Shiva dacing with a datura flower, The Cleveland Museum of Art, purchase from J.H. Wade Fund.
Shiva dacing with a datura flower, The Cleveland Museum of Art, purchase from J.H. Wade Fund.

To many people, the words psychedelic and spiritual are dissonant on first hearing. Yet the use of psychoactive sacraments in shamanic and religious practices is found throughout history. The word entheogen, used to describe certain plants and chemicals when used for spiritual purposes, emphasizes this long-established relationship. Following is a survey of the most historically prominent and widely used entheogens.

jesse_2The peyote cactus, which has been used in Mesoamerica for at least 2,000 years, is still used sacramentally by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Their ceremonies are said to closely resemble the pre-Columbian Mexican rites, largely unchanged by missionary influence.

The peyote practices of Mexico began diffusing north into several of the native tribes in the United States during the latter part of the 1800s. The North American peyote ceremony, as described around the turn of the century, is “essentially different from that in Mexico (though having some basic similarities); a ceremony essentially Indian, but not of any particular tribe; a ceremony having overtones of Christianity, but so different from all Christian sects that it would provoke them all to do their best to eradicate it” (from Peyote Religion: A History, by Omer C. Stewart).

jesse_3From the start, numerous contradictory government actions have supported and denied Native American use of peyote. Finally, in 1994, the U.S. government enacted the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments, providing consistent protection across all fifty states for the traditional ceremonial use of peyote by American Indians.

In its report on the 1994 legislation, a U.S. House of Representatives committee reported that “peyote is not injurious,” and that the “spiritual and social support provided by the Native American Church [NAC] has been effective in combating the tragic effects of alcoholism among the Native American population.” Occasional factionalism notwithstanding, it appears that the NAC has overall been a unifying and peace-promoting influence among the Native American tribes. Estimates of the number of peyote religion practitioners in the United States range from 250,000 to as many as 400,000.

“Mushroom stone” artifacts found in Guatemala and southeastern Mexico date mushroom worship as far back as 1000 B.C.E. The Spanish conquerors reported psychedelic mushrooms to be of deep importance to indigenous religious life, and their use continues to the present in isolated areas. In 1955, R. Gordon Wasson rediscovered the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms among indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, Mexico. His 1957 Life magazine report on the nighttime mushroom ceremony of curandera Maria Sabina sparked a revival of public interest in archaic and chemically mediated religious practices.

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