Holy smoke

Ancient Israelites Used Cannabis as Temple Offering, Study Finds

Analysis of altar residue shows worshippers burned pot at a Judahite desert shrine – and may have done the same at the First Temple in Jerusalem

Ariel David
Ariel David
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The Holy of Holies from the Arad temple, now housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem
The Holy of Holies from the Arad temple, now housed at the Israel Museum in JerusalemCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection / The Israel Museum
Ariel David
Ariel David

The ancient Israelites used cannabis in their religious rituals, archaeologists were stunned to learn by analyzing charred residues on a 2,700-year-old altar unearthed in a desert shrine.

The weed traces were found on one of the altars that once stood in the temple at Tel Arad, in Israel’s Negev desert. The cannabinoid substance was likely burned to deliberately get worshippers high on the drug’s psychoactive compounds, researchers have concluded.

While many faiths across the world use or have used psychotropic drugs to induce states of ecstasy, hallucinations or other effects, this is the first evidence to emerge that the practice was part of the early history of Judaism.

The study, published Friday in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, opens a rare window into the religious customs of the Israelites in the First Temple era. The archaeologists suggest that cannabis may have also played a role in the rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem. Here’s why. The shrine at Arad was part of a hilltop fortress that guarded the southern frontier of the Kingdom of Judah roughly from the ninth century B.C.E. to the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple.

The citadel was excavated in the 1960s and the discovery of the shrine was a major coup for Israeli archaeologists, because its layout was a scaled-down version of the biblical descriptions
(1 Kings 6) of the Temple supposedly built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.

Today, the Muslim holy places atop the Temple Mount make that site inaccessible to archaeologists, so Arad, as well as other similar shrines across the Levant, have functioned as sort of proxies for scholars to study and understand the structure and functioning of the first incarnation of the Temple, of which almost no extra-biblical evidence is known.

Iron Age temples in the Levant were built according to a pretty standard plan on an east-west axis and were mainly composed of a courtyard, a main prayer hall and a small, raised inner room: the holy of holies.

Stashed altars

The burnt residue on the top of this altar contains compounds found in cannabis
The burnt residue on the top of this altar contains compounds found in cannabisCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection / The Israel Museum

Inside Arad’s holy of holies, the archaeologists found a “massebah,” a worked standing stone, that is commonly associated with ancient Levantine cultic activities and likely represented the presence of the deity in the shrine. And, on the steps leading to this stela, they unearthed two limestone altars that had been placed on their sides and deliberately buried before the temple went out of use.

Thanks to this burial, and the dry desert climate, the encrusted remains of burnt offerings were well-preserved on the top of the two altars.

Back in the 1960s, the analysis of these organic remains was inconclusive, but experts assumed the altars were used to burn incense or perhaps used in the sacrifice of small animals, says Eran Arie, curator for archaeology of the Iron Age and Persian Period at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which now houses the ancient artifacts

Now, together with Dvory Namdar, a chemist and archaeologist from the Volcani agricultural research center, Arie set out to check that hypothesis by applying more modern scientific techniques. Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, the researchers identified the remains on the larger altar, which stood 52 centimeters high, as frankincense.

This is the first time frankincense has been identified in an archaeological dig in the Levant, Arie notes, though its presence was not entirely surprising given that the Bible and other sources describe the ritual burning of frankincense resin (for example, in Leviticus 2:1-2).

The real shocker came from the smaller altar, which was 40 centimeters high and was found to be covered in chemicals including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) – all substances that are found in cannabis.

They were very surprised, Arie and Namdar tell Haaretz.

Incidentally, when the study began some four years ago, Namdar had just started on her current job at a lab that researches the medical applications of weed, so they initially feared she had inadvertently contaminated the sample. But when another sample was tested by a second, independent lab, the results were confirmed.

Cannabis was offered in sacrifice on this small altar from the temple at Tel Arad
Cannabis was offered in sacrifice on this small altar from the temple at Tel AradCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection / The Israel Museum

Other chemicals identified by the residue analysis showed that the frankincense and cannabis had been mixed in, respectively, with animal fat and dung. The fat would have helped achieve the high temperature of around 260 degrees Celsius at which frankincense releases its aroma, while the dung would have burned the cannabis at a lower temperature, below 150 degrees Celsius, which is necessary to activate the drug’s psychoactive compounds. Fire it higher and all you get is soot.

“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 explains.

This indicates that the ancient worshippers at Arad were getting deliberately stoned and were not burning cannabis just for aromatic purposes – an idea that is also supported by what was probably the drug’s very high cost.

