Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Entheogenic Origins of World Religions

The idea that religions originated with the ritual use of visionary, i.e. psychoactive, plants is not a new one. This has been demonstrated  in many cultures. The use of peyote (a cactus), psilocybin mushrooms or DMT-containing plants is wide-spread in the Americas. Hindu texts describe “soma”, a plant-based entheogenic drink. Some African tribes employ the roots of the Tabernanthe iboga shrub. And the blue lotus, depicted in ancient Egyptian wall paintings, has been proved to be psychoactive and I am sure it was used for spiritual purposes.

In his book “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East”, John Allegro, one of the translators of the scrolls found at Qumran, advanced the thesis that the religions of the Middle East were ultimately based on shamanic practices, utilizing plants as a source of communion with God. Publication of such a controversial thesis in the 70s was a courageous act. He brought upon himself the ire of every insufferable know-it-all scholar and every insufferable Bible-thumping ignoramus. He paid a high price: it ended his career.

At the heart of Allegro’s thesis is the fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). I do not think it very likely that this species of mushroom would have played a significant role seeing that its natural habitat is circumpolar and that it is almost always associated with pine trees: it would therefore have been rather bare in the Middle East. There were then and are now more likely candidates; all of them widely available in Southern Europe, North Africa and the Near East and I will look at just a very small selection.
Solanaceae:  Let us start with the episode of the “burning bush”. In the Midrash (a collection of Jewish legends) the burning bush was identified as a rose bush. The significance of this reference is supposed to be that while the Jewish people may be as difficult as thorns, there nevertheless are “roses” among them. Fanciful nonsense! There is a much simpler explanation. When Moses saw the “burning bush” he was quite possibly under the influence of a visionary substance. There is one widely distributed plant that fits the bill: Datura stramonium or “thorn apple”! It will produce splendid visions, yes, but also lead to hot, dry skin while at the same time the ability to sweat is reduced.  Voila, you have a build-up of inner heat experienced as the sensation of burning. Perhaps it was Moses that was burning and not the bush??? The plant thrives in the arid conditions of the Near East and while herding sheep for his Midianite father-in-law he would no doubt have come across it and would have been familiar with its visionary properties.

Datura:  The datura is a member of the solanaceae (nightshade) plant family to which various species of henbane and mandrake also belong. Both henbane and mandrake have the same constituents as datura, albeit in different proportions; they are less toxic but have the same effects as the datura. The mandrake is mentioned twice in the Bible (cf. Genesis 30:14). The traditional view is that mandrakes were an ancient folk remedy to help barren women conceive. While mandrakes do not contain to our knowledge any fertility-enhancing  constituents they do have, if used judiciously, aphrodisiac, euphoriant and relaxant effects that can aid in conceiving as barrenness is frequently a result of psychosexual factors.  Song of Songs 7:12-13:  The ‘Song of Songs” is a sensuous love poem and the connection with the mandrake is impossible to miss:

Let us go early to the vineyards
To see if the vines have budded
If their blossoms have opened,
And if the pomegranates are in bloom
There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes send out their fragrance
And at our door is every delicacy
Both new and old
That I have stored up for you, my beloved.

Even such an unlikely place as the Western Wall in Jerusalem is home to a variety of flora. You will find there Ephedra, which produces ephedrine, a stimulant, and the golden henbane, compared by the Jewish historian Josephus to the head-gear of the high priest. Why would the tiara of the High Priest be designed to look like the seed capsule of the henbane? Accident? I do not think so.

DMT and Peganum harmala (also known as Syrian rue)Benny Shanon, Professor of Psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has written an article for "Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture" in which he speculates on the use of DMT-containing species of acacia in combination with Peganum harmala to yield the equivalent of the Amazonion “magic potion” ayahuasca, a drink that will produce truly awe-inspiring visions. The acacia is frequently mentioned in the Bible. Shanon’s thesis is that Moses had knowledge of its psychoactivity and made use of it. 

