Tripping With the Gods – On Entheogenic Spirituality:, (Part 2 of 5) by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. [The Dionysian Naturalist]


The use of substances to alter consciousness seems to be innate. UCLA Professor Ronald Siegel (2005) calls it the “fourth universal drive”, as natural as hunger, thirst and sex.  Many other animal species also pursue intoxication, including elephants, cats, monkeys, jaguars and bees.  No amount of prohibitionist indoctrination has yet been able to uproot these primal instincts.  Drug war ideologies are forced upon all school children who learn to recite in unison “Just say no!”.  Instead we must learn to accept human nature for what it is, letting go of our Enlightenment fantasies of the rational human.

Humans have always and will always seek ways to alter states of consciousness. “Drugs” are quick, simple, convenient and readily available across the globe. Anthropologists estimate that 90% of tribal cultures have ritualized means of altering consciousness through psychotropic plants (Bourguignon 1973).

Many years ago I sought to create “a genealogy of drug use and addiction”[1], attempting to explore why addiction is such a huge problem in contemporary societies, while virtually unknown in archaic forager societies. I have learned that addiction is a modern invention that can only be understood in terms of a society in which long-standing sacred traditions have been tossed out, in which a mass psychology of misery prevails and in which the Apollonian is exalted while the Dionysian is suppressed[2].

To reach those conclusions I crafted a “Critical Drug Use Theory” to explore the nature of intoxicant use in different societies throughout human history.  As a sociologist, I drew upon critical social theories in this examination of drug use. Critical social theories include approaches to modern society which highlight how changing economic conditions and structures of power impact the organization and experience of social life. Critical social theories are heavily indebted to Karl Marx and his “materialist conception of history”. The materialist approach focuses on how humans live day to day, their mundane labors to sustain themselves, and their productive economic activity. Following Marx,, we call these changing economic circumstances “modes of production” (Marx and Engels 1978).[3]

We begin by noting that human history has witnessed several distinct modes of production, including nomadic hunting and gathering societies, agricultural societies and industrial societies.  In constructing a Critical Drug Use Theory, I examine how one aspect of the realm of human drives and instinctual needs is modified by changing economic conditions and structures of power.  To talk about human societies before the creation of writing about 7000 years ago is an act of speculation based upon a lot of assumptions and deductions.  Archeological evidence reveals little about pre-agricultural societies and whether they share a common pattern (Kuper 2017).  Yet while the facts are few and far between that never stopped social theorists from speculating. These speculations about the lifestyles of  “hunters and gatherers” in ancient societies, which range from images that resemble backward bogeymen to enlightened angels, are political ur-fantasies—primal projections revealing more about those who create the images than about the distant past about which we know very little (Mellinger 2013).

Regarding the topic at hand, when talking about the sacred use of entheogens by shamans in forager societies we must be careful not to perpetuate the classic myth that , in the words of anthropologist Alice Beck Kehoe, “out beyond civilization roam noble savages preserving a primordial religion more pure and true than any in the West” (Kehoe 2000:2).  This common myth appeals to a romantic primitivism—an imaginary of the distant past in which modern people, who feel alienated, disconnected, and distressed, long for the time when things were better and people were more satisfied.

Thus, virtually everything we can say about the Stone Age is uncertain.  We have no idea exactly what these humans believed and no idea what their religion looked like.  We do know that while homo sapiens have existed for 150,000-200,000 years, a major cultural revolution and upsurge in creativity happened about 20,000 years ago, marking the transition from the long-lasting Paleolithic era to the Upper Paleolithic era.  Tools, ornaments and burials become significantly more elaborate.  People start traveling further distances and the exchange of goods increases.  Language and symbol use emerge.

What I found in my study of drug use throughout human history was initially shocking. “Primitive” people, it seems, used a wide variety of inebriating plants. They were used by almost every tribal people I came across in my scholarly pursuits, but in ways very different from most modern drug use. Moreover, these substances had very positive effects on the people that used them, and positive effects for the societies of which they were a part. I attempted to tease out what about “primitive” social organization allowed the controlled use of these intoxicants to have these positive purposes.

