Let me be clear from the outset that the following is purely speculative. In my recent article (Crowley 2014), I asked whether ancient peoples, specifically the Greeks, might have been acquainted with the visionary potential of psychoactive grasses of the genus Phalaris. In this piece, I will extend that inquiry, albeit on less firm footing, to ancient Jewish culture. Some of this material has been mentioned previously in the context of possible references to cannabis (Bennett 2010; Creighton 1902), but until now the possibility that they might be referencing psychoactive grasses has never been entertained.
The story of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar from chapter four of the Book of Daniel merits some consideration as a story which directly conflates eating grass and comprehending divinity. On its face, it is a morality tale. Nebuchadnezzar acts as a prideful and impious king, God punishes him, and Nebuchadnezzar repents, praising God as the Most High sovereign. But there are a couple of characteristics which lend interest to the story: When God strikes Nebuchadnezzar with seven years of madness, he condemns the king to eat grass and live as a wild animal. We can see in this a parallel with the story of the sea demon Glaucus, who was struck with a divine madness after eating the grass agrostis (Crowley 2014), although in Nebuchadnezzar’s case the madness precedes the eating of grass. Eating grass also seems like a natural consequence of living like an animal in the wilderness, so its mere mention does not suggest psychoactivity per se.
What really makes the story interesting is that the author of Daniel repeatedly asserts that Nebuchadnezzar is “drenched with the dew of heaven” throughout his seven year bout of madness (Daniel 4:15,23,25,33). The phrase “dew of heaven” occurs only in one other book of the Bible (Genesis 27:28,39) where it explicitly refers to divine blessings. Elsewhere in the Bible, dew is consistently a symbol of God’s blessings (Deuteronomy 33:13, Job 29:19, Micah 5:7), of invigoration (Song of Solomon 5:2), and is even the source of manna (Exodus 16:13, Numbers 11:9). Why then should the impious, prideful, and not-yet-repentant Nebuchadnezzar be drenched with God’s blessing?
Some commentaries on Daniel suggest that the dew alludes to the prosperity of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom and his successful military conquests as blessings from God. But those blessings preceded the madness, and the author clearly and repeatedly associates this drenching with the dew of heaven to Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, eating grass, and living as a wild animal. It would seem most plausible to read the divine madness not explicitly as a punishment, but as a challenging mechanism for divine revelation. In this context, regarding the madness as a blessing from God, we may wonder whether the grass might have had more significance than simply fodder with which to humiliate an impious king.
The origin of the divine madness motif in this account is unclear. The story ostensibly relates to Nebuchadnezzar II, a historical king of Babylon who reigned from ca. 605–562 B.C.E., but this appears to be a misattribution. The details of the story fit better with a subsequent ruler, Nabonidus, who ruled from ca. 556–539 B.C.E. An Aramaic text known as the Prayer of Nabonidus, unearthed amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, supports this notion. It tells us that Nabonidus was afflicted with an inflammatory illness for seven years while he was in Teima; he prayed to the Sumerian gods in vain, but when he prayed to the “Most High,” the god of the Jews, he was cured and his sins forgiven (Wise 1996, p. 265).
Nabonidus’ long sojourn in Teima is attested in surviving Babylonian texts, so there at least is a grain of truth underpinning the biblical account. But the conversion to Judaism suggested both in Daniel 4 and in the Prayer of Nabonidus is almost certainly a fictional addition to the story. History records that upon his return from Teima, Nabonidus was deeply engaged in the theological landscape of Babylon, rebuilding the temple of the moon god Sîn and excoriating the Babylonians for impiety toward their pantheon of gods (Beaulieu 2007). The king’s divine madness likewise appears to be a fictional element in the story. We first encounter it in the Book of Daniel, composed some four centuries after Nabonidus’ reign, though it could have preceded that composition as an oral folkloric account. It is not attested to in the Prayer of Nabonidus, which instead refers to an inflammatory illness. Even accounts which were highly critical of the king, composed shortly after Nabonidus was deposed by Cyrus II of Persia, do not accuse him of madness.
So what we have in this account are two fictional elements transposed onto a historical framework. We can see a clear motivation for adding the fictional element of a Babylonian king’s conversion to Judaism. Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem twice and incorporated the Kingdom of Judah into the Neo-Babylonian Empire (Davis Bledsoe 2012), so claiming him (or any subsequent ruler from the same era) as a convert to Judaism makes the event more comprehensible as a part of God’s plan. But what value does the element of divine madness add? What was the motivation for its inclusion? Clearly the imagery of eating grass as a wild animal while drenched in the dew of heaven was important in the mythology of the author of Daniel. Whether the grass was a crucial element of that imagery is uncertain, but it seems like a strong possibility considering that grass can be found as a recurring theme in Kabbalistic writings.
Grasses (in Hebrew, esavim) are apparently spoken of extensively in texts on magical Kabbalah. Even the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, suggestively tells us that “[t]here is no grass or herb that grows in which God’s wisdom is not greatly manifested and which cannot exert great influence in heaven” (Zohar II, 80B). Writing in 1982, the orthodox rabbi Aryeh Kaplan mentioned that some Kabbalistic texts, such as the Soshan Yesod Olam, describe magical techniques which “include the use of ‘grasses,’ which were possibly psychedelic drugs” (Kaplan 1982, p. 156). Kaplan does not appear to be a controversial figure in Jewish scholarship, but of course his interpretation has not been accepted unquestioningly. Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok argues that esavim are generally talked about in the context of healing herbs, not herbs that alter consciousness (Tzadok 1993), but on the other hand we often see substantial overlap between mind-altering herbs and healing herbs in traditional cultures. Unfortunately, the bulk of Kabbalistic texts and discussions are in Hebrew, and thus largely inaccessible to an English-speaking monoglot like myself. There may be fertile ground there for exploration.
In the end I must depart this topic as agnostic as I began. There is a pleasing symmetry between the divine madness of the sea demon Glaucus and that of Daniel’s fictional king Nebuchadnezzar, but without knowing more about the origin of the account in Daniel, it would be presumptuous to draw any firm conclusions. Regrettably, we are unlikely to obtain that type of information without some new archaeological discovery on par with that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are some preliminary indications that references in Kabbalah might support the presence of psychoactive herbs and grasses in ancient Jewish practices, but again this is far from conclusive. All that’s certain is that there are chapters yet to be written on the history of psychoactive plants in ancient religious and mystical traditions.
About the author
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