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Full Review
The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization
by D. C. A. Hillman, PhD
Thomas Dunn Books / St Martin's Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Thomas B. Roberts, 9/23/2008

A good accompaniment to Ruck et al’s The Apples of Apollo. Recommended for university, major public libraries, and psychedelia collectors. Too much ancient-history context for my taste, but it may suit the taste of classicists who are willing to accept Hillman’s claim that in ancient Greece and Rome the non-medical uses of psychoactive plants was widespread and widely accepted as a natural part of life.

Contents: Introduction, 8 chapters, conclusion, chapter notes, bibliography, index.


When the [dissertation examination] committee called me into the room, nobody was smiling, not even my advisor. They detained me another hour of so and then left the room, one by one. Not a single member of the committee gave me the traditional “congratulations, doctor” handshake or wished me luck on a bright academic future. When everyone but my advisor had exited the room, I humbly asked her if I had passed. It was at that point in my life that I first discovered the fine line between intellectual compromise and total capitulation.
The choice was simple. Take out the chapter on the ancient world’s recreational drug use, and any references to narcotics in the rest of the dissertation, or fail the exam. I had seen the evidence for myself, and I knew my conclusions were sound. But it seemed obvious that the committee just didn’t like the implications of a drug-friendly Western society. After all, the most vocal member of my committee, the head of the department, had refuted my conclusion that the Romans and used recreational drugs with the seemingly nonacademic response, “They just wouldn’t do such a thing.” After years of research, the best that academia had to offer was an anachronistic presupposition: We think drugs are bad, so why wouldn’t they? (page 2)

Plutarch, in Table Talk, a sort of mock philosophical dialogue, discussed how Jewish sacraments of the pre-Christian era reflected the union of the religious practices surrounding the god of Abraham with the public worship of Dionysus, the god of intoxication and ecstasy. According to Plutarch both gods were associated with the same delirium-inducing plants, both used similar religious symbols and sacred implements, both used music in the same manner during worship, and the priests of the Jews wore garments very similar to those used in the worship of Dionysus. Plutarch even claimed there was a direct linguistic connection between the Hebrew word for the Sabbath and the Greek word Sabi, which was used to denote the crazed, intoxicated followers of Dionysus. (page 103)

One of these ancient Greek wise men, Epimenides, led a particularly curious existence. Although we are uncertain about the exact dates of his life, we know that his work flourished sometime in the seventh or sixth century B. C. and that he established quite a reputation as one of antiquity’s greatest intellectuals. In addition to being a renowned philosopher and healer-philosophy and medicine were indistinguishable disciplines in pre-Classical Greece-Diogenes says he was a “root cutter.”
In antiquity, root cutters and drug sellers were often lumped into one amorphous category; it was their job to gather botanical drugs and supply them to the general population. Theophrastus, the father of botany, tells us that root cutters were a bit eccentric when it came to the art of collecting potent drugs, but gives them due credit for coming up with the best methods of obtaining many dangerous and potentially lethal substances. (page 165)

Despite the volume of ancient literature concerned with the preparation and administration of potent botanicals, few academicians bother to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of drug use in antiquity. The Greco-Roman fascination with narcotics, stimulants, and depressants is the last unexplored frontier of ancient history. While this topic holds great potential for discovery, deficiencies in scientific training found in Classics departments stretching from Europe to North America present scholars with an academic conundrum: Western universities and libraries possess thousands of pages of Greek and Latin manuscripts concerned with the use of pharmaceuticals, but few Classical scholars—none that I have personally ever found—have a background in molecular biology, botany, or pharmacology, that is needed to unravel the riddles these books contain. Ironically, the modern world just doesn’t have the intellectual background to comprehend or explain the wisdom of ancient society. Sadly, professors typically don’t know what to make of pharmaceutical texts, so they ignore them. (page 218)

Note: This micro-review follows the format of CSP’s Chrestomathy entries, which catalog psychoactives-related books and include substantial excerpts. See:

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