Archaeologists revisiting the mysteries of the ancient world with the tools of modern analytical chemistry have discovered cannabis at the root of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The finding is surprising on a superficial level and mind-blowing on deeper investigation. What does it mean for us today?
The cannabis residue found on an 8th century BC incense altar in Tal Arad shrine confirms decades of speculation about psychoactive substances in early Israelite religion. The presence of another altar for burning frankincense also raises questions about what company Yahweh kept in His wild and carefree youth before He became the undisputed King of the Universe. We will get on to how these resins synergize at the level of the neuron, but first let’s explore what it tells us about the early Israelites and the cosmovision that gave rise to their rituals.
Yahweh and His Ex-Wife
These altars stood in a small, closed chamber ideal for trapping smoke: a hot box much like the chamber of the Tabernacle in Exodus and the Jerusalem temple. One major difference, however, is that while the Tabernacle and the Temple had a single incense altar, Tal Arad had two side by side – the larger for frankincense and the smaller for cannabis.1Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel p. 167-176. They stood before two standing stones still bearing traces of paint, again with one larger than the other. The Jerusalem temple and the Tabernacle had only one object of worship – the ark of the covenant – though perhaps the two angels carved upon it recall something of the more ancient rites.
30 kilometers from Tel Arad is the shrine of Khirbet el-Qom, where Yahweh was worshipped in the same period. Apparently he was accompanied by his consort, as an inscription reads “to Yahweh and his Asherah,” and the inscription is also found at other sites in Judahite territory. Asherah was the ‘Lion Lady’ frequently depicted with lions, and was also worshipped in Canaan as the consort of both the god El and the god Baal.2Wiggins, Steve A. “The Myth of Asherah: Lion Lady and Serpent Goddess.” Ugarit-Forschungen: Internationales Jahrbuch für … (1991): n. pag. Print. Some theologians have argued that the inscription can also be translated “to Yahweh and his stick/tree” but if anything that seems even more pagan, and besides that doesn’t explain the two objects of worship at Tel Arad and nor does it explain the lion figurine found there.3Collins, B. J. (2001) A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, p. 419.
El and Baal were both worshipped with frankincense, and it seems that once upon a time Yahweh was too. Frankincense retains a particular connection to Yahweh; it was the only resin required in a meat offering to Him, and the only resin used on the showbread “for it is most holy unto Him of the offerings of Yahweh.”4Leviticus 2. 5Exodus 30. 6Leviticus 24:7. 7Leviticus 24:9. Frankincense was also specifically excluded from a sin offering, and was not to be sold to an idolater; both of these considerations suggest a special status for this resin.8Leviticus 5:11. 9Jewish Encyclopedia – Frankincense http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6315-frankincense.
Describing the Temple of Baal in Babylon, Herodotus comments that “on the greater altar the Babylonians even offer over 30 tonnes of frankincense yearly.”10R. A. Donkin (1999) Dragon’s Brain Perfume: An Historical Geography of Camphor, p. 16. 11Herodotus (Rawlinson trans), book 1, chapters 178‑216 para. 183 (1000 talents is about 30 tonnes). He doesn’t mention what is burned on the other altars, but scholars speculate that Asherah may have a history with cannabis. According to William Emboden, priestesses used cannabis in her rites, and various images including the Asherah Tree from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II seem to depict cannabis.12Bennett, C. (2010) Cannabis and the Soma Solution p. 364. 13Bennett, C. (May 31, 2019) The Mother Plant of the Goddess – Cannabis Retrieved on 20 June 2020 from https://www.cannabisculture.com/content/2019/05/31/the-mother-plant-of-the-goddess-cannabis/. 14Tokin Woman (June 6, 2015) Asherah: The Tree of Life. Retrieved on 20 June 2020 from https://tokinwoman.blogspot.com/2015/06/asherah-tree-of-life.html. At Tal Arad there were two altars for two different offerings, the larger for frankincense and the smaller for cannabis, along with two standing stones. Both the setup and the regional context suggest that god and goddess were worshipped together in the chamber as fumes of frankincense and cannabis synergized in the brains of the worshippers.
Once upon a time Israelite religion wasn’t monotheistic, nor even monolatristic (where one god is prefered to the rest). Worshipping a divine couple is good old-fashioned paganism, and it was common across the Middle East. Why did they divorce?
Stamping out the Goddess and Centralising the Economy
Local shrines were important cultural and political centers in the early Israelite commonwealth. They had their own customs and, critically, collected their own tithes. The herbalists, psychologists, ritualists and scam artists of the priesthood would offer a portion of everyone’s harvest and livestock to the gods and keep a portion for their own sustenance.
