Jun 02, 2020 I Paul Seaburn

Ancient Temple’s “Holy of Holies” Has Evidence of Early Marijuana Use

If evidence of marijuana use were to be found among most sacred relics from an ancient temple in the Kingdom of Judah, would it change anything? Well, we’re about to find out. Archeologists examining altars from the most scared part of an ancient Judahite temple found residue of cannabis, making it the early known evidence of marijuana use in the Ancient Near East. What’s more, its discovery put it in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the temple -- where the Ark of the Covenant was said to have resided in Solomon’s Temple. NOW does it change anything?

“Two limestone monoliths, interpreted as altars, were found in the Judahite shrine at Tel Arad. Unidentified dark material preserved on their upper surfaces was submitted for organic residue analysis at two unrelated laboratories that used similar established extraction methods. On the smaller altar, residues of cannabinoids such as Δ9-teterahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN) were detected, along with an assortment of terpenes and terpenoids, suggesting that cannabis inflorescences had been burnt on it.”

Eran Arie, curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archaeology at The Israel Museum and co-author of a new study published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, tells Vice that the discovery was “naturally a huge surprise.” The altar was once in the Holy of Holies in a temple at Tel Arad, an ancient fortress in Israel’s Beer-sheba Valley, which at that time was part of the Kingdom of Judah. Judah was an Iron Age kingdom (its capital was Jerusalem) due south of the Kingdom of Israel from 930 BCE to 587 BCE when it was captured by Nebuchadnezzar II in the Siege of Jerusalem and incorporated into Babylon.

Speaking of babbling on, what about the pot? Is that what Nebuchadnezzar II was after?

That’s an interesting theory. What Arie and Dvory Namdar, a senior research fellow at the Volcani Center of Agricultural Research, found was pure cannabis with no seeds or pollen, which indicates it was in the form of hashish. They also found evidence of frankincense, which meant that both were burned together and inhaled rather than smoked in a pipe. Neither substance was native to the area – frankincense was imported from South Arabia – what is now Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia – and those could have been the suppliers of the hashish as well. While Nebuchadnezzar II may have heard about inhaling cannabis, it seems he arrived too late.

“The Arad shrine was in use for merely half a century (from ca. 760/750 to ca. 715 BCE) and the stone altars may have been in use for a shorter period of a decade or two.”

The researchers can’t explain why the use of the cannabis and frankincense in the temple lasted less than 20 years, nor why the Holy of Holies containing the altars was completely buried. Theories range from reforms by the new King Hezekiah an attempt to save it from the Neo-Assyrians during the siege of Jerusalem (another one!) in 701 BCE, after they had conquered the Kingdom of Israel. The well-preserved temple was discovered in the 1960s – it’s still the only Judahite temple ever found – and the Holy of Holies altars were moved to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where they are on display.

So, does this change anything?

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Where there's smoke ...

“The Bible only relates to incense for its agreeable fragrance; frankincense is mentioned as a component of the incense that was burnt in the Temple of Jerusalem for its pleasant aroma. The presence of cannabis at Arad testifies to the use of mind-altering substances as part of cultic rituals in Judah. The plants detected in this study can serve as an extra- biblical source in identifying the incense used in cultic practices not only at Arad but also those elsewhere in Judah, including Jerusalem.”

“Including Jerusalem” – the location of the original Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in Tel Arad was believed to be a scaled-down version of the on in the First Temple in Jerusalem. While about 50 similar stone altars have been found from the ancient kingdoms of Israel, Judah, Moab, and the Philistine city-states, Arie says the humid climate causes most telltale organic residues to disintegrate. He’s hoping charred residue on two discovered in Moab may be from cannabis, reinforcing the idea that many or all of the early temples used it ... possibly even the first one.

So, it doesn’t change anything historical or biblical just yet. If it eventually does, will it change anything for you?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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