Drugs of the Dreaming by Gianluca Toro and Benjamin Thomas

Drugs of the DreamingOriginally published in 2007 ‘Drugs of the Dreaming – Oneirogens: Salvia divinorum and Other Dream-Enhancing Plants’ is written by Gianluca Toro and Benjamin Thomas, with a foreword by Jonathan Ott. Toro is an environmental chemist and the author of the Italian book Animali Psicoattivi [Psychoactive Animals]. Thomas is an independent researcher specializing in drug and plant efficacy in humans, particularly in Papua New Guinea.

The term oneirogen as a class of drug is as recent as the 1970s, although these ‘dream generating drugs’ have been in use for thousands of years. In his foreword to the book Jonathan Ott wrote: “One of the most recondite and least investigated areas of ethnomedicine involves the oneirogens, or dream-inducing plants, of which the scientific prototype might be Calea zacatechichi, known as thle-pelakano” (Toro vii). Used by the Chontal Indians of Mexico, it is the most researched of all the possible inclusions in such a class. However, what makes Drugs of the Dreaming so interesting, is not only their review of existing research on possible plant, animal and synthetic substances (of which there is very little), but their engagement with the possibility of others. Benjamin Thomas’ various bioassays with himself proves fertile speculative ground for their book.

“From the beginning of civilization, dreams have regulated the lives of people in relation with each other and with divinity. Dreams have had a cultural and social importance particularly in ancient civilizations, in non-Western cultures, and above all in the cultures of illiterate populations […] In archaic societies, the oneiromancy (interpretation of dreams) and oneiropoietic practices (induction of dreams) were established as cultural institutions related to the individual and collective destiny and endowed with religious meaning” (Toro 16).

After providing a brief cultural history of dreams, and a look at the sleep and dream chemistry, the authors look at the following subcategories of oneirogens: (1) Phyto-Oneirogenica (plants); these include ayahuasca, Calea zacatechichi, Duboisia hopwoodii, and the sage of the diviners Salvia divinorum.  (2) Myco-Oneirogenica (mushrooms); these include Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric), Psilocybe mushrooms, like the Liberty Cap, and parasitic mushrooms. (3) Zoo-Oneirogenica (animals), which is an area Toro has already published in: these include dream fish like Kyphosus fuscus, Mullets and the Humr tribe, of the Baggara Arabs, use of Giraffa camelopardalis. (4) Bromato-Oneirogenica (foods) like  cheese (there is an interesting, and also slightly amusing, reference to research on cheese dreams by the British Cheese Board.) And finally, (5) Oneiro-Chymica (endogenous and synthetic compounds,) which includes dissociative anaesthetics like ketamine and the possibility of the presence of DMT in the body.

There is also a chapter dedicated to oneiromagicals that examines the use of, what are mainly though not exclusively psychoactive, plants in ‘magic’. Two questions are raised in my mind from this chapter, which for further study in this area, would need to be examined more carefully. Firstly, though difficult, a more succinct definition of what ‘magic’ is. The boundaries between what is magical and what is religious are often irreconcilably blurred. Secondly, the problem of the term ‘dream’ in light of the word ‘trance’. Often used interchangeably, or in ignorance of the other, the reading of Medieval and Early Modern texts needs to be contextualised in reference to one word or the other. Indeed, they may be understood as the same but this needs to be elucidated, especially in the discussion of the Deadly Nightshades and Siberian Amanita muscaria use. This is vital to the categorization process and would stretch right across much of the book’s discussion.

In the end this short, though neatly presented, book is a fantastic introduction into the oneirogenic realm. This little researched area has been consolidated by the authors and provides a great start point for anyone interested in looking deeper into the production of their dreams via external chemical means.

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