Religion as a Product of Psychotropic Drug Use

How much of religious history was influenced by mind-altering substances?
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The notion that hallucinogenic drugs played a significant part in the development of religion has been extensively discussed, particularly since the middle of the twentieth century. Various ideas of this type have been collected into what has become known as the entheogen theory. The word entheogen is a neologism coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists (those that study the relationship between people and plants). The literal meaning of entheogen is "that which causes God to be within an individual" and might be considered as a more accurate and academic term for popular terms such as hallucinogen or psychedelic drug. By the term entheogen we understand the use of psychoactive substances for religious or spiritual reasons rather than for purely recreational purposes.

Perhaps one of the first things to consider is whether there is any direct evidence for the entheogenic theory of religion which derives from contemporary science. One famous example that has been widely discussed is the Marsh Chapel experiment. This experiment was run by the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early 1960s, a research project spearheaded by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Leary had traveled to Mexico in 1960, where he had been introduced to the effects of hallucinogenic psilocybin-containing mushrooms and was anxious to explore the implications of the drug for psychological research.

On Good Friday 1962, two groups of students received either psilocybin or niacin (a nonhallucinogenic "control" substance) on a double-blind basis prior to the service in Boston University's Marsh Chapel. Following the service nearly the entire group receiving psilocybin reported having had a profound religious experience, compared to just a few in the control group. This result was therefore judged to have supported the entheogenic potential of hallucinogenic drug use. Interestingly, the experiment has subsequently been repeated under somewhat different and arguably better controlled circumstances and the results were substantially the same.

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It may be easy for some to accept the idea that entheogenic substances played a role in the genesis of religion. However, when we move from generalities to specifics we are on less firm ground. There has been a great deal of speculation concerning the actual identity of drugs used for religious purposes in the ancient world. For example, what is the true identity of the drug soma used by the gods in the ancient Hindu Vedas? Or the identity of nepenthe, the "drug of forgetfulness" mentioned in The Odyssey? Although it is impossible to answer such questions in a definitive scientific sense, one can speculate about the various possibilities.

For example, consider the work of R. Gordon Wasson and the story of Amanita muscaria, the "fly agaric"—certainly the world's most famous mushroom. Wasson made several journeys to Mexico to research the Mazatec people and write about the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in their ancient rituals, but his experiences there led him to tackle a different subject—the identity of the drug soma.

To understand the significance of soma one must consider some of the oldest religious texts known to man. These are the ancient Vedas, Sanskrit texts that represent the oldest Hindu scriptures. The most ancient of these texts—the Rigveda, a collection of over a thousand hymns—was compiled in northern India around 1500 BC. A parallel but slightly later development in ancient Persia was the composition of the religious texts of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta.

In both the Rigveda and the Avesta there is frequent mention of soma (or haoma in the Avesta). In these episodes soma is described as a plant from which a drink or potion could be produced that was consumed by the gods, giving them fantastic powers which aided them in their supernatural feats. People who understood the identity of the plant soma could use it to empower themselves and to communicate more effectively with the deities.

Consider the following from the Rigveda:

We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the

Gods discovered.

Now what may foeman's malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man's deception?

Or:

Heaven above does not equal one half of me.

Have I been drinking Soma?

In my glory I have passed beyond earth and sky.

Have I been drinking Soma?

I will pick up the earth and put it here or there.

Have I been drinking Soma?

But what actually was soma? There were suggestions that it was ephedra or possibly cannabis, but Gordon Wasson concluded that it was Amanita muscariaAmanita muscaria or the "fly agaric" is a large mushroom that is instantly recognizable. This is due to its strikingly attractive appearance and its wide use in popular culture. It has often appeared in animated films (such as the Nutcracker scene in Fantasia, or in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), as well as being used in numerous types of kitschy household products and for illustrations in children's stories.

There are numerous details provided in the Rigveda suggesting how soma was prepared and used, which Wasson interpreted as indicating that Amanita muscaria was the true source of the drug. However, the most interesting and influential evidence that he considered originates from reports concerning the use of Amanita muscaria in the eighteenth century. In particular, in 1736 a Swedish colonel named Philip Johan von Strahlenberg published an account of the behavior of the Koryak people living in the Kamchatka region of Siberia. Von Strahlenberg had fought in the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, was captured by the Russians, and was incarcerated for twelve years.

Among other things he described the use of Amanita muscaria as an intoxicant by the local people. He also noted the following unusual behavior: "The poorer Sort, who cannot afford to lay in a Store of these Mushrooms, post themselves, on these Ocassions, round the Huts of the Rich, and watch the Opportunity of the Guests coming down to make Water; And then hold a Wooden Bowl to receive the Urine, which they drink off greedily, as having still some Virtue of the Mushroom in it, and by this way they also get Drunk."

