From Opium to Saffron, the Ancients Knew a Thing or Two About Drugs

From Opium to Saffron, the Ancients Knew a Thing or Two About Drugs

From Opium to Saffron, the Ancients Knew a Thing or Two About Drugs

Scholars of antiquity are finding ever more evidence that psychoactive substances played a central role in ancient life.


Thousands of years ago, in spaces darkly enclosed or dazzlingly open, many in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East consumed psychoactive substances that helped transport them into altered states of consciousness. Guided by skilled specialists, they danced, chanted, and drummed, often remarkably adorned and masked. Or they held perfectly still, in the throes of trance or waking dreams. They saw psychedelic art without and hallucinatory visions within. They journeyed near and far to sanctuaries and ritual settings, where individually and collectively they sought an experience beyond the ordinary—what the Greeks termed ekstasis.

Most Western scholars have traditionally greeted the idea of such scenarios in the ancient world with polite skepticism or outright resistance. For them, drugs and ecstatic experience were hardly part of the “proper” foundations of Western civilization, long deemed to rest squarely on the intellectual achievements and pristine marble of the sober rationalists of classical Athens.

Over the last 20 years, however, serious cracks have appeared in this model, slowly but surely widening to reveal an ancient past rich in ecstatic experience and as brilliantly colored as those marble temples originally were. There’s now a growing shelf of publications on the archaeology of the senses, emotions, and psychotropic substances. For senior scholars secure in their positions, inquiry into the unorthodox or speculative no longer jeopardizes their careers. For younger scholars, these avenues offer exciting opportunities to blaze new paths in fields like Classics, Assyriology, and Egyptology.

To be sure, the challenges are many. So much was deliberately kept secret from the uninitiated, never written down or explicitly described. In the visual record, the iconography of ecstatic experience often lies hidden behind culture-specific imagery. An animal/human hybrid in an Egyptian tomb, for instance, may be a mythological figure, whereas a similar creature on a Greek vase may be a masked dancer in an altered state of consciousness. Inevitably, there are also gaps in our sources: Materials such as wood and textiles are perishable; organic substances tend to be ephemeral; finds illicitly dug up have lost their contexts, while others await archaeological recovery in as yet unexcavated sites.

Thus we cannot, and should not, expect the world of the distant past to give us an abundance of unambiguous proof for widespread or ritual drug use. Such headline discoveries as the cannabis and frankincense burned on an eighth-century bce altar in Israel are few and far between. What we can do is lift our eyes from the narrow lens of canonical texts and major monuments to consider the cumulative knowledge gleaned from the widest possible range of information—from archaeobotanical analyses to ethnoarchaeological work with living populations. In addition, cross-cultural and cross-temporal triangulation is invaluable for interpreting what makes the most likely sense for the phenomena we study, or for changing our minds when new data surface.

Take, for example, two recent revelations about opium. It’s been recognized for a while that certain archaeobotanical Cypriot juglets of the mid–second millennium bce bear a striking resemblance to the poppy’s seed pod. Are these vessels the earliest containers designed to advertise their contents? Did they actually hold opium? Successive residue analyses performed on unsealed juglets were inconclusive and cast doubt on the theory. Then researchers at the British Museum and the University of York tested a sealed vessel—and there the opium alkaloids were. So 3,500 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean, savvy opium traders thought about product marketing in a way that seems modern (or should we say timeless?) in its approach.

From ancient Afghanistan comes fresh insight into the opium trade’s stakeholders there. In the heart of the Bactrian kingdom of the late first millennium bce to the early first millennium ce, a Soviet-Afghan archaeological team in the late 1970s found six intact tombs at the site of Tillya Tepe. Their treasures, caught up in decades of war and occupation, have recently received renewed scholarly attention. We now see that many of the gold and turquoise ornaments worn by the elite women in four of the tombs have motifs of poppy flowers and seed pods, whose gold granulation evokes the bead-like appearance of raw opium droplets, oozing out after harvesters have scored the pods. Since neither the warrior nor the very young woman buried in the other two tombs had any such ornaments, there is good reason to think that these notable women were prominent in the opium business, part of a long history of women entrepreneurs in other spheres, stretching back at least into third-millennium Mesopotamia.

