Psychedelics and Religion: A Short History

By Tessa Eskin

Anthropologists trace the origin of religion to the hunter-gatherer societies of prehistory. At some point, nomadic tribes began carefully burying their dead and ritualizing the deaths of their prey. Here we find the first hints of psychological complexity in the human mind. The burials suggest an early conception of the afterlife as humanity grappled with the awareness of their own mortality. We also find the first stirrings of ‘animism’, the belief that all natural entities have a vital life force, or spirit.

As humanity emerged from the mists of prehistory, so did shamanism, ancestor worship, organized religion, and eventually, monotheism. And throughout this entire scope of religious history — perhaps at the very center of it all — is psychedelic ritual. Is it possible that the origin of animism, and therefore religion itself, came from psychedelics?

Plants of the Gods

At the dawn of religion, we find mankind in communion with the spiritual realms through psychoactive herbs and fungi. The earliest evidence of magic mushroom cults dates back to 9000 years ago, mainly in today’s Algeria, Libya and Chad. And in Peru, we find the residue of psychoactive drugs, as well as the earliest archeological relics of widespread organized religion.

5000 years ago, worshippers traveled from far and wide to the underground temple of Chavín de Huántar in modern-day Peru. The network of sunlit tunnels formed an environment in which the mind was particularly susceptible to ritualistic spiritual activity. There, among the rushing water and strange stone-art, worshipers took psychoactive drugs such as San Pedro cactus and Anadenanthera, traversing the labyrinthine tunnels of their own minds.

Priests orchestrated a disorientating, mystical experience using “hydraulics, acoustics, mirrors,” and psychedelic plants, taken as snuff. Archeologists discovered representations of wide-eyed trippers, and a trove of drug paraphernalia such as snuffing tubes, tablets, and mortars.

Historians tell us that local leaders used these ceremonies to establish authority through a shared belief system. At the time, military power was an ineffective and unstable way to control the population. Better to prove that your power was “ordained from above”. This was one of the first appearances of organized religious authority as we know it. And, at its very core, we find the “plants of the gods” – the bridge to the spirit realm.

Magic Mushrooms & the Spirit Realm

Although various psychoactive substances were common in early rituals, historians believe psilocybin to be the beating heart of certain mystery cults. These cults originated in the Near East, before sweeping into India some 3,500 years ago. There, they evolved into the Soma cult, which influenced later Hinduism. Mushroom mysticism spread as far as Siberia and Latin America, where remnants of the ancient cult are still found today.

In the 1950s, the self-titled ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson came into contact with a mushroom sect in Mexico. He was one of the first outsiders allowed to participate in the mushroom ceremony, conducted by the shaman Maria Sabina. According to his records, she chanted: “There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby, and invisible… where the dead lives, the spirits and the saints… The sacred mushroom takes me by the hand and brings me to the world where everything is known.”

According to Wasson, psychedelics lifted the veil of the spirit realm, giving humankind access to altered states of consciousness. Wasson speculated that psychedelics also drove the sudden expansion of human memory, complex language, and self-consciousness. They may have also propelled hunter-gatherer tribes into societies that produced art and music, built cities, and developed intellectual abstraction.

Biblical Origins Stories, Reconsidered

Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that psilocybin was this figurative “fruit of knowledge,” imparting spiritual vision and heightened awareness. It is strangely apt that his choice of symbolism stems from the foundation myth of the three great world religions. Is it possible that the ancients coded these evolutionary shifts and psychedelic practices into their mythos?

On this, we can only speculate. Historians doubt that psychedelics were single-handedly responsible for human consciousness. Still, there was certainly a sort of co-evolution of psychedelics and religion. And this happened alongside humankind’s development of art, music, complex language, and medicine. Indeed, we can see it in ancient iconography — the cave art, the stonework, and the ever-evolving mythologies of cultures around the world.

Mythical Mycology

The earliest cave paintings of the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau depict dancing shamans holding magic mushrooms as fungi grow from their limbs. The divine mushroom traversed from iconography to the sacred Hindu texts, to the oral lore of Latin America. In fact, we find them hinted at in the symbolic codes of the Judea-Christian canon, threaded into Nordic myth, and woven into ancient Celtic traditions.

The very makeup of mushrooms has near-mystical properties. They grow in sentient networks, facilitating communication between trees. They recycle and transmute, absorbing toxins and transforming environments into flourishing ecosystems. In other words, mushrooms are the alchemists of the natural world, reflecting the same qualities of psilocybin on the human mind.

The largest organism on the planet is a network of mushroom mycelia, produced by falling spores and lying just below the earth’s surface. They are scientifically termed: ‘fairy rings.’ And one of the largest fairy rings in the world is located in England, surrounding the mystical Stonehenge.

It seems wherever we find religion and folklore, we also find magical mushrooms and psychedelics. They are connected to ‘spirit’, to ‘soul’ and to ‘psyche’, bridging the mystical and religious to the psychological.

Divine Medicine

Today, magic mushrooms have fled the pages of folklore and entered the laboratory. Modern science is hurrying to catch up with what the ancient shamans knew all along. Psilocybin, and various other psychedelics, are powerful tools for spiritual insight and psychological healing.

Psychedelics facilitate deeper connection, communication, empathy, internal transformation, and spiritual growth. So it’s not surprising that some psychedelics actually cure severe mental health disorders.

This was the role of the shaman in essence. They were the doctors, healers, and therapists of their time, using psychedelic medicine to help people. No longer veiled by religious mystery, we hope to see psychedelic medicine widely available to patients in the near future. 

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