Twelve Constellations 3: Witching Plants

Entheogens, the Conscious Brain and Existential Reality 2012 The purpose of this article is to provide a state of the art research overview of what is currently known about how entheogens, including the classic psychedelics, affect the brain and transform conscious experience through their altered serotonin receptor dynamics, and to explore their implications for understanding the conscious brain and its relationship to existential reality, and their potential utility in our cultural maturation and understanding of the place of sentient life in the universe.

Sacrament, Consciousness and Sexual Paradox

Coca leaf being dried Amazonia. Erythroxylum coca. Mama Coca - the White Goddess
(Schultes & Rauffauf, McKenna).

8: Erythroxylum coca: The White Goddess of the Conqueror

Coca leaves first chewed 8,000 years ago, says research

"To the ancient Inca culture of Peru, and later to the indigenous people and the mestizo colonistas Coca was a goddess, a kind of New World echo of Graves's white goddess Leucothea" (McKenna 211). The goddess Mama Coca is shown with feather headdress holding the moon sickle and offering the saving branch of coca to the Spanish conqueror. Some people might now say coca is a scourge, but like the poppy of the goddess it is the failure to recognise the spiritual significance of these agents and their relationship to the healing nature of the Earth Mother that leads to such grave error in our society.

Coca has always been a sacred plant of the Kechua speaking Indians of the Andes. There are also distinct cultivars of coca in the Amazon basin, which appear to be of ancient sacred use from the time required to develop such distinctive cultivars and the fact that manioc, yaje and coca are the three sacred plants in the canoe containing the first man and woman drawn by the anaconda itself. Perhaps the most ancient use of coca in South America is its employment in various shamanic practices and religious rituals ... enabling the shaman to enter more easily into a trance state in which he can communicate with the spiritual forces of nature and summon them to his aid" (S&R 112) It was the Catholic church which first condemmed its use, largely an account of its integral role in traditional spiritual life (Rudgley 112).

Woman selling coca leaf in the mercado, Urkupina, Bolivia

The use of coca leaves in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia remains legal as it is a central cultural practice upon which many depend to be able to carry out their activities. Bundles of coca leaves can be freely found in the markets along with the slaked lime which is required to free base the alkaloid to absorb coca in chewed form. In this form it is not addictive in the manner of street cocaine and pasta, but is more of a vitalizing tonic, which is highly regarded. Some of the healthiest and hardest-working Indians of the Columbian Amazonia the Yukunas consume enormous amounts coca leaves daily, but this is not a problem as they have time to raise their crops, hunt, fish and supply their food (Schultes and Raffauf 99). A catch word is "Hoja de coca no es drogare". The Cogi Indians of Columbia who isolated themselves in the highlands at the time of the Spanish conquest and only entered into communication with civilization to issue a warning about the destruction of the earth when they discovered global warming destroying the ecology of the upper Andes revere coca and chew it as their central divine sacrament. They use lime balls associated with coca as a life meditation taking an entire lifetime to gather their mana.

Coca in legitimate plantation at Coroico in Bolivia, gathering the leaves, flowers and seed pods of coca in early September

In Bolivia and Peru coca is grown legally as a traditional crop quite separately from the illegal plantations which spring up in the forest to supply the drug trade and cause destruction of the tropical forest as a result of running drug wars.. Coca is legally available both as leaves and as coca tea, which is commonly available as a cure for altitude sickness and in supermarkets as a mild stimulating drink in the form of commercial tea bags.

Chuckchee sketch of the winding paths of the fly-agaric men. Amanita muscaria.
Finno-Ugrian shaman-priestess in a ritual trance dance (Schultes and Hofmann 1979).

9: The Path of the Fly Agaric Shamans

Further to the north and east the shamans of Siberia had been using the hallucinogenic fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita uscaria) since time immemorial. This practice continues in isolated pockets to this day.

"The role of intoxicants in the shamanic traditions of North Asia has been the subject of some disagreement. Mircea Eliade, ... has claimed that although mushroom intoxication produces contact with the spiritual world it does so in a 'passive and crude' way. He describes such practices as decadent, late and derivative in their attempts to imitate an earlier 'purer' form of shamanism. The spiritual journeys of these lesser shamans are achieved in a 'mechanical and corrupt' fashion. Here it is not Eliade's scholarly impartiality speaking, but rather his aversion to intoxication in relation to religious life ... and it is a matter of some concern that Eliade's book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, probably the most widely consulted comparative study of the shamanic complex, includes such a basic misrepresentation of the facts. This fault is compounded in his discussion of the Americas (and beyond), where shamanic intoxication is also well attested but likewise receives only superficial attention from the author. " (Rudgley 38).

