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Greeks on Drugs?


After my last blog post, I was left hungry for more information about the influence of crack cocaine--the pivotal drug in Anya’s new Agamemnon--on different communities. I had spent the weeks leading up to that post researching the public health and conspiracy aspects of the 1980s epidemic, and I imagined the neurological effects of crack on both individuals and communities added to the severity of the situation.

So I dived into a long list of medical journals and jargon-filled articles, and couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. I wanted something from a sociological or anthropological perspective, not only for my own sake but because I thought it would be more relevant to Anya’s play. Having no luck with 1980s Oakland, I thought to myself: What other communities could be relevant to this play? And it hit me: the Greeks.

One Google search had me swimming in articles I never knew existed about drug use in ancient Greece. As one might expect, it was rampant. Article after article told me about opiate use in ancient societies, using colorful graphics and humour to appeal to the high schoolers who were inevitably going to read their blog. For example, this graphic from Robert Arthur’s blog post Classical Drug Use: Greek and Roman Drug Freedom:


I followed this graphic back to its source which was a textbook by Dr. David Hillman called The Chemical Muse. It piqued my interest, so I ordered it though my university’s library. As soon as I got my hands on it, I was absolutely fascinated.

According to Hillman, the Greeks had a very different relationship to drugs than we do (Hillman, 2008). They abused opiates the way we abuse caffeine and it wasn’t uncommon for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds to use regularly. Opium and other drugs including hallucinogens were often added to wine, which was consumed by the Greeks more frequently than water.

An intriguing argument that Hillman makes in the text is that the Greeks abused drugs this way because they were more aware of their own mortality. He argues that for the Greeks, death was something that was expected to come soon and come violently.

This brought my mind back to the world of Anya’s play. It makes sense to me that communities, both ancient and modern, suffering from violent authorities and oppression might turn to drugs.

I was pleased to find that Hillman addresses Greek plays and literature in his book. Robert Arthur (the creator of the aforementioned graphic) summarizes:

“Medea, the wife of Jason the Argonaut, is frequently portrayed as a witch. She aided Jason by putting fire-breathing bulls asleep and giving him amazing courage. Hillman shows how translators mistranslate polypharmakon and pharmaka to present her as being skilled in the “magical arts” and a possessor of “charms.” Medea was actually “drug-savvy” and possessed “drugs.” She gave the bulls and Jason drugs, not spells.”

I imagine that the same might be true of Cassandra in Agamemnon. Her outbursts, usually translated as a divine curse, might be likened to a paranoid junkie’s ramblings.

My main question for Anya at this point would be: How much is mysticism and spirituality still a part of Cassandra’s character? Are her songs drug-induced ramblings, or divine prophecy? Either way, what does that mean for your play?

Going forward, my plan of action is to finish reading The Chemical Muse and milk it for any more material that might be useful to Anya or our actors. After exploring any questions that stem from that, I want to circle back to my original research task: the 1980s crack epidemic in Oakland, California.


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