THE PHARMACRATIC INQUISITION
The emergence of patriarchy in the Neolithic era led to several related social structural changes which radically altered the role and function that mind-altering plants played in societies. The two most central of these are (1) the State and (2) Patriarchal monotheism (e.g. Christianity). The lethal combination of patriarchal Church and State proved deadly for shamanistic cultures because out of them emerge “the Pharmacratic Inquisition”—a severely violent prohibitionist campaign of terror.
During the last thousands years, a massive assault has been launched against the remnants of shamanistic cultures that were still alive. In the 11th century the Catholic Church proclaimed heresies throughout Western Europe, and large numbers of women were burned as witches and midwifes. The medieval Church also went after Jews, Muslims, alchemists, political dissidents, diviners, gays and epileptics. Witches were traditional folk healers who consumed entheogens, practiced ecstatic religion and knew how to ease the pains of childbirth. Witches made brews which contained powerful plant alkaloids, including henbane, wolfsbane, belladonna, and mandrake (Hatsis 2015).
The Pharmacratic Inquisition is the violent campaign of terror against sacred inebriants and entheogenic spirituality by the Roman Catholic Church. Prohibitionist propaganda which stigmatizes both substances and substance users is spread by ruling elites.
When the shamanic arts are suppressed, elders do not teach young initiates the sacred knowledge of plant-gods and the proper ways to use these. The ceremonies were first pushed underground, marginalized and hidden from the view of powerful officials. Eventually some were forgotten and lost to history.
Our American War on Drugs, largely initiated by Harry Anslinger, revamped by Richard Nixon, and cheered on by Nancy Reagan, is but an extension of the Pharmacratic Inquisition, albeit one with.increased technological know-how.
For Jonathan Ott, the eminent ethnobotanist, the destuction of the temple at Eleusis by Algaric’s Goths in the fourth century of our era represents the symbolic end of the Entheogenic Age. The rites held annually at Eleusis were the center of a Mystery Religion that lasted two millennia in which initiates imbibed an entheogenic potion after which they saw “the holy” (Wasson, Hoffman and Ruck 2008). Ott regards this momentous event as the beginning of the Pharmacratic Inquisition. Ott explains the Christian hatred of the ancient religions:
Since the Christians were promulgating a religion in which the core mystery, the holy sacrament itself, were conspicuous by its absence, later transmogrified by the smoke and mirror of the Doctrine of Transubstantiation into a specious symbol, an inert substance, a placebo, the imposture would be all-to-evident to anyone who had known the blessing of ecstasy, who had access to personal religious experience.
Sacred inebriants were outlawed and the supreme heresy was to presume to have direct contact with the divine, unmediated by the church hierarchy. Rather than the entheogen-induced gnosis which comes through direct experience of Ultimate Reality being central to religious life, revelation is severely limited to what the parish priests state. Ott states that the Catholic Church took “all the religion out of religion, leaving an empty and hollow shell with no intrinsic value or attraction to mankind, which would only be maintained by hectoring, guilt-mongering and plain brute force”.
During the next thousand years, the so-called Dark Ages, the Christian Church launched a series of pogroms and official and unofficial inquisitions against pre-Christian pagan practices and rival faiths, such as Islam, Judaism, Manichaeism and early attempts at science and rationalism. Those dragged to the stake included herbal healers, midwives, alchemists, political dissidents, and anyone else considered deviant by the powers that be. Ott states:
By the advent of the sixteenth century, Europe had been beaten into submission: shamanic ecstasy virtually expunged from the memory of survivors, and the shamanic pharmacopoeia all but forgotten.
The central supporting legal document of the Inquisition was the Malleus Maleficarum, (“A Hammer for the Evil Ones”), a Latin text written in 1484 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spregner, with an introduction by Pope Innocent VIII. It banned the possession of sacred plants commonly used by midwives, and established proper means of torture and execution of heretics and witches.
