The Ecstasy of Antiquity

The desire to alter one’s consciousness may be universal across time as well as space, but antiquarians have resisted this notion, warping our understanding of the past by using less scandalous words to translate the ancient Greek and Latin texts that they weren’t outright ignoring. David Hillman, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has published a book called The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization to examine in great detail the Greek and Roman history of drug use.

“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. He says it parallels what happened with language. Only in the last couple decades have scholars started to discuss that Aristophanes used some of the vulgar vernacular, a fact obscured by traditional translations.

“It has taken us 2,400 years to figure out the difference between a ‘cock’ and a ‘penis,'” says Hillman. “You know how those words were translated 20 years ago? All into French and Italian. A Christian perspective prevented us from really talking about that kind of thing.”

Thus too, with the use of mind-altering drugs. An example from Hillman’s own research is a text by Thucydides where brave slaves are sneaking supplies to besieged Spartan soldiers. They carry with them skins of “poppy mixed with honey and pounded linseed.” The original text uses the Greek word for poppy (mekon), which is another word for opium, but in this passage the English version is translated as “poppy seed.”

“You don’t send poppy seeds to wounded soldiers,” chides Hillman. “You send them opium.” Honey was the preferred mixer for the foul-tasting opium; linseed was used to make salves.

“Today the drug user is the last homosexual,” he says, referring to the degree of social stigma. “You can write anything you want about homosexuality – the Greeks didn’t write about it or have a word for it – but you write about a drug user and that changes everything. Yet there is no word in Greek for ‘junkie.'”

He finds this notion appealing. “Imagine living in a world without terms like ‘homosexuals’ and ‘junkies,’ a world where people worship reason, justice and ecstasy. The people of Athens didn’t care if you got high. They focused on keeping aristocrats from hijacking the democracy they invented. The prohibitionists lived in Sparta, where tyranny was the rule.”

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