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Shamen Be Jam’n

Arts & Culture | October 26, 2009

In almost all religions, there is some form of sacrament—wine, incense, crackers, etc.—which functions as the causal medium for religious experience. Iterations of these holy consumables have been known by the names Kykeon, Ambrosia (Greco-Roman), Manna (Judeo-Christianity), Soma (Vedic texts), Haoma (Zoroastrianism), or Ayahuasca. Tracing the word “sacrament,” we find two points of interest. One is that it may be parsed into literalisms: “sacred” (sacra) and “state of mind” (ment). The other is that, the Latin sacramentum, or “solemn oath,” was used when translating the Greek word musterion or “mystery.” Thus, by contextualizing the term in relation to a broader history, we can comprehend “sacrament” not as a physical imbibition, but as a mysterious and sacred state of mind resultant from an imbibation—how very interesting.

In 1968, the banker and amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson published a book that investigated the roots of the Vedic Soma. He concluded that the Soma was, at its core, an allegorical reference to the red and white polka dotted Amanita muscaria mushroom (or fly agaric)—a psychedelic fungi employed by shamanistic cultures, ancient and present, most notably in Eastern Europe where is it naturally prolific. Whether or not one chooses to believe it, shamanism is widely accepted to be the original model of human religion that flourished for thousands of years before the advent of power wielding priesthoods and patriarchy. With shamanistic mushroom consumption at one end of the human religious timeline and Vedic consumption of a mysterious sacrament that gave visions, vitality, and transcendental experiences on the other end, Wasson attempted to trace the evidence through the ages. When he published these ideas in his book, Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968), the intellectual community of the time accepted it with open arms.
A funny thing though, is that references to magical and downright hallucinogenic herbs and concoctions are common not only in the “pagan” religions of the east like Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, but also in the Abrahamic religions, and, indeed, almost all religions.

Two years later in 1970, a professional philologist and Old Testament scholar named John Allegro who was, at the time, the senior committee member of a team selected to undertake the first translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, published just sucha hypothesis about the possible reference to hallucinogen use in the Judeo-Christian cannon. Allegro had a professionals grasp of the texts as an established Old Testament scholar—Wasson was by no means a Vedic scholar. Allegro also brought powerful linguistic arguments to bear from his philologist background—the book utilizes Sumerian, Acadian, Ugaritic, Semitic, Sanskrit, Syriac, Herbew/Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. Despite these facts, Allegros book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970), was roundly ridiculed and branded as trying to stir up trouble. It is, hopefully, obvious why this was the case—the western, Judeo-Christian thought monopoly.

There is a noun, “entheogen” that means, literally, “creates god within,” indicating a substance that, when taken, causes a transcendental, spiritual experience. So, how did humanity get from shamanistic entheogen use, wherein access to the sacrament and, therefore, to “God” were unregulated, to the model we have today, in which a priesthood generally serves as an aloof medium for distributing an allegorical placebo, the original version of which has been lost to time?
Here is an example. In addition to hallucinations, direct consumption of the Aminita mushroom causes nausea and cramping. The active ingredient, however, is almost immediately urinated out and can be consumed up to five times in this way. Interestingly, drinking the psychedelic urine does not cause nausea or cramping. Thus, the shaman would, at times, purify the sacrament for his people by eating heroic quantities and urinating a substance devoid of evil spirits for community consumption. If this role as purifier and medium were to become too calcified in the community however, and especially when the knowledge of where to find and how to prepare the sacrament ceases to be common knowledge, the role of the shaman begins to change significantly. Eventually, the role of medicine man/women begins to look more like the gatekeeper to God’s realm—and patriarchy and exclusive social stratification are just around the corner. Much like (early) Catholicism, a monopoly on God bestows absolute power. Over time, or perhaps due to the ideals of a particular regime, the actual entheogenic sacrament is either forgotten or abolished in favor of a placebo. Perhaps it is, in part, because so many of the great religions have lost their entheogenic souls that atheism has flourished—not only has science dealt religion a blow, but religion has ceased to give people the visceral, transcendental experiences of higher-order realities that once characterized human spirituality. Unable to give spiritual transcendence in life, religion is reduced to promising a transcendent after life.

As a columnist primarily concerned with Mary Jane, I hope, for your sake, that it’s pretty obvious why all this stuff matters to me. For one thing, cannabis definitely has its part to play in entheogenic history. Indeed, many of the Vedic texts refer to the Soma as a milky drink, which rings quite a bell unto Indian bhang—the weed milkshake associated with Holi, the holiday when everyone runs wild, drinking weed and painting each other pretty colors (awesome). This doesn’t weaken the argument that Soma is an allegory for Aminita muscaria, however. In the 10,000-year love affair between human beings and “drugs,” the ebb and flow of time takes its toll, and besides, many of the sacred libations were actually concoctions of several different powerful herbs. The prominence of one over another for a few hundred years means very little when one keeps in mind that these are all means to the same end.

I think also that, in order to address the deep psychological programming we have undergone concerning “drugs” because of our Judeo-Christian milieu, we need more than arguments about marijuana tax revenues, drug war expenditures, and how cannabis might fight Alzheimer’s. These things are good to hear and talk about, but I think that something deeper and less pragmatic is needed. Weed isn’t here just to lend us a hand with our economy, stimulate our appetite, or provide a somewhat dignified alternative to college alcohol culture. Weed, and all of its psychedelic, entheogenic brethren are an enduring, beloved, and even sacred part of the human experience that have never left our side nor ceased to influence our art, societal structure, and perception of reality. (Do not overlook the contemporaneous occurrence of democratic thought and coffee in Western Europe!)

In truth, I find all of this very comforting, not because I seek validation of my substance use, but because of what it indicates about the roots of human spirituality. I honestly think that these shamans are and were onto something. There are certain fundamental truths (if such a thing exists) that come up in shamanism and other similar spiritual philosophies (damn hippies) such as “love instead of hate”, “unity instead of duality”, and “transcendence in life, not afterlife.” Being the progenitor philosophies of present day religions, one can still vaguely discern these principles in the current religious texts and practices, but they are heaped under mountains of rhetorical rubbish and empty praxis. Once, they were visceral, experientially demonstrable facts learned through the practice of transcending normal reality. If that is the root of human spirituality, I’m down.