Since the dawn of time man has asked himself about his origins and the existence of God. While all the major religions of the world are currently monotheistic and have no belief in the spiritual realm, the ancient religions and their customs have now become less popular. The whole question of religious drugs is looked at from a different angle.
This blog aims to look at the magical practises that have been carried out for hundreds of years, and will try to explain the pharmacological reasons behind the experiences of the practitioners who were mainly of high social status in their communities; they were priests, shamans and wise people whose advice was taken by the rulers, hence effecting the lives of many people, and setting the basis for many religious belief patterns.
The use of drugs for religious purposes is as old as man himself. For example in ancient Greece people under the influence of Henbane were known to become prophetic, and the Priestesses of the Delphic Oracle claimed to have inhaled the smoke from smouldering Henbane. In Roman times wine adulterated with Deadly Nightshade was used during the Bacchanalian orgies.
The use of plants for witchcraft and sorcery was not widespread until the middle ages in Europe. In the New World the Aztec priests used Ololiuqui, Teonaucalt and Peyolt in their ceremonies. Even to this day in Mexico Shamans and witch doctors play a vital role in the daily life of the local population, with their visions, prescriptions and medicine. One might imagine that such practices should no longer be acceptable to people in central and south America, nations which have been turning to Christianity for the last four hundred years, and the Catholic church has a firm foothold.
The magico-religious practises of the Aztecs are still widespread, but not as it offers a better philosphical explanation of life and the world, but the hallucinogenic drugs which are used can alter the consciousness to such a degree that now some incantations are the same which have been intoned for thousands of years, but they now invoke the names of the Virgin Mary, St Peter, and St Paul. It seems to be the drug which is the main component in these magical rites, and not the names of the spirits of old, or recitiations from the bible.
The following plants and brews have played a major role in the history of magic: Deadly Nightshade, Henbane, Mandrake Datura, Brugsmansie, Ololiuqui, Teonnacacatl, Peyolt, and Ayahusasca.
The methods of adminsitration of these plants (drugs) are varied, but mainly the plants are mixed with oils, hence they penetrate through the skin or are absorbed via the sweat glands. This allows the psychoactive tropane allkaloids (ie hyosciene) to reach the blood stream and brain without passing directly into the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and cause poisoning.
The chemical hyoscine (Scopolamine) is a major constituent of many plant species of Datura and plants of related genus Brugmansa, it has both medicinal and hallucinogenic uses.
Hyoscine is classified as an antimuscarinic or muscarinic blocking drugs as it competitively blocks the action of acetylcholine at both the central and peripheral muscarinic receptors. (for both M1 and M2 receptors. Apart from acetylcholine other antagonists for M1 and M2 receptor subtypes are muscarine and cabamycholine. This drug suppresses REM sleep and on withdrawal dream recall and nightmares are increased.
In my view the Indian tribes used this drug for its magical hallucinogenic property, combined with many other factors for its maximum effect, this includes using chants, rhythmic beating drums and dances, which in some cases went on for several days and after that the participants collapsed from exhaustion and saw visions of many things. The physiological and psychological changes that take place in the human body and mind during Indian rites are of great interest, even when no drugs were used. It seems that some Shaman’s of higher rank were able to go into a trance and make prophesies without the use of any drugs and solely rely on the ritual dances to reach the trance state. This is a subject of study for psychologists about the effect of folklore on the primitive mind.
Summarsing the uses of the drug Hyoscine as a constituent of Datura (Thorn Apple) and the Brugmansia plant:
· Various witches brews
· Causing a death-like sleep
· Flying Ointment
· For transfomation into an animal form
· Used for communication with dead ancestors
· In Africa for trials by ordeal and complex puberty rites involving flagellation and ceremonial deflowering
The medical properties of Hyoscine include:
· Treament for fever
· Used for mental disorders
· A treatment for heart disease
· A cure for Pneumonia
The use of Hyoscine has been continued to the present times, Eg. NASA has Hyoscine plasters as a treatment for motion sickness which can be experienced during space travel.
Ololiqui was used by the Aztecs as a magical brew for divination, and sacrificial ceremonies. It was prepared from the seeds of the Morning Glory plant Rivera Corymbosa. These seeds seem to contain Lysergic acid amides with similar structure to Lysergic Acid Dietylamide (LSD). However it is about twenty times less potent than LSD, the origins of hallucinogenic effects experienced by the Aztecs are explained therefore.
Lysergic Acid amides act at certain sertonin receptors on the neurones in the mid brain. In small doses LSD is a seritonin mimic, but in larger doses it antagonises the effects of a neurotransmitter. These sertonin dependent neurones connect with other nonadrenalin dependent neurones that are intimately involved in the regulation of behavioural responses to sensory stimulation. Hence during a trip sensory disorientation occurs, also increased blood pressure, sweating, rapid breathing and palpitations of the heart, mood swings, great fear or manic excitement, which are similar to the schizophrenic state.
Teonanacatl mushrooms and the mushroom cult has survived for three thousand years due to its ability when the participants get intoxicated a series of unearthly experiences occur. Today in Mexico Mazutec Indians have complex rituals for the collection and consumption’s of mushrooms.
