The Salema Porgy, Hallucinogenic Delight of The Roman Empire

by Owen James Burke

Sarpa_salpa_

Consuming this Salema porgy, or sea bream, can leave you hallucinating for several days. (Photo: Brian Gratwicke/Wikipedia)

The Salema porgy (Sarpa salpa), a species of sea bream known in the Arabic world as “the fish that makes dreams,” has been used recreationally throughout history, and might contain the hallucinogenic toxin DMT (a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family).

Caulerpa_prolifera

Above: Caulerpa prolifera, a green algae which is the suspected culprit of the hallucinogenic fish which forms dense beds on shallow sandy substrates (Photo via Wikipedia)

But how could a complex organism beneath the sea carry such severe hallucinogenic toxins? Chances are that it comes from the fish’s diet, which consists of Caulerpa prolifera, a shallow-dwelling green macroalgae, and Posidonia oceanica, a variety of seagrass. German anthropologist Christian Rätsch believes that the algal epiphytes (plants that grow non-parasitically upon others) and toxic dinoflagellates (single-celled plankton with tail-like appendages that also carry ciguatera toxin, a reef-borne dinoflagellate toxin) which they consume are the carriers of DMT.

Salema porgies are regularly eaten without their consumers experiencing hallucinogenic effects, but in 2006, two men were hospitalized in the south of France after consuming them, one of whom was 90 years old. They both claimed to fall “ill” and experience auditory hallucinations along with lucid nightmares for several nights, until the “symptoms” finally and mysteriously abated. Two case studies regarding these incidents, published that same year in the Western Mediterranean and Literature Reviews, suggest that there may be some scientific confusion in the distinction between ciguatera poisoning and Ichthyoallyeinotoxism, or hallucinogenic fish poisoning (and they may well be one in the same):

A 40-year-old man experienced mild digestive troubles and terrifying visual and auditory hallucinations after eating a specimen of Sarpa salpa in a restaurant. As he had severe behaviour troubles, he was managed in the hospital and recovered 36 h after the meal. He was unable to recall the hallucinatory period. Another man, 90-years-old and previously healthy, had auditory hallucinations 2 h after eating a specimen of Sarpa salpa. The two following nights, he had numerous nightmares and recovered spontaneously after a period of 3 days.

It doesn’t appear to be the most conventional or soothing drug you could find yourself ingesting — and certainly not if it’s done so mistakenly — but it’s still far from the worst, and the Romans sure enjoyed it.

Read more in the Western Mediterranean and Literature Reviews — OB

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