Things changed with a wave of violent reforms, and the Israelite monarchy centralized political power by destroying local shrines and stamping out local customs. According to the Bible itself, the priests and temple women were slain in huge numbers, and the goddess fell victim to the purges:
Josiah smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles and covered the sites with human bones.152 Kings 23, NIV.
After the reforms, only the temple at Jerusalem was considered legitimate, as is written in Deuteronomy (the orthodox account is that Deuteronomy was written by Moses, but most textual scholars date it to the 7th century BC, and both Solomon and David were apparently unaware of it worshipped at various shrines.16Friedman (1997), p. 102.) It seems more likely that it was a cynical move to centralize a distributed economy, forcing farmers to cart the fruit of the field and the firstborn of their flocks to the capital to pay the tithe:
“Thither shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes […] Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest.”17Deuteronomy 12:11- 17.
In centralising their control over the economy, Jerusalem priests and kings also monopolized access to the divine. In the fullness of time they would go further and monotheize the divine itself.
By the time the Bible was edited into what it is today, the name of the Lion Lady was no longer intoned in the inner sanctum, though her scent lingered for centuries as one of the ingredients of the anointing oil of Exodus 30. At Tel Arad, which seems to have been carefully dismantled before it could be smashed in the reforms, we may have caught Yahweh and his Asherah in fragrant flagrante.
Angels between the Temples
The pages of scripture and the lives of mystics are rich with the kind of auditory and visual phenomena, compulsive behaviours and entities that are commonly treated with psychiatric intervention today. Whatever our beliefs about the reality or meaning of these experiences, we can learn something about religion from brain science. Likewise, ancient religion can teach us about the brain, because the Israelites had a superb functional understanding of pharmacology.
While the headline is cannabis, the interactions between frankincense and cannabis at the level of the synapse are complex and fascinating, and are illuminated by what we know about how the incenses were used. According to the Bible, the priest would hear the voices of Yahweh or His angels in the cloud of smoke in the inner chamber of the Tabernacle. They would give advice on public health, military tactics, access to resources, justice and conflict resolution – matters that still concern Amazonian shamans and G7 heads of state today.
Lobes high on Ion Flows
There are around 30 different types of TRP ion channels transporting ions into and out of neurons and altering how they conduct electrical current. Both frankincense and cannabis act upon one set in particular, the TRPV3 channels.18Luciano De Petrocellis et al Cannabinoid actions at TRPV channels: Effects on TRPV3 and TRPV4 and their potential relevance to gastrointestinal inflammation July 2011Acta Physiologica 204(2):255-66 DOI: 10.1111/j.1748-1716.2011.02338.x. 19Luo, J. et al Thermal Sensors (2.5 TRPV3 in CNS), in Current Topics in Membranes, 2014. 20Premkumar, Louis S. Transient Receptor Potential Channels as Targets for Phytochemicals, p. 1125 doi: 18.104.22.168.
In the fingertips and the peripheral nervous system, TRPV3 (‘trip-vee-three’) is involved in pain, temperature and other sensations. In the central brain it is implicated in migraine, and specifically the “aura” symptoms some people experience for up to an hour before a migraine begins.21Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain. June 2008 FASEB Journal 22(8):3024-34 DOI: 10.1096/fj.07-101865. 22Thomas Heinbockel (ed) Neurochemistry p. 45. The most commonly reported symptoms are visual: sparkles, moving stars, shimmering pulsating patches, the visual field vibrating, tunnel vision or blindness, distortions in size and shape of objects. This can be accompanied with sudden heat, terror or ecstasy, dissociation, déjà vu, synaesthesia, the sensation of the limbs or teeth growing and the sense of a “presence” in the room.23Podol, K., Robinson, D. (2001) The idea of a presence as aura symptom in migraine. Neurology Psychiatry and Brain Research 9(2):71-74. 24https://migrainepal.com/migraine-with-aura. All of these phenomena have parallels in the biographies of the saints, online trip reports and the biblical books of the prophets.
