The Lost Heritage of the Psychedelic West: Interview with Tom Hatsis

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Engineered cultural amnesia has kept even well educated people in the dark about important matters of religion and history. Not only have the Abrahamic traditions viewed competing cultures with a conviction of superiority – lack of research in areas deemed anathema by academia have left glaring omissions in our knowledge of history. Those of us with interest in such matters can rejoice at the scholarship of a new generation of authors benefiting from the research power and social networking of the internet typified by Chris Bennett and Tom Hatsis.

Two years ago Tom performed the “largest magical ritual ever performed – i.e. making the largest pentacle in the US through performing 5 minor, solo rituals at 5 different stops.” The Guinness World Records people decided that Tom couldn’t prove that he had really gone to those places and done those things. So this year, Tom is doing it again – but this time he’s inviting his friends along. Now you too can participate in a world record. Tom’s planned ritual sites include Los Angeles, CA, Ashland, OR, Columbia, SC, Long Beach, NY and the border of North and South Dakota.

Inner Traditions published Tom’s book The Witches‘ OintmentThe Secret History of Psychedelic Magic in 2015. Tom’s careful examination of trial records, grimoires, and the pharmacopoeia reveals the fascinating worlds of medieval magicians and Italian folk witches, such as Matteuccia di Francisco whose love potions contained hallucinogens, and Finicella whose ointments caused her to believe she could transform into a cat.

John Trudell used to talk about the white tribes wiped out by the process of industrialization we call civilization. Those tribes had their own spiritual traditions, including the use of sacred and psychoactive plants and substances.

Many generations of educated and open minded people believed that witches sacrificed babies for their ointments. But Hatsis exposes the merciless propaganda work of the church in creating that myth.  Women with knowledge of the healing and entheogenic powers of nature were recast as evil minions of the devil, poisoners, and casters of doomful spells, similar to how plants once used for healing and spiritual elevation became demonized as corrupters of youth and of public morals.

At the end of August Tom’s book Microdosing Magic will be published. Grimoire meets autobiography in this book of practical recipes for positive experiences with microdoses. Silliness and light hearted humor make this entertaining read with a wealth of information.

In September Inner Traditions will release Tom’s new book Psychedelic Mystery Traditions: Spirit Plants, Magical Practices and Ecstatic States which surveys the timeline of western history from the Neolithic to beyond the Victorian Era uncovering a wealth of evidence for the long and continuous relationship between religious experience and the use of psychedelics.

Psychedelics assisted pagan and Christian magical practices like theurgy, divination, and sex magic. Tom brings light to the Telestai of Eleusis, the Mysteries of Isis, the Dionysian cult, and the magical rituals of Thessalian witches, finding evidence in the Jewish, Roman, and Gnostic traditions that despite centuries old official prohibitions, knowledge of the lost tribal heritage persisted in secretive ways, spreading through rural traditions, alchemical books, and the work of writers like Rabelais. Psychedelic subculture was not the invention of the 1960s.
I resisted the temptation to ask him about his legendary roller derby adventures.

Ronnie Pontiac: What is a psychedelic witch and how did you become one?

Tom Hatsis: A psychedelic witch is any person who recognizes the natural and timeless use of psychedelics in magical practices and utilizes them to enhance the innate power they have in their own life.  Psychedelic witchyness is not about casting spells on others, but instead about casting spells on yourself.
I had a penchant for magic/witchcraft since I was a kid, so I’m not really sure how to become one. At one point in high school (I think I was in 10th grade) my older brother forced me to perform a magical ritual to make it snow. He said I was one of “those people” and could make it snow so school would be canceled. I don’t recall the exact reason—whether there was a test he hadn’t studied for, or a report he didn’t write—but he didn’t want to have to go to school the next day.
I had no idea what I was doing.  I took some dead grass from my lawn to signify “death” and threw it in a pot of boiling water. I wrote “snow” on a piece of paper, ripped it up, and threw it in the boiling pot of dead grass. I then really “focused” on making it snow. It didn’t work at all. Thankfully, my brother didn’t beat me up over the matter, which was all I was really hoping for. So in a way, while the spell didn’t work for him, it did work for me. And thus I stayed one fewer ass-kicking during the adolescent and teenage years of ass-kickings as bestowed by elder siblings.

