The history of consciousness-expanding substances may bring to mind the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. However, their Indigenous use extends far beyond this historical flash in the pan. Entheogen is a neologism that highlights the ancient spiritual role of these pharmacologically-diverse substances. The human use of entheogens for spiritual and religious purposes dates back to prehistoric times. This was a period devoid of dogma and religious institutions that attempt to monopolize the sacred. For thousands of years, entheogens have played a pivotal role in shamanic societies. They have granted direct access to visceral awe and divine reverence, everywhere from the humid jungles of the Amazon to the frigid Arctic Circle.
What is an Entheogen?
“Entheogen” is a term coined in 1979 by R. Gordon Wasson, Jonathan Ott, Carl Ruck, and other of their colleagues to describe psychoactive drugs, usually of plant origin, that produce transcendent experiences and facilitate spiritual development. Etymologically, the word entheogen is derived from two Greek words: entheos (god, “theos,” within), and the root word –gen (the action of becoming). Thus, entheogen means literally “becoming the divine within.”
As Carl Ruck and colleagues describe in their original 1979 article introducing the term,
“In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens.”
However, over the past century, entheogenic substances have found worldwide use well beyond ritualistic and shamanic settings. Moreover, organic chemistry labs have produced various synthetic substances with entheogenic effects. With this in mind, Ruck expands the definition of entheogen, noting:
“… but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.”
Roots and Other Parts
The word “entheogen” is not synonymous with other terms in the psychoactive lexicon, including psychedelic and hallucinogen. Psychedelic, which literally means “mind-manifesting,” is perhaps the most accepted term among psychonauts and researchers alike. However, the term carries the weight of contemporary Western counterculture. Thus, it arguably resonates more with the recreational, rather than the sacred and venerated, use of these substances. In addition, entheogen rehabilitated the term “hallucinogen,” a word that, if at all, only narrowly describes the mental experience produced by the substance in question. It is also fraught with pathological associations to psychosis and similar hallucinatory states of mind.
According to many ethnobotanists and historians, entheogens have played a crucial role in the development of various world religions and spiritual traditions. Even today, many religious practitioners legally consume entheogens to produce states of ecstatic and shamanic possession, two states that are intimately intertwined. Indeed, shamanism has been described by Mircea Eliade as the “archaic techniques of ecstasy.” The use of entheogens is just one technique in the shamanic toolkit to achieve transcendent states, often used alongside other time-honored methods such as drumming, ecstatic dance, prayer, meditation, yoga, and chanting.
Entheogenic plants and fungi have been venerated as sacred sacraments and tools of divination and healing among Indigenous peoples for millennia. The traditional and religious use of entheogens has thrived in many cultures: ayahuasca and yopo in the Amazon basin, mescaline-containing cacti in South and North America, psilocybin mushrooms and Salvia divinorum in southern Mexico, and iboga in western Africa. In this section, we will overview some of the most common plant-based and fungal entheogens.
Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a Quechua word meaning “vine of the souls.” It is an entheogenic tea that Indigenous groups in the Amazon basin have used sacramentally for millennia. Most commonly, it is made from the DMT-containing shrub Psychotria viridis (known as chacruna), and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. B. caapi acts as an MAOI, rendering the DMT in P. viridis orally active. The ritualistic use of ayahuasca is foundational to several religious organizations, including the Brazil-based União do Vegetal (UDV) church and The Santo Daime Church.
The Indigenous people of Amazonian Peru have traditionally used ayahuasca for healing, spiritual transformation, and to attain peak mystical experiences. Historically, ayahuasqueros have claimed they received instructions on how to make ayahuasca directly from the plants or plant spirits themselves. Ayahuasca began to receive more exposure from the West following the publication of True Hallucinations by the McKenna brothers, who documented their experiences in the Amazon.
