How Serious Was Drug Abuse in Ancient Times?

 Drugs are, unfortunately, as much of a problem today, as they used to be, if not more so. Some of you might know that drugs were a thing that began in the ancient times, and you are correct. This article aims to provide you with an introduction into the issue and some examples of historical figures who used drugs.

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Now that’s a Trip!


Drugs. Source: Wikimedia

There are numerous studies that show us that people liked to get high since the dawn of time. In fact, drug abuse is almost as old as food and drink as such. The main evidence of this is fossils of psychoactive plants and various artworks found by archaeologists around the world. Below you can find some of the many examples of drugs and other psychotropic substances used in ancient times, some of which are still used – and abused – today.


Entrance to World's First Winery in Areni, Armenia.

Entrance to World’s First Winery in Areni, Armenia. Source: Wikimedia

The world’s first winery was in Armenia, but the earliest alcoholic drink can be dated back to 7,000 BC. Wine-making can be traced back to 6,000 BC. As you can probably imagine, Ancient Greeks and Romans were particularly fond of wine. The Greeks even had a god of wine – Dionysius – a deity notorious for partying. The Romans preferred their wine sweet and diluted it with water, whereas the Greeks preferred to add honey. Both civilizations saw wine as a source of good conversation and celebration.


Blackfoot and Harry Behn smoking a pipe.

Blackfoot and Harry Behn smoking a pipe. Source: Wikimedia

Smoking pipes are believed to have originated in South America. However, usage of nicotine dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt – it was found, along with cocaine derived from coca leaves, inside several Egyptian mummies.

Tobacco as such was primarily used by the Native Americans, before it was discovered by the people of the Old World and became popular in Europe. The Native Americans thought the tobacco smoke to be able to transport a smoker’s prayers to the gods.


Chinese Opium Smokers

Chinese Opium Smokers. Source: Wikimedia

The drug was first cultivated by the Sumerians in 3,400 BC, but it was used by quite a few ancient nations. Its primary use was not too dissimilar to today’s – medicinal. However, there is also evidence of its recreational use by the Chinese and the Romans. Prior to the invention of the pipe, the drug was taken orally, but it had a far greater, and a far worse effect, when smoked. Opium has had such an influence over the world that the British had even entered into two disputes with the Chinese known as “The Opium Wars” in the 19th century.

Pot and other herbs

The Blue Lotus

The Blue Lotus. Source: Blogspot

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ancient nations placed great emphasis on magic and prophesies, and the people who claimed they were prophets of sorts were very respected. However, there is numerous evidence that suggests that 99 out of 100 of these “oracles” were actually stoned most of the time and tried to sell their drug-induced visions as “prophesies”. Mostly, these drugs were herbal.

Cannabis’ first use as a recreational drug is believed to have occurred circa 3,000 BC in China. Other herbs, for example the Blue Lotus used in Egypt, are much older. The Blue Lotus’ effects are described by Homer in The Odyssey as “robbing of any willpower”.


Mayan mushroom statues

Mayan mushroom statues. Source: Wikimedia

“Magic mushrooms” have first been discovered on the artworks in Africa circa 8,000 BC. These hallucinogenic shrooms are believed to have been quite popular back in the day. They had a rather substantial role in the Mayan religion, hallucinations associated with sacrifice and rituals of the Underworld. The mushrooms were also very important for shamans and some historians even believe that we largely have them to thank for several cultural shifts.


Now, let’s take a look on some famous figures of ancient history that weren’t averse to drug usage.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great. Source: Wikimedia

Not only was this warrior a massive drunk, as I’ve previously written, but he also was quite familiar with opium and was only too happy to introduce the Persians and the Indians to it. While the people of these nations didn’t start using the drug for recreation purposes until the 1600s, there is no denying that Alexander the Great was on a first name basis with it, as well as other stimulants.

Emperor Shennong

Shennong tasting herbs.

Shennong tasting herbs. Source: Wikimedia

The world’s first recorded use of medical marijuana is dated circa 2700 BC under Emperor Shennong of China. He used it to treat rheumatism and gout and encouraged people to grow cannabis for industrial purposes. Given that his name literally translates as “divine farmer”, it isn’t really that surprising. However, Emperor Shennong is somewhat of a mythical figure and his existence hasn’t been one hundred percent confirmed to this day.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius. Source: Wikimedia

Marcus Aurelius was one of the greatest Roman Emperors of all time, which nevertheless didn’t stop him from being a lover of opium. He was also a philosopher – a stoic to be precise – which is somewhat of an explanation for his preferences. At the time, opium was only available to the crème de la crème of Roman society. Luckily, Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor. He genuinely did need the drug due to his health problems and took it every night to get at least some sleep. During the day, as we all know, he ruled the Empire, drew up military strategies and wrote a book called Meditations, for which he is well-known even today.

Oracles of Delphi

"Consulting the Oracle".

“Consulting the Oracle”. Source: Wikimedia

Ancient Greek Oracles of Delphi, famous for their prophesies, have used drugs (perhaps this isn’t that surprising). In fact, some of the most significant prophesies were made after an Oracle has inhaled some fumes from the Kerna spring waters, said to have hallucinogenic properties. Their “connection with the divine” was apparently the result of – well – being stoned! In addition to inhaling hallucinogens, the Oracles weren’t overly shy about literally taking drugs. The most common form these drugs took were oleander leaves.

Ramesses III

Rameses III

Rameses III. Source: Wikimedia

Smoking pot was quite common in Ancient Egypt (and as I’ve mentioned earlier, they weren’t shy about experimenting with other drugs either). Many notable pharaohs indulged in marijuana, one of them being Ramesses III. We know this because of the traces of pot found in his tomb. Apparently, his generation has also figured out the medical uses of cannabis and used it to treat sore eyes. If only the fact that the people who built the pyramids several thousand years ago have figured out marijuana’s medical properties were able to put the ongoing marijuana legalization debates to rest…


Map of Scythia's movements.

Map of Scythia’s movements. Source: Wikimedia

Scythe, or the Scythians, were nomads who primarily inhabited the Central Asian steppes, North Caucasus and the Crimea. They were quite a destructive nation who only left behind burial sites called kurgans. Upon their excavation, we’ve learnt that the Scythians were also notorious users of cannabis and opium in their religious ceremonies circa 5th-2nd century BCE. Supposedly, the drugs cleansed the soul and the mind of the deceased and those who paid their respects.

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