A few years ago, it occurred to the three of us that it was time to try to put these and other puzzle pieces together to create a holistic picture, organized thematically across time and space. The resulting volume of essays, Ecstatic Experience in the Ancient World, presents for the first time cutting-edge research on what psychoactive substances were used in antiquity, how drugs and ecstatic experience related to the numinous, and what their presence signifies in specific settings.

What emerges is an overwhelming sense of the centrality of ecstatic experience for ancient peoples and cultures. This was not the stuff of marginal groups, foreign migrants, or subversive elements, nor of random consumption, haphazard activity, or spontaneous experimentation. Rather, it was a complex phenomenon, assiduously managed and commemorated, that held societies together, defined their distinctive and shared traits, and melded the individual and the collective into a coherent whole.

Over the millennia, people throughout the ancient world came to recognize that certain plants had desirable culinary or healing properties and could usher their consumers into altered states of consciousness. Archaeobotanical remains, magico-medical texts, visual records, and ethnobotanical observations point to the widespread awareness and use of opium, cannabis, saffron, fly agaric mushrooms, henbane, harmala, mandrake, coriander, darnel, and ephedra, among other plants.

To cite one example, the saffron crocus was particularly meaningful on the Aegean island of Thera (modern-day Santorini). In the wall paintings preserved in a building buried by the island’s cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the mid–second millennium bce, we see young women in crocus-adorned finery gathering the blossoms in baskets. A bejeweled woman presides on a dais, attended by a monkey and a leashed griffin (a raptor-headed, winged lion). On the level above are psychedelic murals of dizzying red and blue spirals, rosettes, and lozenges, while elsewhere in the building monkeys play musical instruments, a woman self-mortifies, and nude males bear vessels, to describe just some of the images.

Saffron, a mind-altering neurotoxin if taken in quantity or used in conjunction with psychedelic and other sensory stimuli, could certainly have produced the dramatic hallucinations depicted in this building’s art and architecture. The small red and blue shapes painted in the whites of both female and male eyes likely give further signs of their altered states. In addition, as a labor-intensive crop, saffron must have commanded as high a price then as it does today, doubtless accounting for its major role in Thera’s economic, social, and ritual life. Again, women seem to have been prime movers in the entire venture.

The heirloom marble bowl found in this particular Thera building may well have contained a psychoactive potion, as perhaps did the vessels the nude males bring. In the ancient Mediterranean and the Middle East, wines, beers, and grogs provided an agreeable liquid in which to dissolve the active ingredients of psychotropic plants. They also, of course, had their own intoxicating properties, vividly described in drinking songs, mythological tales, and other literature. Numerous cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia document every process in the manufacture of these beverages, keeping scrupulous track of the amounts of materials used and produced. Residue analyses have yielded traces of alcoholic drinks in presses, vats, and cups, many of them linked to burial and sanctuary rituals as far back as 13,000 years ago. Periodically, experimental archaeology tries its hand at re-creating these beverages, based on their chemical signatures.

A motif commonly seen in the seal art of greater Mesopotamia is the so-called banquet, in which attendees sit side by side or facing each other, sipping liquids through long tubes. While this may have aided in filtering impurities, it is also likely that the practice accelerated and intensified intoxication and other effects. The absence of feasting in these scenes suggests that they show funerary or sacrificial drinking rites, attested archaeologically by the assemblages of cups and flasks found in graves and temples.

A gold version of one of these drinking tubes, conveniently bent at one end, was found among the wealth of goods recovered from the mid–third millennium bce tomb of Puabi at Ur in southern Iraq. Perhaps a queen or high priestess, Puabi and several of the other notables buried in the cemetery were accompanied by scores of retainers. Precisely how these courtiers died en masse is uncertain. Later Mesopotamian texts document the preparation of psychoactive plants for narcotic or lethal purposes, so it is possible these people were drugged before meeting their deaths.