Irregular activity in the temporal lobes at the side of the head occurs in parallel with migraine aura symptoms, and we know from experiments with the “God Helmet” that causing irregular activity in the temporal lobe with a magnetic field can induce the feeling of a presence.25Peatfield RC. Temporal lobe phenomena during the aura phase of migraine attacks. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1991;54(4):371-372. doi:10.1136/jnnp.54.4.371-a. 26Persinger, M. A. (2001) The neuropsychiatry of paranormal experiences in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 13 (4): 515-24. Another condition that is mediated by irregular temporal lobe activity is temporal lobe epilepsy, and it also presents aura symptoms. Patients report hearing voices and seeing specific entities that reliably return before each episode, which is pertinent to the function of the smoke chamber.
With epilepsy, aura symptoms begin with full awareness that may become impaired as the seizure spreads; eventually it can lead to an absence or a violent epileptic fit.27Schulze-Bonhage A. Visuelle Aura: Differenzialdiagnose zwischen Migräne und Epilepsie [Differential diagnosis of visual aura in migraine and epilepsy]. Klin Monbl Augenheilkd. 2001;218(9):595-602. doi:10.1055/s-2001-17636. Both types of seizure are suggested in the writings of the prophets. Ezekiel’s personality traits as well as his spiritual experiences closely match temporal lobe epilepsy, and Daniel’s vision is accompanied by textbook features of a tonic-clonic fit, including loss of muscle tone and collapse, convulsions, inability to breathe or speak, hearing voices and finally losing consciousness.28Motluk, A. 17 November 2001 Old Testament prophet showed epileptic symptoms, New Scientist https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1565-old-testament-prophet-showed-epileptic-symptoms. 29Daniel 10:16. It is also significant that the temporal lobe is connected to language production, and that there are many cases of epilepsy and compulsive writing occurring together; one patient started compulsively writing poetry when her medication was reduced.30Del Prato, P and Pylkkänen, L. (2014) MEG evidence for conceptual combination but not numeral quantification in the left anterior temporal lobe during language production Frontiers in Psychology, 5. p, 524 https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00524. 31God on the Brain, BBC Horizon documentary, aired 17 April 2003. Retrieved on 20 January 2015 from www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/godonbraintrans.shtml. Perhaps her dose hit the sweet point between compulsion and convulsion, neither too hot nor too cold for Goldi-lobes.
Unlike the prophets whose visitations were generally unsolicited, priests would deliberately initiate an audience with the angels using the time-tested technique of handfuls of finely ground psychoactive incense in a small chamber. Priests would listen for the advice they sought in a chamber called debiyr, meaning ‘the place of the word’.32Strong’s concordance H1687. Debiyr is derived from dabar meaning “word,” “sentence” and “speech.” The primitive root DBR refers to placing things in a row or into order, which is how we make sense from words and sounds, and also how we put together pieces of a puzzle in order to solve problems. Divination, which was the function of the rites of the chamber, may be thought of as an act of creative problem solving.
Both cannabis and frankincense are anticonvulsants that can both prevent and interrupt epilieptic seizures, and this would make them safe vehicles for exploring the “chamber of the word.”33Cannabis as an anticonvulsant Archives of Disease in Childhood 2018;103:340. 34Manna S. S., Umathe S. N. (2011) Transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 channels modulate the anxiolytic effect of diazepam. Brain Res. 1425:75-82. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2011.09.049 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30093345/. 35Hosny, E.N., Elhadidy, M.E., Sawie, H.G. et al. Effect of frankincense oil on the neurochemical changes induced in rat model of status epilepticus. Clin Phytosci 6, 3 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40816-019-0139-6. 36https://www.avmsurvivors.org/t/frankincense-essential-oil-for-seizures/10903 Other interactions between the resins also suggest that the mixture would stimulate language production.
Dope, Dopamine and Divine Versification
In terms of neurobiology, creative linguistics suggests the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is involved in language production, which is why the dopamine slide of depression or the dopamine crash of stagefright can make people lose their eloquence or choke on stage.37Cervenka S, Bäckman L, Cselényi Z, Halldin C, Farde L. Associations between dopamine D2-receptor binding and cognitive performance indicate functional compartmentalization of the human striatum. Neuroimage. 2008;40(3):1287-1295. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.12.063. Dopamine also makes our thinking more divergent and boosts creativity while improving focus and pattern recognition. When dopamine is flowing the artist is in flow; rhymes bubble forth and lines cascade onto the page.
The priest would encounter divinity in the chamber and then pass on what he had seen and heard to his tribe. In scripture, as in ethnographies of shamanism, this sometimes happens in verse. According to Chris Bennett such versification is at the root of religion:
“A lot of ancient religious texts are actually written in poetry. They would use cannabis and other psychoactive substances to induce this kind of state. And there would be drums beating a beat and music playing along and a rhythm would get going. After a while they’d spit verses after smoking a blunt like a hip hop guy… It brings out the voice inside the head.”381 Kings 6:5.
