While there is considerable research on agriculture of the ancient Near East, most of the writing has dealt with sustenance crops such as grains, pulses, dates, and others. Various practices in agriculture at an early date in this area have been discussed by modern writers, but reliance on silting still seems to be the most plausible explanation for a stabilized agriculture practice. Gathered plants are not excluded by the progressive movement into new agricultural modalities.
Most neglected, and still very controversial, are the several kinds of psychoactive plants employed by early peoples. It is suggested that art and artifact have been sources often overlooked in determining the ethnobotanical content of any early civilization. The suggestion is made that early civilizations in the area of the Fertile Crescent employed Datura, Cannabis, Claviceps, Mandragora, Nymphaea, Vitis, and possibly Papaver as medicaments and ritual entheogens. They are well revealed in the remaining art and artifacts of these civilizations. As many of the images are imprecise in their execution, identification must be made in the context in which they are represented and is therefore often conjectural.
It was the Neolithic revolution that initiated the ordered life of social stratification within settled communities. Following this, more complicated federations of communities rose in a city-state plexus that required political systems, agricultural priesthood, currency, and economic systems, and that permitted the development of the luxuries of art and writing. All of this happened about the fourth or the fifth millennium B.C. in what has been called the Fertile Crescent of arable land surrounding the wilderness of Arabia. The area included Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, which, until the end of the fourth millennium, remained an unassimilated complex of simple villages with primitive agriculture and tribal principles rather than any ordered governments.
In a few generations the greatest transformation in the history of any people took place. Writing appeared, monumental architecture rose from rubble, agriculture underwent revolutionary changes, governments replaced less-than-feudal states, and religion and science made their appearances. Like an aestivation period followed by germination, a succession of cities grew, blossomed, and reached fruition. Egypt and Mesopotamia were the luminaries of this great period of art, architecture, science, and engineering. Long before any written record appeared, these civilizations had produced sculpture and painting so imbued with information that they codify thought in many ways similar to written language. Syria, Palestine, Sumeria, Anatolia, and the Levant were perhaps lesser luminaries, but they blazed a trail like a comet and, in regard to ethnobotanical data, made contributions as important as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
It is important to understand that early civilizations tied artistic expression to religion and that this religion was based upon magic – the magic that comes from grain, from brewing, from states of elevated consciousness associated with plants, from pain relievers, from healing herbs, and from resinous plants for embalming the body. In brief, the art of this early period and of these cultures is a revelation of riches for the ethnobotanist.
In this paper, I would not propose to do the work of the anthropologist, archeologist, or theologian. Instead, I will suggest, from their discoveries, thematic materials that either have been neglected or have been subjected to alternative interpretations or to an extension of ideas that have been only partially formulated.
Egypt and Sumeria share the trait of being two great river valleys in which agriculture could flourish through silting. Mesopotamia was settled by people who left the increasingly arid Persian Gulf region and who had earlier made their homes in the Iranian highlands. In their new homeland, they settled on islands and banks around marshes and relied upon annual flooding of the rivers, as well as on their own irrigation ditches, in which they probably cultivated small fish and edible aquatics such as the boiled rhizomes of Nymphaea species.
Fish were a primary food source. The ibis may be viewed in the context in which birds have been viewed in early civilizations: as shamanic manifestations. The concept extends from the raven of the early Eskimos to the dove-Holy Ghost theme in early Christian iconography and hagiography. Horses, birds, dogs, fish, and floral motifs are treated by Lloyd (1961, p. 302) as “mere hieroglyphs.” Such hieroglyphs are precursors of language and were the embodiment of thought of the time; the facile dismissal of such themes is unfortunate. Lloyd’s assertion that “the great majority (of animal figures) are crudely made playthings for children and of no artistic interest” contrasts with his statement that those which are based upon human forms place them in the category of cult objects.
