In our contemporary Western shamanic tradition, when we shamans gather round the camp-fire and pass around the old talking stick, we often preface our remarks with words to the effect that we each speak our own truth, mindful of the many lines and traditions present at our post-modern pow-wow.
At which point, Don Juan Matus, Carlos Castenada’s fictional brujo-as-clown, interjects: ‘Horseshit.’
Post-modern Western shamans don’t have ‘lines’ – not as in coherent practices, codified techniques handed down through generations of tribal teachers. We don’t have tribes – much as we like to reinvent our own.
No, tribes are like families. You don’t get to choose. You are chosen!
Exceptional beings prove the rule: those happy few who penetrate deep into the Amazon or wherever, off the shamanic tourist trail, take the trouble to learn the language, commit years of their life to gradually being accepted, assimilated, apprenticed to the shaman, married into the dynasty.
The line. It’s a blood-line out there. Son learns from father who learned from his all the way back to the great great great grand-daddies. On my own way to the Amazon I was helped by Bira si, a trainee pagar or shaman chief of the Yanawana Tribe. He could recite – sing – the names of 110 generations of his ancestors: this was his testimony to the transmission of the power that had descended to him. Yes, he still had to prove himself, alone for weeks in the jungle, living in a tree-house with a giant anaconda as his next door neighbour.
The line. You’re either born – or marry – into it. Yes, once in a Blue Galactic Warrior moon, the rank outsider, the seeker, the psychonaut, the white boy from over the water gets to receive the initiation, fulfil the ancient prophesy.
But that is mostly in our dreams, our novitiate fantasies. To learn from indigenous shamanistic traditions, we need humble observers, reporters without agendas.
What we often get but don’t necessarily need is a bunch of self-proclaimed shamans back from a three-month crash course in the Amazon, with an interior snake-pit of unresolved psychic contents, eager to lay their trips on us for money, power or just a feeling of superiority.
And even assuming our western initiate proves sufficiently self-less and silent to transmit such teachings “without alteration” we are condemned to receive these organic fruits of literal jungles here in our atomised, individualistic western world.
The very notion of “authenticity” – when it comes to transplanting indigenous practices in post-modern societies is inherently pernicious.
Because notwithstanding his socially ambivalent outsider status, the shaman – or brujo or curandero or whatever he calls himself in his secret language which he’s not about to reveal to every wannabe anthropologist – his work is an integral expression of a culture precisely tuned to its environment and receptive to his vision quests and the healing power he channels.
Our post-humanist, reductionist, materialist culture, has so comprehensively excised the categories of “soul” or “spirit”, that such works, such practices, such acts are inherently, categorically, transgressive.
We have our native indigenous traditions – but they tell of the suppression and exclusion of magic as “other”, the break-up of tribes, communities, families, the varied triumphs of “the individual”.
We enact these ancient tales of lost paradise, these rites of exile and return – not in the self-conscious holiness, the sentimental posturing of New Age fantasists.
But in art, drama, poetry, song, in spontaneous rituals, situationist happenings, at parties and clubs, in theatres and churches hired for fly-by-night communia… Transgressive acts.
Our ancestors: Chaucer, Shakespeare, the poets who surveyed those hidden worlds, with knowing nods to the angels above and elementals here below.
Blake, the auto-initiate: ‘I must create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.’
Coleridge: the nitrous oxide capers with Sir Humphrey Davy; the great laudanum vision: in Xanadu did Kubla Khan…
The self-inflicted deliria: Baudelaire… Arthur Rimbaud… Beatitudes of brattitude! Don’t be deluded: there ARE systems at work here – we don’t just punch holes in reality and jump into the unknown – er, well, we do, but there’s a bit more to it: there’s training, practice, discipline – shape-shifting systems in process of eternal self-transformation.
Yes, and thanks to Lewis Lewin and Richard Evans Schultes, thanks for letting us know. For compiling the new shaman’s pharmacopoeia. Thanks to the Wassons for the postcards from Mexico, the recordings made, the shutters snapped on Marina Sabina and her ‘sacred children’.
Thanks to the Big Beasts, Crowley, Yeats, the reinvention of Western magical traditions, thanks Blavatsky and Gurdjieff and the unsung Austin Osman Spare, thanks for transmission come down from the great ancestor Hermes Thrice Great.
Not a creed. Belief only as an creative supposition. Not to be taken literally.
Jammy Jimmy Joyce – “Who spiked the porter?” – snaffling the twisty-talking waters outside the old shaman’s hut…
Dylan… Thomas raging against the dying of the light, reborn as Bob’s reinvention… Booze, pills. Unlicensed visits to the Astral.
Antonin Artaud, our St John Baptist, cast into the hive of shimmering bells.
And Little Carlos who came after in the image of Christ.
The long way back to where we begin
– a brief history of transgressive shamanism in the western esoteric tradition
In 1968, UCLA anthropology graduate Carlos Casteneda published The Teachings of Don Juan, an account of his supposed field-research in Sonora, New Mexico, and his initiation under the auspices of a Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian brujo or shaman.
In the series of books that followed Casteneda charts his emotionally-charged journey, and his visionary experiences under the influence of peyote, datura and other “power plants”. His struggle to grasp the basic philosophy and practices of Don Juan’s particular form of traditional shamanism is hilariously undermined by his teacher’s clowning, horseplay and trickery. Don Juan is deliberately employing a comedy routine to goad and shock his apprentice into “seeing” into “the crack between the worlds”. Like a Zen master with his riddles and irrational behaviour.
Or, more pertinently, like a Yaqui Pascola clown.
The book was initially embraced by psychedelic seekers as an authentic shaman’s guidebook, translating ancient indigenous techniques, practices and “ways of seeing” into a language we could understand and apply to our own other-worldly experiences. Yet within a decade doubts were cast on the authenticity of his account.