"The first known account is found in a journal written in 1658 by a Polish prisoner of war, who describes its use among the Ostyak of Western Siberia. The myths of many Siberian peoples contain fly-agaric themes. In many Finno-Ugric languages words meaning 'ecstasy', 'intoxication' and 'drunkenness' are traceable to names meaning fungus or fly-agaric. Among the Vogul peoples the consumption of the fly-agaric was restricted to sacred occasions, and it was abused on peril of death. To the Ugrian shaman it was as essential to his vocation as the drum. Among the Selkup it was believed that consumption of the fly-agaric by those who were not shamans could be fatal. Only some shamans among them used it; others preferred alternative methods of achieving spiritual ecstasy" (Rudgley 39).

The effects of Amanita muscaria are diverse and vary according to dosage, method of preparation and the cultural and psychological expectations of the consumer. A small dose (or the initial effect of a larger one) causes bodily stimulation and a desire for movement and physical exercise. Under its influence a Koryak man is reported to have carried a 120 Ib (some 55 kg) sack of flour a distance of ten miles, something he would not have been able to do normally. Such feats of physical strength and endurance have their mythic precedents.

In one Koryak myth Big Raven (the Creator) asked Existence for help to lift a heavy load. This deity told him to eat fly-agaric. He did so and was able to lift the load with ease. That the Creator himself is associated with the consumption of mushrooms again demonstrates the weakness of Eliade's view of the use of hallucinogens as a late and decadent aspect of Siberian spirituality.

Responses to the fly-agaric varied widely even among the Koryak. Sometimes an intoxicated individual had to be restrained from over-exerting himself, whilst on other occasions it would induce a tranquil state of bliss in which beautiful visions appeared before the eyes. The Russian anthropologist Waldemar Bogoras, who witnessed the Chukchee use of fly-agaric on many occasions at the turn of the century, notes that the effects can be divided into three basic stages, which sometimes overlap. About fifteen minutes after taking the mushrooms the stimulating effects begin and there is much loud singing and laughing. This stage is followed by auditory and visual hallucinations in conjunction with the sensation that things increase in size (in this state a tub of water is said to seem as deep as the sea). It is still taken in Northern Canada:

"Cleansed and ripe for vision
I arise, a bursting ball of seeds in space ...
I have sung the note that shatters structure.
And the note that shatters chaos, and been bloody ...
I have been with the dead and attempted the labyrinth"
(Schultes and Hofmann 1979 85).

Because the active ingredient is excreted unchanged in the urine the urine of other people has also been used tradionally : "the poorer sort ... post themsleves around the huts of the rich and watch the opportunity of the guests and hold a wooden bowl to receive thier urine and by this way also get drunk". This feature has also been suggested to be an ancient feature of the Soma rite, along with its ruddy complexion. Veda 9:74: "Acting in concert, those charged with the office richly gifted do full honour to Soma. The swollen men piss the flowing [soma]". Yasna 48:10 "When will thou do away with this piss of drunkenness with which the priests delude the people." In the Mahabharata Krishna offers a disciple the urine of an outcast hunter who also happens to be Indra. This has lead Gordon Wasson to postulate that Some as Amanita, although there are several other possibilities including Peganum, and there is some doubt about the Yasna translation.

10: The Devil's Witching Weeds

The hideous episodes of witch burning in Europe can be attributed to many things. To the firebrand visions of sex and the devil of the christian patriarchs from the Pope to the fundamentalistic protestants, possibly agravated mass-poisoning by through ergot-contaminated rye with its hallucinations accompanying St. Anthony's fire. However, it is to the hexing herbs of the ancient mother that we may find the actual roots of the witchcraft practice so-reviled by the medieval Christian fathers.

Mandrake has a very long cultural history. The mandrakes figure in Genesis 30:16 "And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son's mandrakes. And he lay with her that night." According to the Juliana Codex, Dioscorides received the Mandrake from Heuresis, Goddess of Discovery, illustrating the early belief in its sacred nature. The likeness of the root to a man gave rise to all manner of bizarre myth concerning the plant and its death-dealing shriek when dug from the ground. Early Christians believed the Mandrake was a precursor for God's invention of Adan in the Garden.

