Entheogens and the Development of Culture by John A. Rush [Ed.]
Originally published in 2013 ‘Entheogens and the Development of Culture: The Anthropology and Neurobiology of Ecstatic Experience’ is a collection of essays edited by John A. Rush. Rush has previously authored the books ‘The Mushroom in Christian Art: The Identity of Jesus in the Development of Christianity’, ‘Failed God: Fractured Myth in a Fragile World’ and ‘The Twelve Gates: A Spiritual Passage through the Egyptian Books of the Dead’. This work has been published by North Atlantic Books.
As a collection, Entheogens and the Development of Culture: The Anthropology and Neurobiology of Ecstatic Experience proposes that psychoactive substances have been key components in the development of both human culture and the human brain. The fourteen essays that are included in the collection are written by a number of researchers from across various disciplines, including anthropology, mycology, classics, cultural historians, psychology and biology. While, academically and perspectively, the writers often appear to be coming from altogether totally different theoretical places, with a myriad of intentions laced within them, they do share the common goal of examining the role of psychoactive substances in the history of human culture. And, as such, provides an interesting argument when taken in its totality.
The question regarding the entheogenic effect on the development of the human brain, while bolstered to some degree by the cultural chapters, is largely formulated in Michael Winkelman’s essay Altered Consciousness and Drugs in Human Evolution. Holding the position that our brains have evolved alongside, and as a result of certain plants and altered states, by way of the serotonergic and dopaminergic systems that can be stimulated by exogenous neurotransmitters—such as those found in Psilocybe mushrooms. Winkleman writes:
“The role of drugs in the evolution of human consciousness must be understood in relationship to effects on the serotonergic system and its roles in overall brain functioning. The alterations of consciousness enhance paleomammilian brain functions and their coordination and integration with the entire brain. Enhanced serotonergic mechanisms contributed to experiences of altered consciousness in humans, embodied in visionary experiences” (Rush 45)
So, the theory goes, the evolution of human consciousness has been, in part, mediated by the exogenous neurotransmitters that humans have sought out and consumed, thereby taking a hand in their own evolution. Taking the theory at face value, for the moment, this leads Winkleman to postulate that, “this expanded associational area improved the brain’s capacity to interface with a variety of other neural mechanisms, including those involved in learning, problem-solving, and memory function” (ibid.). Here, therefore, is the window into culture. From these improved brain functions, art, society and, indeed, organization generally, could develop. However, as we shall see, the remainder of the essays are less about the role of entheogens generating the capability for culture-creation in humans, but more about the role of entheogens within culture itself. Indeed, if entheogens created the capacity for culture, culture itself embarked on a process of reintegrating entheogens from the newly evolved perspective.
Entheogen discourse is primarily driven by historical analysis, and particularly the religious use of mushrooms within human culture, and while this is also very true of this collection, a number of other substances are discussed, which are worth mentioning first. Chris Bennett and Neil McQueen, both having written extensively on drugs and the bible, offer a chapter entitled Cannabis and the Hebrew Bible, which makes use of Sula Benet’s identification of kaneh bosm—an anointing oil used as an initiatory rite—with cannabis. Alan Piper, writing The Milk of the Goat Heidrun: An Investigation into the Sacramental Use of Psychoactive Milk and Meat, examines ethnographic, scriptural, and mythographic records for evidence of human’s observing plant effects in animals, and their subsequent use of un-metabolized chemicals through the consumption of the animals and their products. However, while these connections serve to embed the narrative of a sacramental connection between human culture and psychoactive substances, it is to the specific case of mushrooms that the majority of the book turns.
The interpretation of mythological text takes an important role in two essays: Kevin Feeney’s The Significance of Pharmacological and Biological Indicators in Identifying Historical Uses of Amanita muscaria, and Edzard Klapp’s Ravens’ Bread and Other Manifestations of Fly Agaric in Classical and Biblical Literature. Both follow in the footsteps of the Godfather of entheogens R. Gordon Wasson, so far as centralizing the role of the Amanita muscaria mushroom, and understanding its textual place as being embedded through metaphor and stylized textual ritual. This is a particularly difficult task as it does involve certain suppositions, such as a standard efficacy of the mushroom, and it does take a leap of faith on the readers behalf—especially in regard to the Celtic and Germanic myths. Although, it does make for fascinating reading, and it’s an area I look forward to reading more of in the future. Wasson’s work as a scholar is held in high regard in the book. Feeney writes:
“Wasson’s 1968 opus [Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality] remains unparalleled in terms of breadth and sophistication. One of the fundamental contributions of Wasson’s work was the proposition that soma was an entheogen, a point driven home through detailed comparisons of the known effects of entheogenic substances and descriptions of soma inebriation in the Rig Veda” (Rush 280).
However, this attitude toward Wasson is not consistent throughout the collection and, in the final weightily titled essay R. Gordon Wasson: The Man, the Legend, the Myth – Beginning a New History of Magic Mushrooms, Ethnomycology, and the Psychedelic Revolution, by Jan Irvin, there is something of a character assassination. In a nut-shell Irvin claims that Wasson was part of a mind control and propaganda campaign regarding mushrooms and ethnomycology that reached to top levels of government. The conspiracy theory, if true, would put Wasson’s scholarly work under a damning light and, in some respects, pulls the rug out from some of the other researchers’ work included in this collection. One passage from the piece particularly stood out for me: “Those who twist the facts of reality to their own selfish agendas, sacrificing truth and humanity in the process, bring the whole of the world down with them” (Rush 611).
On the other end of the scholarly scale, Mike Jay’s chapter Enter the Jaguar is an excellent examination of the ruins at Chavin de Huanter in the Peruvian Andes, with its evidential symbolic art and its complex temple structure. Jay tentatively, but convincingly, argues that the ruined complex could be understood as a “visionary technology, designed to externalize and intensify these intoxications and to focus them into a particular inner journey” (Rush 331). If so, it demonstrates a highly evolved culture that utilized psychoactive substances in highly respectful manner in a period analogous to the Mysteries of Eleusis. Such feats occurring simultaneously across the globe appear to underline the importance of psychoactive plants in the emergence of human culture.
There are numerous other essays in this collection, too many for this review to fully explicate them all, suffice to say that such learned contributors as the classicist Carl Ruck and mycologist Gastón Guzmán lend a great deal of credibility and insightful analysis, which really helps underpin the collections premise. Personally speaking, I also found Gerrit J. Keizer’s Hildegard of Bingen: Unveiling the Secrets of a Medieval High Priestess and Visionary very interesting as I’d never come across Hildegard before. In conclusion, however, there is much interesting work to get to grips with in Entheogens and the Development of Culture, not least the need for a wider contextual analysis on the development of culture itself (for instance, what role did the development of technology and the rise of leisure time play in conjunction with psychoactives.) But, overall, an engaging and thought-provoking collection.