Quick Review: Two Books on Mind-Altering Herbs

My house holds several shelves of herb books, thanks to M.’s interest in herbalism, some of which rubs off on me.

Lots of them are not relevant to our ecosystem, but we keep them for one little bit or another.  Of the best, my favorites include Charles Kane’s Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest, although it leans more to the Sonoran desert than the southern Rockies, and the late Michael Moore’s various works of herbalism and ethnobotany.  (Others by Kane here.)

One thing this reading did for me is make me sensitive to which writers have gotten their hands dirty, so to speak, and which are just recycling.

I would put Kenaz Filan’s The Power of the Poppy: Harnessing Nature’s Most Dangerous Plant Ally in the first category and Steve Andrews’ Herbs of the Northern Shaman: A Guide to Mind-Altering Plants from the Northern Hemisphere, sadly, in the second.

I have a real negative reaction to phrases such as “is thought to contain tryptamine”  or “has been reported to have been used in the berserker frenzies of the Viking tribes” or to borrowing from dear old Maud Grieve, who was indeed a leading herbalist of the early twentieth century, but has no one learned anything since?

Unfortunately, Herbs of the Northern Shaman is full of that kind of bluster that promises more than it delivers.

Some sentences are completely confused: “Further to all these uses the Thorn Apple was a hallucinogen that ancient Greek priests employed as an oracle” (118). Presumably, the priest, not the plant, was the oracle, but if he employed Datura (thorn apple) as an entheogen, how was it done? And where and when and in what god’s service were these priests?

You won’t learn that here. Herbs of the Northern Shamanism is too elementary to be a solid  historical work and too vague to be useful to the hands-on herbalist. It offers precious little about cultivation, preparation, or dosage. And for a book with “Shaman” in the title, it has little solid to say about the entheogenic uses of plants except for bland references to other peoples in other places. You would get much more at Erowid.org.

Open The Power of the Poppy, by contrast, and you will find a solid, documented history of humankind’s various interactions with Papaver somniferum, both the plant itself, its chemical constituents (heroin, morphine, etc.), and its synthetic imitations. Filan can write several interesting pages just on the history and development of the hypodermic syringe:

The hypodermic quickly became a status symbol among physicians, a sign that they had the finest and most modern medical equipment at their disposal [in the late 19th century]. Wealthy clients learned how to inject themselves or trained their servants in the technique . . . .  The 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog feature hypodermic kits (a syringe, two vials of cocaine or morphine, two needles, and a carrying vase) for$1.50. (255)

The chapter on cultivation is basic but accurate enough, but the payoff is the chapters on dependence, tolerance, and getting clean.

Finally, if shamanism is partly about relationships with the other-than-human world, you will find that here too. It is not merely a literary device to write, “Poppy wants to alter your consciousness; that is one of the major means by which she encourages human cultivation  . . . . But be advised that Poppy has her own best interests at heart, not yours. We may believe that Poppy is a tool that suits our purposes. Be advised that Poppy feels the same way about us” (276).

‘Entheogen’ versus ‘Psychedelic’

At The Revealer, Peter Bebergal unpacks the history and connotation of the terms “entheogen” and the older “psychedelic.”

But many find “entheogen” to be problematic. Ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna, brother to the late psychedelic and speculative philosopher Terrence McKenna and a respected researcher in his own right, believes these drugs are capable of much more than inducing a mystical hierophany. The word entheogen privileges that experience over all others, but even more importantly, a true spiritual experience with these substances is a rare thing indeed. Why use a term that contains a built-in promise that cannot always be realized?

In an email McKenna explains, “Only under certain, highly controlled circumstances do they manifest ‘god within,’ whatever that means.” For the whole range of substances and the even greater range of their effects, McKenna prefers psychedelic: “I like ‘psychedelic’ even with all its cultural baggage because it reliably describes what they do: they ‘manifest’ the mind.”

Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), concurs. “I never use the term “entheogen.”  I feel it is positively biased to imply drugs that catalyze positive experiences of the divine, and is similar to hallucinogen that is negatively biased to imply drugs that catalyze fundamentally false and delusionary experiences.”

Once I learned the term “entheogen,” I embraced it. For too many years I had heard the term “psychedelic”  devalued to describe music, decor, attitudes, and other subcultural attributes. It seemed to have lost its savor. But what happens—as it always does—when someone uses the word “entheogen” commercially. That upends the discourse too.

Gallimaufry with Grosbeaks

Black-headed grosbeak, evening grosbeak, downy woodpecker. Photo by Chas S.  Clifton
First black-headed grosbeak of the season (left).

If it’s Beltane, why I am still splitting firewood? Usually I observe the rhythms of the “Celtic” year by turning off the furnace at Beltane and relighting it at Samhain, using just supplemental wood heat otherwise. Not this year.

But during a brief sunny interval yesterday morning, the first black-headed grosbeak of the season landed on a feeder, and I snapped a quick picture through the window. That’s a downy woodpecker on the shadowed side, and up above, facing the camera, a male evening grosbeak—they have been hanging around for a couple of months, an unusual “irruption,” as birders say.

