And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight / And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy / And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with thee: It shall be unto you most holy.
This is the recipe for holy incense that was ground up and burned to fumigate the 4m2 of holy hotboxes. Wrapped in a cloud of psychoactive smoke, the High Priest would get high enough to see the angels and hear their voices before returning to the tribe to share what he had learned during the angelic counsel.
The previous installment of the Drugs in the Bible series described how incense was used. This one explores the psychopharmacology of these substances and the range of effects they have on the brain, the mind and the body. Of course, knowledge is ultimately experiential, so I suggest you take a mix of these ingredients and burn them in large quantities while taking a hot bath in a well-sealed bathroom. My experience of this is that while there clearly is a sense of mood alteration, it’s not like taking ecstasy or something similar. What is more interesting is the kind of material that can be downloaded in that smoke cloud. So think of it as a tool for revelation rather than a way to get high, and let us know if you discover something extraordinary.
The Ingredients in Exodus
Stacte is identified by Pliny as high-grade myrrh.
Myrrh contains large amounts of several opioid receptor agonists (substances that work on opioid receptors), including 2-acetoxyfuranodiene (9.80 percent), curzerene (6.71 to 17 percent) and furanoeudesma-1,3-diene (8.97 percent). The latter was found to have 10 percent of the pain-killing potency of morphine, and presumably it resembles morphine in other ways too, such as enhancing one’s mood and causing euphoria.
All opioids reduce anxiety, which makes sense for a smoke used in divination rites. If we were being very atheistic, we might consider divination to be an elaborate ritual of creative problem solving, and our problem-solving capacity is compromised by anxiety. One experiment showed how people taking a creative problem-solving test after completing a maze scored twice as high if the maze is illustrated with a mouse seeking cheese rather than a mouse fleeing an owl. That tiny bit of extra tension felt in sympathy with the situation of a cartoon mouse has a very large effect. Reducing anxiety with opioids would make someone a better problem-solver.
Myrrh also contains several constituents that dilate the bronchioles of the lungs, making smoke easier to absorb into the bloodstream. One is alpha-pinene, a constituent often found in cannabis, and another is eugenol, which is a close relative of MDMA. Other psychoactive chemicals in myrrh that have structural relationships to MDMA include safrole, myrcene and elemicin.
Frankincense is a GABA-receptor agonist inhibiting many neurons and calming down the system, so it also reduces anxiety. It is also active at the mysterious TRPV3 ion channels in the brain (as discussed in Part 1 of the series).
Galbanum, according to most scholars, is Ferula gummosa. It acts on opioid receptors (like opium and heroin), but it also boosts the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with a wide range of pleasant and beneficial processes. They are squirted into the synapse to make a neuron fire and then broken down by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which is inhibited by galbanum. When inhibited, it does not break down serotonin and dopamine, so they build up in the synapse and make signals more likely to be transmitted.
Dopamine is involved in language production and the laying down of memories, both of which are relevant to divination. The High Priest (like the oracle at Delphi and other diviners) would often give their prophecies and advice in the form of poetry or song, both of which are a function of language production.
Furthermore, many of the substances consumed by the High Priest have the effect of disrupting memory and language formation (like, um, what is… oh yeah, cannabis. What was the other thing? Yeah, close the bracket). The ritual would be useless if the diviner couldn’t recall their tranquillized revelation, and so a dopamine-boosting, memory-improving ingredient would make sense.
Onycha is not positively identified. Many Christian theologians think it is part of a mollusc, although according to the rules of ritual cleanliness, any sea creature without fins is non-kosher. Burning what Leviticus describes as “an abomination” to Yahweh in the Holiest chamber of the Israelite world seems as likely as pulled pork at a bar mitzvah, but there are other suggestions as to the identity. I run through my reasoning in my book Neuro-Apocalypse, but the only one that fits the data is labdanum, which was the 10th-century Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s suggestion.
Labdanum contains safranal, an antidepressant acting on GABA receptors with a similar pharmacological profile to ecstasy. It also contains crocin (and the related crocetin), which has the remarkable property of giving rats more erections than normal and altering their “mount behavior”: i.e., it makes them horny.
Labdanum, like many of the drugs found in the Tabernacle, also has a connection to Egypt as it used to be rubbed into the Pharaoh’s false beard⎯a drug administration scheme that wouldn’t have been out of place at some of the sillier parties of the 1990s.
Incense in the Talmud
The Talmud is a collection of Israelite folklore that was written down after the destruction of the second temple. Much of it is commentary that adds detail to verses of the Bible, and its recipe for the “incense of drugs” includes several other spices such as cassia and cinnamon, which are discussed in Part 2 of the series. Other ingredients are saffron, costus, agarwood, spikenard and mastic.
Saffron, the stigma of Crocus sativus, is burned reverently around Asia. It is more expensive than gold by weight, and we usually encounter it cooked into rice in tiny amounts to make it yellow, but in larger doses, it is analgesic (pain-killing), anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) and hypnotic (sleep-inducing). It is a marvelous smoke. I know because my daughter won some in a school competition and foolishly gave it to me. In Islamic jurisprudence it is classed as one of the permissible “drugs that cause joy,” so I’m not too worried.
