James Oroc writes for Reality Sandwich about the vast history of humans using psychedelics, highlighting how recent research into psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is creating a “Second Psychedelic Revolution.” Oroc discusses the ancient use of psychedelics, contextualizes the first wave of psychedelic research beginning in the 1950’s, and highlights various researchers’ accomplishments that have served as catalysts for the new psychedelic research renaissance. “There are of course other factors and other people who have contributed greatly to this ongoing process and who also deserve mention; most importantly Rick Doblin and MAPS, who have almost single-handedly led the fight to get psychedelic research back into the Universities,” explains Oroc.
Originally appearing here.
Over the course of the past four articles of this series, I have proposed that a new “Second Psychedelic Revolution” has arisen phoenix-like at the end of the 20th century out of the ashes of the original 1960’s LSD-and rock n’ roll “revolution”; and that the foundations of this new, “Second” revolution (new psychedelic analogues, organic tryptamines, techno-shamanic tribalism, and “Visionary” art) have mostly emerged from the published work of its three principal architects/authors — the chemist Alexander Shulgin, the mycologist and philosopher Terence McKenna, and the mystic-artist Alex Grey.
This is, of course, something of a generalization, designed to elucidate the point that there is a new psychedelic “ground-wave” moving through our contemporary society. There are of course other factors and other people who have contributed greatly to this ongoing process and who also deserve mention; most importantly Rick Doblin and MAPS who have almost single-handedly led the fight to get psychedelic research back into the Universities; Dr Rick Strassman, for conducting the first DEA approved psychedelic trials in the USA in over thirty years, and most recently, for creating the Cottonwood Institute; Roland Griffith, for his repeating of the “Marsh Chapel Experiment” at Harvard, perhaps the most important event in psychedelic academia since Timothy Leary’s original tenure; and Stanislav Grof, for his sustained examination of the transpersonal realms and its relationship to the human psyche. There is also a new entheogenic generation emerging, with visual artists such as Android Jones and Amanda Sage creating their own followings, authors like myself and Daniel Pinchbeck who have managed to have books on psychedelic culture widely published despite a virtual ban on the subject in general society, and popular DJ’s with evocative names like Mimosa and Run DMT.
Other factors greater than any individual have also been involved. The birth and rapid world wide growth in popularity of electronic music since the early days of London’s “Acid House” coincided with the gestation of this latest Psychedelic Generation and has provided a willing audience, with the two cultures effectively merging in many areas. The importance of the creation of the Internet on contemporary psychedelic culture also cannot be emphasized enough, since this is the first global network that has defied censorship, and has been able to widely disseminate rational information about psychedelics and psychedelic culture without fear; an entire article could easily be written on this subject alone. Earth and Fire Erowid deserve a prominent mention for their pioneering example of EROWID.org, which remains the most important psychedelic site on the World Wide Web due to its thoroughness and practicality, and is an inspiration to a host of other sites such as DMT-Nexus, and DMTsite.com; while E-zines such as Reality Sandwich have evolved into viable social platforms publishing information relevant to the emerging communities that support them; a large portion of which is information on psychedelic culture that would not be published anywhere else.
The idea of a “Second Psychedelic Revolution” is an evocative one, for it hints at the possibility that the “First Revolution” had not entirely failed. But the fact of the matter is that the contemporary wave of interest in psychedelics is not really “The Second Psychedelic Revolution”, nor should the 1960’s LSD-and-Rock N’ Roll revolution be considered “The First.” Psychedelic revolutions in various societies —psychedelic transformations might be a better term—are now being realized by anthropologists and historians to have been somewhat common throughout mankind’s history, and may prove to have been essential to the development of our planetary culture.
Humanity has two histories: the short history since written language evolved, and the vast unknown history of the oral traditions that preceded it during an era that some tribes now describe as “The Great Forgetting.” How language, and later literature, evolved to separate us from all other life on this planet by giving us the ability to store and transmit one generation’s combined knowledge to the next remains one of the great mysteries of our existence. Time moved much slower before written language, and great traditions such as the cave painters continued uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years—a concept almost inconceivable in this modern age.
