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.



Oh What A Slaughter and Sacagawea’s Nickname


Getting pretty close to having read all of Larry McMurtry’s nonfiction.  LMcM has a rambling, conversational way in these books, I enjoy it.  Here is some previous coverage about his book Hollywood, and his road trip book Roads, and the best one of all imo, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.

Oh What A Slaughter is definitely worth a read.  A good quality of McMurtry and my all time favorite Evan S. Connell is that they really capture the weirdness of history.


How about this, as McMurtry describes the buildup to the Wounded Knee massacre?:

ghost dance 1 ghost dance 2


Wovoka / Jack Wilson

How can you not like a book that has this in it?willie boy

Sacagawea’s Nickname wasn’t as compelling to me.


It collects essays McMurtry wrote for the New York Review Of Books: a couple about Lewis & Clark, one about the great one-armed explorer/surveyor/ethnographer/proto-environmentalist John Wesley Powell:


But for title alone I was def gonna read it.  Like every American kid I was taught about Sacagawea in school, whose name we were told was pronounced “Sack-a Jew-ee-uh.”


Imagine my shock years later when my friend Leila, who was schooled in Oregon and thus had some cred on the issue, told me her name was pronounced “Sack Ahj Way.”  Well, sure.  How could we know?  Both Lewis and Clark, Clark especially, were crazy spellers, so their clues are confusing.  From Wiki:

Clark used Sahkahgarwea, Sahcahgagwea, Sarcargahwea, and Sahcahgahweah, while Lewis used Sahcahgahwea, Sahcahgarweah, Sahcargarweah, and Sahcahgar Wea.

From McMurtry:

sar car

Anyway let me go ahead and give you a spoiler that Sar car Ja we a’s nickname was Janey.


Groovy opening

Death Valley Days


Death Valley Days ran for 18 seasons and 452 (!) episodes.

You can’t top Death Valley for place names.  Just reading the map is a pleasure.


But hey, the map is not the territory.  So the boys and I went out to have a look:


Things aren’t what they used to be in old Chloride City:


IMG_2409  IMG_2431

Just as well I didn’t know what these mountains were called.

FullSizeRender (26)


On to Titus Canyon:


Rendezvous in the twilight:  IMG_2457  IMG_2452


Morning at camp:  IMG_2486

Ever since I heard about the sailing stones I’ve wanted to see the Racetrack:

Screen Shot 2016-02-20 at 2.50.09 PM

Not the easiest trip.


Let’s go have a look:


Bobby will do whatever it takes to get the shot:

IMG_2541 IMG_2588  IMG_2599


These guys have a long walk ahead:


Keep going lil buddy!:


(is there anything so human as “rooting” for a rock in its meaningless decades-long journey across a dry lake bed?)

How about the crater?:



“Let’s drive down the old Lippincott Mine road!”

IMG_2763  IMG_2647  IMG_2657



Shoutout to the rad Tom Harrison map of Death Valley.

Stirring clip from Death Valley Days:





khipu 3

A khipu from the Museo Radicati in Lima, photo from Harvard’s Khipu Database Project website.

We know that the ancient Inca used systems of rope-based accounting called quipus or khipus.  Beyond that, it seems like many scholars have come close to losing their marbles trying to sort them out.

Were they something like an abacus?  Musical notation?  A binary system like a simple computer code?  How about this, from Wikipedia:

The Khipu Database Project (KDP), begun by Gary Urton, may have already decoded the first word from a quipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, quipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.


Marcia and Robert Ascher, a married couple, he an anthropologist and she a mathematician, collaborated on on ethnomathematic projects, including a good hard look at quipus/khipus and came up with this :

For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:

  • The number 731 would be represented by 7s, 3s, E.
  • The number 804 would be represented by 8s, X, 4L.
  • The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s, X, 7L, 5s, E.

This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: quipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.

Marcia Ascher

Marcia Ascher

Robert Ascher

Robert Ascher, both pictures from their obituaries over on legacy.com

Now comes news in the NY Times, “Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery” by William Neuman, that some quipus have been found in an excavated Incan storehouse in Incahuasi, Peru:


Incahuasi, from wiki.

