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on July 29, 2008
I just received a copy of this book this week, and literally couldn't put it down since I found the topic fascinating. The author describes his ordeal with a doctoral dissertation committee, who were insisting that he remove offending chapters from his dissertation. Those chapters became this book.

It seems to be a huge secret that there was recreational drug use by the ancients. The cradle of democracy was full of druggies! I had some classical studies and none of this was EVER mentioned. But, the use of herbals and botanicals for medicinal purposes was known. The use of psychotropic substances for recreation and inspiration was decidedly not taught.

For a very fascinating look at a still taboo subject, I suggest reading ths book. It is an easy read, despite the scholarly origin for the author. I would have liked more scholarly references but probably wouldn't have understood them since I have no background in ancient Greek. I was particularly interested in the way the author tied the frequent wars to use of botanicals for medicine and relief. Life was difficult back then and
it probably did help to numb the fear and pain of a very hostile world to have potent drugs sold in the marketplace along with the kitchen produce.

Very readable and informative and a little naughty. I had no idea that the founders of Western democracy were bisexual druggies until I read this book!
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on November 6, 2008
I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about possible drug use by past civilizations. I believe this book has loads of insightful information and presents a well thought out thesis which is backed up with evidence that is pulled from a few main sources and which is open to debate. The writing style and organization leave much to be desired, however, the book presents a view of ancient people that is rarely presented. If you want to know where current academics let their philosophical views govern how they interpret ancient writings on drug use, this book will definitely give you some well thought out opinions on the matter.

As other people have mentioned, the author is angry that he had to edit out parts of his dissertation that related to drug use in order to obtain his doctoral degree. That would tick me off too. I do not believe that his anger came off as such in the book. I would describe it more as passion for the subject.

The main issues I have with the book is the poor editing and the lack of variety in the sources. The book could have been about half the size based upon the repeating of the main ideas with different examples. I understand why he organized the book the way he did, I just think it could have flowed better if it was organized with each chapter dedicated to the writings of each author discussed. The flow was broken up when going from one author to another and back again.

I do like the examples given on where drug use shows up in ancient writings, and the author gives some good examples of where modern scholars interpretations have distorted the translations. The book did leave me wanting more information and that seems to be the goal of the author. However, I do not possess the knowledge to translate the ancient works myself, and so I am left to read the writings based upon current translations. It may be nice if the author were to publish something that lists the Greek and Latin works that scholars have mistranslated and alongside them the correct translation according to his research (for the specific drug related words that have been mistranslated).

Lastly, the evidence given in the book is definitely debatable. While I do believe the author has proven his point sufficiently in the book, there is no way for him to prove to the world beyond a doubt that his views are right and the rest of the scholarly world is wrong. I believe that this makes that book much more interesting as a conversation piece since it can spark a rational debate that can only help us understand the current world we live in.

Over all, I would recommend this book. It is well researched, and provides a viewpoint on ancient drug use that is not often heard, but should be. It can be a bear to get though, but you will come out with a different perspective on ancient people and how they dealt with their world.
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on March 16, 2010
I was looking for some scholarly works on the current and past use of psychoactives for a course I am creating. I personally found this work to be lame. The author relates his perceived persecution by his thesis committee in having to remove aspects of his thesis, then proceeds to present ancient Greece and Rome as a society with open and accepted drug use (poisoning to medical to recreational). The author may well be correct that these cultures were well versed in the use of botanicals, but the information is presented in such a personally opinionated way that it is distracting. The information contained may serve as a starting point to find further information; however, I do not feel I can use it as a reference for anything that I present to my students.
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Thought the topic of the book was interesting, but overall poorly executed. The book is extremely repetitive and the writing style is academic and clumsy. I was also surprised at how infrequently he actually includes citations from the actual classical authors, given his overall thesis that the ancient literature is full of such references. I accept the thesis - especially in regards to opium - but wish it had been handled better. In the end, I wasn't able to actually make it through the book, which is rare for me.
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on December 24, 2008
David Hillman's book "The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization" is a required book in the field of entheogen scholarship. It presents a maximal entheogen theory of religion in Late Antiquity; it is the first book to present such a strong, clear view. The use of psychoactives was utterly normal, commonplace, mainstream, and culturally integrated.

