The Psychedelic Library Homepage

Books Menu Page

  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis

        2.  Drugs and the Priesthood

THE CHANGE OF ATTITUDE TO DRUGS, BY WHICH THEY CAME TO BE regarded as a threat rather than as an asset to society, was connected with the decline of shamanism and the emergence in its place of organised religions and their priesthoods; an evolution which the earlier anthropologists took to be a sign of progress, towards less irrational forms of belief, but which can now be interpreted rather differently.


Shaman to priest

    As man's reasoning power developed, and his capacity to consult instinct declined, fewer men could be found who had the ability, with or without a drug, to slip into the trance state; and it became progressively more difficult to interpret the pronouncements of those who could. More powerful doses of whatever drug was in use could not have helped, as they would have promoted simple intoxication, without benefit of revealing visions. The medicine no longer 'stood alert' within the shaman, leading him inexorably to the answer he was seeking, uncovering the identity of witch or thief. He began to need aids, as if to pick up and amplify instinct's weak transmissions. Just as there are some water diviners who search for underground sources unaided, while others need to use a forked hazel twig or a pendulum, so there were (and still are) some shamans who needed no aids, while others had to employ devices—horns, say, which they could hold, and which seemed to dictate their movements. And in the next stage, they began to seek their visions in smoke, or in bowls of liquid—much as a present-day fortune teller consults a crystal ball; or to throw bones, and observe the pattern they formed as they fell; or to examine the entrails of animals.
    So long as these techniques were employed as a means to induce a trance—so long as the smoke or the entrails were simply a way of rousing the unconscious mind to take over—drugs still had their part to play in making the process easier. But the time was to come when divination by such means became standardised. The pattern in which the bones fell, the state of the entrails, were consciously 'read', as were omens; a bird flying past from one direction meant one forecast; from another direction, a different forecast. In time, divination was reduced to rote—to routine. Dissociation was then no longer needed; and drugs became superfluous.
    At the same time, the development of patterns of belief—religions—made dissociation an untrustworthy and unnerving experience, because the material pouring out of the unconscious might be at variance with approved doctrine. A safer way was to employ ritual; the regular repetition of words and actions, designed to break down consciousness without inducing a full trance. Ritual required more self-control on the shaman's part, in order that he should be able to reproduce the formula exactly, time after time. Dissociation was no help; and drugs were a positive handicap. As a result shamans began to be chosen on other grounds than their ability to induce trances; and it was at this point that, in effect, they became priests.
    The priest, as the American anthropologist A. L. Kroeber defined him half a century ago,
is an official recognised by the community. He has duties and powers. He may inherit, be elected, or succeed by virtue of lineage subject to confirmation. But he steps into a specific office which existed before him and continues after his death. His power is the result of his induction into the office, and the knowledge and authority that go with it. He thus contrasts sharply with the shaman—logically at least. The shaman makes his position. Any person possessed of the necessary mediumistic faculty, or able to convince a part of the community of his ability to operate supernaturally, is thereby a shaman. His influence is essentially personal.

    The demarcation line, as Kroeber emphasised, cannot always be clearly drawn; in early civilizations, shamanism and religion often co-existed, particularly where potent plant drugs were available—peyotl, datura, the fly agaric. The most striking example emerges from the verses of the Rig Veda—the testimonies of the shaman/priesthood which was one outcome of the Aryan influx into India, three thousand years ago
We have drunk soma, have become immortal
Gone to the light have we, the gods discovered
What can hostility do against us?

    These hymns to a plant deity, as Wasson pointed out in his Soma, were composed over a period of centuries, by men who lived far remote from each other, but shared the same experiences from it;
... In the hierarchy of Vedic gods certain others took precedence over Soma: but since Soma was a tangible, visible thing, its inebriating juice to be ingested by the human organism in the course of the ritual, a god come down and manifesting himself to the Aryans, Soma played a singular role in the Vedic pantheon. The poets never tire of stressing Soma's sensuous appeal... The priests, after imbibing the juice, seem to have known, for the nonce, the ecstasy of existence in the World of the Immortals. The divine element was not just a symbol of spiritual truth as in the Christian communion: Soma was a miraculous drink that spoke for itself.

