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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


A Cross-cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners.

Winkelman, Michael James. (1984).
Irvine, CA: University of California.


ISBN: none

Description: Hardcover, unpublished doctoral dissertation, xiii + 325 pages.

Contents: List of tables, list of figures, acknowledgments, curriculum vitae, abstract, 10 chapters, references, Appendix #1: Magico-Religious Practitioners, Appendix #2: Variables, Appendix #3: Coding Instructions.

Note: Available from UMI, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI., in full size and half size, both available in paperback or hardcover, and in microfilm.

Excerpt(s): This study provides a cross-cultural assessment of magico-religious practitioner roles, using 47 societies in a subsample of the Standard Cross-Culture Sample. Cluster analysis based upon more than one hundred variables provides a typology of four major types of magico-religious practitioners, labeled here as: Priests, Mediums, Malevolent Practitioners and members of the Healer Complex, subdivided in Shamans, Shaman/Healers and Healers. There are four principal configurations of magico-religious practitioners found cross-culturally:

  1. Shaman (or other practitioners of the Healer Complex);
  2. Healer Complex and Priest;
  3. Healer Complex, Priest and Malevolent Practitioner or Medium;
  4. Healer, Priest, Malevolent Practitioner and Medium.
An evolutionary model strongly implicates agriculture, political integration and the presence of classes as determining the transition from one configuration of magico-religious practitioners to the next. (page xii)

In the initial stages of data analysis it became apparent that the assessment of trance states could not be based solely on kinds of induction procedures or observable consequences, but had to be based in the psychophysiological effects of these procedures since a variety of procedures could in fact induce similar if not identical alterations in state of consciousness (e.g., mescaline and psilocybin) . ...

Mandel ... suggests that a number of different techniques frequently associated with trance induction have common effects in effecting a drive arrest release sequence of the biogenic amine inhibitory system which triggers temporal lobe limbic and hippocampal-septal hypersynchronous discharges which impose a synchronized slow wave pattern upon the frontal cortex. Mandel's review provided a basis for establishing the necessary psychophysiological effects of a range of induction techniques and for arguing the essential similarity of a number of trance states arrived at by diverse procedures. Analysis of the trances associated with the training of the magico-religious practitioners indicates that the differences among different trance induction procedures are continuous rather than discrete, supporting at the empirical level the contention that a variety of different trance induction procedures are directed towards a common set of psychophysiological changes. (pages 12-13)

There has been little research on why people should actively seek to induce altered states of consciousness (or why they should avoid them). There appears to be a cultural resistance to these experiences in Western/Indo-European cultures. As Noll points out, Western psychology and culture tend to consider shamanic type experiences to be pathological. ...

A number of studies suggest that trance states may in general have healing or facilitative effects. A review of the meditative traditions indicate that these procedures have the effect of improving individual psychological well-being and are intrinsically pleasurable. Similarly, Noll points out the similarities between shamanic experiences and some recent psychotherapeutic techniques, reiterating the frequently suggested notion that the shaman is somehow healed in the process of training a perspective embodied in such practices. ... Insofar as the trance induction techniques induce trance in the patients (e.g., through drumming, chanting or singing, hallucinogen ingestion, exposure to temperature extremes in sweat baths, etc.), the apparent therapeutic effects of shamanic initiation would be extended to the patients as well. ...

The range of facilitative effects of trance states indicates that trance states may be functionally related to healing and divination activities in that they facilitate the actual occurrence of healing and acquisition of information. This would account for the entailment relationship between trance training and healing and divination found in Chapter 4.

This condensed presentation is given in order to provide a context within which to consider why these states appear central to the selection and training for certain types of magico-religious roles. What is important here is that although the neurophysiological and cognitive aspects of trance states are characterized by the dominance of activity which originates in phylogenetically lower centers of the brain, they involve forms of cognition no more primitive than everyday or formal modes of thought. Not only are these conditions associated with optimal cognitive conditions for many thought processes, they are also generally associated with the conviction of insight and a deeper perception of reality. A transpersonal model of these states (e.g., Wilber) would see them as a qualitative improvement over ordinary consciousness. Some of these trance/transpersonal states are characterized by a greater attention, awareness and control of thought and emotion, and a more critical awareness of the "illusion" of ordinary consciousness. (pages 142-145)

A wide range of substances induce hallucinatory experience. The active ingredients in many of these substances are closely related in chemical structure to known neural transmitters in the brain and interfere in their normal functioning in a number of ways. The major common hallucinogens (e.g., mescaline, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, morning glory seeds, LSD) are characterized by the presence of phenylalklamine and indole akaloids which are similar in chemical structure to the neural transmitter serotonin. These hallucinogens induce changes in the neurotransmitter systems such that serotonin uptake is blocked, resulting in a loss of the inhibitory effect upon the mesolimbic temporal lobe structures. This disinhibition of the temporal lobes leads to synchronous electrical discharges in the temporal lobe limbic structures. Through intervention in the serotonin mechanism, hallucinogens also inhibit the raphe cells' regulation of the visual centers of the visual cortex. The reduction of raphe cell control leads to hyperactivity of the visual regions, which is perceived as an ongoing panorama of events, a vision, hallucination or a "trip." ...

In terms of their "mind altering" and vision producing properties, a much larger group of substances can be included as hallucinogens and trance inducing both phenomenologically and with respect to the production of hippocampal septal slow wave dominance. For instance, tobacco, a member of the Solanaceae family is pharmacologically related to the belladonna alkaloids, and experientially has hallucinogenic properties. Belladonna and datura are of another chemical class (anticholinergic); however, they, like many other substances, including anesthetics, can cause hallucinatory experiences and stupor. Mandel references research that indicates that anti-cholinergic psychotropic drugs and some anesthetics produce changes in hippocampal-septal activity similar to the indole compounds. (pages 153-155)

The present research illustrates the principal shortcoming of the symbolist tradition and many other theories of religion in the tradition of Durkheim. The notion that religion has its origin in society or social expression can be seen as consistent with the findings here, with the Priest role arising as a consequence of objective social and economic conditions (agriculture, political integration). However, the activities of the shaman and related trance practitioners cannot be seen as arising out of religion in any fundamental sense, although such practices may on occasion borrow elements from organized religious traditions. The activities of the shaman have their origin in the types of experiences which give rise to selection and training, and involve the induction of an altered state of consciousness associated with insight and personal transformation to a role of pre-eminence in society. These activities can be seen as based in society (and therefore be considered religion from the point of view associated with Durkheim) inasmuch as any human activity is based in and filtered through our social experiences. However, although these experiences are apparently shaped by social conditions (e.g., soul flight versus possession), the basic altered state which gives rise to the role and capacity is not determined by culture or social experience, but by human physiology. (page 280)



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