Hillman forces a revision of the assumption-framework that is used by some other entheogen historians. John Allegro's book The Sacred Mushroom & The Cross postulated that the early Christians were motivated to use coded story-figures such as the figure of Jesus in order to hide their deviant, unusual practice of use of visionary plants (mushrooms) from mainstream culture, which persecuted and disallowed such use. Hillman doesn't address Allegro's explanation, but that aspect of Allegro's theory is soundly disproved by the culture that Hillman reveals, a culture thoroughly saturated with psychotropic drugs, and must be abandoned.

The cover art shows Plato with red eyes, which today has culturally distorting connotations of "Plato smoked pot." Hillman should've chosen instead something like the fresco showing Dionysus' victory procession, with Dionysus on a chariot drawn by four tigers with mushrooms above their backs. The book would benefit from ancient pictorial evidence of psychoactive plants and their use, of which there is no shortage.

The book ought to have subheadings. The author omits subheadings, thus obscuring what specific topics are covered in the book. This lack of topical entry points can also make the book seem more boring, when one gets caught in a topic of less interest and cannot see where the next topic of interest begins. I have extracted some potential subheadings below.

Introduction chapter. Hillman's thesis committee forced him to remove his chapter on ancient world's recreational drug use, saying "the Romans just wouldn't do such a thing" -- a baseless anachronistic presupposition, projecting today's outlook onto the past, thus censoring and obscuring the outlook that characterized the past.

Chapter 1: The Ancient Crucible. This chapter emphasizes the misery and anguish of ancient life. I too felt miserable and filled with anguish after reading most of it, since I was expecting to read about entheogens instead. The reader starts wishing for some opium to ease the pain of reading this chapter. Skip this chapter and read it afterward. It is of peripheral relevance and gives the wrong impression that the book justifies entheogen use because opium lessens misery.

Chapter 2: Ancient Medicines. Skip this chapter and read it afterward. It is of peripheral relevance and would give the wrong impression that the book prefers a medicinal paradigm. Chapters 1 and 2 are appropriate to provide background and peripheral information, but act as a hurdle in their placement in front of the expected chapters about entheogens.

Chapter 3: Greeks, Romans, and Recreational Drugs. The classical world was well aware of the effects of cannabis, scopolamine plants, opium, mushrooms, ergot, wormwood (thujone), and hemlock.

Chapter 4: Promethean Euphoria. Covers drugs in myth, including the myths of Prometheus, Demeter, ambrosia, Dionysus, Odysseus & the Cyclops giant Polyphemus, and Narcissus. Mixed wine is partly covered here.

The scope of the book is Greek and Roman culture in Late Antiquity; there is little comment on the transition to Christendom. Hillman doesn't address the question of "To what extent were visionary plants used throughout Christian history?" But he does conjecture that Jewish and earliest Christian practice included visionary plants. He uses the noncommittal term "Christian mythology", and discusses political struggles in antiquity, but doesn't address the origins of the Jesus figure or the motives for creating Christianity. The investigation of the history of the mystic altered state must extend far beyond this books' focus on the sheer use of visionary plants, such as commentary connecting social structures with the specific phenomena that are encountered within the intense visionary state.

Hillman doesn't cover mythic metaphors, cognitive phenomenology (per Benny Shanon's book The Antipodes of the Mind), and altered-state metaphor. Hillman's treatments of myths remain as superficial as any uninspired scholar's. He focuses on the sheer fact that the plants were used, rather than on cognitive phenomenology resulting from the plant-induced altered state. Like Carl Ruck's work, Hillman doesn't provide interpretations of mythic metaphors except in terms of the physical plants and the sheer fact of using them. He assumes simple literalistic readings of the mythemes, as opposed to reading them in terms of mental experiences from visionary plants.

He doesn't cover self-control instability in the altered state, or the common experiential phenomenon of ego death. He reads all mythic references to "death" as literal death, rather than metaphorical description of specific cognitive phenomena encountered in the mystic altered state. The mythemes of 'death', 'mortal', 'divinization', and 'king' are bandied about unreflectively in these pages, rather than considering them as aspects of plant-induced experiencing. What does 'death' mean to the person during the altered state which Hillman writes about? He ought to consider, for example, 'death' as the altered-state suspension of the self as controller and mental construct, and the overpowering of the personal self by the broader space-time world in which the self is embedded.