Yopo is a powerful entheogenic snuff that has been used in healing ceremonies and rituals by a multitude of South American tribes for over 4,000 years. The name refers to the Anadenanthera peregrina tree, a perennial native to South America and the Caribbean. Its seeds, which are ground to make the snuff, contain the psychedelic tryptamines DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and bufotenin. Traditionally, it is consumed by having another person blow the snuff into one’s nasal cavities with a bamboo tube or similar pipe-like object. Some South American tribes have used yopo alongside the MAOI Banisteriopsis caapi, producing effects similar to those of ayahuasca.
Peyote is a small psychoactive cactus native to Mexico and the southwestern United States. The word peyote comes from the Aztec Nahuatl word peyotl. Peyote contains the psychedelic phenethylamine mescaline, which produces similar effects as LSD and psilocybin. In terms of human use, it is one of the oldest psychedelics. Archaeological evidence has shown that Native American tribes in Mesoamerica have used it for over 5,500 years. Its medicinal and spiritual use originated with the Tonkawa and Mescalero tribes. In addition, the Huichol, Chichimeca, Tarahumara, and Cora tribes have also used it sacramentally.
By the 19th century, the ceremonial use of peyote by the Indigenous peoples of Mexico spread north to native tribes in the United States. This diffusion of peyote practices north of Mexico coincided with the establishment of the North American Church, also known as Peyotism. As of the 1979 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom act, ceremonial use of peyote by Native Americans is legal in the United States.
San Pedro Cacti
San Pedro is a mescaline-containing columnar cactus native to the Andes mountains in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is also known by the Quechua word huachuma, which translates roughly to “removing the head,” a probable nod to its ego-annihilating potential. Traditionally, San Pedro has been consumed by itself or with other plants in an entheogenic brew known as cimora. In these forms, shamanic healers use it as a spiritual tool to facilitate the divination of their patients’ afflictions and to communicate with their ancestors.
The effects of San Pedro are characterized by out-of-body journeys, ego dissolution, and powerful empathogenic effects, all of which catalyze significant personal transformation and healing. San Pedro has been used for thousands of years by several pre-Colombian cultures, including the Cupisnique, Chavin, Lambayeque, and Moche.
“Psilocybin mushrooms” refers to roughly 200 gilled mushrooms that contain the serotonergic tryptamine psilocybin, and/or its derivative psilocin. The tryptamine itself is found predominantly in the genus Psilocybe, but also in other genera such as Panaeolus, Inocybe, Gymnopilus, and others. Shamanic and religious ceremonies have used psilocybin mushrooms for thousands of years. Prehistoric art across the world has depicted the mushroom, with some murals from the Sahara Desert dating as early as 9000 BCE. Shamanic cultures within pre-Colombian Mexico used psilocybin mushrooms widely. These cultures included the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Aztec.
The Aztecs referred to psilocybin mushrooms as teonanacatl, or “flesh of the gods.” Once the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs in the 16th century, they declared psilocybin mushroom use heresy. This forced the practice underground for several hundred years. After the ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson published an article in Life Magazine titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in 1958, the West began to popularize magic mushrooms. This article detailed his psilocybin experience in Oaxaca, Mexico with the Mazatec mushroom shaman, Maria Sabina.
Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant in the mint family, endemic to the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca, Mexico. Traditionally, users consume Salvia by chewing the fresh leaves or by drinking an infusion. Salvinorin A is the main psychoactive compound found in the leaves. It produces entheogenic effects by binding to κ-opioid receptors in the brain. This atypical pharmacological action distinguishes it from the classical psychedelics, which bind mainly to the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor.
Mazatec shamans have used S. divinorum sacramentally for healing, divination, and religious communion, often when psilocybin mushrooms weren’t available. The Mazatec see the plant as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, referring to it as “ska Maria Pastora”, meaning “the herb of Mary, the Shepherdess.”
Tabernanthe iboga, or commonly just iboga, is a rainforest shrub indigenous to central west Africa. Its roots and bark contain the tryptamine ibogaine, a pharmacologically-complex alkaloid that binds to multiple neurotransmitter systems. At mid-to-high doses, ibogaine produces powerful visionary, introspective, and dissociative effects. Similar to ayahuasca, iboga has a long history of ceremonial use, particularly in the coming-of-age rituals among the practitioners of the Bwiti religion in Gabon, Africa.