The main psychotic constituents are psilocybin and small amounts of Psilocin (similar to serotonin) but have 1% potency of LSD.
Peyote religion has a following of quarter of million people in North America (Native American Church). This church uses peyote cactus which is widespread in Mexico, it has a greenish grey crown atop “ a parsnip-like root, the crown is sliced from root and dried to form mescal buttons”. This can be obtained legally via mail order catalogue in North America.
Mescaline is the major component of peyote, however it has only 0.2% of hallucinogenic potency of LSD. But it has the added advantage of one doesn’t get any ‘bad trips’. This of course is the basis of designer drugs like DOM and MDNA (Ecstasy).
Peyote hunts are carried out as part of religious practices of Huichol Indians of Mexico, during which the shamans leads pilgrims to collect peyote. The mescaline in peyote gives visual hallucinations and distortion of time and space.
Finally the plant Ayahasca (caapi) which is also widely used for purpose of divination and prophesy by American Indian, the brew: the bark is boiled in water and consume before the ceremonies, during which coloured visions occur.
Some of the Indian tribes in the Amazon basin have a ceremony for showing the animal spirit of a person to him, during which the subject falls sleep and sees himself transformed to an animal which is very closes to main characteristics of that person; for example the hunters tend to have spirits like Jaguars or birds of prey. My guess is caapi is used in the brew which was used in these rites. However I could not find further evidence to support this only that when harmine and harmaline (main constituents of caapi) are taken under control conditions in the lab by ‘western’ experiments who had no exposure to amazon Indian myth cycles similar visions were seen by them as the Amazon Indian shamans. This could be interpenetrated as the plant triggered specific brain pathways and hence the result was the same no matter who took it or may be plant is the ‘key’ for unlocking a specific ‘door’ to a particular deity!
Harmine and Harmaline block serotonin receptors in the brain (cross reactive with LSD and psilocybin), also they inhibit the oxidative metabolism of the other brain amines, hence complete disturbance of CNS. They have a further property which is to cause sexual excitation hence was used in initiation rites for adolescent boys in the Amazon basin and the ceremonies often other stimulatory acts like flagellation!
There is no doubt that hallucinogenic drugs have contributed a great deal to the way primitive cultures organised their way of life and their and their religious beliefs. Without these drugs non of the pagan religions would have lasted as long as they have and still practised in parts of the world the strange experiences of priestess and great visions of shamans we could say largely result of taking hallucinogenic drugs. But, we can’t fully prove this and history has taught us that no idea or belief survives for long on less there is some element of truth in it. The question of recreational v sacred use of magical plants has kept many magical prationars busy. Does over use of drugs at nightclubs devalue them as sacred tools for altering reality? Is it respectfull to spirit of plant to use them for non-religious purposes without paying respect to them? Ofcourse some magical plants are lost to us forexample Homa or Soma.
Homa is name of a plant with medicinal and spiritual properties; name of the spirit presiding over the Homa plant. It was drunk by poets, warrior and priests, its juices oozed yellow as the rays of the sun, as liquid as the life giving rain, the drink extracted from the Homa plant had qualities more divine by far than these. It gave bravely to warriors in battle, and visions to priests. The plant was seen as a deity in its own right, Homa, lord of harvests (see Zoroastrian Hymn to Homa: http://www.avesta.org/yasna/y9to11s.htm ). Homa is Soma in India, no one knows what was Homa or Soma, but Zoroastrians seemed to have used a ephedrine for a similar purpose or perhaps fly agaric. When Homa was drunk, it resulted in trance like state.
The drink is based on Homa (soma) as this drink is lost to us, alternatives have to be made, it is up to you how you make it and what you add to it. A good alternative could be milk with honey mixed in. Also wine, or mead, if perfer something with alcohol. Or perhaps like the Eleusinian mysteries water with grain soaked in it.
Homa Yasht (Yasna 10):”…. praise thy lofty mountains where the Haoma branches spread.
4. This wide earth do I praise, expanded far (with paths), the productive, the full bearing, thy mother, holy plant! Yea, I praise the lands where thou dost grow, sweet-scented, swiftly spreading, the good growth of the Lord. O Haoma, thou growest on the mountains, apart on many paths, and there still may’st thou flourish. The springs of Righteousness most verily thou art, (and the fountains of the ritual find their source in thee)!
5. Grow (then) because I pray to thee on all thy stems and branches, in all thy shoots (and tendrils) increase thou through my word!
6. Haoma grows while he is praised, and the man who praises him is therewith more victorious. The lightest pressure of thee, Haoma, thy feeblest praise, the slightest tasting of thy juice, avails to the thousand-smiting of the Daevas.
7. Wasting doth vanish from that house, and-with it foulness, whither in verity they bear thee, and where thy praise in truth is sung, the drink of Haoma, famed, health-bringing (as thou art). [(Pazand) to his village and abode they bear him.]
8. All other toxicants go hand in hand with Rapine of the bloody spear, but Haoma’s stirring power goes hand in hand with friendship. [Light is the drunkenness of Haoma (Pazand).]
Who as a tender son caresses Haoma, forth to the bodies of such persons Haoma comes to heal. ”