ENTHEOGENS

“Standing on bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; I am part and parcel of God.”

“ I was totally overwhelmed by spiritual sensations. Every molecule, every cell of the body I was inhabiting started screaming out in ecstasy. Suddenly, with no effort on my part, all of my senses became interchangeable and could perform the activities of any of the others. To my joyous disbelief, I could see with my ears and hear with my nose. I even tasted with my eyes.”

“Such clarity has left me shattered, left to stand naked before what I now know to be, and what I have been told is.  To now be so utterly awake to the knowledge that we all are already in perfect union with the Universe and its universal message of love, I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I have touched the Hand of the Divine.”[1]

“Your mind floats free, enjoying (or being overwhelmed by) images that no longer come from the physical world alone but from an ‘elsewhere,’ a new origin outside of normal reality.  It’s easy to see why you would feel that messages originate with a divine source, since they aren’t connected to a normal reality and can’t be correlated to the environment your senses tell you is there” [2]

Entheogens are substances that contain molecules closely related to human neurochemicals which have been shown to directly provoke mystical experiences. They mostly come directly from plant sources but some, like LSD, are made in the laboratory.

The term entheogen was invented by Gordon Wasson and means ‘god containing’ or ‘god filled’. Entheogens are psychoactive substances which have traditionally been used to induce a spiritual experience of transcendence and unite the user with god-consciousness.  They were used in the ancient world and are still used today in tribal and shamanic societies in conjunction with, or to support, other methods of changing consciousness such as meditation, drumming, chanting and so on. The plants are used as a sacrament, and this is the polar opposite of the recreation or habitual use of drugs in western society.  

Traditional shamanic rituals involving hallucinogenic plants are carefully structured experiences in which a small group of people come together with a respectful, spiritual attitude to share a profound inner journey of healing and transformation, facilitated by these plant allies.

Their ultimate goal isn’t a high or the ultimate trip, but a realisation of transcendence, with the plant taken with intent and expressly for this purpose.  All psychedelic experiences are not entheogenic experiences. Anyone can take psychedelics and see pretty colours, patterns, and have hallucinations. Even if there is some kind of wish-fulfilment ‘spiritual’ vision, such as meeting a beautiful lady or pulling a sword from a stone, there is still the sense of self in the vision, the everyday personality, the observer, the ‘I’. But in an entheogenic experience, in which mystical consciousness is attained, the ‘I’, the ego, dissolves like a drop of water merging with the ocean of the cosmos.

There are four main characteristics of such experiences –

  1. A slowing down of time and a focus on the present moment
  2. An awareness of the interdependence between seemingly opposite things or events, feeling yourself as the unified field of organism and environment
  3. An awareness of the relativity of personal identity, enabling you to see other I-centres as yourself – not your personal ego, but what Hindus call the paramatman, the Self of all selves
  4. An awareness of eternal energy, with the insight that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one’s own being

People who have taken the sacred vine ayahuasca have described a sensation of otherworldliness, where the feeling is that things are not as they used to be and the sense of entering into another, heretofore unknown, reality. With this otherworldliness comes feelings of sanctity as the ayahuasca drinkers usually feel they are the recipients of utmost grace. There is the experience of meaningfulnessand insight, where drinkers may “feel that they suddenly understand why things are as they are and discover a true sense of their own lives. Coupled with this is often a feeling of enchantmentand powerful energy, where drinkers come to see that the world is governed by invisible forces, energies, or beings, and that a tremendous force permeates and animates everything. It is also very common for drinkers to feel that they are rediscovering a facet of their existence that is actually very basic; it is as if life had estranged them from themselves and made them forget some very basic things about their very essence. Time and again, drinkers say that the brew brings them “back home” to the true essence of themselves from which they become distanced.

Some think that entheogens act to activate and unblock the crown chakra, an experience described as being like turning on a lamp in a dark room, giving the individual heightened awareness of internal and external realities.[3] Full activation of the crown chakra (even if only temporarily) leads to contact with the universal consciousness. Most accounts of entheogenic experiences describe connection with the ultimate reality, of being free of the body, time and conceptual limits, where all things, all beings, are united as a single whole, a single consciousness.

