16 Jan 2013

A naughty speculation on the word 'cannabis'

I'm still on a kick examining Pre-Greek terms. The topic of Greek substrate isn't complete without discussing the murky origins of the word κάνναβις 'hemp, marijuana'. There's still a certain prudishness about these topics in certain academic circles because of modern moral stances and deviant politics, however looking past the current times and exploring ancient perspectives without a wince is what a fair historian does best. Be brave. Let's take the plunge and have fun.

In ancient times, the tyranny of centralized institutions didn't yet have the immense power to squash individual maturity, reason and choice when it came to drug use and consequences. Instead of drug laws and pharmacological monopoly, a thing called "direct consequence" did most of the work keeping the most wreckless of addicts from breeding the next generation. We can forget the idea that classical Greece could have grokked the logic behind the International Olympic Committee's unending witchhunt for athletes using "performance-enhancing drugs" which is not in keeping with the historical "olympic spirit" of yore. To an ancient, a winning use of drugs for athletic enhancement might to the contrary have been interpreted as the will of the gods who communicated through these substances. Different times, different perspectives. Drugs were once given religious respect and were responsible for the birth of ancient medicine. There was even symbolic connection between different widely-used drugs and individual deities in the pantheon. So an earthly deity like Pacha (Bacchus) was related to wine and mead in Etruria, for example. Opioids were also widely distributed in ancient times. Drugs were no big whoop once.

The use of hemp and cannabis is sourced to Central Asia and is supported by Herodotus who specifically pointed to the Scythians and their traditions. As such, the mainstream answer to the origin of the word κάνναβις is through some concocted root in Scythian. Sometimes Thracian is pointed to as a possible source as well. Yet where are the Minoans in this discussion and when exactly was hemp/cannabis introduced into the region? How could it be possible for Minoans to not hear tell of either hemp or cannabis despite the fact that their Egyptian neighbours to the south were at the very least putting *šimšimat (spelled out by Egyptians as šmšm.t) to good use making ropes for sailing ships? The Assyrians would later refer to hemp as qunabu, and this appears to be some sort of distorted version of κάνναβις, perhaps through local folk-etymology. Historical linguists seem generally willing to hypothesize a Scythian or Thracian word for cannabis while avoiding equally tenuous Minoan hypotheses despite the fact that the Minoans are in the direct path of this conversation and represent a much more influential culture capable of transmitting this word far and wide. So perhaps there's opportunity for further exploration. Pot-smoking Minoan aristocrats? Why not? They already were aware of poppies.

Pursuing a Minoan term for 'hemp', I offer up the following reconstruction for discussion: *ḳanya-apiya, literally 'bee stalk'. Phonetically, this lends a plausible alternative to the origin of Greek κάνναβις. However if we simultaneously recognize that κάννα 'reed, stalk, cane' itself is substrate, an underlying Minoan *ḳanya (probably in turn borrowed from a Semitic language. Cf. Akkadian qanû 'reed', Ugaritic qn) implies that κάνναβις was once some sort of compound noun referring to the cannabis plant as a type of stalk. This is too curious for me to dismiss as coincidence just yet.

Calling for a compound, I'm attracted to the idea of *ḳanya-apiya, composed of *apíya 'bee', an obvious loanword from Egyptian *abíyat (bi.t). At first sight, it might be tempting to further rationalize this etymology by way of an assumed apian attraction to the smelly cannabis plant although the herb doesn't require bees to pollinate it. Or perhaps the sticky texture of a fresh plant may remind one of honey. Rather another relationship I have in mind is more spiritual. The bee and its honey during Minoan times must surely have been associated with whatever the Minoan equivalent of the generic Mediterranean fertility goddess was, a counterpart to Isis in Egypt or Ishtar in Babylon. Such a connection also makes sense on psychoactive grounds since everyone by now is aware of the effects of marijuana, producing mild euphoria and a general elevation of mood. A drug of love, and thus, so it may have been perceived in such times, a gift from Aphrodite.

Perhaps all that I've said here is a smoke-filled haze of misinterpretation and verbose poppycock. I grant the skeptic this. Yet the Aramaic phrase qaneh bosm (קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם) 'cannabis' (literally 'aromatic cane') is surprisingly close to the Minoan compound I hypothesize. One way or another the still-unknown Minoan language most definitely had a word for 'hemp' and it's only a matter of determining what it likely was.


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