An entheogen, in the strictest sense, is a psychoactive substance used in a religious or shamanic (or entheogenic) context. Entheogens generally come from plant sources which contain molecules closely related to endogenous neurochemicals. They occur in a wide variety of psychedelics of various religious rites and have been shown to directly provoke what users perceive as spiritual or mystical experiences (see Good Friday Experiment). In a broader sense, the word "entheogen" refers to any molecule which stimulates the central nervous system through one of the two main neurological pathways: phenethylamine (which is a brain chemical associated with the adrenaline pathway, and a precursor of mescaline and 2C-B) and tryptamine (a brain chemical associated with the natural metabolism of serotonin, a precursor of psilocin, psilocybin, DMT). Cooper, Bloom and Roth describe the methabolic pathways by which these neurochemicals are produced in the body. Through enzyme reactions, the brain creates more complex molecules with a higher binding affinity with unique neurological and cognitive results. See Federal Analog Act.
These chemicals are the essence of the entheogens and are banned, despite their use predating written language. Entheogens are molecules which induce alterations of consciousness identical in many ways to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional shamanic inebriants. Examples are far reaching ancient sources predating the modern era: such as Greek: kykeon; African: Iboga; Vedic: Soma, Amrit. Entheogens have been safely utilized in a ritualized context for thousands of years.
The word entheogen was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson). The literal meaning of the word is "that which causes God to be within an individual". The translation "creating the divine within" is sometimes given, but it should be noted that entheogen implies neither that something is created (as opposed to just perceiving something that is already there) nor that that which is experienced is within the user (as opposed to having independent existence).
It was coined as a replacement for the terms "hallucinogen" (popularized by Aldous Huxley's experiences with mescaline, published as The Doors of Perception in 1953) and "psychedelic" (a Greek neologism for "mind manifest", coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who was quite surprised when the well-known author, Aldous Huxley, volunteered to be a subject in experiments Osmond was running on mescaline). Ruck et al. argued that the term "hallucinogen" was inappropriate due to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term "psychedelic" was also seen as problematic, due to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960s pop culture.
The meanings of the term "entheogen" were formally defined by Ruck et al.:
Since 1979, when the term was proposed, its use has become widespread in certain circles. In particular, the word fills a vacuum for those users of entheogens who feel that the term "hallucinogen", which remains common in medical, chemical and anthropological literature, denigrates their experience and the world view in which it is integrated. Use of the strict sense of the word has therefore arisen amongst religious entheogen users, and also amongst others who wish to practice spiritual or religious tolerance.
The use of the word "entheogen" in its broad sense as a synonym for "hallucinogenic drug" has attracted criticism on three grounds:
Ideological objections to the broad use of the term often relate to the widespread existence of taboos surrounding psychoactive drugs, with both religious and secular justifications. The perception that the broad sense of the term "entheogen" is used as a euphemism by hallucinogenic drug-users bothers both critics and proponents of the secular use of hallucinogenic drugs. Critics frequently see the use of the term as an attempt to obscure what they perceive as illegitimate motivations and contexts of secular drug use. Some proponents also object to the term, arguing that the trend within their own subcultures and in the scientific literature towards the use of term "entheogen" as a synonym for "hallucinogen" devalues the positive uses of drugs in contexts that are secular but nevertheless, in their view, legitimate.
Beyond the use of the term itself, the validity of drug-induced, facilitated, or enhanced religious experience has been questioned. The claim that such experiences are less valid than religious experience without the use of any sacramental catalyst faces the problem that the descriptions of religious experiences by those using entheogens are indistinguishable from many reports of religious experiences which, are presumed in modern times to, have been experienced without their use. Such a claim however depends entirely on the assumption that the reports of well-known mystics were not influenced by ingesting visionary plants, a derivation which Dan Merkur calls into question.
In light of mystery schools, secret teachings and covenants of various traditions (in addition to factors such as periods of suppression and persecution) it becomes further difficult to determine precisely the concealed and mystical processes whereby the mind derives its fruits. A modern example is the discovery of the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid by Francis Crick which he credits lysergic acid diethylamide the noble honor of facilitating the augmentation of cognition essential to the revelation (which caused him to be awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine). While this alone is not conclusive evidence of a mystical or religious experience it does contribute to the mounting evidences that subjective states evoked by entheogens have a capacity to induce holistic understanding which may be differentiated from psychopathic or hallucinating states by a matter of several degrees.
