Did ancient Mesopotamians get high? Near Eastern rituals may have included opium, cannabis

Did ancient Mesopotamians get high? Near Eastern rituals may have included opium, cannabis

MUNICH, GERMANY—For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs. Alcohol was distilled at least 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, about the same time that agriculture took hold there. Elsewhere, for example in Mesoamerica, other psychoactive drugs were an important part of culture. But the ancient Near East had seemed curiously drug-free—until recently.

Now, new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances. Recent advances in identifying traces of organic fats, waxes, and resins invisible to the eye have allowed scientists to pinpoint the presence of various substances with a degree of accuracy unthinkable a decade or two ago.

For example, “hard scientific evidence” shows that ancient people extracted opium from poppies, says David Collard, senior archaeologist at Jacobs, an engineering firm in Melbourne, Australia, who found signs of ritual opium use on Cyprus dating back more than 3000 years. By then, drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.

Some senior researchers are still dubious, pointing out that ancient texts are mostly silent on such substances. Others consider the topic “unworthy of scholarly attention,” Collard says. “The archaeology of the ancient Near East is traditionally conservative.”

But the work is prompting fresh thinking on the relationship between substances and societies. At the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East here last week, for example, one scholar even reinterpreted well-studied ancient images as representing drug-taking rituals and drug-induced distortions.

Drug use almost certainly began in prehistory and spread with migrations. For example, the Yamnaya people, who swept out of Central Asia about 5000 years ago and left their genes in most living Europeans and South Asians, appear to have carried cannabis to Europe and the Middle East. In 2016, a team from the German Archaeological Institute and the Free University, both in Berlin, found residues and botanical remains of the plant, which originates in East and Central Asia, at Yamnaya sites across Eurasia. It’s difficult to know whether the Yamnaya used cannabis simply to make hemp for rope or also smoked or ingested it. But some ancient people did inhale: Digs in the Caucasus have uncovered braziers containing seeds and charred remains of cannabis dating to about 3000 B.C.E.

Once people organized into city states, they may also have started large-scale production of pharmaceuticals, says archaeologist Luca Peyronel of the International University of Languages and Media in Milan, Italy. A decade ago, before the onset of Syria’s brutal civil war, he was part of a team that gathered samples from an unusual kitchen in a palace in the northwestern Syrian city of Ebla, which flourished 4 millennia ago on the outskirts of the Sumerian and Akkadian empires.

The room lacked the plant and animal remains typically associated with food preparation. But residue analyses on pots found there may explain the mystery, as Peyronel and his colleagues described in a paper last year: The researchers found traces of wild plants often used for medicine, such as poppy for opium to dull pain, heliotrope to fight viral infections, and chamomile to reduce inflammation. Given that the space contained eight hearths and pots that could hold 40 to 70 liters, the drugs could have been made in large quantities, Peyronel says.

Some of these extracts, such as opium, can induce hallucinations, although it’s unclear whether the potions were used in ritual or medicine. The kitchen’s location near the heart of the palace suggests its products were used for ceremonial occasions, and cuneiform tablets from the building mention special priests associated with ritual beverages, Peyronel says. The distinction between medicine and mind-altering drug may have been lost on ancient peoples. “The two hypotheses are not necessarily at odds,” he adds.

Three hundred kilometers due west and several centuries later, the ancient people of Cyprus used opium in religious ceremonies, Collard says. Residue analyses show that between 1600 and 1000 B.C.E., people poured opium alkaloids into pots crafted in the shape of the seed capsule of the opium poppy, in what Collard calls “prehistoric commodity branding.” All the jugs were found in temples and tombs, suggesting a role in ritual. Opium jugs made on Cyprus have been found in Egypt and the Levant—the first clear example of the international drug trade.

