Hallucinogens and Spiritual Rituals

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Chapter 2
Hallucinogens and Spiritual Rituals

For thousands of years, people in many cultures have used hallucinogens in an attempt to gain spiritual insights to help them deal with the uncertainties that are part of their daily lives. They try to communicate with their deities to gain understanding and control over unpredictable events like birth, death, and illness. People in these cultures induce hallucinations by eating plants such as peyote and several species of mushrooms that naturally produce hallucinogenic chemicals. Botanists and ethnologists who have studied this use of hallucinogens refer to psychoactive plants used in religious rituals as entheogens, from the Greek word meaning "divinely inspired."

Ancient Use

Archaeologists believe that hallucinogens were also used in a number of ancient societies to help leaders make important decisions relating to issues such as war, hunting, migrating to a new home, and selecting tribal and spiritual leaders. All of these situations were important enough to require consultation with a deity, who was believed to communicate with earthly beings while they were in a trance.

Why entheogens were used in religious rituals in the first place is uncertain. But scholars studying these ancient cultures have a plausible answer to this question. They generally believe that the altered perceptions experienced by those ingesting the entheogens were so extraordinary that ancient peoples believed they must have been inspired by the gods they worshiped. Some anthropologists speculate that those who took the drug believed that, by doing so, they were becoming acquainted with the gods themselves. This view is supported by ethnologist Richard Evans Schultes, who also notes that these entheogens soon were controlled by tribal religious leaders:

When the unearthly and inexplicably weird physical and psychic effects of these few plants were experienced, it did not take long for primitive societies to regard them as sacred elements of the flora, and their use eventually fell into the province of the shamans or medicine men who explained their effects as proof that these species were the home of spirits or spiritual forces enabling man through various hallucinations to communicate with ancestors or with spirits in the outer realms.7

The Historical and Archaeological Record

The archaeological evidence of such use dates back between seven and nine thousand years and is found in most regions of the world. For example, a cache of dried peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus, was found in a cave in Texas and has been carbon-dated to approximately 5000 b.c. Archaeologists have also located dozens of cave paintings and stone sculptures in Africa, Asia, and South America depicting hallucinogenic mushrooms and other plants. According to ethnologist Giorgio Samorini,

The idea that the use of hallucinogens should be a source of inspiration for some forms of prehistoric rock art is not a new one. . . . Rock paintings [exist] in the Sahara Desert, the works of pre-neolithic Early Gatherers, in which mushrooms [sic] effigies are represented repeatedly. The polychromatic scenes of harvest, adoration and the offering of mushrooms, and large masked "gods" covered with mushrooms, not to mention other significant details, lead us to suppose we are dealing with an ancient hallucinogenic mushroom cult . . . and that their use always takes place within contexts and rituals of a religious nature.8

The earliest written records of the use of hallucinogenic drugs date back three thousand years. Writings from ancient civilizations throughout many regions of the world depict the use of entheogens as part of religious ceremonies.

For example, writings from the African Congo describe the Eboga plant used in rites-of-passage rituals for young men and women. The Eboga plant was pulled from the ground, the roots were cut off and scraped clean, and the fleshy part of the root eaten. The stories of those who ate the roots describe the "thunder" they felt in their heads, the dizziness, and the visions they experienced of people who were not actually present. Similarly, ancient Hindu scriptures called the Veda refer to a hallucinogenic drink called soma. There is archaeological evidence that suggests how this drink was made: Ceramic strainers have been unearthed at ancient Hindu shrines, and laboratory tests revealed traces of three different hallucinogenic plants native to India. Even historical records from ancient Athenians indicate that a mysterious drink called kykeon, which induced a trancelike state, was consumed during religious ceremonies known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Although anthropologists agree on the importance of hallucinogens in early religious ceremonies, they are divided in their opinions of how the discovery of certain plants' powers may have occurred. One group speculates that members of primitive tribes probably watched animals