What is Entheogen Therapy?
The tools of science are increasingly quantifying and expanding upon the time-tested Indigenous knowledge of entheogenic substances. As a result, the healing potential of these substances is becoming politically undeniable, thereby opening up new vistas for mental health treatment in the West.
Entheogen therapy refers to the use of entheogenic substances in conjunction with therapeutic practices to heal emotional and psychological issues and catalyze significant personal and spiritual growth. The most promising molecular candidates for entheogen therapy, while certainly not the only ones, are serotonergic psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA.
Psilocybin, which achieved breakthrough therapy status by the FDA in 2018, has proven highly effective in treating anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Just a single dose of psilocybin can provide immediate and lasting relief from the existential fear of dying. This remarkable finding comes from the 2016 study by Roland Griffiths and colleagues. Research on the therapeutic potential of LSD dates back to the 1950s, when extremely promising results were found in the treatment of alcoholism, anxiety, and depression. MDMA’s empathogenic effects lend itself well to the therapeutic environment, allowing patients to explore traumatic memories within a safe and connected environment without becoming emotional overwhelmed. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has been found to successfully address treatment-resistant PTSD in phase II clinical trials, and phase III trials are currently underway.
What is Entheogenic Medicine?
When treated with ritual, reverence, and respect, entheogenic medicines are powerful plant teachers that catalyze powerful energetic experiences between the ego and transpersonal self. Such energetic experiences facilitate introspection, healing, religious expression, and unity with the source of being.
In traditional ceremonial contexts, entheogenic medicine is taken by shamans to access the spirit world and divine the cause of their patients’ ailments. As Terence Mckenna describes in his book Food of the Gods,
“The plants used by the shaman are not intended to stimulate the immune system or the body’s other natural defenses against disease. Rather, the shamanic plants allow the healer to journey into an invisible realm in which the causality of the ordinary world is replaced with the rationale of natural magic. In this realm, language, ideas, and meaning have greater power than cause and effect.”
Shamanic diagnosing and treating, outside of the materialist models of disease, are therefore crucially dependent on the regular access to the altered states of consciousness enabled by entheogenic medicine.
Entheogenic Medicine Going Forward
In the 21st century, entheogenic medicine has emerged as an increasingly popular and more effective alternative to conventional pharmaceuticals. Iboga is becoming well-known as an anti-addictive aid to alleviating drug withdrawals and breaking out of addictive behavior patterns. It has been found to reliably reduce the rate of relapse and the intensity of drug cravings. However, like all other entheogens, iboga doesn’t come without risks. It can be dangerous or even fatal in individuals with preexisting cardiac conditions, or when combined with certain other drugs, particularly stimulants.
Ayahuasca ceremonies have been highly successful in treating addiction and various mental issues. But its medicinal effects may extend beyond this efficacy as well. A 2016 paper by Frecska and colleagues investigated the medicinal effects of ayahuasca. They noted the therapeutic brew is best understood from the perspective of a “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” model. In addition, the researchers conclude that ayahuasca “may act against chronic low-grade inflammation and oxidative stress.” specifically through its sigma-1 receptor agonist action. This receptor system is implicated in a host of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, cardiomyopathy, and more.
It’s just a matter of time until mainstream culture more widely accepts and legalizes entheogenic medicine and therapy. Ultimately, this will allow the healing of modern-day ailments en masse with the sacred tools that Indigenous groups around the world have employed for thousands of years.
RS Contributing Author: Dylan Beard
Dylan Beard is a freelance science writer and editor based in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. After finishing his physics degree and dabbling in neuroscience research at UC Santa Barbara in 2017, he returned to his first love: writing. As a long-term fan of the human brain, he loves exploring the latest research on psychedelics, nootropics, psychology, consciousness, meditation, and more. When not writing, you can probably find him on hiking trails around Oregon and Washington or listening to podcasts. Feel free to follow him on Insta @dylancb88.