“Θέλει η ζωή μας αλλαγές και ας τσαντίζονται πολλές δεν δίνω φράγκο κάθε μια τι θα μου σούρει και το πουλί για να τραφεί πρέπει ν’ αλλάζει τη τροφή κι όχι σκέτο κανναβούρι κανναβούρι.”

My first introduction to the word κανναβούρι, as a child, was from the above song, sung in 1976 by the great Christakis. “Mum, what is κανναβούρι?” I asked. My father gave her a knowing glance. My mother paused for a moment and responded confidently: “Birdseed. Definitely birdseed. Especially for canaries.”

This made sense to me, as the sound of the word κανναβούρι presented similarities to the word for canary, καναρίνι. I locked this information away and gave it not a second thought. A few years later, however, in a Greek school essay, I wrote that I had fed my canary some κανναβούρι. “Are you sure you know what this means?” my Greek school teacher asked me when she returned the essay to me, highlighting the word in angry red pen. “Yes,” I replied nonchalantly. “And where did you get this κανναβούρι?” the teacher asked softly. “From my parents,” I responded, watching the arches of her eyebrows rise in incredulity. She duly avoided me for the rest of the term.

My teacher’s shock can be justified by the fact that κανναβούρι is not actually birdseed but rather, cannabis (or hemp) seed. Interestingly enough, the oldest written record of cannabis usage seems to be a reference by the Greek historian Herodotus, to the central Eurasian Scythians, taking cannabis steam baths.

As Herodotus wrote in his Histories, in about 440BC, “the Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy”.

The joys of the Scythians notwithstanding, cannabis seeds were known and used for medicinal purposes in ancient Greece. In around 460, the philosopher Democritus described a concoction known as potamaugis or potamasgis, which was a blend of wine, cannabis and myrrh that was said to cause hallucinatory, visionary states.

It is on the basis of this concoction that scholars argue that an ever-earlier reference to cannabis exists in Homer’s Odyssey.

Polydamna, the wife of the Egyptian Thonos, gave Helen, wife of Menelaus, ‘nepenthe’, a drug that has “the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories” and which Helen slipped into the wine that Telemachus and Menelaus were drinking. It is supposed that this was an early form of potamasgis.

Our ancient ancestors also used cannabis to dress wounds and sores on their horses. In AD70, the physician Dioscorides recorded cannabis in his Pharmacopoeia. According to him, cannabis leaf was commonly prescribed as a cure for nosebleeds, and the seeds were used to treat tapeworms, earache and inflammation.

In humans, dried leaves of cannabis were used to treat nosebleeds, and cannabis seeds were used to expel tapeworms. The most frequently described use of cannabis in humans was to steep green seeds of cannabis in either water or wine, later taking the seeds out and using the warm extract to treat inflammation and pain resulting from obstruction of the ear. Fascinatingly, the ancient doctor recorded that cannabis seed consumed in large quantities was believed to reduce the ‘nocturnal emissions’ suffered by teenage boys going through puberty.

Even the great physicial Galen of Pergamon dealt with cannabis seed in his writing. In De alimentorum facultatibus, penned around AD150, he focused upon the seed’s negative properties, describing the process of ‘getting high’.

“The cannabis’ plant is not similar to agnocastus and the cannabis’ seed is somewhat similar to agnocastus’ as concerns its power, but it is very different, as it is difficult to digest and gives pain to the stomach and to the head and spoils humours. Anyway, some people eat it toasted together with other teasers. What I call ‘teasers’ is what is eaten for pleasure of drinking during the meal. Cannabis seed heatens sufficiently and it is because of this characteristic that it hits the head, if it is ingested in too much quantity in a short time, and sends hot pharmaceutical fumes to it.”

Galen went on to confirm the observations of Dioscordes before him: “The cannabis’ fruit does not create gas and is so dry that it can dry male sperm, if it is eaten in a quite big quantity. Some people, pulling out the juice from it when it is not ripe, use it against ears’ pains, due to an occlusion, as I believe.”
Further in his writings Galen commented upon the cannabis seed’s desiccating power and that cannabis was used to cure gonorrhea and epistaxis. He repeats his earlier observations that cannabis is kephalalgis (literally ‘painful for the head’, which is related to its heating characteristics): “Among things that hit the head [there are] . . . the fruit of cannabis . . . and red, dry wine: and all perfumed wines.”

Euripides’ famous tragedy The Bacchae, where Pentheus, the unlucky king of Thebes, is described as being torn to shreds by the female devotees of Dionysus, which include his mother, Agave, may also provide some evidence as to the mind-altering states that cannabis could have induced in their secret rites. In particular, the following dialogue is considered to describe the process of ‘coming off’ the drug:

“- Look to the sky!
– Here I look. But why have you made me do that?
– Is your look always the same or is it changed?
– It has more light than before and it seems more transparent.
– And is your soul still lost?
– I cannot understand … but I feel as I have come again in my senses, my thoughts are changed and me too … “

Cannabis persisted, being used throughout Ottoman times in Greece, though it was made illegal in 1890, when the Greek Department of the Interior announced the prohibition of cultivation, importation and sale. Nonetheless, Greek and Ottoman Greek farmers continued to grow the crop and it continued to be used as a drug until modern times, as is attested by countless rebetika lyrics, including:

‘Ώρες με θρέφει ο λουλάς,’ ‘Της μαστούρας ο χορός,’ and ‘Βάλε χασίς απ’ το καλό να μας ζαλίσεις το μυαλό και δώσε μας το μπαγλαμά ν’ ακούσεις τη διπλή πενιά’.

Considering this historical precedent, it is no wonder that my Greek school teacher was gravely disquieted by my parents’ purported supply of κανναβούρι, to me.

Yet, in my progenitors’ defence, they did not engage in deceptive or misleading conduct. For as my godfather recently related, his father continued to grow cannabis for its seeds on the island of Samos, right up until the fifties. Those seeds were sold as birdseed, for it was common practice for canaries to be fed κανναβούρι, as this made their feathers brighter and encouraged prolific singing. It was also used by some fishermen as bait for certain species of carp. When the local gendarmes arrived to uproot the crop, my godfather’s father held them at bay with a shotgun, leading to his prosecution and, this being Samos, ultimate acquittal, after which time, he took to growing γλιστρίδα, or purslane, which has the same effect, and is perfectly legal.

Since my experience with my Greek school teacher I have not kept any pet birds. These days, I am considering that I am desirous of procuring a particular perspicacious parrot, that could be taught to sing the following cannabis infused rebetika lyrics:

” Όταν καπνίζει ο λουλάς
εσύ δεν πρέπει να μιλάς.
Κοίταξε τριγύρω οι μάγκες
κάνουν όλοι, κάνουν τουμπεκί.
Άκου που παίζει ο μπαγλαμάς και πάτα αργιλέ για μας.
Σα θα γίνουμε μαστούρια,
θα ‘μαστε πολύ προσεχτικοί.
Κανένα μάτι μη μας δει
και μας μπλοκάρουν δηλαδή.
Να μη βρούνε καμιάν αιτία
και μας πάνε όλους φυλακή.”

*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne-based solicitor and freelance journalist.