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  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis

        1.  Drugs and Shamanism

WHY DID MAN FIRST TAKE TO DRUGS ? IT IS UNLIKELY THAT we will ever know for certain; archaeological discoveries—the seeds of drug plants found in pots; cave drawings of the plants themselves—indicate that the practice must be many thousands of years old, and the information is too scanty to justify anything more than speculation. Our main source of evidence about early drug practices comes from explorers, missionaries, traders and colonial administrators, and more recently from anthropological field workers, who have described what they have seen in primitive communities. Unluckily, what they saw was often so alien to the preconceptions which they brought with them from civilisation that they rarely described it with detachment. Still, certain patterns emerge, with a reasonable consistency.


From the New World

    The most revealing accounts of drug use by savages, as they were long described by men accounting themselves civilised, are in the chronicles of the followers of Columbus, reporting what they saw and heard in the Caribbean islands, and later in North and South America. They found a great variety of plant drugs in use there: cohoba, coca, peyotl, certain species of mushroom, datura (jimsonweed), ololiuqui (morning glory), caapi, and others—tobacco being the commonest. None of these plants was known in Europe at the time; nor was any drug in use there for the purpose for which they were most widely taken in the New World, to generate energy. The only drug then in common use in Europe was alcohol; and wine or beer were ordinarily taken mainly for refreshment. The American Indians, the chroniclers reported, chewed tobacco or coca leaves as a substitute for refreshment—to give themselves a psychological 'lift', as if into a mild form of trance. This, they claimed, enabled them to work long hours, or travel long distances, or fight protracted battles, without the need for food, drink, or sleep.
    Drugs were also taken in America as alcohol was in Europe, for intoxication—but again, with a difference. As Girolamo Benzoni reported in one of the early published accounts of life there, an Indian would settle down to fill himself up with tobacco smoke until to outward appearances he was hopelessly drunk. But he was putting himself out of his mind with a purpose; for 'on returning to his senses, he told a thousand stories of his having been at the council of the gods, and other high visions'; and such stories were taken very seriously by the tribe.
    Although the same drug might be taken both for everyday working purposes and for intoxication, it would as a rule be used as an intoxicant only by—or with the supervision of—a medicine man, qualified by character and training to interpret what was seen or heard. The visions, the Indians believed, were glimpses of a world on a different plane of reality, but just as real; inhabited by spirits who had access to useful sources of knowledge. In particular, they would reveal what was in store for the tribe, or individual members of it. The process was described by the chronicler Gonzalvo Fernando d'Oviedo y Valdez. The Indians of Hispaniola, he wrote,
had secret means of putting themselves in touch with spirits whenever they wished to predict the future. This is how they set about the matter. When a chief called one of those priests of the desert, this man came with two of his disciples, one of whom bore a vase filled with some mysterious drink, and the other a little silver bell. When he arrived, the priest sat himself down between the two disciples on a small round seat in presence of the chief and some of his suite. He drank the liquor which had been brought, and then began his conjurations, calling aloud on the spirits; and then, highly agitated and furious, he was shaken by the most violent movements . . . He then seemed to be plunged into a kind of ecstasy and to be suffering curious pains. During all this time one of the disciples rang the little bell. When the priest had calmed down, and while he lay senseless on the ground, the chief, or some other, asked what they desired to know, and the spirit replied through the mouth of the inspired man in a manner perfectly exact.

    The Spanish chroniclers did not doubt the accuracy of the information collected. They were quite prepared to believe that the drugs induced visions, and that in them, the future could be foretold. But the whole process—the convulsions, the strange voices—was reminiscent of what they knew, and feared, as diabolic possession. Such visions, they were aware, might come from God; but it was unthinkable that God should have provided such a valuable service for the heathen. The only possible explanation was that, as the Dominican Diego Duran put it, 'the devil must be speaking to them in that drunken state'. As it was not considered safe to investigate the devil's handiwork, for fear of falling into his clutches—or, later, the Inquisition's—the opportunity to investigate drug-induced divination was not grasped.