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the details of chemistry. I’ll leave it to the interested reader to pursue this further. Suffice it to say that for oral administration to work it is absolutely essential that two ingredients be present: a) DMT, supplied by the acacia although it also is present in many other plants and b) a MAO inhibitor, supplied by the Peganum harmala.  Even if Moses did not know that both ingredients had to be present for oral ingestion this does not rule out DMT as the source of visions. It is quite effective on its own if the material that contains it is smoked. Peganum harmala, too, can work either smoked – in fact it is used as an incense – or brewed into a tea. 

Frankincense and Myrrh:  Frankincense and myrrh were both used in all ancient civilisations as a perfume, incense and in medicine. Frankincense and myrrh were precious; they were gifts fit for a king!  Think of the gifts offered to baby Jesus! Furthermore, a convict led to execution was given frankincense or myrrh mixed into a cup of wine, numbing his senses so as not to suffer pain. The women of Jerusalem donated the frankincense, myrrh and wine to the court. When they were not donated, they were purchased from public funds (Sanhedrin 43a). Think of the cup that was offered to Jesus (although he refused to accept it)!  Modern science shows us that frankincense has the ability to increase oxygen around the pineal gland, thereby stimulating the pineal gland through which we communicate spiritually.  A recent study conducted at Hebrew University noted frankincense smoke contained the psychoactive substance incensole acetate that relieved depression and anxiety (Moussaieff et al., 2008).  Myrrh, taken internally – if you can stomach the extremely bitter taste -  has  very strong narcotic properties. It induces a state of consciousness which partakes of both wakefulness and dreaming.  You are here and at the same time you are …. well, somewhere else. I can personally vouch for its efficacy as an aid in meditation and a tool for consciousness and dream enhancement.

In Conclusion:  The fact is: humans are hard-wired to seek altered states of consciousness.  We have a hunger for them. For that reason alone the “War on Drugs” is unwinnable. Consider the length to which some will go to attain such states: long periods of fasting or sleep deprivation, retreating for years into deserts or mountains to meditate, breathing techniques that border on asphyxiation, flagellation or other pain-producing techniques, extreme physical exercises and so on and so forth. Such techniques have been practiced since time immemorial. Often they require years of strenuous and focused effort and you have no guarantee that you will succeed. Furthermore, they are not without risk to life and limb or health! Psychedelics, on the other hand, if used wisely, will yield results in a much shorter time and without having to push body and mind to punishing and dangerous extremes.

It was Timothy Leary who coined the slogan: Turn On – Tune In – Drop Out. Turn on means: take a psychedelic. Tune In means: look inward and rediscover your true self. Drop Out means: abandon your submission to reality as defined for you by others – stay tuned in! It does not mean to drop out of life and society!
We know that the Ancients had knowledge of and access to the plant material described above and a lot more besides. They certainly made use of most of them for medicinal purposes. Did they also use them for their psychotropic effects? Why would we think that they were different from us?  Why would we think that they did not use nature’s gifts? Only modern man is at war with the natural world.

Of course, the notion that Moses might have been a shaman is anathema to the traditionalists. In their view this reduces the perceived “greatness” of their prophet and the “glory and splendour” of their god to the level of a mere hallucination, created by none other than Satan to mislead man. That’s why consciousnes-expanding visionary substances are demonized and outlawed. Naturally, the mind controllers that presume to rule us are quite happy to allow a dangerous drug like alcohol. Why? Because it does not open the mind – quite the contrary! Therefore it presents absolutely no challenge and poses no threat to the consensus reality they have imposed upon us. To those nay-sayers who preach against the evils of “drugs” I say this: you need to distinguish drugs from visionary substances. Opium, for instance, is a medicine and a visionary substance – heroin is a drug! Coca is an essential medicine in the mountains of the Andes! But cocaine is a drug! 

Unless you have experienced an altered state of consciousness, brought about by a visionary substance, ingested in a safe setting conducive to meditation, with the proper intent and, ideally, under the guidance of an experienced teacher, you do not know what you are talking about, no matter what you think your qualifications are. What you really need to do is to Shut Up – Turn On – Tune In - Drop Out! Then we can talk! You have the right to your own opinions but you have no right to impose your benighted views on anyone!

(This excerpt is from "Was Moses a Shaman?" by Bernard Weckmann, my new favorite blogger at The Chosenites, check him out!)