An entheogen ("creates god within," en εν- "in, within," theo θεος- "god, divine," -gen γενος "creates, generates"), in the strict sense, is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic or spiritual context. Historically, entheogens were mostly derived from plant sources and have been used in a variety of traditional religious contexts. Most entheogens do not produce drug dependency. With the advent of organic chemistry, there now exist many synthetic substances with similar psychoactive properties. Entheogens are tools to supplement various practices for healing and transcendence, including in meditation, psychonautics, art projects, and psychedelic therapy.
More broadly, the term entheogen is used to refer to any psychoactive substances when used for their religious or spiritual effects, whether or not in a formal religious or traditional structure. This terminology is often chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same substances. Spiritual effects of psychedelic compounds have been demonstrated scientifically, as seen in the Marsh Chapel Experiment. Research is limited due to drug prohibition, however entheogenic plants sometimes have separate legislation from their active ingredients.
Examples of traditional entheogens include: Greek: kykeon, ambrosia; African: Iboga; Vedic: Soma, Amrit; Native American: Peyote [North], Ayahuasca [South]. Other traditional entheogens include cannabis. Entheogens have been used in a ritualized context for thousands of years; their religious significance is well established in anthropological and modern evidences. Many pure active compounds with psychoactive properties have been isolated from organisms and chemically synthesized, including mescaline, psilocin/psilocybin, salvinorin A and ibogaine . Entheogens may be compounded through the work of a shaman or apothecary in a tea, admixture, or potion like Ayahuasca/Yage, Bhang, or an anointing oil.
The neologism entheogen was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson). The literal meaning of the word is "that which causes God to be within an individual". The translation "creating the divine within" is sometimes given, but entheogen implies neither that something is created nor that that which is experienced is within the user.
The term is derived from two words of ancient Greek, ἔνθεος (entheos) and γενέσθαι (genesthai). The adjective entheos translates to English as "full of the god, inspired, possessed," and is the root of the English word "enthusiasm." The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. Genesthai means "to come into being." Thus, an entheogen is a substance that causes one to become inspired or to experience feelings of inspiration, often in a religious or "spiritual" manner.
Since the experience originates from an external source, the "divine within" can be illustrated as an absorption or collection of divine, rather than a creation that originates within the person. In other words, an entheogen is something that fills someone with god. Given the broad scope of this statement, it can be argued that the word should be inclusive of substances, objects, and/or experiences beyond psychoactives.
Entheogen was coined as a replacement for the terms hallucinogen and psychedelic. Hallucinogen was popularized by Aldous Huxley's experiences with mescaline, which were published as The Doors of Perception in 1954. Psychedelic, on the other hand, is a Greek neologism for "mind manifest", and was coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond; Aldous Huxley was a volunteer in experiments Osmond was conducting on mescaline.
Ruck et al. argued that the term hallucinogen was inappropriate due to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term psychedelic was also seen as problematic, due to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960s pop culture. In modern usage entheogen may be used synonymously with these terms, or it may be chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same substances. The meanings of the term entheogen were formally defined by Ruck et al.:
In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.
Notable, early testing of the experience includes the Marsh Chapel Experiment, conducted by physician and theology doctoral candidate, Walter Pahnke, under the supervision of Timothy Leary and the Harvard Psilocybin Project. In this double-blind experiment, volunteer graduate school divinity students from the Boston area almost all claimed to have had profound religious experiences subsequent to the ingestion of pure psilocybin. In 2006, a more rigorously controlled experiment was conducted at Johns Hopkins University, and yielded similar results. To date there is little peer-reviewed research on this subject, due to ongoing drug prohibition and the difficulty of getting approval from institutional review boards.
R. Gordon Wasson and Giorgio Samorini have proposed several examples of the cultural use of entheogens athat are found in the archaeological record. Evidence for the first use of entheogens may come from Tassili, Algeria, with a cave painting of a mushroom-man, dating to 8000 BP. Hemp seeds discovered by archaeologists at Pazyryk suggest early ceremonial practices by the Scythians occurred during the 5th to 2nd century BC, confirming previous historical reports by Herodotus.
Essentially all psychoactive drugs that are naturally occurring in plants, fungi, or animals, can be used in an entheogenic context or with enthogenic intent. Since non-psychoactive drugs can also be used in this type of context, the term "entheogen" refers primarily to substances that have been categorized based on their historical use. Toxicity does not affect a substance's inclusion (some can kill humans), nor does effectiveness or potency (if a substance is psychoactive, and it has been used in a historical context, then the required dose has also been found).
