We would learn a hallucinogenic cure for tuberculosis and how getting high will save the world. We would discover that certain African tribes secretly use cannabis as a sacrament, and that South American shamans once stuck gourds up their asses to get high.
The world’s greatest, most famous trippers converged on the luxurious ski village of Whistler, BC in early May 2001, to share their research with each other and the masses. Hundreds of us were curious enough to pay the $290 US that it cost to be at ground zero for the latest breakthroughs in psychedelics from experts in archeology, psychology, native medicines, art, and finding new ways to get stoned.
The name of the conference was “Entheobotany II,” but it was actually something like the fourth or fifth in a series of loosely affiliated conferences held all over the world. The word “entheobotany” roughly means “the study of flowering plants that make us divine.”
The academic ring of “entheobotany” reveals its origins. Entheobotany is the evolution of what was originally western science’s attempt to understand “foreign minds” under the influence of psychedelics, which scientists call “entheogens”. It was the meeting place of polar opposites, where university professors and upper-class explorers experienced the untamed shamanistic phenomenon induced by foreign, mind-altering plants and tried to translate it into the language of dry academic textbooks.
Harvard’s cocaine fields
The conference opened with a stirring tribute to one of the greatest entheobotanists and trippers of all time, Richard Schultes, who recently passed away. Schultes was a professor of botany at Harvard University, and held the highly respected position of curator for Harvard’s botanical museum, where he grew coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived. “The whole botanical field was coca at that time? for ‘serious experiments’ only,” remembered the conference’s master of ceremonies, Jonathan Ott, who first met Schultes in 1973. “That’s when I first tried it.” Ott and Schultes became friends, and Ott learned from the old doctor.
“In this field it is almost impossible to examine any topic without referencing some really key important papers by Schultes,” said Ott.
Schultes introduced Ott to other fathers of entheobotany like Gordon Wasson, an elitist banker who wrote extensively about psychedelic mushrooms while tripping out on them in the Amazon. Ott later went on to become one of the most scholarly and daring researchers in the field today. He wrote books like the Pharmacotheon and Persephone’s Quest: Enthe-ogens and the origins of religion. Those who took the stage after Ott were quick to display a connection with Schultes like a badge of honour.
There were big bundles of marijuana in Schultes’ office in New England, mostly in piles on the desk, when Jonathan Ott came to visit the aging Harvard professor.
“I asked what all the pot was about, and he said that it was evidence in certain cases,” recalled Ott. “He pioneered research that asserted there were three genuses of marijuana, based on field work done in Asia. Cannabis Ruderalis, Indica and Sativa. He was doing this for some political mischief. Because the law at that time said only Cannabis Sativa [was illegal], he had some people acquitted with that defense.”
Near the end of the conference another Harvard professor, Dr Lester Grinspoon, who pioneered much of the research into medicinal cannabis with his book Marijuana: the forbidden medicine, took the stage to talk about his experience with cannabis. Much of the information from his presentation can be found in an interview that appeared in our last issue (CC#32, Lester Grinspoon: Defending medical marijuana).
Other presenters brought tales of cannabis from the darkest hearts of jungles in Africa and the Americas. The renowned entheobotanist Giorgio Samorini stumbled upon cannabis while in the Gabon region of Africa, studying the use of psychedelic plants, including Iboga Tabernathe, by local peoples. During a form of ancestor worship known as the Byeri ritual, said Samorini, local members of the Fang Buiti cult take the Iboga Tabernathe plant to contact their dead relatives for advice about sickness, hunting and war.
“There are 5 nations and 19 tribes in which Buiti and Iboga are used,” said Samorini in a heavy Latin accent. “Fang Buiti is a mixture of? Byeri [ancestor worship], traditional Buiti [which uses Iboga], and Christendom.”
To make contact easier, the heads of their dead relatives are kept in boxes in the temple. Samorini laughed and told how tribespeople, hoping to fully initiate him into the Byeri ritual, asked him if he couldn’t get the head of one of his dead relatives for the temple.
