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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


Plants of Life, Plants of Death

Frederick J. Simoons (1998).
Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.


ISBN:0-299-15904-3 paperback
0-299-15900-0 hardcover


Description: Hardcover, xviii + 568 pages.

Contents: Illustrations, preface, 10 chapters, notes, bibliography, index.

Note: Extensive notes. This book only tangentially mentions entheogenic uses of plants, but it's a good book if you're interested in the dangers of beans, especially why Pythagoras forbade his followers from eating beans.

Excerpt(s): When I was wandering around the ancient ruins at Eleusis in Greece several years ago, I was struck by a carved stone depicting (1) a sheaf of wheat-symbolic of the goddess Demeter, fertility, life, and growth, and (2) a stylized pomegranate flower-symbolic of her daughter Persephone, the underworld, death, and rebirth. As I turned the matter over in my mind, I became aware that, in fact, three articles I had recently completed, as well as the next several articles I planned to do, all related to the themes depicted on the Eleusis stone. Why, I wondered, should I not develop the themes more fully than can be done in a series of articles? The result was further research and writing and, in due time, this book, Plants of Life, Plants of Death-inspired by a stone that was probably carved two millennia ago. (page xiv)

The title of this book may lead certain readers to think that it is one in plant science. It is not. Nor does it deal with food production or use, human nutrition, or, except where it relates to my primary interest, with the medicinal use of plants. Instead, my focus is on magic, ritual, and religion as they have shaped the way humans have perceived and used plants since antiquity, and I write from an ethnographic, geographic, and culture historical perspective. My primary goal is to tell the stories of certain plants that, since antiquity, have played unusual roles in ritual in the areas of high civilization from Europe through the Near East to India and China. To accomplish this, I have drawn mainly from the literature of ethnography and cultural anthropology, ethnobotany, folklore, religious studies, history, and classics. ...

I start with a chapter on an herb or small shrub that, though listed in seed catalogs and sold here and there by nurseries in the United States, is little known to the American public. This is tulsi, holy basil (Ocimum sanctum), a different species from sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), that flavoring which occupies so important a place in certain Western cuisines. ...

In my next chapter, I will consider two sacred fig-trees of India-the pipal (Ficus religiosa) and the banyan (Ficus indica). These two are giant trees that would be hard to ignore, but they are important for more than their size. They enjoy important roles in Hindu ritual and religion today, and they have since prehistoric times. They are also of unusual importance in Buddhist ritual, lore, and history, and play a role among many of India's tribal groups as well. ...

Following the chapters on tulsi and the sacred fig-trees, I will describe the ritual role of mandrake (Mandragora officinarum and M. autumnalis), a magical plant of great importance in early Europe and the Near East, and will then compare its role with that of ginseng (Panax ginseng) in East Asia. ...

In my next chapter, I will outline the role of garlic (Allium sativum) and its relatives in a belt stretching from Europe to China. I chose garlic because, unlike other plants considered, a significant element in its ritual status is odor. I also chose it because ancient ritual perceptions of the plant persist in the Western world, and because they seem to have evolved into nutritional and medical concerns that are the subject of continuing scientific research.

After garlic, I will turn to certain beans that have long played interesting roles in ritual and magic and are perceived in ways that may extend back to the Indo-European homeland. My first bean chapter focuses on the urd bean (Vigna mungo) of India, along with certain other foods, flavorings, and beverages that, in some ritual contexts, have been viewed as impure by Hindus. It is my hope that an understanding of the restrictions on the use of urd in Hindu ritual will prepare the reader for my second and third bean chapters. These focus on ancient bans on fava beans (Vicia faba) in the Mediterranean world, especially the ban observed by the noted mathematician Pythagoras and his followers. ...

In my last chapter, "Further Notes, Elaborations, and Conclusions," I will draw on material presented in previous chapters as well as introduce much new material. Several questions will be of particular concern in this chapter: One is what the characteristics of plants, physical and otherwise, may have been that led them to assume significant roles in ritual and religion. Second is what sorts of relationships humans may have developed with their ritual plants and what role humans may have played in their diffusion around the world. Third is whether the ancients' basic concerns that led them to use plants in ritual and religion are at all similar to concerns important to modern individuals of secular orientation. Fourth is whether the roles of plants in ritual and religion may, as certain present-day scholars are inclined to believe, derive mainly from medical, environmental, and ecological determinants. (pages 3-6)

Mushrooms

R. Gordon Wasson has argued that soma, a plant whose juice was used by Vedic Indians in preparing an exhilarating ritual beverage, was actually fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), a hallucinatory mushroom. If Wasson is right, we are dealing with a mushroom that was highly regarded, consumed by Brahmins, and even deified in ancient India. On the other hand, many peoples around the world associate mushrooms with decayed matter and regard them as little different from carrion and other "rotting, decaying, or dying" substances that disgust people and make them seek to keep these substances from entering their bodies. Such views have also been common in India, where Hindus are vitally concerned with pollution brought on by dead and decaying things. Thus, mushrooms were among the forbidden foods of the Dharma-s tras (composed from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 600), which group mushrooms with alliums as deriving from impure substances. They liken mushrooms to such disgusting or unlawful foods as excrement of a pig, flesh of humans or carnivorous animals, food touched by crows or dogs, or the leavings of dras. They are improper for a twice-born man to eat, and if he does so, penance is required and he may even become an outcast. If a person wishes to remain pure when he has eaten banned food unintentionally, he should vomit it up or quickly undergo purification.

Though mushrooms are widely eaten in present-day India, their association with decay remains a concern to persons aspiring to ritual purity. People of one North Indian village have a somewhat different perspective on mushrooms and pollution. They call mushrooms by a word meaning that they grow in places where dogs urinate. Since Brahmins look on dogs as unclean, this contributes to the impurity of mushrooms. Another suggestion is that Brahmins may reject mushrooms because of their odor or because they are cooked like meat and have a flavor like meat. (pages 188-189)



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