Travellers' tales

    Ironically, the emergence of a more sceptical attitude also discouraged inquiry; for a reason hinted at by Nicolas Monardes in his Joyful News out of the New Found World, which contained the first attempt at a survey of the American plant drugs. Monardes did not dispute that the devil was involved. Having knowledge of herbal lore, the devil must have revealed it to the Indians, 'that they might see the visions he had prepared for them, and so deceive them'. But Monardes doubted the authenticity of the information transmitted by the medicine men. It was simply their attempt to make sense of their incoherent visions, he felt—and had often to be deliberately left obscure, so that whatever happened the medicine men could claim to have predicted it. As a member of the Church, in other words, he took divination seriously; as a man of science he was reluctant to do so.
    During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though reports continued to filter back to Europe from time to time of remarkable divinatory feats by medicine men under the influence of drugs, they attracted attention only as curiosities. A typical example was the reaction to the account which Count Filip von Strahlenberg, a Swedish army officer who had spent years as a prisoner of war in Siberia, gave of the Koryak tribesmen, in which he described how they used the red-capped amanita muscaria mushroom—the 'fly agaric'—as an intoxicant. Only the better-off families, Strahlenberg explained, could afford to buy them, and store them for the winter. Whenever they had a feast, they would pour water over them, boil them, and enjoy the visions. 'The poorer sort', he went on,
who cannot afford to lay in a store of these mushrooms, post themselves on these occasions round the huts of the rich, and watch the opportunity of the guests coming down to make water; and then hold a wooden bowl to receive the urine, which they drink off greedily, as having still some virtue of the mushroom in it, and by this way, they also get drunk.

    A story like this helped to give 'travellers' tales' their derisory reputation. It slipped easily into the repertory of the ranconteur—and of the satirist; Oliver Goldsmith used it to lend point to some remarks on the degeneracy of the English nobility. And even when later visitors to Siberia—voluntary or involuntary—were to confirm that it was true, they were interested less in the purposes for which the drug was taken, than by the fact that it could retain its intoxicating properties even when recycled through urine four or five times; and that reindeer, too, were susceptible—a discovery which the Koryaks had been able to exploit. Gavril Sarychev, who spent from 1785 to 1793 in the region, found that the Chuckchi herdsman kept a sealskin container for his urine; whenever he wanted to round up his reindeer, 'he only has to set this container on the ground and call out 'Girach, Girach!', and they promptly come running toward him from afar'.
    Only rarely did commentators note that the intoxication which the fly agaric induced was of a very different kind from that which followed the consumption of alcohol; or that it was used by the Siberian shamans for the same purpose as the American medicine men used tobacco or peyotl. But an account by another exile, Stephan Kraseninnikov, of his enforced residence in Kamchat kaland showed the similarities. A man under the influence of the fly agaric, he wrote in 1755, could be recognised by
the shaking of the extremities, which will follow after an hour or less, after which the persons thus intoxicated have hallucinations, as in a fever; they are subject to various visions, terrifying or felicitous, depending on differences in temperament; owing to which some jump, some dance, others cry and suffer great terrors, while some might deem a small crack to be as wide as a door, and a tub of water as deep as the sea. But this applies only to those who over-indulge, while those who use a small quantity experience a feeling of extraordinary lightness, joy, courage and a state of energetic well-being.



    Travellers' tales merge imperceptibly into anthropology; but one of the landmarks on that road was Travels in Peru, by the respected Swiss naturalist J. J. von Tschudi. He had read accounts by Pizarro's followers, describing how the Indians could perform prodigious feats of endurance by chewing coca leaves; and he was able to verify them when he arrived in the 1830s, finding that the porters he employed could go for five days and nights with no food and very little sleep. Coca was also used by the medicine men; but datura was preferred, being more potent—as Tschudi reported, after watching its effects on an Indian who took it.
Shortly after having swallowed the beverage, he fell into a heavy stupor. He sat with his eyes vacantly fixed on the ground, his mouth convulsively closed, and his nostrils dilated. In the course of about a quarter of an hour his eyes began to roll, foam issued from his half-opened lips, and his whole body was agitated by frightful convulsions. These violent symptoms having subsided, a profound sleep of several hours succeeded. In the evening, when I saw him again, he was relating to a circle of attentive listeners the particulars of his vision, during which he alleged he had held communication with the spirits of his forefathers.

