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