If ethnobotanists have made one great contribution, it is, I believe, to rethink these things that previously have been considered unworthy of serious consideration. It is not necessary to give excessively plastic expression to these abstracted ideas to find them meaningful. In one polychrome bowl of Tell Halaf ware from northern Mesopotamia, a central floral motif of anthers surrounded by numerous petals suggests a water lily or Nymphaea. While such identity is tentative, the water lily is a prime contender for any illustration of marshland plants. Further, the narcotic qualities of the flowers (Emboden 1981, 1982a, 1982b) arid the edibility of the rhizome after boiling and leaching would make it a floral emblem par excellence, telling us much about life and religion, as opposed to the writing of the “Al Ubaid” phase of Mesopotamian development. This tablature was reserved specifically for the purpose of inventory of goods and administration, but in it we are able to identify aspects of ethnobotany, such as payment in grain, bread, and beer, which give us a glimpse of the role of plants in an emerging civilization.
The earliest records from the ancient Near East indicate that healing was accomplished by incantations and plants; both were seen as ridding the ailing body of demonic possession. Persons capable of eliciting in themselves and others states of hypnosis, delirium, or psychological transcendence made up a caste of shamans who mediated the journey of the spirit from the realm of the seen to that of the unseen and whose powers to cast out demons resided in numerous plants. Each plant was known by a name that more often characterized power than it described plant morphology or attributes.
Babylonian medicine most probably was carried into eastern Mesopotamia and Assyria by caravan routes. We know that a number of the plants mentioned in Assyrian tablature are Sumerian. One Babylonian record dating to 2250 B.C. indicates that Babylonia and Egypt then had a trade in drugs and that most of these were oils, gums, and resins. Oils provided a matrix for the carriage of several kinds of drugs.
Babylonian and Assyrian medicine is known primarily through an assemblage of clay tablets from the library of the palace of Assurbanipal, the Assyrian king who ruled Nineveh from 668 to 626 B.C. About 800 pieces of these tablets consist of medical texts that are believed to be of Babylonian origin in thought and that refer to a period between 2000 and 3000 B.C. Evidence to that end, in the absence of a written language, must come from art and artifacts: pottery shards, textile patterns, paintings, implements, stelae, statuary, and even architectural layout. The ethnobotanist must regard all these as tools to the unlocking of the complex pattern of plant use in these earliest of civilizations. The alternative is to use derivative texts, which in some instances may be misleading. The union of art and artifact with later writings provides a base for understanding the earliest uses of plants and plant products. Chemistry may further validate finds, such as residues in unguent jars.
Thompson (1924) cited about 250 drugs of vegetable origin as present in the Assurbarupal tablature. These are, however, compounded and often represent diverse combinations of important plants. Some can be identified; others must remain unknown, owing to the absence of relevant figures and morphological data. It should be noted that only 120 mineral substances are mentioned as medicaments, thus placing plants in the forefront of early medicine. According to the translations of R. Campbell Thompson, these plants include almond (oil), asafoetida, calendula, chamomile, ergot, fennel, henbane, myrrh, liquorice, lupine, mandrake, opium poppy, pomegranate, saffron, and turmeric. Cannabis, which figures prominently in healing in China and India, also would have been a major element of barter along the early trade routes leading into and out of Assyria.
Stomach pains seem to figure high on the list of common complaints, and to this end the family Apiaceae is most commonly recommended for such ailments. Herbs, seeds, roots, and resins frequently were macerated and put into beer or wine as a method of dispersing oils and other components that might not have been soluble in water. Oils, honey, and herbs were mixed with wine to be administered by clyster. Enemas, both warm and cold, are registered in this early tablature.
Disease is called “the hand of the spirit demon” in this codified material from Assurbanipal, and one of the common ways of driving out the spirit is fumigation. All oil producing plants may be placed on hot coals to produce fragrant smoke. In this context, it is significant to note that the majority of plant oils investigated have bactericidal or bacteriostatic properties, as well as fungistatic virtues, and that as fumigants they no doubt served the purpose for which they were used. This ancient ritual has come down to the censers of the contemporary Catholic church and the spicers that are found in Orthodox synagogues. Wherever crowds of people gathered, ritual purification of the air was conducted to drive out demons. In reality, the custom served to discourage the dissemination of disease-causing organisms. In the same manner, fragrant plants laden with volatile oils were placed upon the floors of temples and houses to be crushed under foot, thus releasing these oils into the air-shades of the aerosols that dominate Western homes!