Says the Times:

Now the Incahuasi researchers hope that by studying the khipus and comparing them with others in a large database, they may find that the khipus discovered with the peanuts contain a color, knot or other signifier for “peanut.” The same goes for those found with chili peppers, beans and corn.

“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” said Gary Urton, a leading expert on khipus who is studying the new trove with Alejandro Chu, the archaeologist who led the excavation.

“It’s not the great Rosetta Stone but it’s quite an important new body of data to work with,” he said, adding, “It’s tremendously exciting.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.27.21 AM

Prof. Gary Urton, from the website for Harvard’s Khipu Database Project.

Prof. Urton has been working on khipu for almost as long as I’ve been alive.  He started his archaeological career helping out at Cahokia.

The Times article introduces us to Patricia Landa, who cleans and untangles the khipu.  It sounds like she takes a reverse Marie Kondo approach:

“You have a very special relationship with the material,” Ms. Landa, 59, said. “I talk to them. I say, ‘Excuse me for disturbing your rest but you’re helping us to understand your ancestors.’ ”

There is something deeply moving and wonderful and absurd and human about spending years of your life trying to decipher how 15th century people counted beans and corn.  What a worthy challenge to try and sort this out:


William Neuman for NY Times

To the khipu guys and gals, I say: good luck.

You can read more about khipu/quipu and the Inca/Inka in my book, The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, coming June 2016.

Removing fish from an abandoned Thai shopping mall

Thai mall 1

HT to Tyler Cowen for the link to this, no doubt of interest to Helytimes readers.

Thai mall two

How big is the universe?

Devoted ten minutes to the puzzle, after discovering I myself had no idea really.

Let’s start with basics.

Sun and earth distance

stealing this from an apparently abandoned online toy store somewhere in the EU

One problem is it’s hard to render these distances on any map.  Take just sun to Earth, for instance.

Sun to Earth

93 million miles.

The earth’s diameter is 7,918 miles.  The sun’s diameter is 864,327 miles.  So if we made a map, where the Earth was one inch, the sun would have to be nine feet tall and 978 feet away.

Another way: if Earth is a golf ball (1.68 inches diameter) the sun is a 15.26′ ball, five and half football fields away.

OK, how about to the edge of our solar system?

Well, what’s the edge?  Neptune’s the most distant planet, right (after that unpleasant Pluto business)?

Sun to Neptune

4.18 light hours (or .00047684 light years)

But the real edge of our solar system, people seem to think, is way crazy farther past even Pluto.

It’s in a place that is still mostly just a theory, a sphere of wandering ice comets called the Oort Cloud:

Very difficult to render how far away the Oort Cloud is, at this level the scaling is so ridiculous that a 2D map with like dots on it becomes pretty irrelevant.

From the sun to the Oort Cloud – the edge of the solar system – is something like 1.87 light years.


The next solar system over, Alpha Centauri, is 4.37 light years from the sun.

VERY good chart, thanks so much NASA/Penn and also for putting that map in the public domain, although I guess as a federal taxpayer I do own it kind of.

You can see Alpha Centauri with your naked eye, I believe, I think our excellent friend Jeff even pointed it out to us once.  From Earth it appears to the eye as a single object even though it’s a two-star system:

Us and Alpha Centauri are in the Milky Way.  You can see the Milky Way from Earth, even though we’re in it, because it’s a spiral, and we’re in the spiral:

The laser in this picture is pointing toward the Galactic Center, which is 27,000 light-years away from the sun.

The Milky Way is 100,000-120,000 light years in diameter.

How many stars are in there?  Maybe: 100-400 million stars they think.  These numbers are much revised over history and expect will be revised many times again.

The Andromeda Galaxy as seen by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer

The closest galaxy over is Andromeda, which is 2.5 million light-years from Earth.

It is in our (comically named) “Local Group,” which has more than 54 galaxies in it.

Comically named I say because the diameter of the Local Group is 10 million lightyears.

