Ethnobotany and Shamanism - Psychedelics Before and After History

Last Updated: 15/09/18

Date Location Words
1988 California Insitute of Integral Studies 1795

The, uh, title of the, uh, weekend that I'll be giving here at CIIS is 'Ethnobotany and Shamanism: Psychedelics Before and After History'. This is the third year that I've lectured at CIIS. A course which, uh, the core content is a survey of the psychedelic plants of planet Earth and the cultures that have used them, and then discussion of their chemistry, uh, geographical distribution, uh history of usage, impact on the growth of ideas and historical institutions, and so forth. It's basically an effort to pack a psychobotany course into a weekend. And it is always preceded by this Friday night lecture in which I intend to give, uh, an overview and a sort of state-of-the-art report on psychobotany and why anyone should, uh, place any importance upon it. So I sort of think of this lecture as uh the philosophical implications of psychobotany: past, present, and future. So that is the theme that will guide the, uh, lecture this evening.

For me personally, it has been an experience of, uh, never being able to really anticipate the direction in which this line of thought would develop. It seems to have a life of its own, uh, a richness of its own, uh, that is not predictable by the conscious mind. A few--uh, about three years ago, I began trying to, uh, think about feminism and what role it had, if any, to psychedelics and the role they had played in shaping culture. And, uh-- It, it seemed at the time... to my critics, and to some degree, to me, that it was almost a kind of opportunism. S- It's such a safe issue to clothe yourself in, that, uh, no matter what you're doing, if you can make it part of the feminist agenda, you, you somehow have become inviolate. It now seems to me that, um, this thread in thinking about the sh- impact of shamanic, and specifically, visionary shamanism's impact on culture, it has grown in my own mind, uh, more and more important. The rise of the consciousness of Gaia, which is the notion of the planet as, at le-, at the very least, a self-regulating system, and, uh, possibly, at the other end of the scale, as actually a kind of conscious entelechy--a kind of super-being or oversoul that, by the control of planktonic, uh, uh... populations on the surface of the sea, can regulate rainfall and thus control the density of vegetation on the continents, and thereby regulate the composition of the atmosphere; and by a series of interlocking, interwoven feedback loops, actually create a kind of biological or organic homeostasis, which is the precondition for the evolution of, uh, advanced organisms. And this idea of Gaia, uh- or of perceiving the Earth as a living organism, has been, uh, I think the intellectual or philosophical centerpiece of what feminism, uh, has done with its agenda in the last, uh, 15 years or so. But this enthusiasm for the goddess, this enthusiasm for the seamless web of life, has not yet clarified itself as a philosophical intention sufficiently to draw certain obvious conclusions about the relationship that it should have to shamanism, number one, and most specifically to psychedelic shamanism.

Now, why? What is the connection there? Well, a- what I would like to suggest is that the condition of cultural neurosis, in which we as moderns reside, might operationally be described as, uh, ego-inflation; and that specifically it is the masculine ego that is inflated. Now, the cause for this has been sought by various different commentators on culture, but none of them have suggested that the, uh, tumorous growth of the masculine ego as a cultural and individual institution [laughter], uh, is specifically due to the absence of, uh, the dissolving agency of psychoactive ecstasy induced by plants.
Do you - Do you see where I'm going with this?
So that, in fact, the modern enthusiasm for shamanism and, secondarily or in a connected mode, with psychedelics, is actually an intuitive feeling-back-toward this state of non-neurotic empathy that characterized archaic time. And that is what has specifically been lost by the descent into the historical process. And this notion: that there is... that something was lost which is tangible, then allows us to set a radical reconstructive agenda for society. Because, if what was lost was tangible rather than, say, the good will of God Almighty, which is not something tangible--and that's the culture myth, that we lost the good will of God Almighty--so we had to leave Eden and descend into toil. Uh. But notice that if we take the story of Eden more seriously, more literally, what we're dealing with is a, uh, struggle over use and abuse of available, uh, psychoactive compounds in the endemic environment. And that. in fact, the challenge to Yahweh was the challenge of the woman who sought to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, to have the knowledge of good or evil, which would place the- the man and the woman on an equal footing with God. And this aspiration to gnosis, this desire to transcend the ordinary and penetrate into the realm of existential truth, was enough to get them canned out of Eden.
Now, I want to cast further back into time and sort of lay the groundwork for this case about the, uh, the male ego. But before I do that, I want to ask you to, uh, review in your mind for a moment certain curious facts about the religions of Western culture-the tradition of monotheism as its practiced in the West. First of all, this is the only--and any student of myth who wishes to correct me is welcome to do so--this is the only theogamy, the only god-system that I know of in which, uh, the head honcho has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with women--does not have a mother, [laughter] does not have a consort, does not have a daughter. It's a locker room religion from the get-go.

