by Donald P. Dulchinos

illustration courtesy of Anton Saurian


A book on this subject, titled Forbidden Sacraments, is forthcoming in the next couple of months from Autonomedia Press.

Check here for updates, or at Look there for my first book, Pioneer of Inner Space: The Life of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Hasheesh Eater.

In 1978, a vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank named R. Gordon Wasson, together with an eclectic group of scientists and scholars, published a book entitled The Road to Eleusis. The authors argued that the kykeon beverage consumed during the Eleusinian mysteries, the primary religious rite of Greco-Roman civilization, contained an hallucinogenic, or "entheogenic", barley fungus called claviceps purpurea.

The testimony of a significant number of young and not so young people in the 1960's and since have testified to the religious nature of drugs, especially LSD, which not so coincidentally is based on ergot, the same alkaloid found in claviceps purpurea. Walter Pahnke conducted the famous "Good Friday Experiment" with a group of Harvard Divinity School students, most of whom had a religious experience far deeper than any in their lives before or since.

What could be the connection between religion and entheogens?

Shamanism is a phenomenon where an individual member of a tribe or community provides healing, therapy, advice, teaching or spiritual meaning through the use of altered states of consciousness. It is a phenomenon that is common around the world, from native Americans who chew the peyote cactus, to Siberians who employ the amanita muscaria mushroom.

It seems entirely reasonable to suppose that given the ubiquity of shamanism in the less developed world, that Western Civilization passed through a similar stage. The twin forces of civilization and monotheistic religion over several millenia forced the phenomenon into the background, never entirely extinguishing it, but perhaps robbing it of the formal institutions necessary for it to have its full positive effect.

The rites of Eleusis were a transition from a decentralized to centralized church. Along with the rise of city-states, the shaman's role diminished compared to that of the warrior and the trader.

The Definition of Shamanism

My short definition of shaman is an individual member of a tribe or community who provides healing, therapy, advice, teaching or spiritual meaning through mediation in altered states of consciousness. The functions of the shaman occupy several dimensions, although the specific activities vary from culture to culture. For example, although altered states of consciousness are af feature in all, the altered state, or ASC, may be achieved by various methods including music, chanting, drums, meditation, solitude, movement, dancing and psychoactive plants. (See Table 1)


Table 1


----Altered State







----Contact with Transpersonal Realms

other world

spirit world


animal world


The eminent scholar Mircea Eliade offered his simplest definition of this complex phenomena that shamanism is a "technique of ecstasy." Anthropologist Michael Harner defines a shaman as "the experts who directly confront the supernatural" for evidence of religious reality. In simplest terms, adherents to most Western religions get their description of God and heaven from books, while shamans get theirs from visiting.

Eliade enumerated the essential shamanic features: ascent to heaven, descent to the underworld to retrieve souls or to escort the dead, evocation and incarnation of the spirits in order to undertake the ecstatic journey, and mastery of fire. A shaman "specializes in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld." A shaman also controls "helping spirits".

The religions of Central and North Asia extend beyond shamanism in every direction just as any religion extends beyond the mystical experience of its privileged adherents. Shamans are of the "elect", and as such they have access to a region of the sacred inaccessible to other members of the community."

Michael Harner, an anthropologist who has studied a variety of indigenous shamanic cultures, defines shaman as a"man or woman who enters an atlered state of consciousness-at will- to contact and utilize an ordinarlily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power, and to help other persons."

The Ubiquity of Shamanism

Mircea Eliade wrote an extensive work entitled Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy". He especially studied the peoples of Central and North Asia, including the Siberian Tungus tribe, from whom the word shaman was taken by anthropologists to denote all similar role, from witch doctor to medicine man. Among the conclusions of Eliade's work were that "a number of 'shamanic' features will be found among the Indo Europeans, just as...they will be found among any other ethnic or cultural group."

