Apollo the Narc?

Use of all the botanical drugs most demonized today—cannabis, opium, psilocybe, peyote, coca—began long before the invention of writing. Opposition came later. The first drug war may have been an attempt by followers of Apollo to suppress worship of Dionysus. Though in prehistoric times he was a patron of shamanic intoxication and prophecy, Apollo later became the law-and-order god of the ancient Greek aristocracy. Known as Bacchus to the Romans, Dionysus was the orgiastic god of nature and “divine madness,” i.e., visionary inspiration, who was beloved by the common people. He was worshipped at least from Mycenaean times, beginning about 1500 BC, to the religion’s elimination by Christianity about AD 500.

According to surviving historical sources, wine was the sacrament used in Dionysian festivals. In earlier times, however, the sacramental food was a sacred mushroom, Panaeolus papilionaceus or other psilocybe species. The very name of the Mycenaean capital Mycenae means “mushroom place.” The Greeks may have adopted psilocybe from pre-Greek peoples as a local substitute for soma, the Amanita muscaria mushroom used by Indo-European invaders, of whom the Mycenaeans were the next-to-last wave. Seldom found in southern Greece, A. muscaria flourishes farther north, especially in the Indo-European homeland of the Volga valley and Central Asia. It is still used by Siberian shamans.

Greek kings of the 9th to 6th centuries BC apparently made sporadic attempts to stamp out the Dionysus religion. One such attempt was famously dramatized by Euripides in his masterpiece, The Bacchae. In mythology Apollo had a habit of killing his rivals (the poet-gods Dionysus, Marsyas, and Orpheus), who always rose again as enlightening saviors of the people. Memory of this persecution may have been one reason that in classical times the goddess Demeter’s Eleusinian Mysteries were protected by a strict vow of silence, even though most of the population were initiates. The sacrament of the Eleusinian Mysteries was said to be an innocuous barley drink, but the initials of its ingredients spell out the word mykos, mushroom. In the arts, the conflict between cold Apollonian reason and hot Dionysiac passion has continued down to the present.

The first known attempt to control trade in cannabis was made by Nabonidas, who ruled 555–539 BC, the last king of Babylon before it was conquered by the Persians. Throughout the Near East, cannabis was one of the most prized aids to magical communion with the gods, often used as a psychic purifier in incense-burning rituals called fumigations. It was so well known that its name in some languages was synonymous with “incense.” Nabonidas set up a garrison at Tayma, an oasis in the northwestern Arabian Desert some 600 miles southwest of Babylon and 200 miles east of the Red Sea. Babylon and Assyria had long traded for cannabis from the Hindu Kush by way of the Indus Valley, but apparently some traders wanted to bypass the Mesopotamian market. At Tayma, Nabonidas’s soldiers could intercept and tax caravans that carried the holy smoke from southern Arabia, where it had been shipped from the Indus, northward to Egypt and Phoenicia. Its popularity continued through the Roman period. The Latin poet Horace mentions an emotional rite in honor of the recently deceased, which consisted of mixing the ashes of the dead with “Assyrian scent” (cannabis) and inhaling the fumes from the censer.