Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973)

This collection of essays from 1973 gets an A+ on cover alone.

Undoubtedly one of the major reasons that anthropologists for so long underestimated the importance of hallucinogenic substances in shamanism and religious experience was that very few had partaken themselves of the native psychotropic materials (other than peyote) or had undergone the resulting subjective experiences so critical, perhaps paradoxically, to an empirical understanding of their meaning to the peoples they studied.  Most, although not all, of the authors in the present book are an exception…

I’ll say!  From Michael J. Harner’s essay “The Sound Of Rushing Water”:

When I first undertook research among the Jívaro in 1956-57, I did not fully appreciate the psychological impact of the Banisteriopsis drink upon the native view of reality, but in 1961 I had occasion to drink the hallucinogen in the course of field work with another Upper Amazon Basin tribe.  For several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams.  I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world.  I enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy.  Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology.  Therefore, in 1964 I returned to the Jívaro to give particular attention to the drug’s use by the Jívaro shaman.

source.  Harner just passed away last month. 

South American shamanism and hallucinogens is one of the topics explored in

Yet the essay our reader found of most interest in this volume was was “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft,”  also by Harner. The topic of witchcraft, European and American, has been of great interest to Helytimes.

What was going on with the wild bursts of witchcraft persecution in medieval Europe and early colonial America?

A prevalent attitude among present-day historians and scholars of religion (e.g. Henningsen, 1969: 105-6; Trevor-Roper, 1969:90, 192) is that late medieval and Renaissance witchcraft was essentially a fiction created by the Church.

says Harner.  But what this essay presupposes is: what if it wasn’t?

Probably the single most important group of plants used by mankind to contact the supernatural belongs to the order Solanacæe (the potato family)… each of these plants contains varying quantities of atropine and the other closely related tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolomine, all of which have hallucinogenic effects (Claus and Tyler, 1965: 273-85; Henry, ,1949: 64092; Hoffer and Osmund, 1967:525-28; Lewin, 1964: 129-140; Sollmann, 1957: 381-98).

From here, Harner goes on to suggest:

As is familiar to every child in our culture, the witch is fantasized as flying through the air on a broomstick.  This symbol actually represents a very serious and central aspect of European witchcraft, involving the use of solanceaous hallucinogenic plants.  The European witches rubbed their bodies with a hallucinogenic ointment containing such plants as Atropa belladonna, Mandragora, and henbane, whose content of atropine was absorbable through the skin.  The witch then indeed took a “trip”: the witch on the broomstick is a representation of that imagined aerial journey to a rendezvous with spirits and demons, which was called a Sabbat.

Wild claim!  More:

The use of a staff or broom was undoubtedly more than a symbolic Freudian act, serving as an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes as well as providing the suggestion of riding on a steed

Historical evidence seems thin.  Harner presents a case from 1325, when a Lady Alice Kyteler was investigated in Ireland:

…in rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pile of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon the which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed.

Kyteler fled the country, but her servant was  flogged and burned to death.  Her house is now a pub:

We ran this idea by one of our female editors, who pointed out that if you were going to apply some salve to your vaginal membranes, you’d probably use something a little softer than a broomstick, perhaps a vegetable.  The biodegradable nature of such an applicator perhaps explains why archaeological evidence is so scant.

Thought-provoking, in any case.



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