Other substances less well known today may have played a role in healing or ecstatic rituals in the ancient Near East. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb, dating to the 14th century B.C.E., was opened in 1922, archaeologists found the boy-king’s body covered with the flowers of blue water lily, a common motif in many Egyptian tomb paintings. Steeped in wine for several weeks, the plant yields a sedative that produces a calm euphoria.


Diana Stein, an archaeologist at Birkbeck University of London, claims archaeologists have long studied scenes of rituals involving drugs and their effects without realizing it. She argues that the banquet scenes that often adorn small seals found Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran actually show people imbibing psychoactive potions. Another common motif, interpreted as a scene of contest, may instead represent the internal conflict that results when the imbiber faces an alternative reality, Stein proposes. In these images, “everything is distorted and pulsing—but they certainly knew how to carve things realistically when they wanted to,” she said at the meeting here.

“I find Diana’s arguments convincing and even energizing, as they open up a new avenue for research,” says Megan Cifarelli, an art historian at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.

But others are more cautious. “Scholars have tended to shy away from the possibility that the ancient Near Easterners partook of ‘recreational’ drugs, apart from alcohol, so it’s good that someone is brave enough to look into it,” says archaeologist Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But he says Stein’s suggestions “seem to go too far on too little evidence,” a view echoed by many at the meeting.

Collard, however, is confident that additional residue and botanical analyses, along with study of iconography and texts, will gradually persuade skeptics. Cifarelli notes that the ancients likely used drugs not just to heal, but to forge sets of beliefs, and contact a spiritual realm where healing and religion were entwined. “Most of us,” she says, “are so far removed from that kind of transformative magic.”


12 thoughts on “Did ancient Mesopotamians get high? Near Eastern rituals may have included opium, cannabis”

  1. Having studied the role of cannabis in the ancient world, for more than a quarter century, it is surprising to me how little awareness there is from archeologists, in regards to this fascinating new material on residues, are aware of the Assyriologists references to cannabis under the name ‘qunubu’. Here are some examples from my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010):

    In the second quarter of the first millennium b.c., the “word qunnabu (qunapy, qunubu, qunbu) begins to turn up as for a source of oil, fiber and medicine” (Barber 1989). Numerous scholars have come to acknowledge qunubu as an early reference to cannabis. “It is said that the Assyrians used hemp as incense in the seventh and eighth century before Christ and called it ‘Qunubu’” ( Schultes & Hoffman 1979).

    “…[T]he Assyrians knew of hemp… and … called it “Qunubu”… a term apparently borrowed from an old East-Iranian word “Konaba,” the same as the Scythian name Kánnabis (cannabis), which later designation the plant bears at the present day, and as the word “Kanabas” which is derived from the primitive Germanic word “Hanapaz.” These words are evidently identical with the Greek term konabos, i.e. noise, and would seem to originate from the noisy fashion in which the hemp smokers expressed their feelings. This furnishes us with the means of interpreting some statements of the ancient Herodotus (486-406 B.C.) He mentions that the Scythians of the Caspian and Aral Seas cultivated a plant whose seeds on combustion produced an intoxicating vapour…” (Lewin,1931)

    Demonstrating a connection with earlier terms for cannabis such as azalla, many of the medicinal applications of the latter came to be designated under this new name. In Science and Secrets of Early Medicine, Jurgen Thorwald records: “Quunabu – such was the Assyrian name for Indian hemp. This is basically the same word as it was later known by cannabis (Cannabis India), and hemp is cognate with it. . . . it was often employed in Mesopotamia to relieve the pain of bronchitis, bladder trouble, rheumatism, and as a remedy for insomnia” (Thorwald, 1963).

