Cannabis consuming and weed growing women are on the rise, as are the numbers of us working in all aspects of the cannabis industry. Yet many women feel that this is still a male dominated space and that women’s achievements and roles in the history of cannabis are overlooked or downplayed.
If you were to think of cannabis household names in science, activism and culture, how many of them would be women? How many female names would roll off the tongue easily?
For a plant whose female form is revered and sought after infinitely more than its male form, we want to bring women’s relationship with cannabis throughout history to the fore. In light of Women’s History Month, this blog is the first of our contributions to a cannabis herstory and the start of our Women In Weed series.
Cannabis Consuming Goddesses
Heading way back in time 3-4000 years from now, the Sumerian goddess Ishtar was universally revered as a heavenly monarch, healer, goddess of love, and later, goddess of war, in Mesopotamia (ancient Middle East). Ishtar worship was associated with herbal medicine, healing and fertility. Worshippers were thought to have burned cannabis as an incense in associated ceremonies. Ishtar’s widespread popularity was eventually silenced by Christianity between one and six hundred years after Christ with prophets denouncing the burning of cannabis.
The ancient goddess of life and death, the creator and destroyer, and mother of all, is also the consort of Shiva, aka The Lord of Bhang (cannabis). According to the ancient Hindu texts – or Vedas –Shiva first discovered cannabis, and spread it across the land so that humankind could benefit from it. Sadhus, followers of Shiva smoke cannabis in chillums and Varanasi, a town in Northern India associated with Shiva, is rife with bhang shops. Both Kali and Shiva worship is associated with cannabis use and Kali ceremonies involve cannabis ingestion to awaken kundalini energy and enhance sacred sex rituals.
Seshat was the ancient Egyptian goddess of knowledge, books and writing. She is frequently depicted with a 7 pointed hemp leaf above her head giving rise to the idea of her being an early hemp patron. Determining decisively whether the 7 pointed leaf or flower is hemp is impossible but the fact that medicinal cannabis is referenced in ancient Egyptian papyri (Ramasseum III Papyrus; The Berlin Papyrus; The Ebers Papyrus and The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus) gives some credence to this theory.
German ethnobotanist Christian Ratsch noted that in ancient Germanic culture cannabis was used as a ritual inebriant in the worship of the Norse love goddess Freya, and that the harvesting of the plant was connected to an erotic festival. It was believed that the fertile force of Freya resided in the flowers of the feminine plant and that by consuming these flowers one became influenced by her force1.
Cannabis Growing Mystics
Benedictine Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), was a composer, musician, herbalist and mystic who wrote about the medicinal use of cannabis in her book, ‘The Physica’. She grew cannabis in her herbal garden and recommended its use against nausea and stomach troubles.
British Queens and Cannabis
Queen Victoria is famous in the cannabis herstory for having been prescribed cannabis for menstrual cramps by her physician JS Reynolds. There is however some debate about this, because at the time Reynolds wrote (in 1890), “when pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess”, the queen would have been 70 and well past her menstrual years. There is in fact no hard evidence proving that Victoria consumed cannabis, even though her doctor was clearly in favour of it as a medicine2.
However, we do know that Elizabeth I ordered English crop growers to devote a portion of their land to growing hemp.
Writers On Cannabis
Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
The late Maya Angelou, renowned writer, civils right activist and poet described her use of cannabis in her autobiography ‘Gather Together in My Name’,
“I learned new postures and developed new dreams. From a natural stiffness, I melted into a grinning tolerance. Walking on the streets became high adventure, eating my mother’s huge dinners an opulent entertainment, and playing with my son was side-cracking hilarity. For the first time, life amused me.”
Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)
Louisa May Alcott, writer of Little Women, is little known for the influence cannabis had on her writing. However, her short story, ‘Perilous Play’ is about young socialites who experiment with hash, and it ends with the love interest of the socialite declaring, “Heaven bless hashish if its dreams end like this!”
Susan Sontag (1933-2004)
Well ahead of her time, Susan Sontag, culture critic and essayist, was a vocal advocate for the benefits of cannabis and often proclaimed its virtues in comparison to the perils of alcohol use that society permitted.
Karen Blixen (1885-1962)
Karen Blixen is better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, who rose to fame for writing Out of Africa. Dinesen was public about her self-experimentation with various drugs including cannabis, all of which were documented in ‘The Life of a Storyteller’ by Judy Thurman. She used cannabis to help her write, as well as explore altered states of consciousness.
Margaret Mead (1901-1978)
Renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead authored many books and wrote on several social issues throughout her lifetime. In 1969 Mead testified before congress in favour of the legalisation of cannabis. In her testimony she declared “It is my considered opinion at present that marihuana is not harmful unless it is taken in enormous and excessive amounts. I believe that we are damaging this country, damaging our law, our whole law enforcement situation, damaging the trust between the older people and younger people by its prohibition, and this is far more serious than any damage that might be done to a few overusers, because you can get damage from any kind of overuse.”
Mary Jane Rathburn aka Brownie Mary (1922-1999)
Mary Jane is infamous for providing cannabis brownies to AIDS patients and lobbying for the right to use cannabis for medical use. She began her cannabis activism baking brownies to make extra cash whilst waitressing, but got busted and did community service with the Shanti project, one of the first organisations supporting AIDS patients. This then led to her giving out her brownies to AIDS patients to help with stimulating appetite and the side effects of drugs they were being given. Rathburn was arrested three times but never imprisoned. San Francisco eventually allowed her to give brownies to patients dying with AIDS and she helped set up the San Franscisco Cannabis Buying Club, the first medical dispensary in the US.
- Rätsch, Christian; (2001) Marijuana Medicine: A World Tour of the Healing and Visionary Powers of Cannabis
- Berridge, Virginia; (2003) Queen Victoria’s Cannabis Use: Or, How History Does and Does Not Get Used in Drug Policy Making. Addiction research & theory, 11 (4). pp. 213-215.