Drugs in History
Lets face it: everyone loves drugs. From Tylenol to LSD, ingesting substances to fix our problems is as human as philosophy and giant piles of garbage. (A lot of philosophy is a giant pile of garbage!) Whether you are building a monument to last the ages, or an empire to span the world, drugs are important. Historically speaking.
1. China and the Opium Wars
For hundreds of years the Chinese attitude toward western civilizations could be summed up pretty easily. “That’s cute, but we’re not interested.” Europeans simply had nothing to offer the East. Then the Europeans stumbled across the Americas, and suddenly had a lot of new inventory to sell. The most important new trade items were gold, and silver, and tobacco.
People discovered they could smoke tobacco, and though it made them feel jittery and weird and sick, they also really liked it for some reason. When tobacco was brought to China, it found a soul mate it opium. Two ancient spiritual substances were mixed together by Europeans to create crippling addictions.
The Europeans, mostly the British, were finally able to trade with the economic powerhouse that was China in the eighteenth century. They traded silk and tea for cold, hard cash in the form of silver. But one-way trade is not very profitable. The British needed something to sell, so they introduced the practice of smoking opium. A market of addicts was created practically overnight.
The British, went from having nothing the Chinese wanted, to being peddlers of something they desperately needed. The Chinese government tried to respond. Opium was made illegal. Buying and selling opium was made illegal, yet still silver flowed from the Imperial coffers to pay for its people’s addiction.
(Because we all know how great government prohibition works out.)
The British used their lucrative, illegal trade to build lots of big ships with even more guns while the Chinese government struggled to keep order within its own borders. The Qing dynasty continued to make efforts to prevent people from smoking opium, and the British did everything they could to keep selling it. This led to a series of conflicts called the Opium Wars.
It was sort of like a man who got caught up with a bad crowd going to his dealer and begging him to stop selling the drug, for the sake of his children. And the dealer says, “If you don’t keep buying drugs from me, I’ll kill your children.”
A nation that was a dominant force on the planet was brought to its knees by drugs, and that drug dealer went on the rule the world.
And that is why you should just say no.
2. Tobacco: Cash crop of the Americas
While tobacco mixed with opium brought down one ancient empire, tobacco by itself helped fuel the rise of a new nation. The United States was built on two things: the backs of slaves and the smoke of tobacco. It was no coincidence that these two things went hand in hand.
Building colonies is a difficult task. The British already had the failed settlement of Roanoke under their belt, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century Jamestown was about to kick the bucket as well. Then an enterprising colonist named John Rolfe decided to experiment with growing drugs instead of food. The economy boomed practically overnight. Jamestown, and future British settlements on the Atlantic coast of North America were saved by the high demand of Tobacco in Europe.
Unfortunately, high demand and the desire for cheap labor to fill it led to the entrenching of slavery in colonial economics and culture. Many of America’s founding fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, owed their affluent status to tobacco exports, and the slaves that grew and harvested it.
3. Egyptian Beer
How do you keep legions of workers strong? Strong enough to carve and drag heavy blocks of limestone? You feed them beer. A few gallons or beer and a loaf of bread provide all the nutrients a laborer needs. Plus, it provides a secondary benefit. Nobody likes their job, and the more difficult it is, the more likely the workers will walk into the supervisors office and set his desk on fire. But if you give the same workers beer at the end of the day, they are less likely to be violent. Or at least less violent toward the people who run the breweries. It also helps if the workers know they’ll starve if they don’t get paid. (To work and drink, or revolt and starve. It’s a pretty easy choice.)
When you move and offer beer to your friends in exchange for their help, don’t stop there. Get them to build you a tomb to defy the ages while you’re at it
4. Oracle at Delphi
So you really need some vague information about the future. What stocks to buy? What jobs to apply for? What people to pick fights with? If you don’t have access to tarot cards, or can’t afford a crystal ball, and your local homeless prophet is on vacation, then you really only have one choice. You’re gonna have to pack up and take a long visit to the oracle.
For a thousand years the Oracle at Delphi was the lady to talk to. Her prophecies were universally valued, from skeptical philosophers to power-hungry tyrants.
But what gave the Oracle her predictive powers? Some claimed it was the voice of Apollo himself, rising up from the floor to whisper in the ears of his priestesses. It is more likely that the voice of Apollo was more concerned with lungs than ears, and that it was a gas leak.
For many years archaeologists dismissed the idea that voices, or vapors, or anything rose from the floor in the Temple at Delphi. More recent scholarship shows that the geologic composition of the rocks beneath the temple allowed gasses from the earth to seep through. Among these gasses was ethylene, which gets people high.
The next time you are forced to leave a building because of a gas leak, run in, breathe deep, and see if you can see the future.
5. The Maya and Mushrooms
Many have heard of the Maya doomsday prophecies. At the end of the thirteenth Bak’tun, a uselessly large period of time, the world was supposed to undergo a tragic destruction, or renewal, or both. A lot of modern people believed the prophecies of the ancient Maya. They stockpiled food and built bunkers because they just knew those ancient people, who only stopped killing each other long enough to erect monuments dedicated to how they gloriously killed each other, had secret knowledge of nature and the universe.
The fact that December 21, 2012 came and went without a hitch aside, would these people still give credit to the Maya if they knew many of their priests and rulers were high on mushrooms. A lot.
Mushroom imagery is everywhere in what survives from pre-Columbian Maya culture. From ornate little mushrooms statues, to grinding stones with traces of mushroom residue on them, to depictions of mushrooms in the few remaining Maya codices.
(They’re either mushrooms, or little statues of dicks.)
It has been said that psychedelic mushrooms were revered as substances of immortality and sacrifice, two recurring themes in Mesoamerican mythology. Mushrooms may have led to quant traditions like the were-jaguar, ritual human sacrifice, and, possibly, the elaborate systems for measuring the passage of time.
If you are ever hanging out with a friend who wants to trip on mushrooms, hope he predicts the end of the world in like, 10,000 years or something, and that he doesn’t try to cut your head off, or rip your heart out and eat it. In fact, it’s a good idea to stay away from anyone who is ranting about how only human blood can feed the gods.