As one example, Eliade cites Germanic myths of the god Odin which he argues show shamanic features. In one story, Odin's initiation rite of hanging from a tree to learn the secret of interpreting runes was clearly shamanic, and further, echoed similar themes in North and Central Asian shamanism which survived into the 20th century.

Eliade even refers to the stories of St Anthony and other Christian saints and martyrs. Their temptations, he argued, are equivalent to an "initiation" for through them the saints transcended the human condition and brought back eternal truths. We shall see in later chapters even stronger ties between the Christian church and the way of the shaman.

Eliade did not evaluate the Eleusinian mysteries in the context of shamanism, but he did conclude that the related Greek mysteries of Orpheus were shamanic. The descent to Hades is a key component, although similar descents of Pythagoras and Zoroaster show only vague resemblance to shamanism.

A number of scholars since Eliade have done the quantitative fieldwork to confirm what Eliade had already intuited. Erika Bourguignon, at Ohio State, performed a cross-cultural study of "dissociational states" under a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health in 1973, during the first great societal concern over drugs in the U.S. Her conclusion:

"We drew a world wide sample of 488 societies from the Ethnographic Atlas (Murdock 1967) and found that ASCs (Altered States of Consciousness) were institutionalized within a religious framework in 90 percent of these societies."

Anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios, in an anthology entitled Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives, discussed her research on plant hallucinogens used in shamanic settings in eleven different cultures in North, South and Central America, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Guinea. She found that the drug use across all these societies had several common elements. The drugs were used in "usually a magico-religious sense, within a ceremonial context, to celebrate or to contact the realm of the supernatural, to heal an illness, to diagnose its cause, to divine the future, or to promote social solidarity among men and women."

The reader will note that Europe is the one area in which Dobkin De Rios did not perform field work. A complex of social, political and even agricultural factors will be offered in this book as to why there are few surviving indigenous uses of hallucinogens in Europe. But there are some.

There are several other scholars and scientists who also have performed research indicating the ubiquity of the use of entheogens for shamanic purposes.

Botanist Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard, Director of Harvard's Botanical Museum, distilled a lifetime of research into a book called Plants of the Gods, co-authored with chemist Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD. In it, Schultes catalogued ninety four different hallucinogenic plants around the world, most of which were used for healing or spiritual purposes in a shamanic manner. Schultes and Hofmann wrote that such plants "have long played an important role in the religious rites of early civilizations and are still held in veneration and awe as sacred elements by certain peoples who have continued to live in cultures less developed and bound to ancient traditions and ways of life."





---- United States

Mescalero Apache




---- Mexico




---- Peru






---- Ecuador



---- Columbia






---- Australia


----New Guinea








---- Zaire





Michael Harner, an anthropologist from the New School for Social Research in New York City, is perhaps the most well known popularizer of shamanism in the U.S. today. His book The Way of the Shaman is a synthesis of his research and contains various suggestions of ways that the people of advanced Western civilization might take advantage of shamanic techniques to enhance their lives. Harner edited an earlier book, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, which presented the research of several researchers, including Dobkin de Rios, on the use of hallucinogens by peoples in North and South America, particularly in the Amazon River valley. In particular, Harner notes the recurrence of certain themes of belief or experience, e.g. the shamanistic journey or flight.

However, Harner offers further hypotheses which underly the proposition in this book as well. Although culture-specific factors explain much of the content and structure of supernatural ideology that arises from use of entheogens, there is "a residue that remains, which cannot be conveniently explained away by recourse to the social structure or content of particular cultures." Harner's Hallucinogens and Shamanism also presented papers which investigate the "question of the degree to which biochemical changes, whether or not induced by hallucinogens, may underlie regularities in the content of 'other worldly' experiences and especially widespread and long persisting fundamental themes in human belief." In other words, the use of entheogens is a valid technique in any cultural context.

