The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications




Because it was one of the main aromatic ingredients in theriac, angelica (Angelica archangelica L.) was once known as theriac spice or theriac herb. Angelica has no psychoactive activity. (Woodcut from the herbal of Matthiolus, 1627)


“I drink images: Theriac against death. How much longer?”






(1986, 47)



Vipers’ flesh was one of the basic ingredients in the ancient theriac mixtures. (Woodcut from Gesner, Historia Animalium, 1670)


Other Names


Deridek, electarium theriacale, electuarium theriaca, mithridatium, tary-ak, tery-ak (Iranian), theriaca, theriacum, theriak, theriakos, tiriaque, tyriacke


Toxicology, the science of poisons and the toxicity of substances, was established in ancient times. Because of the many murders by poisoning, at that time toxicology was focused primarily on the antidoton, “antidote.”


Antidotes are what physicians call those medicines that are not laid externally onto the body but are applied inside the body. Three general types of these can be distinguished: some are administered to counteract fatal poisons, others for so-called poisonous animals, the third is for ailments that occur as a result of a bad diet. Some, such as the so-called theriac, promise help in all three cases. (Galen, De Antidotis 1)


Theriac is the most renowned antidote of antiquity and was regarded as the “wonder drug of all wonder drugs” (Watson 1966). Theriac was developed by Andromachus, the personal physician of Emperor Nero (37–68 C.E.), and contained opium479 (Papaver somniferum) and vipers’ flesh along with various spices, roots, honey, and wine. At first, theriac was a further development of the so-called mithridatium, the antidote of the tyrannical king Mithridates of Pontos (132–63 B.C.E.). Mithridatium was formulated by the king himself, who, as a result of his public atrocities, was in constant fear of being poisoned.

According to Celsus (5.23, 3), mithridatium consisted of costus (Costus sp.), calamus (Acorus calamus), St. John’s wort, gum arabic, Sapapenum, acacia juice (Acacia spp.), Illyric iris, cardamom, anise, Gallic spikenard, gentian root, dried rose leaves, poppy juice (= opium), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), sil, bearded darnel (Lolium temulentum), long pepper (see Piper spp.), storax, castoreum, turis, Hypocistisjuice, myrrh, opopanax, malabathron leaves, flowers of the round rush, terebinth resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, spikenard, opobalsam, shepherd’s purse, rhubarb root (Rheum sp.), saffron (Crocus sativus), ginger (Zingiber officinale), and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum). In other words, it contained a number of psychoactive plants.

The recipes for theriac and mithridatium were later refined by Arabic physicians (Steinschneider 1971). But alongside the approximately sixty additional ingredients, the primary constituent was always opium. Among the other important ingredients were theriac spice (Angelica archangelica L. [syn. Archangelica officinalis Hoffm.]) and theriac root (Valeriana officinalis), as well as carrot seeds (Daucus carota).


Theriacs were increasingly employed (with quite differing degrees of success) to treat all manner of diseases, from the pervasive syphilis to the plague. The opium that was needed to prepare these panaceas was imported mainly from Egypt, whereby Venice acquired a central significance as the primary harbor of transshipment. As the demand for the drug grew, the price rose as well, so that opium was often “stretched” with foreign admixtures. Since the Venetian dealers generally received the drug in an as yet unsullied state, the theriacs of the Serenissima soon became the most preferred. In Germany, the city of Nuremberg gained a similar reputation, and it continued to be one of the European market leaders in the production of theriac into the eighteenth century. In order to demonstrate the good quality of the ingredients, theriacs were often mixed together in the marketplace during a folk festival. (Kupfer 1996a, 27*)


After the work of Andromachus, Galen, and the Arabic physicians of the Middle Ages, there were numerous recipes for preparing theriac. All of them listed honeywine, bread (?), vipers’ flesh, opium, and spices as their most important ingredients. These mixtures even found their way into modern pharmacopoeias (electuarium theriaca con opii). Ultimately, theriac gave rise to the so-called elixir of long life and to Swedish bitters (Treben 1980, 60). At first, both of these products also contained opium. It was only during the time of the “drug wars” that opium was banished from these recipes. Cynical tongues have suggested that this step resulted in the removal of the only truly active constituent in these elixirs.



See also the entries for Papaver somniferum and soporific sponge.


Dick, Uwe. 1986. Theriak: 13 Fügungen. Munich: Piper.


Treben, Maria. 1980. Gesundheit aus der Apotheke Gottes. Steyr: Ennsthaler.


Steinschneider, Moritz. 1971. Die toxikologischen Schriften der Araber. Hildesheim: Gerstenberg.


Watson, Gilbert. 1966. Theriac and mithridatium: A study in therapeutics. London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library.