What Is Entheogen?
The religious, shamanic, or spiritual significance of entheogens is well established in anthropological and modern contexts; entheogens have traditionally been used to supplement many diverse practices geared towards achieving transcendence, including white and black magic, divination, meditation, yoga, sensory deprivation, asceticism, prayer, trance, rituals, chanting, hymns like peyote songs, and drumming. In the 1960s the hippie movement escalated its use to psychedelic art, binaural beats, sensory deprivation tanks, music, and rave parties.
Entheogen was coined as a replacement for the terms hallucinogen and psychedelic. Hallucinogen was popularized by Aldous Huxley’s experiences with mescaline, which were published as The Doors of Perception in 1954. Psychedelic, in contrast, is a Greek neologism for “mind manifest”, and was coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond; Huxley was a volunteer in experiments Osmond was conducting on mescaline.
Ruck et al. argued that the term hallucinogen was inappropriate owing to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term psychedelic was also seen as problematic, owing to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960s pop culture. In modern usage entheogen may be used synonymously with these terms, or it may be chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same drugs. The meanings of the term entheogen were formally defined by Ruck et al.:
In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.
— Ruck et al, 1979, Journal of Psychedelic Drugs
Entheogens have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Some countries have legislation that allows for traditional entheogen use. However, in the mid-20th century, after the discovery of LSD, and the intervention of psychedelic therapy, the term entheogen, invented in 1979, later became an umbrella term used to include artificial drugs, alternative medical treatment, and spiritual practices, whether or not in a formal religious or traditional structure.
Ancient timesR. Gordon Wasson and Giorgio Samorini have proposed several examples of the cultural use of entheogens that are found in the archaeological record. Hemp seeds discovered by archaeologists at Pazyryk suggest early ceremonial practices by the Scythians occurred during the 5th to 2nd century BC, confirming previous historical reports by Herodotus.
1950s – present
Semi-synthetic (e.g., LSD) and synthetic drugs (e.g., DPT and 2C-B used by the Sangoma) have also been developed. Alexander Shulgin developed hundreds of entheogens in PiHKAL and TiHKAL. Most of the drugs in PiHKAL are synthetic.
Entheogens used by movements includes biotas like peyote (Native American Church), extracts like Ayahuasca (Santo Daime, União do Vegetal), the semi-synthetic drug LSD (Neo-American Church), and synthetic drugs like DPT (Temple of the True Inner Light) and 2C-B (Sangoma).
Both Santo Daime and União do Vegetal now have members and churches throughout the world.
Psychedelic therapy refers to therapeutic practices involving the use of psychedelic drugs, particularly serotonergic psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, mescaline, and 2C-i, primarily to assist psychotherapy.
MAPS has pursued a number of other research studies examining the effects of psychedelics administered to human subjects. These studies include, but are not limited to, studies of Ayahuasca, DMT, ibogaine, ketamine, LSA, LSD, MDE, MDMA, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin, Salvia divinorum and conducted multi-drug studies as well as cross cultural and meta-analysis research.
- Celtic polytheism
In ancient Celtic religion, Sucellus or Sucellos was the god of agriculture, forests and alcoholic drinks of the Gauls.
- Ancient Mesopotamian religion
Ninkasi is the ancient Sumerian tutelary goddess of beer.
- Dionysian Mysteries
In the ancient Greco-Roman religion, Dionysos (or Bacchus) was the god of the grape harvest, wine making and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy, of merry making and theatre. The original rite of Dionysus is associated with a wine cult and he may have been worshipped as early as c. 1500–1100 BCE by Mycenean Greeks. The Dionysian Mysteries were a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome which used intoxicants and other trance-inducing techniques (like dance and music) to remove inhibitions and social constraints, liberating the individual to return to a natural state. In his Laws, Plato said that alcoholic drinking parties should be the basis of any educational system, because the alcohol allows relaxation of otherwise fixed views. The Symposium (literally, ‘drinking together’) was a dramatised account of a drinking party where the participants debated the nature of love.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a cup of wine is offered to Demeter which she refuses, instead insisting upon a potion of barley, water, and glechon, known as the ceremonial drink Kykeon, an essential part of the Mysteries. The potion has been hypothesized to be an ergot derivative from barley, similar to LSD.