Even the profane vernacular of the 1960's, coined by the ultimate cultural philistine the Hell's Angels, the concept of a "trip" on LSD, has parallels in indigenous cultures, for example the Cashinahua of the Amazon rain forest. Elsewhere in Harner's book, psychotherapist Claudio Naranjo describes the experiences of white urban Chileans with the banisteriopsis drink used by Amazon Indians. Without knowledge of its connection with Indians or expected effects, his subjects reported experiences which repeat well known themes of the shamanistic experience, including sensation of soul separate from the body, flight, metamorphosis into an animal, etc. This whole topic will be further discussed in Chapters 5 and 6 of this book.

Harner also addresses the central theme of this book. If entheogens are so widespread among less developed countries, why is there no record of their use in Western civilization? Harner argues that the main "reasons why use of hallucinogens is unknown was a: it was a heresy suppressed by Church, and b: only recently through the reoccurrence of hallucinogenic drug use in our modern society have we become aware of the importance of the botanical substances employed in ancient rituals." The bulk of this book will explore the evidence offered by the research of Harner and others as to why this essential fact has been repressed from the everyday consciousness of modern man.

One semantic note before proceeding. Although most of the scientists mentioned above use the commonly accepted term "hallucinogen" for the plants used by shamans, and the popular press prefers the term "psychedelic" with its nostalgic 1960's feel, I prefer the term "entheogen", coined by R. Gordon Wasson, meaning "god generated within". The term hallucinogen connotes a false experience, as if the person experiencing the effects is somehow imagining all that happens. The evidence, consistent across cultures and over time, is that the experiences are very real and have a very dramatic objective impact on the shaman or other user of the plant. To say the impression of turning into a wolf is an obvious hallucination is only true on the surface. The testimony of the shaman, who learns a great deal from the experience about wolves and about the land in which he or she lives, is that the experience is more about contact with a sacred realm, in Western terms, the realm of God. The term entheogen seems to capture this far more accurately, and will be used throughout, except where used in a quotation.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 - Legalizing Shamanism

The preceding chapters have presented an argument that the Eleusinian Mysteries were a shamanistic religious observance marked in particular by the ritual employment of entheogens in order to convey the experience of transcendence in a ritual context. They have also presented the argument that despite violent and deadly repression practiced on a massive scale, the Eleusinian Mysteries in some form survived all the way to the twentieth century, albeit in decayed and scattered forms.

For many contemporary Americans, the urge for spiritual transcendence is still strong. I have decided as part of my own ethnic and spiritual heritage, to attempt to revive the Eleusinian Mysteries. The major problem of course, is that entheogens, particularly ergot-derived chemicals such as LSD, which would be most appropriate to use in the ritual, are illegal. The following pages discuss the legal arguments which support the legal use of peyote by the Native American Church, and attempt to make the case that LSD and other entheogens be accorded equal treatment under the law for similar uses in an Eleusinian context.

The Federal Exemption allowing use of peyote by members of the Native American Church , states in full:

"The listing of peyote as a controlled substance in Schedule I does not apply to the nondrug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church, and members of the Native American Church so using peyote are exempt from registration. Any person who manufactures peyote for or distributes peyote to the Native American Church, however, is required to obtain registation annually and to comply with all other requirements of law."

To understand how this exemption came to be, one must understand the history of the peyote religion in North America. Peyote usage among the native population of Mexico and the southwestern United States appears to be ancient. Anthropologist Omer Stewart concluded "it seems to me that there are enough features of the old Mexican peyote complex present in the modern American peyote religion to support a theory of at least partial continuity of many ideas and practices...most significant of all is the ancient, persistent belief in the supernatiural power of the peyote plant...Peyote is a sacred medicine."

Native American religion, like all aspects of Native American culture, was devastated by the waves of European immigration into America. That devastation occurred both incidental to the general destruction of war and disease, but also as direct repression.