When I first discovered cannabis in my late teens and mushrooms shortly thereafter I found my youthful practices going deeper and growing more significant in my life. In many ways, psychedelics validated what I was already doing—I wasn’t “weird,” I was just a witch!

So I spent most of my last teenage years and my twenties and early thirties expressing my craft through music, writing songs with a psychedelic slant. It was here that I discovered the poetigenic (using psychedelics for creative purposes) aspects of things like LSD, mushrooms, cannabis, mandrake, and henbane.

When you were working on your master’s degree at Queen’s College did you already know you would become a psychedelic witch, or were you planning to become an academic? If so what changed your mind? 

I never really chose either – both were just natural extensions of my life. I had already been obsessed with witchcraft and even tried to write a vampire novel before I discovered psychedelics; and I was using psychedelics in my practices before my undergrad days. In fact, it was a mushroom trip that told me to go to college in the first place! So I knew from my first day of college that I wanted to study psychedelia. I wrote my undergrad thesis on Timothy Leary and my Master’s thesis on the medical revolution of LSD during the 1940s and 50s.

I don’t really differentiate between the two (academic and witch); both are just part of my personality. My foremothers weren’t called wise women for nothing. If anything, the thing I didn’t see coming in my life was “roller derby gold medalist” hahaha! But yeah, the psychedelic witch thing … most anyone from my teenage years would have told you that was inevitable.

Your combination of storytelling and exposition of historical facts reminds me of Colin Wilson. Is he among your influences? Who are your primary influences as a writer and historian?
I read Colin Wilson’s “The Occult” years ago (and revisited it for Psychedelic Mystery Traditions), but wouldn’t call him a major influence on my writing. Really my biggest influence was just trying to not write a boring book. Take The Witches’ Ointment—so much of the argument depended on translating medieval medical and legal texts. I imagine most readers would be bored with dry translations, so I decided to weave small episodes that considered how and why the kinds of people who might use these extraordinary plants did so. I hoped that strategy would make the complicated history of medieval psychedelia more accessible to people who aren’t interested in reading medieval medical texts.

The Goddess Isis was famous for healing. How were entheogens involved? 

Entheogens could have been involved in any number of ways. One way in particular that I write about in Psychedelic Mystery Traditions had to do with taking a strong potion of opium and coriander to entrance oneself and enter the Otherworld. Once in the Otherworld, the patient would meet Isis. Isis would either heal the person or give them instructions on how to heal themselves once back in our world.  Though sometimes a person might fall asleep naturally in the temple—no opium required.

You point out that the Oracle of Delphi might be the first trip report in history. What do you think the Pythia was high on? 

According to Plutarch (who was once a priest of the Rites of Delphi), natural gases (i.e., “Apollo’s gases”) spit out from a crevasse in the Temple of Apollo caused the euphoric and entheogenic effects in the oracles. He is confirmed by other ancient authors. Modern archaeological digs have validated the ancient sources.  Excavators found a fault line in the Earth that runs beneath the temple that did at one time emit these kinds of fumes into the Oracle’s chamber.

What was moon juice? 

In ancient sources, witches would famously “draw down the moon.” This was done so as to redouble the efficacy of the moon’s powers over plants – the closer the moonbeams (i.e., “moon juice”) were to the plants the stronger the plants would be when ingested. Today, some magical people use moon juice as a metaphor for menstrual blood.

You present plenty of evidence that many early Christian sects used entheogens, and that the early patriarchs admit not only the healing qualities of these substances but also their effective use by wise women. How did Christianity become a religion of prohibition instead? 

Is it really a religion of prohibition? The first wine I ever imbibed was handed to me by a priest on an ordinary Sunday – haha!

But I know what you mean. The story of how Christianity become associated with tee-totaling emerged mostly in the Victorian Era. It’s a complicated history, one could easily write a whole book on the topic (and many have). But a small part of it had to do with Queen Victoria (among other cultural figures at the time) revamping Christmas (the central Christian holiday) as a “family friendly” celebration. That, along with the various temperance movements of the 19th century, seemed to contribute to the cultural factors that moved Christians away from intoxication (at least on paper). Then in the 1930s we entered the ridiculous “reefer madness” era, where cannabis became the “devil’s weed.” Christians shit their pants every time the devil is mentioned, so that contributed to the paradigm that “drugs are bad.” But again, there is far more to the history than these few factors.

