The origin of hemp in Celtic culture
Updated: Feb 10
Have you heard of Celtic Hemp? Like much of Europe, cannabis arrived in Ireland when historical records were scarce. John McPartland used clever techniques to explore cannabis’s prehistoric journey into and throughout Europe. And most recently, he published a study on hemp’s introduction into the Celtic culture and lifestyle.
Thousands of years ago, cannabis’s medicinal properties were remarked in ancient texts. At this time, humans living closer to the plant’s originating plateau in a region of Tibet relied on fibers from cannabis stalks for textiles. By 400 BCE, humans left evidence of cannabis across Europe and in the birthplaces of Celtic culture.
McPartland, co-authoring the study with Professor Saoirse E O’Sullivan, analyzed the evolution of language to assess cannabis’s prehistoric journey to Hibernia — now modern-day Ireland. But the Celts did not record their earliest history. Beyond scriptures and ontologies, though, historic humans left behind pollen and seeds from crops. Ancient pollen, extracted from mud, contains signals from cannabis’s past. Otherwise, McPartland cited rare archeological artifacts to validate cannabis’s journey across historic European cultures. And, as a fourth strategy, literature reviews prove when words describing “hemp” or “cannabis” became part of the Middle Irish tongue.
From Yamnaya to Brittany
People of the Yamnaya culture, encompassing modern Ukraine, utilized cannabis crops earlier than Celtic cultures in the West during the copper and bronze age. Cannabis fibers and water-logged seeds appeared later in Hallstatt during the Iron Age around 650 to 350 BCE. Hallstatt is a region near modern Austria considered the origin of Celtic peoples. But they might have spoken a language unrelated to early precursors of the Celtic lexicon.
The Celtic people are largely defined by language and culture. They rarely documented written history. Druids, religious figures in the Celtic political system, instead memorized large volumes of oral histories. A few centuries after the Hallstatt region prospered, the subsequent La Tène people in Western Europe left evidence of cannabis crops.
By the first century BC, Romans conquered much of Europe. But they did not invade Hibernia. Two variations of Celtic peoples remained in parts of France and Spain, and Ireland and Scotland, respectively. People of Brittany in France spoke Old Breton and used the word coarch to describe hemp fiber. But Middle Breton adopted Roman vocabulary for cannabis centuries later. Iunobrus, a Breton Monk, used the word canap to describe cannabis in 848 AD, for example, borrowing the word from Roman Latin.
Migrating to Hibernia
Words used for cannabis and hemp in Celtic cultures were all borrowed from another culture. McPartland suggests the lack of an ancestorial word for hemp or cannabis in Proto-Celtic implies that the early people of Hallstatt spoke a different language.
Interestingly, the Romans borrowed their Latin phrase, canap, from the Greek — kannabis, which the Greeks borrowed from the Scythians. Furthermore, the Celts were impacted by the Scythians between 700 to 400 BCE. Yet, Roman-British missionaries brought cannabis to the Galleic Celts in Hibernia shortly after their conquest of Britain. The Celtic, especially the people of Hibernia, relied on wool and linen (flax) for fiber throughout their early history instead of hemp.
McPartland, J. M., & O’Sullivan, S. E. (2023). Origins of Cannabis sativa in Ireland and the Concept of Celtic Hemp: An Interdisciplinary Review. Cannabis and cannabinoid research, 10.1089/can.2022.0263. Advance online publication.