It is worth noting that the healers were not all men. One of the earliest Babylonian tablets from Nippa, dating from the kings of the Babylonian dynasty of circa 2000 B.C., mentions a shaman as Pir-Napistum of the school of healing of Eridu. He is called to heal but designates the task to his wife, a healing priestess.
By contrast, Egyptian hieroglyphs correspond to the emergence of the dynastic periods and virtually explode with a wealth of information about religion, politics, predynastic periods, and most important, agriculture. The information is incised in stone in Egyptian pre-dynastic art and only later is found in papyri.
Ancient Uruk or Warka has given us an extraordinary stone vase upon which plants are figured in the lower register. This rare find from the alluvial plains of southern Iraq depicts a religious scene incised in alabaster, the figures being left in relief. The plant forms are varied; all have leaves and flowers or fruits, but the level of stylization precludes identification. Given, in the vase, the tendency toward the depiction of mythical and monstrous beasts, we may well expect to encounter equally mythical plants, which have no counterpart in the real world. On the other hand, the very nature of the technique limits the details that can be successfully expressed. One wonders what important plants these might be.
In the third millennium B.C., Sumerian civilization was flourishing in the alluvial basin at the head of the Persian Gulf as an amalgamation of city-states (much like the Classical and post-Classical Maya civilization), each ruled by an oligarchy. This is the early dynastic period of Sumeria, with Ur, Erech, and Kish as three of its leading cities. Agriculture progressed as the result of irrigation canals that served to move people and objects, as well as rich muck and water, to parched lands. There can be little doubt that the small fish of these canals were netted as food and that the aquatic rhizomes of Nymphaea, when boiled and leached, could provide a crude carbohydrate. The same rhizomes, when raw, or the flower buds, when macerated, could provide a psychoactive decoction (Emboden 1982a).
A series of cylinders or rollers cut in intaglio and rolled upon pitch or clay leaves records daily life and religious activities. On one such cylinder, there is incised the figure of a plant with three giant flower buds emerging from five mounds (rhizomes or bulbs?) and protected by crouching, masked bulls. Human figures are on either side of the bull minotaurs, protecting them from the attack of some monstrous bird. The three flowers strongly suggest the repeated early dynastic symbol of ancient Egypt in which this sacred trinity of flowers is found with a very high frequency (Bands 1953; Emboden 1981).
One of the great treasures of early dynastic Ur is a headdress of leaves of beaten gold and three large flowers with eight petals and a center of carnelian. The leaves are obovate with acuminate tips and may not relate to the flowers. The diameter of the flowers being approximately 12 to 15 centimeters (5 to 6 inches) suggests that they may represent the water lily or perhaps the opium poppy with the carnelian being interpreted as the capsule contained within the corolla. With this headdress, found by the Woolley Expedition, was a necklace of leaves that are obovate with acuminate tips and another rank of leaves in beaten gold that strongly suggest Cannabis (Figure 2). Others (Lloyd 1961, p. 302) have suggested willow (Salix), but the venation is more like that of Cannabis, as is the leaf morphology.
In early dynastic Egypt the flower of Nymphaea is regularly found in the headdresses of figures in tomb murals. At Ur, the famous “Ram in a Thicket” (Figure 3) is an emblem of the strength of Tammuz. The goat was an emblem of virility, and the “thicket” is a highly formalized plant of oppositely branched dichotomies of eight appendages. Two of these bear the same eight-petaled, beaten gold flowers with golden centers. The formality of the presentation makes it difficult to visualize the goat as simply a goat. Aspects of a deity mark the animal in its stance before the sacred plant upon which it rests its hooves. This goat-man is akin to Hellenic satyrs and centaurs. It is clearly a hybridized motif, and the portrayal is of a priestly order.