For example, the Ghost Dance religion swept Indian reservations in the late 19th century. 153 The religion included trances induced by dancing, perhaps evolving from the shamanic practices of the "Shakers" of Puget sound. Sitting Bull, the greatest of all Sioux medicine men, adopted the Ghost Dance religion, and conflated it with ideas of rebellion. The famous Buffalo Bill was supposed to be a friend and negotiated his surrender during unrest, as authorities feared general Indian uprising in 1890. Sitting Bull was killed when authorities came to arrest and move him away from Wounded Knee. The infamous Wounded Knee massacre of women and children followed shortly thereafter.

Peyote began to be distributed almost coeval with reservation life in 1870 in Oklahoma. Its use had survived the 18th and 19th centuries only in remote areas. The Indians of Texas and northern Mexico were too racked by war and political strife for most rituals to survive. 154 Smithsonian ethnologist James Mooney first published on the peyote religion in 1891, the first official notice. In 1886, Indian agent J. Lee Hall was the first among U.S. government representatives to attempt to suppress peyote. (He was later dismissed for drunkenness.)

In 1909 and 1916, efforts were made to amend the 1897 Indian alcohol prohibition law to cover peyote. These effortst failed due to Indian testimony about peyote's religious effectiveness and actually its usefulness in actually combatting alcoholism. p 217 The Smithsonian's Mooney also testified in defense of the religion's legitimacy. It is interesting that at the time of the first Indian bureau statute prohibiting peyote (19??), peyote was being offered for sale by Parke Davis and other pharmaceutical firms for therapeutic use. 131

Indian peyotists realized they needed to organize to receive protection under law, and so in 1918 they formed the Native American Church. As written in the charter, the purpose of the Church (Article 2) was to foster and promote "belief in the Christian religion with the practice of the Peyote Sacrament." The Church followed up in 1950 with the formation of Native American Church of the United States to serve as national body. 155

The Church survived as Native Americans were largely forgotten for the next forty years. Officials such as FDR's Indian Bureau director John Collier represented a tolerant attitude toward Indian practices.

A Texas law against Peyote was passed in 1967 as part of the backlash to the drug revolution in the 1960's. In 1968, a Navaho was arrested under the law for transport of peyote, and the case was desmissed as unconstitutional.

A 1960 Arizona case upheld religious protection for peyote, and listed four tests: 1) bonafide religious use, 2) no harmful after effects, 3) not a narcotic, not habitforming, and 4) the effect of prohibition of peyote is identical to the prohibition of religion itself.



1. Legitimacy of the religion


ritual context

2. Use essential to the practice of the religion.

3. Restriction not essential to state's interest in restricting drug use.


People v. Woody, the case which upheld the exemption of the Native American Church's (NAC) use of peyote from the general drug control statutes, was based on a number of factors.

Legitimacy of the religion.

The peyote religion, the Court found, dates back to 1580. Different tribes were found to use peyote in much the same way. There existed a carefully circumscribed ritual context for the use of peyote. And the Church not only used peyote, but treated it as object of worship.

Essential role in the group's religious practice

Peyote was found to be more essential to the group's religious practice than was the practice of polygamy among the Mormons (in Reynolds v. U.S. 98 U.S. 145 (1878).) Polygamy, though a tenet of the religion, was not essential to the practice - peyote on the other hand, is the sine qua non of the Native American Church.

Restriction not essential to drug control

The restriction of the Church's peyote use is not essential to the state's interest in drug control. The state was required to demonstrate that there are no alternative forms of regulation avoiding interference with the Free Exercise (of religion) Clause of the First Amendment.

Further, a number of states allow peyote use - perhaps as many as 23 [still checking]. And as long as only a small number of individuals use peyote, its effect on the state's objectives re: drug control is considered "de minimus."

And the Court also cited Wisconsin v. Yoder, where the Court found the state's general interest in education was inadequate to allow infringement of the Amish faith.

