Business or Pleasure? Narcotics used in Canaanite Cult

Archaeologists discover opium in Late Bronze Age graves in Israel

Narcotics in the Canaanite cult? Cypriot Base-Ring jug in situ. Courtesy Assaf Peretz, IAA.

Were Bronze Age Canaanites on drugs? Apparently so. To be fair, drug use across the ancient world was much more common than one might think, but the archaeological evidence for such a practice remained a matter of debate. That is, until now. A study published in the journal Archaeometry examined residue from a group of ceramic vessels discovered at the site of Tel Yehud, revealing the earliest known archaeological example of the use of the drug opium.

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Canaanites, Opium, and Rock ‘n Roll

Despite widespread references within textual and pictographic sources to the cultivation of the opium poppy and the use of opium, little archaeological evidence for this practice had been discovered before the salvage excavations at Tel Yehud in central Israel. These excavations uncovered hundreds of Canaanite graves from the 18th to 13th centuries B.C.E. Within several of the graves dating to the 14th century, the team discovered a collection of Base-Ring jugs imported from Cyprus. Shaped as an inverted poppy heads, these vessels contained the residue of the opium which they had been filled with at the time of burial.


Collection of ceramics from Tel Yehud. Courtesy Clara Amit, IAA.


Although the purpose of opium within the graves is not certain, the psychoactive drug likely played some role within Canaanite cultic rituals. This would have included the cult of the dead, as the Base-Ring jugs associated with opium have been found in contexts connected to burial rights or as offerings to the dead.

According to Vanessa Linares, the primary author of the study, “It may be that during [the burial]… participants attempted to raise the spirits of their dead relatives in order to express a request, and would enter an ecstatic state by using opium. Alternatively, it is possible that the opium, which was placed next to the body, was intended to help the person’s spirit rise from the grave in preparation for the meeting with their relatives in the next life.”

Canaanite cult grave

An individual’s burial along with ceramic grave goods. Courtesy Assaf Peretz, IAA.


“From documents that were discovered in the ancient Near East, it appears that the Canaanites attached great importance to ‘satisfying the needs of the dead’ through ritual ceremonies performed for them by the living, and believed that, in return, the spirits would ensure the health and safety of their living relatives.” Adds Ron Be’eri of the Israel Antiquities Authority.


Opium on the Open Market

Base-Ring jug

Base-Ring jug which held opium for the Canaanite cult. Courtesy Clara Amit, IAA.

All the way back in the 1960s, it was suggested that Cypriot Base-Ring jugs, had been specifically used in the Bronze Age to store and transport opium and opium products. This theory relied largely on the shape of these ceramic jugs which closely resemble the form of an inverted poppy. The opium would have been grown in Anatolia, where it was first cultivated in 3000 B.C.E., before being transported by the Cypriot traders around the Mediterranean world. Despite several tests, however, no conclusive evidence was able to prove the connection between these jugs and opium. Meanwhile, other scholars had suggested the vessels were merely used for the transportation of aromatic oils.

Upon sending their ceramics for residue analysis, the Tel Yehud team discovered that a number of these Base-Ring jugs did indeed contain opium. This discovery appears to back up the theory that these jars were explicitly crafted for the opium trade. From Cyprus, the jugs made their way around the world and into the Canaanite cult.


A History Full of Drugs

From Mesopotamia to Crete, and from Anatolia to Egypt, the use and trade of opium appears in the textual record as far back as the earliest days of the written word. Within Mesopotamia, the drug was named “happiness.” In Egypt, specific cultivars of the opium poppy were grown in the city of Thebes and used by priests, magicians, and warriors in cultic activities. Even Homer mentions the use of opium in both the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Greeks associated the drug with numerous deities, especially those linked with sleep.

The use of drugs in cultic contexts did not end in the Bronze Age, or with the Canaanite cult. Indeed, an analysis of the Iron Age shrine at Tel Arad revealed that marijuana was used by Judahites within the cult back in the eighth century B.C.E.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Marijuana Found at Ancient Temple in Israel

Ancient Worship in Israel—Before the Israelites

Canaanite Cult Complex Discovered at Tel Burna


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

What Happened to the Cult Figurines? Israelite Religion Purified After the Exile

How Desert Culture Helps Us Understand The Bible

Cult Stands: A Bewildering Variety of Shapes and Sizes

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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