From hash-smoking Assassins to Nazis on meth, take a ride through the facts (and myths) of drugs in history.
“We were somewhere around Greece, at the edge of the Iron Age, when the drugs began to take hold…”
Alexander the Great probably fought his battles drunk.
I say “probably” because no historical source explicitly says this — but let’s look at the facts.
Fact 1: Alexander was a legendary high-functioning alcoholic.
More facts: Alexander’s armies — like most pre-modern fighting forces— drank generous daily rations of wine, which the Macedonians in particular were famous for chugging straight-up, without water, by the bucketful, until they puked and blacked out —
Look, I’m not saying Alexander was blackout drunk while he led cavalry charges. I’m saying the man was famous for heavy drinking, and he led an army of infamous winoes into some very high-stress situations, and alcohol was involved in those battles. There’s just no getting around it.
And this isn’t an unusual case, at all.
Welcome to the Bat Country of global politics. Let’s take a ride.
The city of Cairo lived in fear of the next attack.
It was the 1100s A.D., and Christian Crusaders and Muslim Seljuks alike were terrified of a sect of Shi’ites known as the Nizari Isma’ilis. This sect —which aimed to establish a unified Isma’ili State spanning Iran, Iraq and Syria — dispatched stealthy killers to eliminate key politicians, military leaders and other enemies.
The attackers struck silently in broad daylight, in crowded public places, using daggers, poisons, or their bare hands when necessary. They left civilians alone — but everyone else was fair game, at every moment.
The leader of this Isma’ili sect, a charismatic man known as Hassan-i-Sabbah, called his disciplesasāsiyun — people faithful to the asās, the foundation of their faith. But a lot of Muslims didn’t find these killers all that faithful, and the masses reacted with outrage. In Cairo, the Caliph al-Āmir publicly called the killers hashishi — rabble, outcasts.
The European Crusaders picked up this word hashishi, and connected it with a very similar word they were also discovering in the Middle East — hashish, cannabis.
So it was that the asāsiyun became known as the hashishiyun — the so-called “smokers of hashish.”
Propaganda spread over the years, as propaganda does, and by the time Marco Polo made his way across Central Asia three centuries later, he was hearing tales of a “secret garden of paradise” within the mountain fortress of Alamūt— “Eagle’s Nest,” which was also the name of Adolf Hitler’s mountain sanctuary, and is also the name of the on-campus café at Biola University in La Mirada, California.
Hassan-i-Sabbah would allegedly bring new inititates to Alamūt after filling their lungs with hashish smoke. There in the garden, amidst colorful flowers and eager young maidens, the initiates would listen as the “Old Man of the Mountain” — who popped up again a thousand years later as a trope in 1920s stoner jazz culture, for some reason — told them this was Paradise, and they must kill for the Nizari cause if they wanted to spend eternity in the garden of delights.
So said the legend, at any rate.
The truth is that the Nizari Isma’ilis, who were Shi’a, already had plenty of reasons to want to kill the Sunni Seljuks— reasons reaching all the way back to the question of whether Abu Bakr or Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first legitimate Caliph, which is a very long story for another day—which meant they really didn’t need the added motivation of getting high in a garden.
It’s an appealing tactic, though, to call your enemies a bunch of stoners. Seven centuries after the Mongols finished off Hassan-i-Sabbah and the last of the Nizari Isma’ilis, the Mexican supporters of General Pancho Villa invented a new verse to the popular folk song La Cucaracha, playing off the fact that the soldiers of the enemy army — that of Victoriano Huerta — wore brown uniforms, earning them the slur cucaracha (“cockroach”) from Villa’s supporters.
The Huertists probably didn’t find this very funny — and although Huerta’s dictatorship turned into a colossal trainwreck, there’s no evidence that marihuana — whose name lies shrouded in mystery — was directly responsible. In any case, a love of marihuana wouldn’t have been something for the Huertists to brag about.
But other cultures had very different values. To see just how different, we have to talk to one of my all-time favorite people. You’re gonna love him.
Herodotus didn’t have a lot of firsthand knowledge of the world outside Greece. All he had — in the beginning, at least — was a love of conversation and a bottomless curiosity about other people and cultures.
Where others just wanted to know the “what,” Herodotus wasn’t satisfied until he’d found the “why.”
He’d lived through a brutal war between his people — the Hellenes — and a Middle-Eastern empire known as the Achaemenid Persians; and when the fighting died down, he got to wondering how it had all kicked off in the first place.
Herodotus started asking around. The Persians had attacked the island of Rhodes. Okay, why? Because the Greek cities had refused to submit to the Persian emperor.
Okay, wait — back up a second. Who was this Persian emperor? Why did he want the Greek city-states to submit to him? …and down the rabbit hole we go.
Imagine trying to figure this out without the Internet. Without history books. Without encyclopedias. All you’ve got are mountains of hand-written civic records and a whole lotta word of mouth. Have fun! Herodotus dug in, and by the end of it he’d invented a whole new way of examining relationships among people and cultures.