Although entheogens are taboo and most of them are officially prohibited in Christian and Islamic societies, their ubiquity and prominence in the spiritual traditions of various other cultures is unquestioned. The entheogen, "the spirit, for example, need not be chemical, as is the case with the ivy and the olive: and yet the god was felt to be within them; nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god's spirit had to offer." (Ruck and Staples)
Most of the well-known modern examples, such as peyote, psilocybe and other psychoactive mushrooms and ololiuhqui, are from the native cultures of the Americas. However, it has also been suggested that entheogens played an important role in ancient Indo-European culture, for example by inclusion in the ritual preparations of the Soma, the "pressed juice" that is the subject of Book 9 of the Rig Veda. Soma was ritually prepared and drunk by priests and initiates and elicited a paean in the Rig Veda that embodies the nature of an entheogen:
Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!... O [Soma] Pavāmana (mind clarifying), place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set, and everlasting lustre shines.... Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joy and felicities combine...
The Kykeon that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries is another entheogen, which was investigated (before the word was coined) by Carl Kerényi, in Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Other entheogens in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean include the poppy, Datura, the unidentified "lotus" eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey and Narkissos.
According to Ruck, Eyan, and Staples, the familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought with them was knowledge of the wild Amanita mushroom. It could not be cultivated; thus it had to be found, which suited it to a nomadic lifestyle. When they reached the world of the Caucasus and the Aegean, the Indo-Europeans encountered wine, the entheogen of Dionysus, who brought it with him from his birthplace in the mythical Nysa, when he returned to claim his Olympian birthright. The Indo-European proto-Greeks "recognized it as the entheogen of Zeus, and their own traditions of shamanism, the Amanita and the 'pressed juice' of Soma — but better since no longer unpredictable and wild, the way it was found among the Hyperboreans: as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the entheogen was now cultivable" (Ruck and Staples). Robert Graves, in his foreword to The Greek Myths, hypothesises that the Ambrosia of various pre-Hellenic tribes were amanita (which, based on the morphological similarity of the words amanita, amrita and ambrosia, is entirely plausible) and perhaps panaeolus mushrooms.
Amanita was divine food, according to Ruck and Staples, not something to be indulged in or sampled lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and it mediated between the two realms. It is said that Tantalus's crime was inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.
The entheogen is believed to offer godlike powers in many traditional tales, including immortality. The failure of Gilgamesh in retrieving the plant of immortality from beneath the waters teaches that the blissful state cannot be taken by force or guile: when Gilgamesh lay on the bank, exhausted from his heroic effort, the serpent came and ate the plant.
Another attempt at subverting the natural order is told in a (according to some) strangely metamorphosed myth, in which natural roles have been reversed to suit the Hellenic world-view. The Alexandrian Apollodorus relates how Gaia (spelled "Ge" in the following passage), Mother Earth herself, has supported the Titans in their battle with the Olympian intruders. The Giants have been defeated:
When Ge learned of this, she sought a drug that would prevent their destruction even by mortal hands. But Zeus barred the appearance of Eos (the Dawn), Selene (the Moon), and Helios (the Sun), and chopped up the drug himself before Ge could find it.
According to The Living Torah, cannabis was an ingredient of holy anointing oil mentioned in various sacred Hebrew texts. The herb of interest is most commonly known as kaneh-bosm (Hebrew: קְנֵה-בֹשֶׂם). This is mentioned several times in the Old Testament as a bartering material, incense, and an ingredient in holy anointing oil used by the high priest of the temple. Although Chris Bennett's research in this area focuses on cannabis, he mentions evidence suggesting use of additional visionary plants such as henbane, as well.
The Septuagint translates kaneh-bosm as calamus, and this translation has been propagated unchanged to most later translations of the old testament. However, Polish anthropologist Sula Benet published etymological arguments that the Aramaic word for hemp can be read as kannabos and appears to be a cognate to the modern word 'cannabis', with the root kan meaning reed or hemp and bosm meaning fragrant. Both cannabis and calamus are fragrant, reedlike plants containing psychotropic compounds.
