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Odyssey and Oracle

Searching for Ancient Psychedelia

Aug. 12, 2008
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   Anyone who encountered the Lotus Eaters while reading Homer already suspects that mind-altering drugs flourished on the fringes of the ancient Greek world, the matrix for much of what we call civilization. In The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press), D.C.A. Hillman argues that the Lotus Eaters weren't confined to one isolated island but were in the mainstream of Greek and Roman society. In other words, Haight Ashbury in 1967 had nothing on Athens in 300 B.C.

  With degrees in the classics and bacteriology, Hillman is interested in both the natural world and the cultivated garden of humanity. The convergence makes stuffy academics uncomfortable. As the Madison author tells it, he originally hoped to present his findings on ancient drug use in his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, but the frowning examining professors demanded he excise all drug references if he wanted his Ph.D. He conceded, earning his doctorate and saving his more unconventional insights for The Chemical Muse. Writing for a wider public, he reveals opiated revelers in ancient texts where generations of scholars saw only fauns sipping from beakers of wine. Where historians pictured sober philosophers wrestling with great ideas under the shade of olive trees, Hillman imagines them passing the pipe for inspiration.

  Hillman charges the professors on his dissertation committee, and scholars of antiquity in general, with projecting their contemporary preoccupations onto a society considerably different than the one we inhabit. At times he is guilty of the same offense. The Chemical Muse takes the conventional contemporary view that virtually all emotional and psychological responses are chemical, a convenient perspective for the pharmaceutical industry and the drug salesmen posing psychiatrists, but one that has come under scrutiny from those who believe environmental and other factors can be just as important.

  Which is not to say that the drugs the ancient Greeks and Romans produced from natural substances, plant and animal, weren't important in nurturing civilization. Hillman merges three themes in Chemical Muse. We might call them the medicinal, recreational and sacramental use of drugs. As the author points out again and again (he's fearless in the face of redundancy), these distinctions were not as meaningful in the ancient world as they are at present. In those days the pharmacist, dope peddler and seer were often the same person.

  If I had been on Hillman's dissertation committee, I would have insisted on more footnotes. Sometimes it's impossible to identify the sources of his facts. Overall, Hillman's thesis is convincing, demonstrating a fascinating familiarity with medicine and literature, botany and history. When read with an awareness of the visionary potential of some drugs and their availability throughout the ancient world, mythology itself begins to glow in psychedelic shades and reveal new interpretive patterns. The ambrosia the gods feasted on? Maybe it was closer to hash brownies than anything else.


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