In Casteneda’s Journey and The Don Juan Papers, Richard de Mille painstakingly collated a list of cultural anomalies and borrowings from existing anthropological sources to expose the books as an elaborate hoax.
Obsessed as he was with debunking Don Juan as a fictional character, de Mille largely dismissed the inference: that Casteneda is himself the trickster shaman depicted in the characters of his teachers Don Juan and Don Genero. They are his shamanic personas, just as the bumbling anthropologist, the pedantic rationalist, the emotionally-damaged American seeker are embodied in his “Carlos” persona. Carlos’ conversations and magical interactions are conducted and enacted in the vision world, the Separate Reality explored in his second book. Like his allegedly fictional teacher, Casteneda was deliberately tricking his readers to challenge their assumptions about the nature of reality, their preconditioned “description of the world”.
Castenada – the epic hoaxer, a practical joker, literary embodiment of the carnival snake-oil salesman – shaman and showman, magician and charlatan.
An essay by Ray Clare (published in Psychedelic Monographs and Essays, Volume Four, Summer 1989) argues that “Don Juan Matus” is a Spanish expression for an “old masked man”, linking Carlos’ teacher with the Pascola, the bearded, goat-faced, magical clown of Yaqui culture. Clare emphasises the extent to which Don Juan’s horseplay mimics the disruptive, subversive, often ridiculous behaviour of the Pascola clowns.
reorientation: a brief history of timelessness
adam sha-man steps out the cave
looks up at the starry sky.
says: what the **** is that?
and what the ****
From the moment we became self-aware, conscious of ourselves as separate entities, we sought ways to mediate and influence the forces that shape our lives. We studied the virtues and properties of the plants we ate, observing their effects on our minds and bodies. We imitated the movements and behaviour of the animals we hunted, seeking to understand how they saw and interacted with the world. We strove to align, and ally, ourselves with the implacable forces of creation – the sun, moon and stars, mountains and rivers, the wind and the rain. Above and beyond all, we grappled with our own Ground of Being, the Mystery from which we appear and into which we vanish.
Rogue anthropologist Terence McKenna poses the intriguing hypothesis that such practices, and specifically the use of psycho-active plants, actually triggered the rapid emergence of human consciousness – that giant evolutionary step which contrasts so dramatically with the much more gradual processes of physical evolution.
McKenna’s scenario, crudely summarised, has some hominid ancestor accidentally eating a magic mushroom and being transported to another reality. Here, he encounters gods, spirits, faeries, elementals, who transmit to him a secret knowledge. He perceives new connections and relationships in the natural world, intuiting a deep unity behind the multiplicity of life-forms. He returns with “gifts” from the vision world, with teachings for his tribe embodied in stories, riddles, songs and dances.
Other members of the tribe are inspired to follow his example, experimenting with the effects of various plants. The lore of plants, the sacramental practices pertaining to them and the messages brought from the Vision World – these are gradually codified and passed down in oral folk-traditions, the seeds of culture and civilisation.
In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the psychologist Julian Jaynes presents an alternative paradigm. Jaynes proposes that Neolithic man was able to think and act with both hemispheres of the brain. This facility was progressively lost, perhaps as a side-effect of the settling and civilising process. The more he sought to impose his will, to control his environment, so the rational left side of the brain came to dominate his thinking, to the exclusion of the intuitive, creative shamanic right-brain. All that remained were dim, atavistic memories of an Earthly Paradise, when men spoke to the Goddess and communed with creatures from the Three Realms. It was, suggests Jaynes, precisely this sense of loss, of home-sickness that drove our ancestors to experiment with substances that seemed to unlock the door to that lost world.
For McKenna the plant teachers are the catalyst for psycho-spiritual development. Jaynes sees them as compensating for the shutting down of the human mind. These contrary models illustrate the difficulty in articulating an unambiguous history of shamanism. We can piece together tantalising clues – cannabis seeds in a temple vase, rock-paintings of mushroom-headed deities, entoptic images and patterns scratched on the walls of ritual chambers. We can try to reassemble the fragments of oral tradition, folk-lore and legend. Beyond that, we can only project our own patterns, theories and descriptions on what was once experienced and known back in the dawn of mind.
But then shamanism is not in the business of literal, absolute truth. The shaman operates in a shadowy, ambiguous world of shifting shapes, multiple realities and relative moral values – in which the dynamic interplay of contraries weaves the fabric of reality itself. Terence McKenna talks of “revisioning” the past. The “archaic revival” is less concerned with historical veracity than with something akin to poetic truth, reclaiming old myths to create new paradigms, new maps and models, new frames of reference, new ways of interpreting the world and our place in it.
The myth is of a lost Golden Age, when the pre-literate, shamanic right-brain intuits the unity and interconnectedness of all being. This Goddess-worshipping, “partnership” model is gradually eclipsed by a patriarchal “dominator culture” that elevates the analytical constructs and manipulations of the rational left-brain. With the triumph of the One God religions, humankind becomes progressively alienated from the natural world. The prohibition of the female Mysteries is embodied in the Judaeo-Christian myth of the Temptation and Fall of Eve.
Such a partial, idealised view of the past is easily derided, though before dismissing it out of hand we should remember that all historical constructs are informed by their cultural mind-sets. The view of Man’s progress from primitive savagery to the heights of civilisation is no less a myth, rooted in equally questionable assumptions and selective interpretation of unreliable evidence.
new worlds for old
Of all the modern myths masquerading as historical fact, one of the most persistent, and pernicious, is that the sacramental use of psychoactive substances is a recent aberration, a symptom of a decadent culture. A wealth of archaeological evidence suggests that the use of mind-altering plants was both widespread and attended by complex rituals. The remains of such plants at sacred sites, the depictions of mushroom deities, the enigmatic Vedic references to the elusive Soma – all indicate that their use was already well-established by the dawn of history.
