Uncovering Psychedelics: The History, Then and Now
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
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This is the first article of our new series of articles on Uncovering Psychedelics by Donca Vianu.
You can watch the video version of this article on Donca Vianu’s Youtube channel. To do so, please click here.
Most psychedelics have been used for thousands of years by our ancestors in the Near East and in Old Europe, by the native nations of the Americas, and by tribes in Africa. They are also known for ages in India.
For all these peoples, they are sacred. They are consumed only in religious ceremonies. The goals for ingesting psychedelics in these ancient religious ceremonies vary: from initiating community members into adulthood and the death and rebirth process, to healing the sick ones, to journeying to and communicating with realms of existence beyond the earthly, to future foretelling for the community, and more.
These religious rites were - and are until today - open only for members of the community or the nation. Their proceedings are mostly secret.
For example, whoever in ancient Greece recounted to others what he or she experienced during the yearly Mysteries held in Eleusis, was punished with death. Many sustain that this is why Socrates was condemned to drink the poison hemlock.
The Eleusian Mysteries were held for two thousand years, from 1600 BC to 400 AD. During the rites, the priests and priestesses served a psychedelic brew. It was called Kykeon and it was a derivative of ergot alkaloids, similar to LSD.
Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Aeschylus, Plutarch, Pindar, Diodorus, Herodotus, Pausanias, Cicero, and many more were initiates, as also Socrates already mentioned. Seemingly the Greek root of our Western civilization is greatly influenced by the experiences and insights gained by ingesting this psychedelic during the ceremonies at Eleusis.
There is evidence that psychedelics have never left Europe. In medieval times in Christian Europe, magic mushrooms have been ingested and are depicted in many churches, cathedrals and other Christian places of worship.
In Old Palestine, the other root for our civilization, the most common psychedelics were Amanita Muscaria and Mandrake. In South America, the sacred psychedelic that we in the Western world know the best is Ayahuasca. In North America it is Peyote. In Africa, Iboga. Yet in South Africa alone there are around 300 different psychedelic plants. In India, we have the lost tradition of the mysterious Soma.
The modern Western world has re-discovered psychedelics in the second part of the 20th century. For twenty years, roughly between 1950 and 1970, there was intensive and far-reaching research going on with these substances at many universities in Europe and the US.
Unfortunately, due to excesses and accidents in recreational use, all official funded research was stopped, and the US launched a campaign of demonization of psychedelics, the “War on Drugs.”
The status of psychedelics today in the Western world is extremely complex. On one side these compounds are forbidden by law and continue to be considered “drugs” similar to heroin and cocaine. On the other side, in the last decades, there is a renaissance of psychedelics.
How does this renaissance look like?
Almost all universities around the world research psychedelics in clinical studies, through brain scans, and through theoretical constructs. The research concerns their use in healing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, different kinds of addiction, and terminal cancer anxiety.
The clinical results are so far positive. So much so that they may change aspects of psychiatry. Yet only a limited number of people have access to approved clinical treatments in these universities. As a consequence, there are extensive underground networks offering these substances to people in need. These networks are sometimes bonafide and other times not.
The amount of literature about psychedelics is staggering: there are thousands of articles and hundreds of books published about psychedelics;
Every year there are tons of conferences and congresses about psychedelics. The academic research, the publications, and congresses form what is called: “The emerging science of psychedelics”;
Millions of dollars are invested in the psychedelic industry, and the amount is rising, as new and powerful venture capitalists join it;
There is a flourishing non-regulated psychedelic tourism, especially to South America, with sometimes enriching and other times extremely traumatic experiences, or even death;
Last but not least, modern syncretic religions from Amazonia, which use psychedelics as their sacrament, have been brought to Europe and the US, where they flourish in newly established churches.
In the long run, psychedelics may influence for the better or the worse psychiatry, our culture, and our collective consciousness. But why for the better or the worse?
Well, because when the doors of perception are opened, they may show both heaven and hell.
Donca Vianu is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. She offers individual counseling and guidance for integration processes. You can follow her work through her Youtube channel and watch the video version of this article here.