brain & mind – where matter meets metaphysics

Book Reviews

Here are some of my book reviews published at Erowid
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Entheogens and the Future of Religion
 by Robert Forte (Ed.)
Publisher: Council on Spiritual Practices
Year: 1997
ISBN: 1-889725-04-8

Entheogens and the Future of Religion was published by The Council of Spiritual Practices, an organization that describes itself as “a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making the direct experience of the sacred more available to more people” (see www.csp.org). It is an excellent book for those interested in the social, political, ethical, spiritual and historical aspects of the religious use of entheogens. Edited by Robert Forte, this collection includes essays, interviews and transcripts of speaking engagements from various authors with differing areas of expertise approaches the topic of the religious use of entheogens.

“Testimony of the Council of Spiritual Practices” is a version of a talk given by Robert Jesse, founder of CSP, at the Committee of Drugs and the Law of the Association of the Bar in New York City. Jesse speaks in defense of the religious liberty to use entheogens as part of a sincere spiritual practice. He explores the legal issues and ramifications involved in legally treating entheogens and their religious use very differently than the recreational use (and abuse) of hard drugs. Jesse offers reasonable alternatives to total prohibition, and discusses what might entail legal accommodation of safe, sincere employment of entheogens as part of a religious practice.

“Explorations Into God” is a talk by the Benedictine monk and author Brother David Steindl-Rast, who received permission from the Vatican in 1967 to start a formal Christian-Buddhist dialogue with Zen teachers. Speaking at the Esalen Institute in 1984, Steindl-Rast barely mentions entheogens directly. But by refraining from making any distinction between particular spiritual practices, he validates the sincere use of entheogens in a spiritual life. For Steindl-Rast, a continuously vital religious spirit is important, rather than fixed religious dogmas. He points out that, used with honesty and the right intention, entheogens can be used to enrich a religious life, but this is ultimately beside his point. Steindl-Rast’s essay is perhaps the most joyous and sincere chapter in this book.

Dale Pendell is a software engineer, long-time student of ethnobotany and an important poet and author in entheogenic culture. In “Das Mutterkorn: The Making of DeLysid”, Pendell waxes poetic about a variety of key moments in psychoactive history: Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries, and R. Gordon Wasson’s rediscovery of the use of sacred mushrooms in the mountains of Mexico. In addition, Pendell includes what seems to be fragments of a technical process of manufacturing lysergic acid. Pendell swiftly jumps from one topic to another and back again, cross-weaving a thread to make a tapestry, deftly using poetic license to combine chemistry, history, and religion.

In “The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries for Today’s World,” Dr. Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented LSD, explores the most famous mystery tradition of the ancient world. For nearly a thousand years, seekers accepted at the temple in Eleusis were led through a sort of dramatic guided tour through the death and rebirth myth of Persephone. History tells us that, although the details of these rites were kept secret, whatever took place profoundly changed those who went through it. Many of the most influential figures of the classical Mediterranean world found themselves transformed by their experiences, which may have turn led to ideas that went on to change Western civilization. History also tells us that a sacred drink called kykeon was served during the rites. This brew raises the central question in this chapter. “Could the visions of Eleusis have been produced solely by unknown rites,” Hofmann asks, “or was the kykeon a psychopharmakon, a plant extract capable of inducing an ecstatic state?”

Broadening his topic, Hofmann voices the central issue of Entheogens and the Future of Religion when he asks “whether it is ethically and religiously defensible to use consciousness-altering drugs under specific circumstances to gain new insights into the spiritual world.” Hofmann goes on to argue that the use of kykeon in the context of the Eleusinian rites, as well as the ritual use of the LSD-like ololiuqui by certain indigenous peoples of Mexico, can serve as models for the beneficial use of entheogens in a religious context today. “Eleusis can be a model for today,” Hofmann writes. “Eleusis-like centers could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which have the same goal: the goal of creating, by transforming consciousness in individual people, the conditions for a better world, a world without war and without environmental damage, a world of happy people.”

That is some fine writing for a chemist! One more important passage cannot go unquoted. “In conclusion,” Hofmann says, “I wish once more to raise the fundamental question: why were such drugs probably used in Eleusis, and why are they still used by certain Indian tribes even today in the course of religious ceremonies? And why is such use scarcely conceivable in the Christian liturgy, as though it were not significant? The answer is that Christian liturgy worships a godly power enthroned in heaven, that is a power outside of the individual. At Eleusis, on the contrary, an alteration in the inmost being of the individual was striven for, a visionary experience of the ground of being…”

In another case of chemists producing eloquent writing, Ann Shulgin and Alexander Shulgin, the authors of the classic books PIHKAL and TIHKAL, take on the topic of “A New Vocabulary.” In this abridged version of a chapter in TIHKAL, the couple explore the idea that the various experiences made available by psychoactive substances can be seen as a vocabulary of human experience and human potential–a vocabulary which can bring to light unexamined subconscious drives that affect our lives from the level of the individual to the level of world politics. “What we are doing is looking,” the Shulgins say, “as have countless others before us, for a way to communicate the experiences of the deeper parts of ourselves, a way to share knowledge which has traditionally been called ‘occult,’ or ‘hidden,’ and which has been, until our time, considered the private preserve of those few shamans, teachers, or spiritual guides in each culture who had earned their way to it.” In our world of increasingly destructive weaponry and increasingly invasive technologies of control, the Shulgins argue that it is imperative that our leaders gain the more enlightened perspectives afforded by psychoactives and act accordingly.

Terence McKenna suggests a similar idea in “Psychedelic Society,” based on a talk McKenna gave at the ARUPA meeting at the Esalen Institute in 1984. “When I think of psychedelic society that notion implies creating a society which lives in light of the Mystery of Being.” Rather than directly address the topic of the use of entheogens in a religious context, McKenna focuses on the direct experience of the great mystery of life, without dogma or premature reductive interpretations. He goes on to present his vision of such a society, including his “archaic revival” scenarios in which high technology is used not to alienate us but to serve the unfolding of human potential in self-directed evolution in the light of the Mystery. McKenna concludes his talk by saying that because our society has long ago abandoned the use of psychedelic plants (McKenna does not prefer the word entheogen), we have gone very far down the road of dysfunction and destruction as a result. He argues that it is imperative that we integrate psychedelics back into society if we are to save ourselves from ourselves.

R. Gordon Wasson played a very important role in the history of the rediscovery of entheogens (a word he much preferred over the word psychedelic). Wasson was a banker and vice president of J.P. Morgan Trust before becoming interested in entheogens and writing some of the finest books ever made on the subject. Although not the first modern westerner to rediscover psilocybian mushrooms and their use by the indigenous people of Mexico, Wasson was responsible for bringing this story to the attention of the public through the 1957 LIFE magazine account of his travels to Mexico in search of the elusive teonanacatl. In the interview included here, conducted by Robert Forte in 1985, Wasson discusses his role in the rediscovery of entheogens for the western world. This chapter may be somewhat tedious to readers not already familiar with Wasson’s work and who do not hunger for the further details.