The Greek historian Herodotus recorded the first account of cannabis use. He reports how the Scythians employed a form of sweat-lodge, inhaling the fumes from the hemp placed on the hot stones and “howling with pleasure”. Over the next two millennia, the use of cannabis leaves, buds, pollen and resins – variously prepared as weed, ganja, kif, hashish, charas, bhang – became established in traditional cultures throughout the world.
What is surprising is that so few Europeans seemed inspired to follow up Herodotus’ account, or to show any real interest in the sacramental and recreational drugs used by other cultures. By the advent of the Christian era, alcohol was enshrined as Europe’s drug of choice, later supplemented by tobacco, tea, coffee and sugar.
The Spanish Conquest of the Americas brought fresh evidence of long-established sacramental plant use among the indigenous peoples of the region. But such accounts were distorted to serve the agenda of the Conquistadors and their Christian faith. Jesuit priests interpreted indigenous shamanistic rituals as evidence of devil-worship.
The traditional practices of the Maya and other native peoples became concealed, dressed up in the forms of their conqueror’s faith. The old gods were masked with images of the new, One God. The crucifixes in Mayan Churches became fertility totems, writhing with vines and vegetation. The naming of the psychoactive San Pedro (St Peter) cactus is an even more striking example of native shamanism’s ability to hide in the clothes of its Christian usurper.
This ritual secrecy of the colonised peoples, combined with the colonists inability to enter into their world, meant that the true significance of Native American shamanism remained obscured for centuries. Our European ancestors remained largely ignorant of the visionary worlds accessed through the use of such sacraments. Their interpretations of indigenous spiritual practices was thus fatally flawed and often comically wide of the mark.
We would have to wait until the middle of the 20th century, for a new generation of anthropologists and ethno-botanists to rediscover what was always there. Yet contemporary commentators, especially those who proselytise the archaic revival, have tended to over-compensate, placing undue emphasis on the shamanistic use of psychoactive substances. By isolating these sacraments from their wider ritual and cultural context, they present a no less distorted picture.
From the East came news of other elixirs, said to confer bliss, knowledge, superhuman strength, even immortality upon their devotees. Legends of the mysterious Soma of the Vedas were compounded with travellers tales. Marco Polo was the source for the apocryphal story of the hashischin, the feared secret assassins loyal only to Hassan I Sabbah, the Old Man of The Mountain.
Hassan held sway in his mountain fortress at Alamout, a law unto himself, answerable to neither Crusader nor Sultan. He exercised power through his network of undercover agents, the precursors of our contemporary terrorist “sleepers”. They would insinuate themselves into the service of some Caliph or Lord, remaining inactive for weeks, months, sometimes years. Then, when they had effectively become invisible, taken for granted, they would strike without warning. It was said that they had pledged their lives to Hassan, and were prepared to sacrifice themselves without hesitation.
According to Marco Polo, this unwavering loyalty was the result of systematic brainwashing and conditioning, a mind-control experiment of the kind more recently attempted by CIA. The assassins were given large doses of hashish. In their disorientated state, they were transported to a garden, replete with fountains and perfumed, flowering trees, their every desire satisfied by a harem of willing houris. Later, it was made clear to them that they had experienced a vision, a taste of the paradise that would be theirs for all eternity if they gave their lives in the service of Hassan I Sabbah.
Thus was born the image that would haunt hashish, opium and a host of other mind-altering substances for the next millennium: dark, decadent, exotic, sinister, treacherous, alien – the embodiment of the Other.
17th century travellers reported the ceremonial use of amanita muscaria among nomadic Siberian tribes – including the Chukchi, the Koryak, and the Tungus – who gave us the word shaman. This particular mushroom, red with white spots, is often found in forests of birch, the Siberian World Tree on which the shaman climbed up and down between the three worlds.
Siberian shamans developed complex rituals and techniques for accessing the vision world. The practice of drinking the urine of those who had eaten fly agaric was based on sophisticated pharmacological knowledge – the fact that the psychoactive ingredients pass through the kidneys into the urine in a more or less unaltered state.
The Koryak relationship with the mushroom were enshrined in a myth featuring their dream-time hero Big Raven. Weighed down with a heavy bag of food, Big Raven invoked Vahiyinin, the Great Spirit whose name means “Being”. Vahiyinin directed him to the place where he would find the wapaq, spirit allies who would give him the power to lift his bag. The deity then spat on the earth. Where he did, the wapaq took the form of red-capped mushrooms, speckled with his white saliva. Big Raven ate the mushrooms and was filled with the superhuman strength required to fulfil his task. He then requested that Vahiyinin: “Let the mushroom remain here, and let my children see what it will reveal.”
Modern devotees of the “magic mushroom” were inspired by Big Raven’s benediction: They found evidence of the distinctive red and white agaric in Celtic folk-lore and Victorian literature, from fairy-rings to garden gnomes. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, with its shape-shifting DRINK ME potion and hookah-smoking caterpillar perched upon a giant mushroom, was adopted as a classic psychedelic text.
The problem is that the available British mushroom-lore is essentially the work of Victorian fantasists, academics like Carroll who knew of the mushroom and its powers only from obscure ethnographic texts. Far from being 19th century shamans, they were preoccupied with reinventing a safe, sentimental, native mythology acceptable to the emerging middle-classes. The colourful fly agaric “toadstool” was adopted as a picturesque decorative motif, beloved by illustrators of fairy-tale and greetings cards who were often unaware of its true significance. Their interest in Siberian shamanism was framed in Victorian England’s fascination with exotic savagery.
