Sacred Plants

  ('Sacred Plants' Chapter excerpt from 'Shamanism - An Introductory Guide to Living in Harmony with Nature' by Nevill Drury)

Sacred plants that cause visions and hallucinations are a central feature of shamanism in many regions of the world. Whereas in the West, we perceive hallucinogenic drugs as invariably producing a distortion, a wavering from reality, in the pre-literate world of the shaman the exact opposite is true. Here the sacred plants are believed to open the doors to the heavens, to allow contact with the gods and spirits and to permit access to a greater reality beyond. The Jivaro Indians of Ecuador, for example, describe the familiar world as 'a lie'. There is only one reality - the world of the supernatural.

To modern urban Westerners, the idea of visions induced by psychotropic means may seem decadent. Indeed, during the late 1960s, when the youthful exploration of psychedelics was rampant, one would often read in the press about mystical episodes being 'artificially' produced by drugs such as LSD and psilocybin. Our attitude to such matters in modern Western society is mirrored by our language. The word 'drug' itself is a highly coloured term and is frequently associated with acts that are disapproved of in the mainstream. As a consequence the 'drug experience', if one could call it that, is not something valued by modern Western culture as a whole. Little distinction exists in the popular mind between sacred or psychedelic drugs, like those which feature in shamanism, and the recreational, addictive or analgesic drugs that are part of contemporary urban life.

A revealing anecdote that throws light on modern Western attitudes from a shamanic point of view is provided by anthropologist Peter Furst in his book Hallucinogens and Culture. Furst was present when a newspaper reporter referred to peyote as a 'drug' in front of a Huichol shaman. The shaman replied succinctly: 'Aspirin is a drug, peyote is sacred.'