In his essay “Sacred Mushroom Pentecost,” Thomas J. Riedlinger makes a comparison between the Christian Pentecostal movement and the sacred mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatecs curanderos and curanderas of Mexico – the same people whom Wasson encountered. According to Riedlinger, both of these practices favor an ever-revitalized experience of the divine over dogma and doctrine. In both practices, the intent is to allow the divine to move through the worshipper, stirring their hearts and tongues, even speaking through them. Both traditions also share an element that can be called “divine wind” or the “breath of god,” a force that refreshes the soul. As with David Steindl-Rast’s chapter, Riedlinger implies that, whether or not entheogens are used, the important thing is the vitality and sincerity of a religious practice.

In “Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice: A Buddhist Perspective,” Forte also interviews Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher and author who trained in monasteries in India, Burma and Thailand and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society. As with his interview with Wasson, Forte displays deep knowledge and insight in his questions. Unfortunately, there is scant mention of entheogens in official Buddhist doctrine. So Kornfield elaborates with his own thoughts, and though he seems a bit prudish in his attitude toward entheogens, he does present a very reasonable stance, reminding us of the Buddhist precept that invites us to “refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness.” Most sincere entheogen users would probably agree: the point is to increase awareness, not to escape from reality, but to open up to a much deeper, wider reality. In this sense, there is no conflict between Buddhism and the use of entheogens with the right intent and practice. “It does not say not to use them and it is very explicit.” Kornfield says. Ultimately, “it is left up to the individual, as are all the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.”

In “Academic and Religious Freedom in the Study of the Mind,” the educational psychologist Thomas B. Roberts describes some of the “ideas, experiences, groups and values” that are the victims of current drug law policies. These include cognitive sciences, multi-state psychology, religion, mystical experiences, and personal freedom. Because drug law decisions affect constituencies from these areas, these groups should have a right to offer significant input into the reformation of these policies. Instead, most of the commentary on current drug policies comes form a narrow range of selected professional constituencies, including the legal, political, and medical communities. But these issues are also the responsibility of the academic, religious, and cognitive science communities. “We like to think that American liberty guarantees the right of the people to select their own ideas and ways of thinking; if we are to enjoy this freedom, then psychedelic-based ideas and psychedelic-supported cognitive skills need to be included too.” Indeed.

Proving Roberts’ point, Dr. Rick Strassman offers up the chapter “Biomedical Research With Psychedelics: Current Models and Future Prospects.” Dr. Strassman made history in the field of psychedelic research when, in the 1990s, he became the first person to gain federal approval to perform research with illegal hallucinogens in over two decades. In Strassman’s case, DMT was used in a study at the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry, later described in his book DMT: the Spirit Molecule. In this chapter, Strassman discusses the history of scientific research with entheogens, the issues and legal difficulties involved, as well as the mystical, ontological and religious implications of such research.

Eric E. Sterling is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, served as council to the U.S. House of Representatives, and played an important role in the passage of the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In “Law Enforcement Against Entheogens: Is It Religious Persecution?” Sterling focuses on the effect of drug laws and law enforcement on religious freedom. Important court cases are discussed, as is the lack of discrimination in law enforcement between entheogens and street drugs. “For law enforcement officers engaged in the protection of youth from the harmful effects of ‘drugs,’ it may be very difficult, given their training, to distinguish what appears to be harmful use of street drugs from the responsible use of entheogens in spiritual practices. But it is fundamentally the mission of the law to draw distinctions.”

Following this rich collection of essays and interviews, CSP offers their brief “Statement of Purpose,” a “Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides,” and a section that gives helpful contextual information about each contributor. It should be mentioned that this book is not a “how-to” for the religious use of entheogens, so readers who want ideas about how to incorporate entheogens into spiritual practice will not find much here at all. In addition, this book is not a work of legal instruction. If you want to ascertain whether any given use of an entheogen would be found constitutionally protected in a court of law as a religious practice, Entheogens and the Future of Religions will not help. But for the sorts of readers who appreciated Persephone’s Quest, Cleansing the Doors of Perception and similar books, this CSP volume will satisfy.

Roll Away the Stone: An Introduction to Aleister Crowley’s Essays on the Psychology of Hashish
by Israel Regardie
Publisher: Newcastle
Year: 1994
ISBN: 0878771948

The main body of this book is a series of articles called The Herb Dangerous which originally appeared in the highly acclaimed biannual review The Equinox in four installments from 1909 to1910. The Equinox was subtitled The Review of Scientific Illuminism and its motto – “the method of science, the aim of religion” – sums up its central concern. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley funded and edited The Equinox and wrote many of the works published therein. The Herb Dangerous series is comprised of four distinct works by four different authors. They are collected here under one cover, along with a 65-page introduction by Israel Regardie, who was one of Crowley’s best students and widely considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important occult authors.

The introduction is an excellent read in its own right. It attempts to familiarize the reader with Crowley’s life work insofar as it pertains to his essay “The Psychology of Hashish” (the centerpiece of this book) so that the reader may appreciate both its content and its historical context. Regardie also gives an interesting occult perspective on the subject of psychedelics and mysticism that is not commonly encountered. Speaking of the 1960s, Regardie says that “recent years have evolved a roster of new and eloquent voices to corroborate and confirm many of Crowley’s once outrageous views relative to psychedelic agents: Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – to name but a few… are directing attention to the dramatic fact that there is now a chemical door which gives promise to open to higher and mystical states of consciousness. This is what Crowley, amongst other things, had been trying to state more than a half a century ago.”

With regard to the possible use of hashish and stronger psychedelics in a mystical practice, Regardie’s opinion is essentially the same as Crowley’s: that a sincere aspirant towards enlightenment, who is well grounded, well trained, psychologically balanced and stable, careful, methodical and resolute, may under certain circumstances gain benefit from the use of certain psychoactive substances. Both men found that hashish and similar substances may give the aspirant something of a preview to states of mind that can be achieved if he or she persists in a spiritual discipline. Neither wrote that psychoactive substances could or should be used as a substitute for disciplined mystical practice.

Crowley wrote mainly about hashish but Regardie discusses the use of substances that were discovered after Crowley had died, especially LSD. The principle, however, is the same. Understandably, Regardie takes pains to assert repeatedly that he recommends against the use of psychedelics by all but the most disciplined of students. “Furthermore,” he writes, “and this is far and away the most important consideration here, Crowley was an experimental mystic of the highest magnitude. He had practiced yoga and magical techniques assiduously for many years until he had achieved a thorough-going mastery over both Eastern and Western methods. All of these rare skills were brought to bear on his experimentation with a variety of drugs.”

Regardie quotes extensively from Crowley, Leary, Watts and others in order to make his point, and he makes it quite well. With a perspective not available to Crowley, who was writing over a half-century earlier, Regardie addresses the criticism that altering perception with drugs makes perception invalid. Regardie quotes from Alan Watts who, in the 1950s wrote, “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these… drugs. If they are an affront of the dignity of the mind, then the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and a telephone to the dignity of the ear…”.

