We spoke about Entheogens briefly in our introductory definitions and now let’s look more in depth at entheogenic substances and the spiritual belief systems behind their use.
The term entheogen literally means “that which causes God to be within an individual” translated from the Greek, and is usually shortened to “the divine within.” This term denotes the use of psychoactive and mind-altering practices for spiritual, religious, or shamanistic purposes. Entheogens have been in use for thousands of years, perhaps even since the Neolithic period when our ancestors stumbled upon naturally growing plants or fungi that put them in a transcendental state of mind. African, Amazonian, and Native American shamans used naturally occurring entheogens as part of their religious practice, such as ibogane, ayahuasca, psilocybin, peyote and cannabis. Synthetic entheogens such as LSD and 2CB have more recently been added to the list of psychoactive substances used for spiritual gains.
Entheogen as Enlightenment/Ecstasy
Let’s explore different religions and cultures around the world. Many traditional societies use visionary plants in order to communicate with divine beings, or to have a transcendental spiritual connection. Many of these cultures use psychoactives to gain a deeper knowledge of themselves and the world around them, and are able to induce profound transpersonal phenomena that are interpreted as making contact with the divine. Meditation, fasting and trance are widely thought of as acceptable paths to spiritual enlightenment. Entheogen use is largely underestimated as a relatively simple way to achieve similar states of enlightenment. Shamans and guides are well practiced individuals who aid in achieving these transcendental goals. Practice, art, and knowledge is formed over years of training. As we shall soon see, almost every culture in the world has ancient roots in experiencing a landscape of the mind altered by psychoactive plants, and we can surely argue then, that these plants were crucial in the religious and spiritual development of humankind, as the ecstasy of these experiences was transmuted into his/her world experience.
Entheogens Around the World
Africa / Ibogaine
Bwiti is a West Central African spiritual practice by the forest-dwelling Babongo and Mitsogo people of Gabon, where it is counted as one of the three official religions, and the Fang people of Gabon and Cameroon. (wikipedia.org) The Bwiti claim that the magic of the hallucinogenic iboga plant were passed on to them by the pygmies living in the heart of the jungle. The Bwiti religion assumed certain characteristics from another ancestral religion the Byeri, who used alan in their hallucinogenic rituals in which the initiate, under the influence of the alan root, was shown the skull of his ancestors which would allow him to communicate with deceased tribal ancestors and bring information back for the tribe. The Bwiti were persecuted by Christian and Catholic missionaries and their religion is now an amalgam of Catholic/Christian beliefs and their own Bwiti system.
The Bwiti religion is alive with a complex mythology and “the fruit of an intelligent and secular mix of the afro-tribal values and the catholic biblical figures, and an articulate theology which coherently unites animistic concepts and the characteristics of a Christian god.” Since the influence of Christianity, Bwiti has developed into different sects, each with its own temple of worship which are heavily decorated on the “akun or central axis of the temple” (Samorini). The religion is very community focused. When the temples are not being used for ceremonies they are gathering places for the members of the religion. The nearby iboga bushes are revered by all. The members consist of initiates and “officiating” members whose roles are structured hierarchically. During the ceremonies each officiating member has a precise role; at the very top of the community is the nima, the religious leader, followed by the yemba, an officiating member who comments on the rituals being followed during the ceremony. Then, follows the guardian of the temple and the tabernacle, then the dance director and the musicians among which the harpist has a special function.
As part of the religious fusion with Catholicism, the Bwiti celebrate community rites together from Saturday night to Sunday, at Christmas and Easter, and ingest the iboga as a form of communion. Individual initation rites are also practiced as new members wish to join. The initiate ingests a large dose of iboga (larger than during the community rituals) and the initiate is then transported into a complete psychedelic state, a mystical experience, wherein he can communicate with sacred entities. The rite of initiation is considered to be “the moment of greatest illumination” and “must be taken into consideration for the rest of the initiate’s life: in each moment of crisis, the Bwitist goes back to the time of initiation, thus putting himself at the best strategic point of observation” (Samorini).
The initiate then gives an offering up to the jungle and all it contains, and then gives a past-and-present life confession to the officiating members, and is then cleansed in a ritual bath, similar to a baptism. If he or she leaves out any sins in the confession, a “bad trip” will result and he or she will suffer permanent madness.
