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Entheogenic drugs and the archaeological record

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Entheogenic drugs have been used by various groups for thousands of years. There are numerous historical reports as well as modern, contemporary reports of religious groups using entheogens.

Contemporary indigenous traditions

There are several modern cultures that continue to practice the application of mind-altering drugs for religious purposes. Some of these cultures include the shamans of Siberia (who employ fly agarics to induce hallucinations), the Huichol Indians of Mexico (who use peyote cactus), and Rastafarians of the Caribbean (who use marijuana).

Issues within the archaeological record

There are several issues with identifying entheogenic drugs within an ancient society.

1. Identification of an entheogenic substance. Was the substance smoked? Ingested?

2. Evidence of entheogenic inspiration within artifacts. Does the artifact give direct evidence of drug use for entheogenic purposes?

3. Artifact interpretation. As an observer of art that is 20,000 years old, are we seeing patterns that the original creator did not mean to create? In other words, do our own personal interests and biases alter the way we perceive art?

Archaeological evidence of entheogenic drugs in ancient societies

Entheogenic drugs have been used by various groups for thousands of years. There are numerous historical reports as well as modern, contemporary reports of indigenous groups using entheogens. However, there is much debate as to what role entheogens have played in ancient societies and which societies did indeed use entheogens.

The New World

Mesoamerican entheogenic drug use is the most iconic in popular consciousness. The Maya, Olmecs, and Aztecs have well-documented entheogenic complexes. North American cultures, too, have long- established traditions of entheogens.

Olmec entheogens

The Olmec (12,000 BCE to 400 BCE) lived in Central America and are largely viewed by many as the mother culture of Aztecs and Maya. The Olmecs left no written works on their belief structures, so many interpretations on Olmec beliefs are largely based on interpretations of murals and artifacts. Archaeologists are led to believe that the Olmecs used entheogens for three reasons:

1. Burials of Bufo Toads with priests

2. The use of entheogens in later Olmec-inspired cultures

3. Sculptures of shamans and other figures have strong Therianthropic imagery.

Maya entheogens

The Maya (250 BCE to 900 CE) flourished in Central America and were prevalent even until the arrival of the Spanish. The Maya religious tradition is extremely complex and very well-developed. Unlike the Olmec, the Maya have religious texts that have survived to this day. The Maya religion displays characteristic Mesoamerican mythology, with a strong emphasis on an individual being a communicator between the physical world and the spiritual world. Mushroom stone effigies, dated to 700 CE, give evidence that mushrooms were at least revered in a religious way. The most direct evidence of Maya entheogen use comes from modern descendents of the Maya who use entheogenic drugs today.

Aztec entheogens

The Aztec entheogenic complex is extremely well-documented. Through historical evidence, there is proof that the Aztecs used several forms of psychoactive drugs. These drugs include Ololiuqui (the seed of Rivea corymbosa), Teonanácatl (translated as “mushroom of the gods," a psilocybe mushroom) and sinicuichi (a flower added to drinks). The Xochipilli statue, according to R.G. Wasson, gives the identity of several entheogenic plants. Other evidence for entheogen use of the Aztecs comes from the Florentine Codex, a series of twelve books vividly describing the use of entheogenic drugs within Aztec culture and society.

North American entheogens

There are several contemporary indigenous groups who use entheogens, most notably Native Americans of the Southwest United States. Various tribes from California have been known to use strong alcoholic drinks as well as peyote in order to achieve visions and religious experiences.

The Old World

Paleolithic

During the Paleolithic, there is ample evidence of drug use as seen by preserved botanical remains and coprolites. Some scholars suggest that the Shanidar Cave (a Paleolithic site in Iraq) Flower Burial shows evidence of a shamanistic death ritual, but these claims are still being debated. The most direct evidence we have from the Paleolithic in terms of art comes from Tassili, Algeria. From this region, there are several therianthropic images portraying the painter and the animals around him as one (an often cited effect of many hallucinatory drugs, Ego death). One image, in particular, shows a man who has formed into one common form with a mushroom.

There are several Paleolithic sites that display therianthropic imagery. However, there is some debate as to whether or not sites like Lascaux or Chauvet were entheogenically inspired.

Entheogenic drugs and major world religions

There have been several reports stating that the Bible and the Vedas have several references to entheogenic drugs. Although most scholars largely reject these claims, they are accepted by many fringe groups.

Manna and mushrooms

Some researchers speculate that Manna, the food that the Israeli tribes harvest, was actually an entheogenic drug. The Bible as quoted in Exodus 16:14 reads:

“And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.”

Some point to the similarities of psilocybe and the biblical description of manna as evidence.

Soma and mushrooms

In regard to the Vedas, the religious texts of the Hindu religion, there has been a lot of speculation on the nature of what Soma, the food of the gods, actually was. Below is a passage from the Vedas "Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!... O [Soma] Pavāmana, 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..." Scholars like R.G. Wasson suggest that soma is fly agaric, a mushroom commonly used by Siberian shamans.

References

  • Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, William Morrow (1990). ISBN 0-688-11280-3.
  • Demarest, Arthur. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of the Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Dibble, Charles E., et al. (trans). "Florentine Codex: Book 11 - Earthly Things." The School of American Research. Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1963.
  • Furst, P. T. (with contributions from Wasson and others) 1972 Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens
  • Hofmann, Albert. "Teonanácatl and Ololiuqui, two ancient magic drugs of Mexico." UNODC Bulletin on Narcotics. Issue 1, pp.3-14, 1971.
  • McKenna, Terence. Food of the Gods. (New York, Harper Collins) p. 84.
  • Wasson, R. G., S. Kramrisch, J. Ott and C. A. P. Ruck. (1986). Pesephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. ISBN 0-300-05266-9
  • Roberts, T. B. (editor) (2001). Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion. San Francosco: Council on Spiritual Practices.
  • Roberts, T. B., and Hruby, P. J. (1995-2002). Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments An Entheogen Chrestomathy. Online archive. [1]
  • Roberts, T. B. "Chemical Input—Religious Output: Entheogens." Chapter 10 in Where God and Science Meet: Vol. 3: The Psychology of Religious Experience Robert McNamara (editor)(2006). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood.
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