The ruling class of Mesopotamia was altered by a seemingly peaceful ascendancy of Semitic Akkadians into the ruling classes. Unfortunately, the amount of extant Akkadian art is limited, but the few pieces known to art historians are of extremely high esthetic and technological merit. The Guti tribes from Iran’s mountains overran all Sumeria except Lagash, where the Sumerian tradition seemed to have continued its development toward progressive refinement and naturalistic depiction. During this same time, Egypt was undergoing serious changes as the pharaohs were overthrown by a feudal noble class that brought with it war and anarchy.
Not until the final years of the third millennium was there an Egyptian revival; it appeared with the initiation of the Middle Kingdom. The cult of Ra was replaced by the Osirian tradition of death and resurrection not unlike the Mesopotamian legends of Tammuz. The importance of this to the anthropologist, archeologist, and ethnobotanist is that with the Osirian tradition came the establishment of refined tomb art in Upper Egypt. Events of ordinary life frequently are portrayed in these tombs, and arid conditions have left much of the tempera painting intact. Brewing of beer, viticulture, oenology, grain harvest, and preoccupation with the sacred water lily are all strongly evident.
According to the mycological researches of R. Gordon Wasson (1970), a people calling themselves Aryans descended from the north through Afghanistan to occupy the Indus valleys. These were Iranians (Aryan being a cognate). In the land from Palestine to Mesopotamia and Iran, settled in succession by the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Mitannians, and finally by the Indo-Iranians or Aryans, there is an amalgamation of shared legend and mythology. It is Wasson’s contention that the Gilgamesh legend of the quest for the miraculous herb that is taken from him by a serpent is a common legend reaching throughout Eurasia from as far back as the Stone Age. Wasson asserts that the Soma/Haoma myth relates to the fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) and that this related to sacred-tree mythology in that the birch tree supports fly-agaric in a mycorrhizal relationship in which fly-agaric is, in a secondary way, the “fruit” of that sacred tree.
Amanita muscaria contains ibotenic acid which breaks down to muscimole and muscazone, psychoactive agents that would serve as a fine adjunct to shamanic ecstasis. The fungus does not grow in the areas of the ancient Near East but may have been brought by the invaders as the sacrament that figures in their sacred books, collection of poems, and the Rig Veda, and around which much music, liturgy, and philosophy is centered. The Aryan invasion of 3500 years ago, in the second millennium, presumably introduced this plant that subsequently was lost or forgotten about 3000 years ago when its use was abandoned by the priesthood. We are left to wonder why there are no remains or records of this sacred mushroom in any of these areas of contact. Wasson’s thesis is most intriguing and possibly correct, but ethnobotanists must continue to look for more clues in every aspect of art and artifact to validate such assertions. Certainly it would be most interesting to add this plant to those many already suggested.
If the opium poppy had not previously entered Near Eastern civilization, it certainly would have done so at this time. Such a contention may be based in part upon a famous Assyrian fertility seal in which Athirat or Ashera (the Mesopotamian Ishtar) is shown with a magical plant, two priests, and two winged demons with “pollen bags.” It is the last that has led to a suggestion that the magical tree is the date palm, which the Assyrians knew to be divided into sexes. Pollination was practiced as an essentially magical act. The form of the plant, however, is that of either a poppy or a pomegranate, neither of which require deliberate pollination. The pomegranate, because of its copious seed, is an obvious emblem of fertility, while the poppy is emblematic of power, for reason of its conquest over pain and grief. It is for this reason that the poppy goddess of Knossos wears a corona of three poppy capsules. Ishtar is associated more often with magical plants than with fertility, and the temptation is to make the association with the poppy, rather than with the pomegranate.
In both Sumerian and Akkadian myths, Ishtar (manna) descends into the underworld (much like the later stories of Persephone), where she undergoes shamanic death, to be rescued three days later by two sexless creatures (the cult of Ishtar-Inanna involved eunuchs) who finally return her to her own city of Erech. Thus, she is associated with the shamanic sleep of death that is the essential quality of the opium poppy. Hence, it is not unrealistic to associate the “Ishtar cylinder” with the poppy. Further evidence derives from the intense preoccupation of Ishtar worship with magic involving plague amulets, exorcism, and later, dream divination.
