Man has used hallucinogenic plants for thousands of years, probably since he began gathering plants for food. The hallucinogens have continued to receive the attention of civilized man through the ages. Recently, we have gone through a period during which sophisticated Western society has “discovered” hallucinogens, and some sectors of the society have taken up, for some reason or another, the use of such plants. This trend may be destined to continue.
It is important for us to learn a much as we can about hallucinogenic plants. A great amount of scientific literature has been published about their uses and effects, but the information is locked away in technical journals. No matter whether we believe the use of hallucinogenic plants is right or wrong, they have played an extensive role in human culture and probably will continue to do so.
In early man’s search for food, he tried all kinds of plants. Some nourished him, some he found cured his ills, and some killed him. A few had strange effects on his mind and body, seeming to place him in a foreign world. These plants are called hallucinogens, because they distort the senses and usually produce hallucinations. Although, most hallucinations are visual, some involve hearing, touch, smell, or taste. Occasionally several senses are effected.
The actual causes of such hallucinations are the chemical substances in the plants. These substances are true narcotics. Contrary to popular opinion, not all narcotics are dangerous and addictive. The term psychedelic describes such drugs in the United States.
In the history of mankind, the hallucinogens have probably been the most important of the narcotics. Their fantastic effects made them sacred to primitive man and may have been responsible for suggesting to him the idea of deity.
Hallucinogens permeate nearly every aspect of life in primitive societies. They play roles in health and sickness, peace and war, home life and travel, hunting and agriculture; they affect relations among individuals, villages, and tribes.
Medical and religious uses of hallucinogenic plants are particularly important in primitive societies. Aboriginal people attribute sickness and health to the working of spirit forces. Consequently, any medicine that can transport man to the spirit world is considered by many aborigines to be better than one with purely physical effects.
Psychic powers have also been attributed to hallucinogens and have become an integral part of primitive religions. All over the world hallucinogenic plants are used as mediators between man and his gods.
Other uses of hallucinogens vary from one primitive culture to another. Many hallucinogenic plants are basic to the initiation rituals of adolescents. The Algonquin Indians gave an intoxicating medicine, wysoccan, to their young men for a period of 20 days. During this time they lost all memory, starting manhood and forgetting they had been boys.
In South America, many tribes take ayahuasca to foresee the future, settle disputes, decipher enemy plans, cast or remove spells, or insure the fidelity of their women. Sensations of death and separation of body and soul are sometimes experienced during a dreamlike trance.
The hallucinogenic properties of Datura, a hallucinogenic plant, have been thoroughly exploited in the New World. In Mexico and in the Southwest, Datura is used for prophecy and ritualistic curing. Modern Mexican Indians value certain mushrooms as sacraments and use morning glories and the peyote cactus to predict the future, diagnose and cure disease, and appease good or evil spirits. The Mixtecs of Mexico eat puffballs to hear voices from heaven to answer their questions.
Our modern society has recently taken up the use, sometimes illegally, of hallucinogens on a grand scale. Many people believe they can achieve “mystic” or “religious” experience by altering the chemistry of the body with hallucinogens. Whether drug induced adventures can be identical with the metaphysical insight claimed by some mystics, or are merely a counterfeit of it, is still controversial. The widespread and expanding use of hallucinogens in our society may have little or no value and may sometimes even be harmful or dangerous.
Hallucinogenic plants are used in a variety of ways, depending on the kind of plant material, on the active chemicals involved, on cultural practices, and on other considerations. Man, in primitive societies everywhere, has shown great ingenuity and wisdom in taking