Egyptian pictographs clearly show wine as a finished product around 4000 BCE. Osiris, the god who invented beer and brewing, was worshiped throughout the country. The ancient Egyptians made at least 24 types of wine and 17 types of beer. These beverages were used for pleasure, nutrition, rituals, medicine, and payments. They were also stored in the tombs of the deceased for use in the afterlife. The Osirian Mysteries paralleled the Dionysian, according to contemporary Greek and Egyptian observers. Spirit possession involved liberation from civilization’s rules and constraints. It celebrated that which was outside civilized society and a return to the source of being, which would later assume mystical overtones. It also involved escape from the socialized personality and ego into an ecstatic, deified state or the primal herd (sometimes both).
- Esoteric Buddhism
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche introduced “Mindful Drinking” to the West when he fled Tibet.
Many Christian denominations use wine in the Eucharist or Communion and permit alcohol consumption in moderation. Other denominations use unfermented grape juice in Communion; they either voluntarily abstain from alcohol or prohibit it outright.
Judaism uses wine on Shabbat and some holidays for Kiddush as well as more extensively in the Passover ceremony and other religious ceremonies. The secular consumption of alcohol is allowed. Some Jewish texts, e.g., the Talmud, encourage moderate drinking on holidays (such as Purim) in order to make the occasion more joyous.
- Bahá’í Faith
Bahá’ís are forbidden to drink alcohol or to take drugs, unless prescribed by doctors. Accordingly, the sale and trafficking of such substances is also forbidden. Smoking is discouraged but not prohibited.
Use and abuse
Entheogens have been used by individuals to pursue spiritual goals such as divination, ego death, egolessness, faith healing, psychedelic therapy and spiritual formation.
“Don Alejandro (a Mazatecan shaman) taught me that the visionary experiences are much more important than the plants and drugs that produce them. He no longer needed to take the vision-inducing plants for his journeys.”
There are also instances where people have been given entheogens without their knowledge or consent (e.g., tourists in Ayahuasca), as well as attempts to use such drugs in other contexts, such as cursing, psychochemical weaponry, psychological torture, brainwashing and mind control; CIA experiments with LSD were used in Project MKUltra, and controversial entheogens like alcohol are often mentioned in context of bread and circuses.
In some areas, there are purported malevolent sorcerers who masquerade as real shamans and who entice tourists to drink ayahuasca in their presence. Shamans believe one of the purposes for this is to steal one’s energy and/or power, of which they believe every person has a limited stockpile.
The Peyote Way Church of God believe that “Peyote is a holy sacrament, when taken according to our sacramental procedure and combined with a holistic lifestyle”.
Some religions forbid, discourage, or restrict the drinking of alcoholic beverages. These include Islam, Jainism, the Bahá’í Faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of Christ, Scientist, the United Pentecostal Church International, Theravada, most Mahayana schools of Buddhism, some Protestant denominations of Christianity, some sects of Taoism (Five Precepts and Ten Precepts), and Hinduism.
The Pali Canon, the scripture of Theravada Buddhism, depicts refraining from alcohol as essential to moral conduct because intoxication causes a loss of mindfulness. The fifth of the Five Precepts states, “Surā-meraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.” In English: “I undertake to refrain from meraya and majja (the two fermented drinks used in the place and time of writing) to heedless intoxication.” Although the Fifth Precept only names a specific wine and cider, this has traditionally been interpreted to mean all alcoholic beverages. Technically, this prohibition does not include light to moderate drinking, only drinking to the point of drunkenness. It also doesn’t include other mind-altering drugs, but Buddhist tradition includes all intoxicants. The canon does not suggest that alcohol is evil but believes that the carelessness produced by intoxication creates bad karma. Therefore, any drug (beyond tea or mild coffee) that affects one’s mindfulness be considered by some to be covered by this prohibition.