Likewise Deadly Nightshade - The Apple of Sodom has been woven into early Greek myth as of the of three Fates - Atropos the inflexible one who cuts the thread of life from whom atropine is named. It is from its use to dilate the pupils of women's eyes to make them 'dolorous' that its name Belladonna or beautiful lady comes. It is said that in the orgies of the Maenads the wine of Dionysus was often adulterated with nightshade as they 'dilated their eyes' as they fell into the arms of the male worshippers or with 'flaming eyes' fell upon men to tear them apart. It was supposed to be tended by Satan himself except on Walpurgis night when he retires to wait for the sabbath.

All of Mandrake, Belladonna and Henbane contain atropine alkaloids, of which scopolamine is known as the hallucinogenic component. It is from the admixture of these three, along with the fat of a stillborn child that the ointments of medieval witches were prepared: "But the vulgar believe and the witches confess that on certain days and nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places" (S&H 88). The witch riding on her broom is believed to be specifically associated with the application of such an ointment to the vaginal mucosae which forms an ideal method of cutaneous entry. The inclusion of toads legs would also be consistent with the bufotenene present in the skin of the genus Bufo.

The witch preparing herself with her broomstick. Datura meteloides.
A Shiva Datura flower on a Tantric yoni-lingum (S&H 1979).

It was believed that such witches would ride on their broomsticks to black sabbaths where they would cavort with male sexual manifestations of the devil himself in the form of an incubus. A truer picture would be sensation of flying produced by tropane intoxication and the use of the forest as a meeting place for worshippers of the ancient Earth Goddess, possibly in a fertility rite involving the use of the hexing herbs as power plants.

A fanciful account of the second century AD from Lucius Apuleius notes: "It contained an ointment which she worked about with her fingers and then smeared all over her body from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head ... as I watched her limbs became gradually fledged with feathers ... her nose grew crooked and horny, her nails turned into talons" (Rudgeley 90).

However, the use of this plant is associated with severe derangement and loss of memory. Porta, a colleague of Galileo reported a "man would sometimes seem to be changed into a fish, and flinging about his arms would swim on the ground, another would believe himself turned into a goose and eat grass, beat the ground with his teeth and flap his wings". "My teeth were clenched, and a dizzy rage took possession of me. I knew that I trembled with horror, but also that I was permeated with a sense of well-being. My feet were growing lighter, expanding loose and breaking from my body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sense of flying. The frightening certainty that my end was near through the dissolution was balanced by an animal joy in flight ... the clouds the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves quite unlike ordinary leaves, billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal."" (Rudgeley 95).

The Witches Sabbath - Gustave Dore Witches travelling to a sabbath - Ulrich Molitor 1489.
The earliest picture of a witch on a broomstick. Dioscorides receiving mandrake from Heuresis
(Schultes & Hofmann 1979).

Johannes Nieder of 1692 gives the following account of a woman who believed herself to be literally transported through the air during the night with Diana and the other women and invited a priest to witness the event goes as follows: "having placed a large bowl on top of a stool, she stepped into it and sat herself down. Then rubbing ointment on herself to the accompaniment of magic incantations, she lay her head back and fell asleep. With th labour of the devil she dreamed of Mistress Venus and other superstitions so vividly that crying out with a shout and striking her hands about, she jarrd the bowl in which she was sitting and falling down from the stool seriously injured herself about the head. As she lay there awakened the priest cried out "Where are you? You are not with Diana ... you never left this bowl!" (Harner 1973 131). Remy in the late 16 th century makes this matter clear: "Now if witches, after being aroused from an 'iron' sleep tell of things they have seen in places so far distant as compared with the short period of their sleep, the only conclusion is that there had been some substantial journey like that of the soul" (Harner a 132). A similar explanation applies to lycanthropy the belief that one can change into the form of an animal (Harner 1973 140).

Frequent references can be found in the middle ages to maids found unconscious and naked who had rubbed themselves with a green ointment 'in such a way that they imagine they are carried a long distance". The link with the inquisition is also clear. "Dominus Augustinus de Turre the most cultivated physician of his tie notes: when the Inquisition of Como was being carried out, in Lugano the wife of a notary of the Inquisition was accused of being a witch and sorceress. Her husband, who was troubled and thought her a holy woman, early on Good Friday when he missed her found her naked in a corner of the pigsty displaying her genitals, completely unconscious and smeared wit the excrement of the pigs. He went to draw his sword but hesitating she awoke and prostrated herself before him confessing that she had gone that night on the journey. When the accusers came to take her for burning she had vanished, possibly drowned in the lake nearby (Harner 1973 134).