Here's a beautiful quote from People v. Woody:

"The varying currents of the subcultures that flow into the mainstream of our national life give it depth and beauty. We preserve a greater value than an ancient tradition when we protect the rights of the Indians who honestly practiced an old religion in using peyote one night at a meeting in a desert hogan near Needles, CA."

White People and Peyote

With the growing tide of the youth movement of the 1960's came an increasing number of people who declared that LSD and other psychedelic drugs were their sacrament, and who started churches based on its sacramental church. Some, like the Neo American Church and its "Chief Boo-Hoo", Art Kleps, were dismissed for not taking their religion as solemnly as so-called "legitimate" religions.

In 1972, (Kennedy v. Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs) the law denied the use of psychedelics to a "sincere religious mystic" in 1963. In 1969, that man, John W. Aiken, petitioned for an exemption from drug laws. The Court rejected his petition, in part on finding that this group is "a loose confederation of kindred souls whose purpose is to explore the mystical boundaries." This apparently was not an activity protected by the Bill of Rights. A non-Indian Peyote Way Church of God (v. Attorney General of the U.S. and Texas) in Texas filed a similar petition, in particular with respect to peyote use. It was dismissed in 1983.

On the other hand, a North Dakota court in 1984 found innocent white couple because they were members in good standing of a local congregation of Indian peyotists, even though they themselves were not Indians.

Peyote and the Law in the 1990's

People v. Woody stood for 27 years, although the courts for the most part consistently decided not to widen the scope of the decision. Then, the Supreme Court, in Oregon v. Smith, in 1990, reversed People v. Woody. The Court found:

a) Free Exercise [of religion] Clause does not relieve individual of compliance with a law that "incidentally forbids the performance of an act that his religious belief requires if the law is not specifically directed to religious practice and is otherwise constitutional."

b) The claim cannot be evaluated under the balancing test set forth by Sherbert v. Verner (requiring work on an employee's Saturday Sabbath), which requires justifying prohibition by "compelling governmental interest". The Court found this "test is inapplicable to an across the board criminal prohibition." (As noted in the dissenting opinion, Wisconsin v. Yoder had expressly rejected the interpretation the Court now adopts.)

The context of this decision was an unemployment claim by the defendants. The claim was denied by the state because unemployment was the result of work-related "misconduct." In this case, a private drug rehabilitation organization had fired them because they ingested peyote.

Part a) of the decision summarized above did not come out of a vacuum. According to Court of Appeals Judge Silberman, there exists a "heightened deference to government authority" in the wake of a 1984 Supreme Court ruling affirming the EPA's interpretation of certain Clean Air Act amendments, so much so that his caseload in the D.C. Court had dropped dramatically in the last year. (I presume this is the same logic which has led to Supreme Court leaning toward allowing states to pass laws restricting abortion rights.)

During the uncertainty caused by Smith, two cases lent support to legal use of entheogens. The Peyote Way Church petitioned Texas to expand 21 C.F.R. to include their church in the exemption along with the Native American Church, under the rationale that the exemption was discriminatory. The Court found that such an expansion would suffer the same constitutional problem of exclusion of certain groups that the petitioners were arguing, and so the petition was rejected even thought the court did not reach the first amendment question. This case suggests (to me) that the Courts might listen to a broadening of the exemption, depending on how a particular state justifies its denial of such a broadening.

In U.S. v. Boyll, the case of a non-Indian possessing peyote in a state that required religious users of peyote to be 25% Indian, a District Court found that 21 C.F.R. has the effect of "imposing a racial exclusion to membership in the NAC." The court stated that this is "offensive to the very heart of the First Amendment."

