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A Brief History Of Psychedelics
From The Creation Of Gods To The Demise Of Psychedelic Reverence In Modern Times
As prehistoric men and women foraged for food they must have eaten the psychedelic plants which grow in nearly all regions of the world. Ingesting these plants would have produced awe inspiring experiences, and it is quite likely that the origin of ideas about gods, heavens and hells, life after death, etc. began with the ingestion of psychedelic plants.
Try to imagine yourself as a neolithic human, most of your attention given to day-by-day survival, the more complex areas of your brain just beginning to develop. Now ingest say, a handful of psilocybin mushrooms, or the psychedelic root of the African Iboga plant. Imagine what wealth of images and information would now be flowing through your mind! In his recent book, Food Of The Gods, Terence McKenna presents a plausible hypothesis that homo sapiens descended from psychedelic-using hominids. The ability of psychedelics to facilitate development of the human brain is an important part of his theory.
Worship involving psychedelic plants and their use in spiritual pursuits can be traced to the beginnings of recorded history. The major role these plants played in the formation of early religions has been documented by several historians. R. Gordon Wasson has made a strong argument that the inebriating Soma of the ancient Indian Rg Veda was the Amanita muscaria mushroom 1. Other historians have found evidence of psychedelic use in the Eleusian and Dionysian rituals of ancient Greece 2. Other references to psychedelic plants can be found in ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and other far Eastern texts. And in Africa, the use of Iboga was noted by the earliest English explorers of the area.
Psychedelic plants are much more abundant in the New World and to this day play a part in the religions of the Native Americans. When the Spanish invaded what is now known as Mexico and South America they executed psychedelic-using natives, and the religions and healing practices were forced underground. A strong shamanic tradition persisted for centuries. In the United States, only the Native American Church of North America retained legal permission to continue religious use of its psychedelic sacrament, Peyote.
The knowledge of one psychedelic sacrament, the psilocybe mushroom, was all but lost to Europeans for centuries. R. Gordon Wasson began his quest for knowledge about mushrooms in 1927, after he experienced a vast difference in cultural attitude towards mushrooms between himself and his Russian wife. Their research led to the understanding that the majority of westerners are mycophobics, having a fear or loathing of mushrooms. People in many other parts of the world are mycophiles, often being able to distinguish many types of mushrooms by sight, knowing which are edible, and having common names for the different species.
Wasson explored all he could find about mushrooms through folklore, etymology, and references in literature and art. He came upon results completely beyond anything he could have dreamed of: that mushrooms which produce a "divine inebriation" have been used and worshipped in numerous times and in several areas of the world.
Wasson also discovered that an existing "mushroom cult" still continued amongst certain Indians in Mexico, far removed from civilization. In 1955 he managed to get in touch with these Indians and participated in a mushrooms ceremony guided by a 65 year old shamaness, possibly becoming the first white man to eat psilocybin mushrooms in hundreds of years. This story was published in Life magazine, May 13, 1957. It is an excellent article with great pictures and a moving description of Wasson's first mushroom voyage.
Wasson continued exploring the ethnology of mushrooms and other plant sacraments used throughout the world, teaming up with the likes of famous ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, and Albert Hoffman, the inventor and discoverer of LSD. Through the Fifties and early Sixties the attitudes regarding psychedelics throughout the world were generally positive. Knowledge was confined primarily to the scientific and scholastic communities, with some attention from the art and literary circles. Papers and articles on psychedelics from this time period lack the hysteria, and the connection of drug to sin that media introduced to the public in the mid-Sixties.
Well, what happened during the Sixties, and how did the majority's attitude toward psychedelics get so screwed up? Here's a simple explanation; the U.S. government was afraid of the changes brought about by psychedelic use. They used the physical, financial, and political forces they controlled to spread fear and discredit the virtues of psychedelics.
None of what happened seems too surprising. It fits into the patterns that human minds are frequently seen to operate in. The majority of the population is still the type that resists anything new, any change (neophobic). This mindset is continually reinforced through newspapers, television, government, religions, schools, and the hierarchical structure of society. All of these organizations are dominated by people with neophobic mindsets. Most also possess the Judeo-Christian concepts that: humans are evil, sex is evil, we are beneath Gods, we will be eternally punished if we disobey the rules of the church, or, heaven forbid, take a psychedelic and try to experience an ecstatic state of happiness.
Many of the people reinforcing this mindset are not even aware that they are spreading negativity. They are supporting what they believe is correct. These people, convinced that the old morals are the "right way" of living, have generated outright lies about psychedelics, feeling anything which discourages drug use is justified. Of course, other members of these organizations spread negative information with purely nefarious intentions, such as political groups who instruct the CIA to sell cocaine for financing covert military operations, and then preach that drugs are the tools of the devil on TV.
The establishment's methods of spreading drug paranoia are numerous and use all forms of media. Most of the population gets its information from the neophobically controlled major media sources: television, newspapers, and large magazines. There is also political pressure at all levels to conform to the views of the ruling politicians. Do you think CBS would broadcast an overtly pro-drug commercial even if you paid them well? The government also controls the content of what is taught in schools. What is commonly called "drug education" is better defined as "anti-drug brainwashing." Any positive appraisals of drugs are absent from school course materials. Teachers seldom inform their students that over 99.9% of the people who take ecstasy have a positive experience. A recent psychiatric M.D. graduate from Harvard was not even aware that psychedelics had ever been used in therapy. Psychedelic use in therapy was widespread until LSD was made illegal in 1966, and the results from their use were highly successful. During the past 28 years limited research and therapy using psychedelics has continued, primarily in Switzerland and Germany. (Although in recent years the FDA has agreed to resuming a small number of studies involving human use of psychedelics here in the U.S.)
Much of a psychedelic trip is based on a person's mental set. The negative media on psychedelics causes many people to take these substances with unwarranted fears, thus diminishing the potential of the experience, and probably causing some people to freak out. Someone embarking on a trip with the idea "This substance is an ancient gift of the Gods, it will allow me to gain a new experience of life" will have a different experience than a person with the idea "Someone told me this is fun, but it's illegal and I'm worried about getting busted, and I'm afraid I'll lose control and jump out of a window."
There has always been some accurate information about psychedelics available, but it's been something one's had to search for. Many who have found, understood, and applied this knowledge have benefited immensely. This book was written to spread this information to a larger group of people in hopes of enlightening many on the potentialities of the psychedelic experience, and dispelling some of the misinformation that has previously been disseminated on this topic.
1 See Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality by R. Gordon Wasson.
2 See The Road to Eleusis by Hoffman, Ruck, and Wasson.
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