What seems extraordinary is how few Europeans were inspired by these accounts to self-experiment with the fly agaric mushroom. Their fixation on fly agaric also reveals their total ignorance of another mushroom, also native to Britain. The delicate Liberty Caps, with their nipple-shaped caps, are rich in psilocybe, a less toxic and more reliable psychoactive than muscarine, muscimole and ibotenic acid, the active constituents its red and white cousin.
In Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century Mike Jay suggests that the potency of the Liberty Cap (psilocybe semilanceata) was only discovered in 1799 as a result of a case of accidental mushroom “poisoning”. A family had eaten a broth made of field mushrooms gathered in London’s Green Park and were all experiencing severe disorientatation, mild hallucinations, vertigo, stomach cramps and the numbing of their extremities. The husband, identified only as ‘J.S.’, went to get help, but quickly forgot what he was doing and was found in a confused state.
The doctor who treated the family found all the adults in a state of panic, believing that they had been poisoned and were dying. The only exception was an eight-year old child named Edward who, having eaten a large number of the mushrooms, lapsed into an apparent stupor, punctuated by “fits of immoderate laughter”. The boy exhibited all the signs of being on a “magic mushroom” trip.
From our perspective, we can see that his reaction shows how a particular mind-set can influence the nature of a psychedelic experience. Edward was not conditioned by the prejudices of the adults. Having no fear of the altered state, he was spared the panic and the morbid symptoms suffered by the rest of his family.
bringing it all back home
Psychedelic scholars have offered various ingenious explanations for British ignorance of indigenous psychoactive substances. There is the theory that Britain was colonised by alcohol-loving mycophobes. The Anglo-Saxon word “toadstool”, freely applied to mushrooms of varying toxicity, including the hallucinogenic fly agaric, suggests a strong aversion. The Celtic legacy is more ambiguous, clouded by superstitious fear.
Welsh folk-lore brims with cautionary tales on the dangers of stepping inside a “fairy-ring” of mushrooms: those foolish enough to break the taboo would be off with the fairies for what seemed a single night of bliss, only to return to find that, in their world, a century or more had passed, and that those they knew and loved had long since died.
Yet even these warnings imply a dim, and beguiling, folk-memory of mushroom-rings as gateways to the other realms. Celtic cosmology envisages three worlds, the underworld, the physical plane and a heavenly realm. There are strong parallels here with the Norse myth of a World Tree linking the three realms. Wotan, or Odin, the shamanistic god, hangs himself in the tree, one of many pagan sacrificial acts that prefigure the crucifixion of Christ. One of the great Cymrian myths tells of a quest to find the cauldron of Annwn, supposed to bestow superhuman powers upon them who drink from it. An even more evocative, though still coded, reference to the shamanic use of mind-altering potions appears in the legends surrounding the birth of Taliesin, the archetypal bard.
The Goddess Ceridwen was brewing a magic potion. She had assigned a simple boy to tend her cauldron, under strict orders not to sample the brew. But, as he stirred the pot, drops of the scalding liquid splashed onto his finger. Sucking his finger to ease the pain, he accidentally ingested some of the magic potion. It quickly took effect: he found he could understand the language of birds, who warned him that the Goddess would take a terrible vengeance on him.
Using his new powers, the boy turned himself into a hare. Ceridwen gave chase in the form of a hound. He changed into a fish. She became an otter, swimming after him. Finally he concealed himself in a tiny grain of corn, but there was no escaping Ceridwen’s all-seeing eye. She changed again, into a hen, and swallowed the grain.
Only the tale does not end here. Having eaten the upstart boy, the Goddess becomes pregnant with him. The simpleton transforms himself in her womb, to be reborn as Taliesin, the poet who claims to be as old as the world, and, in the Christianised version of his legend, to have walked with Moses and Jesus.
The Taliesin myth bears the unmistakable signature of shamanic initiation. There is the psychoactive potion that confers occult knowledge, and, specifically, the ability to understand and communicate with other creatures. There is the simple boy, associated with the fool and trickster. There are three spectacular instances of shape-shifting, involving power animals. And there is the death and rebirth of the shaman. This is far from conclusive proof of an indigenous Celtic mushroom-cult, though it does at least suggest that the Celtic fear of mushrooms could be more akin to the “holy dread” that Coleridge reserved for them that had “drunk the milk of paradise.”
Who can say? The gulf that divides us from the Celtic and Norse Ancestors means that we can at best infer the meaning of their artefacts. The survival of their myths in oral tradition is even more problematic. Such myths were recorded by Christian scribes, more than a thousand years after the Christianisation of Western Europe.
The church’s systematic absorption and reinvention of pagan mythology can be seen in the building of churches on sacred sites, the triumph of England’s patron saint, George, over the native Dragon energy, and even in the assimilation of the horned god, consort to the Goddess, into a composite Christian Devil. The Taliesin story is overwritten with crude Christian accretions. The medieval church embodied a world-view that was profoundly alienated from the natural world and could not comprehend the vision of humankind as an intrinsic part of a living continuum, streaming between the Three Worlds.
There is a clear distinction to be made here between Jesus Christ – whose life and works, even as recorded in the authorised gospels, can be interpreted as exemplary acts of an outcast shaman – and the Church founded in his name as an instrument of Empire and the Moral Law. The shamanistic teachings passed down in heretical tradition – from the Gnostics of 2nd and 3rd century Egypt, the 12th century Cathars, medieval mystical streams and charismatic cults, through to the emergence of a chaotic, yet distinctive, Western Mystery Tradition – the “left-hand” path which, throughout the Christian era, is embodied in the apocryphal identity and secret teachings of the Magdalene.
