Ancient Egyptian followers of a deity called Bes may have used hallucinogens

Drinking vessel in shape of Bes head
Enlarge / An Egyptian drinking vessel in the shape of Bes head contained traces of Syrian rue and blue water-lily, among other compounds.

Tampa Museum of Art, Florida

An ancient Egyptian vase in the shape of the deity Bes showed traces of chemical plant compounds known to produce hallucinations, according to a recent preprint posted to Research Square. The authors suggest that members of the cult of Bes may have consumed a special cocktail containing the compounds to induce altered states of consciousness.

There is ample evidence that humans in many cultures throughout history used various hallucinogenic substances in religious ceremonies or shamanic rituals. That includes not just ancient Egypt but also ancient Greek, Vedic, Maya, Inca, and Aztec cultures. The Urarina people who live in the Peruvian Amazon Basin still use a psychoactive brew called ayahuasca in their rituals, and Westerners seeking their own brand of enlightenment have also been known to participate.

Lacing the beer served at their feasts with hallucinogens may have helped an ancient Peruvian people known as the Wari forge political alliances and expand their empire, according to a 2022 study. As previously reported, the use of hallucinogens, particularly a substance derived from the seeds of the vilca tree, was common in the region during the so-called Middle Horizon period, when the Wari empire thrived.

Vilca typically grows in the dry tropical forests in the region. The trees produce long legumes filled with thin seeds. The seeds, bark, and other parts of the tree all contain DMT, a well-known psychedelic substance that is also found in ayahuasca brews, but the primary active ingredient is bufotenine. It was usually smoked, ingested in the form of snuff, or used as an enema. A 4,000-year-old pipe laced with bufotenine residue and related paraphernalia was found in an Incan cave in Argentina in 1999—the oldest archaeological evidence to date for using vilca in South America.

There is also evidence from historical accounts that a juice or tea derived from vilca seeds was sometimes added to chicha, a fermented beverage made from maize or the fruits of the molle tree native to Peru. And people of the state of Tiwanaku were known to mix such hallucinogens with alcohol, specifically maize beer. There are monoliths depicting figures holding a drinking cup in one hand and a snuff tray in another, and smoking or inhaling vilca was part of a long-standing ritual tradition to foster personal spiritual journeys.

For this latest work, Davide Tanasi of the University of South Florida and his co-authors analyzed an Egyptian ritual vase in the shape of Bes dating back to the second century BCE—known as the Ptolemaic period—in the collection of the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida. Bes was a popular deity believed to confer protection on households, especially mothers and children. So unlike most other Egyptian deities, images of Bes were quite common in Egyptian homes. There were even special chambers built to honor Bes and his wife Beset at the Saqqara site near Cairo, which Egyptologists think could have been used for fertility or healing rituals, although their exact purpose is not certain.

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