Von Strahlenberg's observations on urine drinking and other behaviors were considered extremely sensational when they were published in Stockholm and soon thereafter in other parts of Europe. Indeed, they were used to satirical effect in the writings of the English playwright and novelist Oliver Goldsmith who imagined the consequences of introducing such habits into London society. The use of Amanita muscaria by numerous Siberian tribes, as well as their habit of urine drinking to conserve the mushrooms' effects, was subsequently confirmed by other numerous travelers over the years.

Several 18th-and-19th-century reports described the use of Amanita muscaria by different Siberian tribes, and particularly by witch doctors or shamans who used it to achieve "an exalted state to be able to talk to the gods." Interestingly, it was observed that the drinking of drug-containing urine could continue for up to five cycles passing from one individual to another before the urine lost its capacity for intoxication. This was apparently often done because of the relative scarcity of the mushroom, and so preserving its hallucinogenic properties in this way had important practical benefits.

The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, presumably Amanita muscaria, by the inhabitants of Siberia appears to be a very ancient practice. This is suggested by the discovery of several Stone or Bronze Age rock carvings (petroglyphs) in 1967 in northern Siberia near the Arctic Ocean. These seem to represent mushrooms and women with mushrooms growing out of their heads. This is an area inhabited by the Chukchi people, who were one of the subjects of the 18th-and 19th-century reports on Siberian mushroom use, so it may be supposed that they had used mushrooms continuously over many years. Indeed, the use of Amanita muscaria for its hallucinogenic actions continues in Siberia to this day, in spite of attempts by the previous communist government to stamp it out by resorting to measures such as dropping shamans out of helicopters.

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The precise psychological effects produced by Amanita muscaria are reported to vary a great deal depending on the individual and the social context. However, one interesting property noted in these early reports was a tendency to disturb the scale of visual perceptions so that a tiny crack in the ground might appear like a giant chasm. In particular, this was noted by the British mycologist and writer Mordecai Cubitt Cooke. Although he was responsible for writing books with riveting titles such as Rust, Smut, Mildew and Mold, Cooke also wrote one of the earliest books on psychotropic drugs, The Seven Sisters of Sleep, in which he described some of the properties of tobacco, opium, hashish, betel, coca, belladonna, and the fly agaric. Such books and observations were widely read and discussed in Victorian society. One story is that the book was read by the Reverend Charles Dodgson—better known to the world as Lewis Carroll—and so appeared as the mushroom which Alice could eat to alter her size at will in Alice in Wonderland.

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The influence of Wasson’s writing can be seen in the subsequent development of an entire sub-genre of entheogenic literature, much of which has little to recommend it from a scholarly point of view. The idea is that if Amanita muscaria is identical with soma, which had a strong influence on the development of Hinduism, then why not every other religion as well?

Pride of place here goes to John Marco Allegro's 1970 publication, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Allegro considered the possibility that ancient peoples would have been particularly concerned with two things—procreation and the supply of food. He suggested that they may have viewed rain as a type of heavenly semen that then impregnated the earth, allowing the growth of crops and the success of the harvest. Plants absorbed this holy semen—and some plants more than others. Amanita muscaria was such a plant that, when consumed, allowed a person to commune more closely with God.

Allegro also suggested that the information concerning the use of Amanita muscaria as a religious fertility sacrament was subject to great secrecy, the provenance of a priestly sect. He speculated that these practices developed very early on in human history, even prior to the time when writing first came into existence during the ancient Sumerian civilization. He further suggested that the existence of the mushroom was secretly encoded in the use of particular Sumerian word roots.

This secret encoding of the mushroom fertility cult down through the ages eventually led to the development of the concept of Jesus to encapsulate the identity of Amanita muscaria around the time of the sacking of the second temple by the Romans. Thus, according to Allegro, Jesus never actually existed. He purported to demonstrate, using philological analysis of the structure of the ancient Sumerian language, that the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of "semen" and that Christ meant something like "giant erect mushroom penis." According to Allegro, the Bible (and the New Testament in particular) is really just a series of myths that describe the secrets of the Amanita muscaria fertility cult rather than real people.

However, as fate would have it the stories caught on in a big way and their mythical origins were forgotten. The "Jesus myth" rapidly spread and became Christianity. Although Allegro's reasoning was mostly philological, he did occasionally refer to the other types of evidence such as the famous fresco in the Abbaye de Plaincourault in France that appears to show Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with the serpent coiled around a giant Amanita muscaria. It was reasoned that this fresco, painted around 1290, gives credence to the idea that the secret mushroom fertility cult was still in existence in the Middle Ages.

Allegro's hypotheses were very interesting and his arguments were certainly consistent. However, they were not well received. Many Christians took exception to the fact that he believed that Jesus never existed and was really just a code word for a giant phallus-shaped magic mushroom. Allegro was generally excoriated in the press and in many academic circles. Nevertheless, his work did strike a chord with some individuals and many subsequent publications have endeavored to describe the role of Amanita muscaria in the genesis of virtually every religion known to man.

 


This post is adapted from Drugs: The Science and Culture of Psychotropic Drugs.

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Richard J. Miller is the Alfred Newton Richards Professor of Pharmacology at Northwestern University and the author of Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs.

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