As another example, the Introduction discusses Actaeon being killed for looking upon the goddess Artemis, but Hillman superficially treats this death as a simple literal death as punishment for (vaguely) "seeing too much", rather than as the specific death of the pseudo-autonomous self during the mystic altered state. Hillman doesn't tie-in the myths from late antiquity with today's mystic-state reports of the cessation of the egoic conception of oneself, or perceiving a higher level of control that trumps and originates one's own power.

He reads the themes of 'maiden' and 'youth' flatly and literalistically, rather than matching them with the idea of the uninitiated mind prior to ingesting the sacred meal in a mystery-cult initiation. Hillman's line of thought needs to develop further by applying cognitive phenomenology to the interpretation of mythemes -- by explaining mythemes as metaphorical descriptions of the cognitive phenomena that are encountered in the plant-induced, altered cognitive state.

Chapter 5: Drawing Down the Moon. This too-vaguely titled chapter actually covers sorcerer/druggists; ancient magicians were somewhat comparable to "drug dealers". Zoroastrianism and the Magi. The practice of magic was tantamount to the use of drugs. Magic was a matter of control & manipulation, including manipulating the mind of a desired lover, through seeming manipulation of reality in the drug-induced altered state. Medea & Jason. Scholars intentionally mistranslate words to avoid writing "drugs"; Circe's mastery is specifically of drugs, and yet scholars deliberately mistranslate words for her drugs instead as vague "charms".

Hillman affirms the ancient Greeks' belief in Fate (heimarmene), but without detailed elaboration, without considering how the belief in Fatedness was connected with altered-state experiencing.

Chapter 6: The Divine Gift of Mind-Bending Intoxication. Scholars standardized on mistranslation of words for opium as "poppy seeds".

Hillman writes that drugs were "a" means of entering into the divine realm, "just another means of invoking the Muses", but he never says what the implied "other means" of entering into the divine realm were. That raises the question, which he should've addressed, of whether drugs were the only effective means of entering into the divine realm. If plant-drugs were the chemical muse, then was there some non-chemical muse as well, some non-drug technique of entering into the divine altered state? It is surprising that Hillman is silent about the existence of that debate among entheogen scholars.

The Muses, divine poetic inspiration, and ancient literature. Psychoactive drugs were a primary, standard concern of ancient literature. Homer's bardic works: the Illiad; the Odyssey, including the Lotus-Eaters. Virgil's work: the Aeneid, including stories of Dido and Amata. Ovid's works: Amores; Heroides; and Ars amatoria. The audience used psychoactives and understood the authors' incorporation of themes involving psychoactives.

Chapter 7: The Pharmacology of Western Philosophy. The pre-Socratic philosophers, drug-sorcerers, or sages. Diogenes. Epimenides: Root-cutters, mandrake, and Epimenides' stimulant. Pythagoras: his initiations into mystery religions, and Magi. Empedocles and the birth of natural science. Mixed wine included opium, henbane, and psychoactive herbs, unguents, and spices. Plato's Phaedrus: Divine madness, inspired mania, divine possession, and the Muses.

Chapter 8: Democracy, Free Speech, and Drugs. This chapter opens with 8 pages about the creation of democracy in ancient Athens, with no connection to entheogens. This puts a strain on the reader's patience, waiting so long to get to the claimed subject matter of the book.

The political and drug aspects of plays. Until recently, scholars deliberately mistranslated or suppressed Aristophanes' ribald wording, but they continue to deliberately mistranslate drug references to suppress, distort, and censor those. Plato's work The Laws. Aristophanes' play Thesmophoriazusae. Aristophanes' play Wealth. Euripides' play Andromache: free speech, personal freedom, and civil liberties. Athens vs. Sparta: egalitarian democracy vs. authoritarian oppression. Euripides' play Medea.

This chapter touches on mystery cult initiation, Eleusis, Carl Ruck's book The Road to Eleusis, and the scholarly suppression of such academic investigation into ancient psychoactives use. Surprisingly, Hillman provides no deep coverage of entheogens in mystery-cult sacred meals, which most readers are expecting; he presents only 2 pages focusing on this topic. The book has a surprising lack of detailed coverage of entheogens in the sacred meals of all the mystery cults of late antiquity, such as emperor cult. Hillman merely touches on, but doesn't provide sustained, in-depth coverage of "drinking" symposium parties; for example, he doesn't expound upon Dennis Smith's book From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World to explain "drinking clubs" in terms of visionary plants in mixed wine.

