A Brief History of Psychedelics
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
For as long as people have existed, they have been experimenting with ways to alter their consciousness.
The earliest archaeological evidence of the use of psychedelics is found traces of the San Pedro cactus, a plant with hallucinogenic properties, that were found in caves inhabited by humans in Peru and are calculated to be over 10,000 years old. Evidence abounds all over the world in cave paintings, relics, traces of plants, and religious artifacts that spirituality and psychedelics have been intimately connected for millennia. Many of those who have experimented with psychoactive substances, particularly oneirogenics and psychedelics, have found that altering their consciousness deepened their spiritual connections and connected them to universal forces larger than themselves. Let’s take a deeper look at the ancient spiritual traditions associated with the use of psychedelics.
Psilocybin And Mushroom Stones
Stone effigies in the shape of mushrooms have been found in tombs and other sites sacred to the Mayan people in Mexico, Guatemala, and other Central American countries. The stones were used to grind “magic mushrooms” into a ceremonial drink used in sacred rituals. The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms spread to the Aztecs, as reports from the Spanish Conquest state that they referred to psychoactive mushrooms as “Teonanacatl”, meaning “God’s Flesh.” As ethnobotanist and anthropologist R. Gordon Wasson states: “the use of mushrooms, if I am right, spread over most of Eurasia and the Americas, and as Stone Age Man has emerged into the light of proto-history these strange fungi may well have been the primary secret of his sacred Mysteries.”
Ayahuasca use is intimately tied to the rituals and beliefs of a myriad of tribes in South America’s Amazon basin. The earliest evidence we’ve acquired of ayahuasca use is a 1000-year-old pouch made of fox snouts which contained the ingredients for brewing the powerful drink. Ayahuasca is referred to throughout the Amazon region as a “plant teacher (or doctor)”, and the ayahuasca vine is known in some local languages as the “vine of the ancestors.” The plant’s ceremonial use was primarily for healing, though it was also used in warfare, coming of age ceremonies, to gain artistic inspir
ation, and “as the main theme for cultural narratives.” As anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna writes: “In general, ayahuasca is used as an instrument to gain access to information coming from unseen realms, as well as from the social and natural environment.” It has long been the bedrock of spirituality for the indigenous people of South America.
Peyote And The Native American Church
Archaeological evidence and cave paintings indicate that the indigenous people of Mexico and the Southwestern United States have been using peyote in sacred rituals for at least 3000 years. The substance was said by members of
“peyote cults” to protect initiates from danger, heal the body and spirit, enable visionary predictions, and strengthen the user. In many cultures, peyote was considered the most valuable and potent medicine, and it was believed to have the power to cure any disease if used properly. The peyote ritual is generally led by a shaman and consists of singing and dancing overnight. Peyote is usually consumed in a drink, and various tribes have different traditions for obtaining the substance, including purification rituals and pilgrimages.
In spite of the efforts of legislators and missionaries to forbid the use of peyote, traditions remain strong and it’s estimated that at least 40 tribes in North America continue to take part in peyote rituals. The Native American Church, which mixes peyote ceremonies and traditional beliefs with Christianity, won a legal victory in 1978 which protected their right to use peyote ceremonially. Many adherents feel that peyote is a “divine messenger” that enables the user to communicate directly with God, without the need of a priest to act as an intermediary.
In the ancient Greek city of Eleusis, an important, elaborate, and secret yearly ritual was performed to celebrate death and rebirth as symbolized by the myth of Demeter and Hades. The participants would descend into a cave, and drink a cup of kykeon, which contained ergot, a substance that mimics the hallucinatory effects of LSD. The initiates were sworn to secrecy, so little is known of what occurred, but we do know that they were profoundly influential. As one historian writes: “virtually every ancient writer, thinker, ruler, or builder whose name we know today, from the beginnings of the Rites in c.1500 BCE until they were shut down and outlawed by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 CE, was an initiate into the Eleusinian Mysteries.”
Plato was deeply influenced by the ritual. In his “Phaedo” he wrote that only the initiated could “dwell amongst the Gods,” interpreted as meaning that only those who had undergone the ritual would have an understanding of life while they lived. The writer Plutarch noted that after partaking in the ritual he lost the fear of death and recognized himself as an immortal soul.
Bwiti is a spiritual tradition common among the Babongo and Mitsogo people of Gabon, and the Fang people of Gabon and Cameroon. Contemporary beliefs are described as a mixture of animism, ancestor worship and Christianity, and the substance iboga is at the core of their rituals and beliefs. According to Wikipedia, iboga is used to “promote radical spiritual growth, to stabilize community and family structure, to meet religious requirements, and to resolve pathological problems.”
When Bwiti shamans take part in the iboga ceremony, they believe that they gain the ability to heal illnesses, communicate with their ancestors,
and experience visions of the future. Most significantly, iboga is fundamental to the initiation rites and coming of age rituals of the Bwiti. According to Daniel Lieberman, an expert on Bwiti culture, “they believe that before initiation the neophyte is nothing. Through the ceremony you become something…a Baanzi, one who knows the otherworld because you have seen it with your own eyes.” According to Lieberman, the Bwiti believe that iboga is a “superconscious spiritual entity that guides mankind.” The vast majority of the followers of Bwiti consume iboga as part of their coming of age ritual, and it is a fundamental building block of their culture and community.
As you can see, society, culture and spirituality have been shaped by psychedelics since the dawn of time. Psychedelics enlarge our perceptions and guide us toward a fuller understanding and greater respect for the universe, nature, our fellows, and ourselves. At Faith Retreats ™, we have seen profound spiritual growth and healing occur through the use of these extraordinary plants time and again. If you have any questions you’d like to ask about using iboga or other psychoactive substances as a tool for spiritual growth and healing, get in touch with us.