    Accounts of this kind, from investigators whose trustworthiness was not in question, began to be increasingly common—particularly from South America, where new tribes, and new drugs, were continually being discovered. In his geographical survey of Ecuador, published in 1868, Manuel Villavicenzio described the effects of ayahuasca—also known as caapi, or yage
In a few moments it begins to produce the most rare phenomena. Its action appears to excite the nervous system; all the senses liven up and all faculties awaken; they feel vertigo and spinning in the head, then a sensation of being lifted into the air and beginning an aerial journey; the possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge. The savages say that they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favourable things they want tohear, and other beautiful things relating to their savage life. When the instant passes they begin to see terrible horrors about to devour them, their first flight ceases and they descend to earth to combat the terrors who communicate to them all adversities and misfortunes awaiting them.

    By 1871, when Edward Tylor published his Primitive Culture—the first serious attempt at a comparative survey of tribal life and lore—a mass of such information had become available, and it was remarkably consistent. Almost all communities, in every part of the world, had their medicine men, witch doctors, or shamans, selected mainly on account of their ability to communicate with the spirits. To visit the spirit world, the medicine man had to be able to enter a state of trance; and this was frequently attained with the help of drugs. In this state he behaved as if he were drunk, or in a kind of fit; but he would be able to recall his visions when he recovered. Or he might appear to be possessed, describing what he was seeing (or hearing) in a voice not his own. Either way, his function was to bring back information of use to his tribe: the answers to such questions as what the enemy tribes were planning; where more game might be found; how to detect a witch; and what treatment to give a sick member of the tribe.
    The evidence presented Tylor with an embarrassing problem. His great ambition was to divest anthropology of its 'travellers' tales' label, and secure its recognition as an academic discipline (as eventually he was to do; he became the holder of the first Chair of Anthropology at Oxford). He was aware that the scientific Establishment of the time rejected the validity of divination, and he agreed, describing it as a 'monstrous farrago'. But they also refused to admit the existence of the trance state, and possession. Reviewing the evidence, Tylor found it impossible to accept that the state of 'ecstasy', as it was then commonly called, in which a man is transported out of his right mind, was always spurious. But to accept it, let alone to admit its importance to primitive man, might lead to the anthropologist being classified with the mesmerists, hypnotists and spiritualists, all at the time busy trying to batter down orthodoxy's defences; and this would have been fatal to his academic prospects. So Tylor skirted round the subject, with such discreet phrases as 'North American Indians held intoxication by tobacco to be supernatural ecstasy, and the dreams of men in this state to be inspired'. In doing so, he set the fashion followed by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, and by most orthodox anthropologists to this day.
    Reports from explorers, naturalists and anthropologists, however, continued to pour in, revealing the great respect in which the drug-induced trance state was held by primitive tribes. In Guiana in the 1870s, for example, Everard Im Thurn discovered that before a youth was initiated into his tribe he had to move away from it for a period of fasting, and at the same time accustom himself to drink 'fearfully large draughts' of tobacco juice mixed with water. Then, 'maddened by the draughts of nicotine, by the terrors of his long solitary wanderings, and fearfully excited by his own ravings, he is able to work himself at will into those most frantic passions of excitement during which he is supposed to hold converse with the spirits, and to control them'. If he learned to control them, he could become a medicine man, second only in importance to the chief of the tribe, and sometimes even more influential.. Was it really possible that these and other primitive tribes, throughout history, throughout the world, had been taken in by a total imposture?
    At last, in the 1890s, experiments with hypnosis finally convinced the scientific establishment that the trance state existed; and the way was opened for a fresh look at the phenomenon. But the investigators arrived as blinkered as before; because orthodoxy, in accepting the trance state, classified it as a form of mental disorder. In retrospect, this is understandable; medicine men under the influence of drugs tended to behave in ways which, in any civilised country, would have led to their being certified insane. Russian anthropologists, in particular, investigating shamanism— a term loosely applied to the whole medicine man/witch doctor/ shaman complex—lent confirmation by attributing it to the fearful sub-Arctic living conditions, and dismissing the visions which the shamans claimed to see under the influence of the fly agaric as no more meaningful than the pink elephants seen by an alcoholic with delirium tremens. 1
    The 'Arctic mania' was a preposterous theory, in view of the fact that shamanism in one form or another existed wherever primitive tribes were found. But research of a kind which might have led to a more plausible explanation was hampered not only by continuing scientific scepticism, but by the undisguised hostility of missionaries—hoping to stamp out what they felt were pagan drug cults; and of colonial administrators, anxious to demonstrate that they, rather than the shaman, witch doctor or medicine man, were in command. In the early years of the century, therefore, when it would still have been possible to investigate drug-induced trances in tribes untainted by much contact with civilisation, little serious research was done, except by a few interested individuals, and they were often frustrated. Frank Melland, who in the early years of the century was a shrewd observer of African customs in Rhodesia, described in a book about his experiences how he had the good fortune to hear about some secret native dances. One was named after the drug taken by the dancers, which gave them extraordinary endurance; those who took it, he was told, could travel a hundred miles in the course of a night. In the other the participants, after taking the drug, were hypnotised by the witch doctor so that they too could enter the spirit world. But he was unable to verify the information, because the Africans feared that if the colonial government came to know the dances were held, they would be banned; and Melland, as a magistrate, would be required to enforce the prohibition.