Then again, this is but a reiteration of the brilliant analogy Crowley made in the first place. In his Psychology of Hashish he writes, “My dear professor, how can you expect me to believe this nonsense about bacteria? Come, saith he, to the microscope; and behold them… Is it fair observation to use lenses, which admittedly refract light and distort vision? How do I know those specks are not dust?…suppose he retorts, ‘You have deliberately trained yourself to hallucination!’ What answer have I? None that I know of save that microscopy has revolutionized surgery…Then my friend the physiologist remarks: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with drugs and a special mental training, your results will be invalid.’ And I reply: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with lenses and a special training, your results will be invalid.’…So there we are.”

The first part of The Herb Dangerous is “A Pharmaceutical Study of Cannabis Sativa (Being a Collection of Facts as Known at the Present Date)” by E. Whineray M.P.S. It is almost a century out of date but some readers may find it of historical interest. This text is followed with Crowley’s key text, “The Psychology of Hashish.” As stated, this largely concerns the relationship between mystical states achieved with psychoactive substances and mystical states achieved without them. Crowley’s essay is particularly relevant now that we are at a point in history where the scientific community has recently overcome the witch-hunt mentality and intimidation that began in the 1960s as a backlash against Leary and the acid counter-culture and that had effectively stopped all research into the area. In the 1960s certain experiments suggested that psychedelics could give one a genuine mystical experience. Huston Smith, considered to be one of – if not the – foremost authority on comparative religion has demonstrated that there is essentially no difference between mystical states achieved through entheogens (psychedelics) and mystical states achieved through meditation or other practices. Newer research into this area seems to be growing. In 2006, a study at Johns Hopkins indicated that psilocybin can not only give one a spiritual experience but that it can also have long-lasting positive effects upon one’s life. This new research merely validates – albeit with more scientific rigor – the Good Friday Experiment conducted way back in 1962. It has taken 44 years for science to pick up where this experiment left off. But almost a century ago, Crowley wrote that, “I can find no essential difference between the experiences induced, under favorable conditions, by these chemicals and the states of ‘cosmic consciousness’ recorded by R. M. Bucke, William James, Evelyn Underhill, Raynor Johnson and other investigators of mysticism…”

It is for this reason that I feel that a full study of the relationship between psychoactives and mystical discipline should start with – or at least include – Crowley’s “The Psychology of Hashish.” Crowley writes that, with the judicious application of hashish, “I could persuade other people that mysticism was not all folly without insisting on their devoting a lifetime to studying under me; and if only I could convince a few competent observers – in such a matter I distrust even myself – Science would be bound to follow and to investigate, clear up the matter once and for all, and, as I believed, and believe, armed with a new weapon ten thousand times more potent than the balance and the microscope.”

In his essay, Crowley not only claims that hashish may be helpful to some students at the beginning of their mystical training, but also during certain dry spells they may encounter later on. After considerable progress there often comes a period where things seem to slow to a halt. The feeling of enthusiasm dissipates. One feels that the entire thing is pointless and falls into a depressed state. At this point most people give up. Crowley knew that this is the crucial point of darkness before the dawn. In such a case, he found, some people can benefit from a judicious dose of hashish. Due to their hard-earned discipline and training, their experience with hashish would almost certainly be a profoundly mystical one. The aspirant is assured that there is indeed incredible potential in their quest. The hashish experience breathes new life into the fire, and the aspirant is impassioned to press on.

Overall Crowley makes an argument and a plea for science to look into the psychology of meditative states and the methodical cultivation of mystical states through a variety of approaches, including the use of hashish. It would take half a century before such research was conducted at Harvard. This research of course resulted in mass hysteria, and it would be another half century before scientists were able to revisit the study.

Now, then, for some criticism. Whereas Regardie’s section is quite clear, Crowley’s section may try the patience of today’s readers. Like much that was written at that time, Crowley’s essay seems to wander whilst encumbered by fanciful language. If Regardie is straight-forward than Crowley spirals about, though with intention. Both writers make the same points and arrive at the same destination. It is just that Crowley dances to and fro and twirls along the way. He also makes use of a lot of tongue-in-cheek wit that may be missed by some readers.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in Crowley’s essay is the use of many terms of eastern mysticism. Words like samadhi, nibbana, and vedana are used with little or no explanation. Unfortunately, Regardie’s introduction is not sufficient to clarify Crowley’s essay in this regard. Therefore, I would highly recommend that one read the section on meditation in Crowley’s Book 4 as it is the most concise, complete and straight forward treatise on meditation I have yet encountered and would certainly provide the necessary background knowledge for the terms used in “The Psychology of Hashish.”

The third part of The Herb Dangerous is Charles Baudelaire’s “Poem of Hashish,” translated from the French by Crowley. This is not a poem at all but rather a treatise on the effects of hashish. This work is historically important, as it is one of the earliest pieces of non-medical literature on cannabis intoxication by an important writer. However, in my opinion, it is not very well written. To his credit, Baudelaire stresses the importance of set and setting and makes some interesting observations about the interpersonal relations between people who are on hashish and the relations between those on hashish and those who are not. Here it seems Baudelaire is drawing upon his sober observations of his associates in the seminal Hashish Club of Paris in the mid-1800s.

Overall I found the essay to be excruciatingly boring and largely incomprehensible due to its pretentiously superfluous style. I also found it to be bigoted towards women and the working class; women, according to Baudelaire, are unable to truly analyze their minds and the working class are unable to think beyond their mud, cattle, shovels and whatnot. Most tiresome of all is the fact that Baudelaire is ultimately against pleasure. To sum up his position, hashish can allow one to experience heavenly states of mind with ease and without years of toil and struggle; therefore it must be bad. I concede that there is some merit to his assertion that hashish compromises one’s will. But there seems to be no rational basis to his aversion to pleasure. It is interesting that Crowley included this treatise in The Herb Dangerous because – unlike Baudelaire – Crowley had consciously overcome the irrational aversion to pleasure and would certainly disagree with Baudelaire’s verdict.

The fourth part of The Herb Dangerous is “A Few Extracts from H. G. [sic] Ludlow, The Hashish [sic] Eater which bear upon the peculiar characteristics of the drug’s action”. This work may be somewhat archaic in style to the modern reader. It is certainly flowery and romantic. The excerpts are descriptive of the effects of hashish as Ludlow experienced them. Speaking for myself, it seems that (F. H.) Ludlow greatly exaggerated his experiences so as to make The Hasheesh Eater more interesting to readers, though I could be wrong. Often it seems like he is describing the effects of heroic doses of strong hallucinogens rather than hashish. Whatever the case I found this section of the book a delight to read though my eyebrow was often raised in bemused suspicion.

Though I found Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater interesting, the really important texts here are Regardie’s introduction and Crowley’s essay. Although I would think that readers interested in historical works of literature concerning psychoactives would enjoy this book, its real value lies in its profound insight into the relationship between the states of mind that the mystically inclined may experience with psychedelics and the states of mind induced through spiritual, occult, meditative and mystical disciplines.