Cannabis acts at the final terminals of a neuron, where incoming electrical pulses are translated into chemical bursts fired across the synapse at the neurons ahead. Specifically, THC binds to CB1 receptors, which causes more dopamine to be released in the burst.39Bloomfield MA, Ashok AH, Volkow ND, Howes OD. The effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol on the dopamine system. Nature. 2016;539(7629):369-377. doi:10.1038/nature20153. 40Wenzel, J., Cheer, J. Endocannabinoid Regulation of Reward and Reinforcement through Interaction with Dopamine and Endogenous Opioid Signaling. Neuropsychopharmacol. 43, 103–115 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.126. When rappers freestyle between tokes or a musician jazzes up a jazz solo up with a jazz cigarette, the incense of Asherah is in the air and the synaptic cleft is well supplied with dopamine.
Frankincense also has effects on the dopaminergic system, but after the synaptic cleft where the impulse is converted back into an electrical signal to travel along the next neuron in the sequence. The incensole acetate in frankincense activates TRPV3 ion channels, and TRPV3 ion channels modulate dopamine receptors – essentially making them more responsive to dopamine.41Singh U, Kumar S, Shelkar GP, et al. Transient receptor potential vanilloid 3 (TRPV3) in the ventral tegmental area of rat: Role in modulation of the mesolimbic-dopamine reward pathway. Neuropharmacology. 2016;110(Pt A):198-210. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2016.04.012. The cannabis increases the amount of dopamine released from one neuron and the frankincense increases the effect that the dopamine has on the next neuron. In this way, frankincense synergistically multiplies and modifies the effect of cannabis.
Putting it poetically, we might say that Asherah draws out dopamine, Yahweh keeps it in the cleft and together they sing in the chamber. Alliteration alert!
Ganja, GABA and Gods
GABA is a neurotransmitter active in almost every circuit and function of the nervous system. 40% of neurons have GABA receptors on them, and GABA reduces the signal running through them.42Olsen, R. W. (1991). GABA and inhibitory synaptic transmission in the brain. Seminars in Neuroscience, 3(3), 175–181. doi:10.1016/1044-5765(91)90014-F. Again, cannabis works before the synapse by the action of THC at the CB1 receptor, but this time it reduces rather than increases the amount of neurotransmitter released into the synaptic cleft.43Katona, I. et al (1999). Presynaptically located CB1 cannabinoid receptors regulate GABA release from axon terminals of specific hippocampal interneurons. J Neurosci 19: 4544–4558.
Again the effect of frankincense, or rather dehydroabietic acid it contains, is after the synaptic cleft. Dehydroabietic acid works in a similar fashion to Valium by modulating GABA-receptors (i.e. making them more sensitive to GABA).44Drahl, C. (2008). What’s that stuff? Frankincense and myrrh: Culture and chemistry meet in fragrant plant-based incense. Chemical and Engineering News, 86(51), 38. doi:10.1021/cen-v086n051.p038. With THC reducing GABA release into the synapse while dehydroabietic acid modulates its receptors after the synapse, the resins are working in opposite directions – at a superficial level at least; but these systems are complex at the level of the synapse and mind-boggling at larger scales. The CBD in cannabis, for example, blocks the CB1 receptor, working in the opposite direction to THC.
This all gets very complex very quickly, and perhaps a more rewarding line of enquiry is to test them on yourself. Chewing up one or two garden peas worth of frankincense is about right, but go slowly with higher doses as your intestinal flora may be offended. Then simply hit the bong and listen out for the angels!
Return of the Goddess?
What does the rediscovery of a smoking hot goddess at the root of the Judeo-Christian tradition mean to us today, as a mighty globalized patriarchy grows obscene in hubris and violence? The boot that stamped out goddess worship at Tel Arad on the southern border of Judah marched down through the centuries and across territories, regulating our places of encounter and economy. Today a knee presses at our necks, and people are crying out for their mothers, fearing for their lives. As sacred plants find their way back into the healing arts and priestess traditions emerge in orthodox Jewish lineages, perhaps it is time to work with the resins and the rituals again, to acquaint us once more with the voice of the Lion Lady.
On epilepsy and mystical experience, and more on other synergistic combinations in the Bible, check out my book Neuro-Apocalypse
On the Lion Lady:
On migraine auras:
Image: Israel Museum/Laura Lachman