Herodotus called his new hobby historia — “finding out.”
Herodotus ended up finding out all kinds of stuff — and the way he tells it is great. He’ll be like, “So, they tell me that in India, right, they pick wool from trees.” He’s talking about cotton! They didn’t have cotton in ancient Greece. Somebody told him about it.
“Oh, and by the way,” he’ll add, “They also have giant ants that dig up gold there. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m not even sure if I believe it. It’s just what I heard.”
So you never quite know what you’re going to get with Herodotus, and that’s a big part of the fun. For a long time, even the experts weren’t sure how many of his stories to believe.
A lot of Herodotus’s tales are flat-out bizarre, and he clearly goes for the tabloid stuff on purpose —and yet, weirdly enough, archaeologists keep digging up more and more proof of the strangest things he talks about.
For example, in “The Fourth Book of Stuff I Found Out“ (or “The Fourth Book of the Histories,” as boring people call it) —
Herodotus shares some things he’s heard about the Scythians, a wild tribe of rapscallions who ride the desolate steppes of Central Asia.
Herodotus says the Scythians build sweat lodges where they throw hemp seeds on burning coals, and soak and breathe in the cannabis smoke until — I swear this is what he says — they start howling like wolves.
Oh, but that’s just the beginning. It turns out the Scythians loved marijuana and opium so much that their kings smoked both drugs from solid gold bongs.
The Scythians were big fans of wine, too —so much so that if you told an ancient Greek, “my friend drinks like a Scythian,” he’d know exactly what you meant.
All those Central Asian steppe peoples would drink and smoke you under the table. In the absence of readily available grapes or barley, the Mongols figured out how to brew an alcoholic drink from mare’s milk — kumis — which Mongolians still drink to this day.
Genghis Khan famously said not to get drunk more than three times a month, but his son Ögedei Khan drank so much that the family assigned a servant to follow him around and try to keep a lid on it.
Ögedei Khan’s response was, “Deal with it.” His doctor told him he had to cut it down to one cup per day — so Ögedei commissioned a sort of medieval Big Gulp cup and walked around drinking out of that.
I like to imagine Ögedei Khan sipping from his giant pimp chalice, throat-singing the Mongol equivalent of, “They see me rollinnn…”
I guess some of us can relate; though maybe not so much to Ögedei’s conquests of large chunks of Iran, China, Korea, India, Georgia and Armenia, all accomplished while drunk.
Ögedei perished one night at the end of an epic drinking contest with a tax administrator named Abd-ur-Rahman. Many have suspected poison in the kumis — but the real truth may always remain a mystery.
Everybody who loves Japanese food knows shabu shabu — that tasty dish of thinly sliced meat and veggies. When Japanese chemist Nagayoshi Nagai first synthesized methamphetamine — known as shabu シャブ in Japanese — in 1893, he had no idea what trouble those little slices of his would cause.
Six years earlier, Nagayoshi had isolated a chemical called ephedra — a key ingredient in meth production — from a plant called Ephedra sinica (known in Mandarin Chinese as 麻黃, ma huang — “yellow hemp” — though it’s not in the cannabis family). And by isolating this chemical,
Nagayoshi had hit the tip of the ice-berg.
Ephedra, you see, may be the plant that the Zoroastrian priests of Achaemenid Persia — the empire that attacked Greece and sent Herodotus down his rabbit hole — used in ecstatic rituals to evoke their fire-god Ahura Mazda, who Zoroastrians around the world (like the late Freddy Mercury of Queen) still worship today.
These priests —known as magi, as in “magicians,” as in “the Three Magi who visited the baby Jesus” — called the drug soma or haoma.
When Herodotus went looking for clues about why the Persians had attacked his country, he ran right smack into haoma.
Why did the Achaemenid Persians attack Greece? Well, Herodotus says, here’s what people tell me. When Persians want to make a big decision, they throw a blow-out party, drink tons of wine and smoke a lot of haoma, and make up a plan. If the plan still sounds good when they’re sober the next morning, then the Persians put it into action. And that’s what they did in this case.
Remember, Herodotus isn’t saying this is true. He’s not even sure if he believes it. It’s just what he heard.
Another problem: nobody can agree for sure what soma/haoma is. Some say it’s the cannabis plant, others insist it’s psilocybin mushrooms; all kinds of theories are flying around. But ephedra is a strong contender. As late as the 1800s, Zoroastrians in Iran’s Yazd province were using ephedra in their rituals, and exporting it to Zoroastrians in nearby India.
A very similar chemical is the main ingredient in modern American medicines like Sudafed and Claritin D. Sales of medicines like these are carefully regulated in many countries now, because — like Nagayoshi Nagai in 1893 — chemists can use them to create methamphetamine.
Tough luck for today’s aspiring Zoroastrian magi.
