Drug plants preceded even the gods by ihree ages.
How did it all begin? Strangely, no doubt, in (he morning of time and space on (his planet. . Purposeful cultivation of drug plants is thoughi 10 have started during llie Neolithic period, somewhat after 7000 B.C. in mosl parts of Ihe woidd. bui the gathering of plants that do weird tilings to the mind had doubtless gone on for millennia A fantasy about (he disco veiy of marijuana, one of the oldest cultivated species, can stand metaphorically for- all (he rest,.
Some inquisitive cave dweller, in his unceasing search for food, plucks (lie pungent flower tops and crams them in his mouth, crunching the seeds with mighty molars; an hour later he's wandering through the forest in a da2e, trying to remember what happened. Or liginning strikes a tree, and the blaze spreads to a clump of hemp standing tall in the meadow; a curious Neandenhal sniffs the air, alert to the smoke and poised for flight... Instead he eiKls up mlling in the din bellowing owow, the first human word. Repeat such an episode the woiid over, for invigorating coca, lysergic morning glories, musky opium, phosphorescent mushrooms, prickly them apple.
Or maybe humans lean led about drugs from animals. Australian folklore has it that koalas are addicted to eucalyptus leaves, their only food, because the leaves have a genuine naicotic effect... In Africa, where (lie ancestors of Homo sapiens first evolved about ihiee million years ago, the exhilarating effects of coffee were legeixlarily. discovered by an Abyssinian goatheixl who noticed his flock pmncing around the pasture1 after eating the fruit of that glossy green tree; a similar tale is told in Yemen about khaL.. The Indian mongoose, when bitten by a cobra, crawls into the jungle to nibble mungo root as an antidote. Cows everywhere love locoweed; cats gobble catnip; reindeer munch mushrooms. Rabbits prefer belladonna or wild letpce; songbirds and mice thrive on hempseed; fish get knocked out by toxic plants that Fall, into the waier. Even elephants are passionately fond of certain palm fruits that produce a strongly intoxicating liquor and, in the words of a nineteenth-century explorer, "after eating it become quite tipsy, staggering about, playiiig huge antics, scieaming so as to be heard miles off and not seldom having tremendous fights."
However it happeiied, eatjy humans learned (O like drugs. But was it a drug that awakened the psyche to sentieiKe? Is the diffeience between man and ape a crooked thumb, or something more; an imaginative spark lit up in the brain by a
"That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead Jives at tlie woist so painful* at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, tlie longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul,. Art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory-all _ these have served» in H. G. Wells's phrase, as Doors in the Wall. AH the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all tlie euphorics that giw on trees, tlie hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots-all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.".
ALdous Huxley The Doors of Perception, 1954
plant? Or the ability to value the effects of that plant, clinging to it through the eons, though it made them retch, collapse in the snow and run raving through the underbrush?
The flush of discovery gave way to a purposeful search for mind benders all, across the globe. Mom and dad huddled around the fire, teaching the kids to get high, sketching plants on the blackened cave walls. It was the juice of certain plants thai first proved so attractive: the ooze of bruised poppies, the bland unearthly creams of pounded fungi» the sticky resin of hops and hemp, the succulent syrups of grains and fruits, the ripe pulp of a thousand exotic ixx)ts and vegetables. Chewed» mashed, strained, ground up, gulped whole, raw, cooked, fermented, rotted, fresh, pu tie scent, fried, fricasseed, souped, savored, spat out and shai out,
"In the course of history, many more people have died for their drink and their dope than have died for their religion or their country/'
ALdous Huxley MOKsho, 1975
picked of£ dungheaps and vines, stored in old baskets and pots, thrown in the fire, salved on the skin, poured in every orifice, the recipes were remembered and traded down through genei^ations. And archetypal memories of death trips, too: don't eat that one, dearie, it killed Aunt Goombak.__.
After centuries of expeiiment, a special breed evolved-the sorcerers, men and women who knew which dope to eat and which not to; when to eat it and when not to; which gods to thank and which to curse. The secrets of these doctors of dope have always been, at least in part, secrets of selection and technology. One didn't go to the medicine cabinet, one went to the field-and woe to the one who selected the wrong plant. Knowing how to make barley beer 10,000 years ago was as formidable as knowing how to make LSD today.
Some secrets were so closely guarded that they remain classic mysteries. What was the Tree of Life, which gave knowledge of good and evil?
