Ritual Drug Use

A Sioux Indian smoking a pipe
I have touched upon the topic of drugs quite a while back in a previous post entitled "Broomsticks (Can Witches Really Fly?)" where I explained that witches used to use hallucinogenic drugs as far back as the 15th century. Of course, there are numerous other cultures which used drugs for spiritual purposes long before this (some of them still do this today) such as South American natives which live around the Amazon, ancient Greeks, Native Americans (several tribes), Siberian shamans and, to give a more recent example, Rastafarians. I will write more on drug use in these cultures and the reasons for this in this post, although the primary focus will be on drug use in Pagan rituals and the general Pagan stance on drugs.

Entheogens - Drugs Used for Spiritual Purposes

By definition, entheogens are any chemical substances used in religious/spiritual purposes, or rather in a religious/spiritual context with the aim of achieving an altered state of consciousness. They can be natural, as is usually the case (e.g. ayahuasca, cannabis, henbane, peyote etc.) or synthetic (e.g. DMT, mescalin, psilocybin etc.).

The word entheogen itself is made up of the Greek words entheos (ἔνθεος) and genesthai (γενέσθαι). Literally translated, entheos means "full of God, inspired, possessed" and genesthai means "to come into being". So, entheogens can etymologically be defined as substances which inspire people and fill them with a divine force.

Many people which are involved in magic, occultism in the broader sense, paganism (or any of its denominations) or perform rituals (be they magical or devotional) do this with the aim of achieving an altered state of consciousness, among other reasons. This state means something different for everyone; for some it may mean contact with a higher being, for others introspection, self-realization, resolving internal/external problems/conflicts etc. The reasons are less important here. What is important is the reason behind using entheogens which hasn't changed since humankind can recall. The aforementioned alternate state of consciousness has (and has had) many names: trance, ecstasy, prayer, nirvana, bliss...but essentially we are always dealing with some different kind of state of consciousness than that which we find ourselves in every day. In its background, what can be found is spiritual thirst which a person wants to quench and there is nothing bad in this. But if we aren't ready for this and stubbornly push forward not matter what, oblivious to the consequences of our actions...then the outcome can only be bad.

Examples of Entheogen Usage

Peyote cactus
Entheogens existed in ancient China, ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages and onward until today. For example, cannabis, one of the most often used entheogens, was used in China, Europe and India thousands of years ago and its use has been recorded in Sufism, Rastafarianism and among the Sadhu (holy people, ascetics) in Hinduism.

Most people know about the use of drugs such as peyote in the Americas (mainly by certain groups of Native Americans). Peyote is, in fact, a natural drug which is produced from a cactus of the same name which contains a hallucinogenic alkaloid called mescaline. Its use first began in what is now Mexico and spread into North America in time.

Indian Shamans are also well-known for smoking tobacco during their rituals. In some tribes, only the Shamans themselves are allowed to do this, while in others (usually the ones where it is customary for the whole tribe to take part in the rituals), all members of the tribe are allowed to smoke. If it is only the Shaman who smokes, then the tobacco is usually pure and without any hallucinogens. This is when overuse of the tobacco is prompted to cause an altered state of consciousness, trance or hallucinations which are often followed by negative effects on the physical body - vomiting, cramps, or even comatose states. If the whole tribe takes part in smoking the tobacco, sometimes tobacco juice is prepare which is then drunk until vomiting follows because it is believed that this aids in removing illnesses and that it strengthens the body. Tobacco can also be smoked, chewed, or simply held in the mouth between the lip and gums so it can be absorbed through the glands.

Making ayahuasca
Some Shamans use tobacco to prepare a drink called ayahuasca, although it is only an addition in this case to the actual plant called ayahuasca which is the primary ingredient. This entheogen is common in South America, especially in the Amazon rainforest. Jimson weed is also well-known among Native Americans and cocaine is not unfamiliar to them (at least not in the areas where they were able to cultivate it). Still, the last two entheogens are used much less than tobacco.

Siberian Shamans use the Fly Agaric mushroom in their rituals and some believe it was precisely this plant that was used as the main ingredient for the Indian ritual drink of soma.

It is believed that Germanic tribes used opium poppy for magical purposes (today opium is extracted from this plant although it is worth noting that both are highly addictive) and that ancient Greeks and possibly even witches in the Middle Ages used henbane in their religious practices.

Opium poppy
Fly Agaric

There are many more plants that were/are used as entheogens such as divine sage, psilocybin mushrooms, blue lily and so on. All of them differ according to their effects, but their function as an entheogen in this context doesn't change.