The problem with Christianity, as with Islam and the other great faiths, may well be rooted in a theology that sets Heaven against Earth, Spirit against flesh, Mind against matter. Such divisions can, however, be mediated, and ultimately transcended, by the power of what Christians call the Holy Spirit. Even St Paul, that pillar of orthodox theology, declared: “The Letter killeth! The Spirit giveth life.” It is the slavish adherence to the Letter of Scripture, and to the creeds and doctrines born of priestcraft, that deforms the human spirit. Fundamentalism, whether Christian, Islamic or Pagan, is the enemy of spiritual development. There is a valid critique to be made of the ways in which the “One God” religions have deformed the human soul and its relationship with Nature, but it is not helped by distortion or demonisation. Those pagans who dismiss the past two thousand years of Western Civilisation as an age of mental slavery are themselves in peril of turning into the fundamentalist “enemy”.
Even within the orthodox Christian tradition, there were opportunities for individuals to enter into direct communion with the Divine. The medieval world-view conceived the Earth as the centre of the universe, with the human drama played out in the eyes of God and his celestial court. Unlike the materialistic, mechanistic models that succeeded it, the Christian paradigm could accommodate heightened realities in which men and women saw and conversed with Angels.
The writings of Julian of Norwich, St Theresa of Avila and other mystics clearly show how visionary experiences can elicited through fasting, physical privation and a highly-developed identification with the sufferings of Christ. Yet such experiences were progressively marginalised, regarded as the confused outpourings of “hysterical” women.
The medieval church, intent on establishing its male authority, became increasingly intolerant of heresy and surviving folk-magic. We will never know how many innocent women were sacrificed in the period witch-burning frenzies that erupted in Europe throughout the middle ages. In England the persecution of witches reached its height in East Anglia, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when the Witchfinder General and his gang of Puritan zealots terrorised many old “wise women” into spurious confessions. Their testimonies themselves make curious reading. In among the, frequently prompted, confessions of having had carnal knowledge of Satan, are fragmentary accounts of “flying”, shape-shifting and other visionary experiences.
Such visions could be symptoms of schizophrenia or manic depression. Many so-called witches were vulnerable old women, some of whom doubtless suffered from delusions. The confusion of shamanic and psychotic experience may well have contributed to the gradual suppression and demonisation of our native magical tradition. It should be borne in mind that such confessions were obtained under torture, and further distorted by the leading questions of the inquisitors.
Be that as it may, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that witches used “flying ointments” and psychoactive potions to access the vision world of the Sabbat. The flying ointment contained henbane, a potent source of the psychoactive chemicals atropine and scopolamine. Witches are said to have smeared the ointment on their broomsticks, ingesting the active ingredients through the vulva in order to “fly”.
How are we to explain this fear of The Other, this act of forgetting that seems to have gripped Europe for at least the last millennia, virtually obliterating our native herbal lore. One clue may lie in the outbreaks of ergotism that ravaged Europe towards the end of the first millennium. Ergot is a fungus that forms on barley and rye. It contains a psychedelic amide closely related to lysergic acid.
Unfortunately, in its natural form the fungus is also extremely toxic, causing delirium, gangrene and, in extreme cases, painful death. It was ingested unwittingly, probably in the form of mouldy bread, by uneducated, superstitious Christian peasants. Their apocalyptic visions were both shaped by and, in turn, helped fuel the belief that the end of the world was nigh. Our historical aversion to psychoactive plants may be rooted in a folk-memory of ergot poisoning. Such attitudes were reinforced by the church’s mistrust of any numinous experience that did not conform to its own belief-system.
the shaman as artist
With religious experience strictly circumscribed by Christian doctrine, the shamanic impulse found expression in folk tradition and, most significantly, in literature. English literature had its roots in magical tales of journeys between the worlds. Flimsily Christianised pagan myths like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gave way to imaginative, but essentially orthodox, theological fables such as Piers Plowman and vernacular dramatisations of the Bible in Cycles of Mystery Plays. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales uses the medieval Pilgrimage to frame a vision of warts-and–all humanity in narrative verse.
Shamanism is primarily concerned with humankind’s interaction with its primordial forces of life, death and rebirth. Even in traditional shamanistic cultures, the relationship is manifested and mediated through folk-memory – in myth, story, song and ritual drama. The chaotic, disruptive, profane behaviour of shamanic clowns is a vital element in sacred rituals throughout the Americas.
Since the ancient Greeks, the power of tragedy is in its healing catharsis, the emotional and spiritual purging unleashed in the violent resolution of irreconcilable opposites. At the precise moment that Oedipus blinds himself, we gain a shocking insight into the human condition. In the storm scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, a mad King, his Fool and “Tom o’ Bedlam” cavort on a blasted heath, ranting and raging against the elements, as thunder and lightning rend the sky. The shattered King ultimately dies in ecstasy, seeing signs of life on the face of his beloved, wronged (and very dead) daughter Cordelia.
MacBeth testifies to Shakespeare’s familiarity with witches’ lore and the psychoactive ingredients in the three witches’ “hubble-bubble” cauldron. In a truly cathartic act of retribution, MacBeth and Lady MacBeth are overwhelmed by the dark magic their murderous acts have unleashed.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which forbidden lovers elope to a faerie wood, affirms the transformational power of journeying between the worlds. Here, Shakespeare presents an authentic shamanic clown, Puck aka Robin Goodfellow: “What fools these mortals be!” Yet here, as in Spencer’s Faerie Queen and the works of the 17th century Metaphysical Poets, the vision world seems little more than a folk memory restored as an artful, poetic conceit.
The controversy surrounding the identity of Shakespeare is bound up with the Western cult of the individual. It is now generally accepted that he was not the author of all the works originally ascribed to him. He wrote in an age when co-authorship of plays was common. His famous speeches were almost certainly developed during rehearsals with the actors. William Kemp, Shakespeare’s Fool, is believed to have contributed songs and ad-lib banter which were later incorporated into the scripts. Although Shakespeare seems to have had a successful life in the theatre, he was not regarded as an exceptional writer in his own lifetime. Yet, from the time of his rediscovery in the mid-18th century, the image of “the immortal bard”, a solitary genius standing head-and-shoulders above his contemporaries, quickly took hold.