What we currently believe however—thanks in part to the hard science of the Human Genome project—is that at some point somewhere around 50, 000 to 70,00 years ago, the ancestors of our modern humanity were in deep trouble. Forced by sub-Saharan desertification out of their formerly forested environment in south-west Africa (the original Lost Garden), these early humans existed as scattered small tribes—with a total population numbering in the thousands—scavenging along the land bridge between Africa and western Asia, right on the verge of extinction.
Something quite incredible then happened, some deep unknown catalyst for a new kind of evolution that had never occurred before. One small wavelet of Homo Sapiens—numbering perhaps as few as a thousand, these are the direct genetic ancestors of all the non-African races — would then migrate into Western Asia “in a revolution of behavior that some archeologists believe included more sophisticated tools, wider social networks, and the first art and body ornaments”. Marked by the point of this tenuous migration out of Africa and due to some still unknown fulcrum or flash-point, this is the moment that Homo Sapiens appears to have clearly made its radical break from the other hominoids, and began to exhibit “fully modern behavior” in complex art and tool-making. Language and religion also probably began to rapidly evolve at this juncture as man embarked on his relatively short march to dominate the planet like no other species has ever before it.
The mycologists Gordon Wasson and Terence McKenna have both proposed that the spark which caused early Homo Sapiens to first conceive of God and language was due to the accidental consumption of the psilocybin (or “magic”) mushroom that would have been ubiquitous in the dung of primitive cattle. (The Horned Goddess of the Neolithic cults represents that link between cattle, mushrooms, and the first religious cults.) This theory is practically unprovable (as are most theories about our ancient history) but it is interesting to note that many of the strange t-sha
ped carved pillars at Göbekli Tepe in the Anatolia region of Turkey—founded in the 10th millennium BCE and currently believed to be the oldest ‘city’ in the world— certainly resemble mushrooms, and that ancient cave paintings (5,000 BC) of hominoids with mushrooms coming out of their torsos have been found on the Tassilli plateau of Northern Algeria.
What we do now know from more than a century of anthropological studies, is that the primary spiritual practice employed by primitive hunter-gather societies is a variety of forms of shamanism — the practice of using altered states of consciousness to mediate with the Spirit World. While our use of the word comes from the Siberian word šaman (meaning literally “one who knows”), the practice of shamanism was widespread throughout the planet, and especially in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The vast majority of shamanic practices involved the sacramental use of psychotropic plants. (Other techniques, such as fasting, drumming, and chanting are now thought to have developed in areas that such plants were rare or unavailable.)
In the Amazon basin, one of the few areas where traditional hunter-gather societies still exist, these tribes continue to utilize a staggering array of psychotropic plants and plant-admixtures, including potent DMT and 5-MeO-DMT-containing snuffs (yá-kee, yopo, epéna, paricà) and the now legendary jungle-brew known by its phonetic approximation, ayahuasca. A burial site in northern Chile included a bag with snuffing paraphernalia and snuffs remnants containing DMT and 5-MeO-DMT dates back to the 8th century, although snuff use in the Amazon Basin is believed to be at least 2000 years old.
Six thousand years older than Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe is considered one of the most important discoveries (1996) in modern archeology. It is of particular interest, since it is believed to have been constructed by a hunter-gatherer society who only occupied it sparingly, and was actually more of a temple than a city—thus upending the belief that the establishment of sedentary farming communities was responsible for the first monumental edifices. The building of Göbekli Tepe predates pottery, metallurgy, the invention of writing or the wheel, and is even older than the invention of agriculture or animal husbandry during the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Its elaborate construction and carvings— an incredible feat for a nomadic peoples utilizing stone-age technologies—indicates that hunter-gatherer societies had clearly developed significant enough religious philosophies and practices at this point that the first house that humanity built was for our Gods. Or as excavator Klaus Schmidt observed, “First came the temple, then the city.”
