An entheogen, in the strictest sense, is a psychoactive substance used in a religious or shamanic context. Historically, entheogens are derived primarily from plant sources and have been used in a variety of traditional religious practices. With the advent of organic chemistry, there now exist many synthetic substances with similar properties.
More broadly, the term entheogen is used to refer to such substances when used for their religious or spiritual effects, whether or not in a formal religious or traditional structure. This terminology is often chosen in contrast with recreational use of the same substances. These spiritual effects have been demonstrated in peer-reviewed studies (see below) though research remains problematic due to ongoing drug prohibition.
Entheogens have been used in a ritualized context for thousands of years. Examples of entheogens from ancient sources include: Greek: kykeon; African: Iboga; Vedic: Soma, Amrit. Chemicals used today as entheogens, whether in pure form or as plant-derived substances, include mescaline, DMT, LSD, psilocin, ibogaine, and salvinorin A.
The word "entheogen" is a neologism derived from two words of ancient Greek, ἔνθεος (entheos) and γενέσθαι (genesthai). The adjective entheos translates to English as "full of the god, inspired, possessed," and is the root of the English word "enthusiasm." The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. Genesthai means "to come into being." Thus, an entheogen is a substance that causes one to become inspired or to experience feelings of inspiration, often in a religious or "spiritual" manner.
The word entheogen was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson). The literal meaning of the word is "that which causes God to be within an individual." The translation "creating the divine within" is sometimes given, but it should be noted that entheogen implies neither that something is created (as opposed to just perceiving something that is already there) nor that the experienced is within the user (as opposed to having independent existence).
It was coined as a replacement for the terms "hallucinogen" (popularized by Aldous Huxley's experiences with mescaline, published as The Doors of Perception in 1953) and "psychedelic" (a Greek neologism for "mind manifest," coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who was quite surprised when the well-known author, Aldous Huxley, volunteered to be a subject in experiments Osmond was running on mescaline). Ruck et al. argued that the term "hallucinogen" was inappropriate due to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term "psychedelic" was also seen as problematic, due to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960s pop culture. In modern usage "entheogen" may be used synonymously with these terms, or it may be chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same substances.
The meanings of the term "entheogen" were formally defined by Ruck et al.:
In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.
Since 1979, when the term was proposed, its use has become widespread in certain circles. In particular, the word fills a vacuum for those users of entheogens who feel that the term "hallucinogen," which remains common in medical, chemical and anthropological literature, denigrates their experience and the world view in which it is integrated. Use of the strict sense of the word has, therefore, arisen amongst religious entheogen users, and also amongst others who wish to practice spiritual or religious tolerance.
The use of the word "entheogen" in its broad sense as a synonym for "hallucinogenic drug" has attracted criticism on three grounds:
- On pragmatic grounds, the objection has been raised that the meaning of the strict sense of "entheogen," which is of specific value in discussing traditional, historical and mythological uses of entheogens in religious settings, is likely to be diluted by widespread, casual use of the term in the broader sense.
- Secondly, some people object to the misuse of the root theos (god in ancient Greek) in the description of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in a non-religious context, and coupled with the climate of religious tolerance or pluralism that prevails in many present-day societies, the use of the root theos in a term describing non-religious drug use has also been criticised as a form of taboo deformation.
- Thirdly, there are some substances that at least partially fulfill the definition of an entheogen that is given above, but are not considered hallucinogenic in the usual sense. One important example is the bread and wine of the Christian (especially Roman Catholic and Episcopal) Eucharist—assuming that the Eucharist was always non-entheogenic as it has been in most modern-era Christian groups. The 'bread' and 'wine' of early Christianity were discussed and treated in a way that fits the description of an entheogenic substance; ingesting the Eucharist induced the Holy Spirit, as a shared unity-experience in the mystic altered state.
Ideological objections to the broad use of the term often relate to the widespread existence of taboos surrounding psychoactive drugs, with both religious and secular justifications. The perception that the broad sense of the term "entheogen" is used as a euphemism by hallucinogenic drug-users bothers both critics and proponents of the secular use of hallucinogenic drugs. Critics frequently see the use of the term as an attempt to obscure what they perceive as illegitimate motivations and contexts of secular drug use. Some proponents also object to the term, arguing that the trend within their own subcultures and in the scientific literature towards the use of term "entheogen" as a synonym for "hallucinogen" devalues the positive uses of drugs in contexts that are secular but nevertheless, in their view, legitimate.
Beyond the use of the term itself, the validity of drug-induced, facilitated, or enhanced religious experience has been questioned. The claim that such experiences are less valid than religious experience without the use of any sacramental catalyst faces the problem that the descriptions of religious experiences by those using entheogens are indistinguishable from many reports of religious experiences which, are presumed in modern times to, have been experienced without their use. Such a claim, however, depends entirely on the assumption that the reports of well-known mystics were not influenced by ingesting visionary plants, a derivation which Dan Merkur calls into question.