The possessed

    It was only when young anthropologists began to undertake intensive field work, which involved staying long enough with a tribe to win its trust and to understand its customs, that drug-induced divination began to be taken a little more seriously. One of these field workers was destined to be influential: Edward Evans-Pritchard, subsequently Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University. When he went out to the Sudan in the 1920s to study the Azande, he watched the witch doctors at work; and from his observations, he drew a revealing picture of the process, and the part drugs played in it.
    A predecessor there, Monsignor Lagae, had described how the witch doctor's object was to reach a state where the drug he had taken 'glows (brille) through his body, and through it he begins to see witchcraft clearly'. This, Evans-Pritchard found, was an accurate description. The 'medicine', as they thought of it—not so much the drug itself, when one was used, but its effect—'goes to their stomachs, and dancing shakes it up and sends it all over their bodies, where it becomes an active agent, enabling them to prophesy'. The prophecies were not necessarily verbalised; the witch doctor 'does not only divine with his lips, but with his whole body. He dances the questions that are put to him.' EvansPritchard's houseboy, who himself qualified as a witch doctor, described the process. While he was dancing, he had to await the verdict of the drugs. 'When the medicines take hold of him, a man begins to dance with reference to someone. He dances in vain, and goes in the soul of the medicine and arrives at another man. He sees him and his heart cools about that man. The witch doctor says to himself: that man does not bewitch people.' But eventually 'his heart shakes about him' and he knows that the man in front of him IS a witch. Even if the witch should be from his own family, the medicine will stand alert within him', compelling him to reveal the truth.
    By the time Evans-Pritchard's work on the Azande appeared, in 1937, there was more willingness to concede that shamanism might not be simply a form of hysteria. Though Freud's theories still met with resistance, his basic premise of an unconscious mind had come to be accepted; and he had surmised that from the unconscious man could have access to information which was not available to him through his five senses—a proposition that Jung accepted and expanded. If so, was it not possible that what the diviner was trying to explain, when he claimed that the medicine 'stood alert within him, was that in some way it liberated instinct, which answered the required questions without the intervention of consciousness? In primitive communities, after all, instinct may well be a surer guide, on many issues, than imperfect reasoning ability There seems no reason to doubt', M. J. Field concluded from her long experience working in Ghana, 'that the utterances of a possessed person, concentrating on a narrowed field, may exceed in wisdom those he can achieve when exposed to all the distractions of normal consciousness.' However odd such a method of getting information might appear to the materialist, Field found that it worked—'by their fruits ye shall know them, and the fruits of most spirit possession in Ghana are wholesome and sustaining' Michael Gelfand came to a similar conclusion from his experience in Rhodesia. Irrational though their technique might seem, it could be very effective; the practitioner might be no scientist— he wrote in his Witch Doctor—'but he practices his art with superb skill'.
    In any case, the fact was that most primitive communities used divination as a guide in their everyday affairs; and anthropologists began to realise that to ignore or depreciate its influence was like an atheist refusing to study the effect of Christianity on history on the ground that he did not believe in God. And gradually, a hypothesis has evolved to account for divination, and to explain its social role.
    Like other forms of animal life, man originally had instinct as his guide, supplemented by the five senses. But with the development of consciousness, reasoning power, and memory, the capacity to consult instinct was gradually lost, except when it broke through as the 'sixth sense', or intuition. For primitive man, the loss would have been serious, had it not been for the fact that certain individuals retained the ability to dissociate—to throw off consciousness, and to liberate instinct.
    Dissociation took various forms. The diviner might dance out the required answers, as Evans-Pritchard had observed; he might become possessed, as if taken over by a disembodied personality; or he might have visions in which the spirits would show him or tell him what he wanted to learn. How the information was secured, though, did not much matter, so long as it appeared to be relevant and useful. But as man came to rely more on memory and reasoning power he found it more difficult to enter the required trance state; and it was at this point that drugs came to be used, to induce it—man being guided, perhaps, by instinct to the required plant drugs, just as animals are guided to the right plants to make up for vitamin deficiencies. 2
    In his Shamanism, published in 1951, Professor Mircea Eliade interpreted this development as being a sign of decadence. Narcotics—as he called them, with obvious distaste, lumping tobacco, alcohol and the fly agaric together—were a recent innovation, 'only a vulgar substitute for pure trance', and 'an imitation of the state which the shaman is no longer capable of attaining otherwise'. Recently, however, this verdict has been challenged, notably by R. G. Wasson in his Soma, and by some of the contributors to the first full scale academic symposium on plant drugs, held at the University of California in 1970—the proceedings of which were subsequently edited by Professor Peter T. Furst and published as Flesh of the Gods. Drugs are indeed a substitute for the ability to enter the trance state voluntarily, but that is not necessarily a symptom of decadence; if man can find such substitutes for faculties which he has lost in his evolution, that may be held to be to his credit. And there is no evidence that the trance state induced by drugs is necessarily any different from the state attained by other means.


