Hallucinogens and Shamanism by Michael J. Harner [Ed.]

Hallucinogens and shamanismOriginally published in 1973 by the Oxford University Press,  ‘Hallucinogens and Shamanism’ is a collection of scholarly, anthropological essays compiled and edited by Michael J. Harner. At the time of publication Harner was the President of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

After the wide negative publicity surrounding hallucinogens during the 1960s, which saw both medical and social access to psychedelics dwindle due to legislation coupled with the drugs’ victimisation by the mainstream media, the era of 1970s had to re-approach the question afresh. This was true for all the particular fields in which psychedelic studies crossed over with and particularly anthropology. The historical and cultural use of certain psychoactive drugs by indigenous populations around the world had been understood by one of anthropology’s leading lights, Mircea Eliade, to be a denigrated form of what was termed shamanism. This was propounded in his landmark book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). However, it soon became clear that this was erroneous assumption. In many respects, this collection is an overcoming of the assumptive era of the 1960s, particularly for this field.

“The theoretical literature has largely overlooked the fact that even this “classic” shamanism often involved the use of hallucinogen[s]. Thus one can read entire books on shamanism or primitive religion without finding any reference to hallucinogens except for peyote. Yet by patient library research one can find overwhelming evidence  of the use of such substances in connection with the supernatural in scores of cultures” (Harner xiv).

In many respects, Hallucinogens and Shamanism is precisely this; the understanding of drug use as being a cross-cultural and trans-historical endeavour. Although this view had been propounded by a number of people prior to the 1960s media storm, it was returned to by researchers with great determination because it provided the academic understanding that would provide the groundwork for pointing out that the contemporary Western perspective was completely out of tune with the human experience. The book’s content is delineated along these lines. The first section deals with ‘primitive’ cultures of the Upper Amazon; the second with cultures undergoing Westernization; the third with the traditions of the Western world; and finally, The Question of a Trans-Cultural Experience is approached with two essays.

However, there is a clear emphasis on New World drugs like ayahuasca, or yagé. As the prior psychiatric mode of understanding gave way with the dissolution of the 1960s, it was perhaps inevitable that research, and popular interest, would look to shamanism for a new mode of approach to the cultural question of hallucinogen use. In more alternative publishing circles this was also taking place; Terence and Dennis McKenna’s The Invisible Landscape (1975) being a prime example. There were, though, traces of psychiatry still existing, which is to say it was not a clean break. The following comment, in the introduction to the second section exemplifies this when talking about shaman-led group ayahuasca sessions:

“The hallucinations of the group session and the guidance provided by the shaman are viewed as agents which reinforce the patient’s belief in the reality of the shaman’s power and information. Dobkin de Rios contrasts the role of ayahuasca in this situation with the use of related drugs in Western Psychotherapy, where their role is primarily “to open areas of repressed and painful memories”” (Harner 51).

The danger of this sort of approach, however, is that indigenous belief can be lost in the hyper-abstract concepts of the Western ideological modes of apprehension. Indeed, it beggars some sort of colonial attitude where the researcher believes they understand the functions of the ceremony and their outcomes better than the practitioners themselves. Thankfully, for the most part, this collection does not fall into this trap and, when they do, they take their leave from the words of the shaman and look to other Western theories that may correspond, as opposed just blindly applying psychotherapy over the top of it for lack of a wider expertise. The correspondence method, unlike the presumed application method, can be very fruitful; it fosters inter-cultural relevance and not cultural dominance.

A good example of this is the chapter The Mushrooms of Language by Henry Munn: “Usually several members of a family eat the mushrooms together: it is not uncommon for a father, mother, children, uncles, and aunts to participate in these transformations of the mind that elevate consciousness onto a higher plane. The kinship relation is thus the basis of the transcendental subjectivity that Husserl said is intersubjectivity” (Harner 86). Of course, the idea that children are ‘tripping’ would be abhorrent to the anti-drug slaves of the Western propaganda machine, but the use of Husserl’s Christian existentialism allows for a correspondence of cultural ideas that elevate communality on both a social and spiritual field. Thus the experience of the Mazatec Indians can be understood as being not completely alien to the Western reader; context for communication and understanding.

Anthropological and psychedelic researches have, of course, moved on greatly since this collection was published, yet the great majority of the included essays still retain their relevance. Not only are they clearly written but they are also scholarly enough to be of presient interest to general readers and academic researchers alike. Harner’s essay The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft, for example, while being written at a time when our general understanding of witchcraft was being overturned, is still of major importance concerning the use of plants. In conclusion, this is a work that should be on the shelf of anyone interested in anthropology generally, but hallucinogens specifically. A fascinating and engaging read that opens the mind to many new questions.


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