In an attempt to empirically answer the question about whether neurochemical augmentation through biological or chemical entheogens may enable religio-mystical experience, the Marsh Chapel Experiment was conducted by physician and theology doctoral candidate, Walter Pahnke, under the supervision of Timothy Leary and the Harvard Psilocybin Project. In the double-blind experiment, volunteer graduate school divinity students from the Boston area almost all claimed to have had profound religious experiences subsequent to the ingestion of pure psilocybin. In 2006, a more rigorously controlled version of this experiment was conducted at Johns Hopkins University, yielding very similar results.
Entheogens have been used in various ways, including as part of established traditions and religions, secularly for personal spiritual development, as tools (or "plant teachers") to augment the mind, secularly as recreational drugs, and medical and therapeutic use.
Indigenous peoples of South America employ a wide variety of entheogens. Better-known examples include ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi plus admixtures) among indigenous peoples (such as the Urarina) of Peruvian Amazonia. Other well-known entheogens include: borrachero (Brugmansia spp); San Pedro Trichocereus spp); and various tryptamine-bearing snuffs, for example Epená (Virola spp), Vilca and Yopo (Anadananthera spp). The familiar tobacco plant, when used uncured in large doses in shamanic contexts, also serves as an entheogen in South America. Also, a tobacco that contains higher nicotine content, and therefore smaller doses required, called Nicotiana rustica was commonly used.
In addition to indigenous use of entheogens in the Americas, one should also note their important role in contemporary religious movements, such as the Rastafari movement and the Church of the Universe.
The extent of the use of visionary plants throughout European history has only recently been seriously investigated, since around 1960. The use of entheogens in Europe is thought, by most entheogen scholars, to have become greatly reduced by the time of the rise of post-Roman Christianity. European witches used various entheogens, including thorn-apple (Datura), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). These plants were used, among other things, for the manufacture of "flying ointments".
The growth of Roman Christianity also saw the end of the two-thousand-year-old tradition of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone involving the use of a possibly entheogenic substance known as kykeon. Similarly, there is evidence that nitrous oxide or ethylene may have been in part responsible for the visions of the equally long-lived Delphic oracle (Hale et al., 2003).
In ancient Germanic culture cannabis was associated with the Germanic love goddess Freya. The harvesting of the plant was connected with an erotic high festival. It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant's feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force. Similarly, fly agaric was consecrated to Odin, the god of ecstasy, while henbane stood under the dominion of the thunder god - Thor in Germanic mythology - and Jupiter among the Romans (Rätsch 2003).
Philologist John Marco Allegro has argued in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that early Jewish and Christian cultic practice was based on the use of Amanita muscaria which was later forgotten by its adherents, though this hypothesis has not received much consideration or become widely accepted. Allegro's hypothesis that Amanita use was forgotten after primitive Christianity seems contradicted by his own view that the chapel in Plaincourault shows evidence of Christian Amanita use in the 1200s.
Kava or Kava Kava (Piper Methysticum) has been cultivated for at least 3000 years by a number of Pacific island-dwelling peoples. Historically, most Polynesian, many Melanesian, and some Micronesian cultures have ingested the psychoactive pulverized root, typically taking it mixed with water. Much traditional usage of Kava, though somewhat suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, is thought to facilitate contact with the spirits of the dead, especially relatives and ancestors (Singh 2004).
Most of the well-known modern examples, such as peyote, psilocybe and other psychoactive mushrooms and ololiuhqui, are from the native cultures of the Americas. However, it has also been suggested that entheogens played an important role in ancient Indo-European culture, for example by inclusion in the ritual preparations of the Soma, the "pressed juice" that is the subject of Book 9 of the Rig Veda. Soma was ritually prepared and drunk by priests and initiates and elicited a paean in the Rig Veda that embodies the nature of an entheogen:
The Kykeon that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries is another entheogen, which was investigated (before the word was coined) by Carl Kerenyí, in Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Other entheogens in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean include the poppy, Datura, the unidentified "lotus" eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey and Narkissos.