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Three thousand years ago in Greece, a religious ceremony, known today as the Eleusinian Mysteries, was held every year. During the ceremony, a mysterious and sacred brew was drunk by initiates. The Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, a small city east of Athens, from around 1500 b.c. to the fourth century A.D. in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

As many as three thousand people each year could walk to Eleusis for the initiation. Many famous Greeks and Romans such as Aristotle, Sophocles, Plato, and Cicero made the walk. The celebration of the Mysteries began in the autumn, with four days of rites and festivities in Athens. On the fifth day, a solemn procession to Eleusis began, during which rites, sacrifices, and purifications took place.

On the sixth night, cloaked in secrecy, the climax of the Eleusinian ceremony took place in the inner sanctum of the temple, into which only priests and initiates could enter. Before the climax of the initiation, a sacred potion made of barley and mint called kykeon was administered. Ancient Greek writers who experienced the drink reported mystical insights into birth and death and strange ritualistic babbling.

The possible psychoactive ingredients in kykeon have been hotly debated. Botanists and anthropologists have made many suggestions, but the one most universally accepted is put forth by Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl Ruck in their book The Road to Eleusis. These researchers believe that ergot, a type of fungus found on various grains, was the psychoactive component of kykeon. It would have been simple for an Eleusinian priest to collect the ergot, grind it into a powder, and add it to the kykeon. The theory is further supported by the fact that ergot is generally found on grain and Demeter was the goddess of the grain harvest who figured prominently in the ritual.

Most archaeologists and classical scholars, however, express great reluctance in accepting the ideas put forth in The Road to Eleusis. They tend to believe that, although there was a secret drink given to initiates during the Mysteries and the drink caused bizarre reactions, it remains a matter of speculation whether hallucinogens were part of the drink.

eat various hallucinogenic plants and then observed their strange disoriented behaviors. Ethnologists further speculate that, at some point, members of the tribe decided to eat the plants to experience the same effect.

Other anthropologists believe that the discovery of the psychoactive plants must be attributed to simple experimentation with most or all of the plants in the local environment. When those who sampled new plants inexplicably experienced strange intoxicating effects, they knew they had discovered a plant that provided something other than nourishment.

Although many types of entheogens exist, the two that are best known are various species of hallucinogenic cactus and mushrooms.

Entheogens as Spiritual Medicine

The most commonly reported ritual use of entheogens among indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere is for healing the sick. Among such cultures, the world of medicine and the spirit world are inseparable. Anthropologist Henry Munn writes that, among the tribal peoples of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the mushrooms are not simply botanical hallucinogens; they "were known to the American Indians as medicines. . . . Among the Mazatecs [an Oaxacan tribe], many, one time or another during their lives, have eaten the mushrooms, either to cure themselves of an ailment or to resolve a problem."9

Each Oaxacan tribe has at least one shaman, similar to a medicine man, who specializes in the use of hallucinogens for the purpose of healing others. A shaman is recognized by the tribe as an expert in these matters; he functions as a spiritual guide and spokesman for the ill person. Shamans have long known that hallucinogens cannot cure ailments such as broken bones, but they believe that hallucinogens can cure many other medical problems, including those with no apparent physical cause.

The healing session takes the form of a meeting in which both the shaman and his patient eat the entheogen. After an hour or so, when the hallucinations begin, the shaman acts very much like a Western doctor or psychiatrist might and asks the patient about the origins of the illness. After the patient describes the history of the illness, the shaman goes into a trace and chants about where to look for the cure for the disease. As an example, Henry Munn recorded this chant:

My God, you who are the master of the whole world, what we want is to search for and encounter from where comes sickness, from where comes pain and affliction. We are the ones who speak and cure and use medicine. So without mishap, without difficulty, lift us into the heights and exalt us.10