It used to be thought assumed that hallucinogens excite neurotransmission and overall brain activity, but recent findings suggest that the very opposite may be true, and the colourful effects that hallucinogens give rise to emerge from a brain with less neural activity than normal. Researchers discovered that psilocybin mushrooms decreased activity in several key areas of the brain, including the default-mode network, which is thought to play a role in high-level constructs such as the self or ego.  A relative deactivation of the default-mode network has also been discovered in experienced meditators both during the practice of meditation and in their ordinary resting states. In other words, the entheogenic state, and the state of very advanced meditation, is the same.

There are at least 120 species of plants across the world known to be used for intoxication. Most hallucinogens are alkaloids, a family of around 5,000 complex organic molecules that also account for the biological activity of most toxic and many medicinal plants. These compounds are found in various concentrations in different parts of the plant – root, leaves, seeds, bark or flowers. Since many of the hallucinogenic plants are closely related to deadly poisonous species, and many are fatal in higher doses, you wonder at the tenacity and bravery of their discoverers. 

They have traditionally been absorbed by the human body in an ingenious number of ways – smoked or taken as snuff, swallowed fresh or dried, drunk in decoctions and infusions, absorbed directly through the skin, and even administered as enemas. The Bushmen of Dobe, Botswana absorb the active compounds of kwashi (Puncratium trianthum) by cutting the scalp and rubbing the juice of the onion-like bulb into the open wound. The psychoactive constituents of fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), an hallucinogenic mushroom used in Siberia, pass through the body unaltered, and the psychoactive urine of the intoxicated individual may be consumed by the others, [4] and even the urine of reindeer that have consumed the fungus, is drunk. Some hallucinogens, such as belladonna (Atropa belladonna), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and datura (Datura metel) have active principals that can be directly absorbed through the skin [5] and were common constituents of the famous flying ointments used by witches.

Nearly every society in world history has used at least one of these hallucinogenic plants in a religious context or used it as a sacrament, a holy communion with the gods, as well as for divination and healing. 

There is plenty of archaeological evidence of psychoactive drug use among prehistoric and early historic cultures. Cannabis seeds and pollen were found at the Mesolithic site known as Abora in Latvia, and cannabis was cultivated around the Oslo fjord and parts of Sweden from the late first millennium BCE. [6] Petroglyphs from the same area indicate mushroom use. A Viking-age burial site with hundreds of henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) seeds was interpreted as evidence that the woman there interred was “a priestess, a seer, someone in touch with the other world”. In the Americas, seeds of the so-called mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) and San Pedro cacti (Trichocereus pachanoi) have been discovered in association with human shelters from the end of the ninth millennium BCE, while peyote buttons (Lophophora williamsii) have been discovered at a site dating to the fourth millennium BCE. [7]

If we look at sacred texts, Gilgamesh, the hero of an ancient Sumerian epic, went on a quest for a miraculous herb, which he eventually discovered only to have it taken from him by its guardian, the serpent. This may have influenced the Bible story which is told with a different slant – it is the serpent that actually offers the fruit of knowledge to Eve.[i] This ‘forbidden fruit’ may have been an entheogen which opened the mind to the god-state. Eating the fruit of the tree of life unites man with the gods and eating it is forbidden in the Bible.

In the Indian Vedas, the same word (soma) is used for a ritual drink, a sacred plant, and its deity. Drinking soma produces immortality.  The Rigveda (8.48.3) says:

We have drunk soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.

The references to immortality and light are characteristics of an entheogenic experience.

In ancient Egypt, the 16th century BCE Ebers Papyrus mentions the use of opium and cannabis. Initiation to the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece probably involved the use of psilocybin mushrooms.

Drugs and magical practices were inextricably related. The Greek pharmakon means ‘drug, medicine, remedy; poison, enchanted potion’, while pharmakeia is translated as ‘the use of drugs or spells; poisoning, witchcraft; medicine’.