Why did psychedelic ointments become demonized as containing the flesh of sacrificed human infants? 

This is another complicated historical web. Briefly, the entheogenic ointments that village wise-women used to worship fertility goddesses reminded some theologians of the Eucharists imbibed at heretical gatherings. Those Eucharists—or “heretics’ potions” as I call them—were rumored to contain the remains of sacrificed children. In all likelihood, the potions contained something like cannabis, opium, mandrake, or henbane, if they contained any psychoactive agent at all. This conflation from heretics’ potion to witches’ ointment can be most notably seen in a short, anonymous tract called Errorers Gazarii. Therein, the author speaks of a “new sect” of witches that are also heretics. They use these magical ointments to meet up to perform profane rites. This sees the inception of the “satanic witch” stereotype—drug-using, child-murdering, demon-fucking, cannibalistic, Satan worshipers. Some theologians had quite the imagination!

No doubt there were eccentric folks back then as today who probably used plants and fungi in ways that we today call “sacred” but their local clergy called “profane.”

How did the Interpretario Romano contribute to the gaslighting and disempowerment of female medical practitioners and women in general, the demonization of the sacred feminine, and the creation of the Witch Stereotype? Was it all a reaction to the plagues and wars of the previous generation? 

These were essentially the questions I sought to answer with The Witches’ Ointment. I would direct interested readers to that work. I also have a chapter in my forthcoming Psychedelic Mystery Traditions that condenses the key points of my earlier work.

Tell us something about your new book, Microdosing Magic: A Psychedelic Spellbook.
Microdosing Magic is the first ever do-it-yourself modern grimoire of psychedelic magic. After reading the available books and articles on microdosing I found that none of them addressed the magical side of the psychedelic experience. Much of the conversation is taking place around the therapeutic and neurological fields, which is fantastic! With a bit of luck, we will be seeing wider acceptance of psychedelics as the medicines they are in the coming years. Thing is, because I have been using these tools for so long, I felt I could share something about them. But I’m not a therapist nor a neurologist, so I can’t contribute anything of value in those areas.

On the other paw, I do have an intimacy with accessing the magical faculties of psychedelics, and hadn’t seen those aspects addressed since the psychedelic renaissance and subsequent microdose boom. So I set out to fill that void. There is some history and philosophy in the book as well because both have framed my magical endeavors. However, whether you agree or disagree with my historical opinions and philosophies, the magic still works. I say give it a go!
Among your credits is Potion Maker, what aspects of that calling will your new book Microdosing Magic: A Psychedelic Spellbook reveal? 

I have one chapter titled “Cosmic Orgy in a Mason Jar.” I reveal both one of my potion recipes and also tell the occult myth behind the brewing process.

With books like yours and also the work of Chris Bennett and Stephen Gray, and others, there seems to be an awakening from mass amnesia when it comes to the importance of entheogens in human history. It parallels the wave of cannabis legalization. What do you make of this genuine cultural synchronicity?
I see both positives and some areas that need addressing with this combined synchronicity/shift. Just as much as some people are waking up there are others falling fast asleep. The majority, I feel, fall into a third category: they are awake but don’t want (or don’t know how) to get out of bed.
The rediscovery of our entheogenic past has indeed produced some great works – you mention Chris Bennett. I think he just wrote the best book on the topic of cannabis in magic, Liber 420. And Gwyllm Lloyd has been tackling the Victorian hash and art scenes as well and just published a most splendid edition of Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater. So the history is there, but if we don’t do anything with it – what’s the point? That’s another reason I wrote Microdosing Magic. It gives already awake people some real magic and witchcraft to use to propel them “out of bed,” so to speak.
What do you think is the most important chapter you’ve so far written?
Chapter 5 of Microdosing Magic: A Psychedelic Spellbook is titled “Microdose Spells to Un-asshole Yourself Because the World Needs You Now More Than Ever!”

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