Judaism and Christianity
Many Christian denominations disapprove of the use of most illicit drugs. The early history of the Church, however, was filled with a variety of drug use, recreational and otherwise.
The primary advocate of a religious use of cannabis plant in early Judaism was Sula Benet, also called Sara Benetowa, a Polish anthropologist, who claimed in 1967 that the plant kaneh bosm קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם mentioned five times in the Hebrew Bible, and used in the holy anointing oil of the Book of Exodus, was in fact cannabis. The Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church confirmed it as a possible valid interpretation. The lexicons of Hebrew and dictionaries of plants of the Bible such as by Michael Zohary (1985), Hans Arne Jensen (2004) and James A. Duke (2010) and others identify the plant in question as either Acorus calamus or Cymbopogon citratus. Kaneh-bosm is listed as an incense in the Old Testament.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (founder of Jewish Renewal) and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) were influential early Jewish explorers of the connections between hallucinogenics and spirituality, from the early 1960s onwards.
It is generally held by academics specializing in the archaeology and paleobotany of Ancient Israel, and those specializing in the lexicography of the Hebrew Bible that cannabis is not documented or mentioned in early Judaism. Against this some popular writers have argued that there is evidence for religious use of cannabis in the Hebrew Bible, although this hypothesis and some of the specific case studies (e.g., John Allegro in relation to Qumran, 1970) have been “widely dismissed as erroneous, others continue”.
According to The Living Torah, cannabis may have been one of the ingredients of the holy anointing oil mentioned in various sacred Hebrew texts. The herb of interest is most commonly known as kaneh-bosm (Hebrew: קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם). This is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as a bartering material, incense, and an ingredient in holy anointing oil used by the high priest of the temple. Although Chris Bennett’s research in this area focuses on cannabis, he mentions evidence suggesting use of additional visionary plants such as henbane, as well.
The Septuagint translates kaneh-bosm as calamus, and this translation has been propagated unchanged to most later translations of the old testament. However, Polish anthropologist Sula Benet published etymological arguments that the Aramaic word for hemp can be read as kannabos and appears to be a cognate to the modern word ‘cannabis’, with the root kan meaning reed or hemp and bosm meaning fragrant. Both cannabis and calamus are fragrant, reedlike plants containing psychotropic compounds.
In his research, Professor Dan Merkur points to significant evidence of an awareness within the Jewish mystical tradition recognizing manna as an entheogen, thereby substantiating with rabbinic texts theories advanced by the superficial biblical interpretations of Terence McKenna, R. Gordon Wasson and other ethnomycologists.
Although philologist John Marco Allegro has suggested that the self-revelation and healing abilities attributed to the figure of Jesus may have been associated with the effects of the plant medicines, this evidence is dependent on pre-Septuagint interpretation of Torah and Tenach. Allegro was the only non-Catholic appointed to the position of translating the Dead Sea scrolls. His extrapolations are often the object of scorn due to Allegro’s non-mainstream theory of Jesus as a mythological personification of the essence of a “psychoactive sacrament”. Furthermore, they conflict with the position of the Catholic Church with regard to transubstantiation and the teaching involving valid matter, form, and drug — that of bread and wine (bread does not contain psychoactive drugs, but wine contains ethanol). Allegro’s book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross relates the development of language to the development of myths, religions, and cultic practices in world cultures. Allegro believed he could prove, through etymology, that the roots of Christianity, as of many other religions, lay in fertility cults, and that cult practices, such as ingesting visionary plants (or “psychedelics”) to perceive the mind of God, persisted into the early Christian era, and to some unspecified extent into the 13th century with reoccurrences in the 18th century and mid-20th century, as he interprets the Plaincourault chapel’s fresco to be an accurate depiction of the ritual ingestion of Amanita muscaria as the Eucharist.
The historical picture portrayed by the Entheos journal is of fairly widespread use of visionary plants in early Christianity and the surrounding culture, with a gradual reduction of use of entheogens in Christianity. R. Gordon Wasson’s book Soma prints a letter from art historian Erwin Panofsky asserting that art scholars are aware of many “mushroom trees” in Christian art.