Other mind-altering plants also play big roles in ancestor worship, and in the physical and spiritual healing of the locals of Gabon. These plants, Samorini discovered, go by the common name for sacrament, which is “Ibogi.”
“Cannabis is one of the Ibogi,” revealed Samorini. “Cannabis is used in Buiti and in other religious cults. Not everywhere, but almost everywhere.”
Like Samorini, Christian Ratsch, another speaker at the conference, was researching the use of mind-altering plants by tribespeople when he discovered that cannabis was on their entheogenic diet. Ratsch ? a German entheobotanist with a PhD in Anthropology ? told how he was seduced by the Sestrum Nocturnum, or Night Jasmine plant, and how that led him to an experience with cannabis.
“According to South American peoples, from this plant [Night Jasmine] the land of the night was born,” said Ratsch.
For Ratsch, who twice edited and re-released Schultes’ famous illustrated book Plants of the gods, and who recently wrote Marijuana medicine, local legend is a rich source of clues for researching mind-altering plants.
“I smoked it and got high? so I went to the local shamans and asked what they use it for? they said it was for a healing ceremony and invited me.” The traditional ceremony was a giant Sestrum Nocturnum hotbox, said Ratsch. “They used huge piles of it. The whole room is just smoke and they have to inhale. That is one part? and then it transforms into a village party with dance!”
The healing ceremony blurred the western distinction between recreational and spiritual use? the party was the healing. But there was more traditional, physical healing associated with the plant as well. Ratsch would soon learn that the Sestrum Nocturnum was used for, among other things, a healing wash for damaged joints.
Should it be any surprise that plants that are known to promote spiritual balance should also balance the temple of the spirit? namely the body? Perhaps not to medicinal cannabis users. And the people of the village that Ratsch was investigating were certainly no strangers to cannabis.
“The next morning a Shaman came and knocked at my place and gave me a big bundle,” said Ratsch. “It was marijuana. he said, ‘Yesterday when in ecstasy I could see you wanted marijuana and you
didn’t have some!'”
Contrary to the western misconception that mind-altering drugs are inherently killers, researchers have found that ? just like cannabis ? the psychoactive potential of such plants are almost always accompanied with potent medicinal benefits, when used wisely.
Rocio Alarc?n, one of the very few female entheobotanists at the conference, studies the use of entheogens in South America. She found that a potent psychedelic drink called Ayahuasca ? which contains Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and is prepared from the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine and the leaves of Psychotria Viridis ? also has medicinal benefits.
“In one area, certain women used it for skin infection,” said Alarc?n, “but didn’t know it was Ayahuasca.” She also found that tribeswomen used Ayahuasca for purging the body by inducing vomiting and diarrhea, to reduce headaches as a poultice, and to remove parasites. The male Shamans also used Ayahuasca for healing the sick, by drinking it and then letting the spirit of the brew lead them to exactly the right medicinal plants for the person they were working on.
Dr Carlos Aldunate, Director of the Chilean Museum of Pre-colombian Art, studied the medicinal system of the Mapoucha Indians, who believe that many physical diseases are caused by supernatural forces. Aldunate recorded a pharmacopoeia of psychedelic plants used for exorcisms, for spiritual imbalances, for diseases caused by evil spirits, and for healing through dreams. It is thought that many of these plants are smoked, as the Mapoucha Indians of Southern Chile have a considerable, centuries long pipe lore that has still to be fully investigated.
Dr Peter Furst, author of Flesh of the gods: The ritual use of entheogens and many other books about psychedelics, revealed the medicinal properties of peyote. “Schultes did his doctoral dissertation on the botany of peyote,” said Furst. “He was convinced that the greatest attraction of peyote to native peoples wasn’t that it was a hallucinogen, but that it was a real medicine. What he didn’t know is that there are very potent antibiotics in peyote. It is effective against a lot of illnesses that can’t be treated with conventional antibiotics anymore.”
Other psychedelic health-scares were dispelled. After attending the conference, few were likely to come away with the impression that mind-altering drugs “fry the brain like an egg,” for example. In fact, many presented evidence that entheogens are useful psychiatric tools.