Risks of Using Entheogens

Although entheogens are drugs used in religious/spiritual purposes, we mustn't forget that they are still drugs and that a large number of them causes addiction. The most dangerous of them in this sense are opium poppy, cannabis and coca. 

It is highly possible that Shamans and the wise men and women of other cultures were aware of this and therefore reserved the right to use such substances only for the most responsible, experienced and wisest in the community. On this matter, Patricia Crowther, an important author on the subject of Wicca and witchcraft, says the following in her book Lid off the Cauldron:
"Desperation has given the modern drug craze a recognition it does not deserve. It can be argued that some drugs do raise the consciousness to a more spiritual level. Yet, it is an artificial stimulation which requires repeated induction. This, in turn, leads naturally to a stage when the person becomes well and truly 'hooked'. It is true that in ancient times certain drugs were used for transcendental purposes, but these were kept secret, and their uses given only to the wisest among the priesthood. Most medicines are poisons and have to be administered in the correct quantity, and only for a specific period. How much more dangerous is the use of drugs which affect the brain cells! We yet know so little about the brain and its capabilities, which only now, in the present day, are being explored. The methods which are taught in the Old Religion are completely natural, and the resulting extension of consciousness, although attained more slowly, is one which allows continuation of growth and enlightenment."
By "artificial stimulation", the author means the use of drugs in magical, ritual, spiritual or religious purposes. She contrasts this method to the natural one (achieving and altered state of consciousness without the help of drugs). By "Old Religion", she means Wicca and witchcraft, although I won't go into the details of this term (you can read more on it in the glossary). In any case, it is clear that Patricia Crowther is warning against the danger of both mental and physical addiction to drugs and that she emphasizes the great responsibility that comes with their use. According to her, the best and safest method for achieving and altered state of consciousness and a reaching a "higher" spiritual plain is the natural one - without drugs.

Josephine McCarthy (Magical Knowledge II), a well-known occultist and a quality writer on the subject of magic and the occult gives another important warning:
"In Western culture, using drugs to catapult yourself into the inner worlds is also not that bright, unless you know exactly what you are doing and where you are going. Really the only safe way to work in the inner worlds using drugs is if you are working within a cultural/religious structure that is designed for such use i.e. shamanic/native cultures. Hallucinogenic drugs strip a layer of protective skin from the consciousness and allow you to see and access places that you would normally be blocked from seeing (for your own good usually). When you go magically into vision, you develop inner `muscles' for want of a better description, that uphold and protect you as you work. If you bypass this natural but lengthy process of strengthening by using drugs, you are often thrown straight to the threshold of your existence."
The term "inner worlds" is of great importance for the book from which this quote was taken, but for now, it is enough to say that Patricia is essentially referring to introspection and once again an altered state of consciousness. By going into vision "magically", the author means achieving altered states of consciousness with the help of one's own will and strength, by controlling energy and with a clear, well-defined intention (all of which are preconditions for magical work). By using drugs, one completely devalues their own strength and control and in the process practically shoves them aside to make room for illusory strength and control which some drugs tend to give. It's also unnecessary to say that a large number of drugs can completely kill one's will (and sometimes even the ability to control) and that they can also blur intentions and reason thus putting that person in a passive, often helpless position.

Along with the danger of becoming physically and/or mentally addicted to a certain drug, experiencing something you're not ready for and, causally, negative emotional and spiritual (and often also physical) consequences, there is also the legal side of the story. Generally speaking, entheogens have a psychoactive effect (which means that they are chemical substances which alter brain functions and result in altered perceptions, moods and states of consciousness), and the larger part of psychoactive drugs are illegal in the world. Therefore, if a person takes an illegal substance or even if they only possess it and is caught with it by the authorities, they will bear legal consequences for their actions.

Despite legal obstacles, some people still choose to use drugs for spiritual purposes (albeit the wiser ones choose those drugs that don't cause any form of addiction). Some do so in rituals, while others do so outside of any formal spiritual practice. This is less important though since the goal remains the same, which means that we're not dealing with "ordinary" drugs but rather with entheogens.

Entheogens in Pagan Practice

Josephine McCarthy and Patricia Crowther are though of as reputable authors among Pagans and largely reflect the general Pagan stance towards drug use. Still, some Pagans, magi, occultists do not share their opinions and believe that using drugs can only improve their spiritual practices.