At the beginning of the 21st century the new field of neurotheology – the study of the relationship between the human brain and religious or mystical experiences – is just getting underway. With Crowley’s Psychology of Hashish we see him anticipating this field without technology but with personal experience, careful note-taking, and intelligent reflection.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the relationship between psychoactives and the mystical or religious experience as long as they read, understand and appreciate the aforementioned section on meditation in Crowley’s Book 4. Even then, I recommend it only for Regardie’s and Crowley’s sections. Unfortunately, however, one would really be paying for Regardie’s introduction alone because the remainder of this book is easy enough to find on the net (here). I do not recommend it to readers who are interested in the writings of Baudelaire and Ludlow. One can find other and better books devoted to their writings and, as mentioned, these sections are readily available on the net. Furthermore, in this book one will find only excerpts of Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, whereas the entirety can be found on the net.

POST SCRIPT COMMENT

As a postscript to my own review, I offer the following illuminating perspectives on the basic argument of Crowley’s The Psychology of Hashish from Ram Dass, AKA Richard Alpert which I think Israel Regardie would agree with.

In Be Here Now (Lama Foundation, 1971) Ram Dass tells of how in India, soon after arriving at his soon-to-be guru’s ashram he thought to himself that he should give the guru a small dose of LSD because, he reasoned, the man could explain what LSD was from a spiritual perspective. The next morning, the guru – through a translator – asked Ram Dass to ask his question. Ram Dass did not understand and so finally the guru simply asked for the LSD. Ram Dass tried to give him a single dose but the guru kept asking for more until he ingested 915 micrograms of specially prepared “very pure” White Lightning LSD;
“All day long I’m there, and every now and then he twinkles at me and nothing – nothing happens! That was his answer to my question. Now you have the data I have.”

Then in The Only Dance There Is [Anchor 1974] Ram Dass writes further about his guru Maharaji and his experience and thoughts on LSD;
“Then later when questioned about LSD by some of the young Westerners that were with him, he said, ‘If you’re in a cool place and you’re quiet and you’re feeling much peace and your mind is turned toward God, it’s useful.’ He said that it will allow you to come in and have a visit – the darshan – of a saint, of a higher being of a higher space – higher consciousness is how you can translate it. But he says you can’t stay there – after a couple of hours you gotta come back. He said, you know, it would much better to become a saint, rather to go and have this visit; but having this visit is nice. He said it strengthens your faith in the possibility that such things exist.”

Finally, in Grist for the Mill (Unity Press, 1977) Ram Dass offers us further insight;

“In 1970, when I was in India athe next time, he said, ‘Ram Dass, did you give me some medicine the last time you were in India?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Did I take it, he said with a little twinkle in his eye. I said, ‘Well, I think so.’ He said, ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, Maharaj-ji.’ and he said, ‘Do you have any more of that?’ So I brought out what I had left and he took twelve hundred micrograms this time. He took each tablet and struck it in his mouth and made sure that I saw, and he munched them up. Then he said, ‘Can I have water?’ I said ‘Yes, ‘ and he asked ‘Will the medicine make me insane?’ So I said, ‘Probably.’ So he said, ‘How long will it take?’ I said, ‘An hour at the most.’ So he got an old man up with a watch and he was holding it and looking at it. And he drank a lot of water and about half way through, he started looking really weird, he even went under his blanket, and he came up looking totally insane. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘what have I done to this sweet old man? He probably threw it over his shoulder last time, and he wanted to show what a big man he was.’ At the end of an hour, he looked at me and he said, ‘You got anything stronger?’ Because nothing had happened, obviously. Then he said, ‘These were in the kulu valley long ago, but most yogis had forgotten them.’ On later questioning, he said, ‘Well it could useful, in a cool place, where you are feeling much peace, and your mind is much turned toward God, and when you’re alone.’ He said that it would allow you to come in and pranam or bow to Christ, but you could only stay for two hours, and then you would have to leave again. He said, ‘You know, it would have to leave again. He said, ‘You know, it would be much better to become Christ than to just visit him. But your medicine won’t do that, because it’s a false samadhi’ – which was exactly what Meher Baba said to me. ‘Though,’ he said, ‘it’s useful to visit a saint; it strengthens your faith.’ Then he added, ‘But love is a stronger medicine.’…

…In order to be open to this merging, many of you that have smoked dope or taken acid, or had other vehicles for overriding your programs, know that you can set aside your programs, know that you can set aside your program for a moment and enter into the higher channels, but after a while, you come down as a result get very frustrated. And what brings you down is your attachment to the models or molds or programs about who you think you are, and how you think the world is – these habits of mind.

Many of us are getting to the point in our spiritual journey where we are no longer trying to get high, for we know how to do that, we are trying to be. And being includes everything. We now recognize that if there is anything at all that can bring us down – anything – our house is built upon sand, and there is fear. And where there is fear, you aren’t free. Thus you have become motivated to confront the places in yourself that you bring you down; not only to confront them, but to create situations in which to bring them forth. That’s quite a flip-around from a mentality that says, ‘I just want to get high.’ That’s the mentality that says, ‘I just want to get done; I want to be liberated in this very birth. I’ve seen how it could be; I’m tired of just seeing previews of coming attractions; I want to become the main feature.’

The theme is the same with Crowley, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and others; psychedelics under optimal conditions can give one a preview of mental states that are achievable through spiritual and mystical practice.

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA & the Origins of Knowledge
 by Jeremy Narby
Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
Year: 1998
ISBN: 0-87477-911-1

The Cosmic Serpent is doubly themed. One theme is that of the symbol of the creator serpent (or twin serpents) as the source of knowledge and of all life itself. The other theme is that of DNA which in our modern western world-view is the source of all life and all organic information. These two threads are wound about in a spiraling narrative like the double helix of the DNA molecule or the twin serpents found in the timeless myths of cultures the world over.

The myths involving the serpent or twin serpents as the source of life and knowledge emerge from the ancient past with their tails hidden in the mists of prehistory. At the head of modern knowledge we have molecular biology and genetics; the study of that most serpentine of molecules – DNA. Like the Ouroboros, the cosmic snake of time and eternity that encircles the world swallowing its tail in a symbol of both unity and infinity, this book is an attempt to merge this cutting edge of scientific knowledge with the ancient source of wisdom steeped deeply in the shadows of our past.

The author, Jeremy Narby, holds a PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. In 1985 he began his fieldwork of two years in the Peruvian Amazon to earn his doctorate in anthropology. He wanted to show the Western world that the indigenous people of the Amazon basin knew best how to use their own land because international “development” agencies typically assert that indigenous people do not know how to use their own land “rationally” and use this rationalization to justify the “confiscation” (theft) of these people’s lands to use and exploit for their own greed and in the process destroy crucial ecosystems forever. Narby’s agenda was to establish protection of the territories of these Amazonian people by demonstrating that only they know how to best use their own land because they had intimate, sophisticated and pragmatic knowledge of their land. To appeal to Western civilization for support of his efforts, Narby had to emphasize the practical nature of these people’s knowledge of their land.