Carlos Aldunate revealed how Mapoucha Indians use the “death tree” ? Latua Pubiflora ? to foretell what a child will be good at in later life. The child is fed a dose and his actions are observed. If he kisses a girl, he may be an incurable Don Juan ?
kind of like early career counseling. Another plant ? Datura Stramonium ? is called Miyaya, which means “your way of loving,” and is given to delinquent children to correct their behaviour, with profoundly positive effects.
During a following presentation, Josep Maria Fericgla offered a scientific model for understanding how psychedelics can positively affect mental health. “Entheogens? act as emotional amplifiers,” said Fericgla. “The emotions need protective frames to be expressed and to bring catharsis. These frames have disappeared in their traditional forms. It is natural for us to seek mental health through inebriants as humans have throughout all of history, [but]to use entheogens in psychopathy, the therapist should? have a lot of subjective experience with entheogens.” As an example, Fericgla pointed to Ayahuasca as a psychedelic tool to “increase the objectivity of one’s emotions, enforce moral order, reduce anxiety, recover long-term memory and increase the capacity to love.”
Dr Ralph Metzner, a colleague of Timothy Leary’s who cowrote The psychedelic experience and has become famous for his pioneering work in psychedelic psychotherapy, is now studying the therapeutic use of Ayahuasca, and has developed his own intriguing model that includes psychic perceptions. During the conference, he asked us to all think questions at him, which he would answer.
From this slightly bizarre stratagem came gleaming, although sometimes disconnected gems of knowledge. Metzner described a psychological model in which “emotional entanglements with past patterns distort the ability to perceive clearly?” in the past, present and future. “As remembering is to the past, so visioning is to the future and awareness is to the present,” Metzner explained. “Entheogenic experience is a way of cleansing the doors of perception.”
Dr Claudia M?ller-Ebeling later took the stage to talk about how even bad trips filled with images of dragons and demons can be good for us. “The dragon is the force of nature that the shaman has to encounter,” asserted Ebeling, who has a PhD in art history. “The dragon represents not only what is frightening and what we don’t like, but the life force that must be dealt with to grow plants and do agriculture. It is always nature in opposition to culture.”
Spirits of the plants
For millennia, shamans have known that plant spirits, helpful entities and their dead ancestors might appear to them when they are high. University professors, with their toolboxes of scientific rigour and analysis, didn’t swallow it easily. When they finally did swallow the psychedelic mushrooms, vines and bark themselves, many of them were convinced that something was speaking to them through the trip.
Examining the artwork of ancient psychedelic cultures that have otherwise disappeared into the deserts of history, strange coincidences arose? coincidences that lead to perhaps one of the most mind-blowing implications of all time: that psychedelics are spiritually eloquent and are speaking themselves into human cultures.
One such coincidence is the connection between psychedelic plants and the divine, a motif that recurs in ancient art work throughout the world, and is at the heart of the concept of entheobotanical studies. During the conference, Peter Furst spoke about a pre-Colombian stone mural, dated at approximately 100 to 700 AD, that depicts a female deity with the Morning Glory plant, the seeds of which contain a natural form of LSD.
Another theme, as ancient as the tobacco pipe, is the connection between entheogens and peace. Manual Torres, a Professor of Pre-columbian Art History at Florida International University, studied an ancient city high in the Andes on the North coast of Peru, which he called the “United Nations” of pre-Colombian South America.
“What I have noticed from looking at cultures was that psychoactive plants were there from the beginning and played an essential role in the formation of those ideological systems,” Torres said. Torres speculated that the psychedelics of that region ? namely San Pedro Cactus (containing mescaline), Anadenanthera Spegazzini (containing buffotenine), Datura Brugmansia, coca and tobacco ? were used in peace ceremonies at the ancient city.
“Mayan cosmologies function as a system of dualities,” said Torres. “The site is located at the junction of two rivers. The area? provides an interface between two rainforest cultures … suggesting the use of psychoactive plants as a reconciliation of opposites, at the level of nation, not just for hunter-gatherer societies.”
One of the most regarded art works at the site is the “Tayo Obelisk”, which Torres describes as a giant monster with a penis that is ejaculating a psychedelic Datura plant.
