Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
Writing on Drugs
Plant, Sadie (1999)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Description: Hardcover, x + 294 pages.
Contents: Prelude, 12 chapters, bibliography, index.
In this exhilarating literary exploration, Sadie Plant traces the history of drugs and drug use through the work of some of our most revered, and infamous, writers. Rather than exploring drug use as an avenue to spiritual transcendence, Plant focuses on the way that drugs themselves make precise, recognizable interventions in consciousness, in cultural life, in politics. She argues that the use, production, and trafficking of drugs - narcotics, stimulants, and hallucinogens - have shaped some of the era's most fundamental philosophies and provided much of its economic wealth. ... Through examinations of post-Romantic writers on drugs, including Coleridge on opium, Freud on cocaine, Michaux on mescaline, and Burroughs on them all, Writing on Drugs exposes this most profound and pervasive influence on contemporary culture. (dust jacket flaps)
A vast literature on drugs has assembled itself in the last two hundred years. It begins with the late eighteenth century's explorations of opium, wends its way through cannabis, coca, and cocaine, and later finds itself entangled with a wide variety of plant hallucinogens and synthetic drugs. (page 3)
There are some fifty varieties of Amanita muscaria, a mushroom that is widely distributed among the birch and fir trees of northern Europe and Asia and also has close relatives in the Americas. According to Valentina Wasson and Gordon Wasson, whose two-volume Mushrooms, Russia, and History remains a classic of ethnobotanical - or more precisely, ethnomycological - research, the fungus has been used for thousands of years and can be traced back to the first retreat of the ice cap from the north. (page 98)
The fly agaric has influenced far more than modern slang. It is there in countless fairy tales and children's stories, and it is widely suggested that fly agaric is the mushroom that Alice eats in Wonderland. Among the mushroom's most well known effects are the telescopic and microscopic syndromes that play such a central role in the story, and Lewis Carroll - himself a double of Charles Dudgson - had access to several studies of Amanita muscaria and, very possibly, to the mushroom itself.
One of the most enduring manifestations of its old shamanic routes visits the modern world every year when Santa Claus, dressed in red and white, flies through the sky in a sleigh drawn by reindeer bearing gifts from another world. (page 99)
In The White Goddess, Robert Graves also traced Dionysus to his psychoactive source, from vine god back to an earlier Dionysus, the Toadstool-god; for the Greeks believed that mushrooms and toadstools were engendered by lightning - not sprung from seed like other plants. When the tyrants of Athens, Corinth and Scyon legalized Dionysus-worship in their cities, they limited the orgies, it seems, by substituting wine for toadstools; thus the myth of the Toadstool-Dionysus became attached to the Vine-
And Dionysus's centaurs, satyrs, and maenads "ritually ate a spotted toadstool called 'flycap' [Amanita muscaria] which gave them enormous muscular strength, erotic poser, delirious visions, and the gift of prophecy."
Ginzberg also found traces of the same shamanic culture in many of the Greeks' legendary rituals. The Orphic legends tell the story of how Dionysus was murdered as a child by the Titans, who cooked him in a pot and roasted him on a spit. (page 102)
Fungi and ivy, which is now known only as a highly toxic vine, predate the associations of Dionysus with Bacchus, the god of wine, and possibly much Christian imagery too: there are suggestions that the image of the mushroom predates the cross and that the image of the ivy leaf, which is still visible on the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, lies behind the image of the sacred heart. And Delphi is the source of other traces of ancient Greek uses of psychoactive substances. It is said that the Delphic oracle was transmitted by a priestess who sat "astride a cleft in the earth from which subterranean vapours arose." It is sometimes suggested that the priestess was also inhaling the smoke of smoldering henbane: Ernst von Bibra, from whom Freud seems to have taken much of his information on coca, suggests that "the priests at the Oracle of Delphi administered the prepared seeds of the thornapple to their seers to put them in the desired prophetic ecstasy." In The White Goddess, Graves used the possibility that the oracle was carried in these fumes and transmitted through the body of the priestess to support his notion that inspiration was first of all a material event: the "breathing-in by the poet of intoxicating fumes." Only later, he suggested, does it come to be associated with the breath of God or some more secular conception of thin air. (page 103)
Plato provided the philosophical basis for much of the world's later theology. The world of forms becomes Christian heaven, and the good, the eternal, the true, becomes personified as God. Now only He can take you there, and only once. For those who stray from the one true path to the light and wander back into the old hallucinatory zone of dark illusion, there are confessors and inquisitors, priests guarding borders between life and death, and, of course, a day of final judgment.
But if such enlightenment was possible only at the end of a lifetime of hard work, how did Plato come to see the light so soon? It was obvious to Gordon and Valentina Wasson that Plato had "drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great vision." Was this the theater of the first drug war? Is it possible that Plato saw the light and effectively determined to keep the secret of its discovery - and repetition - to himself? To deny that the body could be engineered to perceive the infinite in the here and now? Is this also the story of Socrates, who died from a draught of hemlock, his own last trip supposed to be the last for everyone? And Oedipus, from whom Freud takes his idealized image of male identity, sent to his fate by an intoxicated priestess?