It is also clear that knowledge of the details of such use of herbs was carefully gleaned by the Papal office. The physician of Pope Julius II in 1545 took the jar of ointment of an accused couple seized as witches, which was so heavy and offensive and soporiferos to the ultimate degree that it showed it was composed of hemlock, nightshade, henbane and mandrake, was anointed from head to toe on the wife of the hangman who was restless with suspicion of her husband. She became comatose and could be wakened by no one for 36 hours with her eyes open like a rabbit. Her first words were "Why do you wake me at such an inopportune time? I was surrounded by all the pleasures and delights ofthe world" and to her husband "Knavish one, know that I have made you a cuckold, and with a lover younger and better than you" (Harner 1973 135).

Datura is one of the most widespread genuses on the plant kingdom and various Daturas (Dhatura Sanscrit) from China throught India to Europe and the Americas have been used as sacred plants since time immemorial because they also possess scopolamine and other tropanes. A Taoist legend maintains that Datura metel is one of the circupolar stars and that envoys to earth from this star carry a flower of the plant in their hand. It is also an offering in Shiva-Shakti worship as illustrqated in the lingam-yoni above.. It has been used in addition with wine as an intoxicant and to drug people to stupor. Tropane intoxication can lead to permanent brain damage.

Various species of Datura were also revered as sacred plants by te Aztecs, and used in manhood rites to cause boys coming of age to 'lose their memories of childhood' in becoming a man. It is the most sacred plant of the Zunis who say it sprouted from the place where the primordial humans with magical vision disappeared into the earth when chased by sky gods jealous of their prophetic powers (Schultes and Hofmann 1979 106).

The use of Brugmansia - Huaca - Plant of the Tomb- a set of tree species of the Datura family from South America probably evolved from the knowledge of Datura brought to the new world in the late Paleolithic by the proto-Indian Mongoloids (Schultes and Hofmann 1979 128). Von Humbolt the early explorer remarked on the use of Tonga (Brugmansia sanguinea) as a sacred plant of the priests of the Temple of the Sun at Sogamoza in Columbia. The women and slaves of a dead Muisca chief were also given the brew so they would not recognise their impending burial with their chief.

Salvador Chindoy a shaman of the Kamsa displays great composure before embarking
on a Brugmansia-induced divination. Brugmansia sanguinea. The Tree of the Evil Eagle
(Schultes & Hofmann 1979).

How pleasant is the perfume of the bell-like flowers of the Yas
as one inhales it in the afternoon
But the tree has a spirit in the form of an eagle
which has been seen to come flying and then disappear

The spirit is so evil
that if a weak person stops at its foot they will forget everything.
If a girl rests under its shade, she will dream about men of the Paez tribe
and a figure will be left in her womb, which will later become the pips of the tree.
(Schultes and Hofmann 1979 128).

Brugmansia is often still used as an admixture with ayahuasca or San Pedro but the uncomfortable syndromes and unpleasant after-effects have probably contributed to its limitation, except in the most difficult cases of divination: "The native fell into a heavy stupor, his eyes vacantly fixed on the ground, his mouth convulsively closed, and his nostrils dilated. Over fifteen minutes his eyes began to roll, foam issued from his mouth and his whole body was agitated by frightful convulsions. After these frightful symptoms had passed, a profound sleep of several hours followed after which he related the particulars of his visit with his forefathers" (Schultes and Hofmann 1979 129).

They are plants of the gods, but but not the agreeable gifts ofthe gods like peyote, the sacred mushroom and Ayahuasca. Their powerful and wholly unpleasant effects, periods of violence and temporary insanity, and their sickening after-effects have put them in a second category - reminding us that the gods do not always strive to make life easy for man (Schultes and Hofmann 1979 131).

Baden drinking set 3000-2000 BC. Ritual use of Tobacco in the Amazon (Rudgley, Schultes & Raffauf).

11: Alcohol: Inebriant of the Patriarchy

"The origin of alcohol use is to be traced to the fourth millennium and Mesopotamia. The earliest alcoholic beverages were probably drawn from the fruit and sap of the date palm, which is one of the most concentrated sources of naturally occurring sugar. Cultivated vines (Vitis vinifera) also contain sufficient sugar, as well as natural yeasts. Beer (probably barley beer) is referred to in early Sumerian and Akkadian texts, and from the Protoliterate period of Mesopotamia (c. 3200 BC)we find illustrations of drinking straws, needed to consume beer in which the cereal grains had not been de-husked. Egyptian figurines dating from the Predynastic period show the use of brewing vats" (Rudgley 31).

