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.
- Archaeological study explores drug-taking and altered states in prehistory
- Tripping through Time: The Fascinating History of the Magic Mushroom
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’.
- Drugs in Ancient Cultures: A History of Drug Use and Effects
- Israeli town of Yavneh had thriving drug culture 3,000 years ago
The Israelite version adds to Pharaoh’s mix Kaneh-Bosm. Its identity has been lost, but several linguists and scriptural scholars have convincingly linked it to its near-namesake Cannabis. Cannabis also inhibits cytochrome enzymes, and it was used by every tribe that bordered the Israelite kingdom. But even without going into speculation, the chemical synergies of just Myrrh, Cassia, and Cinnamon would be extraordinary, and the effect recorded in the Bible was powerful:
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed/massaged him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of YHWH came upon David from that day forward. (Samuel 16: 13)
Quite a rush then!
The recipe was protected by mortal taboos and guarded by a certain family of the Levite priestly tribe. Levite priests also made the wine, which was psychoactive of course, but all the more so if they were extracting alkaloids into it as did most ancient tribes. They also made the Shewbread, which was consumed at dosages the size of a single bean - which seems more appropriate for a hit than a snack.
And the delicate priests refused to take it altogether, but the voracious ones accepted and consumed. It once happened, one took his own share and his fellow’s: he was nicknamed “robber” till his death . (Tractate Yoma 4)
In the Tabernacle, which was off-limits to all but the Levites, the Shewbread was served together with Frankincense to most of the priests sitting together. Meanwhile, the High Priest went alone into the Holy of Holies, a 4½m 3 innermost chamber beneath four layers of thick skins and material and sealed with a thick veil.
Drawing of the Tabernacle. (Author Provided)
The chamber was used exclusively to divine with angels via the agency of ‘handfuls of sweet incense beaten small… that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony’ (Leviticus 16:12). This is not a stick of Sandalwood, rather it is a Holy hotbox for a very high High Priest, basted in oils and allylbenzenes and then smoked in a wide range of psychoactive vapors. The incense contained opioid receptor agonists including Galbanum and two grades of Myrrh, as well as Saffron, Agarwood, Cassia, and Cinnamon. Another analgesic burned reverently around Asia called Sassurea costus was added, as well as spikenard, the nootropic. This addition makes sense given that the High Priest needed to remember his divinations through a haze of tranquillizers and psychedelics.
The High Priest entered the chamber alone with his power plants, surrounded by magical objects and familiar spirits, as did the medicine-men of the Amazon and Siberian planes, and would return from communion with wisdom to share with the tribe. When the High Priest drew back the veil of the Tabernacle, a pillar of smoke would rise at the door. The pillar of smoke that guides the Israelites is described as appearing at the Tabernacle door, and perhaps it leads the tribe by leading its shaman, as was proper back in the day. Following signs and divine designs, Moses leads his people to a vision at Sinai.
- Were the works of Shakespeare inspired by Cannabis? Scientists find traces of drugs on pipes
- Secret Chamber Found at Scythian Burial Mound Reveals Golden Treasure of Drug-Fueled Rituals
And all the people are seeing the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet. (Exodus 20:18 - Young’s Literal Translation). (Author Provided)
Visions are the stuff of scripture, but collective visions are extremely rare. This is the only example in the Old Testament, and it happens when everyone is eating manna. It is also the only biblical description of synaesthesia mixing up the senses. Given that seeing voices and sounds usually only happens on hefty doses of psychedelics, it raises a question about what the manna was.
Answers to that question and more may be found in Danny Nemu’s second book Neuro-Apocalypse (available from the publisher on https://psychedelicpress.co.uk/products/neuro-apocalypse)
Top Image: Vases hanging above The Stone of Anointing (Stone of Unction) in the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These vases contain water with rose essence. Source: Almonroth/ CC BY SA 3.0
All in-article images are provided courtesy of The Reverend Danny Nemu.