Smith proved not to signal a trend. One Supreme Court case tested the legality of applying municipal ordinances' against animal slaughter to the practice of ritual slaughter by practitioners of the Santeria religion. This case was thought by Court observers to allow the Court to revisit Oregon v. Smith - in part because Justice O'Connor had objected that Oregon v. Smith had reversed settled First Amendment law. Her views were evidently shared by new Justice Souter. In June, 1993, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Florida city's ban on animal sacrifice violated the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, 91-948. However, this case may not have reversed the Court's decision in Smith v. Oregon because the court found at the outset that the ban was a direct attack on a religous practice, rather than a neutral law of general applicability, with Kennedy's opinion calling the ordinance "gerrymandered.. to proscribe relgious killings" but excluding secular killing of animals. Only three of the justices wrote separately to say they are still troubled by the Smith ruling.

The Court's indecision however, was outpaced by Congressional action initiating legislative efforts to overturn Smith. Rep. Solarz (D-NY) introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on June 26, 1991, specificying that even neutral laws of general applicability may not burden religious exercise, unless the law "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."

The bill was supported by several mainstream religious groups and native American rights organizations. (It was briefly opposed by evangelical Christian and right to life groups as giving women the opportunity, even if abortion were ruled a crime, to claim a religious exemption and get an abortion. A specific legal interpretation by the Congressional Research Service was solicited to allay this fear - CRS found it "improbable" that the bill if law would allow a successful claim against a state law restricting access to abortion.)

On November 16, 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was signed into law by President Clinton as P.L. 103-141. The bill restored the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner. Thus, the legal status of religious freedom is that government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability unless that application 1) is in furtherance of a compelling government interest, and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.


Nothing in Oregon v. Smith challenged legitimacy of the peyote religion. Therefore, one key for an Eleusinian revival is demonstrating that a revived Eleusinian Rite meets all the criteria found necessary to judge the peyote religion authentic, as in People v. Woody. (Even the Oregon v. Smith dissent reiterated that the Native American Church met those criteria.)

Overcoming the state's interest is very problematic for a direct challenge to the laws restricting LSD use, especially given Smith v. Oregon. One might be able to argue that state's interest in controlling drug traffic may be overly broad by including religious use of a known entheogen like LSD - LSD would be a tougher argument than peyote because abuse as measured by the courts includes things like amounts seized by the DEA, or violence associated with use/abuse - the Manson image will have to be debunked, perhaps through reference to literature that shows that controlled use never resulted in violence or long term psychological damage.

Also, one would have to argue that recreational use would not be engendered by a religious exemption. This argument should include reference to literature showing religious effects only surfaced at higher dosages. The argument also should be helped by the formal process of requesting LSD from government sources, with strict accounting of quantity.

Additional support might be needed for defining the importance of identifying the peyote with God. Research is probably easily accomplished to cite even prominent Christian authors who can't define "God."

Ultimately, one would hope the words of peyote anthropologist James Mooney would out:

"The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost Dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity." 156

Ongoing Issues in Indian Religion and Entheogens In May of 1995, President Clinton met with Indian tribal leaders, the first President to do so since Monroe. There is now legislation pending to limit recognition to 545 existing tribes "to prevent exploitation by Indian impostors and New Age enthusiasts." 157 A bill, Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act, has been introduced in recent years that would further protect peyote (as well as extending protection to sacred sites of Indian tribes.)

An interesting sign of sanity has appeared in Brazil in recent years. 158 There, a syncretic religion based on a sacrament of ayahuasca (an entheogen derived from the Banisteropsis caapi vine) has attained legitimacy. Santo Daime has been slowly growing for thirty years, begun by urban mestizos who brought jungle knowledge to cities. Two commissions (1987, 1992) have studied the church, and found that there was "No evidence of social disruption and the ethical and laboral behavior of church members was exemplary." And so ayahuasca is not on the controlled substance list in Brazil, and no social breakdown. Even coca, the root plant of cocaine, seems to be the subject of protective activism in Bolivia and Peru. 159

And in the United States, drug legalization has become a position that even mainstream figures ranging from Milton Friedman to William F. Buckley to Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke can cautiously assume.

All of this is cited to support the proposition that a proposed Eleusinian revival occurring without government repression is not so quixotic a quest as some might think.

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