Part of its wonderful effect is because it contains the GABA agonists safranal and safrole, the latter being the raw material from which MDMA is usually made. Another constituent is crocin (rat erections), recalling Pliny’s comment that saffron “has a gentle effect upon the head, and whets the sex drive.” According to Georg Most, “Saffron comes close to opium; in low doses, it excites, cheers, and produces laughter… in high doses it sedates, promotes sleep, sopor.” In short, a great addition to any bong load.
Agarwood is a highly-prized perfume produced by Aquilaria trees as a defense against parasitic fungi, with hypnotic, sedative and antidepressant effects. Three hundred compounds have been isolated from it, including GABA receptor agonists (like galbanum, frankincense and valium) and GABA receptor modulators. Modulators change the way receptors work, making them more sensitive to their neurotransmitters and drugs. This is an example of plant synergy, where one resin makes another more potent.
Like galbanum, agarwood also contains enzyme inhibitors that slow the reabsorption of neurotransmitters. This means that dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine remain available in the synaptic cleft for longer.
Costus is widely used in Asia, eaten as an aphrodisiac, smoked in Tibet and burned in Chinese joss sticks. It has neuroleptic, analgesic and sedative effects, and causes motor dis-coordination and catalepsy in rats, but perhaps its most interesting effect is that it is neuroprotective as it protects neurons from damage. One neuroprotective constituent in particular is costunolide, which protects cells against cell death as a result of dopamine accumulation. We have seen how other constituents cause the accumulation of dopamine in the synaptic cleft, so this suggests an extremely advanced understanding of pharmacological synergies.
Spikenard is a wonderful smelling ointment that is liberally put upon Jesus’ feet in John 12, in an act that Judas considers terribly wasteful. Its antidepressant activity is partly because of its calarene, which when taken alone has an “instant and intense” sedative effect. Spikenard itself is a sedative at low doses but a stimulant at high doses, suggesting a more complex psychopharmacological profile.
As well as having neuroprotective properties, it is another substance that boosts serotonin, dopamine and GABA, and improves learning and memory in mice. Again a memory-boosting ingredient would be useful to help the High Priest remember the details of his divinatory experience.
Smoke like an Egyptian
Some incense ingredients were used to pre-process others, which indicates highly refined techniques of production. The Talmud asks:
Why was Carshina lye brought? To refine the onycha, that it be pleasant.
Why was Cyprus wine brought? To steep the onycha, that it be pungent.
As with the anointing oil (see Part 2), the incense may indicate a connection between the Israelite priests and the Egyptians, who were the master apothecaries of the ancient world. They had incense called kyphi that was burned in the Temple of Edfu on the Nile, and this was also steeped in wine during production. Many of the ingredients are the same, including frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, mastic, saffron and spikenard. Several of the ingredients in both incenses are not positively identified, so there may be others that are common to both.
The reason they are not known is that this was once secret knowledge that was only written down as the character of the religion was transforming under the pressures of exile in Babylon.
One Talmud story describes how a scribe was walking with a child of the Atvinas clan, which was the family that guarded the secret of the recipe in the time of the second temple. The story goes that the child was smiling, and when the scribe asked why, he replied that he had seen the plant called ma’aleh ashan. He wouldn’t reveal the secret, however, and so it was not identified by the rabbis, and hasn’t been since. At least we know what it does because the name means “that which causes smoke to rise.” As in the story of Cain and Abel, the smoke of the sacrifice rising straight up to heaven is considered pleasing to Yahweh. Nebtadini pyrotechnica has this property, and is used in fireworks because of how it burns.
The Pillar of Smoke
When the thick screen that sealed the Holy of Holies was drawn back, smoke would come pouring out through the Tabernacle to the entrance, where it would rise up into the sky under the influence of “that which causes smoke to rise.”
The cloudy pillar of Exodus 33 is described as a descending cloud, but the Hebrew word (yared) also means “revealing.” The lines about what happens when the rite of divination ends can be translated as follows:
When Moses entered into the Tabernacle, the cloudy pillar revealed. Then it arose at the entrance of the Tabernacle. It talked with Moses. All the people [outside] saw the cloudy pillar arise at the Tabernacle entrance. (For an explanation of my translation, see Nemu, 2016, pp. 182–183)
This pillar of smoke famously guides the Children of Israel (Exodus 13:21). Could it be that the smoke guides the tribe by guiding its High Priest, the shaman engaging his familiar spirits amongst psychoactive clouds in a rite of solitary divination? This is the format common to many shamanistic cultures, but we’ll leave an investigation of Moses as a shaman to the next installment.
This is Part 5 of the Drugs in the Bible series. The other installments include Getting High with the High Priest of Israel, Psychoactive Synergies in the Holy Anointing Oil of the Ancient Israelites, The Lesser Priests and the Lower Dose: Psychoactive Secrets of the Israelite Priesthood, and Hot-Boxing with the Hebrews.
Follow Reverend Danny Nemu on Twitter here, and check out his book Neuro-Apocalypse (with 5-star reviews) here. His peer-reviewed academic article on the psychopharmacology of drugs in the Bible can be found here.