B) Contexts of Ritual Intoxication

Intoxication was pursued for various purposes and in different contexts. First of all, it was of great importance in socio-religious rites, which probably gathered together the important members of the tribe to deal with social or political matters, and initiate the youngest. The Indian healers from North America have, for instance, long been using the sacred datura and the stramonium to initiate the young men to the mysteries of the supernatural world and create collective visions for particular socio-religious rites.2247

Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that wise men used visionary substances in the sphere of divination to foretell the future, solve problems or answer important questions in relation to the society of the time.2248 In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder, for example, relates that the Gaulish peoples used the verbena in divination: “The people in the Gaulish provinces make use of them both [peristereon, ‘pigeon plant’ or verbenaca, ‘vervain’] for soothsaying purposes, and for the prediction of future events”.2249 As for the scholiast of Lucan, he stipulates that the druids were used to ingesting acorns to foretell the future: “the name of the druids come either from the trees (oaks), because they lived in remote sacred woods, or because they were used to practicing divination under the effects of an ingestion of acorns”.2250

Moreover, intoxication is very likely to have been part of the funerary rites held in honour of important people in society, for hemp and achillea residues were discovered in various tombs dating from Neolithic.2251 The most striking examples as regards the Celts are the crater* of Vix (Côte d’Or, France), probably containing the remains of an intoxicating beverage, excavated in the tomb of a princess, and the cauldron of mead discovered in the tomb of the Prince of Hochdorf (Baden Württemberg, Germany), which will be the subject of the following part. It must have aimed at purifying the soul of the deceased and at making contact with the divine to ensure his or her voyage to the otherworld and guarantee eternal life in the hereafter.

As we will see in more detail below, intoxication was also part of war rites with the intention of earning and rallying the divine forces to the warriors, as well as gaining supernatural powers to attain invincibility and invulnerability to fight the foes.

Finally, the rites of intoxication were much used in medicine to heal, prevent illnesses and prolong life, for the intoxicating plants also had powerful curative virtues. Moreover, it was very necessary for the patients as well as for the doctors to make contact with the divine world, more particularly the healing gods and goddesses, for they could purvey the sick pilgrims with remedies or relieve them from their pain, as we will develop in the last part of this chapter.


Weil & Rosen, 2000, p. 186.


Brunaux, 2000, p. 179.


Book 25, 59, 2 ; Bostock, 1855. See Appendix 1. Peristereon and verbenaca were two sorts of verbena known in Antiquity.


Scholia known as Bernoises to The Pharsalia of Lucan, commentum ad versum I 451. The Scholia known as Bernoises (unknown date: 9th c.?) are annotations or notes made in the margin of the manuscripts by the copyists of Antiquity and of the Middle Ages. The English translation proposed in the text is my own.


Bilimoff, 2003, p. 51.