Following the chant, the shaman talks about how the mushrooms will heal the illness. He then tells the patient that the mushrooms are working to cure him and that he or she will soon be well. The shaman does not touch the patient in any way, as a Western-style doctor would. Instead, during the hallucination, he visualizes that he is sucking the illness out of the patient. Munn interviewed a shaman and asked how he was able to heal the sick. The shaman answered that the mushrooms taught him "how to suck through space with a hollow tube of cane. To suck through space means that you who are seated there, I can draw the sickness out of you by suction from a distance."11

Mazatec shamans believe that, when they heal an illness, it is actually the mushrooms that perform the healing by inducing the hallucinations, inspiring an understanding of the illness, and directing their thoughts to cure the illness. This practice is often successful, perhaps because it instills in the patient confidence that he or she will recover; even doctors trained in Western medicine recognize such confidence as being an important factor in whether a patient recovers.

To illustrate the importance of faith in the power of mushrooms among indigenous peoples, Munn tells the story of an ill villager who went to a shaman because of a severe pain in his abdomen. The shaman's treatment did not relieve the pain, forcing the villager to seek treatment in a hospital. Upon examination by a medical doctor, it was determined that the villager needed an appendectomy. The inflamed appendix was removed, but the patient's condition worsened for no reason the doctor could discern. After several days watching his patient refuse to eat and express his wish to die, the doctor summoned the shaman to the hospital for a second mushroom ceremony. While hallucinating, the patient revealed that since a steel knife had cut into him, his soul had been so grievously violated that he was dying of shame. The shaman, listening to this story, told the man that it

Bernardino de Sahagún and the Florentine Codex

In the mid–sixteenth century, Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún traveled throughout Mexico and wrote about the Aztec culture, including their use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote. Sahagún's accounts of his travels through Mexico are the earliest writings describing the use of entheogens.

In his account of his travels in 1559, titled the Florentine Codex, Sahagún recorded the first known account of a magic mushroom ceremony, which is quoted in a website called the Vaults of Erowid: "The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they called nanacatl [divine flesh], and bring on drunkenness, hallucinations and even lechery; they ate these before the dawn . . . with honey; and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance, some sang and others wept. . . . When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen."

Sahagún also witnessed and recorded peyote ceremonies. He estimated that the Chichimeca and Toltec Indians had been using peyote at least two thousand years before the arrival of the Spaniards. Sahagún referred to the use of the root "peiotl" by the Chichimeca Indians of Mexico. The two most commonly used names, "peyote" and "peyotl," are modifications of that ancient word.

Had the writings of Sahagún not been discovered by mid–twentieth-century European pharmaceutical researchers, much of the research and knowledge they accumulated might not exist today.

was the mushrooms that had actually cut him open, rearranged his insides, and had sewn him up again. The man immediately recovered and returned to his village believing that the mushrooms had actually performed the surgery and that his soul should not feel ashamed of what had happened.

Entheogens and Religious Practice

The use of entheogens continues today in large areas of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. In many cases, this modern use goes beyond healing. The most widely used entheagen is peyote, a form of cactus, which is legally used by some members of Native American tribes living in the Southwest and among tribes throughout Mexico and South America.

This cactus, which has the scientific name Lophophora williamsii, is found in the hot, dry climates of the American Southwest and in Mexico. Peyote is recognizable by its small, round blue-green body, called a button, which barely protrudes one inch above the ground. Each button is about the diameter of a quarter and is covered by soft fuzz rather than the spines that typify most cacti. The ingredient in the peyote button that produces hallucinations is a chemical compound called mescaline. Between four and ten buttons are picked for a single 350-milligram dose.

The Peyote Ceremony

The peyote ceremonies of Southwest American tribes all tend to follow a similar archetype, although each has its own unique variations. The peyote ceremony continues to serve the same role it did in ancient times, whenever an occasion requires spiritual guidance. Generally, the reasons for such a gathering involve decisions affecting the whole community, such as selecting new tribal leaders, enacting new tribal laws, and determining the use of tribal lands. The ceremony is open to any adult who wishes to take part.

