by Scarlet Palmer on 22/05/2014 | Cultural

Cannabis seeds from a divine source – Shen Nong and the Five Sacred Grains

Cannabis origin myth Ancient China fascinates me. When Martijn and I were lucky enough to interview Robert Connell Clarke, I wanted to ask a thousand questions about his travels through the south-west of the Middle Kingdom, with its dreamlike landscape and pockets of culture that have remained essentially unchanged for hundreds, if not thousands, of years; remote enough to have so far escaped the eradication of all things ancient that began with Mao.

Robert had visited many of these places, searching for evidence of how and why hemp was literally interwoven with the lives of the people who lived there. Some weeks later, reading a book of Chinese fairy tales and legends, I came across the specific creation myth of cannabis seeds!

The ancient city of Lijang in Yunnan, China (photo: Ariel Steiner, Wikimedia Commons)
The ancient city of Lijang in Yunnan, China (photo: Ariel Steiner, Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the earliest proof of deliberate outdoor cannabis cultivation comes from China, where hemp is still farmed, now on an industrial scale. In 2008, archaeological digs in the Yanghai Tombs near Turpan uncovered a 2,700 year old shamanic grave site containing vessels filled with cannabis seeds and buds; when tested, the flowers proved to contain THC. It has long been known that industrial hemp, used as an invaluable source of both food and fibre, has been grown there since Neolithic times. This find proved beyond a doubt that the consciousness-altering properties of the psychoactive variants were also known to the people of ancient China. It’s not really surprising that a plant this important would have its own legend of how it came to be used by people.

The heavenly origin of cannabis seeds

The first recorded recommended uses of cannabis as a medicine appear in a Chinese medical compendium with the splendidly evocative title ‘The Divine Farmer’s Herb Root Classic’ written in approximately 200 – 300 BCE. There are those who make the claim that the book, and therefore the established medicinal uses of cannabis, date back to 2800 BC; however this is based upon when The Divine Farmer himself, Emperor Shen Nong, was reportedly ruling China. If that’s where you stop your research, you can make a more impressive claim for the first written record of the ancient use of cannabis as medicine – but you miss out on the fabulous myths (including the divine origin of cannabis) that surround Shen Nong, also known as God of the Five Grains.
For starters, he had the body of a man, but it was transparent, and sometimes the head of an ox, but his forehead was made of bronze and his skull was made of iron. Shen Nong was originally a god of the stars, but was sent to Earth by the Emperor of Heaven to tell mortals that, as long as they worked hard, they would always have enough to eat. However, Shen Nong made some kind of mistake in delivering the message (frustratingly, I have not been able to find out what this error was. If anybody knows, please leave a comment!) and as a punishment, he was banned from the heavenly realms and obliged to stay on Earth and help the farmers.

Shen Nong altar, Jiaozuo, China, showing the god with gigantic ox horns (photo: Meimeili,
Shen Nong altar, Jiaozuo, China, showing the god with gigantic ox horns (photo: Meimeili,

At this time, so the legend goes, there were a great many people in China and simply not enough food. They ate everything they could find – plants, fruit, shellfish and insects, apparently – but this was a sorry state of affairs and life was very harsh. Shen Nong taught the people to plough fields, identify different fruit and seed-bearing crops, and sow and harvest them. One day, during his teaching, sand-coloured clouds appeared in the sky and released a sudden downpour of seeds. When the clouds had passed, Shen Nong collected the seeds and carefully sowed them. A few months later, diverse and valuable crops covered the land. One of them was cannabis; the others were soy, wheat, broomcorn, and foxtail millet.

The seeds he planted are still known as The Five Sacred Grains, although as five has a special, magical significance in Chinese culture (rather like seven in the West) it is possible that there were always more than just five crops, and there is some debate about exactly which ones are on the list. The seeds mentioned above are listed in ‘Record of Rites’, a work by the writer and philosopher Confucius dating from around 500 – 600 BCE. Other candidates include rice, peas and beans, and sesame seeds.

Would the real Shen Nong please stand up?

So, Shen Nong might not be a completely irrefutable scientific source, but somebody – or bodies – wrote ‘The Divine Farmer’s Herb Root Classic’ and ascribed it to him, a couple of thousand years after he allegedly dictated it. This is not without precedent in ancient China; the foremost Taoist text, ‘Tao Te Ching’, was supposedly written about 600 BCE by the sage Lao Tzu but this is still debated. In both cases, the theory has been advanced that the books were the joint efforts of small groups of scholars who gave their works an ancient or semi-divine provenance. Personally I think dating the earliest written record of medicinal cannabis back to 200 – 300 BCE is impressive enough, and has more credibility than stretching the truth and over-simplifying the story by adding another couple of thousand years and skimming over the details of the author’s see-through-bodied, metal-ox-headed appearance.

"Don't mind me, I'm just divinely farming" - Shen Nong depicted with a plough in a Han Dynasty mural
“Don’t mind me, I’m just divinely farming” – Shen Nong depicted with a plough in a Han Dynasty mural

I’m not just high, I’m communicating with my Po

The book itself, which is also known as ‘The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica’, describes the seeds of cannabis as “sweet and balanced”, with properties of supplementing one’s centre and boosting the qi; eating them over a long period may make you strong and fat, and avoid senility. The description of the effects of the plant itself give further credence to the argument for psychoactive cannabis, as well as hemp, being well-used in ancient China: over-indulgence may cause you to see ghosts and run about frenetically, protracted use may bring communication with the “spirit light”. As far as I can tell, the phrase “spirit light” refers to the Po, or animal/physical element of the human soul as defined by Chinese spiritual beliefs (but again, if you know more, please tell me in the comments). This is one of the most poetic, yet accurate, descriptions of what it’s like to be high I’ve ever come across, and very fitting for a seed that descended from the Heavenly Realm and was first farmed by a god!



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This information is very good and useful. Thank you ! Your site is really great, useful and I learnt a lot of stuff here. Continue with the great job !


Duncan Crow

Very close to the Sumerian account, which also had a list of herbs and domestic animals that were given or developed on-site by the gods. There's a good chance that the agricultural revolution was focused enough to teach many farmers animal husbandry and botany; the huge breeding programs of the new homo sapiens sapiens and upwards crossbreeds required that the training be pretty thorough to avoid famine.


Scarlet Palmer

Hello Duncan, thank you for your comment :)

I am not familiar with the Sumerian account, and I would like to know more. Is there a particular source or place that you would recommend for me to start with researching it? I agree with your point about the need for focus in the agricultural revolution also.

Thanks again,

With best wishes,



pete wagner

The region that most spawned the Chinese cannabis culture, the mountainous SW, also spawned Tao thinkers and Chinese martial arts. They flooded China with opium in throughout the 19th Century, while the Muslims concurrently moved into that region and shut down cannabis production. But the pendulum of time doth swang.


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