Over the following millennia, as the history of humanity moved out of the ‘wilderness’ and into the towns and cities, so too apparently did our entheogen use, and at least four ‘major’ sustained entheogenic cultures are now known to have existed. These included:
—In Mexico, a remarkable number of entheogenic cults are known to have existed within the great Meso-American cultures that arose there. A variety of psychoactive plants were venerated as Gods and are commonly found represented in Toltec, Mayan, and later Aztec temples, including psilocybin mushrooms, ololiuqui (morning glory) seeds that contained LSD like compounds, and even possibly 5-MeO-DMT-containing toad venom; carbon-dating now indicates that the use of mescaline-containing peyote in North America goes back 5700 years.
—In Peru, a significant culture arose around the sacramental use of the mescaline-containing Trichocereus (San Pedro) cactus, as evident by the construction of the Chavín de Huantar temple complex in 1300 BC by the remarkable Chavín civilization. Nestled in a verdant valley on the eastern slope of the Cordillera Blanca, the highest set of mountain peaks in Peru, the beautifully preserved Chavín de Huantar houses a sophisticated tunnel system (replete with water drains and air shafts for ventilation) that takes one under the main temple complex and through a labyrinth that, when successfully navigated, opens into a chamber with a fifteen foot high granite carving of a fanged deity, the chief god of Chavín. (Called the Lanzon, this floor to ceiling carving looks like something the visionary artist Luke Brown might sculpt.)
San Pedro cactus grow in large clumps all around the temple complex, while the carved amphibitheatre at the entrance of the tunnels with its obvious fire-pit seems clear in its shamanic intent. The Chavín civilization apparently conquered other Andean societies without warfare; they simply brought the chiefs and priests of other Andean tribes to Chavín de Huantar, filled them up with San Pedro, and then led them into the underground labyrinth. By the time the stunned participants emerged back into the sunshine on the other side of the temple, they were apparently convinced enough of the superiority of Chavín’s shamans that they simply joined them, and Chavín’s influence became widespread across Peru. Incredibly sophisticated stone carvers, the Chavín civilization is considered the origin of the stone construction techniques that the Moche, Inca, and other Andean societies later used in their own temple building. The sacramental use of the San Pedro cactus has remained a continuous tradition in Peru for over 3000 years.
—In the Indus Valley, the mixing of proto- Indo-Iranian people with the Aryan invaders from the north created the Vedanta, the most important of the six philosophical schools (dashan) that are the foundation of what we now call Hinduism. These Aryan invaders brought with them the Rig-Veda (which dates back to at least 2000 B.C.), a collection of 1,028 hymns that is considered to be the oldest written book (and religious text) on the planet. One hundred and twenty of these verses are devoted to the praise of a plant/God called Soma, the ritual use of which was an integral part of early Vedic religion.
‘We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered’. Verses such as this indicate that Soma was clearly an entheogenic plant, although its identity and preparation was eventually lost. Various entheogens have been suggested, including the Fly Agaric mushroom (Wasson, Hofmann), psilocybin cubenis mushrooms (McKenna), and white lotus and cannabis preparations, but no definitive identification has yet been made. The importance and influence of this mysterious Soma on the creation of the Vedanta however—humanity’s oldest surviving religion and the philosophical system that Alfred North Whitehead called ’the most impressive metaphysics the human mind has conceived’—cannot be denied. According to the eminent religious scholar Huston Smith, ‘the Vedas derive, more than from any other single identifiable source, from Soma’.
Ironically, the fourth great entheogenic culture, and the society that should be of the greatest interest to us in the West, is increasingly believed to have been Ancient Greece, the philosophical bedrock from which our own Scientific-Reductionist (and thus anti-entheogen) beliefs have grown.
Entheogens and the West
“For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those (Eleusinian) mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barb
arous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations,’ so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.” — Cicero, Laws II, xix, 36.