What was Homer's nepenthes phorntakon, which drowned all. sorrows? Did the citizens of Sumer use opium or hashish to drug the courtiers buried alive with their king or queen, or was it merely wine? What were samo and haotna, beloved of
the Aiyans of India and Persia? What did Che Taoist magicians of China cook up in alchemical pots 10 produce divine do-nothing euphoria? And in ihe New Wotld, richer by far than the Old in hallucinogens, what exactly did they smoke in peace pipes and com husks and snort with nose tubes and spatulas? Why did Inca priests call bright star Spica in Virgo "Mama Coca"-did they think it came from there? At what primeval age did somebody learn to eat the nauseating cactus with its tender dinosaur., skin, or mash the barky creepers and the hairy-lend riled vine? Who first imagined that a funky fungus could open up a vision higher than the sacred mountains of the gods? The most sophisticated tools of modern science have left such questions unresolved; perhaps they must always remain shadows in the mythic past..
To watch drug history unfold is to tap into the most profound of human senses: de]a vu-it . has all happened before, it will alL happen again. Drug-induced distortions of lime's pace allow the participant to slip effortlessly from eon to eon, from scene 10 cosmic scene. And maybe it is this heightening of ancestral memory, this sense of timeless mythology produced by the drugs themselves, that best illuminates Ihe history of drugs through ihe ages.
We have learned much about getting high since humanity first awoke on earth, and we are still learning. The first precept of sorcery-selectivity based on experienced hann or helpfulness-is precisely the technique employed by modem scientists to lest a new drug for safety. Some of the easiest known examples of drug use illustrale this. Carbon dating of rock-shelter sites in Texas and Mexico confirms that hallucinogenic red mescal beans were used over 10,000 years ago by prehistoric buffalo hunters. These scadet seeds are highly loxic and can be fatal.. When someone found out that peyoie offered more spectacular visions with less danger, the cactus was used instead of the legume. Yet mescal beans stilll adorn the robes of Native Ameiican Church officials in commemoration of that ancient expeiience. The next advancement of drug science was the move from eating whatever plant was handy to manufacturing special preparations. A battered bit of pottei*y is all that remains of perhaps the oldest such potion on earth-plain, homely beer. A beaker with a sieve at the bottom and slrawlike lubes on its ouler edge has turned up in levels dated about 6400 B.C. in Catal Huyuk, Turkey. Scholars believe lhal this and similar sieve-pots in predynastic Egypt represent the facl that some Neolithic wizard learned to crush the banley he'd galhered, push it through the strainer, let it ferment awhile and drink ihe yeasly, protein-rich mess lhal would transport him into unaccustomed mind. By 4500 B.C., according to Dr. Richard H. Blum, Egyptians "'had learned lo maximize fermentation and alcoholic content by malting their grain And all southwestern Asian cultures had beer as a liquid staple."1
Western civilization's suspicious allitude toward drugs began in a bleary bath of banley brew. Beer and bread were daily wages in Sumer, Babylon and Egypt.. '"Drink not beer to excess!f" the workers who built, the pyramids were warned. "You speak slupidly and cannot remember ihe words that come out of your mouth. You fall and break your limbs, and no one reaches out a hand to you. Your drinking friends stand up and say» "Away with this drunkV And if someone comes asking after you, they find you lying on the ground like a child." Though beer was the brew of the toiling masses, wine was the elixir of aristocracy. Egyptian wine feasts were legendary, for reasons visible on New Kingdom paintings (ca. 1580 B.C.). Splendidly gowned women and men wearing costly jewelry sit comfortably sniffing lotuses while servants offer them perfumes, ointments, bowls of wine and fruit.. Over in the corner rests a wine val wreathed in plumes, taller than the naked dancing gitls who iwist and turn, clapping their hands- to the music of an exotic-looking female band. It was easy to overindulge, as anolher picture described by Adolf Erman shows: "One lady squats miserably on the ground, her robe slips down from her shoulder, the old attendant is summoned hastily, but alas* she comes too late."
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN LIQUOR LAWS "If a woman wine seller, instead of receiving grain for the price of a drink, receives money by (he large weight and makes the value of die drink less (ban (lie value of die grain, and if it is proved, slie shall be thrown in die water."
"If on daws gather in (lie house of a wine-selling woman, and she does no( sei2e them and turn, (hem in at (lie palace* she forfeits her life."
"If a priestess opens a bi( sakari (tavern), or enters one in order to drink, she shall be burned/'
"If a wine-selling woman gave one flask of wine on credit, she shall receive forty quarts of grain a( harvest lime."
