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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Ancient Traditions: Shamanism in Central Asia and the Americas

Seaman, Gary, & Day, Jane S. (editors) (1994).
Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado and Denver Museum of Natural History.

ISBN: 0-87081-283-1

Description: Hardcover, xii + 312 pages.

Contents: Contributors, Preface by Jane Stevenson Day, 13 chapters, Appendix: Bibliography of Publications in Conjunction with the Museum Exhibition "Nomads: Masters of Eurasian Steppes' by Gary Seaman.

Note: Furst updates Eliade's views on entheogens. Based on the proceedings from "Nomads: Masters of the Eurasian Steppe." Volume 4 of the Soviet-American academic symposia. Papers from a symposium held in conjunction with the exhibitions held at the Denver Museum of Natural History, June 1989.

Excerpt(s): CONTENTS


Jane Stevenson Day

1. Introduction: An Overview of Shamanisam1
Peter T. Furst

The Attributes and Power of the Shaman: A General Description of the Ecstatic Care of the Soul29
Lawrence E. Sullivan

The Cultural Significance of Tobacco Use in South America47
Johannes Wilbert

Walking on Two Legs: Shamanism in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala77
Robert S. Carlsen and Martin Prechtel

"The Mara'akame Does and Undoes" Persistence and Change in Huichol Shamanism113
Peter T. Furst

Peyote Religion179
Omer C. Stewart

From Shaman to Medicine Man: Transformations of Shamanic Roles and Styles in the Upper Great Lakes Region187
James A. Clifton

Shamanism in the Columbia-Fraser Plateau Region211
Robert J. Theodoratus

The Dark Emperor: Central Asian Origins in Chinese Shamanism227
Gay Seaman

Shamans in Traditional Tuvinian Society245
Vera P. Diakonova

The Shaman Costume: Image and Myth257
Larisa R. Pavlinskaya

The Horse in Yakut Shamanism265
Vladimir Diachenko

Texts of Shamanistic Invocations From Central Asia and Kazakhstan273
Vladimir N. Basilov

Appendix: Bibliography of Publications in Conjunction with the Museum Exhibition "Nomads: Masters of the Eurasian Steppes"293
Gary Seaman



Except for the shamanic uses of tobacco, there was unfortunately little discussion during the Denver symposium of the specialist in the sacred as empirical, practical healer-that is, as specialist also in the therapeutic properties of plants. In part this can be explained by the absence of ethnobotanists from the list of speakers. Ethnobotany, rather than anthropology, pioneered the study of that remarkable class of plants–the botanical hallucinogens–employed by the shamans of some Native American peoples to facilitate the ecstatic trance that is an indispensable component of shamanism. These plants, too, are classified by shamans as therapeutic–as "medicine"–but in a somewhat different sense from the medicinal species discussed earlier, As noted, all plants are regarded as having souls or spirits, but the so-called hallucinogens are of a different order. Their users credit their extraordinary effects, which science knows to be due to certain alkaloids, by themselves or in combination, to supernatural power. The plants are sacred, and at least some are personified as deities that must be treated with care and propitiated with offerings, lest they turn their powers against those who use them. Because of these special qualities, some students of the phenomenon have proposed to do away with hallucinogen and replace it with entheogen, a compound term that means "containing deity" or "the god within," thus conveying more accurately what is meant in the indigenous universe. (pages 16-17)

At first sight, a journal published by the New York Botanical Garden would appear to be an unlikely vehicle for speculations about religion. Actually, the choice was eminently logical. La Barre was attempting to formulate a reasonable explanation for a statistical problem that emerged from Schultes's long-time study of the hallucinogenic flora, going back to his early field work in Oklahoma that led to his 1937 doctoral dissertation on peyote and its role as the sacrament of the pan-Indian Native American church and to a number of pioneering studies on Mexican ritual hallucinogens (on the peyote religion and its relationship to traditional Indian beliefs and practices, see Omer C. Stewart [1987] and Chapter 6 in this volume).

While compiling a list of the botany and chemistry of hallucinogenic plants then known to have been employed in shamanistic ritual in both the New World and the Old World, Schultes was struck by a curious statistical imbalance: whereas the indigenous populations of the New World had discovered and utilized somewhere between eighty and one hundred "hallucinogenic" species (a number more recent research, by Schultes and others, has nearly doubled), all he could find for the Old World were eight to ten plants that were used for similar purposes. Prominent among these were the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, and hemp, Cannabis spp. The discrepancy was all the more puzzling, Schultes wrote, because the Old World floras were presumably as rich as those of the New World in potential hallucinogenic species; further, the Old World comprised a far greater land mass, in which human populations had been present for a much longer time span than in the Americas and thus had had far longer to explore their environments for, and experiment with, the psychotropic flora and to incorporate its effects on body and mind into their belief systems, pharmacopoeias, and rituals. Given these facts, Schultes suggested, the reasons for the puzzling difference in the number of intoxicating plants employed anciently or recently in the two hemispheres could not be found in nature. And if not in nature, the answer had to lie in culture.

Quite right, replied La Barre, who, as author of The Peyote Cult, also had a long-standing interest in the uses to which people have put the hallucinogens that are naturally occurring in their environments. In this path-breaking essay, La Barre explained the demonstrably greater interest in such plants among the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World, as compared to the Old World, as a function of the greater survival in the former of an archaic, Late Paleolithic and Mesolithic Asiatic shamanism, which he said is the "base religion" of the Indian Americas. One of the hallmarks of shamanism is the ecstatic trance. And such plants have found their place in culture to facilitate this highly valued mystical state, in which people–especially the technicians of the sacred–travel or project their souls into the realms of spirits and gods. ...