Plants also figure in these practices. The onion, Allium, was used in medicine, divination, and exorcism. Possession, as the result of misdeeds and broken taboos, could lead to the offender being given an onion bulb by a shaman. Each successive layer of the onion represented a misdeed that could be obliterated by peeling the layer and throwing it into a magical fire in which it was burnt to oblivion. This manner of voiding transgressions also symbolized the removal of skin and flesh from the skeleton, a common shamanic theme in diverse cultures.
In a similar manner, wheat and barley made into bread not only were eaten or made into poultices but, when moldy, served a magical purpose. A loaf of bread placed upon the head of an ailing child would draw the sickness, by magic, into the bread. The loaf then would be rubbed down the child’s body from head to foot. Ultimately, the loaf would be eaten or thrown to a dog who magically would take up the child’s ailments.
Plants figure in the earliest Sumerian and Babylonian mythology, namely, the legend of Gilgamesh. The antiquity of this legend is attested to be about the identification of the father of Agga, king of Kish and foe of Gilgamesh, on an alabaster bowl, dating to circa 2700 B.C., from the Diyala Valley. Many later versions exist. Fragments of the narrative are dated to nearly the end of the third millennium B.C. In the course of his journey in search of the plant of immortality, the protagonist passes through a magical garden in which grapes of carnelian and lapis lazuli produce a magical wine. In the eleventh tablet, Gilgamesh descends into the sea to find the plant of immortality. On the journey back to his homeland, the plant is taken from him by a serpent. In the last (twelfth) tablet is a fascinating episode involving a willow tree (Salix) guarded and coveted by manna (Ishtar). Of the many plants that might have figured in such a legend, it is curious that the willow tree should happen to be the most common source of the most popular analgesic medicine. Salicin, found in its young twigs and leaves, removes pain and inflammation and is the antecedent of modern aspirin.
From the Sumerian triumph of architecture, agriculture, art, and cuneiform script, we have by circa 2000 B.C. the barbarian movement into this civilization to shifting some of its finest populace into the Aegean and Anatolian civilizations under Greeks and Hittites. The question still remains, why were these people so vulnerable? Had their civilization already peaked, and, if so, what was the reason for the decline? As with other civilizations, we may look to agriculture.
Prior to 8000 B.C., wheat was a grass common to the Fertile Crescent that was to become Mesopotamia and the cradle of civilization. This wild wheat crossed with a “goat grass;” and the progeny subsequently formed a hybrid known as emmer (Triticum dicoccum), the plump grains of which could support a civilization. A subsequent hybridization produced even more heterozygosis and eliminated a brittle rachis that had necessitated hand harvesting. The grain would not shatter from the plant through the action of wind as had the wild form before it.
The Sumerians learned how to cultivate this wheat and also barley, native to that area in diverse forms, and soon were trading grain for lapis lazuli and carnelian. In the Ubaid and Uruk periods, wheat was widely cultivated and was almost a monopoly, but as early as early dynastic times, wheat production began to decline owing to improper and excessive irrigation, as well as to a corresponding salinization of the land. This led to the predominance of barley, which is much more tolerant of excess salt in the soil. Thus, by 3000 B.C., trade routes between Mesopotamia and Iran had to be opened and negotiated through mountain passes and river valleys. By the end of the early dynastic period, a transit trade route was established between south Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
While art historians tend to speak of the embellishments in art, architecture, and artifacts, ethnobotanists may find considerable other ramifications. Many writers have ignored the extensive agricultural diversity of crop plants and medicinal plants that entered and exited by these extensive land-sea routes. Crops of grain and other food stuffs alone will not suffice to sustain populations for any considerable period of time. The role of medicinal and drug plants is perhaps as important as that of food plants and may have been as significant a factor in the establishment and maintenance of the first civilizations as was the more evident grain.