However, it was inevitable that in the course of his study with these people Narby would come up against the enigma of ayahuasca, the plant-based entheogenic brew par excellence of the Western Amazon rain forest. Commonly, the various ayahuasca using people of the Amazon tell us that they gain their knowledge of the many properties and uses of their local plants by consulting ayahuasca. In the visionary state induced by this brew, they are told many practical things; which plants to combine and use as a tranquilizer in which to dip their hunting darts, which plants to use to cure a given disease and how to use them, what plant to use to treat poisonous snake bites and so on. Narby felt that he had to avoid mentioning the fundamentally irrational origins of these people’s pragmatic knowledge because it would undermine his basic assertion that these people were perfectly rational and practical people.

As Narby points out, these people are very practical. But from our modern materialist perspectives, the source of their pharmacological knowledge is not at all rational because this knowledge is derived from what we would call hallucinations.

The modern Western view would deny that hallucinations could provide reliable and practical information, but if the knowledge these people gain from ayahuasca is merely delusional then how is it that this knowledge is so practical? Why does it work? If pharmaceutical companies make millions from the pharmacological knowledge gained from these people can we really dismiss their botanical knowledge as irrational or superstitious? Yet lawmakers in Europe and the United States assure us that ayahuasca is a dangerous drug with no medical or spiritual value.

While conducting his fieldwork, Narby stayed with the Ashaninca and Quirishari people of the Peruvian Amazon. When he questioned them about how they learned all they knew about their local plants they would tell him that they learned what they knew from ayahuasca. Of course, Narby could not believe that a hallucinogen could impart real knowledge.

In the book Narby says, “After about a year in Quirishari, I had come to see that my hosts’ practical sense was much more reliable in their environment than my academically informed understanding of reality. Their empirical knowledge was undeniable. However, their explanations concerning the origins of their knowledge was unbelievable to me.”

One day while inquiring about these matters he was told that if he wanted to know the true answers to his questions he would simply have to take ayahuasca with them and see for himself. Narby accepted this offer and had a life changing experience. After drinking ayahuasca, Narby had a profound life changing experience. His view on himself and reality shifted from an intellectually superior know-it-all to a mere human being that has no real understanding of reality at all. In his experience, these thoughts were telepathically imparted to him by two giant snakes. There was more to his ayahuasca experience, but these are the elements that had the important impact on him.

In 1986 Narby returned to civilization to write his dissertation and two years later he became a doctor of anthropology. Following this he traveled around the Amazon working with indigenous organizations to earn them official governmental recognition of their territories. To these ends he also did fund-raising work in Europe. To appeal to benefactors Narby emphasized the practical knowledge of these Amazonian people, deliberately omitting the enigma of ayahuasca.

After some years of this kind of work, Narby set back to reflect upon and write about the mystery of ayahuasca. Much of this book is the story of how we came to write the book; a sort of boot-strapping process. Months of research and note-taking led Narby to many different topics including shamanism, ethnopharmacology, serpent myths, DNA, quantum physics and more.

As anyone who studies mythology, mysticism and occult traditions knows, the symbol of the serpent of the twin serpents as the creator of life is astoundingly ever-present as is what has been called the axis mundi or axis of the world. This latter concept has been symbolized as the world tree, the pillar of the worlds, the ladder connecting the earth to the upper and lower realms and so on. Often we see this central axis of the macrocosm mirrored in the central axis of the microcosm of the self in the form of the twin serpents. Consider the kundalini snakes that spiral up the spine in eastern mysticism or the spiraling snakes of the ancient Greek caduceus that is still used as the symbol of the medical profession. These symbols are found in ancient Egypt, in Sumerian and Babylonian frescos, among Siberian shamans who have never seen real snakes in their lives; consider Quetzalcoatl, the serpent-god of the Aztecs, the rainbow serpent and creator god of Australian aborigines, the Midgard serpent of Nordic myths wound about the world tree, the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge in the Judeo-Christian mythology and so on.

Through chance, synchronicity or some other cause Narby encountered many uncanny connections between this symbol complex and DNA without really knowing what it all meant. Here is the main thrust of Narby’s book, fueled by his own powerful experience with the two serpents he encountered in his ayahuasca experience years earlier.

Narby developed the hypothesis that somehow, through what Eliade called “archaic techniques of ecstasy” shamans receive information from DNA in the form of visions. Indeed, it is almost a universal truism that shamans gain their unique view on things by traveling up and down the axis mundi of the macrocosm or the microcosmic axis of the self.

Through his studies, Narby became engrossed in the molecular biology of DNA and he gives us many correlations between DNA and the shamanic world view. Close minded readers may find these to be mere circumstantial coincidences and gullible readers may find these to be proof that Narby’s hypothesis is correct. These correlations are truly astounding but far from conclusive. Narby does not pretend to have final answers but he definitely forces the reader to take these questions seriously as correlation after correlation pile up. These correlations or coincidences seemingly never end but Narby actually misses a few; that the ancient Chinese system of divination known as the I Ching there are 64 different symbols to cover the totality of possible phenomena in the universe and that there are 64 different codons or strands in DNA, or that DNA is made from 22 different amino acids and that in the ancient Greco-Egyptian system of the Tarot there are 22 cards in the major arcane sequence to cover the totality of possible phenomena in the universe but I digress or that the final card in this series uses the serpent as a symbol of the macrocosm of the world and eternity.

As many a student of the occult, mysticism and mythology has found, once you start unraveling these uncanny correlations and connections, it just gets deeper and deeper and that the more one looks for answers, the more questions arise without answers. There seems to be no end to this sort of inquiry. Indeed, as exhaustive as Narby seems to be in the exploration of his hypothesis, his book really only scratches the surface of the seemingly endless mystery we encounter in the shamanic realms.

The following passages sum up Narby’s hypothesis and position:

I began my investigation with the enigma of “plant communication.” I went on to accept the idea that hallucinations could be the source of verifiable information. And I ended up with a hypothesis suggesting that a human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness with the global network of DNA-based life. All this contradicts principles of Western knowledge.

Nevertheless, my hypothesis is testable. A test would consist of seeing whether institutionally respected biologists could find biomolecular information in the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros… My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms. Modern biology, however, is founded on the notion that nature is not animated by an intelligence and therefore cannot communicate. (page 132)

To sum up: My hypothesis is based on the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded. (page 145)

Along the way, we are given a dizzying dose of the mysterious nature of molecular biology. It is easy for the non-biologist to assume that this science is all tedious details of well-understood mechanisms but as Narby shows us, this science is just now tapping into the truly miraculous, bizarre and still fundamentally puzzling inner workings of the core of life.

It can not go unmentioned here that René Descartes became the “founder of modern philosophy” and the “father of modern mathematics” (as he is generally considered) after being inspired by a dream revelation in which an angel came to him and told him that “the conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number” and that this angelic revelation is the basis for the modern scientific method. Also, we should note that Kekulé discovered the benzene ring after dreaming about the Ouroboric serpent in the shape of a circle, swallowing its own tail. The idea that dreams could be a verifiable source of important scientific knowledge seems contradictory to science itself, yet many scientists have gained important knowledge this way. Here’s an even more startling example that brings us closer to the dual theme of Narby’s book; towards the end of his life, Francis Crick, the nobel-prize winning father of modern genetics confided a secret he kept for almost 50 years – that he hit upon the double helix structure of DNA while on LSD (see reference below). With this example of scientific knowledge derived from a hallucinogen, we see the snake swallowing its tail.