In the New World, however, the Age of Entheogens continued. When European conquerors and colonialists arrived on these shores, they encountered their own pagan pasts with people consuming sacred plants without the aid of priests. On June 19, 1620 in Mexico City, the Inquisition declared that the use of entheogens was heretical:
The use of the Herb or Root called Peyote…is a superstitious action and reproved as opposed to the purity and sincerity of our Holy Catholic Faith. We decree that henceforth, no person … may use or use of this said herb, this Peyote, or of the others for said effects no others similar … being warned that doing the contrary, besides incurring said censures and penalties, we will proceed against whoever is rebellious and disobedient, as against persons suspect in the holy Catholic faith.
Given all the Inquisitions, pogroms and repressive actions just mentioned, you will not be surprised to learn that humans lost much of that wholeness and connectedness found among primitive tribal people. The domination of women and of nature warped the human psychology. This contributes to the mass psychology of misery found in traditional societies. Civilized people have eco-cidal tendencies ; we have this unconscious urge to permanently impair the biological viability of our entire planet. Evidence for this is found in the destruction of forests across the globe by various empires that have left these areas deserts.
Because the shamans have been killed and their wisdom traditions forgotten we have a situation in which addiction flourishes across much of the globe. Our innate urges to alter consciousness remain but without knowledge on how to use these substances with sacred intention and in moderate ways, globally drug abuse leads to over 10 million deaths each year. Our current War on Drugs, which began in June 1971 when U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding for drug-control agencies, is essentially an extension of the Pharmacratic Inquisition. Estimates are that in spite of being an absolute failure, these prohibititionist practices have cost our country an estimated one billion dollars.
- THE ENTHEOGENIC REFORMATION
We are now in a renaissance of entheogenic spirituality. Based on important scholarship and activism across the globe, informed by existing shamanic cultures among indigenous people who use entheogens, it is becoming increasingly clear to some that drugs are not just portals to misery in which hardcore dysfunctional addiction will wreck lives. Instead, the evidence demonstrates that when used correctly drugs can be mystical portals providing peak experiences, profound spiritual encounters and tools for the transformation of individuals and societies. Needless to say, we have a long way to go as entheogenic spirituality is still largely outlawed.
Thomas Roberts argues that entheogens can democratize religion by making mystical experiences available to the masses. A “new stage of religious understanding” is unfolding. We are transitioning from a word-based era to an experience-based era and this change may be as broad and deep as the religious reformation 500 years ago which happened when moveable type and the printing press democratized access to religious texts. To me the most compelling aspect of the current initiatives to change our drug policies is the argument that our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and that entheogens when used correctly are safe and effective.
This brief outline hints at the different forms of drug use in different societies with different modes of production, and relates these to changes in social organization and “mass psychology”. Obviously to undertake such an exercise means speculating about general patterns found in the longue duree of history. I will now elaborate more on the “Shamanic Wisdom Traditions”.
III. THE SHAMANIC WISDOM TRADITION OF CONTROLLED USE
People who live close to the Earth, attuned to the rhythms of nature and respecting the interdependent web of existence of which we are just a part, often possess vast ecological wisdom. Among our archaic ancestors in forager societies, “plant teachers” provided these people with significant transformative experiences through direct revelations of the sacred. Virtually all of our planet’s ecosystems contain plants with psychedelic potential. Shamans were the original carriers of the accumulated insights of generations on how best to consume these psychotropic substances.
Until recently knowledge about how to use these various plant-teachers had become largely forgotten or lost. The “Shamanic Wisdom Traditions” have been almost destroyed by western civilization and by modern industrial society, which, as outlined above, often outlawed or killed the shamans and outlawed their practices in “pharmacratic inquisitions”. Drug war ideologies instead circulate through the shallow information-laden and consumption-obsessed cultures of modern societies, which often lack any notion of cultivating wisdom at all. Contemporary western culture is monophastic, meaning that our worldview is derived exclusively from waking consciousness. Most other cultures are polyphasic and thus derive their worldview from a variety of states of consciousness, including dreams, contemplative and transpersonal states.
