Sunday, November 2, 2008

Drug Use Among Ancient Civilizations: Everybody musta got stoned

8I found this article not only fascinating from a scholarly perspective but an interesting indictment of the modern approach to classical study.

Some of us wondered in geometry class how Pythagoras came up with his famous theorem regarding the relationship between the hypotenuse and the remaining two sides of a right triangle. Madison author David Hillman has a theory about the ancient Greeks that may grate on a few nerves in the classical studies world. It comes down to this: Maybe Pythagoras was smoking something.

"Everyone," attests Hillman, "was using drugs, from farmers up to [Roman emperor] Marcus Aurelius."

Hillman's new book, The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, takes a closer look at the use of drugs by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

"The early Greek philosophers who inspired the mental revolution that influenced the birth of democracy were the biggest drug-using lunatics of them all," attests Hillman. "Seriously, they were much more like medicine men than philosophers. So not only did democracy spring up in a drug-using culture, but its roots lie in a drug-using, shamanistic, intellectual movement. I think it's perfectly safe to say: 'No drugs, no democracy.'"

But Hillman says this tradition of drug use has largely been written out of history by scholars and historians, who have brought their own moral perspectives to the texts.

At his home on Madison's southwest side, Hillman displays a 22-volume collection of Galen, a second-century physician who represents the pinnacle of the Greek medical tradition begun by Hippocrates. Only a fraction of it has ever been put into English, enough to fill about three trade paperbacks. Passages show Galen prescribed opium to Marcus Aurelius for his headaches — and that, over time, the strength of his "prescription" gradually increased.

Hillman also uncovered examples of virgins being given a mild narcotic on their wedding nights. He argues that the typical classicist — on whom the rest of us rely for English translations — don't read or can't understand these texts.

"There is an entire work regarding drugs used for gynecology," he says. "Do you think a classicist knows the difference between a drug that's meant to close the cervix and why that's important and a drug that's meant to open it and why that is important for, say, a prostitute? No."

Academic resistance to claims about ancient drug use outside of medical practice are not new. Carl Ruck, a tenured classical studies professor at Boston University, endures what he calls "official silence" over similar claims.

In 1978, when Ruck collaborated with the late Albert Hofmann — the discoverer of LSD — and R. Gordon Wasson, a mycologist, to write The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysteries, the idea that an important Greek ritual and secret initiation involved ingestion of a psychoactive chemical potion was extremely controversial.

"Classical antiquity is a construct of modern scholarship," says Ruck. "We've made them into something they weren't really. Scholarship has chipped away at it. Suddenly, after the feminist movement, people became aware that women had a strange role in [ancient] society. There are frescos showing people having opium parties. [Classicists] don't want to admit Greeks had this kind of experience." Ruck looked for deeper meanings in metaphor patterns and wondered if wine was one way of freeing the psyche. He began to suspect that the Eleusinian Mysteries were about more than just wine.

"It is well known they drank something," says Ruck. "We have the formula of what they drank. That wasn't prohibited. The exact formula was intricate and not well known to regular people. They drank and they saw something."

Such ideas haven't sparked outrage; rather, they've occasioned silence.

"There's no great dialogue going on," says Ruck. "People don't come up to me and try to refute what I'm saying. They just don't mention it."

Ruck says he published a book that was available for free online for a month. Ruck sent a link to his colleagues on the East Coast. No one contacted him. He published an article in New England Classical Journal regarding a drug-initiation ceremony in pre-Christian Rome. It was peer reviewed, yet no one ever talked to him about it.- MUCH more from The Daily Page


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