Eleusis, a small town 14 miles from Athens, was the site of an ancient temple to Demeter, the Greek Goddess of Nature and Agriculture, whose initiation rites became known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.. Held annually for over 2000 years, these Mysteries were considered the pinnacle of Greek culture, with the majority of Greek writers and philosophers — including Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Aristotle, and Sophocles — and later Roman Emperors and philosophers such as Hadrian, Marcus Aurelis, and Cicero, all included amongst its initiates. An indication of the great importance of Eleusis to Greek society is the fact that when the Romans arrived, the only ‘road’ in central Greece greater than a goat path was the road from Athens to Eleusis — called ‘The Sacred Way’ — that the initiates walked each year.
Designed “to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him”, the Greater Mysteries were held in late summer each year and lasted for 10 days. After purifying themselves in the sea at Phaleron, fasting, and then participating in the ritual–filled procession to Eleusis, the great mystical revelation came after the initiates drunk a special drink of barley and pennyroyal called kykeon, and then entered the great underground hall called the Telesterion, where the true nature of the Mysteries were revealed.
This much we know; but since revealing the Mysteries themselves to the uninitiated was punishable by death, we do not know a great deal more, other than that certain sacred objects were revealed by the hierophants (temple priests and priestesses), and that there was some kind of a grand ritualized performance, often said to involve fire. According to Proclus, who is often described as the last great Greek philosopher, the performance of these Mysteries “cause sympathy of the souls with the ritual in a way that is unintelligible to us, and divine, so that some of the initiates are stricken with panic being filled with divine awe; others assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become at home with the Gods and experience divine possession.” 
The Mysteries retold the ancient story of Demeter and her virgin daughter Persephone’s abduction by Hades, the lord of the Underworld. As Demeter searched ceaselessly for her missing daughter, she stopped performing her task of maintaining the Sacred Law, the seasons halted, and all life began to wither and die. Faced with the extinction of all living things, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back; upon her departure however, Persephone breaks her fast with either 4 or 6 pomegranate seeds. By a rule of the Fates, this act binds her to Hades and the underworld for at least 4 months a year. Persephone’s return to her mother each year thus coincides with the arrival spring.
Western scholars have for centuries identified the Eleusinian Mysteries with Demeter’s role as the custodian of the seasons and as the Goddess of Agriculture. In her search for Persephone, Demeter became tired, and rested for a while at the palace of Celeus, the King of Eleusis, where she nursed his sons, Demeophon and Triptolemus. It is to Triptolemous that Demeter taught the secrets of Agriculture, giving the gift to humanity of planting and growing grain.
That gift however came at a cost; Demeter’s original intent had been to bestow the gift of immortality upon Demeophon, but she was interrupted by the boy’s mother. Agriculture thus was our consolation prize for immortality, and any real understanding of the Eleusinian Mysteries must realize that these two themes are irrevocably entwined. The Greek Mother-Goddess Demeter was Goddess of Nature as well as the Harvest, and thus responsible for the Sacred Law, the uninterrupted cycle of Life and Death. A scholar with a more entheogenic perspective will also notice an obvious mirroring of this myth of Persephone’s descent, and then return, from the Underworld; her journey mimics the most central shamanic requirement, the psycho-spiritual death and rebirth of the shaman on his own journey to the Spirit World.
This is the most shared characteristic of shamanism worldwide, the idea that the shaman dies and then is reborn with new knowledge. And judging by the lasting power of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one must suspect that some kind of a mystical-shamanic agent was involved. Commentaries on the Mysteries describe reactions ranging from extreme terror to blissful awe. Pindar, the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece said of the Mysteries, “Blessed is he who, having seen these rites,
undertakes the way beneath the Earth.
He knows the end of life,
as well as its divinely granted beginning,” while Sopatos remarked, in a commentary that would be familiar to any contemporary 5-MeO-DMT initiate today, “I came out of the mystery hall feeling like a stranger to myself.”