The years surrounding 2500 B.C. are important in that they mark what one might characterize as the end of several early periods. Egypt at this time had just entered the Old Kingdom period, which followed the proto-dynastic period. Mesopotamia was well into its early dynastic phases. Anatolia was in the Second Early Bronze Age. A new kind of sophistication was appearing in most areas of the ancient Near East. Architecture was beginning to have a certain grandeur, ritual was becoming stratified by hierarchies of priests, trade routes were becoming well established, and the luxuries of life were coming into evidence in increasingly large numbers of nonessential items such as jewelry, nonritual artifacts, elaborate furniture, and all the ornamentation that can be afforded only by an advanced civilization free from subsistence patterns.
As castes grew in hierarchies of priests, the shaman-priest was concerned with prophesy or divination. Egypt had to build diverse centers of religious activity to accommodate the division of labor among the elite. Magical and medical papyri grew in number. Agriculture was well established as a result of inundation and limited crop irrigation by canals. Emmer, flax (Linum), two kinds of barley (Upper Egyptian and Lower Egyptian), and, after the Ptolemaic period, wheat became the principal crops. The extraordinary amounts and varieties of beer produced were made not from grain, but from barley bread that was fermented-afar less wasteful practice, since unused bread would be recycled as beer and the leftover mash fed to domestic animals.
The various papyri are often diverse in content. Thus, in the Book of the Dead, which presents concepts of death and resurrection, numerous scenes of domestic life give an extraordinarily fine view of all aspects of Egyptian agriculture, viticulture, and oenology. We find in the papyri that large amounts of beer and wine were poured as sacred libations at the time of a death or upon the completion of a monument. The same kind of information is codified in numerous tomb paintings. During the Middle Kingdom and thereafter, every vase, chair, musical instrument, sarcophagus, textile, and weaving contained information concerning either daily life or the afterlife. Most of this was in the form of depictions, and, even in the absence of a Rosetta stone and hieroglyphic understanding, there is a great deal that we could comprehend regarding all thirty dynasties.
One product that is often neglected in discussions of ancient Egypt is oil from crops of the castor bean (Ricinus communis). Olive oil was imported, as the tree was not grown there successfully until the Ptolemaic period. Alternative oils for commercial use were the fruit oils of the moringa tree (Moringa drouhardi), linseed oil from seeds of Linum, oil from the balanos tree (Balanites aegyptiaca) as well as sesame and saffron oils. Castor oil was especially important in that, when mixed with natron, it produced a smokeless flame that could be used in homes for lighting and in tombs to allow painters to produce murals. Alternative light sources would have covered the extraordinary art with a coating of soot.
Considerable debate exists over the probability of the opium poppy existing in early dynastic Egypt as well as in Assyria. Gabra (1956) suggested that the word shepen refers to poppy and shepenen to the opium poppy. These words appear in most medical papyri and in some papyri devoted to magic, notably the Ebers Papyrus. Those who argue against a number of “exotics” in early Egypt must take into account that from the late pre-dynastic period, trade in timber and numerous other commodities was accomplished by intercourse with the Levant and the montane regions of Lebanon. Also, as early as the fifth dynasty, expeditions to Punt are recorded, and we have reason to believe that these originated at an even earlier date. While the “land of Punt” has never been firmly located, we know from commodities such as sandalwood, ebony, giraffes, baboons, ivory, leopard skin, and gold that the area or region was most certainly a part of the Somaliland coast. Harbors and ships for import were stationed along the Red Sea. Donkeys brought items of barter from Nubia to the south as far as equatorial Africa. The tomb of Ramses II,13041237 B.C., presents us with a complete depiction of tributes that came from conquered Nubia and places south.
It is a temptation for the ethnobotanist to find psychoactive plants in early dynastic Egypt, and to that end many have tried to place Cannabis in this context. The contention that bosm, mentioned in both the Berlin Papyrus and Ebers Papyrus, corresponds to Cannabis is highly unlikely. No mummy has been found wrapped in hemp fiber; no rope from the base of Cannabis exists in Egypt from this period. No residues of hashish have been found in any lipid matrices from funerary jars or unguent containers. It was not until the third century A.D., when the Roman emperor Aurelian imposed a tax on an Egyptian fiber, that we can identify hemp. The same may be said for Babylonia (unless one accepts the Waterman thesis advanced in 1930 that qu-nu-bu, mentioned during the reign of Esarhaddon in circa 680 B.C., is translatable as Cannabis).
