Psychedelic Drugs

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PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS . Psychedelic substances, derived from plantsand more recently, from chemical syntheseshave been used by human beings for thousands of years, mainly as facilitators for religious ecstasy and firsthand contact with spirit or divinity. In this essay, the term mysticism is used interchangeably with spiritual experience to refer to any person's direct, subjective communion with a deity, spirit, or ultimate reality. Anthropologists often make a distinction between mysticism, which they see as an individual's firsthand, direct encounter with deities or spirits, and religious experiences that are mediated through a church, temple or some type of formal ecclesiastic structure. In discussing psychedelics and religion, Houston Smith reports that while psychedelics have been said to provoke religious experiences, they are not necessarily able to promote religious lives.

Overall, religious behavior universally makes efforts to induce an ecstatic spiritual state by crudely and directly manipulating physiological processes. These include drugs as well as sensory deprivation, mortification of the flesh by pain, sleeplessness and fatigue, and deprivation of food and water. Wallace (1966) argued that the physiological manipulation of the human body by any means available to produce euphoria, dissociation or hallucination is one of the nearly universal characteristics of religion. The ecstatic experience is a goal of religious effort, and whatever means are found to help the communicant achieve it will be employed.

Mystical-religious experience, enhanced by psychedelic drug or plant ingestion, has as one of its most arresting aspects, a sense of unity or awe. This has been termed "absolute unitary of being" by D'Aquili and Newberg (2001, p. 79). In this state, individuals directly apprehend absolute unity with themselves, others and the universe. Subject and object merge and boundaries to the self are weakened. Reality itself is perceived as oneness. Attached to this experience is a profound and intrinsic sense of underlying beauty and goodness. The universe is perceived as whole, good and purposeful. When people leave this state, they do not perceive it as having been an illusion, hallucination, or delusion. Rather, they see it as the fundamental reality that underlies all reality. In this model, rational consciousness is merely one type of consciousness, equally valid with that induced spiritually or by LSD-like substances. Science arises from our rational baseline state of consciousness, which perceives reality as an amalgam of multiple discrete beings in emotionally neutral subject-object relationships. The absolute unitary state, on the other hand, arises from discrete altered states of consciousness. The trance stage progressively becomes intense with a blurring of the boundaries of individuals until they perceive no spatial or temporal boundaries at all and experience absolute unity, devoid of content. The individual ultimately experiences a movement from a baseline orientation in external reality to a more intense sense of unity with the rest of the world and an increasing loss of a sense of self and other. The person can now lose his or her individuality and experience a sense of absorption into the object of focus or the universe in general.

The unitary state is experienced and interpreted as the presence of the Absolute, or union with God. In Buddhism it is seen as a void. Often there is an experience of freedom from fear of death. While these experiences may be rare and individualized, those who have them universally interpret them as being absolutely transcendent or beyond ordinary experience. They are remarkable and worth investigating.

For most of human prehistory, psychedelics were associated with nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, where male hunters used psychedelics in shamanistic religious rituals to divine the future and the location of the animals they hunted. In shamanic cultures, there are no salvational goals to achieve by using psychedelics, and the chief focus is on power and its exercise by religious practitioners who seek out and often achieve ecstatic states of consciousness. One finds a multiplicity of spirit forces, often named and mythic, rather than any concept of a high or solitary god.

We note that psychedelics have always been viewed in human cultures as a two-edged sword. On the one hand they have been utilized because of their perceived ability to access spiritual realms. If we change our body chemistry, we may be able to ascertain realms of being that are not ordinarily available to most human beings. The obverse of this is simply a faulty-wiring hypothesis, which argues that the plant chemicals deceive and trick. In a Euro-American rational world, there is no spirit realm to access, so we are merely left with tricks of the mind. On the other hand, such substances have always had a potential for abuse, even when well-controlled in traditional settings. Plant psychedelics as a psycho-technology allow tribal elders to manage the altered states of consciousness of their adolescents through hypersuggestibility. They utilize the properties of the plant psychedelics to de-condition youth and heighten religious experiences deemed important for social survival.

Anthropologists and archaeologists, who work within a paradigm of cultural evolution, look at the vast array of human societies in terms of the historic changes from simple to complex structures and they view culture as adaptation to distinctive ecological niches. Over time, societies tend to move in the direction of more complexity.

