Thursday, September 10, 2015

Entheogens in History

I have been sitting at my computer for about two hours, considering possible topics for this blog today.  I have read SO many book on the subjects inherent to this discussion, and have more to read.  My main question is how much do I discuss in THIS book what has been showing up in so many other books on the subject.  In other words, where do I draw the line and just refer people to the other books, versus going into detail about different topics and subtopics?

One such topic is humanity's collective history of entheogenic use for religious purposes.  As my friend James Joseph writes in his book Psychedelic Perceptions (1, p.5), "Long before the convoluted 'War on Drugs' lumped all illegal psychoactive substances into the same dangerous basket, the majority of ancient societies ritualistically exercised their birthright of revealing the content of their own minds by entering non-ordinary states of consciousness."  Ingesting the 'food of the gods,' ancient people could have a direct experience of abstract spiritual concepts.  From the somma of the Hindu religion, dating from 1,500 BC, to the manna from Heaven in the Old Testament, given to the Israelites in the desert as they fled Egypt, to the kykeon of the Greek 'Ceremony of Eleusis,' used for 2,000 years starting in 1,500 BC;  to the 3000-year old ceremonies in Mexico and Guatemala during which participants ingested teonanactl - the 'Flesh of the Gods' - which research and ancient art has shown to be the psilocybin mushroom: there is evidence and well-founded supposition on the part of MANY researchers that most if not all of our modern religions and philosophical systems were inspired by plant-altered states of consciousness.

In The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience(2) by R.E.L. Masters and Jean Houston, Ph.D, the authors refer to a book, Poisons Sacres, Invresses Divines, written in the 1930's by Phillipe de Felice.  Masters and Houston quote from this book, saying that de Felice "...provided considerable documentation to support the ages-old connection between the occurrence of religious-type experiences and the eating of certain vegetable substances.  He wrote that the employment of these substances for religious purposes is so extraordinarily widespread as to be 'observed in every region of the earth among primitives no less than among those who have reached a high pitch of civilization.  We are therefore dealing not with exceptional facts, which might be justifiably overlooked, but with a general and, in the widest sense of the word, a human phenomenon, the kind of phenomenon which cannot be disregarded by anyone who is trying to discover what religion is and what are the deep needs which it must satisfy.'"

These authors continue with a discussion of somma, from the Vedic or Hindu tradition: how it was seen as a deity, how it was ritualistically consumed to bring the worshiper to a state of  "divine exhilaration and incarnation," and how it has been proposed to have been instrumental in the development of Hatha Yoga practices.  It is still unclear exactly what somma was, but some researchers believe it was entheogenic Amanita Muscaria, the very distinctive red-capped mushroom with white dots.  The Rig Veda, a collection of 1,028 hymns, contains 114 songs dedicated to somma, describing it as a "...powerful method for directly obtaining sacred knowledge." (1, p. 104)

Many people are familiar with the Old Testament story of Moses, and how he, with the help of the Lord God, led his people from captivity in Egypt through 40 years in the desert.  God provided the Israelites with manna, which in Exodus, " described as being "a fine, flake-like thing" like the frost on the ground.  It is described in the Book of Numbers as arriving with the dew during the night; Exodus adds that manna was comparable to hoarfrost in size, similarly had to be collected before it was melted by the heat of the sun and was white like coriander seed."(3) These characteristics are all similar to those of psilocybin mushrooms, and many enthomycologists [including Terence McKenna (see (4)] have suggested that manna was a type of psychedelic mushroom.  In addition, the Israelites were accompanied by their flocks and herds through the desert - and psilocybin mushrooms grow very well on cow dung, making the conditions for their growth a distinct possibility (1, p.108).  Dan Merkur wrote an entire book on the subject: The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible (which I have not yet read as of this blog).  For anyone interested in the role that entheogens have played in the formation of modern religions, it sounds like this last book would be a good one to read.

The Biblical reference to plants altering consciousness goes back even father than Moses, though. In Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, most have heard the familiar story of Adam and Eve having been to told to freely eat of everything there except the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' and the 'tree of life.'  Eve of course is temped by the snake, eats an apple from the first tree, and gets Adam to eat it too.  Then they become 'self-conscious,' and clothe themselves.  So, God kicks them out of the garden before they can eat of the 'tree of life,' which would have given them immortality.  This story has been interpreted by the proponents of humanities more colorful (aka 'psychedelic') history quite differently than the traditional Christian view, as I am sure you can imagine.  In this perspective, whatever the original couple ate was a psychoactive substance that altered their perceptions; and this story is probably the first example of a propaganda campaign proposing that altering consciousness is bad and goes against the wishes of the 'Father,' (ie the boss, the one in control, the masculine).  In other words, you will be rejected (thrown out of paradise), 'daddy' will be mad, and bad things will happen to you if you alter your 'God-Given' consciousness by eating a plant that imparts non-ordinary wisdom.  In other words, this anti-mind-altering-substance campaign as been going on for A LONG TIME!!!

