The Alchemy of Culture by Richard Rudgley

Originally published in 1993 ‘The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society’ by Richard Rudgley examines the cultural use of drugs from across both time and the globe. The book was the winner of the British Museum Press Prometheus Award. Rudgley has written or edited a number of books concerning drugs, including ‘Wildest Dreams: An Anthology of Drug-Related Literature’ and the ‘Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances’.

The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society is an anthropological work that examines the relationship between humans and various intoxicating substances. The book, published in 1993, ranges from the evidence for human self-intoxication in prehistoric times, through the discovery of New World drugs, to the present day. Cultures from across the globe are taken into account, from mushroom use in Central America, to medieval witchcraft and the habits of Australian Aboriginals. Although the book is approaching twenty years old, and there has been more research and other publications in the meantime, the book’s arching universal intoxication theme remains pertinent and its fact generally sound and neatly articulated.

“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 predisposition to these altered states, but people also pursue them in more active ways” (Rudgley 1993, 7)

The opening chapter deals with the evidence for humans employing intoxicants in prehistory. Rudgley writes that “Although it is only after the neolithic period… that we have direct and irrefutable proof that these plants [hemp and poppy] were used as intoxicants, the circumstantial evidence for their use as such in the neolithic is highly persuasive” (Rudgley 1993, 30). The evidence for these plants, and others, is taken from a number of sources like pottery, artefacts and cave painting.

Interpreting artwork for evidence of intoxicants usually takes a number of forms, like John A. Rush’s The Mushroom in Christian Art (2011) that attempts to read the evidence of a mushroom cult from an a priori assertion of its existence. Rudgley, however, takes a different tact. He takes six basic entoptic phenomena, percepts, which correspond to stages of intoxication and compares them with various rock art, in order to establish their similarity. Furthermore, the possibility that certain drugs were the cause, as opposed other trance-like methods, is examined through archaelogical evidence. While Rudgley is very self-aware that the evidence is circumstantial, he puts a very good case together and never loses sight of the problematics involved.

Two of the most interesting chapters are concerned with the shamanic use of the Fly Agaric (or Amanita muscaria) mushroom and the question of the botanical identification of haoma, from the Iranian Avesta. Frozen Tombs and Fly-Agaric Men examines, firstly, the documented use of the mushroom by Siberian shaman, taking Mircea Eliade to account over his suggestion that intoxication is a decayed form of shamanism, and the various approaches of individual tribes; and secondly, how the introduction of alcohol had begun to bring an end to the use of the mushroom. Interesting, and perhaps sadly, the introduction of alcohol into areas where it was previously unknown, changing patterns of intoxicant use, appears to be a reoccurring pattern.

The Mystery of Haoma is an interesting and variously answered problem. Haoma, which in the Indian Rig Veda is named soma, is an unidentified plant that appears in numerous hymns in the Avesta. Rudgley reviews various answers to the question, including cannabis or the suggestion that it may be a species of rhubarb, but easily discounts them. Robert Gordon Wasson’s suggestion that soma was a mushroom, in particular the Fly Agaric, is given a fair hearing but Rudgley concludes that information concerning soma was perhaps too difficult a place to look and turns, instead, to haoma and the Avesta. The suggestion, he most closely follows, was an early one by Sir William James, more recently put forward by Flattery and Schwartz, and that identified haoma as being related to harmel, which was perhaps employed in an ayahuasca-like brew. The mushroom or brew debate continues today however.

A fascinating but short chapter entitled The Alchemists of Afek looks at mushroom use in New Guinea and is followed by Lucifer’s Garden, which looks at witchcraft drugs, the Old Man of the Mountain myth and some of the pioneers of psychedelia. A chapter on stimulants like betel, khat, tobacco, kava and alike, along with the perennial favourites of coffee, cocoa and tea really drive home the contemporaneous universality of drug intoxication. The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society does a wonderful job of taking some of the more obscure elements of drug culture, like the identification of haoma, and seamlessly integrating the question along with the type of drug use that is so ubiquitous, like tea and coffee, that many people hardly treat them as intoxicants at all. Overall, a sound cultural drugs work.

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