Throughout human history, spiritual seekers have used sacred plants and fungi for healing, visionary encounters, and mystical experience. Though this history has been largely obfuscated by prohibitionist attitudes and misinformation, entheogens—substances that “generate the experience of God within”—hold a special place in the development of world religions and countless spiritual traditions. “Psychedelics,” as entheogens are often called, were not something discovered in the countercultural 1960s but in fact can be traced back to the very dawn of human cultures. Many of the earliest human artifacts—from mushroom shaman effigies in prehistoric African cave paintings to marijuana incense burners in shrines in ancient Europe—depict entheogenic fungi and plants with clear associations to ritual and religious activity. The “foods of the gods” have been with us from the beginning.
It was not just tribal religions and small-scale traditions that made use of such sacraments. In complete reversal of the Catholic interpretation of the Eden story, Gnostic Christians understood the consumption of the fruit of the tree as being necessary for mystical enlightenment and made use of a variety of visionary plants and fungi to attain communion with Jesus/God. The roots of Hinduism and yoga also can be traced back to the divine inebriant of soma, most likely the Amanita muscaria mushroom, which is still consumed by Siberian and northern European shamans. This mushroom was used as a holy sacrament in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism in the Near East and Mediterranean (and has been put forward as a possible source for our contemporary figure of Santa Claus, who, like Lapp shamans, is a reindeer herder and even dresses in a red-and-white costume that resembles the amanita mushroom). In Hinduism, we also find the god Shiva, a master of magical plants and fungi, whose followers in India regularly smoke ganja, or marijuana, which is sometimes mixed with datura, a powerful (and dangerous) visionary plant. In more recent times, Shaivite practices influenced the development of the Jamaican sect Rastafarianism, which also uses marijuana as a sacrament, similarly calling it ganja. In ancient Greece, the mystery cults, which provided mystical experience to initiates through the ingestion of entheogens, reigned for 2,000 years, right up into the time of the rise of Christianity. Further east, magical mushrooms played a significant role in Taoist alchemy, along with various mineral drugs such as cinnabar. In the New World, Aztec, Maya, and Inca cultures all used a variety of entheogenic plants and fungi in their religious practices, and the use of entheogens is still present in Mesoamerica and the Amazon.
Today, the modern “entheogenic movement” seeks to reincorporate these highly effective sacraments into spiritual practice and religious tradition. In stark contrast with the countercultural movement’s social use of “psychedelics” for recreation, contemporary entheogenic practitioners are striving to make use of these plants and fungi in ways that honor and respect their sacred uses. Though many entheogens are treated as “drugs,” and therefore subject to legal restrictions and prohibitions, there are currently three officially recognized religions in the United States in which one can legally practice entheogenic spirituality: the Native American Church (NAC), which uses the peyote cactus as a sacrament; Santo Daime (SD), which uses an ayahuasca drink; and Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), which also uses an ayahuasca drink. In addition to these official religions, many legal entheogens now also are available on the Internet, offering relatively easy access to a wide variety of plants and fungi.
The gift of entheogens is the difference between saying “my religion teaches that God is love and we are all one” and saying “I know that God is love and we are all one because I’ve experienced it myself and can confirm that it is true.”
Peyote and the Native American Church
The Tradition: Peyote, from the Aztec Nahuatl word peyotl, is a small, spineless cactus that grows in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. It was not traditionally used by North American indigenous cultures until the advent of the reservation period in U.S. history, when it became a pan-Indian response to genocide. Prohibited from following their own practices and traditions, Native Americans combined the consumption of peyote with aspects of Christianity, regarding peyote as the “flesh of Christ” and a direct method of communication with God. Today, peyote is credited by members of the church with curing alcoholism and depression, as well as leading members to healthy, balanced lives, grounded in direct experience of the divine in communal prayer ceremonies.
Since 1994, the use of peyote in the Native American Church has been legally protected. While only officially registered Native Americans can be active members of the church (a unique case of a government-enforced ethnic identity requirement for religious membership), non-Natives are frequent participants in NAC -ceremonies.
