The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Psychoactive Plants and Shamanic Consciousness


The shaman is not only a hunter, warrior, healer, diviner, and entertainer, but also a natural scientist and thinker. Anthropologist Elizabeth Reichel-Dolmatoff reports that among the Tanimuka, a Tukano Indian group, shamanism is consequently referred to as “thinking.” The shaman, first and foremost, is a visionary who has genuine visions:


A shaman is one who has attained a vision of the beginnings and the endings of all things and who can communicate that vision. To the rational thinker, this is inconceivable, yet the techniques of shamanism are directed toward this end and this is the source of their power. Preeminent among the shaman’s techniques is the use of the plant hallucinogens, repositories of living vegetable gnosis that lie, now nearly forgotten, in our ancient past. (McKenna 1992, 7)


“Shamanism is the door to the real world.” The ethnopsychologist Holger Kalweit spoke these words at a symposium in September 1996 entitled “The Shamanic Universe.” What he meant is that shamanic consciousness is the real world or, as the Indians say, the “true reality.”

For many Indians in the Central and South American rain forests, the everyday world is an illusion, a superficial necessity.6 “To those who know, this appears as the world of effects, whereas the world of myths is the world of causes” (Deltgen 1993, 125). Ayahuasca or yagé, the “drink of true reality,” helps people pierce through the illusion that is the everyday world and penetrate into the heart of reality. The reality that is experienced under the influence of ayahuasca is the reality of the myths, which appears to be more real and more meaningful. “The drug is a medium, a vehicle between this reality and that. It is the gateway to knowledge. The kumú [shaman], however, is the mediator between the two worlds, and may be more passive or more active, depending upon his power and his talents” (Deltgen 1993, 141). The effects of the “ingestion of these hallucinogens are not understood as an action produced by a special, that is, active chemical substance, but as a contact with spirit beings (owners, ‘mothers,’ species spirits), who control the corresponding plant and embody its ‘essence’” (Baer 1987, 1). The spirits of the plant are the same spirits who aid the shaman in the healing process: “The hallucinogenic plants, or the spirits that dwell within them, open the eyes of those who take them; they enable them to recognize the nonordinary reality, which is considered to be reality per se, and it is ultimately they, and not the shaman, who free the patient from his affliction” (Baer 1987, 79). Not everyone, however, can control the spirit helpers: “The cají [ayahuasca] thus does not make the shaman. To the contrary: he who is called to be a shaman, the spiritually gifted, is able to make something out of the drugs and their effects” (Deltgen 1993, 200).



“Emissaries of the plant kingdom merge with human bodies and aid people in attaining other states of consciousness. Only the gods know which powers of nature are here at work. Possessed people give themselves in to sexual activities and join in the cosmic dance of joy. They celebrate festivals in the truest sense of the word. These festivities are an expression of that fundamental and timeless form of religious ceremony which is an invitation to the gods. Through this adoration, man makes a request, he offers the gods his body and soul, so that they will ‘take over’ these. Enlightenment.”








Like their shamans, most of the Indians of the Amazon base their lives upon the visions they receive through ayahuasca: “Our ancestors oriented the entire rhythm of their lives around the ayahuasca visions; whether it had to do with the making of weapons, drawings, art, colors, clothing, medicine, or something else, or it involved determining the most favorable time for a journey or to till the fields. They used the ayahuasca visions in their attempts to better organize themselves” (Rivas 1989, 182).

Shamans throughout the world consume psychoactive plants and products so that they may be able to enter the shamanic state of consciousness and travel to the visionary world, the other reality. The substances shamans use are very diverse both chemically and pharmacologically. The active substances they contain belong to different classes that are analogs of or related to different endogenous neurotransmitters (see the box above).7 Nevertheless, they are all pharmacological stimuli for achieving the selfsame purpose: to produce the shamanic state of consciousness.8

This fact was verified through the research of Adolf Dittrich, who demonstrated that experiences in altered states of consciousness—and compared to everyday reality, the shamanic state of consciousness is very altered—are identical at the core, no matter which pharmacological and/or psychological stimuli elicited them (Dittrich 1996).

On the basis of my own experiences with a variety of psychoactive plants, I can attest that different active substances can evoke the same state of consciousness, e.g., trance, but will not always do so, for the same drug can produce totally different effects in different people. In particular, the drugs found in datura exhibit striking differences (cf. Siegel 1981). Even in the same person, the same substance can induce very different effects depending upon the dosage, set, and setting. In order to produce the same state, i.e., the shamanic state of consciousness, more than just a psychoactive substance is needed. The user must also have the appropriate intention and the appropriate external conditions.9 The drug experience is heavily influenced by the mythological and cosmological matrix of the user and by the ritual that is taking place in the external world. Mythology and cosmology provide the topography or cartography of the shamanic world and show the ways into it and back out. The ritual provides the outer framework that facilitates the user’s transition from everyday reality to shamanic reality and back.

The reasons why a plant is being used will strongly affect the content of the experiences. If it is being used to perform shamanic tasks, then it will tend to evoke shamanic realities. As with all human abilities, however, this talent is not the same in everyone. Only the most talented can become shamans. In the same way, humans all differ with regard to our boldness and courage. Only the most courageous of us can become shamans. Fearful people should not confront the gods and demons. It is for these reasons that in most societies that have institutionalized shamans, the use of plants with visionary effects is embedded within an exclusively ritual context. The visionary experiences take place against the familiar background of one’s own culture.

“It can be said of very many inebriants that the same dose will enliven one individual and put another to sleep. Indeed, under different circumstances, they can produce almost opposite effects even in the same individual. Just as a person can be pepped up by morphine, he can become sleepy after coffee. Almost everyone knows that the same dose of alcohol can be something different in the morning and the evening, in the summer or the winter.”






(1952, 36)


“Whoever the plant devas touch is no longer the same person [he was] before. The encounter shapes him. Like the Midewiwin healer with his herbal lore, he will be killed and reborn with new powers. He has truly become a citizen of both worlds.”




(1996b, 232)


The shamanic use of psychoactive plants follows a specific basic pattern, whereby it is relatively unimportant which substance is being used. First and foremost are the form, meaning, and purpose (function) of a ritual. The structure of the ritual follows a pattern that I have termed the “psychedelic ritual of knowledge” (cf. Rätsch 1991b):




Collecting and preparing the drugs

Sexual abstinence, fasting

Practical purification (bathing, sweat house,10 enemas)

Symbolic purification



Offerings to the gods (e.g., incense)

Prayers to the gods and/or plant spirits

Ingestion of the drug

Soul journey during trance

Communication with the plant spirits/gods/animal spirits




Instructions for how to behave

Offerings of thanks