Other stuff:

•  The Beltania music festival happens next weekend, just down the road. The weather still looks iffy. A friend on a Colorado Pagan email list said that spring weather is “manic depressive.”  My own mental image for Beltane is snow on lilac blossoms.

• I liked this quote from an interview with Lon Milo DuQuette at Patheos:

I have a new book coming out in November (from Llewellyn) titled Low Magick — It’s All in Your Head, You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is. It’s autobiographic and contains stories of magickal operations I’ve done over the years. The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, facetiously using the term “Low Magick” to refer to any magickal operation one actual performs rather than those one just talks or argues about.

• Jonathan Ott, who gave us the world “entheogen,” had his home destroyed by fire, needs help.

• An article on depression and dreams offers this:

In the 1970s, psychologists noted that people suffering from depression also report more dreams than average. In fact, people who are clinically depressed may dream three or four times as much. The quality of REM dreams (also called “paradoxical sleep”) is different too: more intense emotions, more negative themes, more nightmares, and more unpleasant dreams, in general.

And consequently depressed people often sleep worse. It’s a vicious circle.  Processed food is also linked to depression—another vicious circle. Feel low -> eat worse, etc.

• The Pagan Newswire Collective has two new group blog projects: The Juggler, on the arts, and Warriors & Kin, about issues facing past and current Pagan military personnel. They will be added to my blogroll.

Thinking Magically about Corporations—and Plants

Writer Dale Pendell muses about the idea of a corporation as a magical creation.

Pendell is the author of the three best-ever books on psychoactive and entheogenic plants: Pharmako/Gnostis, Pharmako/Dynamis, and Pharmako/Poeia. New editions are forthcoming from North Atlantic Books.

Here is his Web site.

The God with Many Eyes

The new issue of The Entheogen Review carries a piece by David Luke on cross-cultural encounters with a godlike being covered with a multitude of eyes. (Yes, Ezekiel’s cherubim are one of the references.)

His article, “Disembodied Eyes Revisited: An Investigation into the Ontology of Entheogenic Entity Encounters,” describes such encounters and descriptions from Jewish, Muslim, Tibetan, and non-traditional entheogenic experiences:

Then the multitudinous eyes of the being before me suddenly and quite deliberately blocked my curious consciousness’s further explorations by mesmerizing me with its squirming, rhythmic eyeball hypnosis.

In Tibetan tradition, a multi-eyed being called Za functions as a “protector of the law,” being a guardian deity on the borders of our world and the Other Side. Luke hints at a connection with Python the guardian of Delphi, mythologically slain by Apollo.

Searching trip reports at Erowid, he finds more similar reports, leading him to wander, “But is there anything that can be found in this wayward meandering through myth and visions that offers a case for the genuine reification of ‘the other’ encountered in psychedelic spaces on the far side of the psyche?”

Yes, it is the interpretatio graeca, saying that all these experiences are of the same deity / psychic structure / whatever. And why not? In applied polytheism, you start with your own experience.

Shroom the Book, Shrooms the Movie

Still on the entheogenic theme …

Andy Letcher, author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, lent his expertise to a horror film in this YouTube video:

I liked his book, so I suppose that publicity for it is a Good Thing.

Actually, Shrooms — now on DVD appears to fall in the category of exploitation film, in the fine tradition of Reefer Madness.

The Ayahuasca Diaries

Two articles on the entheogenic drink ayahuasca, one from National Geographic and one from The Los Angeles Times.

The second site requires registration: BugMeNot can give you a password.

It’s definitely your old-school entheogen:

The concoction itself is said to taste so vile that most people fight their gag reflex to swallow it. Devotees liken the flavor to forest rot and bile, dirty socks and raw sewage. Vomiting is so common that indigenous shamans often refer to the ceremony as la purga, or the purge. And ayahuasca can severely test the commitment of its followers: The potion often reveals its celebrated wisdoms only after repeat encounters. The payoff, adherents say, can be life-altering. Debilitating illnesses such as chronic depression or addiction may disappear after just one session, some say. Others say they shed their egos for a night, finally seeing their lives with a startling clarity.

Behind all the publicity lies this Supreme Court decision.

(Via GetReligion)

A Cultural History of Magic Mushrooms

Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom is also on my to-buy list.'Shroom' by Andy Letcher

Much stranger than the fictions it has inspired, the world of the magic mushroom is a place where shamans and hippies rub shoulders with psychiatrists, poets and international bankers.

The magic mushroom was only rediscovered fifty years ago, but has accumulated all sorts of folktales and urban legends along the way. In this timely and definitive study, Andy Letcher strips away the myths to get at the true story of how hallucinogenic mushrooms, once shunned in the West as the most pernicious of poisons, came to be the illicit drug of choice.

It fits right in with this. But is “the laboratory” the best place to be having mystical experiences. At least the famous 1962 Good Friday Experiment used a chapel. “Set and setting,” remember?