Archaeologists dig up clues on Philistines from psychedelic plants in ancient temples

New study examines remains of food, seeds, flowers found in Gath that were used in ancient Greece in worship of female deities, indicating foreign influences on Philistine culture

Ruins of a Philistine temple in the biblical city of Gath. (Aren Maeir)
Ruins of a Philistine temple in the biblical city of Gath. (Aren Maeir)

A new study into the archaeological remains of food and plant matter found at two Philistine temples in the biblical city of Gath has revealed new details on the extinct culture’s traditions and how they were seemingly influenced by other historic Mediterranean cultures.

Some of the plants found in both temples are known for their medicinal or psychoactive properties and were also used in ancient Greece in temples mostly dedicated to female deities such as Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth; Artemis, goddess of vegetation, chastity, and childbirth; and Demeter, goddess of agriculture.

The study, published in Scientific Reports this month, focused on two temples that were built on top of each other in the 10th century BCE and 830 BCE and destroyed by biblical King Hazael in his conquest of Gath, which is located in modern central Israel by the Judean foothills.

It looked at plants found in the temples including remains of cereals, fruits, weeds, and herbs that researchers believe were prepared in situ as part of the cultic practices in the temples and were eaten, sacrificed, and used for decorations.

Findings at the temples included loom weights, cooking facilities, and a storage jar from Jerusalem, which indicated that some offerings in the temple came from the biblical kingdom of Judea. The loom weights also provided evidence that women weaved in the temples for the goddess Asherah, the mother goddess in Canaanite and Philistine traditions.

The Philistines originated in the Aegean Sea and settled in modern-day southern Israel in the 12th century BCE. They disappeared sometime around the 7th century BCE and while they are mentioned in the Bible and in Egyptian and Assyrian texts, their traditions and religion have remained largely a mystery.

Bees pollinate a chaste tree. (TammyKayPhoto/iStock)

Co-writer of the study Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University told The Times of Israel that the temples were “the first from an early period in Israel that have undergone a deep study of botanical remains.”

He added that the discovery of “several plants that are known to be connected mainly to female deities in Greece” provided an indication of the foreign influences on Philistine culture, which may stem from the fact that some Philistines likely originated from Greece.

Among these plants was the chaste tree, with some 100 fruits from the plant being discovered in the temples. The plant was significant to Spartan cults who used it in rites of worship for Artemis and Asclepios, god of medicine. It was also used by the Heraion cult in Samos.

Another plant researched was the crown daisy flower, which was commonly used as medicine and insecticide in ancient times, and the flowers were used to weave garlands to crown statues of Artemis.

Flowering crown daisies (Dr. Suembikya Frumin)

The chaste tree and crown daisy, which both bloom colorful flowers, were likely used both as part of rituals and as decoration for the Philistine temples they were found in alongside various types of leaves and garlands from other plants found at the site.

The two plants were discovered alongside poison darnel, which is a hallucinogenic and was historically used by midwives as a fortifying medicine.

Lead researcher Dr. Suembikya Frumin said that the Philistine temples were the “earliest known ritual uses” of the chaste tree, crown daisy and silvery scabious — another plant found in the temples.

“These widespread Mediterranean plants connect Philistines with cultic rituals, mythology, and paraphernalia related to early Greek deities, such as Hera, Artemis, Demeter, and Asclepios,” she said.

The discovery of these psychedelic and medicinal plants led researchers to believe that adding medicinal and mood-affecting plants to food was part of the Philistine rituals to enhance their spiritual effects.

The plants found in the temples were diverse in their harvesting times, spanning from March to December. As such, the researchers believe that like many other religions, including Judaism, the Philistines based their religious practices around the changing seasons.

Image of vessels found in Philistine temples that were used for offerings. (Dr. Aren Maeir)

While examining harvest times, the researchers noted that grapes, another of the plants found in the temples, are harvested in the summer and are not long-lasting or traded over long distances. This indicated that the temples were last used in late summer or early autumn, which the researchers estimated was when the city of Gath was destroyed.

Maeir explained that this discovery was significant because while examination of the destruction surrounding the temples revealed that the city was destroyed in 830 BCE, the study was able to narrow it down to a time of year, probably sometime around September.

Both temples were oriented in similar directions in relation to the sun similarly to the Heraion of Samos, where the direction corresponded to mid-summer celestial events that were used to celebrate fertility and human eminence. Symbols of this period included symbolic purification in open water sources like rivers or lakes, which the researchers believed was also part of the Philistine rituals as the temples were built near a river.

“The study revealed that the Philistine religion relied on the magic and power of nature, such as running water and seasonality, aspects that influence human health and life,” Frumin said.

In future studies, Maeir added, the researchers would look at other findings from the temple and the surrounding area, as well as research other aspects of the plants they found.

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