native american church

An entheogen [en-theo-gen] (‘generating the divine within’) is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Historically, entheogens were mostly derived from plant sources and have been used in a variety of traditional religious contexts.

Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for healing, transcendence, and revelation, including: meditation, psychonautics, art projects, and psychedelic therapy. Entheogens have been used in a ritualized context for thousands of years. Examples of traditional entheogens include: peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, uncured tobacco, cannabis, ayahuasca, salvia, iboga, morning glory, and Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

With the advent of organic chemistry, there now exist many synthetic substances with similar psychoactive properties, many derived from these plants. Many pure active compounds with psychoactive properties have been isolated from these organisms and chemically synthesized, including mescaline, psilocybin, DMT, salvinorin A, ibogaine, ergine, and muscimol, respectively. Semi-synthetic (e.g. LSD derived from ergine) and synthetic substances (e.g. DPT used by the Temple of the True Inner Light and 2C-B used by the Sangoma) have also been developed. Entheogens may be compounded through the work of a shaman or apothecary in a tea, admixture, or potion like ayahuasca or bhang.

More broadly, the term entheogen is used to refer to any psychoactive substances when used for their religious or spiritual effects, whether or not in a formal religious or traditional structure. This terminology is often chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same substances. Studies such as the Marsh Chapel Experiment at Harvard Divinity School have documented reports of spiritual experiences from participants who were administered psychoactive substances in controlled trials. Ongoing research is limited due to widespread drug prohibition, however some countries have legislation that allows for traditional entheogen use.

The neologism ‘entheogen’ was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology. The term is derived from two words of ancient Greek; the adjective ‘entheos’ translates to English as ‘full of the god, inspired, possessed,’ and is the root of the English word ‘enthusiasm.’ The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. ‘Genesthai’ means ‘to come into being.’ Thus, an entheogen is a substance that causes one to become inspired or to experience feelings of inspiration, often in a religious or ‘spiritual’ manner. ‘Entheogen’ was coined as a replacement for the terms ‘hallucinogen’ and ‘psychedelic.’ ‘Hallucinogen’ was popularized by Aldous Huxley’s experiences with mescaline, which were published as ‘The Doors of Perception’ in 1954. ‘Psychedelic,’ in contrast, is a Greek neologism for ‘mind manifest,’ and was coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond; Huxley was a volunteer in experiments Osmond was conducting on mescaline.

Boston University’s Carl A. P. Ruck et al. argued that the term hallucinogen was inappropriate owing to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term ‘psychedelic’ was also seen as problematic, owing 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. In modern usage entheogen may be used synonymously with these terms, or it may be chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same substances. The meanings of the term ‘entheogen’ were formally defined by Ruck et al.: ‘In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.’

On a 1962 expedition organized by ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson to see Maria Sabina (a Mazatec shaman), Albert Hofmann (discoverer of LSD in 1938) came along and brought a bottle of psilocybin pills. Sandoz (a Swiss pharmaceutical) was marketing them under the brand name ‘Indocybin’ — ‘indo’ for both ‘Indian’ and ‘indole’ (the nucleus of their chemical structures) and ‘cybin’ for the main molecular constituent, ‘psilocybin.’ (‘Psilo’ in Greek means ‘bald,’ ‘cybe’ means ‘head’). Hofmann gave his synthesized teonanacatl (psilocybin) to the curandera (medicine woman), who divulged the Indians’ secret. ‘Of course,’ Wasson recalls of the encounter, ‘Albert Hofmann is so conservative he always gives too little a dose, and it didn’t have any effect.’

