The Biblical creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden can be viewed as a prohibition myth that tells the story of how Eve discovered cannabis, began agriculture, and brought forth civilization. Rather than the fall of man, the Garden of Eden myth can be seen as the fall of the Goddess and her priests.
In order to understand the biblical stories it is important to understand the context in which they were written. The Hebrew Torah and Old Testament of the Bible tell the stories of the ancient Israelites and their dedication to worshipping the one God, Yahweh. We know from both the Bible and modern scholarship that the Israelites lived in the land of Canaan (modern day Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan) within a much larger Canaanite society that was polytheistic, worshipping the Mother Goddess and other gods. Much of the Old Testament details the back and forth conflict playing out over centuries between “good” Israelite kings, who worshipped Yahweh alone, and “bad” kings, who fell back to idolatry and polytheism, leading to punishment and suffering for the Israelites.
Among the polytheistic traditions, worship of the Mother Goddess is the oldest and most primeval of all. Clay figurines of the Goddess are common archaeological artifacts with some finds dating back 25,000 years. In the biblical context, she is referred to as Asherah (also Astarte, Ashtoreth, or Ishtar) and Asherah poles were mounted in the temples for her worship. Incense was burned in offering to the Goddess by priests who are sometimes symbolized by snakes, a common religious symbol in ancient Canaan that is also associated with Moses.
There are many stories in the Bible that present the conflict over Asherah. Two examples among many are the story of King Solomon, the son of King David, who built the first temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. Solomon was not true to Yahweh. He had many wives whom he loved and he followed their gods, including Asherah, and burned incense to her (1 Kings 11: 1-8). This brought God’s anger upon him and the Israelites. Later on, in one of the periodic purges of the rival priests and temples, King Hezekiah, who ruled Jerusalem in the 7th century BCE, cut down the Asherah poles in the temple and broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made because up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it (2 Kings 18:4).
Though tradition teaches that the five books of the Torah were written by Moses around 1500 BCE, modern scholarship informs us that these books were likely compiled from older stories and myths and only written down some time after the Babylonian exile, which took place in the 6th century BCE. Israelite monotheism took firm grip at this time and the stories were edited to reflect the cultural and political persuasions of the era. Among the editorial priorities was to push back against worship of the Goddess and the customs associated with her by defining them as idolatrous paganism.
One of the old traditions that was expunged over time, but is hiding in plain sight throughout the Old Testament, is the use of cannabis. Cannabis was common in Canaanite culture, where it was burned in the temples and used as incense (like modern hashish—for a deep dive into the fascinating subject of the wide usage of cannabis in the ancient world, see the work of Chris Bennett). Cannabis is named multiple times in the original Hebrew text, most famously as an ingredient in the holy anointing oil that God instructs Moses to make (Exodus 30:23). Greek translations of the Bible from the third century BCE mistranslate the Hebrew kaneh bosm as calamus (or aromatic cane), a different plant that holds none of the historical and spiritual significance of cannabis.
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The archaeological record contains many examples of cannabis usage as a fiber, seed, and medicine back to 10,000 BCE and beyond in China, India, and the Middle East. It is well established that cannabis was present and used in the land of Canaan during the era of the ancient Israelites. It is known that cannabis was among the first plants ever cultivated by humans and some speculate that it was the very first, and this is where a reinterpretation of the Garden of Eden myth becomes very interesting.
In the traditional telling, God creates Adam and places him in the paradise of the Garden of Eden. God instructs Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2: 16-17).
Following this instruction, the Lord then creates Eve as a companion and helper for Adam. Adam and Eve were both naked and felt no shame. The serpent, who also lived in the garden, was crafty and he tells Eve that she will not die if she eats of the tree: “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it and also gave some to Adam to eat. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
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God becomes displeased when he discovers what Adam and Eve have done. Adam blames Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit and she in turn blames the serpent for deceiving her. God punishes them by declaring that for the woman childbirth would be very painful and also that her husband who would rule over her. To Adam he declares, “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” God then banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to forever work the soil.
This story is often called “the Fall of Man” and is viewed as depicting man’s fall from grace and subjection to a life of turmoil and struggle. The story also codifies women’s subordination to men in society as Eve is clearly to blame for Adam’s sin and punishment. Yet this version of the story only dates back to the 6th century BC or later and is an adaptation of earlier Adam and Eve myths that present them as equals.
A revisionist interpretation of the story presents an alternative narrative. If one accepts that cannabis was the first plant cultivated by humans then we can see that cannabis is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Garden of Eden is simply the whole of the natural world during hunter-gatherer times, when humans were nomadic and lived naked like animals. The expulsion from the garden represents the advent of agriculture and civilization in the Neolithic Revolution. The Bible places the Garden of Eden within the Tigris-Euphrates river valley (present day Iraq), exactly where the historical Neolithic Revolution occurred in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia around 10,000 BCE.
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It is not hard to imagine how our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who made a practice of sampling all plants in their endless search for sustenance, would have found cannabis with its highly nutritious seeds and mind altering flowers very attractive. It is presumably women, Eve, who made the discovery and figured out how to plant the seeds, thus beginning agriculture. The fibers from the stem of the plant were also put to use as strings, ropes, and canvas. With agriculture comes the first settlements and eventually civilization as we know it.
In the Garden of Eden story we see multiple references that can be interpreted as cannabis. First, Eve sees that the tree of knowledge is pleasing to the eye and its fruit is good to eat—this is true of cannabis as the seeds are nutritious. Second, they eat from the plant and their minds are expanded—easily interpreted as getting high from ganja. Third, the first thing they do is sew leaves together to cover their nakedness—a reference to the hemp fibers used in Neolithic times. Adam and Eve then leave the Garden, no longer living like naked, nomadic animals, they are compelled to toil for their food as farmers. The serpent is symbolic of the priests who burned cannabis to the Mother Goddess in the Canaanite religion and as such represents the archetypal dope peddler, vilified to this day.
So, is cannabis the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Well, if cannabis was the catalyst for agriculture and civilization then we could say that it brought forth both good and evil. Civilization is good in that it offers progress and improved qualities of life that never could have been imagined in those ancient times. But civilization also brought forth great evil in the forms of greed, avarice, and slavery. Agriculture is hard work, best done by slaves, and history shows that all agrarian cultures relied on slavery up until the industrial revolution in the 19th century CE. Civilization also brought forth empires and the desire to fight wars to take lands from rivals, and much of human history has been an endless cycle of violence from one empire to the next, the fall of man indeed.
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Upon the exile from the garden, God places a flaming sword and a cherubim to guard the entrance so that humans can never return. In many ways this is true—there is no going back to the days before civilization. This also represents a prohibition on returning to the old ways of the Goddess and cannabis. For over 2,000 years Jewish and Christian culture has denied that the Goddess is worthy of worship and has enforced a cultural prohibition on the use of ganja that is the basis for modern legal prohibition. These cultural attitudes were written into the creation myth intentionally in order to justify social codes the authors wished to enforce in their time.