Now, it was ,uh, the, uh, insight of Carl Jung and his school, uh, to understand that myths are narcissistic reflections of our own aspirations as individuals and societies. And when you look at the monotheistic hypothetization of God, with omnipotence, omniscience, all power, all moral suasion--everything is held in the hands of the father god, who is characterized by wrath and an obsession with, uh, punishment and with the carrying out of, uh, what are essentially punishments related to taboos--in other words, sins which are not clearly sins for any reason other than that they are forbidden. And this model of God became the model for the personalities, the atomic personalities, that were creating the civilizations that worshiped in this fashion. In other words, that became a way to be: omniscient, omnipresent, brooking no opposition, swift to punish, stern in all demands; so forth and so on. And this shift--and it was a shift--because the pre-pottery neolithic level in the Middle East seems very clearly and generally to be a goddess culture, a religion based on, uh, on pastoralism and to ga- a large amount of gathering integrated into hunting. That goddess-oriented, wandering, pastoral religion gave way to the fixed-settlement, neolithic, male-dominated model that, in its many adumbrations, has persisted into the present moment.
Well, as I said, I believe the reasons for this lie further in the past, in the moments of human emergence that occurred 15-, 20,000 years before the appearance of the goddess cultures in the ancient Near East. It-- The, the critical moment, I believe, uh, occurred in Africa during the process of the desertification of the African continent. The previously arboreal pack-hunting p-, er, arboreal primates descended onto the grasslands, which was an environment of increased nutritional pressure. And there, bipedalism, binocular vision, the opposable thumb--which had probably existed earlier--all these things were channeled into creating a highly efficient, omnivorous, pack-hunting creature. And the the key word here is 'omnivorous'. One of the great and unexplained lacunas in modern evolutionary theory is that evolutionary primatologists have not made any attempt to discuss the impact on human evolution of changes in diet, which were, uh, uh, swift and unusual in this evolving grasslands situation.

Let me explain what I mean: uh, most animals have a very selective and restricted diet; so consequently, whatever the chemical composition of that diet, over millions of years of exposure, the animal forms, uh, a relationship of [it-] of adaptability to whatever its foot source is. When a animal population becomes omnivorous under, uh, pressure on the availability of nutrition, suddenly the animal begins to test for possible food sources in the environment. Well, this testing for food sources in the environment introduces a vast number of mutagenic compounds into the body- into the bodies of these animals. Not only psychoactive compounds but, uh, depressants, stimulants, things which interfere with RNA transcription, things which, uh, enhance or suppress the immune system, things which retard or clarify vision, things which suppress appetite, things which, uh, interfere with the estrus cycle. Uh- remind yourself for a moment that Ortho-Novum and the birth control pills, are, uh, all derived--the, the compounds in those pills are derived from Dioscorea plants grown on hu-, in huge plantations in Mexico--uh, a kind of tropical yam. Well, yams in the tropics are now and always have been a major food source for foraging primates. And yet some varieties of yams contain so much of these, uh, uh, hormone-like substances that they send the reproductive cycle and ovulation and all these things just into a tizzy.
Well, you can imagine the impact, the evolutionary speed-up that this decision to go omnivorous would have on these, uh, evolving primates. And I maintain that, uh, the prolongation of infantile traits in human beings, some of which persist throughout our entire lives, such as our, uh,--that too. I was--
[laughing] -I was thinking of, uh, our our relative hairlessness and stuff like that, but--
-you're right. It's a puzzle. Every generation thinks that the generation which, uh, uh- f-, which it spawns is more infantile yet than it was. And somebody wrote me a letter recently suggesting that this was a good thing, and it would end with us simply skipping the 'life-in-3D' phase. And you would just go from fetus to chip and skip over, uh, this whole messy three-dimensional, cultural phase. Um. But I digress.