While at Ur these substances may have been part of state funerary practices, elsewhere they frequently promoted political, religious, and social agendas for the living. A splendid example of this comes from a cuneiform tablet of the early 18th century bce found in the archives of the palace at Mari, located on the Euphrates in present-day Syria. The text gives a rare full account of a royal and community ritual in honor of Ishtar, the principal goddess in the Mesopotamian pantheon, who was responsible for the investiture of the king at Mari, among her other offices.

The ritual began in the evening, with the king spending the night in Ishtar’s bed in her temple. The next day, her statue was set up outside, along with those of minor deities and divine emblems, all flashing in the sun. The king made his entrance, magnificently attired, and was seated on a special throne. Hours of chanting, music, and performances of strength and skill ensued in a prescribed sequence. For participants and audience alike, the experience was a multimedia spectacle, arousing highly charged states of mind and body, and surely enhanced by the consumption of psychoactive substances. At the ritual’s conclusion, Ishtar was gratified and the religio-political compact renewed, with the king acknowledged as the divinely sanctioned intermediary between the goddess and his subjects.

At one point, there appeared an “ecstatic” or “prophet.” Such individuals, both men and women, while they were in an altered state of consciousness (or, as the Mesopotamians termed it, “not in equilibrium”), uttered “the speech of the gods,” often concerning the personal welfare of the king and the security of his government. The cuneiform tablets found in the Mari archives record many of these speeches verbatim, together with remarks on the ecstatics’ behavior. How they entered an altered state is not specified. Suggestively, though, several texts describe giving a beverage of some sort to men and women referred to as “answerers,” who were then asked questions of a political nature, to which they were to reply with a simple yes or no. Presumably this drink contained psychoactive substances, perhaps mixed with wine, as Mari was a key center in the wine trade.

The examples we’ve touched on here represent just the tip of the current research and thinking on these topics. There is much more to be learned: One very promising area stems from the revival of clinical interest in the efficacy of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of affective conditions. Related advances in neuroscience have shed considerable light on how and why the human brain, under the influence of psychoactive stimuli, consistently produces initial visions of tunnels, whorls, petaloids, and other geometric patterns, known as “form constants.” This inspired one of us to compare, for the first time, modern psychedelic art with Minoan ceramics made in the Cretan palaces of Knossos and Phaistos in the 18th century bce. The spectacular parallels, even down to their glossy black backgrounds, point us in fascinating directions for future inquiry into psychedelic imagery elsewhere in the ancient world.

For many, recognition of the fundamental, positive role played by drugs and ecstatic experience may run contrary to the negative bias shaped by the backlash against the counterculture of the 1960s. Thus far, we find no ancient evidence for hostility or stigmatization. Instead, drug use seems to have been an integral feature of community life, as well as an accepted way, on occasion, for some to shed societal constraints. By the same token, it seems clear that the principal and most significant use was in carefully orchestrated constellations of events and purposes, typified in the vignettes we’ve given here.

As for our skeptical colleagues, we would encourage them to start looking beyond the usual suspects to see in past Western civilizations an ancient world diverse in its beliefs, elastic in its practices, and exuberant in its celebrations of the human mind and spirit. We see no need to abandon the rationalist constructs so carefully maintained over the years, but instead to enrich them by placing them in a much broader context and—this is crucial—by acknowledging that they possess no immutable values of cultural superiority.

We who study the long ago are often asked what relevance it has for our modern age. As our corporate overlords attempt to lure us into a metaverse of their own design, and as fragmentation replaces community, it may bring solace to reflect on the unities that bind us, past and present. If we today seek to overcome alienation and divisive discourse through meditation, spirituality, and altered states, we are not alone in using ecstatic experience and, yes, drugs to do so. Across the millennia, we humans have sought myriad ways to expand the dimensions of our consciousness, to reach other levels of being within ourselves, to express creatively what we find there, and to invoke ecstatic experiences for the individual and collective good. To echo the opening lines of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, full knowledge of it all may we gain.

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