Getting High with the Most High: Drugs in the Bible
As the Bronze Age grew old, some of its oral traditions were recorded by poets with gods in their quills and drugs in their gardens. The Odyssey and the Vedas include verses still recited today that describe psychoactive plants and their effects, but the most impressive stash is in the Bible:
Thy plants are an orchard of Pomegranates, with fresh and pleasant things; Henna, with Spikenard. Spikenard and Saffron; Kaneh-bosem and Cinnamon, all trees of Frankincense; Myrrh and Agarwood, with all the chief spices.
Myrrh and Frankincense
Of the ‘chief spices' (literally ‘head spices’) listed in this paradisiacal garden from the Songs of Solomon, eight are identified and seven of them are known to tweak the brain. Both of the resinous gifts of the Magi, for example, are classed as tranquillizers today, though the label doesn’t do them justice. Myrrh targets mu- and delta-opioid receptors (like opium), and frankincense contains dehydroabietic acid which works on GABA receptors (like Valium).
The mode of action on the receptors, and therefore the resulting experience, is quite different from Valium, but the proof of that pudding is in the eating. You can chew up about the size of two peas to start with and go gently beyond that because at some point your intestinal flora will be offended. I think frankincense is lovely, Dioscordes wrote that it could cause madness. You have been warned.
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Myrrh. (Author provided)
Frankincense also contains incensole acetate, which works on the TRPV3 ion channel. In skin cells, TRVP3 is involved in temperature sensation, but it is also widely distributed in the brain where its functions remain a mystery. Whatever it does, since at least the 16th century BC people felt that it justified a 1,500-mile, six-month camel trek across bandit-infested deserts. It seems rather too much trouble just for a posh whiff, no?
Frankincense. (Author provided)
Other Chief Spices from the Garden
In Islamic jurisprudence, saffron is classed as one of the permissible “drugs that cause joy”. It contains the GABA agonist safranal, as well as safrole which is used in the manufacture of MDMA. Safrole is also found in Cinnamon, along with eugenol, which is another MDMA precursor. Agarwood is sedative and analgesic. Spikenard (pronounced “spick ‘n ‘ard”) is the ointment rubbed on Jesus’ feet, much to the annoyance of Judas who betrays his master immediately afterwards (John 12, Mark 14). It boosts neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and GABA, and is classed as a nootropic, meaning that it assists in memory formation. Pomegranate is rich in serotonin, melatonin, and other tryptamines. Henna is the one plant without any known psychoactive chemicals, though maybe the ancients knew something we don’t.
Saffron. (Author Provided)
Making Holy Oils
While modern pharmacology seeks to isolate chemicals, traditional plant lore works with complex synergies:
YHWH spake unto Moses, saying: “Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure Myrrh 500 shekels, and of Sweet Cinnamon half so much, even 250 shekels, and of Kaneh-Bosm 250 shekels, and of Cassia 500 shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin (several litres): And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. (Exodus 30: 23-5)
Anointing Oil. (Author Provided)
The combination of Myrrh, Cinnamon, and Cassia contains a wide range of psychoactive allylbenzenes, including myristicin, linalool, elemicin, eugenol, estragole, and saffrole. Even high doses of these psychoactive chemicals taken alone would have at best a mild effect, because the enzymes of the cytochrome system break them down before they reach the brain - but there are ways to inhibit enzymes.
In the alchemy of the rainforest, DMT-containing chacruna gives up her light only in the presence of the ayahuasca vine, which supplies the MAO enzyme inhibitor. With allylbenzenes, however, many more enzymes are involved. There are no plants that contain a broad enough spectrum of chemicals to block the cytochrome system (with the exception of nutmeg, only found on tiny islands thousands of miles off the spice route.) Myrrh, Cassia, and Cinnamon each individually inhibit enough enzymes to potentially cover much of the spectrum, given the right conditions. The synergy was known to Egyptian apothecaries and mixed into a massage oil for the exclusive use of Pharaoh.
Massage dilates capillaries and increases absorption, especially with concentrated spicy cinnamon (caution: if you make it you might consider leaving some body regions off-limits!). The anointing oil was called shemen ha-mishchah , where mashach is to wipe or paint, and thought to be the root of the word ‘massage’, as well as ‘messiah’, ‘an anointed one’.