Wasson's suggestion that Plato took inspiration from the mysteries has encouraged speculation about the extent to which psychoactive substances have continued to inform theistic beliefs in a purely immaterial realm, a spiritual home in which the human soul might one day find truth, liberation, enlightenment. There are, for example, suggestions that the notion of transubstantiation has its sources in ancient mushroom cults and that the visions of St. Teresa of Avila and many other Christian mystics were aided, if not primarily induced, by the accidental or deliberate use of psychoactive substances. It is certainly true that all theistic cultures are wary of mysticism on which they continue to depend, not least because of its attempt to connect with the absolute in the here and now. Travellers returning with good news from this other world are welcomed back as saints, but those with other stories have been condemned as heretics and, until the eighteenth century, burned as witches. (pages 104-105)
Richard Rudgley develops a persuasive chain of associations that link both soma and harmal with hoama, another enigmatic psychoactive substance, which is mentioned in the Avesta, the Zoroastrian teachings, and mang, the potion with which Wiraz undertakes his journeys to heaven and hell on a flying carpet in the Book of Arda Wiraz. A beautiful nexus emerges in the course of Rudgley's discussions about Syrian rue: the image of the flying carpet whose instructions are woven into its own design. Not only do the patterns of Turkish and Persian carpets have a striking resonance with those perceptible on yage and its relatives, but the characteristic red dye used in these designs is extracted from harmal.
Soma and mang have also been associated with ephedrine, the principal psychoactive element at work in the ancient Chinese herb mahuang, or Ephedra vulgaris. Mahuang, which also contains the alkaloid norpseudoephedrine, has been used in China to calm fevers and aid respiration for some five thousand years, and the plant was also found in a Neanderthal burial site in Iraq. Although the plant has few of the properties of which the Vedas speak, Vedic priests refer to the use of soma as a stimulant for warriors. Ephedrine is also the active alkaloid in qat, a plant widely used in Yemen and Somalia, where it is chewed or made into tea, and said to predate the use of coffee. (page 118)
Marcuse's interest in the possibility that drugs anticipated revolutionary desire ran all the way back to Baudelaire, whose poetry and essays on hashish exerted a profound influence on one of Marcuse's most influential predecessors, Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin was one of several German intellectuals who experimented with mescaline, opium, and hashish in the years between the wars. His early participation in what became known as critical theory found him chasing a secular version of the intoxication of religious ecstasy, "a profane illumination," as he wrote in his essay on surrealism, "a materialistic, anthropological inspiration to which hashish, opium or whatever else can give an introductory lesson (but a dangerous one ...)." Benjamin imagined revolution as a moment of shared intoxication, a modern expression of a wild and ancient energy, running through the proletariat. The German language gave Benjamin the benefit of the word Rauch, which does far more work than the English trip and suggests a passionate rush, a rapturous journey, an exhilarating trip. And this would be the rush of revolution, an injection of what Benjamin described as "the intoxication of cosmic experience" into the new consciousness of the revolutionary mass. (page 136)
Foucault insisted that drug-induced perceptions were not to be judged in terms of truth and illusion, fact and fiction, whether their effects were real or not. "Drugs - if we can speak of them generally," he wrote in "Theatrum Philosophicium," "- have nothing at all to do with truth or falsity; only to fortunetellers do they reveal a world 'more truthful than the real,'" and it is "useless to seek a more substantial truth behind the phantasm, a truth to which it points as a rather confused sign." Drugs would not take him to the world laid bare. But this is no problem for Foucault, who wasn't looking for truth anyway. His thinking was far more than an attempt to tell the difference between fact and fiction, the true and the false, real and artificial worlds. This was no longer a search for the infinite, an attempt to sneak a preview of heaven, a moment of bliss, or even some authentic experience: this was an exploration of reality, a journey through a world of thoughts, perceptions, and events that are not simply sitting there waiting to be judged, but emerge and unfold as the trip is made. ...
... Foucault described LSD as a shortcut between and beyond the categories of illusion and reality, the false and the true. It induced an accelerated thinking that "no sooner eliminates the supremacy of categories than it tears away the ground of its indifference and disintegrates the gloomy dumbshow of stupidity" to the point at which he encounters a "univocal and acategorical mass" that is not only "variegated, mobile, asymmetrical, decentered, spiraloid, and reverberating, but causes it to rise, at each instant, as a swarming of phantasm-events." The processes speed up: structures are displayed, shattered, and surpassed in swift succession, and "as it is freed from its catatonic chrysalis, thought invariably contemplates this indefinite equivalence transformed into an acute event and a sumptuous, appareled repetition." ...
Judgement is left in abeyance. The usual criteria need not apply. This is both the threat and the promise drugs can make. Just as repetition can fall into an addictive trap, so suspended disbelief can leave a vacuum where once there was a sense of right and wrong. But Foucault's careful genealogies of modern power are underwritten by the conviction that it is only such dispassionate and suspended states from which the workings of the world can be perceived. There is a cool ambivalence in all his work, a refusal to allow his thinking to fall back into the censorious positions of philosophical discourse. And if drugs tend to put aside the West's modern, even ancient, attempts to judge everything in terms of the really real and the truly true, they also introduce the only perspective from which they themselves can be understood. "Drugs have now become part of our culture," said Foucault in his interview with Charles Raus. "Just as there is good music and bad music, there are bad drugs and good drugs. So we can't say we are 'against' drugs and more than we can say we're 'against' music." (pages 172-174)
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This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2002 CSP