Prior to the start of the ceremony, the shaman, along with a small group of tribal elders, sets out to locate and collect the peyote buttons. Because of their small size and relative scarcity, finding them can be a long, laborious process. When the first button is found, the shaman sits west of it and prays, "I have found you, now open up, show me where the rest of you are."12 Sometimes the shaman will eat one or two of the first buttons he finds in hopes of gaining spiritual insight into the location of more of the buttons. The shaman and his group then continue to collect as many buttons as are needed for the ceremony.

When the shaman returns to the village, he and the men and women planning to participate in the ceremony bathe and then dress in ceremonial buckskin clothing. Older men paint their faces in geometric patterns used exclusively for the peyote ceremony. All gather in a round communal tepee or community lodge and sit around the perimeter, leaving the center area open for ritual objects that will be used in the ceremony. These objects include such things as a fire, an altar cloth, drums, the peyote, bowls of water, fruit and meat, a whistle, and cedar incense.

When night falls, the ceremony begins. The shaman starts by standing and announcing the purpose of the ceremony, then offers prayers to the peyote god asking for divine wisdom. He then takes four peyote buttons from a leather bag and passes the bag around the tepee so that everyone may take their buttons. Once everyone has received the raw buttons, they begin eating them. As the tepee fills with incense and the mescaline in the peyote begins to stimulate hallucinations, drums are played and ceremonial songs sung; members wishing to speak about the reason for the ceremony may do so at this time.

During the first part of the ceremony, as they become intoxicated, the participants submit to the effects of the drug, believing that the peyote gives them clear insight for reaching the best decision. The shamans believe that they are able to communicate with the peyote gods while under the influence of the drug. In this regard, they believe the peyote is teaching them. This is when they look to the peyote gods for guidance in helping them make the right decision regarding the purpose for the peyote ceremony.

During the latter part of the ritual, as the effects of the drug begin to wane, the participants turn to thoughtful contemplation and make a conscious effort to understand what the peyote has taught them. More discussion takes place. Occasionally, participants openly weep as they speak, while others begin rhythmic dancing in a trancelike state. As dawn breaks and the effects of the peyote further diminish, water is thrown on the fire. Four morning songs are then sung while the shaman asks each tribal member to give his or her opinion about what decision should be reached.

The last stage of the ceremony is the rendering of the decision by the shaman. Following his pronouncement, the tribal members nod their heads in agreement, and all participants exit the tepee into the morning sun. Members not participating in the ceremony prepare a communal breakfast that they serve to those who took part in the ceremony. Following breakfast, participants pass the remainder of the day with family and friends or sleeping.

The Entheogen Experience

Regardless of the setting or purpose of the ceremony, the effects of mescaline and psilocybin are very similar. About half an hour after ingesting the buttons or mushrooms, the first effects are felt. There are often strong physical effects, including difficulty breathing, accelerated heart rate, muscle tension (especially in the face and neck muscles), and often nausea and vomiting due to the unpleasant taste of the raw substances. Many users blend the entheogens with fruit juice or some type of food to mask the bitterness.

As the psychoactive ingredients take effect, there is a feeling of intoxication and shifting consciousness with minor perceptual changes. Users describe a sense of confidence and feelings of inner tranquillity. As their heart rates accelerate, they experience a heightened awareness of their surroundings and their senses become more acute. Stories of sensory acuity include experiencing more intense colors, sighting apparent halos around objects, and visualizing geometric patterns. Music, which is considered by users an important part of the experience, is described as being more intense than usual and induces in the listeners a soothing trancelike state.

Spatial relationships and time can also become distorted. Familiar objects in a room may appear either smaller or larger than they actually are and may appear closer or farther away than they really are. Some users report seeing objects randomly moving about the room and passing through each other in a ghostlike fashion. Time perception is also affected. Trancelike states that last for several hours are sometimes perceived by participants to have lasted only seconds.