The knowledge of the preparation of kykeon was lost when the era of the Mysteries finally ended, but numerous candidates have been suggested for as its psychoactive component, including psilocybin and amanita mushrooms, opiates, and DMT-containing phalaris grass or some kind of acacia with Syrian Rue; but the most compelling theory (forwarded by Albert Hofmann, Gordon Wasson, and Carl Ruck) argues that kykeon was made from ergot-parasitized barley grain that contain LSD like alkaloids (LSA, a precursor to LSD, and ergonovine).
The importance of Greek thought in our Western culture is considered irrefutable; the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from the two thousand years of Greek philosophy to early Islamic philosophy, the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. Greek philosophy made the critical break from understanding the world from a purely mythological perspective to a sustained examination of our environment based on reason. Presocratic philosophers strived to identify the single underlying purpose of the entire cosmos, and their legacy was the initiation of the quest to identify the underlying principles of reality; the origin of our Scientific Rationalism begins there.
Greek philosophy’s quest however was ultimately mystical, an attempt to reconcile physical laws with the presence of Spirit or pneuma. For the Stoics, pneuma is the active, generative principle that organizes both the individual and the cosmos. In its highest form, pneuma constitutes the human soul (psychê), which is a fragment of the pneuma that is the soul of God (Zeus). As a force that structures matter, it exists even in inanimate objects. To the Stoics, nothing in the world had an independent existence from this pneuma (logos). Sometimes described as an ether, the pneuma/logos is similar to the Hindu concept of akasha, and considering the importance of the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Greek philosophers, and the importance of Soma to the Vedic philosophers, one has to wonder if some kind of entheogen was not involved in this mystical realization of a transpersonal nature of reality. As Albert Hofmann – the inventor of LSD
and investigator of the Eleusinian Mysteries – puts it: “If the hypothesis that an LSD-like consciousness-altering drug was present in the kykeon is correct – and there are good arguments in its favor – then the Eleusinian Mysteries have a relevance for our time in not only a spiritual-existential sense, but also with respect to the question of the controversial use of consciousness-altering compounds to attain mystical insights into the riddle of life.”
By the time the Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries at Eleusis in 392 AD, the Mysteries had reputedly lost some of their power, with the sacred kykeon having been served at profane parties in Athens (one of the pieces of evidence that kykeon was most likely psychoactive). The last remnants of the Mysteries were wiped out in 396 AD, when Alaric King of the Goths invaded accompanied by Christians “in their dark garments,” bringing Arian Christianity and “desecrating the old sacred sites.” And for the following 1500 years, the Western Christian based culture that evolved in Europe had no obvious entheogenic influences what so ever, and our spiritual life became dependent on obedience, fasting, and prayer.
An Emerging Fifth Entheogenic Culture?
This changed in 1897, when mescaline was first isolated and identified by German chemist Arthur Heffter, and then radically again in 1919, when mescaline was first synthesized (by Ernst Späth). One of the themes that continues to fascinate me about contemporary psychedelic culture is the fact that our chemistry, our anthropology, our interest in psychology, and our spiritual curiosity all evolved to a point at the beginning of the twentieth century when they became increasingly intertwined.
Mescaline, for example, was isolated after Western intellectuals became interested in the phenomenon of the “native peyote inebriation” of the peyote cults of the South-Western Indians of the United States and Northern Mexico. In 1887, Parke, Davis and Co distributed dried peyote (obtained from Mexico) to interested scientists. The first reported “non-native” account of peyote inebriation was published in 1897 by the American physician and novelist Weir Mitchell. Mitchell then sent peyote “buttons” to Havelock Ellis, whose accounts of his own experiments caused considerable scientific interest when they appeared in the British Journal of Medicine. Mescaline was subsequently isolated by Arthur Heffter in 1897; Heffter’s scientific curiosity was so great he discovered mescaline by systematically ingesting a number of alkaloid “fractions” isolated from the peyote himself until he identified which one was psychoactive (thus becoming the first modern psychonaut).
