Thursday, June 11, 2015

Entheogens, an overview; Peyote

Today I want to begin writing about the rest of the story I began on Tuesday: about the psychoactive plant medicines in question; about the cultures that use and have used them for centuries;  about the cultural taboo and vilification of these medicines in the modern or Western world; and about the current legal state of affairs in this country and elsewhere.  I have been sitting here at the computer for over an hour, contemplating how to begin.  

I know I am not up to speed on the legal aspects of the situation so I will save that part of the discussion until after I can meet with a lawyer.  

I believe I will begin with introducing the different entheogenic medicines and what I know about them.  We will get to the cultural taboos another day.

An entheogen is defined as a substance that helps one connect with the Divine.  According to, it is "any substance, such as a plant or drug, taken to bring on a spiritual experience."(1)  Wikepedia says, "an entheogen is a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context that may be synthesized or obtained from natural species. The chemical induces altered states of consciousness.  Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for transcendence, revelation, and supernatural healing." (2)  

I would like to discuss the following entheogenic substances in this work: the Peyote cactus; Ayahuasca (also known as Yagé by my Colombian elders, as Daime in the Santo Daime Church, and as Hoasca in the União do Vegetal Church); the San Pedro cactus or Wachuma, from Peru; and Ibogaine, from the Bwiti peoples of Africa.   I may also briefly touch on some aspects of traditional tobacco use.  I will not go into other mind-altering substances such as Psilocybin mushrooms, from the ancient Aztec and Mexican cultures, or Salvia, etc (see (3) for a more comprehensive list), because I am not aware of spiritual ceremonies that accompany such substances, and my discussions about the use of these mind-altering medicines feature prominently the instruction and guidance of spiritual elders and the safe container of ceremony as a prerequisite to their use.  Of course in our modern culture this is by no means the prevalent attitude.  Many of these substances are consumed as drugs, as defined in part two of the introduction: something you take to escape, to numb, to get away from your self - from stress, from pain, from symptoms.  The tricky part is that most substances can not only be used, but also abused.  This discussion, also, we will save for another day!

In our modern world, there are several cultures which use entheogenic medicines as part of their spiritual path, with a long history of such use.  The Native American Church (NAC) is a perfect example, as members use the peyote cactus as a sacrament, and the organization is, in fact ..."the oldest traditional religious organization in the Western Hemisphere." (4)  There are records from carbon dating suggesting that peyote was eaten by humans on this continent as early as 3780 B.C. (5)  Quannah Parker, credited with starting the NAC, taught that Peyote is a sacred medicine given to the people by the Creator and that taking it enabled the participant to commune directly with God.  The teachings of the Huichol, a tribe from Mexico where the cactus grows, blend traditional Christian concepts with the more mystical view that the peyote plant itself is the "...reborn body of the Creator which people can ingest to receive wisdom, the revelation of mystical knowledge, and the experience of this communion." (6)  Right from the start, there were people, well, governments, really, that wanted to suppress the use of peyote.  There is a record of the King of Spain issuing an edict in 1620 against the use of peyote, and numerous Inquisition cases involving its use. (7)  In this country, legislators were requesting the prohibition of peyote as early as 1886.  (8)  By 1965, peyote had been added to the list of controlled psychoactive substances, the use of which was illegal; however this legislation allowed for its use in religious ceremony.  In 1994, members of the NAC were given a federal exemption to use peyote in their ceremonies.  The issue of whether it is legal for someone not of Native American descent to be a legal member of the NAC and/or to use the peyote sacrament in a ceremony varies from state to state.  More information can be found at EROWID, a site dedicated to "Documenting the Complex Relationship Between Humans and Psychoactives."(9)

The next set of plant medicines I would like to discuss is the Ayahuasca/Yagé /Daime/Hoasca plant medicine family.  All of these substances are more or less chemically the same.  They contain a woody vine, usually called the Ayahuasca vine or banisteriopsis caapi, which contains an ingredient which makes it possible for humans to digest DMT , or dimethlytryptamine.  (For more information about the associated chemistry, go to (10).)  The other ingredient, the admixture plant, contains the DMT, and varies due to region.  In Peru, and for the Santo Daime and the UDV, the admixture plant is chacrona; or psychotria viridis. (10)  The Yagé brew uses another DMT-containing plant called chacropanga.  These brews are made in extended prayer ceremonies, wth some cultural distinctions giving rise to the different branches of this particular spiritual family.  However, the belief that the medicine is a holy sacrament is universal.

The historical use of these medicines goes back thousands of years.  And, this discussion is going to have to wait for another time.  I will pick it up here next week!


(6) ibid.
(7) ibid, from Stewart, Omer Call. Peyote Religion: a History. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1987. Print.

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