I discovered that the loss of shamanic rituals is the central tradition that has been swept away that has lead to drug abuse becoming a massive social problem.  Stated differently, when the Dionysian aspects of human nature and human societies is respected, and shamanic wisdom traditions flourish, wise elders pass on knowledge and skilled practices that virtually ensure successful outcomes.  Without the shamanic wisdom traditions, and the practice of “controlled use” and other entheogenic consuming techniques, our innate urges continue to inspire drug use but these consumers do it without having learned techniques to moderate their use nor having cultivated mindsets encouraging sacred intention and responsible use.



Psychotropic plants played a role in the evolution of human cognitive abilities (Winkelman 2010). Entheogenic plants provide neurotransmitter analogues, such as dopamine and serotonin, that are limited in our diets and are essential for normal brain functioning.  In his book Food of the Gods (1992), ethnobotanist Terence McKenna puts forward his “Stoned Ape Theory”, arguing the psilocybin, the psychedelic compound within another magical mushroom, enabled Homo erectus to evolve into Homo sapiens.

Homo sapiens with our physical bodies emerged about 200,000 years ago.  Our original mode of production and lifestyle is often referred as “hunting and gathering” societies, although “forager” is a more accurate terms, because hunting was a relatively minor aspect of their lives.  These nomadic tribal societies occupied at least 90% of human history and largely ended about 10,000 year ago with the Neolithic Revolution and the agricultural practices it brought forward.  These nomadic tribal societies had what I am calling “Shamanic Wisdom Traditions”.  These traditions include techniques of “controlled drug use” which limit entheogen use to spiritual occasions in which rules and restrictions mandate moderate use.

As stated, we know with certainty very little about the spiritual practices of ancient foragers.  I argued that our visions of these people’s lives, which vary from the extremes of hellish nightmares of war, famine and pestilence to edenic dreams of harmony, health and wholeness, are projections from our unconscious minds perhaps revealing more about us than they do about these ancient ancestors.  Not only do we know very little about these foragers’s lifestyles, but because we are talking about an economic system (“hunting and gathering”) that spans tens of thousands of years, and was very geographically diverse, it is impossible to generalize about a common cultural pattern.

Yet, because so many modern humans are extremely ethnocentric (and Eurocentric and racist too), automatically assuming that our western industrial way of life is vastly superior to all others, and accept as commonsense the unilinear evolution of human societies from backwards “primitives” to enlightened “civilized” societies, I find a “critique of civilization” a healthy antidote[4].

Many anthropologists accept a revised version of Marshall Sahlin’s “original affluence” thesis[5], and asserts that foragers lived in societies without much want, enjoyed ample free time to weave their meaningful and integrating myths and practice their consensus decision making.  In this version of forager life all members of the tribe shared everything they had with everyone else[6] and a strong sense of equality pervaded their lives.  Supposedly these foragers experience less alienation than us moderns and feel a strong sense of connection to each other and to the Earth.  Because drugs tend to amplify the emotional states of consumers, the positive psychological states of these ancient foragers helped make entheogenic sacraments enjoyable and beneficial to both individuals and tribes. After this historical overview I will return to the topic of the Shamanic Wisdom Traditions.

“Primitive societies”[7] are acephalous or stateless and non-hierarchical societies. Social evolutionary theories hold that these societies are stateless because they did not reach the degree of economic development or level of political differentiation necessary to form a State apparatus. French anthropologist Pierre Clastres rejects such postulates and asserts that many primitive  seek to ward off the formation of a State apparatus. He argues that war, by maintaining the dispersal of groups, is the best mechanism to avert that monster, the State (Clastres 1987).



About 9000 BCE the “Neolithic revolution”, as anthropologists refer to the global emergence of agriculture, swept the world, turning nomadic “primitive” foragers  into sedentary “civilized” farmers. These transformations might have been brought about by climate change or population increases.  Agriculture transformed every aspect of human culture—introducing writing, social stratification, increased trade, cities, a more complex division of labor, and organized warfare, etc. Most people in the West led agriculturally-based lives in small rural towns (often part of large empires) that were marked by large extended families, cultural homogeneity, tightly-knit communities and strong religious traditions.

