Essential Substances by Richard Rudgley
The history of humans ritually using psychoactive substances goes back beyond the written record, and stretches across the globe through many disparate and far-flung cultures. The ubiquity of psychoactive plants, and substances, is cogent with our world today. However, as Richard Rudgley notes in his excellent cultural drug survey Essential Substances:
‘Most communities have used psychoactive substances in both secular and sacred contexts: our own usage, which is almost exclusively secular, makes our culture in certain important respects the exception rather than the rule’ (Rudgley 2014, 145)
He goes on to write, ‘The use and abuse of intoxicants in our communities is part of a wider problem of secular society, namely that altered states of consciousness are not perceived as culturally valuable” (ibid). In many respects, this underpins the important critical aspect of Rudgley’s book, wherein history demonstrates a failing in today’s society. How is it that our society today has found itself in a position where it not only fails to see a value in altered states of consciousness, but then also fails to provide a territory on which positive values might be culturally produced? Ultimately, it is a dogmatic position.
The two substances with the inarguably longest recorded and evidential tradition is Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and Cannabis sativa (cannabis). Artefacts made to resemble opium heads, paraphernalia, and remains in burials and caves give us ample examples of their ritual use. Famously, Herodotus – the father of history or lies depending on your take – described the Steppe dwelling people known as the Scythians employing hemp in smoke-based rituals. Rudgley makes a strong case, based on archaeological evidence. that Herodotus was more likely in his guise as historian, rather than lies, in this respect.
Of course, the ‘alcohol complex’ is discussed as one of the most pervading intoxicants to have emerged in any society, and its arrival appears to often mark the end of older methods and substances for intoxication. For instance, the various tribes of Siberia who used Amantia muscaria (the fly agaric mushroom), to the extent it was a very valuable commodity in their economy, but they later became less important with the introduction of alcohol. Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A cultural history of the magic mushroom is another good source of information on the Siberian use of fly agaric.
Personally speaking, I found Rudgley’s chapter, Lucifer’s Garden, to be particularly interesting. Rudgley traces the history of the flying-ointment motif from Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, written in the second century CE, through to the Early Modern witch-hunts, and also the manner in which the ‘devil’ epithet was a common feature in the names of folk botany. Oddly, on first thought, the rise of psychedelia and modern hallucinogen culture is also included in this section. While the substances in question might differ, I think Rudgley is making an important point that both classes of substance have been demonised, which likens our contemporary villianisation of psychedelic drug use to witch-trial mentality.
Along with insightful sections on the mystery of hoama, stimulating substances from across the world, and of course ayahuasca, an appendix entitled A Psychoactive Bestiary is included in this edition. Originally published in the excellent Strange Attractor Journal, Rudgley discusses Native Americans eating ants, folk tales about the fat of hares, and the magickal use of frogs and toads. This last one is very interesting so far as a discussion of Michael Scot, a thirteenth century alchemist, who describes the use of toads for transformation – an avenue very worthy of more investigation in my opinion.
‘The universal human need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence is satisfied by experiencing altered states of consciousness. That we dream every night – whether we remember it or not – shows that we have a natural disposition to these altered states, but people also pursue them in more active ways’ (Rudgley, 2014 XV)
As the brilliant William Emboden, author of Bizarre Plants, writes in this foreword to Essential Substances: ‘The often surprising ways in which our views have changed over time also illustrate the need for greater understanding and a reasoned perspective when considering the roles of intoxicants in society’ (Rudgley 2014, XII). A work such as this does so excellently, and I’d highly recommend reading Essential Substances – a beautifully written and presented book .