One reason often cited for the enduring popularity of Shakespeare is the “universality” of his vision. In this he was a true child of Renaissance Humanism. The Bible had recently been printed in an English language that was still in the process of inventing itself. People could now read and interpret the Word of God for themselves, challenging the priestcraft and dogma that had dominated the medieval church. They applied themselves with equal vigour to deciphering God’s “other book”, the Book of Nature, of Life itself. The rediscovery of hermetic texts stimulated an interest in alchemy, astrology and divination, and a thirst for new scientific knowledge. Yet the Renaissance mind still operated within a paradigm that saw correspondences and reflections between the Natural World and Spiritual States, microcosm and microcosm, the particular and the Universal.
The “Enlightenment” effectively redrew our map of the universe. Since Galileo, the Sun had ceased to revolve around the Earth. Now the harmony of the celestial spheres was displaced by Newton’s impersonal law of gravity. The medieval “common-sense” spiritual paradigm – with the Earth, and the human drama, at the centre of a divinely-ordered universe – crumbled before this mechanistic model of creation. The logos, the Word of God, was sought less in scripture or mystical experience than in the empirical observation of natural processes. The deity had become depersonalised. God no longer spoke in the language of poets, but in the immutable laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry.
In archaic cultures, the artist is working within an established tradition, reviving and renewing collective myths and memories. Of course the same is true to some extent of any contemporary Western artist. Any art-work that failed to evoke shared cultural insights, however obliquely, would be unintelligible. Nonetheless, in the increasingly complex, diverse and specialised societies of 18th century Europe, we see the emergence of the transgressive artist, often an obscure, marginal figure in his own time, who stands in opposition to many accepted cultural values. Such voices, so out of kilter with their own age, may resonate with later generations – the nearest thing in European culture to a transmission from the world of the Ancestors!
From his childhood vision of a tree filled with angels on Peckham Rye in south London, the English poet William Blake charted his idiosyncratic course. In an age of rationalism, materialism and Natural Science, he delineated a vibrant inner world of the Spirit. For Blake, imagination is much more than a poet’s fancy; it is “Jesus”, the Divine incarnate in humanity, the power of the mind to transform the physical world.
It would be facile to enlist Blake as emblematic of a Western shamanic tradition – not least because of his profound mistrust of paganism and other forms of Nature worship. He views the physical world as a confining delusion, the false creation of a fallen demiurge. In this he is the authentic inheritor of a Gnostic tradition that had been driven underground since the fifth century. The Gnostic vision of spirit trapped in matter had resurfaced in the 12th century Cathar heresy, only to be brutally suppressed by the Catholic church. In Blake’s work, it is tempered by his readiness to rejoice in the Contraries of Existence, as in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He seems completely at home in the vision world, conversing freely with Angels and Demons. His testimony, however strange, carries a fierce ring of truth. Blake embodies the resurgence of an intuitive, empathetic “right-brain” consciousness, at precisely the time that the analytical, reductive “left-brain” had imposed its world-view so comprehensively as to be commonly taken for “reality”.
Blake was “a natural”, seemingly able to access the vision world at will. Some of his contemporaries were not averse to using artificial aids. The poets Coleridge and Southey were enthusiastic test-subjects for Humphrey Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide at the Bristol Pneumatic Institution. Their reports on out of body experiences, and their sense of being connected to an infinite continuum of conscious being, correspond closely to contemporary reports of psychedelic experiences, and especially to the tranquilliser ketamine. Such serious investigations were, however, short-lived.
Nitrous oxide is an anaesthetic, classically rendering the user inert. Inwardly, the mysteries of the universe may unfold, yet to all outward appearances, the subject is in a stupor, or completely unconscious. However, Coleridge noted its paradoxical side-effect of “antic” behaviour – dancing, shouting, and eccentric, exhibitionist, even violent, expressions of psychological states. When Davy abandoned his experiments, without explanation but perhaps mindful of his new-found scientific respectability, the work with nitrous oxide rapidly degenerated into freak-shows. Volunteers were given a dose of the so-called “laughing gas” and encouraged to shed their inhibitions in grotesque displays of primitive behaviour, for the edification and amusement of the audience.
Coleridge meanwhile was sinking gloomily into his addiction to laudanum. Although he never proselytised the use of opium, regarding it as a weakness on his part, its influence is evident in Kubla Khan. The fascination with the mysterious East was taken up by Coleridge’s secretary and protégé Thomas de Quincey. His Confessions of An English Opium Eater, divided into the “pleasures” and “pains” of opium, created the template for the confessional form of “drug literature”.
The revival of interest in magic and spiritualism in Victorian England was fed by exposure to Hindu, Buddhist and animist cultures in the colonies. Madame Blavatsky’s undoubted gifts were later compromised by claims of charlatanism, yet the influence of the Theosophical Movement helped draw hitherto exotic or marginal ideas of magic and mysticism into the mainstream. The Russian teacher Georges Gurdjieff developed an idiosyncratic, syncretic discipline – “the work” – which in turn influenced the development of a distinctly Western 20th century magical tradition.
Many Western magical practitioners eschew or actively discourage the use of artificial stimuli to attain altered states, tracing their confected lines through alchemy, divination and other esoteric practices, all the way back to the Greek and Egyptian mystery traditions embodied in Hermes Trismegistus. One notable exception was Aleister Crowley, the transgressive artist as self-styled Magus, whose “workings” to manifest the new Aeon of Horus were variously enhanced by hashish, mescaline, cocaine and heroin.
