Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Closer Look at Entheogens in Shamanism, Religion and Society

The three articles “Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses” by Lynne Hume, “Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism” by Ralph Metzner, and “The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico,” by Barbara Myerhoff consecutively seem to focus, moving from the general to the specific, on some active themes in trance and the place of the shaman. However, though the use of entheogenic substances provides an important facet through which to study shamanistic practices, Atkinson points out that psychedelic shamanism only constitutes a minor section of the wider body of literature on ASC. These articles discuss the processes around trance and ASC scientifically, religiously, and socially and in fact, Hume incorporates the factor of emotions into her analysis. She differentiates between light, medium, and deep trance as well as mentioning the difference between trance through repetition of movement and trance through stillness and meditation. Metzner additionally highlights the shamanic perception of multiple realities and points out the common theme of journey or travel between these realities or ASCs, as even among recreational drug users experiences are often called ‘trips’. Myerhoff simply gives the Huichol account of experiences with ASC being precious and beautiful in the context of their culture and society.

Hume begins examine the critical place of portals, an obvious necessity when discussing multiple frames of consciousness as one must, by definition, have a threshold dividing the mental states so as to define each state and those around it by comparison. She describes studying sensorial anthropology because trance requires utilizing all the senses and not just the heavily promoted Western-style “seeing” and “hearing”, as well as focusing on the prevalence of transition terminology (such as “door”, “gate”, “passage”, “veil”, “bridge”, etc.) throughout religious texts and ritual descriptions. According to Hume, myths and religious rites universally have incorporated caves as a link to the Mother, birth, death, and rebirth, and thus a place of spirituality, faith, and, judging from some rock-art, altered states of consciousness. Caves also instigate darkness or dimness, a popular environment for ASC and trance rituals as seen in the other articles. Her analysis of sensorial trance states and various methods of achieving ASC relates a broad basis for the method of using entheogenic substances to facilitate the ‘ontic shift’, which involves, when one is conscious of it, a mental passage through a portal.

Metzner narrows in on the use of hallucinogens in the previously discussed terms of shamanism as well as when used in western psychotherapy, syncretic folk religious ceremonies, and, what he calls “hybrid shamanic therapeutic rituals”, which incorporate features of the former two distinctions. He makes an important point about the significance of the set and setting in psychedelic psychotherapy, though it is clear from Hume that the setting is also key in religious trance experiences. A critical aspect of mind-altering chemicals remains, in nearly all cases and situations, rooted in the body (thus, it is the movement and breathing and sensory organs of the body that can bring about a trance state without the use of entheogens). Though the portal aspect of shamanic rituals involving drugs and certain plants seems to be tied in more so to the accessing of hidden knowledge (such as relating to death, birth, and rebirth) and prophecy, Metzner notes a connection between psychotherapy and shamanic rituals of healing. Making little to no distinction between physical, psychic, and/or spiritual healing, often times shamans or healers will take the drugs or plants themselves in order to “see” the causes of the illness to better remedy it. Interestingly, though the personal experience of the therapist or guide is necessary in the Western paradigm, the patient more often takes the drugs in order to amplify the process of internal self-analysis rather than the guide.

In his third distinction, Metzner discusses syncretic folk religious ceremonies, which focus less on healing per se and more on community bonding and celebratory worship. The symbolism of the Huichol people fits within this category I believe, as the presence of the deer, the maize, and the peyote create a self-contained circle for the entire religious calendar. Far from social however, Myerhoff describes the experience of peyote as essentially private without contributing to social solidarity. She mentions though that there is a camaraderie often accompanying the shared experiences. Contrasting to previous conceptions, these Indians do not use peyote for healing necessarily nor illumination, and yet it provides a critical foil for the ordered life of these people tied to the maize-centered present and focused on the deer-worshipping past. The egalitarian distribution of peyote and its ritualized place in religious ceremonies and symbolic worship make it a key player in these folk religious ceremonies, and yet is used as an independent mechanism to bring balance and matrix to the society.

In nature-based religions where shamanism is prevalent, the religious works determine not only how to live but how to continue living, that is to say, it often dictates not only how to act, but within the stories and prayers and worship it propagates cultural knowledge on when and how to find or harvest food, build shelter, and do the things a people need to survive. The Huichol model illustrates a place for entheogenic substances in this religion just as other cultures mentioned by Metzner and Hume utilize them as a long-established part of their own cultures. Atkinson disabuses the notion of shamanic behavior being a result of a mental disorder, though allows that it could be associated with it. However, from the three articles addressed heavily in this report, I would not question the existence of “mental illness” as either a naturally occurring phenomena or something induced by drugs, but I might question the negative stigma associated with the term disorder. Linguistically it simply seems to mean something not ordered, perhaps a chaotic even, and yet this lack of order seems to be a key dimension of culture for these people in Mexico to bring balance to their heavily ordered society.


Hume, Lynne. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford: Berg Publishing, 2007.

Atkinson MJ. 1992. Shamanisms Today. Annual Review of Anthropology. 21, 307-330.

Metzner, Ralph. 1998. Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30(4), 1 – 10.

Myerhoff, Barbara G. 1970. The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Anthropological Quarterly 43(2), 64 – 78.

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