Table 1 is a model of hunter-gatherers, incipient agriculturists, intensive agriculturist and pristine state societies. The division is made according to economic, social, and ideological or spiritual practices. Anthropologists often view four basic types of religious behavior across time and space: namely shamanism, the religion of hunters and gatherers, with a focus on personal ecstasy and awe, and direct knowledge of the preternatural; communal cults where lay people participate in rituals to enhance economic gains such as hunting and fishing magic and where different segments of nature are named and sacralized; in Olympian religions where a hierarchy of spiritual forces is known and respected; and in monotheistic institutions where there is a supremacy of one spiritual entity or god. A class of social science specialists, called neuroanthropologists, would argue that human beings are wired for ecstasy and the ability to have non-ordinary experiences in order to apprehend the divine. It is the facile ease with which human beings enter into what psychiatrists called "dissociative states," frequently within a cultural context. Psychedelic ingestion for purposes of religious ecstasy has been reported in all segments of human societies as presented in Table 1.

As societies became more complex, access to drug-induced altered states of consciousness became part of sumptuary laws, as fewer individuals were permitted entry to these states. This contrasts with societies of hunter-gatherers, for example, where a study found that in a community of eighty Peruvian hunters and gatherers, as many as twenty-five adult men might use the plant hallucinogen ayahusca (various Banisteriopsis species) twice a week or more in ritual ceremonies for spiritual purposes. With the rise of ancient civilizations where psychedelics were employed, abrogation of such drug access was no doubt related to the supposed power of the psychedelic state and the power believed to be conferred upon the user to control or harm others through magical means or witchcraft. A movement occurred from exoteric rituals, open and accessible to all adults, to esoteric rituals, much like the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece. Unauthorized drug use under these circumstances may have become a crime against the commonwealth.

Illustration of some of these different societies' use of plant psychedelics in religious practice exemplifies general principles.

Australian Aborigines

Contemporary examples of hunter/gatherers include the Australian Aborigines, who utilized the plant hallucinogen pituri, taken within a ritualized, sacrosanct, socially sanctioned context with the intent to contribute to group cohesiveness and survival. The unique ability of the biochemical properties of the pituri plant (various Duboisia spp.) to evoke suggestibility in those who ingested them made these plants ideal catalysts. The elders provided their adolescents with a fast-paced educational experience and inculcated values, beliefs, and religious tenets. Using the suggestible states created by such substances, particularly in pubertal initiatory rituals that marked the transition to manhood, this contributed to cultural cohesiveness and survival. The hallucinogen was used by shamanstechnicians of ecstasyto obtain power and perquisites and to act as seers. The use of the plant was shrouded in secrecy and there are no first-hand descriptions of the plant use in male initiation rituals at puberty, only various early commentaries. The plant was most probably used to provide revelations, which allowed the youth to view the world and themselves as sacred.

Characteristics of Culture
Egalitarian Hunters & GatherersRanked Incipient AgricultureStratified IntensiveState Agriculture
Economic FeaturesSmall, Face- to Face; Food Sharing; NomadicHorticulture, Dense Population; Villages; No Work Specialization;Eco. Redistribution; Surpluses; Complex Division of Labor; Work Specialization;Differential Access to Basic Means of Livelihood;
Social Organiz. FeaturesBand Is Basic Social Unit; No Leadership; Kinship As Govt Functions;Descent Principles; Leadership W/O Authority;Social Classes; Status Differences; Federations; Militarism; Role of Chief;Use of Military to Maintain Control; Diverse Populations Within State; Formal Government;
Religion & IdeologyShamanism; No Religious Specialists; Shaman/Client.Community Cults; Lay Participation; Congregation;Olympian Religions; Named Deities; Hierarchy of Dieties; Ecclesiastic Institutions;Monotheistic Institutions;

The initiation rituals for adolescents included separation, liminality, and reintegration. The boys went into special isolated camps, were educated about sacred matters from the elders, and had circumcision and subincision sexual operations performed on their body. The meanings of ritual objects presented to them were disclosed in secret ceremonies and there was a ritual cleaning of all traces of the sacred world, followed by a ceremonial return to ordinary life.

