Plants of the Gods by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann and Christian Rätsch
Originally published in 1979, this review of ‘Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers’ by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann and Christian Rätsch, is from the 2001 revised and expanded edition (Healing Arts Press).
The authors of this book are all renowned within the psychedelic and entheogenic fields and their combined experience makes this an extremely rich text. Albert Hofmann (1906-2008) was a biochemist and the discoverer of d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), his published work includes My Problem Child (1980). Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), considered by many to be the father of ethnobotany, was the Jeffrey Professor of Biology and Director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University (Emeritus), his other work includes Where the Gods Reign (1988). Christian Rätsch (b.1957) is a writer and an ethnopharmacologist, his work includes Plants of Love (1990) and Marijuana Medicine (2001). Such credibility lends a lot of weight to this text and it does not disappoint.
“Medicinal plants are useful in curing or alleviating man’s illnesses because they are toxic. The popular interpretation tends to accept the term toxic as implying poisoning with fatal results. Yet, as Paracelsus wrote in the sixteenth century: “In all things there is a poison, and there is nothing without a poison. It depends only upon the dose whether something is poison or not”” (Schultes 2001, 10).
Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers is an extensive and well-researched survey. Utilising a multidisciplinary approach, which includes social and cultural history, botany, ethnobotany and chemistry, the book manages to retain a good deal of personality while giving an unquestionably lucid objectivity. Along with the thorough textual information, there is a wonderful selection of photos and images. These include photos of the plants and fungi in question, shamanic and visionary artwork, and historical photos and posters. The effect of including the photos, other than the obvious identification information, is to further entrench the book’s primary theme; the cultural ubiquity of psychoactive plants and fungi.
One of the primary projects of pharmacographies dealing with hallucinogens, post their marginalisation in the 1960s, has been to demonstrate that cultures have used them across the globe throughout history (and, indeed, prehistory.) This is deemed necessary to show that responsible use can be perfectly adequately employed within a social model, and in order to demonstrate that it is not a morally degraded form of behaviour. In fact, quite the opposite as the spiritual use of these plants lay at the heart of our relationships with them. The authors put this message across expertly, yet they are also aware of how the cultural picture can be manipulated.
“Since antiquity several members of the Nightshade family have been associated with witchcraft in Europe. These plants enable witches to perform feats of occult wonder and prophecy, to hex through hallucinogenic communication with the supernatural and transport themselves to far-off places for the practice of their nefarious skills” (Schultes 2001, 86)
The chapter entitled The Hexing Herbs perfectly illustrates the authors’ approach and why it is so necessary for the study of psychoactive plants. The Nightshade family has not only a history of association with witches but also in medicine, which illustrates their Paracelsus quote perfectly. When one examines the plants, therefore, the study stretches to not only their psychoactive chemistry—primarily atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine—but also how their efficacy has been bound with the imagination of their age; a cultural age stretching from antiquity, through medieval, and the early modern period. Moreover, their associations in the early modern witch-trials gave the plants distinctly political and moral dimensions—an object to be manipulated by the powers-at-be in order to victimise sections of the population.
While Plants of the Gods is essential reading for experienced psychonauts, with its wealth of invaluable information and pictorial accompaniment, it is also a lucid and careful introduction to the field of entheogens and sacred plants for novices. The multidisciplinary approach means that researchers and general readers in a number of fields will find the book interesting and the constant recourse to context grounds the various disciplines neatly together. Overall, an excellent work.