Over the past century, psychedelics have gone from being the cutting edge of medical science to being a symbol of the 1960s counterculture, and back again.
Thanks to renewed interest in the academic community and changing social attitudes, we are now witnessing a psychedelic renaissance.
Cacti, mushrooms, plants, and synthetic psychoactive compounds have been used to treat conditions such as PTSD and drug addiction, and given to terminal cancer patients to alleviate existential distress and fear of death.
But the history of using psychedelics to achieve altered states of consciousness goes back even further than you might think.
“These substances that we think of as new and products of the 60s psychedelics, in fact, have a very long lineage,” writer Michael Pollan told ABC RN’s Life Matters.
“They have been used for thousands of years.”
And for much of that history, they were used in religious rites and rituals – some of which continue to this day.
Ancient evidence of altered states
“Humans have been altering their consciousness with psychoactives since the very beginning,” says Christian Greer, a historian of psychedelic spirituality and a researcher at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music.
Archaeological evidence discovered in a tomb in northern Iraq raises the possibility that our prehistoric ancestors consumed psychoactive substances found in nature.
A few thousand years later, the ancient Hindu text known as the Rig Veda described a drink known as soma that imbued those who ingested it with immortality.
While the original soma recipe was lost long ago, some historians believe the brew contained psilocybin, the active compound found in magic mushrooms.
According to classicist Brian Muraresku, pilgrims to the spiritual capital of the ancient world, the temple of Eleusis – now in modern Greece – would have visions after drinking a potion known as kykeōn.
This potion is now thought to have been spiked with ergot, the same grain-based fungus that produced LSD.
And Muraresku argues that this tradition was passed down to early Christians, who he says included psychedelic sacraments in their ceremonies.
Wine jars discovered in an old pharmacy near Pompeii have revealed traces of a brew containing opium, cannabis, henbane (a hallucinogenic plant) – and lizard bones – dating back to 79 AD when early Christians were active in the area.
Psychedelics in the Americas
In North America, archaeological evidence indicates that people were consuming peyote – a cactus containing the psychoactive compound mescaline – 5,000 years ago.
After a federal ban in 1967, Native Americans gained an exemption to use peyote for ceremonial purposes in the 1990s.
Today, peyote is considered a sacred medicine among members of the Native American Church, which combines traditional Native American philosophy with Christian teachings.
For some church members, the growing popularity of psychedelics with the general public is unwelcome – with fears that increased demand could further threaten the already tight supply of the slow-growing peyote cactus.
Further south in Mesoamerica – a region that stretched from Mexico to Costa Rica – psychoactive substances formed a common feature of ritual practices and healing ceremonies for thousands of years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the late fifteenth century.
Colonizing Spaniards condemned the ritual use of sacred mushrooms – known as teotlnanácatl, or “flesh of the gods” – as “the work of the devil”, driving the practice underground well into the 20th century.
From ritual use to psychological experiences
In 1955, the American R Gordon Wasson visited a village in Mexico where the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms had survived the ban by the Spanish.
Wasson tried the mushrooms – which contain the active compound psilocybin – and wrote an article about his experience in Life magazine that caught the attention of Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, who started the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960.
Then, in 1962, Leary and graduate student Walter Pahnke conducted a double-blind experiment to test psilocybin’s ability to facilitate mystical experiences.
Pahnke gave 20 theology students a pill containing white powder before a Good Friday service at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.
The results have been spectacular. Eight out of 10 volunteers who took psilocybin reported having had mystical experiences.
Mike Young, one of the volunteers who received a psilocybin pill, later described his experience in vivid terms.
“I was in the middle of a technicolor sea, and there were bars of color, and I was floating through them, and they were floating through me — and it was just beautiful,” he said. .
“I realized I had to swim in one of those color bars. Each of those color bars would be a totally different life experience…I had to choose one, and I couldn’t. It was very painful , I felt like my insides were being ripped out of me, and I died.”
Backlash and ban
The recreational use of psychedelics in the 1960s counterculture sparked a moral panic among those who viewed LSD as a drug of abuse.
In the late 1960s, countries like the United States and Australia banned psychedelics, halting research for decades.
Many had argued that Pahnke’s experiment threatened the existence of modern religion.
People wondered, “If we have these sacraments, are the churches obsolete? Is this the religion of the future? Greer tells Paul Gillis-Smith in the Harvard Divinity School podcast.
“All of a sudden, there’s no middle ground between me and the alternate reality, me and God.”
However, Greer says mainstream religious scholars have refused to explore the possibility that psychedelics have reliably caused mystical experiences.
“As time passed and more research focused on the history of religion and psychedelics in various religious traditions, the evidence became undeniable,” he told ABC RN.
Far from being relegated to history, he says, “psychoactive substances, and in particular psychedelics, seem to be involved in almost every religious tradition that we come across.”
Psychedelic Sacraments in Religion Today
Some have pushed back against the term “psychedelic”, associated with 1960s counterculture, tie-dye and bad trips, preferring instead the neologism “entheogen” – taken from the ancient Greek words for “creating the divine from within”. ‘interior’.
Greer tells Gillis-Smith of Harvard Divinity that he has met many American Catholics, Episcopalians, and Buddhists who use psychedelics for religious purposes.
And while sacramental use is far from common, Greer says a growing number of dissenting sects within major religions are incorporating entheogens into their worship.
“It’s a really exciting time to be a historian of religion,” Greer says.
“You see all of this new activity taking place, especially within major religious institutions, and…it’s going to continue as psychedelics gain more mainstream acceptance.”
They’re also used by atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious,” Greer says.
He can see the appeal to someone who is not interested in joining a church, temple, or shrine.
“If you can access the divine through psilocybin – magic mushrooms – that’s…much more appealing.”