Although philologist John Marco Allegro has suggested that the self-revelation and healing abilities attributed to the figure of Jesus may have been associated with the effects of the plant medicines [from the Aramaic: "to heal"], this evidence is dependent on pre-Septuagint interpretation of Torah and Tenach, and goes firmly against the accepted teachings of the Holy See. However Merkur contends that a minority of Christian hermits and mystics could possibly have used entheogens, in conjunction with fasting, meditation and prayer.
Allegro was the only non-Catholic appointed to the position of translating the Dead Sea scrolls. His extrapolations are often the object of scorn due to Allegro's non-mainstream theory of Jesus as a mythological personification of the essence of a "psychoactive sacrament", furthermore they conflict with the position of the Catholic Church in regards to transubstantiation and the teaching involving valid matter, form, and substance—that of bread and wine, which do not contain psychoactive substances. Allegro's book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, relates the development of language to the development of myths, religions and cultic practices in world cultures. Allegro believed he could prove, through etymology, that the roots of Christianity, as of many other religions, lay in fertility cults; and that cult practices, such as ingesting visionary plants (or "psychedelics") to perceive the Mind of God [Avestan: Vohu Mana], persisted into the early Christian era, and to some unspecified extent into the 1200s with reoccurrences in the 1700s and mid 1900s, as he interprets the Plaincourault chapel's fresco to be an accurate depiction of the ritual ingestion of Amanita muscaria as the Eucharist.
The historical picture portrayed by the Entheos journal is of fairly widespread use of visionary plants in early Christianity and the surrounding culture, with a gradual reduction of use of entheogens in Christianity. R. Gordon Wasson's book Soma prints a letter from art historian Erwin Panofsky asserting that art scholars are aware of many 'mushroom trees' in Christian art.
The question of the extent of visionary plant use throughout the history of Christian practice has barely been considered yet by academic or independent scholars. The question of whether visionary plants were used in pre-Theodosius Christianity is distinct from evidence that indicates the extent to which visionary plants were utilized or forgotten in later Christianity, including so-called "heretical" or "quasi-" Christian groups, and the question of other groups such as elites or laity within "orthodox" Catholic practice.
James Arthur asserts that the little scroll from the angel with writing on it referred to in Ezekiel 2: 8,9,10 and Ezekiel 3: 1,2,3 and Book of Revelation 10: 9,10 was the speckled cap of the Amanita muscaria mushroom.
Naturally occurring entheogens such as psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine, also known as N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or simply DMT (in the preparation ayahuasca) were, for the most part, discovered and used by older cultures, as part of their spiritual and religious life, as plants and agents which were respected, or in some cases revered for generations and may be a tradition which predates all modern religions as a sort of proto-religious rite.
Entheogens have been used in various ways, including as part of established religions, secularly for personal spiritual development as tools (or "plant teachers") to augment the mind, secularly as recreational drugs, and for medical and therapeutic use.
The use of entheogens in human cultures is nearly ubiquitous throughout recorded history.
The best-known entheogen-using culture of Africa is the Bwitists, who used a preparation of the root bark of Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga). A famous entheogen of ancient Egypt is the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea). There is evidence for the use of entheogenic mushrooms in Côte d'Ivoire (Samorini 1995). Numerous other plants used in shamanic ritual in Africa, such as Silene capensis sacred to the Xhosa, are yet to be investigated by western science.
Entheogens have played a pivotal role in the spiritual practices of most American cultures for millennia. The first American entheogen to be subject to scientific analysis was the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii). For his part, one of the founders of modern ethno-botany, the late Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard University documented the ritual use of peyote cactus among the Kiowa who live in what became Oklahoma. Used traditionally by many cultures of what is now Mexico, its use spread to throughout North America in the 19th century, replacing the toxic entheogen Sophora secundiflora (mescal bean). Other well-known entheogens used by Mexican cultures include psilocybin mushrooms (known to indigenous Mexicans under the Náhuatl name teonanácatl), the seeds of several morning glories (Náhuatl: tlitlíltzin and ololiúhqui) and Salvia divinorum (Mazateco: Ska Pastora; Náhuatl: pipiltzintzíntli).
Indigenous peoples of South America employ a wide variety of entheogens. Better-known examples include ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi plus admixtures) among indigenous peoples (such as the Urarina) of Peruvian Amazonia. Other well-known entheogens include: borrachero (Brugmansia spp); San Pedro (Trichocereus spp); and various tryptamine-bearing snuffs, for example Epená (Virola spp), Vilca and Yopo (Anadananthera spp). The familiar tobacco plant, when used uncured in large doses in shamanic contexts, also serves as an entheogen in South America. Also, a tobacco that contains higher nicotine content, and therefore smaller doses required, called Nicotiana rustica was commonly used.