Frankincense and cannabis imported by the king

Although today Israel has become a global hub for producing, selling and researching medical marijuana, there is no evidence that the plant was grown in the Levant back in the Iron Age, Arie notes. This suggests that the offerings at the Arad temple had to be imported at great cost from afar, likely in the form of a dried resin, i.e., hashish, he says.

The same goes for the frankincense, which is collected from Boswellia trees and would have had to be brought in by traders from southern Arabia.

“If they just wanted to make the temple smell nice, they could have burned some sage, which grows in the area of Jerusalem,” Arie says. “Importing cannabis and frankincense was a big investment that could not be made by some isolated group of nomads, it required backing from a powerful state entity.”

We know that Arad was a Judahite fortress because archaeologists digging there have found an archive of Hebrew inscriptions dated to the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., shortly before the kingdom was overrun by the Babylonians. These texts written on pottery shards, also known as ostraca, detail some of the administration of the citadel and its allegiance to Jerusalem. One of the ostraca, also now displayed at the Israel Museum, mentions “the house of YHWH,” that is, a place of worship dedicated to the God of the Hebrew Bible.

The larger altar from Arad's holy of holies was used for frankincense offerings
The larger altar from Arad's holy of holies was used for frankincense offeringsCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection / The Israel Museum

Scholars are divided as to whether this inscription references the local shrine in Arad or the Temple in Jerusalem, but at the very least it clarifies the religious and political affiliation of the local garrison.

Because Arad was manned by Judahite soldiers under the control of Jerusalem, the use of cannabis in their shrine would likely not have been a local custom, but was probably a mainstream practice officially sanctioned and financed by the monarchy, Namdar says.

This means that it is possible that the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem would also burn pot on their altars, Arie adds.

“This may reflect the cultic activities in Jerusalem, in Judah and possibly in the broader region,” he says. “If the shrine at Arad was built according to the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, then why shouldn’t the religious practices be the same?”

The Philistines knew how to party

About fifty other altars similar to the pair found in Arad have been discovered in the Levant, mainly in the territories that once housed Judah, the northern Kingdom of Israel, Moab – in today’s Jordan – and the Philistine city-states along the Mediterranean coast, the two researchers note. If residues can be found on some of these artifacts, it may be possible to confirm the extent of the cultic use of cannabis among the Israelites and neighboring peoples, Arie says.

A widespread presence of cannabis would not be entirely surprising as the use of drugs for cultic, recreational or medicinal purposes is attested in human cultures from the Neolithic onward. Looking just at the Levant and its immediate surroundings, the Minoans and Myceneans got high on opium for their ecstatic cults and the drug was commonly used in ancient Greek medicine. Traces of psychoactive compounds have also been found in chalices used by the Philistines, the neighbors and frequent adversaries of the Israelites.

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?

Burnt residue of frankincense from the larger altar at the Arad Temple
Burnt residue of frankincense from the larger altar at the Arad TempleCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority Collection / The Israel Museum

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.

Another answer may be that this particular custom was discontinued before the Bible was written, and whoever compiled and edited the holy text over the centuries had no knowledge of it or did not wish to preserve its memory. Researchers wildly disagree on when the earliest biblical texts were first put in writing, but many believe the process did not begin before the late seventh century B.C.E., during the reign of King Josiah in Jerusalem. 

Yet most archaeologists think the temple at Arad was no longer in use by then. While the fortress survived until the end of the First Temple era in 586 B.C.E., the shrine was only used from around 760 B.C.E. to 715 B.C.E. – roughly a century before the time of Josiah.

A whiff from the past

Scholars have long debated why the temple at Arad was decommissioned and its ritual objects, like the two altars, carefully buried. Some believe this was a way to protect the holy place ahead of the invasion of Judah by the Assyrians around 701 B.C.E., triggered by a failed region-wide revolt spearheaded by the Judahite King Hezekiah. However, the shrine’s closure seems to precede the Assyrian onslaught by a few years, Arie notes, meaning that it is more 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, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh, until they were all destroyed.” (2 Chronicles 31:1)

We may never know for sure when and why the Arad shrine was closed and the practice of burning cannabis as incense was ended among the Israelites. But the research by Arie and Namdar is certainly crucial in shedding light on Judah’s trade ties with Arabia and on the religious practices of the early Israelites, says Yifat Thareani, an archaeologist at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and an expert on the Negev in the Iron Age.

Thareani, who did not take part in the study, agrees with the authors’ contention that cannabis may have indeed been part of religious rituals well beyond this provincial desert fortress.

“We don’t have remains from the First Temple so we can only assume what kind of cultic activity went on there,” she says. “But there are enough indications from Arad to give us a sense, or in this case a smell, of how the rituals in Jerusalem were performed.”

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