By: Diana L. Stein
As courts today debate whether to legalize or regulate the use of drugs like cannabis, it is interesting to look at the history of man’s relationship with mind-altering substances. Several books, exhibits, and catalogues have recently explored the topic. Yet, despite the consensus that “every society on earth is a high society,” the ancient Near East is omitted from these surveys. Is it too remote? Do we know so little? Was it unique? The evidence suggests otherwise.
Like other traditional societies, early villagers in the ancient Near East were familiar with the qualities and effects of their native herbs. Charred plant remains at the early Neolithic site of Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria (tenth mill. BCE) make it clear that the inhabitants used a deliberate selection of local plants. Some were highly toxic in their natural state and had to be roasted to become edible, while others were only useful for dyes or medicines.Such intimate knowledge of the natural world accumulated over the following millennia and became part of the traditional folklore on which ancient Near Eastern medicine, like so many others, is based.
The earliest known medical recipes come from the third millennium BCE city of Ebla in Syria. But late second and first millennia BCE Mesopotamia is our main source of textual information on what plants were known, which parts were used, how they were processed, mixed and applied, and what purpose they served. We learn that the majority of drugs were plant-based, derived from extracts, resins, or spices. Plant roots, stems, leaves, seeds, blossoms, and fruits were used dry or fresh, ground and sifted, soaked and boiled, or smoked.
To render certain drugs more palatable or to enhance their effect, they were often mixed with wine, beer, vinegar, milk, honey, and tallow. The resulting concoctions were applied as salves, ingested as potions, powders, and pills, or inhaled as fumes in order to treat all manner of ailments, both real and imagined.Certain drugs were prescribed for their mind-altering effects. Some of these brought about sedation, anesthesia, or analgesia. Others were administered in order to relieve or overcome inhibition, fear, panic, and depression as well as, in the odd instance, to induce hallucinations.
Despite the many references, most of the botanical names are still unidentified. Our best clues regarding psychotropic plants come from actual botanical remains: liquid residues, carbonized seeds, pollen, fibers, and fiber impressions. Various hallucinogenic plants have now been identified in and around the ancient Near East. Traces of a liquid extract from the Blue Water Lily (Nymphaea caerulea), a potent narcotic plant, were discovered in alabaster jars stored in the Annex of Tutankamun’s fourteenth-century BCE tomb in Egypt. In the courtyard of a Late Bronze Age temple at Kamid el-Loz in Lebanon stood a storage jar containing 10 liters of Viper’s Bugloss (Echium Linné), another potent hallucinogen. There are strong indications that Cyprus was the source of opium (Papaver somniferum), which was exported around the Eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze Age in characteristic Base-Ring I juglets shaped like poppy seed capsules.
Still more widespread is evidence for hemp (Cannabis sativa). The oldest example of this multipurpose plant now comes from Çatal Hüyük, a Neolithic site in Turkey, where a hemp-weaved fabric was recently found wrapped around a skeleton below a burnt building dated ca. 7000 BCE. Already at this time hemp is thought to have been an important trade item. Elsewhere in Central Asia, Caucasia, and the Eurasian steppe, evidence for hemp extends from late Neolithic to Scythian times and exists in the form of rope, thread, hemp-impressed pottery, and actual hemp seeds. Some of the hemp-impressed ware served as braziers that were found in graves, and the seeds were likewise associated with braziers and burials.
All of these psychotropic plants have medicinal properties and would have been used in treating physical or psychological conditions. The residue of burnt cannabis, discovered within the abdomen of a young girl who died during childbirth and was buried in a fourth century BCE tomb near Jerusalem, supports this.However, the context of the botanical remains also point to other uses. The Blue Water Lily extract and the burnt hemp seeds were both associated with death and burial rites, and the seeds of Viper’s Bugloss had some connection with ritual practice inside the temple. Within these contexts, psychotropic plants probably served as aides to trance techniques (e.g., dancing, chanting, extreme asceticism, and mortification of the flesh), and as such they are likely to have been considered sacred.