Critical Drug Use Theory examines how the use of intoxicants is altered when the underlying economic conditions and structures of power change. Because the shift from forager societies to agricultural societies is a radical transformation of all aspects of culture we need to scrutinize how intoxicant use changes, observing how the base elements of shamanic practices become “re-articulated” for the new life conditions.

Shamanism is a universally distributed religious practice ground in foraging societies which transforms with the birth of agriculture (Winkelman 2010).  As a consequence of such socioeconomic changes and the more complex societies that subsequently emerge the original shamanic role in the tribe is altered.  Other types of magico-religious leaders such as priests, witches, healers and mediums emerge. While shamans occupy the most important role in forager societies due to the non-hierarchical political organization of these societies, the new adapted roles are less prestigious, and increasingly female. Winkelman states:

“The types of shamanistic healers not only differed with respect to the types of societies in which they were found but also in terms of their training, the nature of their powers, the characteristics of their ASC[8] (i.e., soul flight versus possession), the types of healing that they do (i.e., soul recovery versus dispossession), and their relationships to social power and institutions” (see Winkelman, 2010).

Entheogens are central to all pre-modern religions and are the traditional perennial method for accessing the esoteric and mystical altered states of consciousness central to religious beliefs and practices.  The essence and origin of religion is found in the use of such visionary plants.  The shift from foraging societies to agricultural societies not only radically transforms the original shamanic role but also changes the ways in which entheogens are used.

While in forager societies entheogens are consumed by shamans working with other individual tribal members for mostly healing purposes, in agricultural societies the shamanic healers, mediums, priests and witches that emerge often use entheogens for group use and for religious rituals and worship.  While shamans typically have control over the spirit powers, under agriculture these spirit powers are seen as out of control. Instead of using entheogens to journey to the spirit world, under agriculture entheogens are increasingly used to appease the gods.

Several research monographs document these changes in entheogen use under agriculture in an Indo-European context.  In 1967 R. Gordon Wasson published Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality based on his study of the ancient Vedic intoxicant soma, which he hypothesized was based on the psychoactive fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom.  Wasson also co-authored with Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978), which proposed that the special potion “kykeon”, a pivotal component of the ceremony, contained psychoactive alkaloids from the fungus Ergot.

Unbeknownst to many there is a long tradition of entheogenic spirituality and psychedelic magic in Western civilization. One can trace a continuing lineage of “psychedelic mystery traditions” (Hatsis 2018) from antiquity through the Renaissance to the modern era.  Carl Ruck has published several books on the use of entheogens in classical western culture, as well as their historical influence on modern western religions, including The Apples of Apollo: Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist (2001) and Sacred Mushrooms of the Goddess (2006).  Ruck also edited with Mark Hoffman The Effluents of Deity (2012) which uncovered the role of botanical Eucharists in Medieval artistic masterpieces.  Several book length monographs explore the controversial topic of Christianity and entheogens, including John Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970), Jerry and Julie Brown’s The Psychedelic Gospels (2016)        and  Jan Irwin’sThe Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity(2008).

Agricultural societies are “dominator cultures” (Eisler 1987) which introduce class, gender and racial hierarchies. Powerful elites emerge who control the surplus and do not do their share of the labor to create that surplus.  A “mass psychology of misery”[9] starts to emerge in this agricultural era as many people are exploited, working long hours in the  fields, and tolerating hierarchy and oppression.  Increasingly lots of people have feelings of alienation, boredom, depression and anxiety.

The guiding principles of dominator cultures are hierarchy, oppression, domination, exclusion, and violence.  Patriarchal cultures embody authoritarian attitudes in which there is “one right way” and there is little toleration of dissent or opposition.  Fundamentalist mentalities, in which individuals claim moral superiority over others, and anti-humanist attitudes which tolerate brutal acts of terror against non-conformers, are central to Neolithic patriarchy.. Empires filled with an “us / them thinking” prevail and those tribes beyond the border are persecuted and their religious leaders demonized.  Our relationship to our mother Earth drastically changes with the advent of agriculture. No longer was she revered as the sacred goddess, but instead was seen as something to exploit, dominate and domesticate. Agriculture unlinks people from wild nature.