By contrast, Gabra (1956) identified opiates in a residue from an “unguent vessel” of the eighteenth dynasty. Both the narcotic Mandragora autumnalis, M. vernalis, and fruits of Papaver somniferum figure in tomb paintings and vessels of early dynasties and become quite common by the eighteenth dynasty (Emboden 1979). These are found in frequent conjunction with the sacred blue water lily of the Nile marshes, Nymphaea caerulea, which has been determined to have narcotic properties much as do its relatives N. alba, N. ampla, and the related Nuphar lutea. The union of three genera, all psychoactive and all involved in a healing presentation, is to be seen in the colored limestone intaglio of Meritaton and Semenkhara.
The full exegesis of psychoactive plants in the context of dynastic Egypt is discussed by Emboden (1979, 1981). The argument is made that these plants and their psychoactive constituents were adjuncts to the state of ecstasis among the priestly castes of ancient Egypt and that they lead us to a very new way of viewing Egyptian art and artifacts, as well as those of other ancient civilizations. A limestone relief of the Amarna period circa 1350 B.C. shows us the healing of King Semenkhara by his consort Meritaton using Mandragora and Nymphaea; this is a fine example of the specific context of these plants. These plant motifs appear again in the eighteenth dynasty portrait of Tutankhamen on his throne with his queen.
One bit of iconography that still puzzles Egyptologists is the depiction of “Lady TuthShena” on the stela in which she is before the god Horus. Emanating from the sun disc on Horus’s head are five “rays” of tubular flowers that strongly suggest Datura (Figure 5). Since Datura is pantemperate and pantropical, the genus could not be considered scarce in any region. It is also a genus with easily identifiable virtues. It has been used in every area in which it is known, in rites of passage and in diverse forms of shamanism. Its psychoactive properties are extraordinary, and one of the usual modalities in the Datura experience is that of mystical flight, an out-of-the-body sensation.
This explanation, like so many others relating to Tuth-Shena and Horus, might seem specious were it not for the other, associated plants that have psychoactive properties: the central flower and leaf of Nymphaea caerulea; at the foot of Horus, the unguent jar wrapped with the narcotic water lily bud; the strand of grapes and their leaves hanging from the opposite side of the supporting pedestal upon which offerings rest; the four repeated representations of a cleft water lily leaf in the series of glyphs at the right-hand margin. It is the realm of the dead, evidenced by the resin cone on the head of Tuth-Shena. The light is the light of Horus, realized in the psychoactive flowers of Datura which “illuminate” Tuth-Shena in allegorical fashion. It is the power of Horus before which she throws up her hands in awe. Vitis, Nymphaea, and Datura are the intoxicating elements portrayed in this scene of shamanic manifestation.
It is perhaps by coincidence that the frequency of portrayal of psychogenic plants is correlated with the level of development of ancient civilizations, but I do not think so. A shamanic caste appears and, subsequently, there is further shamanic stratification, the adjuncts to these priestly office that is to say, psychoactive plants-increase. The length of the associated rituals is progressively increased, and the litanies or magical incantations become hypertrophied. We can see the same thing among the Maya. It parallels the complexity of medicine and medicinal practices, for all these are inseparable at a certain level. They are manifestations of belief systems that are enhanced by altered states of consciousness.
In conclusion, rather than to try to elucidate the complexity of ancient agricultural practices, it may be more appropriate to comment on certain categories of plants important to a settled state of existence, and on the inclusion of greater numbers of plants with psychoactive properties as a civilization evolves. The best place to find these plant species may not be in cuneiform script or in the hieroglyphics of papyri, but in the art and artifacts of the civilization. This is especially necessary for the ancient Near East, where ethnobotanical evaluation has been virtually absent.
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