Once mescaline was successfully synthesized in a laboratory in 1919, scientific interest shifted to it instead of peyote. In 1927, Dr Kurt Beringer, a friend of Herman Hesse and Carl Jung’s, published a 315 page study entitled Die Meskalinrausch (The Mescaline Inebriation). There are some reports of mescaline use in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s amongst artists and other curious intellectuals, but these experiments were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II in Europe. (Jean-Paul Sartre for example took mescaline in 1935.)
In the early 1950’s, the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond would begin to examine the properties of mescaline in his research on psychosis and schizophrenia. It was Osmond who administered mescaline to the British novelist Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles in 1953; Huxley’s subsequent 10 mescaline experiences would be the basis for his book The Doors of Perception in 1954, arguably the most important and influential book on the freshly termed ‘psychedelics’ ever written.
Meanwhile, in the great wave of chemical discovery at the beginning of the twentieth century, DMT had been synthesized in 1931 (although its psychoactive effects would not be recognized until 1956), and in 1938, a Swiss chemist employed by the pharmaceutical company Sandoz had invented lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25), the most powerful (by dosage) psychedelic known to man. The psycho-activity of this compound also remained unrealized all through World War II, and may have remained unknown had Albert Hofmann not had a “strange premonition” to re-examine the compound again in 1943. After accidentally dosing himself when a small amount of LSD landed on his skin, Hofmann repeated the experiment by willfully ingesting 250 µg of LSD on April 19th, 1943, and LSD’s psychoactive properties became overwhelmingly obvious.
The rest, as they say, is history, but the importance of Albert Hoffman’s discovery is central to the psychedelic culture of the second half of the 20th century. While there have been numerous plant-entheogens in history, and other man-made psychedelics have since been invented, there had never been an entheogen that a competent chemist could make three millions hits of in an afternoon. When LSD arrived on the cultural scene in full-force in the mid 1960’s, it was the perfect psychedelic for the job — laboratory produced and packaged first as a liquid on sugar cubes and then on brightly printed sheets of paper, LSD epitomized the space-race-driven scientific frenzy of the late 50’s and early 1960’s in a way that ancient entheogens like peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, or ayahuasca would have never been able to, and its appeal was instantaneous. It’s invention allowed an estimated 30 million people access to the psychedelic experience between 1960 and 1990, and has changed the cultural and spiritual landscape in the West more than any other identifiable modern influence (except perhaps television).
The synthesis, and subsequent invention, of psychedelic compounds in our laboratories is the unique contribution of Western culture to the psychedelic history of the world, and this is now approaching one century old. Modern psychedelic history, I would argue, begins at this date (1919), and that the early curiosity in mescaline by artists and intellectuals in the 1920’s and 1930’s; the MK-ULTRA experiments that came out of WW II; R. Gordon Wasson’s identification of the effects of psilocybin mushrooms in Life magazine in 1957; the interest in mescaline, LSD, and DMT by psychologists and psychiatrists in the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s; the cultural upheaval caused in the late 1960’s by Western Youth cultures enthusiastic embrace of the psychedelic experience; the ongoing anthropological reassessment of Mankind’s history that began in the 1970’s, as we have increasingly had to recognize the role that traditional entheogens have played in Mankind’s development; the discovery of endogenous entheogens in late 1970’s; the rise in popularity of empathogens and the Acid-House culture of the late 1980’s; the various analogues of the research chemical companies of the 1990’s; and this latest 21st century ‘transformational culture’ that has evolved from the combined works of Alexander Shulgin, Terence McKenna, and Alex Grey; are all in fact mileposts in the same modern societal evolution. And thus, instead of a “Second Psychedelic Revolution” that has arisen from the ashes of the 1960’s acid-fueled youth rebellion, we are in fact a century into the establishment of Mankind’s fifth great entheogenic culture.
This statement raises the inevitable question at this critical juncture in human history: Why?