From Earth to the edge observable universe in any direction is 46 billion lightyears.

What’s that you say?  How can that be?  Back up.

Does the universe have a center?  Are we the center?

If we’re the center then… what?  If not then… what?

Universe in an expanding sphere. The galaxies farthest away are moving fastest and hence experience length contraction and so become smaller to an observer in the centre. (says Drschwarz on Wikipedia)

Well at this point, I’m afraid I’ve lost comprehension for now and more reading would be necessary to even begin to wrap a desperate brain-finger around the most basic essays into this fathomless question.

From the wikipedia article “Observable Universe” section “Size,” subsection  “Misconceptions:

Many secondary sources have reported a wide variety of incorrect figures for the size of the visible universe. Some of these figures are listed below, with brief descriptions of possible reasons for misconceptions about them.

13.8 billion light-years

The age of the universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years. While it is commonly understood that nothing can accelerate to velocities equal to or greater than that of light, it is a common misconception that the radius of the observable universe must therefore amount to only 13.8 billion light-years. This reasoning would only make sense if the flat, static Minkowski spacetimeconception under special relativity were correct. In the real universe, spacetime is curved in a way that corresponds to the expansion of space, as evidenced by Hubble’s law. Distances obtained as the speed of light multiplied by a cosmological time interval have no direct physical significance.[23]

15.8 billion light-years
This is obtained in the same way as the 13.8 billion light year figure, but starting from an incorrect age of the universe that the popular press reported in mid-2006.[24][25] For an analysis of this claim and the paper that prompted it, see the following reference at the end of this article.[26]
27.6 billion light-years
This is a diameter obtained from the (incorrect) radius of 13.8 billion light-years.
78 billion light-years
In 2003, Cornish et al.[27] found this lower bound for the diameter of the whole universe (not just the observable part), if we postulate that the universe is finite in size due to its having a nontrivial topology,[28][29] with this lower bound based on the estimated current distance between points that we can see on opposite sides of the cosmic microwave background radiation(CMBR). If the whole universe is smaller than this sphere, then light has had time to circumnavigate it since the big bang, producing multiple images of distant points in the CMBR, which would show up as patterns of repeating circles.[30] Cornish et al. looked for such an effect at scales of up to 24 gigaparsecs (78 Gly or 7.4×1026 m) and failed to find it, and suggested that if they could extend their search to all possible orientations, they would then “be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter”. The authors also estimated that with “lower noise and higher resolution CMB maps (from WMAP’s extended mission and from Planck), we will be able to search for smaller circles and extend the limit to ~28 Gpc.”[27] This estimate of the maximum lower bound that can be established by future observations corresponds to a radius of 14 gigaparsecs, or around 46 billion light years, about the same as the figure for the radius of the visible universe (whose radius is defined by the CMBR sphere) given in the opening section. A 2012 preprint by most of the same authors as the Cornish et al. paper has extended the current lower bound to a diameter of 98.5% the diameter of the CMBR sphere, or about 26 Gpc.[31]
156 billion light-years
This figure was obtained by doubling 78 billion light-years on the assumption that it is a radius.[32] Since 78 billion light-years is already a diameter (the original paper by Cornish et al. says, “By extending the search to all possible orientations, we will be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter,” and 24 Gpc is 78 billion light years),[27] the doubled figure is incorrect. This figure was very widely reported.[32][33][34] A press release from Montana State University – Bozeman, where Cornish works as an astrophysicist, noted the error when discussing a story that had appeared in Discover magazine, saying “Discover mistakenly reported that the universe was 156 billion light-years wide, thinking that 78 billion was the radius of the universe instead of its diameter.”[35]

180 billion light-years

This estimate combines the erroneous 156 billion light-year figure with evidence that the M33 Galaxy is actually fifteen percent farther away than previous estimates and that, therefore, the Hubble constant is fifteen percent smaller.[36] The 180 billion figure is obtained by adding 15% to 156 billion light years.

OK, friend, you lost me.   You’re on your own.

I guess the point is whether or not I do, today, finally remember to buy paper towels is not super important.