Wisdom is often the result of transformations of self and throughout history and across the globe the use of altered states of consciousness to facilitate such transformations is understood and instituted in diverse cultural practices. Shamanic Wisdom Traditions include collections of insights on the uses of altered states of consciousness to achieve these transformations of self, including through the use of psychedelics. All aspects of entheogenic use might be included in these wisdom traditions—when and how to harvest the plant, which parts to use, how to use them, at what dosage and for how long. Generations of trial and error produced the knowledge that formed the basis of these shamanic wisdom traditions. Shamans knew about what did and what did not work. Bits and pieces of this wisdom accumulated through the generations and became the expertise that shamans mastered. These sacred truths might be passed on through sayings, stories, riddles, songs, and other cultural practices and discourses, etc.
Shamans know how to moderate their consumption of psychotropic plants. This “controlled drug use” is a phenomenon first described by Zinberg (Zinberg 1979; 1982). It refers to the ability of substance users to avoid dysfunctional addictive patterns of use by using rituals, following strict rules and the use of sanctions. These skills are cultivated through various cultural practices and institutions. Western culture often perpetuates the “myth of addiction” which gives potential substance users the dire choice between total abstinence and hardcore dysfunctional addiction. Some modern researchers are discovering just what a myth that is and are documenting the practices substances users employ to avoid dysfunctional, problematic and compulsive use. It is now touted as a paradigm for sustainable health (van Leeuwen 2016).
Shamans purposefully use these botanical substances with sacred intention in sophisticated and well-crafted rituals. Long before Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary popularized the phrase “set and setting” to capture how the complex interplay of the psychological mindset of the individual (“set”) with aspects of the cultural context of the participants (“setting”) determines the nature of the drug experience, shamans intuited that knowledge in skilled practices tailored for the occasion, the plant and the desired experience.
Shamans know exactly how to cultivate, process and consume entheogenic sacraments in relatively safe and productive ways. Long before recovery specialists devised “Harm Reduction” practices as an alternative to the ubiquitous abstinence-based Twelve Step Programs, shamans devised strategies to reduce the negative consequences of drug use. While many entheogens are now seen as “addictive” and are often abused horribly in modern western cultures, when used correctly and with sacred intention, these psychoactive plants can open up what Aldous Huxley called “the doors of perception” (Huxley 1954).
Clearly as healers and experts in ecstatic states, shamans have sophisticated knowledge about entheogens. Unfortunately, those of us living in modern industrial societies have lost access to these shamanic wisdom traditions—with deadly consequences. Without this wisdom of the “controlled use” of psychoactive plants, their spiritual potential has been largely forgotten. Yet even without this wisdom, our innate urges to alter consciousness—what I have elsewhere called our “Will to Party,” remains. The results have been deadly. We must recall that among our archaic ancestors in pre-agricultural societies “addiction” was virtually unknown. This is true in spite of the fact that these tribal people had access to most of the same substances used today, including opium, coca, marijuana, etc.
To reclaim something similar to these lost shamanic wisdom traditions around entheogenic consumption would entail gathering knowledge about how to use drugs successfully in sacred ceremonies. Until very recently modern society lacked a living formal tradition of cultivating people who can explore altered states of consciousness and use substances with sacred intention.
NEW ENTHEOGENIC WISDOM TRADITIONS
Entheogenic sacraments can be powerful tools for self-transformation and catalysts for expanded consciousness when used correctly. Yet because western society and culture are heavily prohibitionist in orientation we lack the interpretive frameworks needed to support and unify the potential resulting consciousness transformations into our everyday life. As stated above, reclaiming the lost wisdom traditions of our ancestors would provide needed tools to make entheogenic sacraments a safe and productive form of religiosity.
