The Making of an Ethnobotanist in a 1960s University Scene

One of the books on my ethnobotany shelves is Witchcraft Medicine:Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants, a colloboration between Wolf Dieter Storl, Claudia Müller-Ebeling, and Christian Rätsch, all three anthropologists and ethnobotanists.

Müller-Ebeling and Rätsch are married and live in Hamburg, but Storl was born in Germany in 1942 and came with his family to Ohio in 1953. Now he goes back and forth but lives primarily in Germany with his American wife.

Despite the cover and and subtitle, “A German ethnobotanist’s wild roots in the Psychedelic Sixties,” what  Storll’s memoir, Far Out in America, really describes is the pre-psychedelic late 1950s and early 1960s, the time when only a few university students would have heard of LSD and — lacking a connection to certain psychology professors or a father working in the right section of the CIA — would have had no idea how actually acquire some.

Storl himself describes Far Out in America as a story of personal adventure that would be “told in the hall of the gods.”  When not in school, he sets out on epic hitchhiking adventures, passing through every subculture from Appalachian moonshiners to civil rights activists to Chicano adventurers to seasonal workers in national parks.

I liked the two half-assimilated German beatniks, sons of German scientists brought to the US after World War Two “to continue their reearch on miracle weapons, rockets, antigravitational objects, and jet fighters.” They introduce college freshman Wolf Dieter to the music of Bob Dylan, whose 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Storl says “expressed the feeings of the times, the Weltschmerz, world-wearienss, and all that was stirring young hearts.”

For a bright young Ohian, Ohio State University is an obvious choice, and he goes off to Coumbus to study botany and agriculture, only to discover that he has enlisted in the Green Revolution, learning to “export high-yield ‘miracle seed’ to backward peasants in Asia, africa, and South America,” as one of his professors explains. The program is totally about large-scale, mechanized, monoculture farming guided by technocrats like he was being groomed to become.

Erika Bourguignon in the 1970s.

He drops out. After other false starts, he ends up in anthropology, where one of his professors is Erika Bourguignon (1924–2015), who taught more than forty years at OSU, and who was one of the few anthropologists to take “woo” — excuse me, “extraordinary states of consciousness” — seriously.

She published a lot, and when I was in grad school myself, her books and article were widely cited. Nikki Bado, my friend and former Pagan-studies book series co-editor, was one of her students.

Another was Felicitas Goodman (1914–2005), whom I met in the 1990s and thought of as sort of the European Michael Harner. She came to OSU as a middle-aged student, another one whose family emigrated to America after WW2, and earned a PhD there. She also started her own school of (neo)shamanism, The Cuyamungue Institute, in New Mexico, but also taught classes in Denmark, Germany, and other countries.

When I edited Witchcraft and Shamanism (1994) for Llewellyn, I was thrilled to get a chapter from her, “Shamans, WItches, and the Rediscovery of Trance Postures.” For the whole story how how she managed postures depicted in ancient and and indigenous pictures and sculptures with different sorts of trance experiences, read her book Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences.

Wolf Dieter Storl has numerous YouTube videos, about two-thirds of them in German and others in English.

The Anthropology Cult at CIIS

Some people in the Pagan studies field have a special place in their hearts for the California Institute of Integral Studies. This memoir (about events a decade ago) might help to explain why. It’s a “never been told story.”

We showed up willing and able to do whatever it took for the cause. Angana exploited us beyond recognition. She effectively used jargon and the discourse to force us to restructure, brutally interrogate and dismantle our sense of self in the most pathological way possible. It’s a classic cult grooming technique; it just so happened that the languaging in this cult used social justice concepts.

The Anthropologist and the Ancestors

otto

Dutch anthropologist Ton Otto

Thanks to Sabina Magliocco, I read this interesting piece about a Dutch anthropologist experiencing an ancestor ritual, one involving both the ancestors of the people in New Guinea whom he is visiting and his own.

And even though science failed to explain everything, the way I viewed the world was based on the idea that everything – with time – could be explained with logic and observations of reality.

Most likely, spiritual manifestations were simply projections of the unconscious, the deceitful trickery of sensory impressions or misunderstandings of natural phenomena.

I had no problem leading a life without spirits, but even so, deep down I always had a nagging feeling that I’d cut myself off from a lot of experiences.

The photo with the article is too perfect. I have cropped it here.

In turn it reminded me of an collection published twenty years ago: Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. (The late Judy Harrow told me about that one.)

A reviewer wrote,

Anthropologists of recent generations have always expressed enormous sympathy with ‘non-rational’ modes of thought, with the ‘supernatural’ experiences of people around the world. What they have rarely in their scholarly writing admitted to doing is giving any credence to the ‘irrational’ themselves—though such beliefs have long been common among those who have lived and worked for extended periods in cultures different from those that dominate Western society.

Now, in a ground-breaking volume, leading anthropologists describe such experiences and analyze what can occur “when one opens one’s self to aspects of experience that previously have been ignored or repressed.” The ten contributions to the book include Edith Turner on “A Visible Spirit Form in Zambia,” Rab Wilkie on “Ways of Approaching the Shaman’s World,” and Marie Francoise Guedon on “Dene Ways and the Ethnographer’s Culture.”

Note that it came from a small publisher, not a university press! But these experiences do happen, and it is good to get them into print.