In several traditional drug-taking cultures, the name of the sacred plant is taboo, but rarely is there a ban on attempts to portray the ecstatic states, visions, and flights of imagination that result from its use. Among the Tukano Indians of the Columbian Amazon, who consume ayahuasca, for example, the decorative art that covers their houses, textiles, clothes, ornaments, and pottery is almost entirely drawn from trance-inspired visions. This imagery ranges from fantastic beings to abstract geometric patterns (“entoptics”) made up of basic design elements such as circles, spirals, chevrons, lozenges, radials and parallel lines.
As the products of neuropsychological events, entoptic motifs are common to all human beings, irrespective of culture or time. The ancient Near East was no exception. The same basic design elements decorate the walls of pre and early state houses and temples, stoneware and pottery, amulets and seals. The striking similarity between the Tukano painting and the wall painting from Tell Munbaqa, which record the hallucinatory visions of two people from different cultures separated by over 7300 miles and 4000 years, illustrates just how universal and timeless this imagery is.
In several cases, the ancient Near Eastern design includes a plant (mushroom, cereal grain, tree) or animal (toads, frogs, fish), which is often central and may refer to the source of the hallucinogen consumed.
Something similar has been suggested as an explanation for the presence of a tree on two Achaemenid stamp seals that belong to temple brewers. In each case the tree appears to be the source of an important additive to the contents of the bottle that the brewer/seal owner raises up in his hand. [i]
These examples suggest that hallucinogens played a central role in the social and ritual life of ancient Near Eastern society.
The absence of laws, legal suits, or complaints about drug abuse implies that, unlike today, this was not a major concern in the ANE. Several explanations arise from the evidence cited above. Knowledge of which plants to pick, what parts to use, and how to prepare them was limited to specialists. In historical times this was the preserve of the asû, a loose equivalent of today’s pharmacist, who alone had access to the so-called pharmacopoeia handbook. As in many traditional societies, where medical and magical healing practices are interlinked, the Mesopotamian asûcollaborated closely with other experts such as the ashipu (physician/exorcist) and the barû (diviner).They were in charge of the extensive preparatory and purification exercises that preceded the use of drugs, which was steeped in ritual pageantry.
All of this served to limit the use of hallucinogens. The theatrical dimension of hallucinogenic rituals also ensured that the experience, which could be fatal or cause great anxiety, was carefully supervised. Whether in the context of the hunt, a social event, a burial rite, or a religious ceremony, a guide was present “to bridge the two worlds of consciousness as a means of controlling and neutralizing perceived evil spirits that appear to the drug user during a session, as well as to evoke culturally expected visions”.[ii]
These traditional constraints are lacking in Western society today, which insists on a division between medicine and ritual and is deeply suspicious of the latter. Here, perhaps, is something we could learn from our past.
For Further Reading:
P.T. Furst (ed.) Flesh of the Gods. The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1972).
J. Goodman, E. Lovejoy, and A. Sherratt (eds.) Consuming Habits (London/New York, 1995).
P. Devreaux, The Long Trip. A Prehistory of Psychedelia, second amended edition (Brisbane: Daily Grail Publishing, 2008).
M. Jay, High Society. Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture (London: Thames and Hudson, 2010).
R.D. Biggs, “Medicine, Surgery and Public Health in Ancient Mesopotamia.” In J. Sasson et al. (eds.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, pp. 1911-1924 (New York: Scribner, 1995).
J. Zias, “Cannabis Sativa (hashish) as an Effective Medication in Antiquity: the Anthropological Evidence.” In S. Campbell and A. Green (eds.), The Archaeology of Death in the Ancient Near East, pp. 232-234 (Oxbow Monograph 51, 1995).
J. Scurlock, “Physician, Exorcist, Conjuror, Magician: a tale of two healing professionals.” In T. Abusch and K. van der Toorn (eds.), Mesopotamian Magic. Textual, Historical and Interpretive Perspectives, pp. 69-79 (Groningen, 1999).
[i] Personal communication, Christopher Walker. [ii] M. Dobkin de Rios, Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1996), 9.
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