It wasn’t the prospect of communion with Ahura Mazda, though, that got the Japanese hooked on meth. The drug sold itself. It made people alert, happy and productive, and it clamped down on appetite and kept folks slim. What’s not to love? Nobody could think of a single good reason not to dole it out to everyone in bucketloads — and that’s exactly what the Axis and the Allies both did in World War II.
Yep, that’s right — the Americans, the Germans and the Japanese all kept their troops supplied with plenty of crystal meth — especially fighter pilots, who had to stay on high alert.
And as for the leaders , well—
Hitler claimed he’d never touched a drop of alcohol in his life, but he was head-over-heels in love with methamphetamine.
Churchill, Stalin and FDR drank their way straight through the mid-war Tehran Conference in 1943, where FDR broke the ice by introducing Stalin to his first Martini.
Apparently Stalin liked the drink, because the three leaders “made merry” until the break of dawn, when they ratified their decisions as they battled hangovers, just like Achaemenid Persian kings—deep in the heart of Persia, which seems only right, somehow.
And that was just the Allied side! History doesn’t say much about Axis side’s drug-fueled debauches — so we can only imagine what Führer and friends got up to at Eagle’s Nest.
I could tell you about all kinds of other stuff , too— John F. Kennedy tweaked out on amphetamines during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the CIA’s project MK-ULTRA, which dosed government agents and unsuspecting civilians with LSD from 1953 to 1964 — but you get the idea.
I’ve got two main points to make here.
Point One: History takes on a distinctly different cast when you consider the substances its participants were imbibing.
Nor am I talking about possibly apocryphal anecdotes like the Battle of Karánsebes in 1788, when a contingent of Austrian hussars allegedly got drunk, mistook some of their fellow troops for Turks, and proceeded to set up fortifications and blast the hell out of their own army.
I’m not talking about vague anecdotes, but about specific, documented facts.
Whereas some people refuse alcohol for religious reasons, Prince Vladimir of Kiev — a 9th-century Russian ruler — refused a religion for alcohol reasons. Deliberating over whether to convert to Christianity or Islam, he talked with ambassadors from both faiths — and was dismayed to learn that Islam wouldn’t permit him to imbibe. “We cannot exist without [alcohol],” he said, so Russia chose Christianity.
A thousand years later, Ukrainian Cossacks would be writing hilariously profane smack-talk letters to their Muslim enemies. Read this diss letter and tell me alcohol wasn’t involved.
Now let’s talk about the favorite drugs of America’s founding fathers!
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in his favorite bar, the Indian Queen Tavern in Philadelphia, while downing glass after glass of red wine; then summoned the American Founding Fathers to the bar to read and sign the document— which might explain John Hancock’s decision to scrawl his name in giant letters, “so King George can see it.”
At the Constitutional Convention 11 years later, the party bill included 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Claret, eight bottles of whiskey, eight bottles of cider, 12 bottles of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch—all for 55 people.
My favorite of Ben Franklin’s euphemisms is, “He’s eaten a toad-and-a-half for breakfast.”
Napoléon Bonaparte literally brushed his teeth with opium. President Ulysses S. Grant was known for showing up drunk to make decisions about post-Civil-War reintegration and Native American rights. Senator Joseph McCarthy was infamous for going on whiskey benders during the height of Cold-War paranoia.
Russian president Boris Yeltsin gave a drunk public speech in New York — bringing Bill Clinton to tears of laughter —and on another occasion, wandered out of the White House in his underpants, in search of pizza.
That about brings us up to the present, which brings us to —
Point Two: The world’s most hallowed halls are still an all-you-can-drink buffet right now, as we speak.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the executive branch of the European Union, drinks so much cognac that world leaders are holding meetings on how to sober him up. Vladimir Putin proclaims his love of vodka so much that he’s got a distillery named after him (the 9th-century Prince Vladimir would be proud).
Presidents of France, Japan, Russia and America have all shown up drunk to G8 Summits over the past few years; though, of course, all of them claim mere fatigue — or in Bush’s case, poisoning.
And those are just the episodes we have on video — the ones nobody’s especially keen to hide; because alcohol, after all, is a legal drug.
Ask yourself: What decisions about climate change, COVID-19, petroleum pollution, Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, nuclear brinkmanship; you name it — are being shaped by mind-altering substances right now, as you read this sentence?
Look, I’m not some kind of straight-edge sobriety fanatic. I’m buzzing with caffeine as I write this, and I’ve got plans tonight to discuss a business proposal over wine, in the proud tradition of America’s Founding Fathers.
The architects of history like to drink. They like to smoke. They make world-altering decisions while drunk and high. It’s what they’ve been doing since ancient Sumer and Egypt — and long before — and there’s no putting a stop to it.
No point sweeping the drugs under the rug, either.
A lot of things might start to make a lot more sense, if — like our good friend Herodotus — we all embarked on a little of our own “finding-out.”