A Brief History of Cannabis in Art

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The criminalization and stigmatization of cannabis is a strange, late-stage plot twist in humanity’s long association with the plant.

Because for most of our history, cultures the world over have embraced the ever-versatile cannabis sativa. As early civilizations discovered its industrial, psychoactive, and medicinal uses, they paid homage to it in their artwork.

The Chinese even dedicated a character in their language to it. Take a look at the ancient bronze script rendering of (麻) — the Mandarin character for “hemp” — and you’ll see that it’s actually an illustration of two cannabis plants hung to dry under a shelter.

Image courtesy of Richard Sears

This is one of the first visual representations of the cannabis plant, which is indigenous to Central Asia. Around the year 3000 BCE, the Chinese began using hemp to create clothing, rope, and paper.

It may not be the earliest rendering of cannabis sativa, though. Many scholars theorize that this painting, which was found on the wall of a cave in Japan, features two cannabis leaves. (They have seven stems — just like most other depictions of the cannabis leaf do).

Image courtesy of Japanhemp.org

This painting dates from 5,000 BCE (around the time when hemp was first cultivated in Japan) which would make it the oldest illustration of the cannabis leaf discovered thus far.

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By 1000 BCE, Hindu tribes on the Indian subcontinent were eating bhang — an edible form of cannabis ground into paste with a mortar and pestle. Here’s Shiva, the “Supreme Being” in the Hindu faith, prepping himself a portion:

Today, it’s still common for Indians to celebrate Holi Festival with a tall glass of bhang. Image courtesy of scoopwhoop.com

A painting from 1790 depicts a group of Hindus (and their dogs) enjoying bhang in Ancient India. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Traders from Asia brought cannabis to new lands. The plant arrived in Arab world around 1230 BCE, where it was smoked as part of religious rituals and rumored to have been enjoyed by the pharaohs. Take a look at this Egyptian carving of Seshat (the goddess of wisdom and knowledge) which is dated from that time period. The Egyptians didn’t leave us a caption, so we don’t know exactly what that symbol above her head was intended to be. Some archaeologists contend it’s an etching of a starburst; others hold that it’s clearly a seven-stemmed cannabis leaf.

What do you think — star or cannabis leaf? Image courtesy of Motherboard.

By the 12th century, the healing and restorative powers of cannabis sativa had earned hemp a reputation as the “elixir of life” throughout much of Eastern Asia — so much so it was even assigned a guardian deity. Here’s the goddess Magu, who was worshipped throughout Korea, Japan, and China. She was often portrayed carrying a variety of flowers and herbs on a branch or shoulder pole.

Magu (麻姑) was known as the “Hemp Maiden.” Her name is comprised of the Mandarin characters for hemp (麻) and “aunt” (姑). Images courtesy of The National Palace Museum

By the end of the Middle Ages, cannabis had been adopted throughout much of Europe. Botanists reported on its medicinal benefits in the pages of scientific journals alongside strikingly detailed illustrations. This one was produced in 1795 by German engraver Jacob Sturm:

And in this 1852 book by English physician Edward Hamilton:

The 20th Century: Prohibition & Beyond

When the US Congress outlawed cannabis in 1937, an anti-cannabis propaganda push ensued. Movie posters for films such as “Reefer Madness” warned that just one puff of “the Devil’s Weed” was all it took to conjure a demon who would then whisk your children off to hell.

Images courtesy of Mashable

Alongside the peace sign, the cannabis leaf later became one of the most prominent symbols of the American counterculture in the 1960s & 70s. Pro-cannabis advocates sewed patches like this onto their sleeves as they rallied for legalization:

Images courtesy of Gasoline Alley Antiques

Associating oneself with the cannabis leaf — which as a symbol had traditionally been celebrated by cultures the world over — was now a subversive move.

Cannabis as Inspiration

We’ve looked at some artistic representations of cannabis — but it’s also worthwhile to remember the huge role that it plays in expression. Artists of all stripes have consumed it to gain new insights. Notable connoisseurs include Louis Armstrong, Bob Marley, and The Beatles, all of whom gave cannabis credit for putting them in a relaxed, improvisational space.

As the anti-cannabis stigma fades, the modern art scene will see new flashes of creativity as more enthusiasts use it for inspiration.

“Super Plant” (1994) by Fred Tomaselli. Image courtesy of the James Cohan Gallery.

“Flaming Pulp” (2017) by Volkmar Hoppe. Image courtesy of The Natural Cannabis Company

And let’s not forget the handsomely-crafted pipes, bongs, and vape pens you’ll see in today’s head shops — these can be imaginatively-designed works of art in their own right.

Top images courtesy of Now Space.Vape pen image courtesy of Northern Standard.

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