As we have seen, visionary plant medicines enable mystical states of consciousness that contribute to self-discovery and spiritual development. While consciousness enhancing tools such as these are clearly beneficial, there are steps that can be taken to maximize the results from psychedelic experiences and continue to move forward on the path of healing and spiritual evolution. Too often people fall back into old habits and dysfunctional patterns. The insights and wisdom, the lessons and the healings gained from the experience can fade from our memories as we return to the original pre-psychedelic state.
To prepare for an entheogenic journey of transformation there are several steps we can take. We need to do a thorough assessment of our current situation, evaluating honestly all aspects of our life. Often the totality of our life is graphically represented as a pie and the separate components of our lives visualized as distinct pieces of that pie. Included here might be physical, mental, emotional, relationships, community, financial, occupational, familial and spiritual components. We then carefully consider each aspect of our life, bringing it into our consciousness and consider how its development may contribute to our leading a healthy life. This life assessment will allow us to more clearly identify areas that need development, as well as our needs and our challenges. We must become aware of attitudes and beliefs that limit us as well as self-defeating practices. We must consider what we need in order to move forward productively with our lives. Such an honest reality check before we get started can help to ensure that we fully benefit from the entheogenic experience.
In the preparation stage we also gather particular information about our upcoming entheogenic experience and its transformative potential so that we fully understand the journey of psychedelic medicine we are embarking upon. There are general preparation guidelines readily available in books and on the internet that speak to the cautions and considerations which must be understood (I like the ones at trippingly.net. maps.org ). It is crucial to take all the harm reduction steps possible if we are to expand our spiritual consciousness in a safe and responsible way.
“Psychedelic Integration” comes after the actual experience when we reflect on the actual journey, carefully processing our lived experience, contemplating its meaning for us and assimilating it into our everyday lives. We consider how to implement the lessons we’ve learned into our day-to-day habits and routines. We consider new actions we need to take to manifest discovered possibilities. We let go of that which no longer serves us and consciously practice those things we want in our lives.
To integrate is to move into wholeness, finding balance and harmony in our lives. Immediately after the ceremony our neural pathways are ripe for implementing new patterns into our life. We must be mindful of taking the appropriate steps to ground the lessons and incorporate all the discoveries into our daily lives. Thus, both preparation and follow up are very important to maximize the spiritual potential of entheogens. For each person these will look different.
If we are to have an Entheogenic Reformation in which drugs are used with sacred intention to produce profound spiritual experiences we must reclaim something like the Shamanic Wisdom Traditions. In addition, there are current legal obstacles to entheogens being used as sacraments in religious rituals and ceremonies. While our Constitution guarantees “freedom of religion”, only a very small number of entheogenic religions have passed the approval of the Supreme Court.
The good news is that a modern entheogenic wisdom tradition is beginning to emerge. Some of our most experienced psychedelic enthusiasts, including academic researchers, psychotherapists and modern shamanic practitioners are collecting compendiums of time-tested techniques, therapeutic applications, traditional shamanic tools and even prayers to set intentions for the encounter. These manuals for prospective psychonauts are comprehensive and practical guides for the safe and ethical use of entheogens. They weave together insights on how to prepare for the entheogenic journey, information on what the entheogenic journey typically consists of, as well as how to integrate the lessons learned into daily life afterwards. Here I am thinking about the writings of a Timothy Leary (Leary, Metzner and Alpert 1964), (2019) Fadiman (2011), Jim DeKorne (2011), Françoise Bourzat (2019). See also the websites of The Council on Spiritual Practices (csp.org), the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (maps.org), The Third Wave (thirdwave.co) and Erowid.
 While differences exist between shamans, witches, healers, etc. my understanding is that elements of the earlier primal shamanic cultural practices become “re-articulated” subsequently in ways that are sensitive to economic structures of power (Hall 1980).
 “The Will to Party” Doing Modernity (blog) 25 March 2012. Originally written on
June 9, 2008.
 Appendix 1 contains a prayer I have used successfully.
About the Author
Wayne 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.