In 19th century France, Theophile Gautier, Baudelaire and other members of the Club des Haschishins consumed prodigious quantities of hashish and opium in their quest for a systematic derangement of the senses. Their visions of an ‘Artificial Paradise’ were embroidered with oriental exotica and the plundering of archaic myths. The young Arthur Rimbaud embraced his own ‘Season In Hell’ with pagan relish.
Mike Jay’s Emperors of Dreams shows how the Chinese opium den began in fiction, as an exotic setting for the scenes of moral degradation played out in cheap Victorian novels. Jay presents Victorian England as a recreational drug-users paradise, where nitrous oxide, ether, opium tinctures, heroin and cocaine were freely available over the pharmacy counter. He shows how the new medical establishment exploited the moral panic that set in late in the 19th century, when the relatively benign opium became identified with the ‘Yellow Peril’ – this despite the fact that the British had fought for the right to export opium to China. The US pharmaceutical company Bayer, manufacturers of Aspirin, were soon promoting a new over-the-counter wonder drug, the safe and socially acceptable alternative to opium. They called it Heroin.
new science for art
By the 1920s supporters of prohibition, having initially targeted the abuse of alcohol, had succeeded in appending most known psychoactive sacraments to their ever-growing list of proscribed substances. Yet even as the medical lobby moved to monopolise the new pharmacopia, the ancient, ritual use of plant teachers was undergoing a quiet revival.
From the 1890s the reporter James Mooney attended and sympathetically reported on Native American peyote rituals. He was impressed both by the disciplined, reverent nature of the ceremonies and by the ability of these vision quests to rebuild communities ravaged by exposure to alcohol. The testimony of such white observers lent weight to a campaign by some indigenous tribes to have peyote recognised as an essential component of an authentic religious tradition. In 1918, the use of peyote by the Native American Church was legalised, though it would be many more years before Native Americans could practice their religion without harassment.
By 1897, German chemists had extracted and isolated mescaline, the most potent psychoactive ingredient of the peyote button. During the first half of the 20th century it was used sporadically, and discreetly, by artists and intellectuals. Its influence has been detected in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, with its Magic Theatre – “Price of admission: your mind.” James Joyce’s Finegann’s Wake, a masterpiece of mythological shape-shifting and shamanic twisty-talking, has led some to infer that Joyce must spiked his porter with the odd dose of mescaline!
The French writer Antonin Artaud participated in peyote rituals in Mexico. His 1936 essay The Peyote Dance explores the ritual use of peyote by Tarahumara shamans. Artaud was seeking to reinstate the shamanic, cathartic function of drama in his Theatre of Cruelty. His peyote experiences inspired him to attempt to revitalise French culture, infusing the fractured legacy of dada and surrealism with an ancient esoteric spirituality. Artaud is the authentic embodiment of the transgressive artist as shaman. He paid a high price for his spiritual integrity, spending much of his later life in mental institutions.
Lewis Lewin, the German chemist who had brought peyote buttons back from the new world, became interested in the vine, banisteriopsis caapi, a vital ingredient of the ayahuasca brews which have used ceremonially in the Amazon since at least Inca times. In 1927, harmine, the active agent of the banisteriosis caapi vine, was isolated. Harmine is an MAO-inhibitor. It temporarily disables the enzymes that break-down psychoactive tryptamines.
The importance of the tryptamine (DMT), contained in psychotria viridis, the leaves that are combined with the vine in the ayahuasca brew, was not recognised until the 1950s. DMT was edventually synthesised in 1956, by Steven Szara, a Czech chemist. In this smokeable form, DMT is one of the fastest-acting, though shortest lived, of the psychedelics, eliciting intense, often overwhelming, visionary experiences, the sense of being literally transported into a parallel universe.
In the 1930s, Blas Pablo Reko and other researchers in Mexico rediscovered other time-honoured plant teachers, morning glory seeds, and a mushroom which Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes believed to be teonanacatl, the Aztec “flesh of the gods” described by the Spanish chroniclers. Schultes initiated vital research into the ritual use of psychoactive mushrooms in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The existence of such mushrooms became common knowledge in 1957, when amateur mycologists Gordon and Valentina Wasson published their article in Life magazine, vividly describing their ecstatic experiences at Mazatec Indian mushroom ceremonies in Huautla de Jimenez. Samples of the mushroom were sent to the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who analysed and self-experimented with them. By 1958 he had succeeded in isolating their psychoactive chemicals psilocybin and psilocine. He later participated in native mushroom ceremonies with the Wassons in Mexico.
Back in 1943, the year that Man first split the atom, Hoffman had made the discovery that would have no less a cataclysmic effect on humanity’s inner landscape. He was at work in the Sandoz laboratory in Switzerland, experimenting with ergot derivatives, when he accidentally ingested a microscopic amount of lysergic acid diethylamine (LSD25) through his fingertips.
Feeling unwell, he rode for home on his bicycle, into a subtly altered reality. He was sufficiently impressed to self-experiment with a larger dose. This time, he experienced intense visions and altered perceptions, panicked and thought for a time that he was dying. The experience did not deter Hoffman, who intuitively recognised the LSD’s potential as a agent psychological and spiritual healing. He had discovered the most powerful psychedelic known to man.
In sixty-odd years, the shamanic “plant teachers” used in “primitive” cultures for millennia, and their even more potent synthetic cousins, had been identified and made available to Western psychonauts. The pieces were all in place. The stage was set for the 1960s.
During the first half of the 20th century, the rapid advances in understanding the effects of plant teachers and their chemical analogues had been made, if not exactly in the mainstream, then at least in elite circles within the Western cultural establishment. Schultes and his colleagues at Harvard were developing a science of ethnobotany that methodically collated, researched and analysed the medicinal and psychoactive plants used in traditional cultures. Gordon Wasson was a retired investment banker, Albert Hoffman a respected chemist. Recognising the potential of such substances as psychological and spiritual tools, they were temperamentally inclined to restrict their experimental use to an inner circle of scientists, artists and intellectuals.