Ceremony: Native American Church ceremonies are best understood as prayer meetings, called when a member of the community would like to sponsor a specific prayer for the health of a loved one, a soldier going off to war, or just about anything else. The sponsor determines the “main smoke,” which is a reference to the ceremonial tobacco that is passed around the tepee at the beginning of a meeting. The road man, or ceremonial leader and legal carrier of the peyote, explains the purpose of the ceremony, as determined by the sponsor, and participants are expected to present tobacco and offer prayers in line with what the sponsor is requesting.
The ceremony begins in the evening and continues until after the sun has risen the following day. Peyote can be consumed in a variety of forms: fresh cactus, dried and powdered, or made into a tea. The peyote is passed around the tepee at specific times during the course of the ceremony, though participants may request additional peyote at any time. Participants are expected to maintain good posture and composure, and pray continually throughout the proceedings. Participants should neither exit the tepee nor attempt to leave prior to the official conclusion of the ceremony.
Except during speeches and prayers, music and singing are continual aspects of NAC ceremony. Songs begin with the road man in the west side of the tepee, and then the ceremonial water drum, staff, rattle, and eagle feathers are passed to the left, giving each participant a chance to sing a set of four songs. These instruments are passed around this way throughout the ceremony, with songs sung in many Native American languages and even in English.
The Medicine: Peyote’s principal active compound is mescaline, which functions similar to a neurotransmitter when consumed. Overall, peyote has a reputation as a “mild” psychedelic, and its effects are comparatively subtle when contrasted with other entheogenic sacraments. The taste is bitter, and consuming it can be challenging, especially after the first round of communion. Visually, colors can become more enhanced and an otherwise “magical” quality infuses general perception. At higher doses, full-fledged visionary scenes may unfold, along with complex geometry and perception of energy.
A common effect of this medicine is the need to “get well,” as it is called in the NAC. Peyote can cause extreme nausea and digestive discomfort, and the process of purging is understood to be healing. Those who feel the need to get well are often encouraged to “eat more medicine” to help with the process, and individuals may feel the need to purge several times.
Advantages/Disadvantages: A Native American Church ceremony is a highly structured and formalized event led by practiced experts. The sacred focus of the ceremony is paramount, and the chance of a frightening or disorienting experience is minimized. But some guests feel that this strict ritual structure impedes their ability to fully experience the medicine, and the rules and prohibitions within the tepee can be intimidating and arduous. Any would-be participant should be aware of this before committing to sitting up all night with no sleep, digestive discomfort, and a bitter medicine.
Ayahuasca and the Santo Daime Religion
The Tradition: Santo Daime is a relatively new religion that emerged out of the Amazon basin in Brazil and makes use of an extremely powerful entheogenic brew called ayahuasca or daime. Traditionally, ayahuasca has been used by indigenous cultures in the Amazon and surrounding areas in their shamanic practices; it is still in widespread use today. The past century saw the birth of several new religions in Brazil that use ayahuasca, with Santo Daime being one such tradition that can be legally practiced in the United States.
The Santo Daime tradition teaches that daime provides direct access to the true doctrine of Christ and universal God consciousness. According to tradition, the true teachings of Jesus were lost in Europe, and the doctrine hid itself in the jungle, waiting to be brought out into the world through the medium of the daime. Members of the religion are understood to be undertaking the personally challenging process of evolving to a state of Christ consciousness, which is considered to be the “second coming” of Christ—not an individual but a widespread awakening to the reality of our divine unity.
According to studies and claims of users, regular drinkers of ayahuasca are more socially integrated, have fewer health problems, are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. They often show an increase in intelligence, have fewer psychological and emotional problems, and have better family relations than nondrinkers. Users also claim to feel that they have spiritually been transformed and evolved through their use of the drink.
