Entheogens and Spirituality: The Ancient Connection
Some say they’re as old as religion itself.
Today, you’d recognize entheogens as a list of substances that could land you in hot legal water. To a select few — but growing — number of religious and spiritual groups, entheogens are plant medicine tools.
Entheogen: a chemical substance — most often plant-based — used to elevate consciousness for spiritual purposes (i.e., to bring you closer to or help you communicate with god or a higher power)
For certain religions — the older, the better — entheogens aren’t just ancillary materials. They’re not for partying purposes. They’re sacraments, centerpieces, vital to the practice.
And while there’s currently an influx of speculation regarding how, if, and why the use of these plant-based psychotropics should be legal…
That’s not really our concern.
The cultures that have been using these plants to commune with their gods predate the American legal system.
We should have nothing but respect and reverence for powerful plants in the world. That means we should always advocate for safe, knowledgeable, and purposeful usage.
Entheogens have a rich and layered history of helping human beings live in community with one another, the earth, and their higher powers.
In fact, some researchers speculate that the use of entheogens actually created religion.
Let’s explore a few examples more heavily…
We’re likely talking about magic mushrooms here — possibly Amanita muscaria. (There are differing schools of thought on this one, however. Terrence McKenna later called this theory into question. )
There are scholarly sects that believe mushrooms were the beginning of Hinduism. In the Vedas, some of the most ancient religious texts in the world, there is frequent mention of a drink called “soma.”
The oldest text, called the Rigveda, is dated around 1,500 BC. In this text, a plant that became soma is said to have given the gods their powers.
Anyone who also drank soma was able to communicate more easily with those gods. (It’s worth mentioning that at around the same time, in Persia, early Zoroastrians were writing their religious texts and assigning similar attributes to a plant-based drink called “haoma.” Five hundred years later, its use was also found in Guatemala and parts of Mexico in indigenous religious ceremonies.)
However, soma, haoma, or the Siberian “wapaq” (when used by the Koryak people) does not produce psilocybin – it produces muscimol.
This is a different kind of hallucinogen referenced in “Alice in Wonderland.” That substance is the same as was utilized in the experiment conducted by the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the 1960s.
Two interesting points:
- This particular mushroom wasn’t common — that means that the people who had the best access to it were either rich or holy. Shamans, witch doctors, priests… and the wealthy.
- Because it was somewhat coveted, poor people drank the urine of the people using the mushroom to feel its effects. That worked for about five urine cycles until it was no longer effective.
Today? There is constant research into the uses of psilocybin, not just for religious purposes but for therapeutic reasons as well (although, you could argue that originally those were the same thing.)
Ayahuasca is situated as an Amazon basin ritual, in popular thinking. In fact, the oldest archeological evidence was found in a Bolivian cave in a shaman’s pouch.
The secret sauce? DMT — the dream-inducing chemical.
Typically, Banisteriopsis caapi and a plant, Psychotria viridis, are brewed into tea. The word itself translates to “spirit”, “ancestor”, or “dead person” “vine.”
The ayahuasca experience is pretty broad — it could be used to integrate pre- and unconscious processes, or emotion and consciousness. It’s also used to create art, wage war, divine meaning from the gods, and fight against illness.
Today, it’s legal in Brazil as of the ’90s, and provisions are made for it as a religious exemption in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
This entheogen is most commonly linked to the Eleusinian Mysteries (initiations held annually to worship Demeter and Persephone in ancient Greece.) Translating to “to mix” or “to stir” in ancient Greek, there are iterations where kykoen appears to mean nothing more than beer — barley mixed with water.
However, there are other versions that contain ergot, which is a psychoactive fungus sharing similar alkaloids to LSD.
In Greek literature, gods were often found drinking kykeon — either with wine and cheese or psychoactive substances. It’s notable, though, that kykeon was sometimes considered a pleasure for the lower classes. Wealthier classes appeared to have found it undignified.
This list is in no way even close to complete.
Iboga, which is the powdered root bark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant, is used in religious initiation ceremonies in West Africa. The most active chemical, ibogaine, causes a dream-like state of euphoria ending in a sensation of rebirth.
Peyote has been used in Mesoamerica for more than 2,000 years. Cannabis was used in Taoism, Veda, Sufi, Hindu, Coptic, Rasta, and so many more religious frameworks.
Elevation and higher vibrations have always been a part of the human journey — and it doesn’t always look so different!
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