    Referring to the difficulties in deciphering plant identification from the vague and long forgotten names found in the ancient texts, respected Assyriologist Erica Reiner reveals an interesting connection with the ancient world Goddess and “qunnabu,” that few other Assyriologists have noted:

    “Sometimes the etymology of the name is transparent, While ‘sunflower’ (u.UTU sammi samas) probably describes any heliotrope, that is a flower that always looks at the sun: ‘the flower of Samas that faces the setting sun,’ other names composed with the name of a god or goddess are more suggestive. We do not know to what botanical species for example the herb called ‘Ninurta’s aromatic’ (Summerian sim. Ninurta, equated in Akkadian with nikiptu) refers, both varieties of which, masculine and feminine, are mentioned in recipes; however, the name of the herb called Sim.Ishara’armoatic of the Goddess Ishtar,’ which is equated with the Akkadian qunnabu, ‘cannabis’, may indeed conjure up an aphrodisiac through the association with Ishara, goddess of love, and also calls to mind the plant called ki.naIstar.” (Reiner, 1995)

    In The Cults of Uruk and Babylon, Marc Linssen notes another cultic use of cannabis, “some of the known aromatics, such as … qunnabu… are mentioned in the… Kettledrum ritual text TU 44, IV, 5ff…. In the list of ingredients for this rite 10 shekel qunnabu- aromatics” (Linssen, 2004). From the ancient inscription, it would seem this was a guarded secret of the Priests involved:

    “You will make a libation of first quality beer, wine and milk. With censer and torch you will consecrate (the kettledrum). You will lead the Kettledrum before the gods… The ritual procedure you perform, only the novice may see (it); an outsider, someone who is not responsible for the rites may not see (it) (because if this happens) his days will be short. The one who is competent may show (the tablet only) to one who is (also) competent; he who is not competent may not see (it). Taboo of Anu, Enlil and Ea, the great gods. ”

    Recipes for cannabis, qunubu, incense, regarded as copies of much older versions, were found in the cuneiform library of the legendary Assyrian king Assurbanipal (b. 685 – ca. 627 BC, reigned 669 – ca. 631 BC). Cannabis was not only sifted for incense like modern hashish, but the active properties were also extracted into oils. “Translating ‘Letters and Contracts, no.162’ (Keiser, 1921), qu-un-na-pu is noted among a list of spices (Scheil, 1921)(p. 13), and would be translated from French (EBR), ‘(qunnapu): oil of hemp; hashish’” (Russo, 2005).

    An ancient Babylonian inscription reads: “The glorious gods smell the incense, noble food of heaven; pure wine, which no hand has touched do they enjoy.” According to Mackenzie, in Babylonian religious rites, “inspiration was derived by burning incense, which, if we follow evidence obtained elsewhere, induced a prophetic trance. The gods were also invoked by incense” (Mackenzie, 1915). A view that was shared by even earlier researchers:

    “The Chaldean Magus [Mesopotamian holy men of the Chaldean kingdom, circa 400-500 BC] used artificial means, intoxicating drugs for instance, in order to attain to [a] state of excitement acts of purification and mysterious rituals increased the power of the incantations Among these mysterious rituals must be counted the use of enchanted potions which undoubtedly contained drugs that were medically effective.” (Lenormant 1874)

    Records from the time of Assurbanipal’s father Esarhaddon (reigned 681 – 669 BC) give clear evidence of the importance of such substances in Mesopotamia, as cannabis, ‘qunubu’ is listed as one of the main ingredients of the paramount ‘Sacred Rites’.

    In a letter written in 680 bc to the mother of the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, reference is made to qu-nu-bu. In response to Esarhaddon’s mother’s question as to “What is used in the sacred rites”, a high priest named Neralsharrani responded that “the main items…. for the rites are fine oil, water, honey, odorous plants (and) hemp [qunubu].”

    The periods of Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal bring us to the subject of some interesting depictions engraved in stone during the reigns of these ancient kings, which have been discussed in relation to their potential connection with cannabis (Bennett, et al., 1995; Bennett & McQueen, 2001), as well as Soma (Lenormant, et al., 1881). “It would indeed be extraordinary if a substance, the use of which was to have a considerable effect on the social and politico-religious development of the peoples of Asia acquainted with it, had not left many traces in the monuments left behind by thinkers of those days” (Bouquet, 1950).

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