The use of psychoactive drugs among indigenous peoples in modern times is well documented. In Siberia, Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is attested from the early modern period,  [8] In the Amazon basin, the ayahuasca drink, has been used for ritual and healing purposes since pre-Colombian times, in Central and North American the use of Psilocybe mushrooms and peyote  is well documented, as is the South American use of the San Pedro cactus (Trichocerus pachanoi).  [9]

Psychoactive drugs are also common in European folk traditions. Mircea Eliade (1970) described the traditional use of mandrake for love magic and healing in his native Romania, and recipes for flying ointments often include psychoactive plants such as aconite, hemlock (Conium), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), henbane, opium and mandrake. Henbane was also used as a common additive to beer until 1516, when the Bavarian Purity Law forbade such brewing practices. [10]

The vast majority of religions in the world have used psychoactive drugs in their rituals. However, in the monotheistic religions, the word of ‘god’ is always mediated by a priest and followers are not meant to seek any form of independent contact with divine realms. Any claim to mystical experience by lay members is a challenge to the authority of the ordained clergy. The Christian faithful are meant to reject the material world in order to embrace the spiritual one, as the two are considered to be diametrically opposed, and drugs are very definitely material and of this world – plant leaves, roots and bark – so trying to find the spiritual though use of the material would have been considered blasphemous.

By the time of the industrial revolution, the spiritual use of entheogens had disappeared in Europe, but colonisation and world trade soon meant that traditional intoxicants such as opium appeared as commodities for sale in European ports, and Thomas De Quincey in his Confessions of an Opium Eater, published in 1821, described his own use and abuse of opium, including visionary encounters with Egyptian and Indian deities. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats and other luminaries of Romanticism also indulged in opium-induced reveries.  [11]

The re-emergence of entheogen-induced spirituality into Western mainstream awareness probably came with the publication of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Huxley studied both of Western philosophy and Hindu Vedānta, and interpreted his experiences on mescaline – the active ingredient of peyote – accordingly. He believed that there was a shared universal truth behind all the world’s religions, but that though consciousness is limitless for reasons of biological survival it is transmitted to our human selves through the filtering mechanism of the brain, leaving us with only a tiny fragment of our true potential. Mescaline, he believed, cleansed his ‘doors of perception’ enabling him to gain access to what he understood as an unconditioned and primeval view of the world.

ENTHEOGENS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF CONSCIOUSNESS

It has been suggested that entheogens played a part in the development of human consciousness. Why do plants across the world contain chemical compounds that closely resemble the neurotransmitters of the human brain? The presence of toxins in plants is generally thought of as an evolutionary deterrent to protect the plant from being eaten by animals, but these plants provide pleasurable rewards for the consumer.   Humans should not have evolved the neural circuitry that readily rewards the consumption of neurotoxins, but they have. [12] Drug reward is a paradox. [13]

There may have been a co-evolution of plants and mammal nervous systems, whereby mammals evolved the capacity to make use of the defensive compounds of the plants. This suggests that exposure to plant-based drugs extends far into our evolutionary past, and that mammals have been genetically equipped to deal with psychoactive drugs throughout their history. It seems quite probable that many eons ago, at the dawn of human existence, our early ancestors discovered the mind-altering potential of certain plants during the exploration of their environment for food. It has even been suggested that the ingestion of psychoactive substances may have helped stimulate cognitive developments such as existential and linguistic thinking in our proto-human ancestors.

Some regard the hallucinogenic state as an exemplar of a primitive or primary state of consciousness that preceded the development of modern, adult, human, normal waking consciousness.

PLANT SPIRITS AS MASTERS

When a shaman consumes hallucinogenic plants they create a template, as it were, upon which cultural beliefs and forces may be amplified a thousand times. What the individual sees in the visions is dependent not on the drug but on other factors –

  • the mood and setting of the group,
  • the physical and mental states of the participants,
  • his own expectations based on a rich repository of tribal lore
  • and, above all, the authority, knowledge and experience of the leader of the ceremony. The role of this figure is pivotal. It is he or she who places the protective cloak of ritual about the participants.