The question of the extent of visionary plant use throughout the history of Christian practice has barely been considered yet by academic or independent scholars. The question of whether visionary plants were used in pre-Theodosius Christianity is distinct from evidence that indicates the extent to which visionary plants were utilized or forgotten in later Christianity, including heretical or quasi- Christian groups, and the question of other groups such as elites or laity within orthodox Catholic practice.
Daniel Merkur at the University of Toronto contends that a minority of Christian hermits and mystics could possibly have used entheogens, in conjunction with fasting, meditation, and prayer.
It has also been proposed by Scott Hajicek-Dobberstein that the Amanita muscaria mushroom was used by the Tantric Buddhist mahasiddha tradition of the 8th to 12th century.
In the West, some modern Buddhist teachers have written on the usefulness of psychedelics. The Buddhist magazine Tricycle devoted their entire fall 1996 edition to this issue. Some teachers such as Jack Kornfield have acknowledged the possibility that psychedelics could complement Buddhist practice, bring healing and help people understand their connection with everything which could lead to compassion. Kornfield warns however that addiction can still be a hindrance. Other teachers such as Michelle McDonald-Smith expressed views which saw entheogens as not conductive to Buddhist practice (“I don’t see them developing anything”).
Entheogens have been used in various ways, e.g., as part of established religious rituals, as aids for personal spiritual development (“plant teachers”), as recreational drugs, and for medical and therapeutic use. The use of entheogens in human cultures is nearly ubiquitous throughout recorded history.
Naturally occurring entheogens such as psilocybin and DMT (in the preparation ayahuasca), were, for the most part, discovered and used by older cultures, as part of their spiritual and religious life, as plants and agents that were respected, or in some cases revered for generations and may be a tradition that predates all modern religions as a sort of proto-religious rite.
One of the most widely used entheogens is cannabis, entheogenic use of cannabis has been used in regions such as China, Europe, and India, and, in some cases, for thousands of years. It has also appeared as a part of religions and cultures such as the Rastafari movement, the Sadhus of Hinduism, the Scythians, Sufi Islam, and others.
The best-known entheogen-using culture of Africa is the Bwitists, who used a preparation of the root bark of Tabernanthe iboga. Although the ancient Egyptians may have been using the sacred blue lily plant in some of their religious rituals or just symbolically, it has been suggested that Egyptian religion once revolved around the ritualistic ingestion of the far more psychoactive Psilocybe cubensis mushroom, and that the Egyptian White Crown, Triple Crown, and Atef Crown were evidently designed to represent pin-stages of this mushroom. There is also evidence for the use of psilocybin mushrooms in Ivory Coast. Numerous other plants used in shamanic ritual in Africa, such as Silene capensis sacred to the Xhosa, are yet to be investigated by western science. A recent revitalization has occurred in the study of southern African psychoactives and entheogens (Mitchell and Hudson 2004; Sobiecki 2002, 2008, 2012).
The artificial drug 2C-B is used as entheogen by the Sangoma, Nyanga, and Amagqirha people over their traditional plants; they refer to the chemical as Ubulawu Nomathotholo, which roughly translates to “Medicine of the Singing Ancestors“.
Entheogens have played a pivotal role in the spiritual practices of most American cultures for millennia. The first American entheogen to be subject to scientific analysis was the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii). For his part, one of the founders of modern ethno-botany, the late-Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard University documented the ritual use of peyote cactus among the Kiowa, who live in what became Oklahoma. While it was used traditionally by many cultures of what is now Mexico, in the 19th century its use spread throughout North America, replacing the toxic mescal bean (Calia secundiflora). Other well-known entheogens used by Mexican cultures include the alcoholic Aztec sacrament, pulque, ritual tobacco (known as ‘picietl’ to the Aztecs, and ‘sikar’ to the Maya (from where the word ‘cigar’ derives)), psilocybin mushrooms, morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor and Turbina corymbosa), and Salvia divinorum.
Entheogens also play an important role in contemporary religious movements such as the Rastafari movement and the Church of the Universe.
