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