    It remains uncertain from which plant Soma was extracted. (Wasson's contention that it must have been the fly agaric makes more sense than most early theories, which even proffered such unlikely candidates as rhubarb); and the testimonials cannot be regarded as a wholly reliable source of information about its qualities—a similar collection of eulogies of beer or tobacco could be collated from English sources which would be hardly less idolatrous. Nevertheless the impression left of Soma's transcendental qualities is significant, because it reveals that the drug—whatever it may have been—was being taken for a different end. The purpose was no longer basically functional—to secure access to useful information. Rather, it was to lift the mind to a higher plane of perception. The suggestion has even been made that the shaman priests did not take the drug to try to achieve artificially the exalted state of mind that mystics achieved through yoga. The mystics, through yoga, may have been trying to recapture the exalted states of mind which formerly had required the assistance of Soma for their attainment.
    In many other parts of the world, plant drugs which had originally been used to facilitate access to the spirits came to be regarded, and later worshipped, as spirits, or deities, in their own right. In Peru, Tschudi reported, 'it was believed that any business undertaken without the benediction of coca leaves could not prosper, and to the shrub itself, worship was rendered'. Chewed coca was thrown on veins of ore in the Peruvian mines, in the belief they would be softened, and easier to work. A few years later the French traveller H. A. Weddell, exploring Bolivia, found that married men going on a journey would throw a dollop of chewed coca leaf on to a rock, in the belief that if it did not still adhere td the rock when they returned, it would be proof that in their absence their wives had not adhered to their marital vows. Many innocents, Weddell feared, must have suffered a bastonnade, as a result. In the 1920s Alexander Goldenweiser described how the Chuckchi tribesmen in Siberia took the fly agaric in the expectation that the mushrooms would appear to them in the guise of mushroom men, who would 'lead the dreamer through the world and show him real and imaginary things'. Later, Wasson observed the same process in Mexico, where the mushrooms had begun to take command:
They speak through the curandero or shaman. He is as though not present. The mushrooms answer the questions put to them about the sick patient, about the future, about the stolen money or the missing donkey... similarly the eater of the fly agaric comes under the command of the mushrooms, and they are personified as amanita girls or amanita men, the size of the fly agaric,


The fruit of the vine

    Drugs, therefore, remained an essential part of shamanism, where it survived. But wherever religions established themselves in its place, and in particular where the religion was monotheistic, the need for them disappeared, because the kind of divination they inspired was regarded as a threat. Rulers did not care for untamed sources of information, which might turn out to be subversive; and priests, brooding over their entrails, looked with envy on shamans, drawing their information directly from the spirit world —'the priest realises clearly where the danger lies', as Michelet observed in his study of sorcery; 'an enemy, a menacing rival, is to be feared in this High-Priestess of Nature he pretends to despise'. Divination in such circumstances became regarded as the devil's doing—unless the diviner's probity or position was such that this interpretation was unthinkable, or perhaps unmentionable. It was equated with witchcraft, and the death penalty imposed for anybody who practised it—except when, as in the case of the witch of Endor, it happened to be the State, in the person of King Saul, who needed the prognostication. And drugs which had been used to induce the trance state were naturally suspect.
    There was one drug available, however, which in this respect was relatively safe: wine. Whereas other drugs appeared to give access to information transmitted from a different world, what wine released—though it was often revealing: in vino veritas—was mundane. It induced visions only when taken in excess, over a protracted period; and they were not of any divinatory value to a shaman, or anybody else. As an intoxicant, in fact, alcohol's function was—in the phrase that has been so often echoed—to 'take away understanding'. It removed a man from the cares of the world, without precipitating him into another. Although his behaviour when in this condition might be anti-social and dangerous to himself and his companions, it presented no real threat to the authority of Church or State.
    Wine, though, was taken chiefly as a beverage. It was decidedly safer to drink, in many regions, than water—as well as tasting agreeable. The Old Testament writings demonstrate that wine was never, in that era, looked on with suspicion. Drunkenness was condemned as a sin, but wine was no more held responsible for it than meat was held responsible for the sin of gluttony. So far from wine being suspect, it was usually coupled with bread as God's great gift to man. An abundant grape harvest signified divine pleasure; a superabundant harvest was taken to herald the coming of the Messiah. Temperance reformers were later to point to the existence of tribes or sects who renounced wine; but this was not because of disapproval of its intoxicating properties, but because they objected to the cultivation of the grapes. Nomads tended to despise those who settled down to the sedentary life of the farmer or town dweller; the Rechabite injunction 'ye shall drink no wine' was accompanied by 'neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed'. And where ascetic sects emerged, their worry was that wine-bibbing was a form of self-indulgence. John the Baptist would have objected as strenuously to the consumption of agreeably flavoured non-alcoholic drinks.
    Wine had two effects, however, which eventually aroused debate on whether it ought to be—in effect—reclassified as a drug. One was the possible consequences for society of intoxication, when it unfitted men to do their jobs. It was up to the individual to regulate his own drinking, Plato's Athenian argued in the Laws; but the State had a right and a duty to protect citizens from the effects of that drinking, should it put them at risk:
... if the practice is treated as mere play, and free licence is to be given to any man to drink whenever he pleases, in what company he pleases, and when engaged on any undertaking he pleases, I could no longer vote for allowing any indulgence in the wine-cup to such a city, or such a man. I would even go further than the practice of Crete and Lacedaemon and propose an addition to the Carthaginian law which prohibits the very taste of this liquor to all soldiers in the field, and enforces water-drinking throughout the duration of a campaign. I would absolutely prohibit its taste in civic life to slaves of both sexes, to magistrates throughout the year of their office, and equally absolutely to captains of vessels and jurymen when on duty, and likewise to any member of an important council when about to attend its meetings. Further I would prohibit its use during the day absolutely, except under the orders of a trainer or physician, and at night also to any person of either sex contemplating the procreation of children, to pass over the many other cases in which wine is not to be drunk by rational men with a sound law.

