Repression of Shamanistic Traditions

  from the article Psychiatric Research with Hallucinogens: What Have we learned? by Charles S. Grob, M.D.

Shamanistic Roots:

    Hallucinogens, throughout the breadth of time, have played a vital albeit hidden and mysterious role. They have often, in aboriginal and shamanic contexts, been at the absolute center of culture and world view (DOBKIN DE RIOS, 1984). Opening up the doors to the spiritual planes, and accessing vital information imperative to tribal cohesion and survival, hallucinogenic plants became what some scholars have considered to be the bedrock of human civilization (WASSON, 1968; WASSON et al, 1978; HUXLEY, 1978). Within the context of shamanic society, these awe inspiring botanicals were utilized to facilitate healing, divine the future, protect the community from danger and enhance learning (e.g. teaching hunters the ways of animals) (CORDOVA-RIOS, 1971). However, with the advent of stratified and hierarchical societies, such plant potentiators came to be viewed as dangerous to the commonweal and controls were placed on direct and revelatory access to the sacred (DOBKIN DE RIOS and SMITH, 1976). In some societies (e.g. Aztec civilization) use of psychotropic plants was restricted to the select castes of the religious priesthood. In others, including the progenitors of our own contemporary Euro-American culture, absolute proscriptions on the use of plant drugs for divine purposes were decreed.


Repression of Shamanistic Traditions:

    To fully understand the enormous resistances to these drugs and the unique experiences they induce, it would be revealing to examine some elements of our historical legacy. A poorly appreciated period from Fourteenth through Seventeenth Century European History has been the persecution of indigenous healers, predominantly woman, during the reign of the Inquisition, particularly in Northern and Western Europe. During a span of three hundred years several million women were accused of practicing witchcraft and condemned to die. The Medieval scholar Jules Michelet has explored the complicity between ecclesiastical and medical authorities in the subjugation of non-sanctioned healing, commenting on the attitude of the Church "that if a woman dare cure without having studied, she is a witch and must die" (MICHELET, 1965). To have "studied" in this context is to have faithfully adhered to the precepts and moral authority of the Church, and to have forsworn receiving knowledge from Nature.

    A rich heritage of plant lore and applied healing had been passed down from pagan and pre-Christian Europe, rivaling and often surpassing the demonstrated efficacy of Church sanctioned medical practitioners. Hallucinogenic plants with magical as well as healing properties were essential elements of this indigenous pharmacopoeia. Members of the Solanaceae family with their alkaloids atropine and scopolamine, including a great number of species of the genus Datura, as well as mandrake, henbane and belladonna, had wide application as agents of healing and transcendence (HARNER, 1973). In taking action against the indigenous use of psychotropic plants, the Church sought to eliminate a perceived threat to its oligarchic powers and reassert its monopoly on legitimate access to the supernatural (O'NEIL, 1987). By casting the healer as a witch and the hallucinogenic plants as tools of Satan, the Church succeeded not only in eliminating competition to the elite physician class but also in virtually eradicating knowledge of these vestiges of pagan and shamanic consciousness.

    A second historical period whose examination may be pertinent to understanding our ingrained cultural resistances and aversion to hallucinogens is the European conquest of the New World. Shortly after arrival in Central and South America in the late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries, the invading Spanish Conquistadors observed an impressive array of psychoactive pharmacopoeia, including morning glory seeds (containing the potent hallucinogen, Iysergic acid), peyote and psilocybin mushrooms.

    These extraordinary plants were utilized by the native inhabitants to induce an ecstatic intoxication and were an integral component of their aboriginal religion and ritual. As plant hallucinogens were attributed to have supernatural powers, they were quickly perceived by the European invaders as weapons of the Devil designed to prevent the triumph of Christianity over traditional Indian religion (FURST, 1976). An early Seventeenth Century Spanish observer of native customs, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon, wrote of the idolatries he observed involving the consumption of the morning glory:

"Ololiuhqui is a kind of seed-like lentils produced by a type of vine in this land, which when drunk deprive of the senses, because it is very powerful, and by this means they communicate with the devil, because he talks to them when they are deprived of judgment with the said drink, and deceive them with different hallucinations, and they attribute it to a god they say is inside the seed" (GUERRA, 1971).

    Identifying the threat not only to consolidating their power and control over the conquered peoples, but also the danger of lower caste immigrant Spaniards developing interest in native rituals and healing practices, The Holy Inquisition of Mexico issued in 1616 a proclamation ordering the persecution and excommunication of those who, under the influence of

"herbs and roots with which they lose and confound their senses, and the illusions and fantastic representations they have, judge and proclaim afterwards as revelation, or true notice of things to come..." (GUERRA, 1967).

    To continue to engage in native practices and utilize their traditional plant hallucinogens as agents of knowledge and healing would risk indictment of heresy and witchcraft, and inevitably the implementation of the cruelest punishments of the Inquisition, from public flogging to being burned alive at the stake. Unable to accept the indigenous utilization of such psychoactive substances as anything other than idolatry and a threat to their goals of domination and exploitation, the European conquerors denied them legitimacy, endeavoring to expunge their traditions and knowledge. Only by going deeply underground and maintaining their world view and shamanic practices in secret from the dominant Euro-American culture, has this knowledge survived.