In addition to indigenous use of entheogens in the Americas, one should also note their important role in contemporary religious movements, such as the Rastafari movement and the Church of the Universe.
The indigenous peoples of Siberia (from whom the term shaman was appropriated) have used the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) as an entheogen. The ancient inebriant Soma, mentioned often in the Vedas, appears to be consistent with the effects of an entheogen. (In his 1967 book, Wasson argues that Soma was fly agaric. The active ingredient of Soma is presumed by some to be ephedrine, an alkaloid with stimulant and (somewhat debatable) entheogenic properties derived from the soma plant, identified as Ephedra pachyclada.) However, there are also arguments to suggest that Soma could have also been Syrian Rue, Cannabis, Belladonna or some combination of any of the above plants.
An early entheogen in Aegean civilization, predating the introduction of wine, which was the more familiar entheogen of the reborn Dionysus and the maenads, was fermented honey, known in Northern Europe as mead; its cult uses in the Aegean world are bound up with the mythology of the bee.
The growth of Roman Christianity also saw the end of the two-thousand-year-old tradition of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone involving the use of a substance consistent with an entheogenic known as kykeon (the term 'Ambrosia' is used in Greek mythology in a way that is remarkably similar to the Soma of the Hindus as well). Similarly, there is some evidence that nitrous oxide or ethylene or some other psychoactive may have been in part responsible for the visions of the equally long-lived Delphic oracle (Hale et al., 2003).
In ancient Germanic culture cannabis was associated with the Germanic love goddess Freya. The harvesting of the plant was connected with an erotic high festival. It was believed that Freya lived as a fertile force in the plant's feminine flowers and by ingesting them one became influenced by this divine force. Similarly, fly agaric was consecrated to Odin, the god of ecstasy, while henbane stood under the dominion of the thunder god - Thor in Germanic mythology - and Jupiter among the Romans (Rätsch 2003).
The entheogenic use of substances, particularly hashish. Its use by the "Hashshashin" to stupefy and recruit new initiates was widely reported during the Crusades. However, the drug used by the Hashshashin was likely wine, opium, henbane, or some combination of these, and, in any event, the use of this drug was for stupefaction rather than for entheogenic use. It has been suggested that the ritual use of small amounts of Syrian Rue is an artifact of its ancient use in higher doses as an entheogen (possibly in conjunction with DMT containing acacia).
Philologist John Marco Allegro has argued in his book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that early Jewish and Christian cultic practice was based on the use of Amanita muscaria which was later forgotten by its adherents, and this hypothesis is gaining momentum with the advent of The Internet. Allegro's hypothesis that Amanita use was forgotten after primitive Christianity seems contradicted by his own view that the chapel in Plaincourault shows evidence of Christian Amanita use in the 1200s.
Indigenous Australians are generally thought not to have used entheogens, although there is a strong barrier of secrecy surrounding Aboriginal shamanism, which has likely limited what has been told to outsiders. There are no known uses of entheogens by the Māori of New Zealand aside from a variant species of Kava. Natives of Papua New Guinea are known to use several species of entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp, Boletus manicus).
Kava or Kava Kava (Piper Methysticum) has been cultivated for at least 3000 years by a number of Pacific island-dwelling peoples. Historically, most Polynesian, many Melanesian, and some Micronesian cultures have ingested the psychoactive pulverized root, typically taking it mixed with water. Much traditional usage of Kava, though somewhat suppressed by Christian missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, is thought to facilitate contact with the spirits of the dead, especially relatives and ancestors (Singh 2004).
The substance melange (spice) in Frank Herbert's Dune universe acts as both an entheogen and a geriatric medicine. Control of the supply of melange was crucial to the Empire, as it was necessary for, among other things, faster than light navigation.
Consumption of the imaginary mushroom anochi [enoki] as the entheogen underlying the creation of Christianity is the premise of Philip K. Dick's last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, a theme which seems to be inspired by John Allegro's book.
Aldous Huxley's final novel, Island (1962), depicted a fictional entheogenic mushroom — termed "moksha medicine" — used by the people of Pala in rites of passage, such as the transition to adulthood and at the end of life.