Datura wrightii is sacred to some Native Americans and has been used in ceremonies and rites of passage by Chumash, Tongva, and others. Among the Chumash, when a boy was 8 years old, his mother would give him a preparation of momoy to drink. This supposed spiritual challenge should help the boy develop the spiritual wellbeing that is required to become a man. Not all of the boys undergoing this ritual survived. Momoy was also used to enhance spiritual wellbeing among adults . For instance, during a frightening situation, such as when seeing a coyote walk like a man, a leaf of momoy was sucked to help keep the soul in the body.
The indigenous peoples of Siberia (from whom the term shaman was borrowed) have used Amanita muscaria as an entheogen.
In Hinduism, Datura stramonium and cannabis have been used in religious ceremonies, although the religious use of datura is not very common, as the primary alkaloids are strong deliriants, which causes serious intoxication with unpredictable effects.
Also, the ancient drink Soma, mentioned often in the Vedas, appears to be consistent with the effects of an entheogen. In his 1967 book, Wasson argues that Soma was Amanita muscaria. The active ingredient of Soma is presumed by some to be ephedrine, an alkaloid with stimulant properties derived from the soma plant, identified as Ephedra pachyclada. However, there are also arguments to suggest that Soma could have also been Syrian rue, cannabis, Atropa belladonna, or some combination of any of the above plants.
Fermented honey, known in Northern Europe as mead, was an early entheogen in Aegean civilization, predating the introduction of wine, which was the more familiar entheogen of the reborn Dionysus and the maenads. Its religious uses in the Aegean world are bound up with the mythology of the bee.
Dacians were known to use cannabis in their religious and important life ceremonies, proven by discoveries of large clay pots with burnt cannabis seeds in ancient tombs and religious shrines. Also, local oral folklore and myths tell of ancient priests that dreamed with gods and walked in the smoke. Their names, as transmitted by Herodotus, were “kap-no-batai” which in Dacian was supposed to mean “the ones that walk in the clouds”.
The growth of Roman Christianity also saw the end of the two-thousand-year-old tradition of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone involving the use of a drug known as kykeon. The term ‘ambrosia’ is used in Greek mythology in a way that is remarkably similar to the Soma of the Hindus as well.
A theory that natural occurring gases like ethylene used by inhalation may have played a role in divinatory ceremonies at Delphi in Classical Greece received popular press attention in the early 2000s, yet has not been conclusively proven.
Mushroom consumption is part of the culture of Europeans in general, with particular importance to Slavic and Baltic peoples. Some academics consider that using psilocybin- and or muscimol-containing mushrooms was an integral part of the ancient culture of the Rus’ people.
It has been suggested that the ritual use of small amounts of Syrian rue is an artifact of its ancient use in higher doses as an entheogen (possibly in conjunction with DMT containing acacia).
Philologist John Marco Allegro has argued in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that early Jewish and Christian cultic practice was based on the use of Amanita muscaria, which was later forgotten by its adherents. Allegro’s hypothesis is that Amanita use was sacred knowledge kept only by high figures to hide the true beginnings of the Christian cult, seems supported by his own view that the Plaincourault Chapel shows evidence of Christian amanita use in the 13th century.
In general, indigenous Australians are thought not to have used entheogens, although there is a strong barrier of secrecy surrounding Aboriginal shamanism, which has likely limited what has been told to outsiders. A plant that the Australian Aboriginals used to ingest is called Pitcheri, which is said to have a similar effect to that of coca. Pitcheri was made from the bark of the shrub Duboisia myoporoides. This plant is now grown commercially and is processed to manufacture an eye medication. There are no known uses of entheogens by the Māori of New Zealand aside from a variant species of kava. Natives of Papua New Guinea are known to use several species of entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp, Boletus manicus).
Kava or kava kava (Piper Methysticum) has been cultivated for at least 3000 years by a number of Pacific island-dwelling peoples. Historically, most Polynesian, many Melanesian, and some Micronesian cultures have ingested the psychoactive pulverized root, typically taking it mixed with water. In these traditions, taking kava is believed to facilitate contact with the spirits of the dead, especially relatives and ancestors.