Rules for wine shops in the Code of Hamrnurabai»
A hangover cure was needed. The earliest is recorded on a Mesopotamian stele and incidentally illustrates another scientific advance: the mixing of several drugs into one magic medicine. "If a man takes strong wine, his head is affected and he forgets his words; his speech becomes confused, his mind wanders, his eyes have a glazed expression. To cure him. (ake licorice, beans, oleander [and eight unidentified substances], , compounded with oil and wine, before the approach of the goddess Gula [sunset].. In the morning, before sunrise and before anyone has kissed him, let him drink it and he will recover." Ninevite tablets of about 2300 b.c. allude to popular taverns called bit sakari, and the eye-for-an-eye Code of Hammurabi a few centuries later prescribes harsh penalties for misconduct in these bars.
Beers and wines flowed freely around the world. Genesis asserts that Noah, the first vineyard keeper, was a shameless drunk... Africans made palm toddy, millet and sorghum beer; Tibetans brewed chang from banley; Peruvians, chicha from corn; Mexicans, pulque from agave. A legend of prehistoric China says two royal astronomers were executed for being so wasted that they failed to notice an eclipse; another has it that the inventor of rice wine was banished. Norsemen adored mead, the sweet honey nectar that fueled the exploits of Odin, Freya and Thor. Of all anient peoples, the Gi^eeks were the most cautious about wine, always mixing it with water and deploring the barbaric practice of drinking ¡t neat., Herodotus describes wann wine (laced with human blood) and wild weed among the Scythians, and he says the haled Persians made all major decisions stone drunk and reconsidered any decision made sober when they were drunk again.
As Plutarch intimates, wine was considered a medicine. It was also the fluid in which most herbal remedies were taken. Egyptian medical papyri list about 200 drugs, including onions, figs, garlic, anise, juniper berries and poppy and sesame seeds, washed down in wine, beer, oil or honey. There was an astonishing eauly trade in spices and drugs. Cassia and cinnamon, used in embalming, came from China and Southeast Asia; aroma tics of myrrh, balsam and frankincense, from Arabia and India. Silphium, the celebrated panacea plant of Greece, grew in Libya, and
Egyptian wine harvesi, fifteenth century B.C.
Egyptian wine harvesi, fifteenth century B.C.
exports were so heavy that it became extinct in the first century AX). The most famous presciiption of Egypt was a remedy for children's crying: "Shepen, the grains of the shepen-plant, mixed with excretions of flies on the wall, strained to a pulp, passed through a sieve and administered on four consecutive days, will stop iheir crying at once/' If shepen was opium, as most scholars think, the cure would indeed have been effective, with or withoul fly specks.
Mysterious nepenthes in the Odyssey may be related to this. When Telemachus visited Sparta, beautiful "Helen, daughter of Zeus, poured into the wine they were drinking a drug, nepenthes, which lulled all pain and gave forgetfulness of grief.. Those who had drunk this mixture would not shed a tear the whole day long, even if their mother or father were dead, even if a brother or beloved son had been slaughtered by an enemy's weapons before their very eyes.1' Helen had obtained the drug from Polydamna, wife of Thon, in Egypt, "'that fertile land of many drugs, some beneficial, some deadly, where everyone knows medicine/" The identity of nepenthes has puzzled people ever since. Theophrastus said it was probably a figment of the poeCs imagination; Dioscorides guessed it was a mixture of henbane and opium; many have thought it was hashish; and Louis Lewin curtly gave the modem , view, "There is only one substance in the would capable of acting in this way, and that is opium.1*
What the ancients knew about opium gives us a quick panorama of the developing twin sciences, pharmacy and toxicology. Papaver somniferum
THE DEADLY HERB "The legions [under Mark Antony in Parthia] were beginning to suffer severely from hunger, since it could only find small quantities of grain even by fighting, and it was not well equipped with tools for grinding it The Romans had no choice but to fall back on roots and vegetables, but since they could find very few that they were accustomed to, they were forced to try some (hey had never tasted before. It was in this way that they came to eat an herb which first drove men mad and then killed them. Those who ate it lost their memory and became obsessed with the task of picking up and turning over every stone they could see, as if lhey were accomplishing something of great importance. All, over the field men could be seen stooping to the ground, digging around rocks and removing them, and finally they would vomit bile and die, since they had no stores of wine, which is the only remedy against this illness,
77* Parallel Lives. 105-115 AD.
pods and seeds have been unearthed in Neolithic sites all over Europe. Capsule-shaped vases, pins and amulets have been found in Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, while a Minoan poppy goddess statue, crowned with a tiara of incised poppy capsules (ca. 1300 B.C.) has turned up in Crete. Identification of the words Hal GU (variously translated as ''joy plant"* or '*stink cucumber*') on Assyrian medical tablets as opium is conjectural but provocatiye. At last, in the fifth century B.C., Hippocrates, father of Gieek medicine, states unequivocally that poppy juice is used as a narcotic painkiller in therapy.
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