Hofmann had a different interpretation: activation of ‘the pills, which must dissolve in the stomach before they can be absorbed, takes place after only 30 to 45 minutes, in contrast to the mushrooms, which, when chewed, work faster because part of the drug is absorbed immediately by the mucosa in the mouth.’ In order to settle her doubts about the pills, more were distributed, bringing the total for Maria Sabina, her daughter, and the shaman Don Aurelio up to 30 mg., a moderately high dose by current standards but not perhaps by the Indians’. At dawn, their Mazatec interpreter reported that Maria Sabina felt there was little difference between the pills and the mushrooms. She thanked Hofmann for the bottle of pills, ‘saying that she would now be able to serve people even when no mushrooms were available’

R. Gordon Wasson and Giorgio Samorini have proposed several examples of the cultural use of entheogens that are found in the archaeological record. Evidence for the first use of entheogens may come from Tassili, Algeria, with a cave painting of a mushroom-man, dating to 8000 BCE. Hemp seeds discovered by archaeologists at Pazyryk in Siberia suggest early ceremonial practices by the Scythians occurred during the 5th to 2nd century BCE, confirming previous historical reports by Herodotus.

Although entheogens are taboo and most of them are officially prohibited in Christian and Islamic societies, their ubiquity and prominence in the spiritual traditions of various other cultures is unquestioned. ‘The spirit, for example, need not be chemical, as is the case with the ivy and the olive: and yet the god was felt to be within them; nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god’s spirit had to offer.’ Most of the well-known modern examples, such as peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and morning glories 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 soma (a hallucinogenic drink used in ancient India) was ritually prepared and drunk by priests and initiates and elicited a paean in the Rig Veda that embodies the nature of an entheogen: ‘Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!… O [Soma] Pavāmana (mind clarifying), place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set, and everlasting lustre shines…. Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joy and felicities combine…’

The kykeon (an Ancient Greek drink) that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries (the cult of Demeter and Persephone) is another entheogen. Other examples in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean include the opium poppy, datura, and the unidentified ‘lotus’ (likely the sacred blue lily) eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Narcissus.’ According to Ruck, Eyan, and Staples, the familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought knowledge of was Amanita muscaria. 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 (a mythical people who lived far to the north of Thrace – modern day Romania): ‘as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the entheogen was now cultivable.’ Robert Graves, in his foreword to ‘The Greek Myths,’ hypothesizes that the ambrosia of various pre-Hellenic tribes was Amanita muscaria (which, based on the morphological similarity of the words ‘amanita,’ ‘amrita’ [sanskrit for ‘nectar’], and ‘ambrosia,’ is entirely plausible).

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 (‘Ge’), Mother Earth herself, has supported the Titans in their battle with the Olympian intruders. The Giants have been defeated: ‘When Ge learned of this, she sought a drug that would prevent their destruction even by mortal hands. But Zeus barred the appearance of Eos (the Dawn), Selene (the Moon), and Helios (the Sun), and chopped up the drug himself before Ge could find it.’

Cannabis may have been one of the ingredients of the holy anointing oil mentioned in various sacred Hebrew texts. The herb of interest is most commonly known as ‘kaneh-bosm.’ This is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as a bartering material, incense, and an ingredient in holy anointing oil used by the high priest of the temple. Additional visionary plants such as henbane may have been used as well. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible 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. In his research, Professor Dan Merkur points to significant evidence of an awareness within the Jewish mystical tradition recognizing ‘manna’ as an entheogen, thereby substantiating with rabbinic texts theories advanced by the superficial biblical interpretations of Terence McKenna, R. Gordon Wasson and other ethnomycologists.

Although philologist (student of written language) 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, this evidence is dependent on pre-Septuagint interpretation of Jewish scripture. British theologist John M. 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 a non-mainstream theory of Jesus as a mythological personification of the essence of a ‘psychoactive sacrament.’ Furthermore, they conflict with the position of the Catholic Church with regard to transubstantiation and the teaching involving valid matter, form, and substance — that of bread and wine (bread does not contain psychoactive substances, but wine contains ethanol).

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, persisted into the early Christian era, and to some unspecified extent into the 13th century with reoccurrences in the 18th century and mid-20th century, 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 (c. 300 CE) 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. Daniel Merkur at the University of Toronto contends that a minority of Christian hermits and mystics could possibly have used entheogens, in conjunction with fasting, meditation, and prayer.

