cannabis trichomes).  Which was carried around in a small pouch with different grades and offered to guests depending on the degree of respect they’re accorded. Talk about being highly honoured! Our Organic CBD Oil also ranges in strength from 250-2000mg.

the modern history of hemp

Hempen in the fields

In the UK and British Isles

The recent history of hemp has become ingrained in law and legislation. In England, King Henry VIII actually fined farmers not growing hemp as early as 1533 [13]. As written on our Organic Hemp Flour packaging; farmers in the 16th century were required to sow a quarter of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned. The word ‘Hempen’ is even an old English word that means ‘made from hemp’.

In 1597, John Gerard published a book on botany which classified Hemp as a member of the Nettle family. We now understand Hemp to be a member of its own family (Cannabaceae) which falls under the Order of Rosales. The legal requirement to grow hemp continued well into the 1600’s, due to Queen Elizabeth I’s need to fit the English navy with hemp rope and sails. This well-established use of hemp spread even further and was in no small part responsible for the Dutch golden age of shipping in the 1700’s.

Cannabis tinctures then became commonly used throughout the British Empire during the Victorian Era, after Opium was proved to be addictive and dangerous. The Queen was even known to partake herself, using cannabis to relieve her menstrual pains. In the 1920’s Britain faced pressure to criminalise cannabis from other countries, including Egypt, at the Second Geneva Opium Conference. The UK initially resisted these suggestions due to the revenue attained from taxing cannabis sales in India. However, they ultimately agreed to sign the treaty and the Home Office Drugs Branch became involved in its control [14]. The US also got involved, referring to certain treaty conditions as a way to get the UK to strengthen their drug laws.

However, English physicians differed from American politicians in one important way, while the latter considered drug abuse to be criminal, the former understood the condition to be a sickness. The result was “The British System” which allowed patients to pick up a prescription for their habits, or referred them to institutions that helped with their withdrawal symptoms [15]. This worked right up until the 1960’s, when the actions of one overly generous doctor led to a heroin epidemic. In 1971 the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed and the control of such substances returned to being a policing and political matter, rather than a medical one. In the very same year, President Nixon began his “War on Drugs”.

Across the Pond

America has become one of the foremost authorities on prohibition and legalisation. The well-known anti-marijuana propaganda project from the 1920’s and 30’s demonised the plant for its commercial value. William Randolph Hearst and the Du Pont company vilified hemp, due to the competition it posed to the petrochemical and pulp paper industries. This led to the Marijuana Tax Act and the racist Reefer Madness hysteria. Despite having no evidence to back up his claims, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (Harry Anslinger) went as far as to say that ‘Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users’ insanity, criminality, and death.’

Reefer Madness

Yet, despite their best efforts, hemp and its derivatives were still seen as a so called “soft drug”. A national survey conducted in 1977 indicated that 60% of young adults had used marijuana or hashish at some point. The National Survey on Drug Abuse in 1979, showed that 68% of young adults were familiar with hemp derivatives and half of those surveyed used them frequently. It was also shown that from the thirty-five to forty million consumers, there were no proven delinquent incidents or fatal intoxications[16]. The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse actually advised the legalisation of its consumption, at which point even the people in power had to pay attention. However, it still took time for the research to be truly realised and only now are we seeing the results come to fruition.

What’s changed?

Since the early 2000’s we have seen a global wave of decriminalisation, legalisation and realisation for the medical benefits of cannabis. Yet here in the UK, we continue to face licensing issues for industrial hemp and cannabis criminalisation. At Hempen, our hope is to Overgrow the Regime and sow the seeds of change, by empowering everyone to grow hemp without a licence. Outdated legislation has prevented people from using this plant for its medicinal and commercial value for far too long. If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, please take a look at our blog on the subject. Let’s hope that the future brings constructive change and we move forwards into a new age Hemp Renaissance.

Written by the Hempen Historian, Thomas H. Ashton.


[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4253540 

[2] R. Robinson, The Great Book Of Hemp (1996)

[3] https://druglibrary.net/olsen/HEMP/IHA/iha02201.html  [4] https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20170307-the-intoxicating-drug-of-an-indian-god

[5] Herodotus, The Histories, Trans. R. Waterfield (1998)

[6] R. Rolle, The World of The Scythians (1989)

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7605027/

[8] Pliny the Elder, Natural History Books 20-23, Trans. W. Jones (1969)

[9] https://blog.britishmuseum.org/scythians-ice-mummies-and-burial-mounds/

[10] R. Robinson, The Great Book Of Hemp (1996)

[11] https://www.pyramidtextsonline.com/translation.html

[12] R. Robinson, The Great Book Of Hemp (1996)

[13] https://www.edenproject.com/visit/things-to-do/outdoor-gardens/hemp

[14] J. Mills, Cannabis Nation (2012)

[15] https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markeaston/2010/08/drugs_policy_the_british_system.html

[16] R. Robinson, The Great Book Of Hemp (1996)

[17] A. Escohotado, A Brief History Of Drugs (1999)