The Cosmic Serpent is similar to Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations to the extent that both books give us accounts of Amazon excursions and experiences with plant hallucinogens imparting visions and ideas fecund with profound hypotheses involving the molecular biology of DNA. The Cosmic Serpent is similar to The Invisible Landscape by Terence and Dennis McKenna in that both of these books extrapolate upon such hypotheses in dizzying detail.

It should be noted that The Cosmic Serpent contains little in the way of descriptions of the ayahuasca experience. Readers looking for good trip stories would do better to look elsewhere.

This book is by no means light reading. Though not nearly as dense with complex details and wild extrapolations as the McKenna brother’s The Invisible Landscape, The Cosmic Serpent may contain far too detailed a discussion of molecular biology for many readers, though one certainly does not need a background in biology to understand Narby’s book, only an appreciation for the fascinating mysteries this science is just scratching the surface of.

Also, this book contains many long footnotes that some readers may find distracting or tedious while others may appreciate these details. Personally I found these details interesting but distracting. Many pages had multiple footnotes and sometimes the footnotes for a given page were longer than the page itself.

Overall, however, it is my opinion that this is a fascinating book. It brings up correlations or coincidences, raises questions and suggests ramifications that are too profound and challenging to go unexamined. The intelligent, discerning, but open-minded reader with a passion for the deepest mysteries of life and with an interest in both shamanism and science would be likely to find this book to be both important and amazing.

It is perhaps fitting to close this review with a quote from the book, “All things considered, wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things, but contemplation of the mystery.”

References:
Rees A. “Nobel Prize genius Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life” August 8, 2004 Associated Newspapers Ltd. (London)

The Age of Entheogens & The Angels’ Dictionary
 by Jonathan Ott
Publisher: Natural Products Co.
Year: 1995
ISBN: 0-9614234-7-1

As indicated by the title, what we have here is really two books under one cover. Together they add up to a mere160 pages but as with all of Ott’s books that I have read, it is densely packed with knowledge. The Age of Entheogens is a call to draw us out of the Dark Ages in which we live into a brighter future where people can reconnect with the spirit through the immediate experience of the sacred through the ingestion of entheogens (sacred plants, hallucinogens, psychedelics or what have you). Ott argues that this is what our distant ancestors did before the world tree of knowledge and life was cut down to build the church of artifice, dominion and repression of the sacred.

The basic message is essentially the same as Terence McKenna’s concept the “Archaic Revival.” In the book The Archaic Revival, and in countless lectures, McKenna suggested that in the distant past humanity lived in harmony with Nature, connected with the sacred through the shamanic use of vision plants, and that history has been the story of the repression of these practices and thus the symbolic banishment from Eden. McKenna argued that religion, as an institution, is the flaming sword that bars us from reconnecting with the sacred and that as a society we would do well to reconvene with nature through the use of these sacred plants. In this sense, McKenna’s Archaic Revival accords with the “Entheogenic Reformation” that Ott describes.

But Ott and McKenna present this message is significantly different yet complementary ways. McKenna’s presentation is better suited to wider audiences, and serves as an introduction to this important idea. Ott’s approach, on the other hand, is much more suited for scholarly readers. This includes people who require academic-style citations and references to established and foundational works, and people who have gotten McKenna’s message and want to delve into the sober knowledge that supports it. Whereas skeptics may understandably dismiss McKenna’s Archaic Revival as lacking in supporting evidence, Ott’s Age of Entheogens would likely convince them that the basic idea is at least very plausible and possibly very important. On the other hand, the more general reader interested in entheogens may find Ott’s Age of Entheogens too difficult, too bogged down by notes and details. Personally I find The Archaic Revival and The Age of Entheogens to be complimentary accounts.

The Age of Entheogens opens with Ott’s “Exordium,” a tour de force. Here, in something like a manifesto, Ott shatters the hypocrisy of organized religions, characterized as non-experiential and non-vital, as well as the so-called “war on drugs”. In their place, Ott triumphantly wins back the high ground for that real “old time religion”: the original, organic practice of direct experience of the spirit through entheogens.

In recent history, most orthodox anthropologists have held that, although what is called shamanism is the universal root of all religions, the use of psychoactive plants is a “decadent” form of shamanism compared to those forms that rely on what are classified as ordeals to alter consciousness (i.e. fasting, isolation, prolonged pain, marathon drumming, etc.). But, as Ott points out in his first chapter, Wasson and other scholars have argued that quite the opposite is the case: entheogen-based shamanism is actually the original shamanism, and it is only when no entheogens are available that shamans turn to other, less effective techniques.

In the next chapter, “The Pharmacratic Inquisition”, Ott argues convincingly that the rise of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire meant the downfall of Western civilization. All effort was made to eradicate science, independent thought and any practice involving entheogens and the knowledge thereof. Central to this plunge into ignorance was the deliberate substitution of the age-old entheogenic sacrament provided to seekers in the Eleusinian mystery rites – a sacrament that produced an undeniably profound experience – with the Christian Eucharist, which provided no direct experience but which required faith in order to have any meaning at all. As Ott puts it, “the forced imposition of Christianity as state religion in the reign of Constantine, far from being a progressive change, as Christians would have us think, plunged Europe into a millennium of atavism and book burning, of barbarous destruction and desecration of classical art and literature, in which the torch of science and learning, lit in such a promising fashion by the Greek philosophers, was all but extinguished, and during which the hard-won pharmacognistical and other scientific knowledge of the ancients was forgotten, if not lost completely.”

Ott also discusses the centuries of repression and persecution that eradicated any folk knowledge of medicinal and entheogenic plants in Europe. Witch hunts and inquisitions abounded. Grab your torches, Bibles and pitchforks! Onward Christian soldiers! As Ott says, “I suggest that, as far as religion goes, we are still in the Dark Ages, and that the Entheogenic Reformation at last heralds the dawning of the Entheogenic Renaissance, a spiritual Renaissance which hopefully will do for religions what the mediaeval Renaissance did for art and science a half-millennium ago.” This takes us to the next chapter, “The Entheogenic Reformation,” where Ott looks at various entheogen-based forms of spirituality that live on outside of the empire of church and state. Finally, in “Agape: Vac or Logos,” Ott looks forward to a possible future when the Age of Entheogens will dawn. “Christianity and suchlike symbolic, dogmatic religions,” he writes, “will prosper only by forsaking the Pharmacratic Inquisition and embracing the Entheogenic Reformation with open arms.” Indeed.

The second book tucked within this book is descriptively entitled The Angels’ Dictionary: Toward a Vocabulary for Sacred Inebriants, Ecstatic States and Kindred Topics. For anyone who has experienced entheogens or who has studied the traditional use of visionary plants and fungi, such words as “intoxication” and “hallucination” can be dreadfully inadequate. Relying on these terms is rather like trying to describe the colors of the rainbow using only the words “black” and “white.” As R. Gordon Wasson wrote in 1961, a few years after he rediscovered (for the modern Western world) the traditional use of psilocybian mushrooms in Southern Mexico, “What we need is a vocabulary to describe all the modalities of a Divine Inebriant”.