Halfway through a typical twelve-hour trip, many users experience the onset of what they describe as a quiet phase. During this phase, users describe thoughtful contemplation of themselves, their friends, their families, and their surroundings. Anthropologist Henry Munn, who has lived with and studied several South American and Mexican tribes, documented the experience of one tribal leader who was in a deep peyote trance. As Munn explains, images of nature are a common feature of the hallucinations among indigenous peoples, and most sentences end with the word "says" because the tribal peoples believe the entheogens are talking. Munn recorded the leader's hallucination in a Mexican village:

Thirteen superior whirlwinds. Thirteen whirlwinds of the atmosphere. Thirteen clowns, says. Thirteen personalities, says. Thirteen white lights, says. Thirteen mountains of points, says. Thirteen old hawks, says. Thirteen white hawks, says. Thirteen personalities, says. Thirteen mountains, says. Thirteen clowns, says. Thirteen peaks, says. Thirteen stars of the morning.13

Munn interprets this puzzling hallucination as representing sights common to the tribal leader that are flashing through his mind. The number thirteen, Munn notes, simply represents a large number, not necessarily the literal number thirteen.

For someone living in today's urbanized society, the hallucinations would be different but no less bizarre. For example, in 1953, British writer Aldous Huxley swallowed a dose of mescaline and conversed with a friend who interviewed him about his altered mental state. In his revolutionary book, The Doors of Perception, Huxley provided a description of the experience:

Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights. A little later there were sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life. . . . The books, for example, with which my study walls were lined, like the flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colors, a profounder significance. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate; of aquamarine, of yellow topaz; lapis lazuli books whose color was so intense, so intrinsically meaningful, that they seemed to be on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention.14

Aldous Huxley

British novelist Aldous Huxley's initial psychedelic experience in 1953 was a personal revelation that led to the writing of The Doors of Perception, a book which played a significant role in launching the hallucinogenic revolution in America and Europe.

Huxley was born in England to a family famous for a long tradition of scientists. Following his graduation from Oxford University, Huxley began his career as a novelist and essayist. He rose to literary fame for his 1932 novel, Brave New World, which depicts a futuristic vision of a totalitarian society devoted to pleasure but suspicious of emotions. In this, his most well-known literary work, Huxley deals with the issue of human freedom in a world where a group called the World Controllers chemically coerced the population into believing that its servitude is pleasurable.

One of the elements of Brave New World, which was a foreshadowing of Huxley's later drug experimentation, was the vision of euphoria possible with hallucinogenic drugs. In his novel, there was nothing coercive about drug use. Individuals had the option of using or not using them, but those who chose not to use them were viewed with suspicion by the others.

In 1954, in his book The Doors of Perception, Huxley publicly declared himself an advocate of the use of hallucinogenic drugs. For the first time, a large segment of the educated public became aware of the existence of these substances. Not surprisingly, the book created a storm in literary circles. Some hailed it as a major intellectual statement, while others dismissed it as pure nonsense. Few critics realized that the book would have such an enormous impact in years to come.

Huxley openly stated his belief that mind-altering substances, when administered in the right kind of situation, could lead to a mystical experience. He went so far as to predict that a religious revival would come about as the result of further experimentation with hallucinogens. He also stated that drugs would make it possible for large numbers of people to achieve a radical change in how they lived their lives and attain a deeper understanding of the nature of the universe.

Those who use entheogeus such as peote or mushrooms typically report few after-effects. Although most users feel quite tired following the experience, few report experiencing effects such as drowsiness or sickness. What most users do report is a distorted sense of time. Some recovering from their intoxicated state believe they have been in it for weeks, while others believe it lasted only minutes.

Of all the experiences reported by those who use peyote or mushrooms, by far the most common is a sense that they have made direct connection with a deity. Yet fascinating as researchers have found the spiritual component of the use of hallucinogens, they have been even more intrigued with what they saw as the potential some of these drugs seemed to have for explaining the workings of the human mind and for treating mental illness.