What is an Entheogen?

Modern medicine is one of humanity's greatest achievements but are we neglecting substances that provide spiritual healing? Different cultures all over the world have utilised entheogens for this very reason but what are they? Read this article to find out.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

With advancements in the field of alternative medicine, we are slowly but surely seeing progress in the integration of psychedelic substances for therapeutic reasons or 'healing'. In fact, humans have a long history when it comes to psychedelic use and for some cultures, these substances, or entheogens, are deeply engrained into their spiritual and religious practices.

With the stigma around the use of psychedelics steadily dissolving, we are looking to these cultures and their use of certain plants in order to understand the human psyche and develop new treatments. As the Western world has gained knowledge of these practices, many travellers have set off to various parts of the world in search of an 'entheogenic experience'.

But what exactly is an entheogen and what are they used for?

What is an entheogen?

The term entheogen is used to describe a family of psychoactive substances that are used for religious, ritualistic or spiritual reasons. Personal development through spiritual experiences is often the goal of entheogen use. As such, this term is mainly used to differentiate between the use of psychedelic substances for recreational purposes.

The word entheogen is derived from two Ancient Greek words: 'éntheos' and 'genésthai'. In English, the word éntheos translates to 'inspired' or 'possessed' and the word genésthai means 'to come into being'. Hence the term entheogen refers to a substance that can inspire existential thinking and insightful experiences.

There is evidence for this occurring throughout human history, as these substances have often been used for a wide range of practices such as shamanic rituals, meditation, dancing, art and making music.

Traditional entheogens usually have plant origins as these were the materials that were available to ancient humans in abundance. Some of these include well-renowned psychedelics such as psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, ayahuasca, salvia and even cannabis.

With modern advancements in organic chemistry, there now exists a whole range of synthetic substances (some of which are derived from these plants) that can evoke entheogenic experiences such as DMT, LSD and ibogaine.

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Historical & cultural use of psilocybin

We don't exactly know when it was that humans first took psychedelics intentionally. In fact, we may never know. However, what we do know, is that millions of years ago hominins began to consume psilocybin-containing mushrooms. 

This early use of psilocybin laid the foundations for the emergence of shamanism and the deliberate use of psychedelic plants. These plants were often used to enhance sensory experiences or ritualistic activities, such as dancing. 

There are a few reasons why this is such a popular theory of early human entheogen use. Firstly, psilocybin-containing mushrooms can be found growing naturally in every region of the world and these species date back millions of years. This distribution means that many ancient species, including hominins, would've had exposure to these plants no matter where in the world they were.

While that may not be the most convincing argument for early human entheogen use, there is evidence to suggest that humans have a long-term evolutionary relationship with psychotropic plants. Exposure to these plants affected human evolution over time, which could've given us distinct survival advantages over similar species. This is reflected in the enhanced binding of psychedelics with human serotonin pathways when compared to chimpanzees.

On top of this, psilocybin, along with other psychedelics, is heavily associated with shamanism and shamanic rituals. In fact, there are substantial parallels between the basic principles of shamanism and psilocybin-induced experiences. These include an internal sense of spiritual presence, providing information through visions and alternative healing methods, amongst other things.

Shamanic use of entheogens such as psilocybin has great antiquity and has been depicted in things such as language, art, traditions, rock carvings and stone sculptures. Many artefacts have also been discovered in all major regions of the world that attest to the use of psychedelic mushrooms in religious traditions.

Selva Pascuala Cave Painting
A panel of the Selva Pascuala cave painting depicting psilocybin mushrooms

In more recent history, psilocybin mushrooms are also thought to be the plants that introduced the concept of entheogens to the Western world. In the 1950s, two Americans called Gordon Wasson and Allan Richardson travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico to find these magic mushrooms. Here they met a shaman from the Mazatec tribe who introduced them to the mushroom and allowed them to participate in a sacred ritual known as Velada.

Their exploits were published in Time Magazine in 1957. The popularity of this article inspired many like-minded individuals, such as Timothy Leary, to travel to Mexico in search of similar experiences. As a result of the attention brought to their tribe, the Mazatec shaman who originally conducted the ritual was shunned from the tribe and remains a controversial figure in Mexican history.