For some, Aleister Crowley will be the first name that pops into their heads as he experimented with many drugs both recreationally and as a part of his magical and spiritual practices. On the list of drugs he used, one can find cocaine, hashish, peyote, heroin and others. It is a well-known fact that he was addicted to heroine which was originally given to him as a cure for his asthma (which was customary during that time), although this does not change the fact that he later used it as an entheogen.

It is obvious that Pagans, magi and occultists who use entheogens do exist. Dana D. Eilers nicely explains this side of the story in her book The Practical Pagan:
"...be aware that in the traditions that encompass the ritual use of illegal drugs for purposes of magick or the expansion of consciousness, the rules and expectations regarding that drug use are usually fairly precise and well established. This means that for Pagans who do utilize drugs in a ritualistic, magickal, or ceremonial fashion, their drug usage is not merely a matter of recreation and escapism. For these Pagans, ritualistic drug use is a true path to enlightenment, much as the use of peyote is to certain Native American spiritual traditions. Let me stress that Paganism is not an excuse to engage in illegal activity and then claim protection under the First Amendment. It does not work that way, and the quicker we all understand that, the better off we will be."
There is no rule in Paganism, at least not that I know of, that strictly forbids the use of entheogens. This is partly why opinions on this subject are split. Some Pagans will be certain enough of their ability of self-control and control in general and will allow themselves to use psychoactive drugs while others will take on the opinion that they don't need such things to achieve an altered state of consciousness or that they simply don't want to use drugs for such purposes. Please keep in mind that by saying all of this, I do not imply that those that choose to use entheogens are not able to achieve an altered state of consciousness without them. I personally believe that certain cultures and spiritual practices are suitable for the use of entheogens and that in such cultures, this has become so customary that it has become rooted in their tradition. Neopaganism is still quite a new spiritual practice (if one temporarily disregards its roots) and as such, it has yet to develop its own tradition. Neopagans can be eclectic in some aspects and can accept influences from this or that spiritual practice of which the use of entheogens is an integral part. But I believe that this cannot be called a Pagan practice, at least not yet. Though only time will tell if this will become a Pagan practice or not.

For the conclusion, I would like to quote Iolar. In his book Paganizam u teoriji i praksi: Doktrina paganizma (Paganism in Theory and Practice: the Doctrine of Paganism), he sums up this debate in the following paragraphs (my translation):

"It is from Shamanic practices that the practice of ritual use of psychoactive (or psychotropic) substances comes from. These substances are wrongfully called drugs in this modern age of prohibition and conspiracy. The point of taking such substances isn't pointless drug abuse or creating addictions. On the contrary, the point is connection with spiritual dimensions. Certain substances simply change a person's state of consciousness and can therefore be used for spiritual purposes, but only if one knows exactly which substances one can use, in what way and what quantity. Among millions of plant species, Shamans knew precisely what plants affected peoples' consciousness in what way and how much of them one can take. Whenever someone would ask them how they know this exact information, the Shamans would answer: Well the plants told us. What we are dealing with here are extremely powerful spiritual traditions which one cannot simply engage in, but which one has to be devoted to. In many countries, such substances are illegal so this has to be taken into consideration. 
We have already mentioned that the World Pagan Circle accepts only the use of psychedelic substances such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from marihuana or hashish (which are in turn retrieved from hemp), psilocybin, ibogaine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), mescaline, LSD, antropine, salvinorin and the like. Therefore, under no circumstances do we allow the use of strong, narcotic drugs such as depressants (e.g. alcohol, heroine, morphine, opium), antipsychotics or any kinds of stimuli which don't aid in the process of widening consciousness and cognition (such as cocaine or amphetamines). 
Taking psychoactive substances is not essential for achieving a trance state! In fact, most contemporary Pagan authors believe that the outcome is much fore effective if we achieve a trance state with the use of our own will and abilities. We are then sure that we have everything under control, which doesn't necessarily have to be the case with psychoactive substances. Still, this option does exist, but it is better to have quality spiritual guidance for this..." 
In the end, you alone decide how you will practice your spirituality. In Paganism, there is a lack of strict rules for many things (and this is precisely what attracts many people to this path in the first place) including the ritual use of drugs. Yet it is because of this lack of rules that individuals are urged to take responsibility for their own actions, to become active participants in their own lives and to grow as people. You can deduct my opinion on the subject from this post, although this is less important as you will come to your own decisions in the end. All I can do is ask that you take into consideration the aforementioned warnings before coming to a decision and that you act consciously (knowing how, why and how much) and responsibly.

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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