Here we have Ott’s answer to Wasson’s call. The Angels’ Dictionary is a dictionary of terms related to divine inebriants, shamanism, psychonautica and the like. The entheogenic experience of the ineffable is still beyond language, but this dictionary is at least a good start. Indeed, like all of Ott’s books, it is excellent, and deserves a spot on the shelves of all serious students of entheogens, alongside the works of R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl Ruck and other masters in this field.

As this book is out of print, interested readers are urged to acquire a copy before they truly disappear (try http://www.abe.com or other used-book services online). Despite the fact that Ott’s books are undeniably among the very best texts that deal with entheogens, they all seem to be printed in limited numbers and go out of print. Afterwards, used book sellers tend to charge a good deal of money for Ott’s books because people who know how well he writes are willing to pay for them. Some of his books are being sold for hundreds of dollars but for the time being, one can find this particular book for a reasonable price. I would imagine that this will not last.

Trialogues at the Edge of the West

 by Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna & Rupert Sheldrake
Publisher: Bear & Company
Year: 1992
ISBN: 0-939680-97-1

Have you ever had a friend introduce you to someone because he or she felt that, given your mutually obscure interests, you had a lot to talk about? Have you ever had one of those conversations that inspire more and more thoughts as it goes on and on? This book reads like just such a conversation. Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna and Rupert Sheldrake were introduced to each other through friends that felt they would have a lot to talk about with each other, and indeed they did. As the authors note, “Ever since Plato, dialogues have been recognized as a uniquely effective way of exploring the realm of thought: they are the basis of the dialectical method. But insofar as the dialectic of two points of view can result in a synthesis, it presupposes a third point of view that includes the two starting positions. We have found that trialogues have a more harmonious dynamic than dialogues with only two people, partly because the synthesis implicit in a fruitful dialogue can be made explicit by a third person…” After meeting periodically for some time these three decided to do some stand-up “trialogues” in public. Trialogues at the Edge of the West is an edited transcript of a few conversations conducted at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California over four days in 1982 and three days in 1990. The phrase “the Edge of the West” not only refers to the geographical location of these conversations, but to the peripheral edge of western thought at which these talks take place.

Ralph Abraham has a Ph.D. in mathematics, participated in the creation of a new branch of math called global analysis, and is involved in new theories of nonlinear dynamics, chaos, and bifurcations. He is perhaps an unusual mathematician in that he was turned on to LSD in the 1960s, went on something of a spiritual quest in India and seems well versed in metaphysics, spirituality, creativity and other pursuits that one does not usually associate with math. The well-known Terence McKenna graduated from the University of Berkeley, California and wrote a number of books including Food of the Gods, The Archaic Revival and, along with his brother Dennis, The Invisible Landscape and Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Growers’ Guide. Before his death in 2000, he was well known for his many public speaking engagements addressing the psychedelic experience and related topics. Rupert Sheldrake holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge and has written A New Science of Life, The Presence of the Past and The Rebirth of Nature. He is perhaps best known as the man who was effectively ostracized from the British scientific community for work that suggests that there is some non-physical (or at least undetected) medium-which he called the morphogenetic field-that allows information transfer within a given species. This “telepathic” field would explain how animals of a given species are able to learn from each other and form new collective habits beyond natural selection or any known means of communication.

Despite the fact that the authors are all scientifically trained and university educated, they still have a passion for the mysteries of life and they are full of wonder and far-reaching questions. They don’t always agree but they inspire and compliment each other’s wild speculations. Some of the topics they explore include the myth and science of chaos (in both the original mythological sense and in the sense it is used in chaos theory), dark matter as a sort of cosmic unconscious, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the nature of the nonphysical entities encountered through psychedelics and occult practices. They also take on the emergence of ego supremacy, and the corresponding deepening and darkening of the unconscious, along with morphogenetic fields, and the apocalypse.

Since this is a review for Erowid, it would be appropriate to say how this book pertains to psychedelics, a term Terence McKenna preferred over the term “entheogens.” Overall, most of the subject matter would likely be interesting to many of us who tend to think deeply during and as a result of our entheogen/psychedelic sessions. Let us indulge in one intentionally selected quote here as an example of how the topic of psychedelics are worked into the trialogues, “If you think about the mushroom, it is perfectly engineered for truly long-duration survival and adaptation. Look how lightly it touches matter. Its mycelium is simply a cobweb of the soil of any planet, and yet it synapses upon itself and is full of neurotransmitter-like psychedelic compounds. It’s like a thinking brain, yet it condenses itself down into a thing three microns across, of which several million per minute can be shed by a single carpophore. Spores are perfectly designed to travel in space. They can endure extremes of temperature…This is an example of how an abstract notion like the world soul can penetrate the upper levels of the world of biology and organisms.”

Although the book is good for what it is and it makes no claims to be more than it is, after reading it I still felt a lack of detail and depth. To be fair, three people conversing can not possible provide the depth and detail that a single author can with good reference books and time to research. Also, in defense of the book, I can say that anyone who has even a basic familiarity with the topics they discuss will find this book easy to read. It is not intimidating to casual readers.

It is somewhat refreshing to see scientifically trained and university educated people go off into far-out theories and speculations. But on the flipside, I felt their trialogues would have been better if their were more instances where they touched ground in the “real” world as we experience it: the world of flesh, bone, dirt and stone; the here and now. Although I enjoy their wild abandonment to speculative trains of thought, they could have used more “devil’s advocate” skepticism to balance or at least offset all the fanciful speculation. Finally, there is too much “cosmic Christ” stuff and apocalyptic material for my taste. To be fair, however, both latent monism and paranoia about the end of everything we know are characteristic western aberrations, and this is a book grounded in Western thought.

I think that a good indicator of who may and who may not enjoy this book would be the topics described above. If upon reading over that list you scratch your head and wonder what they mean, this is probably not a good book for you unless you have a desire to find out what they mean. If, upon reading that list, your interest is sparked then you just might like this book, but keep in mind the few criticisms I mentioned above. Fans of Terence McKenna’s work will not find anything new from him in this book. However, it is interesting to see his peculiar ideas bounced off Abraham and Sheldrake.

Ploughing the Clouds — The Search for Irish Soma
 by Peter Lamborn Wilson
Publisher: City Lights Books
Year: 1999
ISBN: 0872863263

From the beginning of the Vedic religion—what we today call Hinduism—a sacred substance called Soma lay at the heart of ritual life. The Ŗg Veda, one of the world’s oldest pieces of sacred literature, contains many verses concerning soma, which was at once the sacrifice and the deity receiving the sacrifice. Soma was also clearly a living, growing, material thing, a substance that could transform the consciousness of the worshipper. But though it seems clear that soma was some entheogenic plant, its actual identity had long been lost in the mists of time. Today Vedic priests use symbolic substitutes that are either non-psychoactive or only mildly psychoactive — the non-psychedelic stimulant ephedra being one common stand-in for soma today.