Ceremony: Santo Daime ceremonies are called “works” and are held for various purposes, from healing to meditation to worship. Participants wear formal uniforms and are separated by gender. Depending on the work, participants either sit in carefully chosen rows or stand and dance in place. A core group of musicians and singers sits around the central altar. Hymns are received directly from the daime itself, with many individuals creating full collections of hymns. In all, there are hundreds of Santo Daime hymns. All participants are encouraged to sing along—a feat that can be extremely challenging for an inexperienced visitor.
Works begin in the evening or late afternoon and generally last until midnight, if not until three or four in the morning. Works open with the Lord’s Prayer and recital of the rosary, followed by consumption of daime, which takes about 40 minutes to have an effect. Men and women are served separately, with each individual drinking a shot glass worth of the sacramental drink. Depending on the length of the work, daime may be consumed anywhere from three to five times over the course of the ceremony.
As with the NAC, participants are discouraged from leaving the ceremonial structure, or salao, and they are expected to actively participate as much as they are able, meaning that they should sing, dance, or pray, as led by the padrinho or madrinha, the ceremonial “fathers” and “mothers.” However, there are works called “concentrations” where, for a period, no songs are sung and no prayers are offered. On these occasions, participants are expected to meditate on their own spiritual progress.
Santo Daime also practices mediumship, or working with spiritual/energetic beings and “releasing them into the light.” It also practices extraction of unwanted energies and entities, sometimes reaching dramatic levels of personal release and catharsis.
The Medicine: The two main ingredients are Banisteriopsis caapi, which contains harmaline, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, and Psychotria viridis, which contains the psychoactive compound dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, as it is often called. Outside of the Santo Daime church, DMT is considered a Schedule I substance and is prohibited by United Nations drug-trafficking treaties. An irony of these laws is that DMT is a naturally occurring substance found not only in countless species of plants but also in every mammal, human beings included.
Ayahuasca tastes awful—worse if it is fermented. However, only a shot glassful is necessary to receive enough medicine to have an extremely powerful experience. Indescribably complex visuals are common, as are full-fledged visions. Most users experience vibrations of energy in their bodies. Feelings of divine love, absolute bliss, intimate connection to the universe and all of existence, and pure, unitary consciousness are common. The effects of a single drink do not usually last more than a couple hours. For long ceremonies, repeated rounds of drinking are standard.
Ayahuasca often induces vomiting and can also cause extreme diarrhea, both of which are considered cleansing and purifying.
Advantages/Disadvantages: Among Amazonian shamans, ayahuasca is appreciated as the “mother of all medicines,” far surpassing any other entheogens available (of which there are hundreds in South America), and many Western users agree. As with the NAC, the advantage to participating in a Santo Daime work is the security and structure provided by the ceremony. Works are held in lighted rooms with numerous participants, lessening the likelihood that an individual might pass into a state of fear or disconnection from physical reality. There is deep communal support among members and a sense that the work is a group effort for the benefit of all of humanity and the Earth. There is also the advantage that Santo Daime is legally protected.
It is important to note that for some, the experience can be extraordinarily harrowing. And many casual visitors to Santo Daime works are put off by the rigid structure of their practices, especially if they are more familiar with South American-style ayahuasca shamanism, which is practiced in a dark room where participants are encouraged to “go within” and have a private visionary experience. The Catholic/Christian nature of Santo Daime also can be challenging, especially for Westerners disaffected with mainstream religion.
Financial donations are requested for participation in Santo Daime works, and one must have an active member in the church as a sponsor in order to attend as a guest.
Salvia divinorum, the Diviner’s Sage
The Tradition: Salvia divinorum is a member of the sage family, and its sacred use originated with Mexico’s Mazatec culture (best known for the use of psilocybe mushrooms, which contain two varieties of DMT: psilocin and psilocybin). Influenced by Catholic missionaries, Mazatecs refer to mushrooms as the baby Jesus and salvia as the Virgin Mary; they believe that users are able to commune with these figures in the visionary state afforded by the consumption of the medicines.