Studies such as Timothy Leary’s Marsh Chapel Experiment and Roland Griffiths’ psilocybin studies at Johns Hopkins have documented reports of mystical/spiritual/religious experiences from participants who were administered psychoactive drugs in controlled trials. Ongoing research is limited due to widespread drug prohibition.
Furthermore, scientific studies on entheogens present some significant challenges to investigators, including philosophical questions relating to ontology, epistemology and objectivity.
Between 2011 and 2012, the Australian Federal Government was considering changes to the Australian Criminal Code that would classify any plants containing any amount of DMT as “controlled plants”. DMT itself was already controlled under current laws. The proposed changes included other similar blanket bans for other substances, such as a ban on any and all plants containing Mescaline or Ephedrine. The proposal was not pursued after political embarrassment on realisation that this would make the official Floral Emblem of Australia, Acacia pycnantha (Golden Wattle), illegal. The Therapeutic Goods Administration and federal authority had considered a motion to ban the same, but this was withdrawn in May 2012 (as DMT may still hold potential entheogenic value to native and/or religious peoples).
In 1963 in Sherbert v. Verner the Supreme Court established the Sherbert Test, which consists of four criteria that are used to determine if an individual’s right to religious free exercise has been violated by the government. The test is as follows:
For the individual, the court must determine
- whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and
- whether the government action is a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief.
If these two elements are established, then the government must prove
- that it is acting in furtherance of a “compelling state interest,” and
- that it has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.
This test was eventually all-but-eliminated in Employment Division v. Smith 494 U.S. 872 (1990) which held that a “neutral law of general applicability” was not subject to the test. Congress resurrected it for the purposes of federal law in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.
In City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997) RFRA was held to trespass on state sovereignty, and application of the RFRA was essentially limited to federal law enforcement. In Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006), a case involving only federal law, RFRA was held to permit a church’s use of a DMT-containing tea for religious ceremonies.
Some states have enacted State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts intended to mirror the federal RFRA’s protections.
Peyote is listed by the United States DEA as a Schedule I controlled substance. However, practitioners of the Peyote Way Church of God, a Native American religion, perceive the regulations regarding the use of peyote as discriminating, leading to religious discrimination issues regarding about the U.S. policy towards drugs. As the result of Peyote Way Church of God, Inc. v. Thornburgh the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed. This federal statute allow the “Traditional Indian religious use of the peyote sacrament,” exempting only use by Native American persons.
Classical mythology and cults
Although entheogens are taboo and most of them are officially prohibited in Christian and Islamic societies, their ubiquity and prominence in the spiritual traditions of various other cultures is unquestioned. “The spirit, for example, need not be chemical, as is the case with the ivy and the olive: and yet the god was felt to be within them; nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god’s spirit had to offer.”
Most of the well-known modern examples, such as peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and morning glories are from the native cultures of the Americas. However, it has also been suggested that entheogens played an important role in ancient Indo-European culture, for example by inclusion in the ritual preparations of the Soma, the “pressed juice” that is the subject of Book 9 of the Rig Veda. Soma was ritually prepared and drunk by priests and initiates and elicited a paean in the Rig Veda that embodies the nature of an entheogen:
Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!… O [Soma] Pavāmana (mind clarifying), place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set, and everlasting lustre shines…. Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joy and felicities combine…
The kykeon that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries is another entheogen, which was investigated (before the word was coined) by Carl Kerényi, in Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Other entheogens in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean include the opium poppy, datura, and the unidentified “lotus” (likely the sacred blue lily) eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey and Narcissus.
According to Ruck, Eyan, and Staples, the familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought knowledge of was Amanita muscaria. It could not be cultivated; thus it had to be found, which suited it to a nomadic lifestyle. When they reached the world of the Caucasus and the Aegean, the Indo-Europeans encountered wine, the entheogen of Dionysus, who brought it with him from his birthplace in the mythical Nysa, when he returned to claim his Olympian birthright. The Indo-European proto-Greeks “recognized it as the entheogen of Zeus, and their own traditions of shamanism, the Amanita and the ‘pressed juice’ of Soma — but better, since no longer unpredictable and wild, the way it was found among the Hyperboreans: as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the entheogen was now cultivable.” Robert Graves, in his foreword to The Greek Myths, hypothesises that the ambrosia of various pre-Hellenic tribes was Amanita muscaria (which, based on the morphological similarity of the words amanita, amrita and ambrosia, is entirely plausible) and perhaps psilocybin mushrooms of the genus Panaeolus.