The effects of the dose of iboga last three days and three nights. The initiate will continue to ingest small amounts over 7 to 12 hours at the beginning of the ceremony, and is assisted by a couple acting as “mother” and “father” to the rite. Any of the members present are welcome to ingest iboga as well, to accompany their future brother in his journey. Iboga in such large amounts will produce a complete break with reality and consciousness is positioned in another sense of a world. The climax of the experience is called by the Bwiti’s as “going to the root of life itself and [having] direct dialogue with god” (Samorini).
Visionary hallucinations are produced and are almost always seen as journey’s into the land of the dead, who mediate divine communication. Personal or tribal ancestors are often encountered, mythological figures, even the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and St. Peter, surrounded in divine light. As we learned in Michael Persinger’s lecture on psychotropic drugs, these kind of visions are common when using certain types of psychedelics. The initiate is given a message from the divine entity: an initiatory name, which is then added to his or her proper name.
The experience is one of constant revelation. Once the initiate wakes after the three days and nights, he or she begins a new life and relates his or her experience to the community.
For more information on the Bwiti see Giorgio Samorini’s text in The Ibogaine Dossier.
Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic mixture made primarily from the stem of the ayahuasca vine, but including some additions from “companion plants” that are related in some way or another. The drink itself though, is always referred to simply as ayahuasca. Its name is commonly translated as “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead.” Like iboga, ayahuasca is used in ancestral religious ceremonies amongst the people of the Amazon rainforests (Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, etc).
Ayahuasca is associated with Shamanistic spiritual practices. The use of psychoactive plants allows the members of a ceremony to undergo a full-body purification, and to meet with spirits or demons, with whom to commune or conquer. The religious culture surrounding ayahuasca use is characterized by a belief that “magical substances are kept within the shaman’s body;” that sickness is caused “by the intrusion of pathogenic objects projected by an enemy or sorcerer; the ambiguity of shamanic ability to do both good an evil; the central sacrality of tobacco; the acquision of songs from the spirits; the use of songs for the creation of both medicines and poisons; a focus on healing with the mouth through blowing and sucking; and the importance of sound — singing, whistling, blowing, and rattling — in both healing and sorcery” (Beyer). Ayahuasca is used as a teaching plant; the shaman and the initiates use the hallucinogenic power of the plant to uncover mysteries and to learn their songs, to see into the past, future, other dimensions; to check on the “wellbeing of distant relatives, the location of lost objects, the lover of an unfaithful spouse, and the identity of the sorcerer who has caused a patient to become sick” (Beyer).
Ayahuasca ceremonies are all about cleansing, healing, and purification. The substance itself is a powerful purgative. Users experience heavy vomiting. In the traditional usage, this could help clear the body of parasites or worms. Purification of the body is seen to come from its purgative effects, while auditory and visual hallucinations guide and teach the user valuable lessons and wisdoms. Shamans who have also taken the brew are able to guide the practitioner and to aid in expelling any demons that the user cannot dispel themselves. Icaros appear to the shaman from doctor spirits. They are the songs that form the basis of the shaman’s spiritual energy and help the shaman guide the ceremony. Apprentices are present at the ceremony who have not ingested ayahuasca and are able to assist those experiencing a troubled “trip” to navigate their journey more safely. The world is revealed to the practitioner as a society, or connected “culture of spiritual relations” (Brent). Energy, flow, and balance come from spirits and actions taken by the shaman and the practitioner in order to balance and heal any impurities or illness in the user. One so healed may then “enter into transformative relations with larger organizing forces, with greater ecosystemic intelligences, which in turn tend to increase human self-consciousness, inspiration, revelation, and sense of mission” (Brent). It is a form of spiritual evolution, aided by the mysteries of the spirit world, accessed through the ayahuasca ceremony.
The duration of an ayahuasca ceremony usually lasts 8 hours, while the effects of the psychedelic last anywhere form 4-8 hours, beginning around 30 minutes after ingestion and peaking around 2 hours. Euphoria and other strong emotions are felt and the practitioner is asked to really sit with these emotions as they come up; to experience them as fully as possible. A feeling of connectedness is common, of seeing the world as a society or whole. Love, empathy, inner peace and acceptance of self, others, and the world are common experiences. Users generally feel emotionally and physically healed after a ceremony. The audio and visual hallucinations can be very strong and can be accompanied by an altered sense of space of time. Magical ways of thinking is usually introduced and embraced by the user.