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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

The Wilderness of Mind: Sacred Plants in Cross-cultural Perspective

Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. (1976).
Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

ISBN: 0-8039-0752-4

Description: Hardcover, rebound paperback?, 78 pages.

Contents: Preface, introduction, 4 chapters, including 8 ethnographies: 1. The Ausatralian Aborigines, 2. The Reindeer Herdsmen of Siberia, 3. The Huichol Indians of Northern Mexico, 4. The New Guinea Highlanders, 5. The Fang of Equitorial Africa, 6. The Aztecs of Mexico, 7. The Maya of Mexico, 8. The Inca of Peru, references.

Note: Sage Research Papers in the Social Sciences, series no. 90-039, Cross-Cultural Studies Series.

Excerpt(s): Eliade (1957) has written that the major characteristic of the sacred is the way in which time is experienced. While religious man has tried to remain in a sacred universe, industrialized man lives in a completely profane word. The notion of sacred time is quite different among peoples of traditional as opposed to industrial society. In the latter case, man boxes and cuts up segments of time to suit his needs. Eliade (1957) has written about sacred time, which is circular and reversible. In this philosophical view, an eternal mythical present exists which man periodically reintegrates in his religious rites. We see that the properties of time suspension as it is experienced under the influence of plant hallucinogens is an aid in reaffirming the sacred nature of man's sojourn on earth. (page 57)

Another important theme, and perhaps one of crucial importance to the historian of hallucinogenic use, concerns the cultural patterning of visionary experience. Whether it is the rain forest dweller, taking ayahuasca to see his culture's heroes or creatures of his environment, or the Huichol Indian's use of peyote for what Benzi calls stereotypic visions, or the Fang use of iboga to see the Bwiti, we do learn how a most subjective experience, hallucination, can be culturally patterned and structured.

There seems to be good evidence that if one is reared in a society where plant hallucinogens are used, each member of that society builds up a certain expectation of drug use, which in fact permits the evocation of particular types of visions. This is not to say that if a group of adult men claim they see serpents and venomous creatures of their habitat appear before them, all are actually viewing the same snake or boa constrictor as if they were in attendance at a movie performance. Rather, what is at issue here is the cultural patterning of categoric visions, that is, how one's expectations that certain patterns will occur, makes them, in fact, occur.

This aspect of hallucinogenic drug use is one that will continue to occupy anthropologists working in societies that use such substances. Thus, cultural membership is experienced at the deepest levels of awareness accessible through drug induced experiences. Plant hallucinogens in traditional society can be said to have a thoroughgoing influence on the individual's unconscious. (pages 59-60)

As we have seen, revealed knowledge is highly valued in traditional societies, especially those at hunting and gathering stages. Hierarchies of intermediaries who intercede between man and the supernatural may be viewed as diluting and lessening the impact of the experience of supernatural forces. By using plant hallucinogens, man can strengthen the bond and contact between himself and his gods, a most important achievement in societies valuing the I-Thou relationship.

When we turn to stratified societies, we see that with growing social complexity and size, drug use seems to have been eliminated from widespread use, usurped by specialized segments of society who control such drug use as part of their sumptuary laws. Unauthorized drug use under these circumstances may become a crime against the commonwealth. Michael Harner made this point in 1970 (personal communication). It may very well be that man's ability to bewitch and cause his enemy's death, believed to be part of the power of an hallucinogenic plant, can be dangerous to members of the stratified or state society. We know that the concept of state society generally means the total control of legitimized power, with all other attempts at power being subject to regulation. If a peasant shaman in a state society were permitted to continue using drug plants that were believed able to bewitch a state ruler or administrator, legitimate power may have been viewed as in jeopardy. It is possible that in the history of Western civilization, ancient oracular use of hallucinogens disappeared because of this threat to state power. Certainly, the evidence of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca is conclusive here. As was mentioned in chapter II on the Inca, it is clear that sumptuary laws attempting to limit the use of coca for the Inca, his nobility, and favorites illustrates this principle. Among the Aztec and Maya, such usurpation of drugs by higher ranking segments may very well explain the quick demise of drug knowledge upon culture contact, when a specialized caste of drug users was quickly. This esoteric knowledge did not again diffuse to the folk level where it surely originated. The implications of loss of drug knowledge are interesting to examine. We might speculate that reports of drug use historically tended to be most complete at levels of hunters and gatherers, pastoralists and incipient agriculturalists, where hallucinogenic plants are in general use rather than among larger populations in advanced civilizations, where only special castes may have employed the drug for communal or private ends.

Another theme worth recapitulating is how cultural value placed on revealed knowledge can be correlated with readiness to attribute supernatural power to hallucinogenic plants. In those societies of the world where for one reason or other man holds that only first-hand experience is the true way to knowledge, such plants have been received with great acclaim and awe. As soon as hierarchical functionaries intercede between men, proposing doctrines concerning the supernatural and access to it, such plants either fall from popular use or else are taken away from folk segments. When these drugs are used as vehicles of direct access to the supernatural, they convey to man his own personal vision of it, while at the same time reaffirming his society's collective vision of truth and knowledge. In those societies where plant hallucinogens play a central role, one learns that the drug user believes he can see, feel, touch, and experience the unknown which is filtered through a cultural screen of expected visionary experience. This certainly contrasts to the use of such plants in the so-called American counterculture, where the unusual, the particularistic, the idiosyncratic vision is exalted, discussed, and compared. (pages 62-63)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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