The religious use of psychedelics dates back thousands of years in various ancient cultures. While the mode of application varies from one tribe to another, the purposes are similar. They ingest psychedelics in an attempt to gain spiritual insights into various areas of their everyday life. The substances served as the gateway to the spirit world and communication channels with their deities and ancestors. From these out-of-this-world sources, they receive instructions and understanding on unpredictable events such as death, birth, illness. Hallucinogens also helped ancient society leaders to make good decisions on crucial matters like hunting, war, selecting new leaders and migrating into a new home or environment.
History of Psychedelics in Religious Rituals
When human ancestors first ingested hallucinogens remains unknown. However, researchers believe that millions of years ago, prehistoric humans encountered psilocybin-containing mushroom species across various regions and undoubtedly consumed them. It is also unclear whether they deliberately took the mushrooms for ritual purposes.
But after ingesting the substances, they expressed psychedelic effects in group song and dancing beyond the usual nighttime displays. So, the emergence of what is known today as shamanism and psychedelic rituals and trips can be traced back to the expanded visionary ritual capacity expressed by these human ancestors. The wide distribution of some entheogenic plants across the world suggests that psychedelic rituals may have existed in almost all cultures around the world. For instance, there is a worldwide distribution of psilocybin mushrooms and other fungi species used as entheogens. So, the ritual use of psychedelics in ancient cultures stems from the belief that the plants:
- Induce an internal spiritual presence
- Produce an experience of the soul or spirit travelling out of the body into the supernatural world
- Provide access to a spiritual world
- Bring the world of mythic beliefs into a vivid experience
- Induce experiences of human-animal relationships and sometimes the sense of transformation into an animal
- Causes ego death followed by transformation or rebirth
- Provides deep, crucial and useful insights and information through visions
- Causes healing of the body and mind through dramatic, hallucinogenic experiences
- Helps achieve group integration and social cohesion
So, many ancient societies hold the above and other similar beliefs sacred. They, therefore, made shamans and experienced medicine men custodians of psychedelic rituals or psychedelics-assisted rituals.
Common Psychedelic Plants Used in Religious Rituals
Almost all naturally occurring hallucinogens have a long and rich history in religious practices. Some of the notable ones are as follows:
Iboga is used in various traditional practices. One of the most prominent is the Bwiti tradition – ritual practice of forest-dwelling people of Bongo in Gabon, West Africa. The indigenous people use iboga to meet their religious requirements, solve pathological problems, promote spiritual growth and stabilize their community. One of the most sacred uses of iboga in the Bwiti religion is the initiation ritual. Young men and women are served iboga for the first time to ‘officially’ welcome them as members of the religion. Bwiti is also practised in other African countries, such as the Fang tribes of Congo and Cameroon.
For thousands of years, peyote has been part of Native Americans’ religious sacrament. It was also used in the pre-Columbian era to induce supernatural vision. The movement extended to the United States in the mid-19th century. And around 1885, the modern-day Native American Church (NAC) was established. Also known as Peyotism, or Peyote Religion, NAC is the most widespread indigenous religious movement among North American Indians. They ingest peyote as a religious sacrament during all-night prayers ceremonies. The adherents don’t view peyote as a drug but rather a medicine for healing. Around 1891, Peyotism extended to Canada. Today, it is practised by over 50 Tribes in the country.
The use of psilocybin has been traced to various ancient and modern religious practices. As a matter of fact, it is about the most widely used entheogen both in the ancient and modern era. This is mainly due to its easy accessibility in most parts of the world.
For instance, there are beliefs that Egyptian religion once revolved around the ritualistic ingestion of psilocybe cubensis mushrooms. Egyptian artefacts like White Crown, Atef Crown, and Triple Crown were designed to represent pin-stages of psilocybin mushrooms.
Ivory Coast and some other African cultures also used psilocybin for shamanic purposes. Similarly, the indigenous people of the Mexican state of Oaxaca use psilocybin mushrooms for both healing and ritual purposes. It is such a huge movement in their culture that each Oaxaca tribe has at least one shaman who specializes in hallucinogenic use for healing purposes.
Ayahuasca religious use is most prominent among the indigenous people of the Upper Amazon, where it is believed to have originated from. Its traditional uses include divination, warfare, and artistic inspiration.
In healing, ayahuasca is used to identify the origin of an illness, extraction of pathogenic elements, and shamanic fighting of agents of illnesses, and restoration of souls. It has a rich history and origin among the indigenous people.
In Brazil, for instance, Santo Daime, a religious practice that incorporates ayahuasca use, is a major religion. The word Daime is from the hymns “Dai-me forca, dai-me amor, dai-me luz,” which means “Give me strength, give me love, give me light.”
Daime is a blend of both Christian doctrine and native religions, with an earnest reverence for Mother Nature, especially the forest, which is personified as the Virgin Mary. Just like other psychedelics, shamanic ayahuasca use has faced various persecutions from health officials, missionaries and other organizations. And the practice has gone extinct among some groups. However, it still remains widely practiced today. In Brazil, the entheogenic brew was proclaimed legal in 1992, mainly for religious use.
The past and present events have shown that the synergy between religion and psychedelics will remain unbroken even in generations to come. Psychedelics have survived various forms of stigmatization and legalization in many countries. It has come a long way to attain its current status in both ancient and modern cultures. All these can be traced to its multi-facet effects and abilities, which sometimes pass human comprehension. So, with more people seeking spiritual solutions for wellbeing and other aspects of life, psychedelic rituals will always remain an attraction.