Within Mazatec culture, shamans might use mushrooms, salvia, or even morning glory seeds (which contain an alkaloid similar to LSD) on regular occasions as part of their practice and training, but Mazatecs typically will consume these sacraments only for specific prayers or healings. In such sessions, both the shaman and the patient will consume the medicine in a dark room, where all present are encouraged to stay focused on their visions and strive to commune with Jesus, Mary, or any of the other spirits or deities found within Mazatec tradition. Prayers, especially spoken words, carry special intention and energy in the salvia experience and can have a uniquely deep sense of sincerity when spoken from within the realms of sage space, which is one of the reasons that Mazatecs emphasize audible prayers and entreaties while using salvia.
Today, most who encounter salvia have no exposure to Mazatec traditions and instead purchase salvia via the Internet or at local smoke shops. While a few states have instituted policies outlawing or regulating salvia, there are no restrictions in most places in the U.S., and it is popular among spiritual seekers and thrill-seekers alike.
Traditionally, Mazatecs simply chew salvia in bundles of 26 leaves. Most Westerners smoke it, which allows for a stronger experience, but it is also quite brief, lasting only 15 minutes or so. Enhanced salvia—leaf with more of the active compound, salvinorin A, added to it—is also now easily available, making it possible to have an extremely powerful entheogenic experience with a minimum amount of smoking.
Ceremony: Given the intense nature and brief duration of a salvia experience, this sacrament is best experienced in small groups, where each person is afforded the time, space, and respect to take individual turns. Darkness is recommended, as even a single candle can seem extraordinarily bright. It is best if the ceremony is led by an individual who is experienced with the medicine and knows how to effectively hold space for others. He or she should be able to show leadership in getting others to be still and silent when the communicant is experiencing salvia. Outside of group settings, individuals should always have a “sitter” for safety.
The active compound, salvinorin A, is not related to any other psychoactive compounds and produces an experience totally unlike any other. It can be disorienting and confusing. Music can help lessen this disorientation, especially drums, rattles, and drone instruments like the didgeridoo. The one taking the sacrament can drum/play for himself or herself (if able to physically function), or the group leader can take on the instrumental/musical role, much as would a traditional shamanic practitioner.
Many participants like to share their experiences, though this is best left for the conclusion of the ceremony. Overall, the aim is to provide a safe and supportive context to experience this medicine. As with any entheogenic experience, trust and the ability to comfortably “let go” and enter fully into the experience are paramount.
The Medicine: Salvia has been cultivated for so long by the Mazatec that it is now no longer found in the wild and generally reproduces only from cuttings, making virtually all the salvia available on the market genetically identical.
If smoking enhanced leaf, only one or two small hits are necessary to enter the experience fully. Within the space of a breath, a user may experience an overwhelming sensation of pure consciousness, with seemingly no connection to the “outside” world. A common comment by first-time users is that the experience feels like dying, with some even convinced that they are never coming back. This can be quite unnerving.
Advantages/Disadvantages: Salvia is, for the most part, legal and simple to use, and it can be an excellent tool for personal meditation, prayer, and exploration of the mind. It can assist in rapidly and effectively bringing one to a very profound and heightened state of concentration and awareness. Its effects are short-acting, so one does not need to commit a large amount of time for its use (though prior preparation and integration time after ingesting salvia are recommended). For those who enjoy a deep and profound entheogenic experience, salvia is an ideal medicine, as it can easily be incorporated into any variety of spiritual disciplines and practices and could enhance virtually any ceremony.
The disadvantage to salvia is that there are few truly experienced users who can help guide initiates. It is also an extraordinarily powerful plant and can be overpowering and disorienting. Many who try salvia once vow to never to do so again.
Martin W. Ball is an independent researcher focused on the interface between spiritual awakening and entheogenic experience. He received his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in religious studies with an emphasis on Native American traditions, shamanism, and comparative mysticism. He is the author of several books on entheogenic spirituality, including his latest, Entheologues: Conversations with Leading Psychedelic Thinkers, Explorers, and Researchers, featuring interviews from his weekly podcast, The Entheogenic Evolution. Martin’s podcast can be found at entheogenic.podomatic.com, and his books and music can be found at his web page, www.martinball.net.