The theme of death and rebirth is often found among psychedelic plant drug users in traditional society. The youth returned to social life as a new person, with a new name, responsibilities and knowledge of the supernatural world. The psychedelic states heightened the learning of sacred knowledge and created a bonding among members of the cohort group such that individual psychic needs were subsumed to the needs of the group.

A key feature of these rituals was the cultural utilization of the hypersuggestibility, induced by the use of the plant hallucinogen. In the altered state of consciousness managed by adult tutors, adolescent behavior patterns were framed, and religious and secular values were internalized. The plants were one way that their society had available to them to inculcate conformity in young people to patterns, mostly sacred, which would contribute to group survival and harmony. Like many other tribal societies, the Australian aborigines incorporated plant psychedelics into group initiation rites. The drugs were accepted to be of sacred origin and were treated with awe and reverence. The plants were in limited supply and protected from abuse and profanation by deviants by remaining under adult control and administration.

The Fang of Equatorial Africa

With the domestication of plants and animals about ten to twelve thousand years ago, changes occurred in the spiritual use of psychedelics. In northwestern equatorial Africa, the Fang peoples are village farmers of peanuts, corn, manioc, and plantains. They use the psychedelic plant tabernanthe iboga as part of their adaptation to cultural upheaval caused by European domination of their society. The plant has been incorporated into a religious revitalization movement known as the Bwiti, dated to the end of the nineteenth century. Large doses bring on fantastic visions, and smaller doses of iboga produce marginal hallucinatory effects, possibly a dreamy or floating sensation. The plant is used as an adjunct to initiation into the Bwiti cult and the superior Bwiti divinity is revealed to the initiate. The term Bwiti also refers to the ancestors and the supernatural realm of the dead.

Men who drink the iboga participate in a cult which blends elements of traditional Fang beliefs with Christian symbols. The Bwiti cult operates to honor particular ancestors, to conduct rites linked to fertility and to help cement feelings of cohesion and solidarity. The cult presents its members with a cosmogony of religious thoughts centered on the idea of fecundity and death as well as a defense against the dangers of sorcery. In this society with a strong linkage to ancestor worship, the plant hallucinogen is believed to enable the individual to accompany a phantasm to a special placea city of the dead, full of cadavers and skeletons. Such visionary experience is valued by the Fang, whose traditional cultural focus has been to worship ancestors who are believed to play an important role in directing the lives of those still on earth. The Fang take iboga because of a need to see, know, and communicate with greater powers hidden in and known through the plant. Aside from heavy ingestion in the initial session, the religious use of the substance achieves a state of one-heartedness after night-long rituals during which the Fang consume moderate amounts of iboga to achieve ecstatic states. Ancestors are called upon for advice.

The initiated candidate is told of the great honor he receives by knowing about the things of the earth. Most festivities are linked to initiation rites. The religion has reference not only to a person's immediate clan ancestors, but to all the ancestors of the community. The Bwiti cult gives different kinship groupsalienated by fragmentation and atomization as the result of culture contact and domination by European societysanctified character by using the iboga plant since it permits direct communication with the valued ghosts of the past.

In Western culture iboga has a medical use, although it is still experimental. In Western clinics with drug-addicted participants, huge doses give rise to lucid visions. Clinical reports on essential loss of opiate craving and the absence of withdrawal suggests a mechanism for the substitution, which is a placebo effect enhanced by suggestibility. From a religious/metaphysical perspective, the psychedelic experience causes a sense of death and subsequent rebirth, allowing the user to return to a new beginning. The physical effects of vomiting also provide a sense of cleanliness and renewal to the individual.

The Ancient Maya

Analysis of the art of the ancient Maya led to a discovery of the presence of a psychedelic plant, Nymphaea ampla, the water lily. Historically it appears that high-ranking segments of society usurped the use of psychedelics. With culture change in the form of conquest and colonialism, esoteric knowledge did not diffuse to the folk level again from where it surely originated. Many of the beliefs connected to such drug use were coded in the religious art of these societies. With social change, these belief systems, as among the ancient Maya, disappeared and could only be retrieved in contemporary times through an analysis of their art.