In an attempt to empirically answer the question about whether neurochemical augmentation through entheogens may enable religio-mystical experience, the Marsh Chapel Experiment was conducted by physician and theology doctoral candidate, Walter Pahnke, under the supervision of Timothy Leary and the Harvard Psilocybin Project. In the double-blind experiment, volunteer graduate school divinity students from the Boston area almost all claimed to have had profound religious experiences subsequent to the ingestion of pure psilocybin. In 2006, a more rigorously controlled version of this experiment was conducted at Johns Hopkins University, yielding very similar results. To date there is little peer-reviewed research on this subject, due to ongoing drug prohibition and the difficulty of getting approval from institutional review boards. However, there is little doubt that entheogens can enable powerful experiences that are subjectively judged as important in a religious or spiritual context. Rather, it is the precise characterization and quantification of these experiences, and of religious experience in general, that is not yet developed.
Use of entheogens
Naturally occurring entheogens such as psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine, also known as N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or simply DMT (in the preparation ayahuasca) were discovered and used by older cultures, as part of their spiritual and religious life, as plants and agents which were respected, or in some cases revered. By contrast, artificial and modern entheogens, such as MDMA, never had a tradition of religious use.
Entheogens have been used in various ways, including as part of established religious traditions, secularly for personal spiritual development, as tools (or "plant teachers") to augment the mind, secularly as recreational drugs, and for medical and therapeutic use.
The use of entheogens in human cultures is nearly ubiquitous throughout recorded history.
The best-known entheogen-using culture of Africa is the Bwitists, who used a preparation of the root bark of Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga). A famous entheogen of ancient Egypt is the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea). There is evidence for the use of entheogenic mushrooms in Côte d'Ivoire (Samorini 1995). Numerous other plants used in shamanic ritual in Africa, such as Silene capensis sacred to the Xhosa, are yet to be investigated by western science.
Entheogens have played a pivotal role in the spiritual practices of American cultures for millennia. The first American entheogen to be subject to scientific analysis was the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii). For his part, one of the founders of modern ethno-botany, the late Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard University documented the ritual use of peyote cactus among the Kiowa who live in what became Oklahoma. Used traditionally by many cultures of what is now Mexico, its use spread throughout North America, replacing the toxic entheogen Sophora secundiflora (mescal bean). Other well-known entheogens used by Mexican cultures include psilocybin mushrooms (known to indigenous Mexicans under the Náhuatl name teonanácatl), the seeds of several morning glories (Náhuatl: tlitlíltzin and ololiúhqui) and Salvia divinorum (Mazateco: Ska Pastora; Náhuatl: pipiltzintzíntli).
Indigenous peoples of South America employ a wide variety of entheogens. Better-known examples include ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi plus admixtures) among indigenous peoples (such as the Urarina) of Peruvian Amazonia. Other well-known entheogens include: borrachero (Brugmansia spp); San Pedro Trichocereus spp); and various tryptamine-bearing snuffs, for example Epená (Virola spp), Vilca and Yopo (Anadananthera spp). The familiar tobacco plant, when used uncured in large doses in shamanic contexts, also serves as an entheogen in South America. Additionally, a tobacco that contains higher nicotine content, and therefore smaller doses required, called Nicotiana rustica was commonly used.
Over and above the indigenous use of entheogens in the Americas, one should also note their important role in contemporary religious movements, such as the Rastafari movement and the Church of the Universe.
The indigenous peoples of Siberia (from whom the term shaman was appropriated) have used the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) as an entheogen. The ancient inebriant Soma, mentioned often in the Vedas, may have been an entheogen. (In his 1967 book, Wasson argues that Soma was fly agaric. The active ingredient of Soma is presumed by some to be ephedrine, an alkaloid with stimulant and (somewhat debatable) entheogenic properties derived from the soma plant, identified as Ephedra pachyclada.) However, there are also arguments to suggest that Soma could have also been Syrian Rue, Cannabis, or some combination of any of the above plants.
An early entheogen in Aegean civilization, predating the introduction of wine, which was the more familiar entheogen of the reborn Dionysus and the maenads, was fermented honey, known in Northern Europe as mead; its cult uses in the Aegean world are bound up with the mythology of the bee.
The extent of the use of visionary plants throughout European history has only recently been seriously investigated, since around 1960. The use of entheogens in Europe may have become greatly reduced by the time of the rise of Christianity. European witches used various entheogens, including thorn-apple (Datura), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). These plants were used, among other things, for the manufacture of "flying ointments."
The growth of Roman Christianity also saw the end of the 2,000-year-old tradition of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone involving the use of a possibly entheogenic substance known as kykeon. Similarly, there is evidence that nitrous oxide or ethylene may have been in part responsible for the visions of the equally long-lived Delphic oracle (Hale et al. 2003).
