An Ancient Egyptian vase with a face resembling the deity Bes was found with traces of a mixture containing several psychedelic compounds.

A recent preprint of a study intended for peer review, scientists discovered direct evidence inside a vase, indicating that the Ancient Egyptian cult of fertility god Bes used Syrian rue, Egyptian lotus, and royal jelly to trip on during religious ceremonies. Ptolemaic-era vases from the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida were analyzed.

Bes (and his female counterpart Beset) was worshiped during the New Kingdom, Ptolemaic period, and Imperial Rome as protector of households, i.e. women and children. Offerings to Bes usually were meant for fertility purposes. In the New Kingdom, Egyptians bore the image of Bes tattooed on their skin, and evidence suggests festivals in honor of Bes.

Researchers found traces of multiple plants and ingredients known for their hallucinogenic properties. “Our analyses revealed traces of Peganum harmala, Nimphaea nouchali var. caerulea, and a plant of the Cleome genus, all of which are traditionally proven to have psychotropic and medicinal properties,” researchers wrote. “Additionally, the identification of human fluids suggests their direct involvement in these rituals.”

Courtesy D. Tanasi et al., 2023

Other Egyptian cults and Ancient Mayans also used Nimphaea nouchali var. Caerulea for psychedelic purposes. Researchers also detected cow DNA, and speculate the vases may have contained a fermented milk or some other cow product. Traces of royal honey or royal jelly was also found in the vase, known for both hallucinogenic effects and for increasing sexual vitality, (though the FDA warned about hawkers mixing it with Cialis). Some of royal jelly’s benefits, however, are backed by science.

“Furthermore, metabolomics and SR μ-FTIR analyses also revealed the presence of fermented fruit-based liquid and other ingredients such as honey or royal jelly,” researchers wrote. “The identification of specific chemical compounds, such as alkaloids and flavonoids, provides insight into the psychoactive and therapeutic uses of these in ancient ritual practices. This multidisciplinary study highlights the complexity of ancient cultures and their interactions with psychoactive, medicinal, and nutraceutical substances. These findings contribute to our understanding of ancient belief systems, cultural practices, and the utilization of natural resources, ultimately enhancing our knowledge of past societies and their connection to the natural world.”

Along with the Egyptian or blue lotus, the most popular psychoactive plants we know about among the Ancient Egyptians are opium, tobacco, and coca.

Ars Technica reports that ceramic vases and similar vessels depicting Bes have been found and now populate museums and private collections across the world. Researchers speculate they held beer or an elixir. He’s usually depicted with a bearded dwarf and sticking his tongue out, sometimes with a phallic symbol.

“The familiar image of Bes is a composite of anthropomorphic and theriomorphic elements, part dwarfish, part feline,” the report reads. “He emerged from the magical realm of the world of demons as a guardian figure, and gradually seems to have obtained a more numinous status until, in the Roman Imperial age, he sporadically acquired divine worship. In terms of his functions, Bes provided protection from danger, while simultaneously averting harm, and being able with his power to prevent evil. In critical circumstances, he was also placating in nature as told in the well-known Myth of the Solar Eye, when he stopped the wrath of bloodthirsty goddess Hathor serving her an alcoholic beverage, spiked with a plant-based drug, disguised as blood to a deep forgetting sleep on her.”

Chambers painted with the image of Bes were built at the site of Saqqara near the Egyptian capital Memphis, south of Cairo, but little is understood about the religion specifics.

Expanding the sampling chemical study to other examples of similar times would show a clearer picture, researchers said.

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