The ceremonial use of hallucinogenic plants in tribal societies is (most often) a collective journey into the unconscious. It is not necessarily – and in fact rarely is – a pleasant or an easy journey. It is wondrous and it may be terrifying. But above all it is purposeful. The participants enter the realm of the hallucinogenic visions not out of boredom, or to relieve an individual’s restless anxiety, but rather to fulfil some collective need of the group. Moreover the experience is explicitly sought for positive ends. It is not a means of escaping from an uncertain existence; rather it is perceived as a means of contributing to the welfare of all the people.

The effects are thus often dependent on user expectations and environment, resulting in considerable unpredictability; thus at the extremes, a user might on one occasion experience ecstasy and mystical union with the cosmos, while on another they might endure a hellish nightmare, extreme paranoia, feelings of insanity, and so on – the proverbial bad trip. Pharmacologically active components do not produce uniform effects; any psychoactive drug has within it a potential for good or evil, order or chaos.

Shamans speak of working with plants as working with spirit allies, and there are very definite constraints about the relationship. Plants are linked to the living Earth from which they spring, and individual herbs and plants can be befriended as allies to enable the practitioner to travel to Otherworldly places, and to become in tune with different energies. If the plant is taken with the wrong motives, if it is mistreated or misused, or taken for granted, it may cause discomfort, mislead or seek to gain control of the practitioner. If an enemy is made of the plant spirit, it can destroy.

The plant spirits of entheogens are among the strongest plant spirits, and the most difficult to deal with. They are often much stronger than the would-be user, and the relationship becomes one of slave to master, with the plant as master and user as slave when addiction ensues. Think how strong tobacco is, and how it can enslave the user. If you are addicted to smoking, you have become the plant’s slave. Anyone who uses a plant recreationally or habitually is subservient to a controlling plant spirit and can never use it as a sacred substance.

Remember too that most of the plants I’ve talked about, attractive as they sound in some of the accounts, are toxic, and the dose between one inducing visions and one inducing death, is often very close.

While most of the drugs that are regarded as entheogenic are not physically addictive, entheogens can induce states of consciousness that are regarded as rewarding, and this can lead to overuse. The craving for special experience, for being – yet again – freed from the ordinary and allowed to enter the realm of the gods is a danger, a trap on the path, because overdoing gets in the way of integrating the experience in your life and making it count in a permanent way. Such overuse doesn’t destroy the ego but rather increases it. Users may try to use drugs as spiritual short cuts, with nothing to support them, or use drugs as substitutes for personal developmental processes. Generally speaking, therefore, the spiritual usage pattern is characterized by infrequent drug use, allowing for plenty of time in ordinary life to work with and integrate insights and other material obtained in entheogen sessions. Cannabis in particular seems to lend itself to habitual use and is sometimes described as psychologically addictive.

Entheogen use may possibly result in lasting psychological damage.

The path of entheogenic spirituality therefore appears to be a challenging one, imposing a range of demands upon the self-awareness, willpower, and resilience of those traversing it.

© Anna Franklin, 2005


[1] The first was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay called “Nature” and the second is from the spiritual leader Swami Krishnapada, and the third is from my own journal on the first time I had a spontaneous out of body experience while in a deeply meditative state.  To me, any of those experiences are completely interchangeable with the other.

[2] David Porush 1993 article in Omni “Finding God”

[3] http://spiritwiki.lightningpath.org/index.php/Entheogens

[4] https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/hallucinogenic-plants-and-their-use-traditional-societies

[5] https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/hallucinogenic-plants-and-their-use-traditional-societies

[6] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[7] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[8] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[9] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[10] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[11] Entheogenic Spirituality Conversations with Psychonauts Petter Grahl Johnstad

[12] http://anthro.vancouver.wsu.edu/research/plant-neurotoxins/

[13] http://anthro.vancouver.wsu.edu/research/plant-neurotoxins/


[i] Soma and the Fly-Agaric, (Ethno-Mycological Studies No. 2), by Wasson, R. Gordon, Cambridge, 1972

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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