The common water lily, Nymphaea ampla and N. caerulea, were depicted in Maya art, suggesting that esoteric drug rituals were practiced. The presence of aporphine, an opiate similar in structure to apomorphine, was found in the water lily plant. The psychoactive properties of the water lily seemed to merge well with the high value placed by the Maya on ecstatic states as a vehicle to communicate with supernatural forces. Among the ancient Maya, there are various mythic associations connected with the water lily, which include death symbols and mythic beings as the source of the plant, including a long-nosed serpent or rain god. Other associations include the jaguar, and anatomical sources associated with the water lily are the top of the head, ears, eyes, mouth, hands, and neck regions, suggestive of the psychoactive effects on sensory modalities. Shape shifting or morphingthe transformation of human beings (in this case, religious practitioners) into animals is also found associated with this plant drug. This may symbolize the power source of the individual who calls upon animal familiars to do his bidding.

Uniao do Vegetal

Adherents of the contemporary Brazilian ayahuasca church Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), who number more than 8,000, utilize the plant hallucinogen containing Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis in religious rituals blended with elements of Christianity. The ayahuasca drink is made by boiling the stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine together with the leaves of Psychotria viridis. Widely used in the Amazon, ayahuasca was taken up by mestizos living near tribal peoples who adapted it for their own needs. There are a number of different movements that have incorporated ayahuasca into their doctrines and activities with several ayahuasca churches such as the UDVand Santo Daime that combine traditional African and Christian elements in their pattern of use. There are sixty nuclos, or centers of church activity, among the UDV. Since 1987 the Brazilian government has allowed the use of ayahuasca within the context of a religious ritual.

The ayahuasca drink is imbibed in a ritual setting, with church elders and advisors present. Members ingest about l00 milliliters of a tea made from the two plants twice a month. New members and participants are carefully screened. There is congregational and community involvement in social activities and prayer. Hoasca, as ayahuasca is termed in Portuguese, is a consecrated sacrament of the church, a material expression of divinity, much as for Roman Catholics the consecrated wafer is the Holy Eucharist embodying the Holy Spirit.

The UDV is a Christian religion with syncretic elements that arose from the interaction between Christianity and indigenous beliefs and practices regarding ayahuasca in South America. The UDV was founded and is headquartered in Brazil and is recognized officially by the government of Brazil. The tea is considered sacred and indispensable, and the UDV carefully controls the cultivation and harvesting of the plants contained in it. The quantity ingested at any particular ceremony is effectively limited by the ceremonial components. Studies have shown redemptive features of the psychedelic experience among the UDV. This consists of elimination of neurotic and antisocial behavior by members of the religious community as well as their abstinence from alcohol and drugs of abuse.

Peyotism: The Native American Church and the Huichol Indians

The modern use of peyote (Lophophora williamsii ), a psychedelic cactus, originated in central Mexico and spread to southern Texas by the l870s. Archaeological finds from Texas show remnants of peyote that date back 7,000 years. The Spanish, when first invading Mexico, labeled peyote the "diabolic root" and tried to stamp out its use.

More than a century ago the use of peyote eventually led to the foundation of the Native American Church (NAC), which is the largest pan-Native America religion in North America. Peyote has been used ritually since its inception. It is estimated that a quarter of a million Native Americans have been involved with this church, with the strongest representation in the southwest and midwestern United States. The peyote religion combines elements of the vision quest, a belief in general supernatural power and the Christian Trinity. Its doctrine teaches that God is a great spirit and Jesus is a guardian spirit. Morality and ethics are also derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Some scholars see the church as a response to cultural/community dislocation and its attendant problems. The plant was legalized in 1994 in the United States for members of certain American Indian religions after a long legal battle.

Generally the Native American Church focuses on holistic health and harmony with nature. There is a redemptive feature in response to severity of alcoholism among Native Americans whereby the church prohibits alcohol use and promotes the sacrament of peyote ingestion as a powerful treatment for that disorder.

Within the NAC, peyotism provides a spiritual approach to facilitating a sense of identity, groundedness, connection and belonging. The plant is a spineless cactus with a rounded top surface that appears above the soil. It is cut off and dried and becomes a peyote button which is ingested during church rituals. Church members believe that their medicine functions sacramentally by allowing them to see the truth about their lives and connects them to the peyote spirit, who will give them guidance and direction. Peyote meetings are organized for those in need of healing from alcohol and drug addiction and who are personally motivated to change. During the peyote rituals, individual introspection, group interaction and healing are promoted. There is a powerful leader or guide, and benefit is derived from the actual group marathon session in the form of strengthening social networks. Healing benefits are derived from the psychotropic substance that is used as a nonspecific facilitator.

