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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

Exploring Prehistoric Europe

Scarre, Chris. (1998)
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ISBN: 0-19-510323-8 hardcover

Description: xii + 228 pages.

Contents: Preface, introduction, 15 chapters, picture credits, index.

Excerpt(s): Plant foods played a major role throughout pre-history, but they are intrinsically more perishable and hence more difficult to study. Impressions of cereal grains such as wheat and barley sometimes survive in pottery vessels, but we know from other evidence (such as the food remains preserved in the stomachs of Danish bog bodies) that a wide range of plants was eaten, including some that today are regarded as weeds. We mustn't imagine that prehistoric diet was rich in taste, though recent research is throwing new light on the consumption of alcoholic drinks and the use of narcotics such as hemp. Prehistoric Europeans weren't necessarily dour teetotalers! (page 5)

Parallels for the abstract art of Newgrange are known at other passage graves in Ireland, Brittany, and Iberia, and in parts of western Britain. Since very few of the motifs are representational, however, it is very difficult to say why they were carved and what they were for. One recent theory sees the art as "entoptic," the kind of abstract imagery which people experience as they enter a trance. This is an interesting idea, since it ties in with the possibility that cer-tain people, ritual specialists perhaps, were in the habit of entering the tombs, not necessarily only for burial rites.

Whatever their specific cultural background, people entering trances tend to see a range of similar abstract shapes, such as chevrons, meanders, and spirals. These shapes are generated by the human neural system. In a recent study, Cambridge University archaeologist Jeremy Dronfield has proposed a strong statistical match between the art of Irish passage graves such as Newgrange and these neurally generated patterns. He suggests, from these results, that the Newgrange art (and that of Knowth) was inspired by the patterns that people see in trances.

One feature of these trance-states is particularly interesting. That is the common experience of traveling down a long passage, sometimes described as a spiral vortex. The prominent spirals on the entrance Stone of Newgrange immediately spring to mind. Was the journey along the passage to the burial chamber at the end likened to the process of entering a trance? And was the purpose of entering a trance to make contact with the ancestors, whose bones were buried in the chamber? Or were the spirals themselves thought of as entrances to the other world?

All this is highly speculative, of course. Spirals and lozenges in themselves are pretty common elements of design, and some archaeologists find the trance-state theory far-fetched. Spirals, in particular are found on different kinds of objects at various dates throughout the British Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. They need have no one specific meaning or connotation. But the trance-state theory is interesting, at the very least, in offering a new way of explaining both the abundance and prominence of the art in these tombs. The decorated stones would be still more striking in their original condition, picked out in paint (which they probably were, though all traces have van-ished). There is no doubt they would have helped make Newgrange a still more impressive monument. (page 123)

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