Amanita was divine food, according to Ruck and Staples, not something to be indulged in or sampled lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and it mediated between the two realms. It is said that Tantalus’s crime was inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.
The entheogen is believed to offer godlike powers in many traditional tales, including immortality. The failure of Gilgamesh in retrieving the plant of immortality from beneath the waters teaches that the blissful state cannot be taken by force or guile: When Gilgamesh lay on the bank, exhausted from his heroic effort, the serpent came and ate the plant.
Another attempt at subverting the natural order is told in a (according to some) strangely metamorphosed myth, in which natural roles have been reversed to suit the Hellenic world-view. The Alexandrian Apollodorus relates how Gaia (spelled “Ge” in the following passage), Mother Earth herself, has supported the Titans in their battle with the Olympian intruders. The Giants have been defeated:
When Ge learned of this, she sought a drug that would prevent their destruction even by mortal hands. But Zeus barred the appearance of Eos (the Dawn), Selene (the Moon), and Helios (the Sun), and chopped up the drug himself before Ge could find it.
The legends of the Assassins had much to do with the training and instruction of Nizari fida’is, famed for their public missions during which they often gave their lives to eliminate adversaries.
The tales of the fida’is’ training collected from anti-Ismaili historians and orientalists writers were confounded and compiled in Marco Polo’s account, in which he described a “secret garden of paradise”. After being drugged, the Ismaili devotees were said to be taken to a paradise-like garden filled with attractive young maidens and beautiful plants in which these fida’is would awaken. Here, they were told by an old man that they were witnessing their place in Paradise and that should they wish to return to this garden permanently, they must serve the Nizari cause(History of Nizari Ismailism). So went the tale of the “Old Man in the Mountain”, assembled by Marco Polo and accepted by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774–1856), a prominent orientalist writer responsible for much of the spread of this legend. Until the 1930s, von Hammer’s retelling of the Assassin legends served as the standard account of the Nizaris across Europe.
Many works of literature have described entheogen use; some of those are:
- The drug melange (spice) in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe acts as both an entheogen (in large enough quantities) and an addictive geriatric medicine. Control of the supply of melange was crucial to the Empire, as it was necessary for, among other things, faster-than-light (folding space) navigation.
- Consumption of the imaginary mushroom anochi [enoki] as the entheogen underlying the creation of Christianity is the premise of Philip K. Dick’s last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a theme that seems to be inspired by John Allegro’s book.
- Aldous Huxley’s final novel, Island (1962), depicted a fictional psychoactive mushroom — termed “moksha medicine” — used by the people of Pala in rites of passage, such as the transition to adulthood and at the end of life.
- Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire novel refers to the religion in the future as a result of entheogens, used freely by the population.
- In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, Book 1 of The Dark Tower series, the main character receives guidance after taking mescaline.
- The Alastair Reynolds novel Absolution Gap features a moon under the control of a religious government that uses neurological viruses to induce religious faith.
- A critical examination of the ethical and societal implications and relevance of “entheogenic” experiences can be found in Daniel Waterman and Casey William Hardison’s book Entheogens, Society & Law: Towards a Politics of Consciousness, Autonomy and Responsibility (Melrose, Oxford 2013). This book includes a controversial analysis of the term entheogen arguing that Wasson et al. were mystifying the effects of the plants and traditions it refers to.
- The book Orange Sunshine and the Psychedelic Sunrise covers the continuum of life to death experiences from a personal and existential perspective, with an emphasis on spiritual transcendence: a psychedelic experience.
- Sherwell, By Philip (11 December 2010). “Salvia: more powerful than LSD, and legal”. Telegraph.co.uk.
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