The Mazatec are just one of many tribes and cultures that have used entheogens such as psilocybin in sacred rituals. These substances have been used throughout history for communication with spirits, personal enlightenment and to engage in extraordinary experiences. Once the Western world caught on to this knowledge, it triggered a psychedelic revolution and a yearning to understand how these substances can impart knowledge and 'open the mind'.

Cannabis as an entheogen

Cannabis is another psychoactive plant that has seen entheogenic use amongst different cultures throughout history. The most prominent evidence of cannabis as an entheogen can be found in the Indian subcontinent during the Vedic period. Written sometime between 2000-1400 BC, the Atharvaveda is a collection of ancient Hindu texts that refers to cannabis as 'one of the five sacred plants' that relieves anxiety. It is also referred to as a 'source of happiness' and 'liberator'.

The plant was consumed at festivals and weddings to honour the deity Shiva, who is thought to be responsible for bringing it from the Himalayas. Some Hindu mystics have also been known to consume cannabis to enhance meditation, which is especially common during festivals such as Diwali. In Tantric Buddhism, cannabis is used in certain rituals to facilitate mediation and increase awareness.

Another region where cannabis saw entheogenic use is in Ancient China. While it is widely accepted that the Chinese were one of the first known cultures to utilise cannabis for its medical and remedial properties, it is also thought that they utilised the plant's psychoactive effects as well. 

Chinese necromancers and shamans, known as 'wu', used cannabis to communicate with spirits and reveal 'future events' according to several ancient Chinese texts. After the rise of Confucianism, the ritualistic use of cannabis in China was suppressed.

Other examples

The use of entheogens for religious practices remains illegal in most countries due to comprehensive bans on psychoactive substances. Although this is the case, there are still a few countries that respect the traditions behind entheogen use as they are ingrained into their culture. Outside of the two entheogens that we have already explored, some other famous examples include:

Ayahuasca

The name ayahuasca describes a concoction that is essentially a hallucinogenic 'tea'. The main plants that constitute this brew are the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and Psychotria viridis shrub although other Amazonian botanicals may be present as well. 

The active compound responsible for the tea's hallucinogenic effects is the powerful psychedelic N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which is found within the shrub. As DMT has low bioavailability, it is combined with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO-I) found within the vine in order to prolong its effects. The ayahuasca brew produces an altered state of consciousness that can include hallucinations, euphoria and out-of-body experiences that can last for many hours.

This brew is traditionally prepared by shamans in Amazonian cultures. It utilised for as a form of transcendental healing through its ability to open minds and heal past traumas. Although this tea has an extensive history of use in this part of the world, many travellers now flock to shaman-lead ayahuasca retreats in Peru, Costa Rica and Brazil where they can take part in the experience.

Peyote

The peyote cactus can be found throughout the regions of Northeastern Mexico and Southern Texas where it has been used sacramentally for at least 2000 years. It contains the infamous psychedelic mescaline, that induces a dream-like state with wild hallucinations. It is typically ingested consumed via direct ingestion or by being brewed into a tea.

In Native American culture, this plant is consumed during a communal ceremony which includes singing and dancing and is guided by a shaman. The aim of these peyote ceremonies is to restore balance between the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms while experiencing personal development. 

While native to Mexico and other South American countries, these peyote ceremonies have made their way to the US, where there is an estimated 250-400k religious peyote practitioners. 

Iboga

The iboga plant is native to the equatorial African nation of Gabon.  The plant is aesthetically and nutritionally unremarkable, however, its bark contains psychedelic properties due to the presence of a chemical now known as ibogaine. Ingestion of this molecule induces an intense dream-like state with vivid closed-eye hallucinations that is likened to a near-death experience. 

Iboga is worshipped by local tribes such as the Babongo, who have created a religion based around the plant called Bwiti. In a Bwiti ceremony, the powdered root bark is consumed in massive amounts over a three day initiation period and then in smaller doses during night ceremony sessions. 

It is utilised for personal growth, community identification and solidarity. Although colonial missionaries attempted to suppress Bwiti, these practices are now implemented in other West African countries where it is regarded as a unifying influence. 

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Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin

Josh is a Perth-based writer with a background in psychology and pharmacology. Through his studies he has gained an interest in abnormal psychology, mental health and psychopharmacology and has reported on these topics. Currently, his main focus is on cannabinoids and their medical potential.

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