Conclusion chapter: The Western Pursuit of Happiness. Personal freedom and democracy in Athens went along with psychoactives. The status quo claims to endorse freedom, democracy, personal autonomy, and civil liberties, but demonizes psychoactives, against the values of Athens which created our valuation of freedom and personal liberties. The drug knowledge that is embedded in antiquities would be a valuable resource, and is the kind of knowledge governments and businesses are looking for. Moralistic censorship rewrites history and creates a fictional image of the past to prop up the status-quo powers. Factual historical knowledge about the integration of psychoactive drugs into the culture of antiquity would provide conceptual tools that would help society remain free from tyrants and aristocrats.

Notes section. The book uses endnotes rather than footnotes. These are proper, correctly used endnotes (or footnotes): they are strictly citations of where to find source material, rather than passages which ought to be in the body of the book instead. Much more of the book needs such pointers to the source texts, to help interested scholars quickly develop the material further than Hillman takes it.

Bibliography. The only entheogen-scholarship book mentioned is The Road to Eleusis. Hillman's book seems to be research done in isolation from the most closely related existing books. There is a surprising absence of Carl Ruck's other books, Dan Merkur's books such as The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible, Clark Heinrich's historical survey Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy, Entheos journal, and the dispute between Wasson and Allegro about the Plaincourault fresco (The Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity).

The game is up, for the status quo academic Establishment. Their effort to censor out psychoactive drugs from the mainstream of late antiquity is thwarted by this book. Scholars who care about their future reputation must cease their alliance with the distorting forces of suppression of the psychoactives aspect. Those who care about aligning with the facts of the matter and are looking for longevity, need to divorce themselves from the status-quo denial of the evidential facts, and work toward building a drastically revised model of antiquity.

People make the false statement that there is little or no evidence of drug use in antiquity. Hillman goes beyond merely asserting that scholars would easily locate ample evidence if they began looking for it. He demonstrates that scholars have already run into ample evidence, but are censoring, deliberately ignoring, and deliberately mistranslating the evidence, in a cover-up.

The effort of proving that the ancient evidence describes the visionary plants themselves, too much follows the lead of the status-quo academics. A continued heavy critique of the academic status quo is needed, but without letting the status quo define the boundaries of the investigation.

This book aims to adequately prove the case that psychoactive drug use was entirely normal and mainstream and ubiquitous in late antiquity. This book doesn't aim to be comprehensive in fleshing-out all use of psychoactives in late antiquity. The field of entheogen scholarship needs expanded follow-up volumes that put less emphasis on convincing the skeptical academic Establishment, and more emphasis on comprehensively laying out more connections between late antiquity, the culturally integrated use of visionary plants, and the deeper interpretation of mythemes.

This book opens up a call for serious scholarship that engages the extent of drug use in antiquity. Serious, substantial scholarship will need to go beyond Hillman, beyond the sheer assertion and proof that visionary plants were used, into explanation of mythemes that describe the experiential content of the resulting mystic altered state. Hillman's political focus on personal freedoms needs to be expanded into the realm of altered-state mythemes such as the death of the king, and gods as rulers -- connecting personal altered-state experiencing with social structures and governance, as was done in the thoroughly drug-saturated culture of late antiquity.
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on August 18, 2013
As a young college student in the early 1990s, I never had a teacher who taught classics or philosophy or history who denied the drug use of the ancients. I think since the days of Robert Graves' book on the Greek gods there has been open discussion about the use of drugs other than wine by the Founders of Western Civilization. David Hillman seems to think that academia in general and Classics Studies have been muzzled when talking about drug use in Antiquity. Hillman then goes on to talk about drug use being an extension of then common herbal medicine and part and parcel of the study of poisons and cures. His argument is reinforced by examples of mistranslations or deliberate censorship or bowdlerization of ancient texts that deal with drugs. I do like Hillman's opinion and his voice, but I wish he would dig deeper into the primary texts. Hillman really brings it all together in his conclusion where he states that a truly democratic society like Ancient Athens in the Periclean Golden Age would accept drug use as an expression of people's personal freedom and personal expression.
I think Hillman has really gotten me interested in the work of Carl Ruck who has written about the Eleusian Mysteries with Albert Hofffman, the inventor of LSD as well as a more recent work on the relationship between the intriguing and fascinating cult of Mithras and psychoactive fungi. This book is a good introduction to a young person who thinks the Classics have no bearing on modernity or people who didn't hear it when Perry Farrell proclaimed: "You think the Ancients didn't Party?" This book would be a great introduction of the topic to those who doubted the true nature of the symposium.
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on August 29, 2008
I thought this book was a fascinating read. Going in I had very limited knowledge of Greco-Roman culture, so it was nice to see that the author did a great job of explaining the context of the time as well as the background of the historical figures.