In ancient Germanic culture, cannabis was associated with the Germanic love goddess Freya. The harvesting of the plant was connected with an erotic high festival. It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant's feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force. Similarly, fly agaric was consecrated to Odin, the god of ecstasy, while henbane stood under the dominion of the thunder god—Thor in Germanic mythology—and Jupiter among the Romans (Rätsch 2003).
An ancient entheogenic substance in the Middle East is hashish. Its use by the "Hashshashin" to stupefy and recruit new initiates was widely reported during the Crusades. However, the drug used by the Hashshashin was likely wine, opium, henbane, or some combination of these, and, in any event, the use of this drug was for stupefaction rather than for entheogenic use. It has been suggested that the ritual use of small amounts of Syrian Rue is an artifact of its ancient use in higher doses as an entheogen.
Philologist John Marco Allegro has argued in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that early Jewish and Christian cultic practice was based on the use of Amanita muscaria which was later forgotten by its adherents, though this hypothesis has not received much consideration or become widely accepted. Allegro's hypothesis that Amanita use was forgotten after primitive Christianity seems contradicted by his own view that the chapel in Plaincourault shows evidence of Christian Amanita use in the 1200s.
Indigenous Australians are generally thought not to have used entheogens, although there is a strong barrier of secrecy surrounding Aboriginal shamanism, which has likely limited what has been told to outsiders. There are no known uses of entheogens by the Māori of New Zealand. Natives of Papua New Guinea are known to use several species of entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp, Boletus manicus).
Kava or Kava Kava (Piper Methysticum) has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years by a number of Pacific island-dwelling peoples. Historically, most Polynesian, many Melanesian, and some Micronesian cultures have ingested the psychoactive pulverized root, typically taking it mixed with water. Much traditional usage of Kava, though somewhat suppressed by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is thought to facilitate contact with the spirits of the dead, especially relatives and ancestors (Singh 2004).
There have been several examples of the use of entheogens in the archaeological record. Many of these researchers, like R. Gordon Wasson or Giorgio Samorini, have recently produced a plethora of evidence, which has not yet received enough consideration within academia. The first direct evidence of entheogen use comes from Tassili, Algeria, with a cave painting of a mushroom-man, dating to 8000 BP. Hemp seeds discovered by archaeologists at Pazyryk suggest early ceremonial practices by the Scythians occurred during the fifth to second century B.C.E., confirming previous historical reports by Herodotus.
Classical mythology and cults
Although entheogens are taboo and most of them are officially prohibited in Christian and Islamic societies, their ubiquity and prominence in the spiritual traditions of various other cultures is unquestioned. The entheogen, "the spirit, for example, need not be chemical, as is the case with the ivy and the olive: and yet the god was felt to be within them; nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god's spirit had to offer" (Ruck and Staples).
Most of the well-known modern examples, such as peyote, psilocybe and other psychoactive mushrooms and ololiuhqui, are from the native cultures of the Americas. However, it has also been suggested that entheogens played an important role in ancient Indo-European culture, for example by inclusion in the ritual preparations of the Soma, the "pressed juice" that is the subject of Book 9 of the Rig Veda. Soma was ritually prepared and drunk by priests and initiates and elicited a paean in the Rig Veda that embodies the nature of an entheogen:
Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!... O [Soma] Pavāmana, place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set, and everlasting lustre shines.... Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joy and felicities combine...
The Kykeon that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries is another entheogen, which was investigated (before the word was coined) by Carl Kerenyí, in Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Other entheogens in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean include the poppy, Datura, the unidentified "lotus" eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey and Narkissos.
According to Ruck, Eyan, and Staples, the familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought with them was knowledge of the wild Amanita mushroom. It could not be cultivated; thus it had to be found, which suited it to a nomadic lifestyle. When they reached the world of the Caucasus and the Aegean, the Indo-Europeans encountered wine, the entheogen of Dionysus, who brought it with him from his birthplace in the mythical Nysa, when he returned to claim his Olympian birthright. The Indo-European proto-Greeks "recognized it as the entheogen of Zeus, and their own traditions of shamanism, the Amanita and the 'pressed juice' of Soma — but better since no longer unpredictable and wild, the way it was found among the Hyperboreans: as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the entheogen was now cultivable" (Ruck and Staples). Robert Graves, in his foreword to The Greek Myths, argues that the ambrosia of various pre-Hellenic tribes were amanita and possibly panaeolus mushrooms.
Amanita was divine food, according to Ruck and Staples, not something to be indulged in or sampled lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and it mediated between the two realms. It is said that Tantalus's crime was inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.
The entheogen is believed to offer godlike powers in many traditional tales, including immortality. The failure of Gilgamesh in retrieving the plant of immortality from beneath the waters teaches that the blissful state cannot be taken by force or guile: when Gilgamesh lay on the bank, exhausted from his heroic effort, the serpent came and ate the plant.
