Psychoactive Plants

The Religious Use of Psychoactive Plants

For thousands of years a variety of psychoactive (hallucinogenic) plant substances have been used in the sacred rituals and religious settings of cultures around the world.  Examples of such plant substances are the peyote and San Pedro cacti of the Mesoamerican Indians, the Amanita muscaria mushroom of the Asiatic and northern European shamans, the Ayahuasca vine of the Amazon Indians, and the psilocybin mushroom and cannabis derivatives (marijauna, hashish, ganja) used throughout the world. Anthropological, ethnopharmacological and historical research has shown that the traditional purpose of such psychoactive plant use was to attain direct spiritual experience, during which users made contact with different spirits and unseen realms in order to gain knowledge and wisdom for themselves and/or members of their social group. Scientists studying aboriginal cultures with shamanic traditions have conclusively demonstrated that hallucinogenic substances were frequently used as an adjunct to the shamans' inner quest for vision and the search for healing. The three passages that follow indicate that such religious use of psychoactive sacraments was indeed a worldwide practice.

In the 1950's R. Gordon Wasson's investigations of the Mexican pre-Columbian mushroom cult established beyond question the prominence of hallucinogens in the religious exercises of the whole Mayan-Aztec culture field. The same investigators in conjunction with the classicist, Carl A. P. Ruck, have lately revealed the likelihood of the influence of a hallucinogen (ergot of barley) in the Greek mysteries of Eleusis. Already in 1968, Wasson published his disclosure of the mysterious Vedic sacramental, Soma, as probably a product of the mushroom Amanita muscaria (fly agaric).  (42)

Mushrooms have been very significant in the history of religion and psychotherapy. The same fly agaric to which the Sanskrit poets sang their praises in the Soma hymns of the Rig Veda in 1500 BC was the focus of a Bronze Age sun cult in Scandinavia. Indians in pre-Columbian Mexico carved stone idols of mushrooms 2500 years ago. The Codex Vienna - one of the few pre-Columbian pictorial manuscripts to survive the ravages of the Spanish conquest of Mexico - identifies the sacred mushrooms as female earth deities, and credits the gods themselves with establishing the ritual of their use. Spanish clerics, after converting the Indians to Christianity, tried, yet failed to uproot the mushrooms from their converts' religious life. Well into the 20th century, the Laplanders in Northern Finland and the tribal peoples of Siberia - especially the shamans, who were specialists in sacred matters, creators of ecstasy, and repositories of ancient knowledge - continued to use these fungi to raise themselves into states of divine inspiration and inebriation. Today psychoactive fungi are still employed by Mexican Indian peoples in divinatory psychotherapy. (43)

Hemp played a prominent role in the development of the religions and civilizations of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. The insights gained from the marijuana high by the ancient worshippers were considered to be of divine origin and the plant itself an "angel" or messenger of the gods. The sacramental use of marijuana predates written history and this tradition continues with diverse tribes in Africa, certain Hindu sects, Muslim fakirs and Sufis, Rastafarians, as well as modern Occultists and Pagans. Indeed, marijuana has been employed for insights and ecstasy by members of virtually every major religion in history. (44)

As is evident from the preceding paragraphs, the sacramental use of psychoactive plant substances has been a common feature in the religious practices of cultures throughout the world. Where would the religious use of these substances have taken place? The logical answer is at the religious sites; in other words, within the shrines and temples at the sacred places. And indeed, a wealth of archaeological evidence supports this conclusion. Excavations of ancient temples in Asia, India, the Near East, and throughout South, Central and Mesoamerica have produced both a large quantity and a rich variety of items designed for the preparation and use of different hallucinogenic plant substances. Examples are pipes and censers for the burning of hemp, and various ceramic objects, often decorated with images of psychoactive mushrooms, for the preparation and consumption of sacramental beverages. Moreover, the actual remains of hemp, morning glory seeds (a favorite psychoactive substance of the Aztecs) and jimson weed (Datura) have been found within numerous religious shrines of great antiquity.

Another interesting matter to consider is that since plants had their roots in the soil of the living earth and their upper parts in the skies, it was considered possible that certain plants might give humans access to the wisdom of the earth and heavens. In this regard we find a philosophical explanation for the belief that hallucinatory substances derived from particular plants gave human beings access to divine knowledge and prophetic wisdom.

While visiting the world's sacred places and meeting with various shamans, medicine teachers and traditional healers, this author has had frequent occasion to explore the religious use of psychoactive plants. From his experience in this domain, he feels confident in stating that these god-given "teacher plants" have the wonderful capacity to more fully open one’s heart and mind to the spirits and powers of the sacred sites.