During peyote rituals, one commonly hears testimonial accounts of various psychological, physical, and emotional maladies being lifted by the healing powers of the ceremony. Members report altered states of consciousness that provide a fast-paced educational and redemptive experience. Youth learn community values, beliefs, and their religious traditions. Often paraphrased is a peyotist comment about how the white man goes into his church and prays to God, whereas the Indian goes into his church and talks directly to God. The shamanic value of direct and personal communication with deity is enhanced by the psychedelic properties of the peyote plant. A complex hierarchy of church positions in the NAC allows Native Americans to have a parallel status structure for sincere and hard-working church members in the community.

Huichol Indians who live in western Mexico have been using peyote to communicate with their gods for thousands of years. As practitioners of shamanic religion, they utilize psychedelics or other mind-altering techniques to communicate with their gods, their underworld and in order to understand the meaning of life. These agricultural peoples utilize peyote as the focus of their religious and emotional life. There is an annual cycle of communal and extended family ceremonial and religious activity. Schaefer (1998) wrote that peyote for the Huichol

serves as an enculturating force which echoes religious tenets and re-occurring themes that are transcended to visions, the spoken word, through myths and songs, actions and rituals and ceremonies and beliefs that permeate all levels of individual and collective consciousness. In their sacred peyote rituals, the ordinary boundaries between the past and present vanish and the gods, ancestors and events of Huichol mythic history become a physical and emotional reality (p. 274).

The use of peyote appears to be pivotal in the continuing profound pride that the Huichol maintain in their culture despite Mexican governmental attempts at cultural annihilation. A Huichol artform, known as yarn painting, depicts complex arrays of dancing deer, snakes and other figures as native artists try to evoke the peyote visions. Each year, small bands of Huichol travel 300 miles to a desolate spot deep in the Chihuahuan desert to hunt for the squat, round peyote cactus.

Psychedelics, Spirituality, and the 1960s

No discussion of psychedelics and religion would be complete without reference to widespread runaway use of such substances in European and American society, generally focused on the decade of the 1960s and thereafter. Flower children, cultic groups in the 1960s, utilized synthetic drugs. The founders of the cult were white Americansincluding physicians and psychologists, and many had scientific as well as religious interest in the phenomena.

Drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and marijuana were widely used, and Timothy Leary was generally acknowledged to be the spokesperson for "tuning in, turning on and dropping out," a more aggressive segment of the psychedelic cult. He had an extraordinary capacity to stir up paranoid tendencies of the then titled "establishment." Leary and colleagues gave LSD and related substances to prison inmates, neurotics, psychotics and alcoholics as well as to those who were dying of cancer. The focus was as much a search for meaning as for religious activity, although it was frequently reported that Leary would read segments from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to those tripping on psychedelics, in order to create a mystical setting for drug ingestion.

Leary and others were certain that psychedelics produced true religious experience, and the Marsh Chapel experiment, conducted by Walter Pahnke, is often referenced. In this experiment, twenty theology students virgin to the use of psychedelic drugs were given 30 milligrams of psilocibin on Good Friday in a religious setting in Marsh Chapel, Boston. The effects were compared to a matched group who were given a placebo containing nicotinic acid, which produced a tingling, but not a psychedelic effect. Nine of the subjects who received psilocybin had what they called "a religious experience," whereas only one in the control group did.

Leary, a professor at Harvard, was forced to resign after giving psychedelics to his students. His studies indicated that when the setting for the drug ingestion was supportive but not spiritual, between 40 and 75 percent of his psychedelic subjects reported intense, life-changing religious experiences. The percentages were much higher when the set and setting were supportive and spiritual, with revelatory and mystico-religious experiences.

Psychedelics, Drug Tourism, and the Global Village

Since the 1980s there has been an upsurge in the post-modern phenomenon of drug tourism. Individuals who are on a never-ending search for self-actualization and growth demand to find drug experiences abroad. Post-World War II has been described as the empty self period, where individuals are soothed and filled up by consuming food, consumer products and experiences. Resultant psychological states such as low self-esteem, values confusion, and drug abuse (the compulsion to fill the emptiness with chemically induced emotional experiences) is expressed. Today, knowledgeable men and women travel to distant exotic places such as the Peruvian or Brazilian Amazon where they participate in drug rituals among so-called native shamans or witchdoctors.