Another attempt at subverting the natural order is told in a (according to some) strangely metamorphosed myth, in which natural roles have been reversed to suit the Hellenic world-view. The Alexandrian Apollodorus relates how Gaia (spelled "Ge" in the following passage), Mother Earth herself, has supported the Titans in their battle with the Olympian intruders. The Giants have been defeated:
When Ge learned of this, she sought a drug that would prevent their destruction even by mortal hands. But Zeus barred the appearance of Eos (the Dawn), Selene (the Moon), and Helios (the Sun), and chopped up the drug himself before Ge could find it.
Judaism and Christianity
According to The Living Torah, cannabis was an ingredient of holy anointing oil mentioned in various sacred Hebrew texts. The herb of interest is most commonly known as kaneh-bosm (Hebrew: קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם). This is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as a bartering material, incense, and an ingredient in holy anointing oil used by the high priest of the temple. Although Chris Bennett's research in this area focuses on cannabis, he mentions evidence suggesting use of additional visionary plants such as henbane, as well.
The Septuagint translates kaneh-bosm as calamus, and this translation has been propagated unchanged to most later translations of the Hebrew Bible. However, Polish anthropologist Sula Benet published etymological arguments that the Aramaic word for hemp can be read as kannabos and appears to be a cognate to the modern word 'cannabis', with the root kan meaning reed or hemp and bosm meaning fragrant. Both cannabis and calamus are fragrant, reedlike plants containing psychotropic compounds.
Although philologist John Marco Allegro has suggested that the self-revelation and healing abilities attributed to the figure of Jesus may have been associated with the effects of the plant medicines [from the Aramaic: "to heal"], this evidence is dependent on pre-Septuagint interpretation of Torah, and goes firmly against the accepted teachings of the Holy See. However Merkur contends that a minority of Christian hermits and mystics could possibly have used entheogens, in conjunction with fasting, meditation and prayer.
Allegro was the only non-Catholic appointed to the position of translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. His extrapolations are often the object of scorn due to Allegro's theory of Jesus as a mythological personification of the essence of the psychoactive sacrament, furthermore they seem to conflict with the position of the Catholic Church in regards to the exclusivity of the non-canonical practice of transubstantiation and endorsement of alcohol ingestion as the exclusive means to attain communion with God. Allegro's book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, relates the development of language to the development of myths, religions and cultic practices in world cultures. Allegro believed he could prove, through etymology, that the roots of Christianity, as of many other religions, lay in fertility cults; and that cult practices, such as ingesting visionary plants (or "psychedelics") to perceive the Mind of God [Avestan: Vohu Mana], persisted into the early Christian era, and to some unspecified extent into the 1200s with reoccurrences in the 1700s and mid 1900s, as he interprets the Plaincourault chapel's fresco to be an accurate depiction of the ritual ingestion of Amanita Muscaria as the Eucharist.
The historical picture portrayed by the Entheos journal is of fairly widespread use of visionary plants in early Christianity and the surrounding culture, with a gradual reduction of use of entheogens in Christianity. R. Gordon Wasson's book Soma prints a letter from art historian Erwin Panofsky asserting that art scholars are aware of many 'mushroom trees' in Christian art.
The question of the extent of visionary plant use throughout the history of Christian practice has barely been considered yet by academic or independent scholars. The question of whether visionary plants were used in pre-Theodosius Christianity is distinct from evidence that indicates the extent to which visionary plants were utilized or forgotten in later Christianity, including so-called "heretical" or "quasi-" Christian groups, and the question of other groups such as elites or laity within "orthodox" Catholic practice.
James Arthur asserts that the little scroll from the angel with writing on it referred to in Ezekiel 2: 8,9,10 and Ezekiel 3: 1,2,3 and Book of Revelation 10: 9,10 was the speckled cap of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom.
Entheogens in literature
The substance melange (spice) in Frank Herbert's Dune universe acts as both an entheogen and a geriatric medicine. Control of the supply of melange was crucial to the Empire, as it was necessary for, among other things, faster than light navigation.
Consumption of the imaginary mushroom anochi as the entheogen underlying the creation of Christianity is the premise of Philip K. Dick's last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a theme which seems to be inspired by John Allegro's book.
Aldous Huxley's final novel, Island (1962), depicted a fictional entheogenic mushroom—termed "moksha medicine"—used by the people of Pala in rites of passage, such as the transition to adulthood and at the end of life.
Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire novel refers to the religion in the future as a result of entheogens, used freely by the population.
In Stephen King's The Gunslinger, Book 1 of The Dark Tower series, the main character receives guidance after taking mescaline.
The Alastair Reynolds novel Absolution Gap features a moon under the control of a religious government which uses neurological viruses to induce religious faith.
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