    The Greeks were concerned only about how to prevent drinking from becoming a security risk. Some early Christian sects, however, began to take the argument a stage further, and suggest that there was a more serious hazard: that it would imperil men's souls. Gnostics, Manicheans and others argued that as wine was notoriously an aphrodisiac, and the occasion of sin, to drink it must be sinful, and wine itself must be inherently evil. Against them were ranged those fathers of the Church on whom Greek thought still exercised a decisive influence, and who contended that 'it is not what entereth in that defileth a man'—as Clement of Alexandria put it in the second century A.D.—'but that which goes out of his mouth'; a view echoed by St. Chrysostom, two centuries later:
... the simple ones among our brethren, when they see any person disgracing themselves from drunkenness, instead of reproving such, blame the fruit given them by God, and say, 'Let there be no wine'. We should say then in answer to such, 'let there be no drunkenness; for wine is the work of God, but drunkenness is the work of the devil'. Wine makes not drunkenness, but intemperance produces it. Do not accuse that which is the workmanship of God, but accuse the madness of a fellow mortal.



    The knowledge that Jesus had been a wine drinker—and had even promised the disciples at the last supper that he would enjoy wine with them in Paradise—did not prevent the leaders of early Christian sects from arguing that wine was the occasion of sin, because they could claim that as Jesus was without sin, wine had no power over him. But to the ordinary believer, the argument sounded specious; and when Mahomet decided to instruct his followers to forgo wine, one of the reasons—it has been suggested—was that this would help to distinguish them from the wineloving Christians.
    As this was the first attempt of its kind to prohibit the consumption of a popular drug, it would be interesting to know more about how the ban worked. Given a zealous priesthood, it would have been relatively easy to enforce, because the location of the vineyards would be known. They could easily have been destroyed; and wine is too-bulky to be easily smuggled in any quantity on camel caravans. The evidence, however, has yet to be sifted, to find what were the prohibition's effects. Ironically we know more—thanks to the work of Franz Rosenthal—about one of the side-effects of Mahomet's law: the controversy which followed in the Moslem world whether hashish, the drug made from the hemp plant, ought also to come under the ban, though it had not been formally indicted in the Koran. In The Herb, published in 1971, Rosenthal presented an illuminating sample of the opinions of philosophers and priests, public health officials and poets, on the issue of whether and how the consumption of hashish should be restricted, or stopped altogether: a foretaste of many a similar campaign to come.
    To judge from a brief account in Herodotus of the way the Scythians threw hemp on heated stones and 'carried away by the fumes, shout aloud', the hemp plant must long have been known to have intoxicating qualities; and Moslem sects, such as the Sufis, continued to take it in traditional shamanist ways. By Mahomet's time, though, it seems to have been utilised chiefly as a medicine for, among other disorders, dandruff, diarrhoea, earache, gonorrhea and worms. But then—perhaps because of the ban on wine—hemp came again to be eaten, or drunk in some form of infusion in the Moslem world. There are difficulties, Rosenthal warned, in the way of any assessment of its precise effects on people, because 'hashish', the term ordinarily used, not merely covered a variety of different hemp preparations, but also took in opium and henbane, and was loosely used about herbs in general. Hemp, Rosenthal surmised, must gradually have come to be identified with hashish because it was regarded as the herb; 'the most representative and, probably, the most widely used of the hallucinatory drugs employed by medieval Muslims'. And when the authorities realised it was being increasingly adopted as a substitute for wine, they began to cast around for excuses to stop it. The Koran, they argued, banned wine because it could be an intoxicant; hashish was being taken as an intoxicant; therefore hashish should be banned. The upper classes tended to agree— particularly employers: hashish-eating was mainly a working class habit. It was bad for the working man's health, they explained; damaging his complexion, giving him halitosis, and eventually leading him to immorality, insanity, and mental exhaustion (much the same arguments, in fact, as were later to be used in England against masturbation).
    The supporters of hashish argued that it had not been banned in the Koran precisely because it did not intoxicate—not, at least, in the same way as wine. Wine caused quarrelsomeness; hashish induced 'languid placidity'—as even its critics appear to have conceded; in the attacks on the drug, Rosenthal could find no mention of any really violent actions against others under its influence. In some people, it created a pleasant stupor; in others it excited the imagination; that was all. It could not be condemned as anti-social. The law should therefore not meddle with it. As a Jurist put it ingeniously in a verse:
Hashish intoxication contains a hidden secret
Too subtle for minds to explain
They have declared it forbidden without any justification
  on the basis of reason and tradition
Declaring forbidden what is not forbidden is forbidden