Charlatan psychiatry is a term applied to a long tradition in Latin America of non-authentic folk healers with malicious and fraudulent intention who provide psychedelic plant drugs in ritual settings for personal gain. Unscrupulous practitioners exploit their victims and are conscious of the farce in which they are involved. In California and elsewhere today, there are zealots who devote their life to a new age of drug use, and they urgently proselytize others to immerse themselves in drugs, "to make more, to use more, to sell more." Many are irresponsible and unconscionable individuals. In Peruvian and Brazilian Amazonian cities and large towns, there are mestizo men who become instant traditional healers without undergoing any apprenticeship period, without having any teachers and without control. They provide American and European tourists mixtures of ten or more different psychedelic plants to help them become embedded in the universe and to provide them with mystical experiences. The psychedelic plants in question have never been used traditionally in the way that the self-styled healers use them and there are numerous psychological casualties.

Drug tourism is found on a smaller scale than international mass tourism. This phenomenon is shrouded in a special rhetoric, and travel literature includes terms such as "advanced shamanic training," which is coupled with descriptions of a specific healer who has explored inner space, or other terminology to cue the tourist as to the real meaning. The drug tourist perceives the natives as timeless and ahistoric. They do not recognize the vast worlds of change between the tribal native, the civilized Indian, and the lower-class laborer, the striving middle-class individual or managerial elites of the Amazon region's major industries. Nor do the tourist guides have any interest in filling in all the shades of gray for them. The drug tourist is desperate to find the vanishing primitive. They cannot or will not see the urban and civilizing influences in these Amazon cities, including 400 years of Catholic and Protestant proselytization. They miss out on the movies, radio, TV, schools, libraries, and other Western-type infrastructures found everywhere. The westerner is not involved in a native ritual of spiritual dimensions as he has been led to expect, but rather in a staged drama to turn him on and extract his cash.

There is an evil, exploitive aspect of this drug tourism that is impossible to ignore. These so-called native healers are common drug dealers, dressed for deception. They provide the exotic setting and prep the tourist to have an authentic personal experience. Theater is based on illusion and facade. The Amazon drug tourism does not dismantle the illusion nor destroy the sense of the exotic. But it can on occasion leave psychotic depression and confusion in its wake.

LSD and Spirituality in the 1950s: Janiger's Experiment

In the tribal and industrialized societies that are examined in this essay where psychedelics are used, we see that access to supernatural power and the unitive experience were highly valued. Psychedelic plants were used to enhance perception and intuition. Recent published research on an early psychiatric study with more than 950 American subjects who were given LSD from 1954 to 1962 show some interesting insights occurring regarding psychedelics and religious experience. This was at a time when there was little prior knowledge about LSD. Oscar Janiger, a psychiatrist, made a real effort to avoid any religious prompts over the eight years of the study, but nonetheless, 24 percent, or some 228 men and women in Janiger's sample reported spontaneous spiritual/religious experiences. In the tribal societies under scrutiny and throughout studies of traditional societies of the world that utilize psychedelics, plant psychedelics provided little if any abuse potential. Most of the plants were of limited availability, were given in religious ritual settings in natural environments with all the senses engaged, had elders and religious leaders present to ensure a smooth interior voyage, and were laden with educational and didactic contact to reassure the individual.

Not discussed in this essay are the general findings on cultural patterning of the hallucinatory experience in tribal society, which gives us a fascinating glimpse into the extent to which the human psyche is subject to cultural conditioning. In such traditional societies of the world, drug-induced stereotypic visions are eagerly sought after to indicate that contact with the realm of the sacred has occurred. Psychedelics have been used in a magical-religious context, with ceremony, to celebrate or contact the realm of the supernatural and to divine the future. Psychedelic plants have been used as sacraments and have had redemptive effects on participants. In human history, the power of mind-altering plants was acknowledged to belong to special realms constrained with taboos and rituals. Anyone who entered those portals had to be properly prepared for the journey.


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