The Archaeology of Ecstacy: A Review of Paul Devereux’s ‘The Long Trip’ by David Luke
This literary review was written by, and is reproduced here with the expressed permission of, Dr. David Luke. It originally appeared as: Luke, D. (2010). The archaeology of ecstasy: Review of ‘The long trip’. Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network, 102, 58-59.
The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (2nd edition)– Paul Devereux (2008) – Brisbane, Australia: Daily Grail Publishing. 250 pages with illustrations, references, notes, bibliography and index. ISBN-9780975720059
If you’ve ever wondered why witches used to fly around on broomsticks and what it was that Santa Claus drank that made him launch into the air with his reindeer, then this book is a must. The Long Trip is a slightly revised and updated version of Devereux’s original 1997 excursion into psychedelia’s prehistory, as well as its ancient and recent history.
The main message of this book is that psychedelic substances have been used the world over for millennia, not just recreationally but primarily for magico-spiritual and healing purposes, that is, as sacramental substances. Delving into aspects of archaeology many academics would choose to ignore, The Long Trip embarks on a journey to unearth the visionary past of our ancestors, leaving little doubt that for almost as long as human culture has been around, us humans have been using substances to alter our consciousness. Early stashes of bags containing opium poppies have been found in Neolithic burial sites in southern Europe which were likely burnt on braziers and inhaled. It’s during this Neolithic period in Europe that there began an apparent shift from a “smoking complex” to a “drinking complex” when psychoactive fumes gave way to potions and brews, as evidenced by ornate jugs shaped to resemble the heads of opium poppies.
Moving into the historical period, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus documented the outgoing smoking complex (now back in vogue, of course, across much of the globe) in noting the Scythian’s howls of pleasure from inhaling cannabis. Other ancient texts from most everywhere in the Old World testify to the cultural and spiritual importance of certain magical plants and fungi, though often researchers disagree as to which modern substances they refer to. The mysterious identity of the divine soma from the ancient Indian holy book the Rig Veda has long puzzled scholars, with almost every possible psychedelic entity from the red and white spotted Amanita muscaria mushroom to the Syrian rue bush (Peganum harmala) being proffered as the likely candidate.
A similar enigma exists with the identity of the potion called kykeon, used during the secret initiation rites of the ancient Greeks as part of the Eleusinian mysteries. Shrouded in secrecy under pain of death, this poorly-documented tradition continued for a period of some 2000 years from about 1600 BCE onwards, and included such luminaries as Plato and Cicero. As with soma we find the same scholars holding their favoured psychedelic substances responsible for the unknown sacramental. Perhaps the most compelling suggestion is Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck’s thesis that, given as the rites were made in honour of Demeter, a Goddess of grain, then the mysterious ingredients of kykeon probably contained some derivative of ergot, a grain fungus which is known to have psychedelic alkaloids and which is the basic building block for LSD. It’s extraordinary to think that some of the greatest ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and leaders were initiated into an LSD cult which lasted two millennia. The likelihood that it is true is strengthened by learning that the next most important sacred site of ancient Greece, the temples of Delphi, probably also had psychedelic origins. Woman operating there as oracles either inhaled psychoactive fumes rising up from fissures in the rocks or they partook of psychedelic plants, such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), sacred to the temple’s later patron, Apollo.
It’s not just in the Old World that we find such abundant psycho-spiritual use of psychedelics. The Long Trip also presents a short round-up of prehistoric ethnobotany in the Americas, where we find the ancient consumption of a dazzling array of psychedelic substances for shamanic purposes. Everything from peyote cactus (Lophophora Williamsii) to toad venom – within a psychedelic pharmacopeia including water lilies, mushrooms, vines, beans, climbers, shrubs and trees – all known to have been used by the indigenous peoples from Canada to Chili. The use of these substances for magico-religious purposes is still practiced, and in many cases goes back several thousand years according to the archeological evidence.
It is even thought that some of the oldest remnants of human culture, Paleolithic rock art, depicts the kinds of geometric visionary experiences that occur during altered states such as those induced through the ingestion of psychoactive flora and fauna. These patterns, known as form constants or (perhaps erroneously – see Luke, 2010) as entoptics, occur universally in psychedelic states and are a prominent feature of psychedelically-inspired artwork both old and modern.
The Long Trip is clearly a unique and essential investigation into the archaeology of consciousness and, as with any good insight into the extremities of the mind, it is punctuated throughout with extraordinary accounts of otherworldly experiences by ‘psychonauts’ throughout the ages. One such account is Le Club des Haschischins founder Théophile Gautier’s near-infinitely long trip on hashish, which, like this book, describes a mind blowing psychedelic journey through time. However, some of the accounts reach into the not-so-distant past and Devereux’s own epic maiden voyage on LSD in the 1960s is one of the most lucid and liquescent accounts of a psychedelic experience this side of Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
Accounts of such shamanic-like expeditions give authenticity to the book’s further explorations into psychedelic substances as inducers of interspecies communication, psychic abilities, problem solving creativity and a host of other transformative transpersonal experiences: As Devereux notes, “it is a culturally-engineered cliché to dismiss such states as somehow delusional.” So, while this second edition is a tad thinner than the original, having left behind the chapter on shamanic landscapes, it has some revisions and updates to the text and, probably more than ever in the last few thousand years, it is vitally important in situating our current drug laws as just brief modern misconceptions.
Luke, D. (2010). Rock art or Rorschach. Is there more to entoptics than meets the eye? Time & Mind: Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, 3 (1), 9-28.