Naturally occurring entheogens such as psilocybin and DMT (in the preparation ayahuasca), were, for the most part, discovered and used by older cultures, as part of their spiritual and religious life, as plants and agents that were respected, or in some cases revered for generations and may be a tradition that predates all modern religions as a sort of proto-religious rite. One of the most widely used entheogens is cannabis, which has been used in regions such as China, Europe, and India, and, in some cases, for thousands of years. It has also appeared as a part of religions and cultures such as the Rastafari movement, the Sadhus of Hinduism, the Scythians, Sufi Islam, and others.

The best-known entheogen-using culture of Africa is the Bwitists, who used a preparation of the root bark of Tabernanthe iboga. Although the ancient Egyptians may have been using the sacred blue lily plant in some of their religious rituals or just symbolically, it has been suggested that Egyptian religion once revolved around the ritualistic ingestion of the far more psychoactive Psilocybe cubensis mushroom, and that the Egyptian White Crown, Triple Crown, and Atef Crown were evidently designed to represent pin-stages of this mushroom. There is also evidence for the use of psilocybin mushrooms in Côte d’Ivoire. Numerous other plants used in shamanic ritual in Africa, such as Silene capensis sacred to the Xhosa, are yet to be investigated by western science.

Entheogens have played a pivotal role in the spiritual practices of most American cultures for millennia. The first American entheogen to be subject to scientific analysis was the peyote cactus. For his part, one of the founders of modern ethno-botany, the late-Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard University documented the ritual use of peyote cactus among the Kiowa, who live in what became Oklahoma. While it was used traditionally by many cultures of what is now Mexico, in the 19th century its use spread throughout North America, replacing the toxic entheogen mescal bean. Other well-known entheogens used by Mexican cultures include psilocybin mushrooms, morning glories, and Salvia divinorum.

Indigenous peoples of South America employ a wide variety of entheogens. Better-known examples include ayahuasca among indigenous peoples Peruvian Amazonia. Other entheogens include San Pedro cactus, Peruvian torch cactus, and various DMT-snuffs, such as epená, vilca and yopo. 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.

In general, indigenous Australians are thought not to have used entheogens, although there is a strong barrier of secrecy surrounding Aboriginal shamanism, which has likely limited what has been told to outsiders. A plant that the Australian Aboriginals used to ingest is called ‘Pitcheri,’ which is said to have a similar effect to that of coca. ‘Pitcheri’ was made from the bark of the shrub Duboisia myoporoides. This plant is now grown commercially and is processed to manufacture an eye medication. There are no known uses of entheogens by the Māori of New Zealand aside from a variant species of Kava (a plant with sedative and anesthetic effects). Natives of Papua New Guinea are known to use several species of entheogenic mushrooms. Kava 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.

Notable early testing of the entheogenic experience includes the Marsh Chapel Experiment, conducted by physician and theology doctoral candidate, Walter Pahnke, under the supervision of Timothy Leary and the Harvard Psilocybin Project. In this 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 experiment was conducted at Johns Hopkins University, and yielded similar results. To date there is little peer-reviewed research on this subject, due to ongoing drug prohibition and the difficulty of getting approval from institutional review boards.

In 1963 in ‘Sherbert v. Verner’ the Supreme Court established the Sherbert Test, which consists of four criteria that are used to determine if an individual’s right to religious free exercise has been violated by the government. The test is as follows: ‘For the individual, the court must determine: whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and whether the government action is a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief. If these two elements are established, then the government must prove that it is acting in furtherance of a ‘compelling state interest,’ and that it has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.’ This test was eventually all-but-eliminated in ‘Employment Division v. Smith’ (1990), but was resurrected by Congress in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. In ‘City of Boerne v. Flores’ (1997) and ‘Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal’ (2006), the RFRA was held to trespass on state sovereignty, and application of the RFRA was essentially limited to federal law enforcement. As of 2001, Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas had enacted so-called ‘mini-RFRAs.’


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