Meanwhile, if you are interesting in “going native” in the physiological sense, I wholeheartedly recommend Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.

It’s the best combination of archival research, history, and walking the ground where it happened, talking to people who were there.

And this is getting away from anthropologists . . . but spirits and possibly angry tribal peoples have been evoked to explain the “Dyatlov Pass Incident.”

Writer Donnie Eichar followed much the same methodology as did Hoffman for his own 2013 book, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Some people treated those deaths as “high weirdness,” but his explanation is more naturalistic — and fairly convincing.

Around the Blogosphere, 17 July 2014

Tanya Luhrman compares the cultural differences in “hearing voices” in the United States, Ghana, and India. Plus, a Dutch psychiatrist who encourages it in his patients!

¶ You have read Ethan Doyle White’s interview with Ronald Hutton, right? If not, here it is.

¶ Two from Sarah Veale at Invocatio:

A PhD dissertation with music on “Satanic feminism.”

Discussing ancient Greek terms helps us understand “sacred space.”

¶ Mary Harrsch corrrects a slander against Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome.

After Decades, Legitimate LSD Therapy

Long, long ago, in other words, the 1960s, some psychiatrists and others were interested in the therapeutic potential of LSD, after the Central Intelligence had pretty well decided that it was useless for making spies confess.

There were two approaches to LSD back then. One was more cautious — it should be distributed quietly to artists, intellectuals, opinion-makers, etc. for a gradual transformation of society. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and The Island was in that camp.

The other approach was epitomized by psychologist Timothy Leary: Give it to everyone, now! Turn on, tune in, drop out!

We all know which approach won out and what happened. One result of the subsequent legal crackdown was that serious research with LSD became impossible.

That has changed.

On Tuesday [March 4,2014], The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease is posting online results from the first controlled trial of LSD in more than 40 years. The study, conducted in the office of a Swiss psychiatrist near Bern, tested the effects of the drug as a complement to talk therapy for 12 people nearing the end of life . . . . The new publication marks the latest in a series of baby steps by a loose coalition of researchers and fund-raisers who are working to bring hallucinogens back into the fold of mainstream psychiatry. Before research was effectively banned in 1966 in the United States, doctors tested LSD’s effect for a variety of conditions, including end-of-life anxiety.

Read the rest in the New York Times.

Kind of related: a short article, “Beyond Castaneda: A Brief History of Psychedelics in Anthropology – Part 1  1859-1950.” (Part 2 has not yet appeared.)

Anthropologist Describes Rebirth of Mongolian Shamanism

A news release from the MIT News Office carries the subhead, “MIT anthropologist finds that after Soviet domination, a rebirth of shamanism helped Mongolia rewrite its own history.”

The release continues,

In 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Mongolia, long a satellite of the U.S.S.R., regained its independence. Socialism was out and free markets returned. Religion — in the form of Buddhism, shamanism, and other folk religions — became officially accepted again in Mongolian society. That, in turn, produced another unexpected change: The return of shamans, religious figures who claim to have a supernatural ability to connect with the souls of the dead.

Indeed, as MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger chronicles in a new book, the revival of shamanism has shaped Mongolia in surprising ways in the last two decades. From storefronts in Ulan Bator, the nation’s capital, to homes in rural Mongolia, shamanism has become a growth industry.

Read the rest here, it’s good.

If you see the 2009 documentary The Horse Boy, about an autistic boy whose parents take him to Mongolia for shamanic treatment, there is a fair amount of restored shamanism there.

Free Articles in Ethnobotany, Ethnomedicine

The Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine has an archive of downloadable articles, including this one, “Down Deep in the Holler [sic]: Chasing Seeds and Stories in Southern Appalachia” (link is to PDF file).

Interesting material from all over the world.

The Ethnographer and the Magicians

At the site freq.uenci.es, described as “a collaborative genealogy of spirituality” (“Ask scholars, writers, and artists what they think of when they think of the word spirituality.”), anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann glosses an anecdote from her time studying British occultists in the 1980s.

Her book Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England (Harvard U. Press, 1989) still resonates, although not always in ways that Professor Luhrmann intended.

For some, it became a case study in how not to do research on new religious movement. In her article “Psychology of Religion and the Study of Paganism,” published in the collection Researching Paganisms, Melissa Harrington writes, “[Luhrmann’s] resulting thesis presents a rich ethnography, replete with original anthropological material, but with a weak conclusion that has been refuted by practitioners and academics alike.”

In the same volume, sociologist Douglas Ezzy critiques her “methodological atheism,” although he admits that “there is a long history of academic disciplinary boundary maintenance that this argument derives from.”

(Her faculty web page describes the work this way: “Her first project was a detailed study of the way reasonable people come to believe apparently unreasonable beliefs.”)

Ezzy continues, “The methodological atheism at the heart of Luhrmann’s thesis does not derive from an attempt to sensitively understand the experience of Witches, but from her enforced adherence, on pain of significant social sanction, to the atheistic tenets of academe.”

In her defense, you expect a PhD student to be acutely aware of “social sanction.”

I would have to say that Researching Paganisms (Google sample here) was party a response to Luhrmann’s 1980s work, or as the editors wrote, “In particular, it highlights the relationships of researchers with the communities researched, ‘ownership’ of knowledge so created, and problems in presenting a nonmainstream, and seemingly ‘nonrational,’ area within academic discourses across discipline boundaries.”