    As hashish was admitted to be less intoxicating than such alternatives as opium and henbane—and even nutmeg, which enjoyed a considerable reputation as a narcotic—any attempt to suppress it, its supporters added, might only lead its purchasers to more dangerous drugs.
    These arguments did not impress the authorities, who determined to try to curb the consumption of hashish. But how? Should it be banned outright; or should it be permitted for specific purposes, with penalties for misuse? Periodically, outright prohibition was attempted; but enforcement proved impracticable. The hemp plant grew wild; and even if it had not, it would have been impossible to stop cultivation, as it was valuable for other purposes—for making fibre, as well as medicine. It was quite easy to transport, or if necessary to smuggle, to those who wanted it; and because it was cheap there was a ready demand even from the poorest classes—'I am satisfied', as a poet put it:
... with a morsel of porridge
And a round pill of hashish,
Why should I reproach time from which individual
Destiny proceeds, by complaining about lack of means?

    The pattern which emerges from Rosenthal's research is significant, because it has recurred again and again up to the present day. Drugs come under attack because they make Church and State uneasy, for fear that they will render people, particularly the young, less amenable to discipline. As the authorities do not care to admit that this is their real reason for wanting to stop drug-taking, they claim they are only concerned with their subjects' health, morals, and welfare. They then find that prohibition simply does not work. The anti-hashish campaigners, according to Rosenthal, were forced to admit that they were 'fighting a losing battle with the reality of the social environment', and eventually they sank into 'complete resignation'. It was the first in a long line of such losing battles in authority's protracted war to control drugs.


Witch's brew

    There are other gaps in the history of drugs in this era which will have to await research like Rosenthal's to fill in. Some are unlikely ever to be filled. We will probably never know for certain what the constituents were of Homer's nepenthe; or what drug was used in the shamanist Eleusinian cult in ancient Greece, in which the initiate was given a potion designed to induce delectable visions, after which he could never be the same again. In general, the information about drugs and their social effects in classical times, and in the Middle Ages, is too scanty and unreliable to serve as the basis for anything more than enjoyable speculation. And although there is plenty of evidence about the attempts to control drunkenness—Solon established the death penalty for magistrates who were found under the influence and numerous regulations were made to prohibit slaves, or minors, or women from drinking—there is very little evidence how such laws worked in practice.
    Apart from wine, there does not seem to have been any drug in common enough use in Europe to disturb the authorities' peace of mind. Drugs crop up chiefly in connection with witchcraft. Professor Michael Harner has recently argued that they were of central importance to witchcraft in Europe, but that this has been obscured by the fact that so much of the source material, most of it in Latin, has never been studied by anybody with an interest in this aspect of the subject. From the later evidence of witchcraft trials, it is clear that witches employed such plants as henbane and deadly nightshade—sometimes making them into unguents, and smearing them on parts of their bodies—as a way of liberating themselves. to undertake their Sabbat rides. It is also clear that, like shamans, they believed that while they were under the influence of these drugs they really could fly through the air. One seventeenth-century witch, more fortunate than many in that she had a shrewd priest dealing with her, boasted she could prove it;
rubbing ointment on herself to the accompaniment of magic incantations, she lay her head back and immediately fell asleep. With the labor 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 jarred 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 to her that she had not moved; 'for heaven's sake, where are you? You were not with Diana and as will be attested by these present, you never left this bowl'. Thus, by this act and by thoughtful exhortations he drew out this belief from her abominable soul.

    Harner cites a number of similar examples, suggesting that witchcraft was not, as some historians have suggested, a symptom of mass hysteria, having no existence in its own right, but a debased form of shamanism, which the hostility of the Church had prevented from coming out into the open.
    The prevailing belief in diabolic possession, however, meant that the drugs a witch used were not regarded as responsible for her conduct; and there is no indication that drugs were otherwise employed, except as medicines. Consequently, they were not an issue. Drunkenness continued to be condemned, and legislated against—but as a social nuisance rather than as a sin. So when Columbus's men returned with their descriptions of the purposes for which drugs were used in the New World, they were too unfamiliar to be feared as a threat to faith or morals in Europe. They could be welcomed, in fact, for the medicinal properties they were believed to possess.

Chapter 3

Send e-mail to The Psychedelic Library:

The Psychedelic Library | Books Menu Page