Some speculate that the irrigation needed for mass agricultural economies gave rise to powerful governments that could fund and manage such projects.  Oftentimes these states enslaved the people at the empire’s edges and sought to destroy the slaves’ shamanistic cultures and outlawed the use of entheogens. As the men in these cultures continued to consolidate their power, they sought to destroy shamanistic cultures.

This era would include the flourishing of the Classical European Pagan Traditions, such as Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse Paganisms.  The “Old Religions” of Europe, such as Celtic Paganism, while not strictly shamanic, retained shamanic elements in their ecstatic religions.  Illustrating this point, Tom Cowan’s Fire in the Head (1993) explores shamanic themes and visionary motifs in the myths and tales of ancient Celtic poets and storytellers. Many modern Celtic Pagans, while attempting to re-construct the religion of their ancestors, often infuse shamanic elements into their spiritual practices, often influenced by the “core shamanism” of Michael Harner (see for example the popular works of Caitlin and John Matthews, see Matthews 2012).

When the Dionysian aspects of any culture remain strong and vibrant the ecstatic spirituality of the people satisfies the innate urges to alter consciousness and the abuse of psychoactive substances is minimized and hard-core dysfunctional addiction is virtually unknown.  Shamanic healers, witches, mediums and priests continue to employ a modified version of the shamanic wisdom traditions, less concerned with individual healing and more tailored to the needs of religious ritual and group experience.

Humans often seek to know the depth of the mysteries of our beingness.  This “gnosis”, or knowledge, which is at the heart of all the great religions, is based on deeper more sacred, inner spiritual truths derived through direct experience.  Entheogens are a nearly universal way that humans have gotten that direct experience.  “Gnosis” is the path of initiation into the mysteries of life.  It is knowledge of the divine.  It is the ultimate revelation provided by the universe.

[1] See my paper on my blog “Doing Modernity” (

[2] Many Western cultural critics have invoked this dichotomy, most notably Friedrich Nietzsche and his followers.  In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the sun, of order and rational thinking and appeals to logic, purity and prudence.  Dionysus is the god of wine and ecstasy, of dance and irrationality, and appeals to the instincts, the senses and emotions (Nietzsche 1977).

[3] To avoid reductionism and determinism, I draw upon cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s theory of articulation which focuses on how cultural practices, while sensitive to economic conditions are not strictly determined by them (Hall 1980).

[4] In forcing ourselves to find the potential good in foraging societies we are able to more critically examine the flaws in our way of life. While not wanting to embrace the extreme version of this anti-civilization critique, such as the anarcho-primitivism of John Zerzan, I want to avoid the Hobbesian nightmare of others who see ancient forager lifestyles as filled only with incessant famine, pestilence, and war.

[5] Sahlins thesis, popular in the 1960s, is now widely contested.  But in modified form it is still generally accepted.  Sahlins’ original essay was critiqued for not counting in time spent in preparation for foraging or processing food already gathered. However, there has been a lot of research done since then taking that into account. While the work-day averaged across all the societies we have proper data for is higher than Sahlins’ number, it still comes in below the standard 8 hour work-day or 40 hour work-week. It is still widely variable though, with low estimates for certain cultures being around 2-3 hrs/day and on the higher end 8-9 hrs/day. If you want compendiums of data on hunter-gatherer economies, Robert Kelly’s The Foraging Spectrum and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers will have the most data. (The numbers here are taken from Kelly.). By forcing modern humans to relook at their own society and question “how good do we really got it going on?  And to question the dominant perspectivenAnd to”I like the thesis because most modern humans are ethnocentric and assume that our way of life is vastly superior to any others.  They often buy into social evolutionary ideas about “progress” and think that civilization is a giant leap forward, ignoring the fact that hierarchy, inequality and oppression become significant only after the birth of agriculture and are largely non-existent in foraging societies.

[6] For an excellent review of egalitarian and non-egalitarian forager societies, see Robert L. Kelly’s (2013) The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers.

[7] Archaic forager societies are often referred to as “primitive societies”. I do not accept social evolutionary theories of human societies and reject the notion of “progress”.

[8] ASC is an abbreviation for altered state of consciousness.

[9] The phrase comes from anarcho-primitivist thinker John Zerzan (1994).


About the Author

lSslgGSWayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world.  Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues.  He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.

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