"The peculiar, mysterious longing and desire for stimulants that is common to almost all peoples has always prevailed, to the extent that we are aware of historical traditions, and has been satisfied in the most varied of ways. Inducing a happy mood m which emotions, sorrows, and everything else that may weigh upon the soul can be forgotten; shifting into a state of partial or completely absent consciousness in which the individual, detached from the present, surrounded by the glowing and shining images of an excessively amplified imagination, becomes free from the misery of his every day life or from bodily pains; artificially inducing peace and sleep for the fatigued body and mind in all cases where these necessary requirements for life cannot he brought about in the normal manner, and finally gaining creative strength, both physical and mental, by means of these stimulants--these are the primary reasons why these agents are used."
--Louis Lewin, ܢer Piper Methysticum (Berlin 1885: 1)
Every day, most persons in most cultures, whether Amazonian Indians or Western Europeans, ingest the products of one or more psychoactive plants. Even the Mormons, who claim that they do not use "drugs," have a psychoactive stimulant: Mormon tea (Ephedra nevadensis), which contains the very potent alkaloid ephedrine, the model substance for amphetamine.
The use of psychoactive substances is extraordinarily common in the countries of South America. After rising, a typical Amazonian Indian will drink guaranᬠcacao, or mate (and sometimes all three together). After breakfast, he will place the first pinch of coca in his mouth, where, periodically renewed, it will remain until evening. In the afternoon, he will shift to a fermented beverage made of maize or manioc. In late afternoon, some powder that contains tryptamines may be snuffed into the nose. Ayahuasca is often used in the evening. It goes without saying that every free minute is filled with the smoking, chewing, sniffing, or licking of tobacco.
In the modern Western world, the use of psychoactive plant products is very widespread, but their sacredness has been profaned. How many of us today, when we are sipping our morning coffee, are aware that the Sufis venerated the coffee bush as a plant of the gods and interpreted the stimulating effects of caffeine as a sign of God's favor? Who of us, lying in bed and smoking the first cigarette of the day, knows that tobacco is regarded as a gift of the gods that aids shamans in journeying into other realities? How many recall the frenzied Bacchanalias in honor of Dionysus as they drink a glass of wine with their lunch? And the evening beer in front of the television is downed without any knowledge of the sacred origin of this barley drink. Our ancestors, however, the Germanic peoples and the Celts, knew this, and they venerated such drinks and immortalized them in their poetry:
It is certain that the Celts knew of alcohol. The Greek and Roman authors of antiquity regarded them as passionate lovers of inebriating beverages. Drunkenness is a common theme in the epics, especially in Ireland. Gods and heroes competed with one another in their sheer unquenchable thirst for alcohol, whether in the form of wine, beet, or hydromel, the Celtic mead we still remember today. No religious festival was celebrated without an uninhibited drinking bout, a tradition which survives in our time in the form of (supposedly) folk customs. The most important aspect of such rituals is the lifting off, the unleashing, by means of which one forgets that man is an earthbound being. (Markale, 1989: 203)
Indeed, it is this lifting off, this fact of getting "high," the unleashing, the ecstasy, that is at the heart of the use of psychoactive plants and psychoactive products. During my extended field work journeys to the various continents, I have seen time and again how people in all cultures, and of all social strata, religions, and skin colors, consume psychoactive plants and psychoactive products. Why do people ingest psychoactive substances? Because a fundamental drive for inebriation, ecstasy, blissful sleep, knowledge, and enlightenment is written tight into our genes.
This encyclopedia is a testimony to the wealth of knowledge that humans have acquired about these substances. It represents the results of twenty years of my own research and experience compiled into one work. I have collected information all over the world, assembled a large and specialized library, attended countless meetings and symposia, photographed my way through the plant world, and experimented with as many psychoactive plants as I could. The knowledge I have gained has now been distilled and organized into this encyclopedia so that we too--like our ancestors--may learn to once again recognize the sacred nature of inebriants and utilize these to have profound experiences of the sacredness of nature.
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The Use of Psychoactive Plants
Humans have a natural drive to pursue ecstatic experiences (Well, 1976; Siegel 1995). The experience of ecstasy is just as much a part of being human and leading a fulfilling and happy life as is the experience of orgasm. In fact, many cultures use the same words to refer to ecstasy and to orgasm. The possibility of having ecstatic experiences is one of the fundamental conditions of human consciousness. All archaic and ethnographic cultures developed methods for inducing such experiences (Bourguignon, 1973; Dittrich, 1996). Some of these methods are more efficacious than others. The most effective method of all is to ingest psychoactive plants or substances.
These methods, however, require certain skills, for there are many factors that play a role in shaping the effects and the contents of the experiences. The most important is proper use--that is, a responsible and goal-oriented use.