Horizons beyond

    One question remains unanswered. Until very recently, to take divination seriously enough even to consider the possibility that extra-sensory perception might be involved, as a product of the drug-induced trance state, was to court ridicule. But orthodox science has been shifting its stance, moving towards guarded acceptance of the proposition that some phenomena, formerly regarded as supernatural, may acquire scientific respectability. Certainly the former prejudice against research studies in this field is disappearing.
    The historical evidence for links between taking certain drugs and the ability to practise divination would fill a book. Constantly men have believed that they have been on the verge of proving it— like Joseph Kopek, a Polish general exiled to Siberia in the 1790s, whose experiments with the fly agaric not merely made him believe he was a diviner, but enabled him to correct the mistakes of the local shaman ('I warned him to improve in those matters; and I noticed that he took those warnings almost as the voice of revelation'). Could anybody now deny, Kopek went on,
that in spite of our vast knowledge of natural phenomena, there still exist almost countless phenomena about which we can only guess? Can one put a limit to nature at a point that delimits the possibilities of enquiries and discoveries of human research? Innumerable effects of recently discovered magnetic forces; effects that cannot be detected by physical means nor pinpointed with any degree of precision to some specification on the human body, seem to reconcile in some measure the controversy concerning this mushroom. It is possible that in the sleep brought by the influence of this mushroom, a man is able to see at least some of his real past and, if not the future, at least his present relations.

