Man has used hallucinogenic plants for thousands of years, probably since he began gathering plants for food. The hallucinogens have continued to receive the attention of civilized man through the ages. Recently, we have gone through a period during which sophisticated Western society has “discovered” hallucinogens, and some sectors of the society have taken up, for some reason or another, the use of such plants. This trend may be destined to continue.
It is important for us to learn a much as we can about hallucinogenic plants. A great amount of scientific literature has been published about their uses and effects, but the information is locked away in technical journals. No matter whether we believe the use of hallucinogenic plants is right or wrong, they have played an extensive role in human culture and probably will continue to do so.
In early man’s search for food, he tried all kinds of plants. Some nourished him, some he found cured his ills, and some killed him. A few had strange effects on his mind and body, seeming to place him in a foreign world. These plants are called hallucinogens, because they distort the senses and usually produce hallucinations. Although, most hallucinations are visual, some involve hearing, touch, smell, or taste. Occasionally several senses are effected.
The actual causes of such hallucinations are the chemical substances in the plants. These substances are true narcotics. Contrary to popular opinion, not all narcotics are dangerous and addictive. The term psychedelic describes such drugs in the United States.
In the history of mankind, the hallucinogens have probably been the most important of the narcotics. Their fantastic effects made them sacred to primitive man and may have been responsible for suggesting to him the idea of deity.
Hallucinogens permeate nearly every aspect of life in primitive societies. They play roles in health and sickness, peace and war, home life and travel, hunting and agriculture; they affect relations among individuals, villages, and tribes.
Medical and religious uses of hallucinogenic plants are particularly important in primitive societies. Aboriginal people attribute sickness and health to the working of spirit forces. Consequently, any medicine that can transport man to the spirit world is considered by many aborigines to be better than one with purely physical effects.
Psychic powers have also been attributed to hallucinogens and have become an integral part of primitive religions. All over the world hallucinogenic plants are used as mediators between man and his gods.
Other uses of hallucinogens vary from one primitive culture to another. Many hallucinogenic plants are basic to the initiation rituals of adolescents. The Algonquin Indians gave an intoxicating medicine, wysoccan, to their young men for a period of 20 days. During this time they lost all memory, starting manhood and forgetting they had been boys.
In South America, many tribes take ayahuasca to foresee the future, settle disputes, decipher enemy plans, cast or remove spells, or insure the fidelity of their women. Sensations of death and separation of body and soul are sometimes experienced during a dreamlike trance.
The hallucinogenic properties of Datura, a hallucinogenic plant, have been thoroughly exploited in the New World. In Mexico and in the Southwest, Datura is used for prophecy and ritualistic curing. Modern Mexican Indians value certain mushrooms as sacraments and use morning glories and the peyote cactus to predict the future, diagnose and cure disease, and appease good or evil spirits. The Mixtecs of Mexico eat puffballs to hear voices from heaven to answer their questions.
Our modern society has recently taken up the use, sometimes illegally, of hallucinogens on a grand scale. Many people believe they can achieve “mystic” or “religious” experience by altering the chemistry of the body with hallucinogens. Whether drug induced adventures can be identical with the metaphysical insight claimed by some mystics, or are merely a counterfeit of it, is still controversial. The widespread and expanding use of hallucinogens in our society may have little or no value and may sometimes even be harmful or dangerous.
Hallucinogenic plants are used in a variety of ways, depending on the kind of plant material, on the active chemicals involved, on cultural practices, and on other considerations. Man, in primitive societies everywhere, has shown great ingenuity and wisdom in taking advantage of the uses of these plants. Plants may be eaten, smoked, snuffed, drank, rubbed into the skin, and even administered through enemas.
Ayahuasca and Caapi are two of many names for a South American vine: Banisteriopsis caapi or B. inebrians. Both are gigantic jungle lionas with tiny pink flowers. A hallucinogenic drink made from the bark of these vises is widely used by Indians in the western Amazon. Other names for the drink are dopa, natema, pinde, and yaje.
