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From Soothing Soldiers to Empowering Prophets: The Use of Drugs in the Ancient World

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The Oracle at Delphi. The Pythia (High Priestess of Apollo) inhales fumes that send her into a trance. Wood engraving after a drawing by Heinrich Leutemann (German painter, 1824 - 1905).

The Oracle at Delphi. The Pythia (High Priestess of Apollo) inhales fumes that send her into a trance. Wood engraving after a drawing by Heinrich Leutemann (German painter, 1824 - 1905).

In Homer's Odyssey, Helen of Troy comforts grieving soldiers by giving them wine laced with a drug.

Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel. [220] Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill. Whoso should drink this down, when it is mingled in the bowl, would not in the course of that day let a tear fall down over his cheeks, [225] no, not though his mother and father should lie there dead, or though before his face men should slay with the sword his brother or dear son, and his own eyes beheld it.

This may be one of our earliest references to opiates. The passage demonstrates that people of the ancient world were well acquainted with drugs and their effects.

Odysseus and his crew in "the Land of the Lotus Eaters", where they are fed a plant that makes them not want to leave.

Odysseus and his crew in "the Land of the Lotus Eaters", where they are fed a plant that makes them not want to leave.

The Ancient Drug Trade

There is evidence of an international drug trade as far back as 1000 BC.

However, this trade was controlled by healers rather than criminals, as drugs were initially used to treat wounds and illnesses. Of course, as time went on, people came to appreciate their hallucinogenic properties.

The two drugs that dominated the ancient world were opium and hemp. The former was first cultivated by Sumerians in 3400 BC, although a slightly different version of the plant may have been grown in Libya. Pottery containing opium residue has been discovered in Ancient Egyptian tombs.

The Ancient Greeks used the term ekstasis to describe the effect brought about by certain drugs. It means "to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere".

Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier. The Pythia inhales vapors from a crevice beneath her.

Priestess of Delphi (1891) by John Collier. The Pythia inhales vapors from a crevice beneath her.

Drugs and Religion in the Ancient World

Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous of the Ancient Greek religious rites, were conducted twice a year in honor of Demeter, the Ancient Greek goddess of the harvest.

They were called the mysteries because the nature of the ceremony was kept secret from the populace. It's believed their purpose was to remove the fear of death.

A substance named kykeon was consumed during the ceremony. Archeologists believe the concoction contained a fungus that had psychedelic effects.

The Oracle at Delphi

The temple of Delphi was a sacred site in Ancient Greece. Travelers would come from all over the ancient world to have their future foretold by Pythia (the title of the high priestess of Apollo).

According to the Ancient Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch, the Pythia would inhale gas emitted from fissures beneath the shrine. The gas reportedly sent her into a trance.

This ancient account was generally viewed with skepticism by modern historians. That was until a team from Wesleyan University discovered ethane, methane, and ethylene in spring water located near the oracle. Ethylene has served as an anesthetic and has been known to bring about a euphoric state.

Cannabis in Ancient Scythia

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Ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484 — 425 BC) wrote that the Scythians consumed a substance that allowed them to communicate with the spirit world. Their word for it was Kanab, believed to be the origin of the word cannabis.

The Scythians were a nomadic horse-riding people that rivaled the Ancient Greeks and Romans militarily. However, they were not great builders and left little behind aside from the many grave mounds (known as Kurgans) that lie scattered across the steppes.

Golden cups discovered inside one of these burial mounds contained a black residue that criminologists identified as cannabis and opium, confirming Herodotus' claim.


The Eleusinian Mysteries, an Ancient Greek rite that may have involved psychadelics.

The Eleusinian Mysteries, an Ancient Greek rite that may have involved psychadelics.

Drugs in Mythology

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus' journey brings him and his crew to an island (which modern historians believe to be Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia) known as the "land of the lotus eaters".

Here they are fed a plant that makes them lose all desire to return home. They become increasingly lost in the haze brought about by the plant (believed to be the blue lotus) until Odysseus musters the willpower to drag himself and his crew back to their ship.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that knowledge of opiates was gifted to them by Thoth, the god of writing, magick, wisdom, and the moon.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that knowledge of opiates was gifted to them by Thoth, the god of writing, magick, wisdom, and the moon.

Drugs in the Middle East

The Assyrians had a name for the poppy: Hul Gil, meaning "happy plant".

Honey from rhododendron was taken recreationally in Ancient Anatolia, and depictions of banquets show people ingesting psychoactive potions.

In the ruins of Ebla, a city in modern Syria, archaeologists discovered an ancient kitchen with eight hearths. There were no food remnants, and analysis of the pottery revealed traces of psychotropic pharmaceuticals. This was essentially an ancient drug factory.

The ruins of Ebla, where archaeologists discovered what amounts to an ancient drug factory.

The ruins of Ebla, where archaeologists discovered what amounts to an ancient drug factory.

Drugs in Ancient Rome

The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder refers to a plant he calls "laughing weed", adding that it was intoxicating when added to wine.

The writings of Galen, a highly influential physician in Ancient Rome, suggest recreational drug use among the denizens of the Roman empire. He claims that hemp was used in social gatherings to bring about “joy and laughter”. He also reports that Ancient Egyptians believed the use of opium was taught to humanity by Thoth — the Egyptian god of the moon, writing, and knowledge.

Rock art in Spain depicting fungus. This suggests a prehistoric knowledge of hallucinogenic mushroom species.

Rock art in Spain depicting fungus. This suggests a prehistoric knowledge of hallucinogenic mushroom species.

Learning from the Ancients

Research into the power of psychedelics as a treatment for mental illness was progressing in the mid-twentieth century but was halted by The War on Drugs (declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971).

However, the research has been able to resume in recent times, and psychedelics such as psilocybin have proven to be extremely defective in treating depression.

Psilocybin has also been used to treat terminal patients, who've reported that this once-illegal substance has helped them come to terms with death,.

So it would seem that people of modern times are rediscovering truths that the people of antiquity were aware of thousands of years ago.


References

April 19, 2016. The Kosmos Society.

Philip Matyszak. August 1, 2019. Happy plants and laughing weeds: how people of the ancient world used – and abused – drugs. History Extra.

Karen Polinger Foster, Diana Stein and Sarah Kielt Costello. March 22, 2022. From Opium to Saffron, the Ancients Knew a Thing or Two About Drugs. The Nation.

August 7, 2002. Ancient Drug Trade Unearthed. CBS News.

Andrew Lawler. April 19, 2018. Did ancient Mesopotamians get high? Near Eastern rituals may have included opium, cannabis. Science.org.

Harald Franzen. August 8, 2001. Gaseous Emissions at Oracle of Delphi Entranced the Pythia. Scientific American.

September 6, 2021. Ritual & Religious Drug Use in Ancient Greece. Hellenic Museum.

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