Analgesic effects of myrrh Dolara, P. Nature 379, 29 (04 January 1996)
Identification of dehydroabietc acid from Boswellia thurifera resin as a positive GABA A receptor modulator Rueda, D. C. et al Fitoterapia Vol. 99, December 2014, pp. 28–34
De Materia Medica Dioscorides (Osbaldeston, T. A. & Wood, R. trans) Book 1: Aromata, 68:3
Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain Moussaieff, A. et al August 2008 The FASEB Journal Vol. 22 no. 8 pp. 3024-3034
Sacred Signs Guardini, R. (Branham, G. trans) (St. Louis: 1956) Section on incense
Celestial Botany: Entheogenic Traces in Islamic Mysiticism Dannaway, F. R., quoting Saso, Michael J., 1990
Protective effect of safranal on pentylenetetrazol-induced seizures in the rat: Involvement of GABAergic and opioids systems Hosseinzadeh, H. & Sadeghnia, H. R. Phytomedicine Vol. 14, Issue 4, 10 April 2007, pp. 256–262
NOTICE - Safrole and Sassafras Oil are used in the Illicit Manufacture of MDMA - Retrieved from the D.E.A. website, https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/chem_prog/advisories/safrole.htm, on 24 January 2018
MDMA Synthesis Retrieved from https://everything2.com/title/MDMA+synthesis on 24th January
Psychobiological Assessment of Smoke of Agarwood (Aquilaria spp.) in Male Rats Miraghaee, S. S. et al. Journal of Applied Biological Sciences 5 (2): 45-53, 2011
Effects of Nardostachys jatamansi on Biogenic Amines and Inhibitory Amino Acids in the Rat Brain Prabhu, V. & Karanth K. S. Planta Med 1994; 60(2): pp. 114-117
Melatonin, serotonin, and tryptamine in some egyptian food and medicinal plants Badria, F. J Med Food. 2002 Fall;5(3):pp. 153-7
Oilahuasca Activation: Version 1.2397 Retrieved on 30 December 2015 from http://herbpedia.wikidot.com/oilahuasca-activation
In vitro evaluation of antioxidant activity of essential oils and their components. Dorman H. J. et al Flavour Fragr J. 2000;15:12-16
Cinnamon and Cassia: The Genus Cinnamomum (Ravindran, P. N., Nirmal-Babu, K. & Shylaj, M. eds.) (Taylor & Francis elibrary: 2005) p. 334
Anti-inflammatory effect of myristicin on RAW 264.7 macrophages stimulated with polyinosinic-polycytidylic acid Lee J. Y. & Park, W. Molecules 2011;16(8): pp. 7132-42
Antioxidant capacity of 26 spice extracts and characterization of their phenolic constituents Shan, B. et al J Agric Food Chem. 2005;53(20):7749-7759.
Oilahuasca: The new psychedelic frontier Retrieved on 03 June 2015 from https://drugs-forum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=156755
The Seven Books of Paulus Aegineta Vol. 3 (Francis, A. trans) (London: 1847) p. 595
Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible Strong, J. (Nashville: 2009) Numbers 4886
The American Heritage Dictionary Semitic Roots Appendix II Retrieved on 6 September 2015 from https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/semitic.html
Haoma and Harmaline. The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen ‘Soma’ and its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore Flattery, D. S., & Schwartz, M. (California: 1989) vol. 21
Cannabis and the Soma Solution Bennett, C. (Chicago: 2010)
1 Chronicles 9:17-34: The Tabernacle and Temple Responsibilities of the Sons of Korah Edge Induced Cohesion website, retrieved 11 December 2014: Retrieved from https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/13/1-chronicles-9-17-34-the-Tabernacle-and-temple-responsibilities-of-the-sons-of-korah/ on 24 January 2018
Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens Rinella, M. A. (Plymouth: 2010) p. 8
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications Rätsch, C. (Rochester: 2005) pp. 279-280
Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture McGovern, P. E. (New Jersey: 2003) p. 132