    In the letters and memoirs of travellers, missionaries and colonial administrators over the past century and a half there are countless stories, some of them well attested, of witch doctors accurately describing what was happening in distant places, or correctly forecasting future events. But they were all, by their nature, 'anecdotal'; and it was always possible to pick holes in an anecdote—as, for example, in the case of an episode recounted at the turn of the century by the respected South African merchant David Leslie, who had decided out of curiosity to test a local diviner. Leslie had eight native hunters out working for him, searching for elephant; could the diviner tell him how they were faring? The diviner made eight fires, and threw roots into them; then, he took a drug, and fell into a convulsive trance. When he came round, he raked out the fires one by one, describing as he did so what was happening to each hunter; how some had been fortunate; others had done badly; and two had been killed. The account, Leslie claimed, had proved to be true in every particular. But could the diviner not have cheated? Dudley Kidd argued in The Essential Kafir, published in 1902, that he could have combined local knowledge with intelligent guesswork. Leslie, though he might be convinced that this explanation was inadequate, had no way of proving that the diviner really had been using second sight.
    Tales of the kind that Leslie told have continued to be heard from many parts of the world, particularly from those regions of America where peyotl can be found. Dr. Rafael Bayon, working in Colombia at the beginning of the century, became convinced that with its help the local shaman could see and hear distant events on behalf of a patient, 'consistent with exact observations of things of which the patient neither has, nor could have, the least previous knowledge'. Twenty years later the French missionaries assured the pharmacologist Andre Rouhier that shamans who were asked a question only needed to take peyotl 'and they obtain a solution to the problem before them in an auditory form —a person appearing to them and telling them what they want to know; or visually—as if, for example, they were to see the landscape, the persons or the plants which would serve them to the end desired'. Recently, Carlos Castaneda has described Don Juan's paranormal faculties in his books; and in Flesh of the Gods, Douglas Sharon—an anthropological field worker—has given a convincing account of the powers of the Peruvian shaman Eduardo Calderon Palomino.
    When Palomino realised that he had a vocation to be a curandero, a healer/diviner, he began to practise with the help of tobacco, which gave him 'very rapid sight, mind and imagination'. (It was for this purpose, he surmised, that people had originally taken snuff; the curanderos found it helped to clear their minds and speed their thoughts.) But when he wanted to induce visions, he took the potent San Pedro cactus. He described the effects to Sharon:
. . . first, a slight dizziness that one hardly notices. And then a great vision, a clearing of all the faculties of the individual. It produces a slight numbness in the body and afterwards a tranquillity. And then comes a detachment, a type of visual force in the individual, inclusive of all the senses; seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, etc.—all the senses, including the sixth sense, the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter.

    The cactus drug, Palomino thought, developed the power of perception, enabling a man to 'distinguish powers or problems of disturbances at a great distance, so as to deal with them'.
    This evidence—and there is a great deal more of it—suggests that drug-induced divination as practised in primitive communities deserves more serious attention than it has received. If it can be demonstrated that drugs are capable of liberating the clairvoyant faculty in certain individuals, so that with the help of their training as shamans they can use it for the benefit of the tribe, there will have to be a radical reappraisal both of shamanism and of the drugs associated with it. R. G. Wasson has even suggested that they may have had an evolutionary role, by giving primitive man a glimpse 'of horizons beyond any that he knew in his harsh struggle for survival'.


1. The anthropologists did, however, fully confirm the old travellers' tale. According to Vladimir Jochelson, writing in 1905, reindeer no longer even needed to be summoned with the call Girach! Girach! (back)
Frequently the reindeer come running to camp from a far off pasture to taste of snow saturated with urine, having a keen sense of hearing and of smell, but their sight is rather poor. A man stopping to urinate in the open attracts reindeer from afar, which, following the sense of smell, will run to the urine, hardly discerning the man, and paying no attention to him. The position of a man standing up in the open white urinating is rather critical when he becomes the object of attention from reindeer coming down on him from all sides at full speed.
2. Compare 'Palinurus'—Cyril Connolly—in The Unquiet Grave:
The mystery of drugs: how did savages all over the world, in every climate, discover in frozen tundras or remote jungles the one plant, indistinguishable from so many others of the same species, which could, by a most elaborate process, bring them fantasies, intoxication, and freedom from care? How unless by help from the plants themselves ? (back)

Chapter 2

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