According to Ruck, Eyan, and Staples, the familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought with them was knowledge of the wild Amanita mushroom. It could not be cultivated; thus it had to be found, which suited it to a nomadic lifestyle. When they reached the world of the Caucasus and the Aegean, the Indo-Europeans encountered wine, the entheogen of Dionysus, who brought it with him from his birthplace in the mythical Nysa, when he returned to claim his Olympian birthright. The Indo-European proto-Greeks "recognized it as the entheogen of Zeus, and their own traditions of shamanism, the Amanita and the 'pressed juice' of Soma — but better since no longer unpredictable and wild, the way it was found among the Hyperboreans: as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the entheogen was now cultivable" (Ruck and Staples). Robert Graves, in his foreword to The Greek Myths, argues that the ambrosia of various pre-Hellenic tribes were amanita and possibly panaeolus mushrooms.
Amanita was divine food, according to Ruck and Staples, not something to be indulged in or sampled lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and it mediated between the two realms. It is said that Tantalus's crime was inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.
The entheogen is believed to offer godlike powers in many traditional tales, including immortality. The failure of Gilgamesh in retrieving the plant of immortality from beneath the waters teaches that the blissful state cannot be taken by force or guile: when Gilgamesh lay on the bank, exhausted from his heroic effort, the serpent came and ate the plant.
Another attempt at subverting the natural order is told in a (according to some) strangely metamorphosed myth, in which natural roles have been reversed to suit the Hellenic world-view. The Alexandrian Apollodorus relates how Gaia (spelled "Ge" in the following passage), Mother Earth herself, has supported the Titans in their battle with the Olympian intruders. The Giants have been defeated:
The Septuagint translates kaneh-bosm as calamus, and this translation has been propagated unchanged to most later translations of the old testament. However, Polish anthropologist Sula Benet published etymological arguments that the Aramaic word for hemp can be read as kannabos and appears to be a cognate to the modern word 'cannabis', with the root kan meaning reed or hemp and bosm meaning fragrant. Both cannabis and calamus are fragrant, reedlike plants containing psychotropic compounds.
Although philologist John Marco Allegro has suggested that the self-revelation and healing abilities attributed to the figure of Jesus may have been associated with the effects of the plant medicines [from the Aramaic: "to heal"], this evidence is dependent on pre-Septuagint interpretation of Torah and Tenach, and goes firmly against the accepted teachings of the Holy See. However Merkur contends that a minority of Christian hermits and mystics could possibly have used entheogens, in conjunction with fasting,meditation and prayer.
Allegro was the only non-Catholic appointed to the position of translating the dead sea scrolls. His extrapolations are often the object of scorn due to Allegro's theory of Jesus as a mythological personification of the essence of the psychoactive sacrament, furthermore they seem to conflict with the position of the Catholic Church in regards to the exclusivity of the non-canonical practice of transubstantiation and endorsement of alcohol ingestion as the exclusive means to attain communion with God. Allegro's book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, relates the development of language to the development of myths, religions and cultic practices in world cultures. Allegro believed he could prove, through etymology, that the roots of Christianity, as of many other religions, lay in fertility cults; and that cult practices, such as ingesting visionary plants (or "psychedelics") to perceive the Mind of God [Avestan: Vohu Mana], persisted into the early Christian era, and to some unspecified extent into the 1200s with reoccurrences in the 1700s and mid 1900s, as he interprets the Plaincourault chapel's fresco to be an accurate depiction of the ritual ingestion of Amanita Muscaria as the Eucharist.
The historical picture portrayed by the Entheos journal is of fairly widespread use of visionary plants in early Christianity and the surrounding culture, with a gradual reduction of use of entheogens in Christianity. R. Gordon Wasson's book Soma prints a letter from art historian Erwin Panofsky asserting that art scholars are aware of many 'mushroom trees' in Christian art.
The question of the extent of visionary plant use throughout the history of Christian practice has barely been considered yet by academic or independent scholars. The question of whether visionary plants were used in pre-Theodosius Christianity is distinct from evidence that indicates the extent to which visionary plants were utilized or forgotten in later Christianity, including so-called "heretical" or "quasi-" Christian groups, and the question of other groups such as elites or laity within "orthodox" Catholic practice.
James Arthur asserts that the little scroll from the angel with writing on it referred to in Ezekiel 2: 8,9,10 and Ezekiel 3: 1,2,3 and Book of Revelation 10: 9,10 was the speckled cap of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom.
Consumption of the imaginary mushroom anochi as the entheogen underlying the creation of Christianity is the premise of Philip K. Dick's last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a theme which seems to be inspired by John Allegro's book.
Aldous Huxley's final novel, Island (1962), depicted a fictional entheogenic mushroom — termed "moksha medicine" — used by the people of Pala in rites of passage, such as the transition to adulthood and at the end of life.