Cannabis Discovered in Shrine From Biblical Israeli Kingdom May Have Been Used in Hallucinogenic Cult Rituals

Researchers have discovered traces of cannabis and frankincense at an ancient shrine located in what is now Israel, arguing that the substances may have been used in hallucinogenic cult ritual ceremonies.

According to a study published in the journal Tel Aviv, the findings from the Iron Age shrine, which is dated to between 750-715 B.C., also represent the earliest evidence for the use of cannabis in the Ancient Near East.

The shrine forms part of the "fortress mound" at Tel Arad—an important Israeli archaeological site in southern Israel's Beersheba Valley that was first excavated in the early 1960s. Previous research at the site has revealed two superimposed fortresses, dated from the 9th to the early 6th centuries B.C., which once guarded the southern border of the biblical Kingdom of Judah.

"Arad served both as a major military fortress at the border of the kingdom and as a stronghold that protected the state caravan trade that passed through the region," Ze'ev Herzog, an expert on the archaeological site, who was not involved in the latest study, wrote in a separate paper published in the same journal.

"This combination of defense and trade influenced the form and construction of the successive fortresses erected at the site from the period of the Judean kingdom onward. This was evidently also the cause for the frequency of the destruction of the fortresses during conflicts and wars," Herzog wrote.

During excavations more than 50 years ago, researchers uncovered the shrine in the northwestern corner of the fortress, finding two limestone altars, one larger and one smaller, at the entrance to the so-called "Holy of Holies"—the innermost and most sacred area of this ancient Judean place of worship.

"Like most Ancient Near Eastern shrines, including the Temple in Jerusalem, it was composed of several spaces reflecting a hierarchy of sanctity. An open courtyard with a sacrificial altar was located at the entrance of the shrine," Eran Arie, an author of the latest study from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, told Newsweek.

"It led to the main hall of the shrine that was surrounded by benches. Deep inside was the Holy of Holies, with a smooth standing stone, possibly signifying God's presence, and the two altars," he said.

Intriguingly, the tops of the altars contained round heaps of black, solidified material that had been preserved for millennia. Following the discovery of the shrine, other researchers speculated that this material may represent burnt incense, however, previous analyses have failed to conclusively identify their content and the residue has largely been overlooked by scientists in the subsequent years.

So in the latest study, Arie and colleagues decided to chemically analyze the residue using modern techniques in order to identify the black material. According to the researchers, lab analysis revealed traces of cannabis on the smaller altar, and frankincense—an aromatic resin derived from trees of the genus Boswellia that has long been used in fragrances and perfumes—on the larger altar.

Furthermore, the results indicated that the cannabis had been mixed with animal dung to facilitate heating, while the frankincense may have been mixed with animal fat in order to promote evaporation.

ancient Israeli shrine
The original altars of the shrine at the Israel Museum. A replica was made for the archaeological site. Israel Antiquities Authority Collection, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Laura Lachman

While it is not clear exactly how these substances were used, the researchers say that this unique find casts new light on cult ritual practices in the ancient Kingdom of Judah.

"We can assume that the fragrance of the frankincense gave a special ambience to the cult in the shrine, while the cannabis burning brought at least some of the priests and worshippers to a religious state of consciousness, or ecstasy," Arie said. "It is logical to assume that this was an important part of the ceremonies that took place in this shrine."

"The new evidence from Arad show for the first time that the official cult of Judah—at least during the 8th century B.C.—involved hallucinogenic ingredients. We can assume that the religious altered state of consciousness in this shrine was an important part of the ceremonies that took place here," he said.

According to the researchers, finding traces of cannabis on the smaller altar was a surprising discovery.

"This is the first time that cannabis has been identified in the Ancient Near East; Its use in the shrine must have played a central role in the cultic rituals performed there," Arie said a statement.

The latest study also suggests that the presence of frankincense at the shrine provides the earliest evidence of this substance in a clear cultic context.

The use of plants for fragrance or psychoactive purposes is not new to the region in general, nor to other ancient ceremonial rituals from around the world, the authors said.

"Hallucinogenic substances are known from various neighboring cultures, but this is the first known evidence of hallucinogenic substance found in the Kingdom of Judah," the authors wrote in the study. "To explore this further, more altars, incense burners and other cult related objects from Judah and its neighbors, deriving from controlled excavations of well-preserved contexts, should be studied."

"Frankincense has long been used as incense during ritual ceremonies. The use of psychoactive materials is also well known in ancient Near Eastern and Aegean cultures since prehistory," they wrote in the paper.

The shrine's original Holy of Holies, including the altars, is currently on display in the Israel Museum. A replica was made for the archaeological site.