In Peru and Ecuador, the drink is made by rasping the bark and then boiling it. In Colombia and Brazil, the scraped bark is squeezed in cold water to make the drink. Some tribes add other plants to alter or increase the potency of the drink. In some parts of the Orinocco, the vine is simply chewed. Ayahuasca is popular for it’s “telepathic properties”, for which there is no evidence.
The earliest published reports of ayahuasca date from 1858, but in 1851 Richard Spruce, an English explorer, had discovered the plant from which the intoxicating drink was made. Spruce also reported that the peoples along the Orinocco River in Venezuela chewed the dried stem for its effects instead of preparing a drink.
The effects of drinking ayahuasca range from a pleasant intoxication with no hangover, to violent reactions with sickening after-effects. Usually there are visual hallucinations in color. In excessive doses, the drug brings on nightmarish visions and a feeling of reckless abandon. Consciousness is usually not lost, nor is there impairment of the use of arms and legs. In fact, dancing is a major part of the ayahuasca ceremony in many tribes. The intoxication ends in a deep sleep and vivid dreams.
The ceremonial uses of ayahuasca are of major importance in the lives of South American Indians. In eastern Peru, medicine men take the drug to diagnose and treat diseases. In Colombia and Brazil, the drug is used in religious ceremonies that are rooted in mythology. In the famous Yurupari ceremony of the Tukanoan Indians of Amazonian Columbia, a ceremony that initiates adolescent boys into manhood, the drug is given to strengthen those who must undergo the severely painful ordeal that forms a part of the rite.
The intoxication of ayahuasca or caapi among these Indians is thought to represent a return to the origin of all things: the user “sees” tribal gods and the creation of the universe and of man and the animals. This experience convinces the Indians of the reality of their religious beliefs, because they have “seen” everything that underlies them. To them, everyday life is unreal, and what caapi/ayahuasca brings them is the true reality.
Peyote is a cactus that grows in rocky deserts. It is the most spectacular hallucinogenic plant of the New World. Peyote is also one of the earliest known plants used by the Aztecs. Peyote is a small, fleshy, spineless cactus with little crowns that sprout from it. These crowns are cut off and sun dried to be eaten.
Spanish chroniclers described the use of peyote by the Aztecs. One reported that those who ate it saw frightful visions and remained drunk for two or three days. He stated that the Aztecs ate the plant to give then courage to fight and not feel fear, nor hunger, nor thirst. The Aztecs also believed it protected them from all danger.
Opposition to the use of peyote by the Aztecs was strong among the Spanish conquerors. One early Spanish church document linked eating the plant to cannibalism. The Spanish tried to eliminate the use of peyote because they saw the religious hold it had on the Indians. By 1720, the eating of peyote was prohibited throughout Mexico. Despite four centuries of persecution, the use and importance of peyote have spread beyond its early limited confines. Today it is so strongly anchored in native lore that even Christianized Indians believe that a patron saint walks the hills where peyote grows.
The effects of peyote on the mind and body are so utterly unworldly and fantastic that it is easy to understand the native belief that the cactus must be the residence of spirit forces or a divinity. The most spectacular of the many effects is the kaleidoscopic play of colored visions. Hallucinations of hearing, feeling, and taste often occur as well.
The intoxication may be divided into two periods: one of contentment and extra sensitivity, followed by artificial calm and muscular sluggishness at which time the subject begins to pay less attention to his surroundings and increases his “meditation”. Before visions appear, there are flashes and disturbances in color, which are not explainable. The visions often follow a sequence from geometric figures to unfamiliar objects that vary with the individual.
In addition to the hallucinogenic plants used by primitive peoples, numerous other species containing biodynamic principles are known to exist. Many are common household varieties like catnip, cinnamon, and ginger. No reliable studies have been made of the hallucinogenic properties of such plants. Some of the effects reported may have been imaginary; other reports may be outright hoaxes. Nevertheless, many of these plants do have a chemistry theoretically capable of producing hallucinations. Experimentation continues with plants, common and uncommon, known or suspected to be hallucinogenic, and new ones are continually being discovered.