The Early Bronze Age cultures of the Aegean and Anatolia in the early period from 3500 to 2000 BC provide the immediate origins of the diffusion of alcohol throughout Europe. These communities consumed their wine from metal drinking vessels, and their more northerly neighbours of the Baden culture in central Europe have been shown to have echoed the design of these vessels in their own pottery. They probably drank mead, rather than grape-wine.

Not long after this, another distinctive complex of vessels for holding liquids, known as Globular Amphoras, appeared over an area of Europe from Hamburg to Kiev. This new ceramic style was influenced both by Baden pottery and by the cord decoration of the steppe cultures. It is possible, on this line of argument, that their brews may have combined alcohol and Cannabis sativa in a potent infusion! ... These beakers were decorated with rows of cord impressions; their great cultural importance is attested by the fact that they recur again and again in the burials of the period alongside two other types of distinctive male artefacts - the flint dagger and the shaft-hole stone battle-axe. (Rudgley 31).

The spread of the drinking complex ... took place during a period of unusually rapid social, cultural and economic change. During this time, Europe was opened up - both literally, in terms of the further deforestation of its landscapes, and metaphorically, in terms of its new contacts and social opportunities. Fundamental to this process was the increasing importance of livestock, and the emergence of male warrior elites whose sub-culture was portrayed in the characteristic combination of weaponry and drinking vessels in their graves" (Rudgley 33).

"Organic residues from later pre-historic vessels show that cereal grains, honey and fruits were all mixed together to make a composite drink which was at once a mead, an ale and a fruit wine. The use of this new liquid intoxicant may initially have been combined with opium or hemp, but it was soon to establish itself as the primary intoxicant of Western culture, a position it still maintains"(Rudgley 33).

It remains that way regardless of the development of alcohol treatments or alcohol intervention processes.

12: Tobacco: The Butt End of the Visionary Quest

Although from a Western point of view tobacco has its origin in America, species of the Nicotiana genus have been used as stimulants by indigenous populations in other parts of the world in particular among the Australian aborigines (Rudgley 135). Although tobacco smoking in western cultures is a recreational drug of perhaps the most significant health impact and the greatest addictive power of all drugs, its traditional use has been as a visionary drug, often consumed as a more potent cultivar as a snuff and only on ritual occasions. Although it is not classified as a true hallucinogen, Indians from Canada to Patagonia esteemed tobacco as one of their most important medicianal and magical plants. The process of becoming intoxicated by the smoke combined with the rhythm of song and dance is called 'calling the spirit'. Among the Warao of Venezuela this role becomes paramount. Tobacco also plays a prominent part in the ritual of Peyote use both among the Huichols and Native American Church. "Tobacco belongs to Our Grandfather the Fire shaman who led the first peyote hunt" (Furst 80). However my own personal experience with the lost voices and desperate coughing of the participants leads me to feel a genuine concern at the intrusion of such an extensively unhealthy practice of little hallucinogenic value into a visionary ceremony of spiritual healing.

13: The Goddess's Share: Herb of the Sheperdess or Virgin

Salvia divinorum is a coleus-like salvia which grows in deep ravines kept by the Mazatecs as an alternative to sacred mushrooms in times these are unavailable for divining.

It has a very unusual psychedelic effect full of rippling waves rather than geometric kaliedoscopes. It is not active through the stomach but quite potent through the gums and linings of the mouth or by smoking.

It contains a terpenoid, salvinorin, of unique action and very high potency, requiring only 500 micrograms of the pure substance. Any more is extremely dislocating.

Salvinorin A

Daniel Siebert's salvinorin page: Home page of one of the workers who have made 'ground-breaking' discovereis about the plant and its properties.

14: QAT Catha edulis: The herb of Yemen

Shamanism Pages:

  1. A Tribute to Ramon Medina Silva, Carlos the Coyote and Maria Sabina
  2. Twelve Sacred Plants
  3. The Reality of Dreaming
  4. The Transmission of a Tradition: Maria Sabina
  5. Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred - Gloria Orenstein
  6. Witchcraft and Women's Culture - Starhawk
  7. The Shamans of Eden and the Goddess of Gaia

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