In one of his seminal works, Terence McKenna, in Food of the Gods (4) takes this conversation even farther, by suggesting that the original evolution from monkey to human was in fact due in part to the altering and expanding of consciousness provided by groups of monkeys ingesting psychoactive substances.  I'll just let the reader contemplate that for a minute.  I suggest reading McKenna's work yourself it this piques your interest.

Here are a few more quotes from my friend James: "The relationship between entheogens and religion is unavoidable." (p.91) and "... before the prevalent meme suggesting that accessing valuable levels of consciousness through plant substances was dangerous or evil, this method of attaining enlightenment was a deeply revered and widespread practice." (p.90).  By the way, James' book is a wonderful resource for anyone looking into the prevalent cultural taboos against entheogens.  I highly recommend it - and you will see it coming up in my research again!

One other historical context that gets many mentions in these books is the Greek Temple of Eleusis, home of the 1,900 year tradition of a mysterious ceremony involving kykeon, an entheogenic drink whose exact composition was a highly guarded secret and still not known, although conjecture is that it was probably a mixture of Amanita Muscaria or psilocybin mushrooms, ergot, and Syrian rue, all of which are psychoactive entheogens.  Initiates to the Mysteries were prepared with instruction and went through purification and other initiatory rites prior to partaking in the 10-day ritual.  More importantly, these ceremonies were occuring during the lifetimes of some of the primary founders of Western thought: Plotinus, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, and Homer, just to name a few. (1, p.113)  The implied thought here is that perhaps entheogens were responsible for some of the insights brought into the world by these highly revered thinkers.

A final thought before I end for the day.  Most of the world's main religions were founded by a visionary who went against the cultural grain, so to speak, because of the overpowering inspiration and direct connection they were having with the Source/God/Creator.  The process of religions seems to be that direct inspiration comes, usually to an individual, then this inspiration is formalized (or"crystallized into form") by 'followers', and then this form turns into dogma (by the organization that springs up around the followers) which must be strictly followed.  The trajectory in most organized religions seems to be that the spiritual component of direct knowing is reduced over time, replaced by believing, adhering, behaving, judging, and condemning.   It seems our normal human tendency is to condense, rather than expand.  Maybe this tendency is an evolutionary explanation for the existence of SO many natural substances that expand consciousness.

According to Erika Bourguignon, a social anthropologist who has studied consciousness altering techniques in societies ranging from ancient to present-day, 90 percent of the 488 cultures she has studied 'possess institutionalized methods of altering consciousness.'   She says, '"It is clear that we are dealing with a psychobiological capacity available to all societies, and that, indeed, the vast majority of societies have used (altered states of consciousness)...primarily in a sacred context." (1, p.101-02).  Yet through the past two thousand years, "...there has been a movement away from direct access of the Divine and toward a relationship with a God mediated by an increasingly powerful clergy." (1, p.97).  Somewhere along our historical route, entheogens went from being allies, giving humans a way to 'ingest God' or experience Oneness consciousness, to being considered dangerous and scary, causing permanent brain and chronological damage, rampant violence, addiction, and death.  The modern government, in order to protect regular people not capable of making conscientious decisions about the use of dangerous substances on their own (except in regards to sugar, alcohol and tobacco, hardee har har), made these substances illegal, at the highest level of restriction.

Thousands of years of history, across hundreds of cultures, and NO records indicate that responsibly ingesting entheogens for the purposes of spiritual enlightenment causes insanity, brain damage, ill health, harm, or death.  There must be other reasons for their vilification and restriction - which we will get to next week.

In today's world, with serious problems stacking up in every direction and no answers in sight, I am reminded of the famous Einstein quote, calling us to have a revolution in consciousness if we want things to get better:

"No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

(1) Joseph, James.  Psychedelic Perceptions. Gaian Publishing, CO.  2006. 
(2) Masters, R.E.L and Houston, Jean, Ph. D.  The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience.  Delta Publishing, NY. 1966. p. 249-50.
(4) McKenna, Terence.  Food of the Gods.  Bantam Publishing, NY, 1992.

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