The recently discovered Chauvet Cave (1994) in southern France contains paintings and other evidence of religious use dating back to the Paleolithic period some 32,000 years ago, and left undisturbed for the past 25,000 years, when the site was sealed until the present day by a landslide. The German filmmaker Werner Herzog was allowed exclusive access to document it in his recent (2010) Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The evidence of ritual shamanism has led him to posit that the human species might be better named as Homo spiritualis, rather than the simple toolmaker known as sapiens sapiens.
It was the sudden awakening of consciousness occasioned by psychoactive sacraments or entheogens that set mankind upon the path of evolutionary dominance over the other creatures of planet Earth. Entheogens were at the very origin of religion.
The caves served various scenarios as places of initiation and as the loci for the reciting of the most secret tales of the tribe’s mythical origins. The paintings were both an evocation of the world outside and as permeable barriers affording access through to the different dimensions glimpsed in the shamanic trances, often empowered by the bestial familiars depicted. The caves as the womb-like enclosure were linked with upright stones outside, both natural and artificially modified, representing the intruding male member, either as phallic dolmens or anthropomorphized as standing menhirs.
The journey of the soul passed along the axis established by the volcano, either down to the netherworld or up to the fiery surround of the cosmos known as the empyrean, via the alchemical forge of its burning caldera at its base. Thus the cultural founder of the tribe was often the thief who stole fire from the gods. This fire was emblematic of spiritual transmutation and was found resident in the psychoactive plants that were the substance of the Eucharist sacrament.
Thus Prometheus, who is the best known of these fire-thieves, stole fire in a manner that is clearly identifiable in Classical Greek tradition as the motif of the special procedures involved in the gathering of magical plants. He placed the fire stolen from the gods in a narthex. This was the hollow stem of a giant reed, a container thereafter employed symbolically by the herbalists in harvesting medicinal and sacred plants. It is blatantly named as the ‘receptacle for narcotics.’ The word was adopted as the title for several encyclopedias of drugs.
The use of the narthex to designate the vestibule of Christian churches indicates the longevity of the metaphor that sacred space is accessed through the medicine cabinet. The gateway sometimes was ornamented with the pagan goddess above, spreading her vulva as an invitation to enter her transformative womb and cave, through to the world beyond.
The narthex was wielded by the ecstatic bacchants, the maddened women or maenads possessed by the god Bacchus, whose mountain revels are depicted with a myriad of motifs that encode the simple reality that they are gathering magical wild plants. Thus at the very center of ancient Classical religion, there is clear proof of the use of psychoactive plants to access transcendent spiritual powers, including zoomorphism, divine orgasm, and heightened physical abilities, such as flight or astral projection.
The narthex was also called a thyrsus. Its symbolism as a drug box can be sensed in the use of the word as the ordinary culinary designation for the stipe or trunk-stem of a mushroom, with its cap (in the case of Amanita muscaria, the part that is psychoactive) stuffed into its stem.
The god of the maenads was also called Dionysus, whose resident spirit was found in the drink of wine, a mixture of the alcoholic product from the fermentation of the grape, fortified by a variable admixture of natural botanical intoxicants. Refusing to accept this gift of the god resulted in the recidivism or destruction of the city, whereas acceptance was at the heart of democracy as a form of government uniting classes and empowering the lower orders; and in the case of Athens, the controlled and beneficial hallucinatory reality enacted in the god’s Theater was largely the reason for the city’s emergence as a cultural icon for its own and ensuing times. It was drugs that created the fifth-century BCE Classical Age of Pericles.
These theatrical performances were symbolically inspired emanations from the sacred Cave at the base of the Acropolis above the Theater. There was an apparently true tradition that the great tragedian Euripides created his dramas in a Cave of his own on the island of Salamis where his family had an estate. The Cave is deep and damp, with several chambers, in use since Neolithic times as a ritual sanctuary. It is a totally inappropriate environment for anything other than mystical rapture.
The Cave experience was also ritualized in the great Mystery religion enacted at the sanctuary of the mother goddess at the village of Eleusis or Elefsina outside Athens, where each year thousands of initiates accessed transcendence via a sacred potion containing a naturally occurring form of LSD, and they journeyed in the spirit to the otherworld to ratify a covenant linking them with deities as reciprocal friends and visitors from foreign realms. It was the overwhelming event of a lifetime, something experienced by most of the figures now idolized as the great minds of antiquity, both Greek and Roman.
The Cave experience of antiquity is best preserved in Plato’s allegory of the Cave, where the prisoners, forced to view only the shadows projected on the rock wall by an underground fire behind them, are induced to turn and face the flames and then ascend to the solar brilliance of the world outside. This is only an allegory. Its application is to realize that this ordinary world perceived outside is merely a foretaste of the true reality that lies in the empyrean beyond. The Platonic Cave as magical enclosure to access and even rearrange the cosmos lies at the basis of liturgical space in the sacred architecture of medieval and Renaissance Europe.
The ancient peoples had a wide array of psychoactive substances from which to choose. The role of cannabis is best documented in the holy anointing chrism and sacred incense of Judaism as prescribed in Exodus of the Old Testament. It contains a huge quantity of a so-called ‘fragrant cane’ designated as kaneh bosm. This has been correctly identified now for almost a century as the assimilation into Hebrew of the Scythian plant that in Greek is rendered as cannabis. The High Priest each year on Yom Kippur entered the confined enclosed space of the Inner Tabernacle of the Temple in Jerusalem with a burning brazier of the aromatic incense, and there, Yahweh materialized to him amidst the smoke upon the altar of the Ark of the Covenant. As the personification of Israel, the High Priest offered himself as bride to the deity, reaffirming the covenant.
Cannabis was probably always an ingredient in the incenses that fumigated sacred space in Classical Greek and Roman sanctuaries. It was also commonly available as an additive to the wine. As with cannabis today, there would have been numerous names for it, beyond the Scythian designation. One such name is probably the ‘smoke plant,’ thymbra, which is identified as a kind of savory or thyme, Satureia thymbra. It is named for the satyr, the ithyphallic goat manifestation of the god Bacchus in the mountain revels of the maenads. Such an association indicates that the common identification is probably erroneous. Thymbra is also associated with the god Apollo. Significantly, the person who eats thymbra experiences altered vision.
As smoke, however, it lurks in the famous parody of Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds comedy (423 BCE), more explicitly, Clouds of Smoke. The philosopher was introduced on stage hanging high in a basket, so that he can access his high thoughts, as he summons his clouds of smoke beneath him. If he were not high, he could never have had his philosophical ideas. Just before his introduction, his students were parodied as burning coals in his Think Shop, which is in the likeness of the Scythian cannabis fumigation tents, as they search for the secrets of the Mysteries. These students are further parodied as Spartan sympathizers, implying that cannabis fumigation was an element in the indoctrination of male adolescents into the Spartan army.