I'd say this is not only an interesting and entertaining read, but also a very important book. We can certainly learn some things from the way drugs were treated in these cultures compared to our horribly horribly misguided ways of dealing with drugs, such as the damaging War on Drugs, in the present time.

I loved the section about the democracy of ancient Athens. As well as learning about fascinating figures like Pythagoras and Aristophanes (sp?).

Highly recommended, I will surely be reading this book a second time someday.
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on May 7, 2009
I enjoyed this book very much. It is an excellent introduction to the idea that psychotropic/ethnobotanicals had an important role in early Western civilization. However, if you as a reader or scholar or have archaeology-paleontology intrests then you already know this. The issue isn't really "did ancient human beings know that you could get high from plants?"...Neanderthals knew this...the ancient Egyptians knew it...everyone from Laplanders to the Maori knew it...but instead that current 20th century Western academia blacklists the idea. Much of the book is defensive and spends too much time "proving" what is not particularly suprising to folks who have read other books on the subject. Freshmen Philosophy students should read this book, folks studying ethnopharmacology are better off with McKenna and Leary.
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on December 21, 2012
Classicists are a stuffy breed with all kinds of imaginative fictions about the nobility of classical people. When the author included a section in his doctoral dissertation on the use of recreational drugs and hallucinogenics by noble Greeks, his advisers had a hissy fit and told him he had to remove it before they granted him a degree. This book is essentially based on that section.

The author lays out a convincing case that ancient classical people enjoyed and routinely used drugs in religious rites as well as recreationally. It is only due to the prejudices of translators that this has been obscured. I am sure many are aware of the back flips bible translators go through to tone down the sexually explicit language of the bible. Well, it is no different with classical texts with regard to drugs.

If you've ever thought 'those people sound like they were wasted', well, they were. And let's not forget that 'Symposia' were not only philosophy discussion groups but also drunken sexual orgies if the art on ancient Greek pottery is any indication...and now we know they were probably much higher than we thought. No wonder they founded Western Philosophy.

The average run of the mill religious leader couldn't have had mind blowing visions and prophesies unless they were imbibing some powerful hallucinogenics. As the author points out, the use of wine in Christian rituals is a pathetic residual leftover of this practice.

The book is meant for a wide readership and doesn't require the reader to know anything but the English language. It is scholarly however and quotes from original sources. All the works he sites are available in the public domain or in wonderful annotated translations so you can look them up easily. I enjoyed it and learned a lot.

It will make you look at ancient society differently and for the better.
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on September 29, 2008
The repeated references gave me a sense of exactly how pervasive and widespread censorship is on this topic, and not just on the author's personal experience of censorship and his dissertation. If you think you can learn a lesson from history since it repeats itself, how can you learn anything if the great minds are put into English in a way that doesn't really communicate what they said? It is a much more subtle and sinister way to alter how large groups of people see the world.

I don't write book reviews, but it seems like there is a misunderstanding that this is supposed to be some kind of drug odyssey. I read this book without political agenda, but I was also mesmerized by seeing how drugs function within a society and not just as a hangup. The exhaustive nature of the book showed me that there are many, many references regarding drugs in antiquity. So many that it made me wonder how many people were involved in making the translations more palatable to fit with our modern view on drugs, and how many more people were required to maintain those translations.

I think the author is trying to give you an honest translation of alot of what was written pertaining to drugs so many centuries ago. Were those societies superior? Well, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson thought it was so much so that they based our democracy on it which is the reason we have a senate and not a parliament.
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