One such pioneer was Aldous Huxley, who in 1954 published The Doors of Perception, describing his transcendental experiences on mescaline. In a 1962 letter to Hoffman, Huxley expressed his hopes that their work would “… result in the development of a real Natural History of visionary experience… and at the same time of a technique of Applied Mysticism.” Around the same time, the British MP and Cabinet Minister Christopher Mayhew allowed himself to be filmed under the influence of mescaline.
The prospects for the emergence of a cultural consensus were blown apart when another Harvard lecturer began proselytising a populist psychedelic revolution. In 1963 Dr Timothy Leary had placed an order with Sandoz for a million doses of LSD (and two-and-a-half million of psilocybin). He was subsequently dismissed from Harvard along with his colleague Dr Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass). They pursued their researches under the auspices of their own International Federation for Internal Freedom. In 1965 Leary wrote The Politics of Ecstacy, in which he hailed LSD as the key to the impending transformation of human consciousness, urging Western youth to “Turn on, tune in, drop out!”
Schultes, Wasson and Hoffman were all to varying degrees alarmed by Leary’s antics and by the increasing number of young people experimenting with psychedelics. In his book, LSD: My Problem Child, Albert Hoffman gives a characteristically sympathetic and balanced account of his 1971 meeting with Leary: “a charming personage, convinced of his mission, who defended his opinions with humour yet uncompromisingly; a man who truly soared high in the clouds pervaded by beliefs in the wondrous effects of psychedelic drugs and the optimism resulting therefrom, and thus a man who tended to underrate or completely overlook practical difficulties, unpleasant facts, and dangers.” In the course of their conversation, Hoffman expressed regret that Leary’s recklessness had effectively closed down promising avenues of academic research. He also remonstrated with him “about the particular dangers of LSD for youth”.
The young people who heeded Leary’s call were children of an affluent society. On the surface, they were living healthier, wealthier, safer lives, with perhaps more freedom of choice than at any time in recorded history. Beneath the shiny veneer, there was a growing sense of unease and alienation. They grew up in the shadow of the bomb, aware of the environmental damage wrought by the desire to control and exploit the natural world. The Enlightenment myths of Reason and Progress that had underpinned Western Civilisation for the preceding three centuries were collapsing, just as quantum physics was demolishing the Newtonian model of the universe. The very materialism of Western society seemed to have created a spiritual and moral vacuum.
Leary’s “mission” was to democratise access to visionary experiences that had previously been restricted to a priest-like elite. He advocated the responsible use of LSD, stressing the importance of “set” and “setting” – the psychological and emotional state of the user, and their physical environment – in determining the nature and quality of the “trip”. The Psychedelic Experience, co-written with Alpert and Ralph Metzler, drew on The Tibetan Book of The Dead to provide a structure for the sacramental use of psychedelics.
The counter-culture of the 1960s had begun as a movement for political and social change. Under the influence of LSD and other psychoactive substances, it was soon questioning the nature of Reality itself. In the process, Western shamanism reinvented itself: its authentic expressions were music, art, poetry and social activism, though it also liked to dress up in the language of anthropology, para-psychology, pharmacology.
In the half century since, the privileged children of Western materialism have accessed both the psycho-chemical properties of sacramental plants and the cultural contexts of indigenous shamanism. Some have studied with indigenous shamans or curanderos, sincerely persuaded that such practices can be codified and assimilated into our own culture without compromising their authenticity. Many more self-styled shamans have gleaned their initiations from weekend courses before proceeding to offer ‘vision quests’ and the like to credulous seekers.
In the process the shaman – a role originally accepted as a onerous but necessary duty – becomes a lifestyle choice, conflated with rock-stardom and the instant gratification of New Age religion.
It is easy to see why – to those looking to establish a credible transmission of indigenous shamanism to the West – Carlos Casteneda is a pariah . He conflates science with art, fact with fiction, field research with poetic metaphor and practical joke. Yet I would argue that he operates precisely, and deliberately, in this liminal zone, so as to expose – and exploit – the Western mind’s inherent ambivalence to the mysteries – not to mention its post-colonial fascination with the exotic. His anthropologist’s clothes are a disguise, a clown’s motley.
In Journey To Ixtlan the author confesses that, by fixating on the use of psychoactive substances, he had missed the heart of Don Juan’s teachings. Reviewing his “field-notes”, he presents a series of faux-Socratic dialogues in which the brujo concisely and wittily reveals the techniques and self-discipline required to live as “a warrior”.
Tales of Power delves deeper into the paradigm by which (in which) the shaman operates. First it establishes the tonal – the world of names and forms, our “description of the world”, what Leary had loosely termed “game reality”. Then it hurls us into the nameless, numinous, resonant emptiness – the domain of the shaman. Don Juan’s demonstration – in which everything Carlos can conceive of is gleefully dismissed as just another object on the table of the tonal – may be founded in a Yaqui paradigm. It also vividly recalls the ecstatic nihilism of the Heart Sutra, the Mahayana Buddhist hymn to “No-Thing-Ness”.
Even if, as many now believe, he dreamed the whole thing up in the UCLA library, Casteneda created a masterpiece of trickster shamanism. His books have been moved from the ‘non-fiction’ to ‘fiction’ sections of public libraries. Perhaps we need to invent a new category for such works, born of the creative dialogue between ancient traditions of indigenous magic and the rogue insights of transgressive Western artists.
John Constable aka John Crow
Art Claire Palmer
This text is adapted from a chapter in ‘Transgressive Shamanism’, a work in progress by John Constable aka John Crow
Further chapters, charting John Crow’s own work with the Goose spirit, to follow.