In the area of Iran, the ancient people of the Zoroastrian religion had their own sacrament called Haoma. It fulfilled the same function as the Vedic soma and its identity too has been lost. For a thousand years, ancient Greece also hosted the Eleusian mystery rites, where seekers underwent a secret but profoundly life-changing experience. A sacramental drink called Kykeon was given at Eleusis, and this drink, along with the guided experience orchestrated by the keepers of the mysteries, would give the seeker a glimpse of the divine. Some of the most influential thinkers of Greek culture were inspired by their experiences at Eleusis. Once again, the materials in the sacrament remain unknown today, though in this case they were deliberately kept secret from the beginning.

Psychedelic researchers like Albert Hofmann, R. Gordon Wasson and Carl Ruck have speculated about the identity of soma, hoama, and kykeon, but the jury is still out. One important clue is that all three entheogenic sacramental traditions share a common Indo-European origin. The Indo-Europeans once occupied a wide area of Eurasia. At different times, large groups would depart from the steppes and move into new areas, conquering indigenous people and both subduing and merging with their culture and religions. It seems likely that these Indo-Europeans already used an entheogenic sacrament and brought it with them when they migrated to other parts of the world, or at least replaced their sacrament with other entheogens. It is known that the Indo-Europeans who moved into the Nordic and Siberian areas used Amanita muscaria as their sacrament.

But what of the Celts, the Indo-European tribes who moved into North-Western Europe? Their folktales and myths all suggest the influence of entheogens. We have tales of elves and gnomes; of people being abducted to the land of the faeries; of red berries and other red fruit that seemed to give magical powers or perception; enchanted nuts and potions; and so on. But we have no direct references to identifiable entheogens or hard evidence of entheogen use among the Celts. In fact, although Terence McKenna had made casual suggestions about the possible use of psilocybian mushrooms among the Celts, the question of Celtic entheogen use has never been given serious scholarly consideration.

This is where Peter Lamborn Wilson comes in. Ploughing the Clouds: the Search for Irish Soma is a provocative and necessary look at the possibility that the Celts of the British Isles, particularly those of Ireland, used entheogens. Wilson is a literary genius who possesses both an extensive knowledge of the literature of folklore, myth, and religion—unorthodox Islam being his specialty—and an original, unconventional, and penetrating intellect. His ideas and hypotheses are both reasonable and wild; as an author he displays a thorough knowledge of classic literature but puts forth revolutionary thoughts. His presentation is intelligent, sophisticated and at times his prose swells into poetic reverie. Often it seems that Wilson could elaborate on numerous juicy topics but is forced to merely mention these tangents and move on so as to not overwhelm the reader. Thankfully he does offer leads—bibliographic, branches of philosophy, and so on—for readers to pursue the various subjects he touches upon.

Here Wilson draws upon a variety of disciplines to tease the “Soma” out the Irish Celtic past. Anthropology, mythology, entheogen studies, comparative religion, linguistics and etymology, and other approaches are employed. Wilson’s particular focus in this book is the analysis and comparison of the Vedic literature of India and the folklore, sagas, poetry, and legends of Ireland. For that reason, the reader must have an appetite for Vedic verse, Irish folklore, and the minutiae of etymology in order to enjoy the greater bulk of this book. Some may find Wilson’s hypothesis itself to be more interesting than the actual examination of the evidence. However, to come to any reasonable conclusion the reader will need to patiently follow along with Wilson’s multitude of details because it is in these minutiae where the strength of Wilson’s argument lies. The devil, or at least the drug, is in the details.

Thankfully, Wilson makes no unfounded claims. He doesn’t push his hypothesis by simply declaring that it is true. Rather he presents his theme as a reasonable suspicion, one that may lead to further evidence if experts in various fields should be inspired by his research. It may well be that Wilson’s major motive for writing this book was to stimulate others to look further. When Wilson earlier ran an early article concerning his research in Psychedelic Illuminations #8 (Winter 1995/96), he humbly asked for support, refutation and other feedback. He also indicated that he had specific questions for specialists of different fields. He must have received a good amount of feedback because Ploughing the Clouds gives thanks to a number of researchers, including Allen Ginsberg, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, Gracie and Zarkov, Dale Pendell, and Albert Hofmann.

Wilson considers the sacred function of Soma to be more important than its actual botanical identity. He does, however, consider specific entheogens as candidates for Irish Soma. For the most part, Amanita muscaria seems to be the leader, but psilocybian mushrooms—particularly Psilocybe semilanceata, also known in the region by the suggestive folk name “elf’s cap”—henbane, nightshade and others are considered. Wilson also suggests the possibility that a variety of entheogenic plants and fungus may have served as Soma.

Writing on a more mythopoetic level, Wilson gives us a fascinating perspective on Soma as a tertium quid, a third dimension or reconciliation of a number of dichotomies: between feminine and masculine, between the dreamtime before history and history itself, between tribes of hunter-gatherers and agricultural civilization, between our subconscious animal past and our identity as users of tools and language. Like Terence McKenna, Wilson entertains the possibility that Soma may have been the cause of the evolutionary leap from one side of the dichotomy to the other, inspiring technology, art, and culture. Yet, once humanity moved into this phase, Soma also served as a reconnection to the older strata of our being.

Soma is also considered as the axis mundi, the axis of the worlds. This concept is found in almost every culture in different guises. It is the universal idea that there is a vertical axis – the world tree, the pillar of cosmos, the chakras of the spine, the magic tent-pole of the shaman, etc. – that holds together the many worlds and provides a means by which the shaman can access the underworld of the ancestors or the upper worlds of the gods. This axis mundi is the tertium quid that connects the polarity of sky and earth, or the human world and the world of the gods. In this sense, it is easy to see Soma as this axis mundi. Insightful explorations like these give Wilson’s writings an extra dimension.

Ultimately this marvelous book is about poetry in the deepest sense–poetry as Soma, Soma as poetry. In other words, poetry is to language what Soma is to matter. Language has pulled our abstract minds out of the eternal dreamtime into the literal human consciousness of linear time and history, which both empowers us and limits us. Poetry is language that transcends the limitations of language and induces the unspeakable in the minds of those who grasp the essence of the poem. Soma is matter, a growing thing of mass and weight that is of the earth, yet it can induce the divine in the minds of those that are receptive. The most subtle and transcendent of realms penetrates and permeates the most crude and dense, opening up a way between these opposites so that the receptive person can move about the axis mundi.

No one can deny that entheogenic plants are made of matter. Yet entheogens are potentially the antithesis of matter, because when combined with the nervous system of the seeker, the poet at heart, the two (the entheogen and the mind of the seeker) become a third, they become one, the tertium quid. And this synthesis transcends matter itself in a reconciliation of heaven and earth, an amalgamation of body and soul. If this reviewer understands the essence of Wilson’s message, this is the poetic heart of the book, the spirit that animates his wealth of literal details and astute scholarship.


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