Entheogenic culture and history (part 2)
The prohibition of Entheogens is an anomaly in the history of medicinal plants. Numerous cultures have sought the divine through shifts in consciousness, breathing techniques, song and dance, and the use of a variety of herbal medicines we call entheogens.
Much of our understanding of how entheogens have been used comes from the sophisticated techniques of traditional cultures. For example, Ayahuasca from Shipibo and other Upper Amazon groups, Eboga from Bwiti from Gabon, psilocybin-containing mushrooms from Mazatec from Oaxaca, among many others around the world.
In human history, there have been waves of civilization, many of which have accepted entheogens as part of their culture: The Soma of the Hindu Vedas, Huachuma in Chavin de Huantar, Teonanacatl used by the Aztecs, the healers we call “witches” or “alchemists” in the middle ages. Other traditions have been lost to history, but from the evidence we can glean from the past, these substances were highly revered, even personified as gods.
The greatest diversity of entheogens on the planet is probably found in a region that includes Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru. The use of many entheogens, including peyote and ayahuasca, was fundamental to many ancient cultures in Central and South America. We know from archaeological evidence that entheogens were traded throughout this region, as there is evidence of harmalines and the psychedelic DMT in Chavin de Huantar complex in modern Peru, indicating the ancient use of ayahuasca and DMT snuff.
Chavin de Huantar was an ancient temple complexnow a UNESCO archaeological site in Ancash in northern Peru. The website contains numerous carvings and reliefs of gods and demons associated with huachuma, the San Pedro cactus and spiritual transformation. The ceremonial site dates back to 1200 BCE. Mounted around the edge of the circular plaza in the ancient temple of Chavin are numerous stone panels, including a fanged anthropomorphic feline that holds a huachuma cactus in its right hand. Raimondi’s stelenow housed in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología Historia del Perú in Lima, is adorned with the image of the staff god who holds a staff, lined with a huachuma cactus, in each hand.
The Aztecs had a sophisticated understanding of the Entheogens in their region, the Florentine Codex mentioning many psychoactive plants and their uses. Their rich pharmacopoeia includes many plants used by priests, or tlamacazquiand nobility: Ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa), Tlitliltzin (Ipomoea violacea), Teonanácatl (mushrooms containing psilocybin), Sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia), Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), Pipiltzintzintli (probably Salvia divinorum), Tlapatl (Datura stramonium), Mixitl (Datura innoxia) and Toloatzin (Datura spp.). Let’s not forget other important plants such as tobacco and cocoa.
Aztec god, Xochipilligod of art, games, dance, flowers and song, is depicted in a statue unearthed from the side of the Popocatépetl volcano near Tlalmanalco, it is thought to represent the god in ecstasy. Well-known entheogenic researchers Wasson, Schultes, and Hofmann point to depictions of entheogenic plants known to have been used in sacred contexts by the Aztecs to support this interpretation. The statue appears to have extremely dilated pupils. Ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson says that in the representation of the Xochipilli statue “there is nothing like it in the long and rich history of European art: Xochipilli absorbed in temicxoch“, temicxoch being “the awe-inspiring experience that follows the ingestion of an entheogen”.
This is not to say that other continents did not have powerful entheogens. In the Indian subcontinent, in the ancient Vedic text, the Rig Vedawe are introduced Soma, the Hindu god of the Moon, associated with the night, plants and vegetation. Soma is the personification of a drink made from a plant of the same name, praised as the lord of plants and forests, king of rivers and land, and father of the gods. In the Rg Veda, the ninth Mandala (or Soma Mandala) is dedicated to Soma – the plant and the deity. Some of the Soma hymns may contain the oldest parts of the Rig Vedawith the Soma cult, which is believed to have originated in the Proto-Indo-Iranian era at the end of the 3rd millennium BC.
“We drank the soma; we have become immortal; we went to the light; we have found the gods. part of the Rig Veda 8.48.3 translated by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton. In their 1968 book “Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality”, ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson and co-author Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty suggested that the Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria) mushroom might be Soma – they describe parallels between use in the Rg Veda, and reports of Siberian use of the fly-agaric. In his book “Food of the Gods”ethnobotanist Terence McKenna makes the case that Soma is Psilocybe cubensisthe mushroom containing psilocybin that grows in cow dung. He was of the view that it was unlikely that the subjective experience of amanita muscaria could not have inspired Soma’s adoration and praise. McKenna also notes the Ninth Mandala of the Rig Veda makes numerous references to the cow as the embodiment of the soma. Other suggestions for Soma include ephedra, Papaver somniferum (Opium), and Peganum harmala (Syrian Street).
In Europe, the villages sometimes suffered from what was called in the Middle Ages the fire of Saint Anthony. Ergot, Claviceps purpurea, a smut fungus that grows on cereals, especially rye, is said to be accidentally cooked in bread, leading to hallucinations, mania, psychosis, convulsions and spasms, “dancing sickness”, but above all gangrene . Fel poisoning became known as “holy fire” or “St. Anthony’s fire”, named after the monks of the Order of St. Anthony, who successfully treated ergot poisoning.
One of the most interesting rites of ancient Europe was the Mysteries of Eleusis. A rite of passage that has survived two millennia, where participants have constantly experienced telling states. Details are slim as participants in the rites, ceremonies and beliefs of the Mysteries are sworn to secrecy. Participants included important cultural figures, including philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and writers such as Sophocles. According to Plato, “the ultimate purpose of the Mysteries…was to bring us back to the principles from which we descended…a perfect enjoyment of the intellect [spiritual] good.”
He has been proposed that the barley used in the ritual drink, the kykeon, had been parasitized by ergot, that the psychoactive properties of this mushroom were responsible for the intense experiences evoked by the participants in the Mysteries. It is believed that those who prepared Kykeon knew that the entheogenic components were soluble in water, while the toxic ones were not. This theory that Kykeon was made from ergot is supported by the discovery of ergot fragments in a temple dedicated to the two Eleusinian goddesses in Girona, Spain.
Europe has a rich heritage of entheogenic plant use, hidden in Greek and Roman poetry, myths of metamorphosis, of witchcraft, or sometimes in plain view, as with Sophocles choosing to die by Henbane (Hyoscyamus albus) – the details of the intricate knowledge around these plants are still being pieced together. For lack of a better word, “witches” were known for their nocturnal revelry, their use of salves (containing, among other compounds, scopolamine) rubbed on brooms and applied to their inner thighs. to fly in the night. Episodes of ergotism and deep superstition, created a deep sense of paranoia about the heresy implicit in herbal medicines. A lack of understanding of this knowledge has driven the practices underground, a ban on altered states of consciousness. Despite the witches being burned for their illegal knowledge; “Dragon scale, wolf tooth; Mummy, mouth and abyss of witches; Of the raptured salt sea shark; The hemlock root was dug in darkness” – even in popular culture as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, enough botanical knowledge seeps in about a detailed understanding of poisonous plants and their medicinal uses.
Our narrative around entheogens has been dominated by media warning campaigns, government policy, and the perception that entheogens are used recreationally, driving a wedge between clinical and “non-clinical” use. But there is the deeper story, a much older story; that of traditional use, societies that used entheogens as a fundamental part of society and culture.
And that extends to modern times. The Be-ins of the 60s, the Raves of the 80s, the Doofs of the 90s and the Transformative festivals of the 2000s. There was a sophisticated “underground” culture that defined a set of modern rituals, codes of commitment and a clear understanding of the ethics and limitations of current entheogenic practices.
Remembering these traditions, both ancient and modern, is part of the necessary work of de-stigmatization, work that will hopefully bring these entheogens back into mainstream acceptance.