The pre-Columbian New World, he pointed out, did not undergo the profound socioeconomic, demographic, and, especially, religious transformations that in the Old World displaced and suppressed the old shamanism and the shamanistic nature religions, which valued personal encounters with the spirit world in ecstatic trance. In the Americas, in contrast, shamanism was never suppressed or displaced by the spread of new religions whose practitioners tolerated no rival faiths or gods. ...

La Barre contended that the centrality of the ecstatic trance in Paleo-Asiatic shamanism may actually have predisposed, not to say culturally programmed, the small hunting bands that wandered out of northeastern Asia across Beringia into what is now Alaska and beyond, to explore their new environments for plants capable of facilitating the mystical experience. (pages 18-20).

By now, as noted, the ethnobotanists have compiled a list of nearly two hundred hallucinogenic plants (some as yet known only by their native names) that were, or still are, utilized by Native American peoples as triggers for the mystical experience. Of these the one with the longest cultural record is Sophora secundiflora, whose potent seeds were utilized in the southwestern United States for thousands of years, beginning in those distant times when Paleo-American hunters were still pursuing mastodons and other large Pleistocene game. Their use as intoxicants in the initiation rites of ecstatic shamanistic medicine societies in the Southern Plains died out only in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The oldest cache of Sophora seeds was even older than the beginnings of the Desert Culture phase, c. 7000 B.C., because archaeologists found them in association with the bones of giant bison of the long-extinct species Bison antiquus and Folsom and Plainview projectile points. This bone bed has been dated at 8440 B.C. and 8120 B.C., respectively, providing the use of Sophora with an uninterrupted genealogy of over ten millennia. Thereafter, the potent red seeds occur in every cultural level in rock shelters occupied by Desert Culture people in the trans-Pecos region from about 7000 B.C. to A.D. 1000, often together with another psychoactive species, Ungnadia speciosa. Two peyotes also found in one of these rock shelters were recently dated at C. 5000 B.C. by the UCLA radiocarbon laboratory. Such impressively early dates for plant hallucinogens clearly support La Barre's explanation. (page 22)

Those familiar with Eliade's Shamanism may recall that this distinguished historian of religion once had a very different notion about the historical place of hallucinogens in shamanism from that proposed by La Barre. Whereas the latter derived the widespread New World hallucinogenic complex from a heritage of ecstatic shamanism in Siberia specifically the use of the fly-agaric mushroom, Eliade viewed the use of plants, including the fly-agaric, as well as alcohol to trigger the shaman's ecstatic trance as degeneration from a supposedly purer, spontaneous, or organic trance that was thought to be the standard for Siberian and Central Asian shamanism before it came under the influence of foreign religions. "Narcotics," he wrote, "are only a vulgar substitute for 'pure' trance." When Siberian shamans do use the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, and other chemical means of attaining the ecstatic state, it is "a recent innovation and points to a decadence of shamanic technique."

But here we must remember that this work of Eliade's was a translation into English of a French edition published years earlier (1951). At that time, the vast panorama of ritual hallucinogens in the New World was, except for a very few species, virtually unknown. Few people were aware of the Sophora seeds found in Texan archaeological sites, and their great antiquity was unsuspected. The Wassons' research into the prehistory of the fly-agaric in Eurasia was barely in its infancy (their first book, Mushrooms Russia and History, was not published until 1957), and Gordon Wasson's personal foray into the survival of ancient Mesoamerican shamanistic-divinatory mushroom use among the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca was still three years in the future. Although the basic chemistry of peyote, and of the South American yaje (ayahuasca) (Banisteriopsis spp.), had been known for decades, it was not until the 1960s that Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered ISD in 1938, identified the LaD-like lysergic derivatives in the seeds of morning glories or the tryptamine alkaloids that accounted for the extraordinary effects of sacred mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe and related genera.

If we can now see clearly that La Barre, and not Eliade, was right, in justice to the latter I should note that in the last years of his productive life, although unable to amend his views in a new, revised edition of Shamanism, he had discarded his view of the use of hallucinogenic plants as "degeneration" of the shamanic techniques of ecstasy. The work done by ethnobotanists and ethnographers on the vast complex of shamanic uses of sacred plants in the Americas, the emerging philological evidence for widespread and very ancient use of the fly-agaric mushroom in Europe, and, finally, the new radiocarbon dates from the American Southwest, he told me not long before his death, had convinced him that we were indeed dealing with an archaic phenomenon and that there was no phenomenological difference between the techniques of ecstasy, whether "spontaneous" or triggered by the chemistry of sacred plants. Another element that entered into his reconsideration, he said, was the recognition that the Arctic was settled relatively late in Siberian prehistory. Arctic forms of shamanism could thus no longer be held to be ancestral to shamanism in the more temperate regions of northeastern Asia.

None of this is meant to suggest that the ecstatic trance experience is dependent upon ingestion of a particular ritual intoxicant. There are large areas in which visions and the ecstatic trance are highly valued and even considered essential but in which no psychoactive substances are employed for this purpose. (pages 22-24)

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