Another voice at the conference, Robert Montgomery, compared the psychoactive Mayan beverage “Balchae” to the Asian beverage “Kava.” He noted similar psychoactive chemicals, similar effects, and most notably, similar rituals surrounding the use of the two drinks. “It makes me wonder,” he supposed. “Is the ceremonial structure chosen by the pharmacological effects of certain drugs?”
One of the most interesting coincidences is how specific animals are associated with psychedelics in cultures and ages around the world, particularly large cats, eagles, snakes, deer and other horned animals. In the high Andian city that Torres studied, jaguars, eagles and snakes were carved into whalebone trays that were used to snort the psychedelic Spegazzini, and deer were prominent on special jugs that were once used to drink San Pedro brew. Rocio Alarc?n told how the psychedelic Ayahuasca brew is associated with jaguars in South America, and related an ancient Warani legend about how the first Ayahuasca plants grew from the spilt blood of a giant Anaconda snake.
Peter Furst related how among the Huichol people of Peru, eagles and jaguars are important animals to psychedelic shamans, and how deer are associated with peyote which, like San Pedro (also associated with deer), contains mescaline. Although none of the speakers at the conference picked up on the association, ancient Siberian tribespeople also associated reindeer with the potent Amanita Muscaria mushroom.
Shrooms can save the world
Mushrooms were the topic of Paul Stamets’ stirring speech, which received the loudest, most enthusiastic applause of the entire conference. The world is covered in a network of mycelium, said Stamets, a small underground web of mushroom “roots”.
“Mycelium is sentient. It is a part of the mindscape of Gaia, an overlying mosaic of neural membranes,” he said, showing with slides how mycelia looks exactly like the neural network of the human brain. He also showed how mycelia seek and destroy bacteria like E Coli, how they break down diesel and oil, making fungi ideal for cleaning up spills. He pointed to the lowly slime mold, and its eerie ability to navigate a maze in search of food, “choosing the best possible route.” He also suggested that mushrooms may be some kind of Gaian secret agents.
“Mycelium responds to catastrophe,” Stamets said. “As we chop wood and build houses, psilocybe [psychoactive]mushrooms grow in the disturbed areas. The psilocybe mushrooms are following the activities of humans. It is no coincidence.”
Stamets believes that a part of mushrooms’ secret-agent role is to save the world from human folly by helping us to evolve more environmentally conscious ways of living. He told how taking magic mushrooms unfolded the mystery of the many uses of fungi to him. He described how he used non-psychoactive fungi to rid his home of termites, a patented process that would replace harmful pesticides and for which he is now being offered large sums of money. He also explained how he uses mushrooms to rehabilitate forests near watersheds, by creating a mycelial network along logging roads that filters fish-killing silt before it can leak into their marine habitats.
There were many other earth-shattering revelations at the conference, which took eight sessions to complete and lasted three days. Alexander Shulgin, famed entheogenic researcher, author of Phikal and creator of MDMA (ecstasy) and many other empathic psychedelics, presented his latest research on the biochemical content of psychedelic San Pedro cacti, showing us indecipherable chromatographic charts and explaining how picking San Pedro at different times of the day could give you slightly different highs.
One speaker, who was billed to speak about why the drug war was a good idea, failed to show.
Between entheobotany sessions, there were more intimate sessions for smoking cannabis, after which some people had their own private revelations. Like the fellow who fell asleep, started snoring, and dropped into the aisle after puffing some of the most potent cannabis extract I have ever had the pleasure to taste. By nightfall there were parties in chalets, saunas on wheels, and smokey huddles in shadowed alleyways. Mainstream media buzzed around the conference, making news in the local papers.
It was a revolution, not of guns or even of demonstrations against oppression, but of the true potential that psychedelics have offered humankind since the dawn of time.
? Entheobotany Shamanic Plant Seminars: PO Box 4, Sierra Madre, CA 91025, USA
? Opening art by Alex Grey: Journey of the Wounded Healer. alexgrey.com
? Plant illustrations by Franz Coray and EW Smith, from Plants of the Gods, by Richard Schultes, et al.