The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Psychoactive Plants as Factors in the Development of Culture


The use of—and the need for—psychoactive plants is very ancient. Some authors have suggested that the roots lie somewhere in the Paleolithic period (Ripinsky-Naxon 1989; Westermeyer 1988). It appears that the connection to shamanism was already present at an early date (La Barre 1972). Although I personally do not believe that shamanism was one of the very first religions, I do think that the altered states of consciousness and visions induced by psychoactive plants have led to significant cultural innovations.

A person ingests a substance obtained from the environment and sinks into a flood of pictures, visions, and hallucinations. He is confronted by a previously unimagined quantity of images—images that seem somehow familiar, or archetypically known, we might say. Moreover, these images are complex and intricate, following one another in incredible sequences, and they have such detail that you cannot shake the feeling that you have somehow landed on the molecular level or are somewhere far away, in the depths of infinite space. Where do these pictures come from? Do they arise in the human brain as a result of the material interaction between molecules from without and the brain stem? Can we, using these substances that come from outside of ourselves, look into realities that truly are outside and for which we normally have no perception? No matter the answer, the wonder or the mystery remains the same! Wherever the images come from, they are present, they can be perceived, they are a reality that can be experienced.

“Oh! Joy! Joy! I have seen the birth of life, the beginnings of movement. The blood pounds in my veins as if they would burst. I want to fly, swim, bark, bleat, roar, would that I had wings, a carapace, a rind, could fume smoke, would have a trunk, could coil my body, divide myself and enter into everything, could effuse myself into scents, unfurl myself like a plant, flow like water, vibrate like sound, shimmer like the light, assume every form, penetrate into every atom, sink down to the foundation of matter—be matter!”






(1979, 189)


Many cultures and many researchers have concerned themselves with these questions. Although no one has been able to provide a definitive answer, the hypotheses and positions that have been put forth can be divided into two camps. One assumes that all reality is merely a projection of our own consciousness; the other holds that there are numerous or even infinitely many different realities in the external world.

We can take shamanism seriously only if we follow the second view, for if we assume that the shaman is only flying around within his own skull, then he would not be able to recover, liberate, and bring back stolen souls.

The internal images and visions induced by psychoactive plants appear to have influenced human art since the Stone Age (Biedermann 1984; Braem 1994). African rock art has been interpreted as an expression of altered states of consciousness, most likely induced by mushrooms or similar substances (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, 1993). American Indian rock art has also been inspired by experiences with psychoactive plants (Wellmann 1978, 1981).

The images in the world of Hieronymus Bosch have been interpreted as the product of drug experiences as well. Nineteenth-century art would have been inconceivable without psychoactive plants (Kupfer 1996a, 1996b). To the observer, many of the pictures of the surrealists, especially those of Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Salvador Dalí, appear to be “drug pictures” or remind one of one’s own experiences in altered states. Hashish appears to have played a role in the development of surrealism, the philosophy of which was set forth in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924: “Surrealism rests upon the belief in the greater reality of certain forms of associations that have been neglected until now, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the non-utilitarian play of thought” (Breton 1968, 26f.).

The founder of surrealism compared this art form with the effects of psychoactive substances:


Surrealism does not permit those who follow it to abandon it whenever they will. Everything points to the fact that it affects the mind in the same way as stimulants do; like these, it produces a certain condition of need and is able to drive a person to terrible revolts. Once again, if you will, we stand before a very artificial paradise, and our penchant to enter into it falls with the same rights under the same Baudelairean criticism as all the others. Thus, the analysis of the mysterious effects and special pleasures which it can impart—in some ways, Surrealism appears to be a new vice, which is not suitable for just a few; like hashish, it is able to satisfy all those who are particular—thus, such an analysis must be undertaken within this investigation.

Surrealistic images are like those pictures from opium inebriation, which a person is no longer evoking, but which are “spontaneously and tyrannically presented to him. He is incapable of fending them off; for the will has lost its power and no longer controls his abilities.” (Baudelaire) The question remains as to whether one ever “evoked” the images at all. (Breton 1968, 34)


It appears that experimentation with psychoactive substances provided an important impetus to the art scene surrounding fantastic realism. Only a few artists, however, have publicly admitted as much. Ernst Fuchs even denied his drug experiences in one of his early biographies (Müller-Ebeling 1992). For most artists, it appears that the use of hashish and marijuana does not necessarily affect the creative process but functions instead as a way to focus concentration, in the way that some Indians use hashish in their meditation practice (e.g., Gustav Klimt). Albert Paris Gütersloh, an admitted cannabis user, provided a realistic assessment of the situation:


Every [artist] of my generation has made the acquaintance of hashish, and when I walk through the academy and sniff, I am certain: everyone in my class, at least, has as well. Does this mean that we are all hash artists? (cited in Behr 1995)


The discipline of anthropology provides us with many examples of cultural goods or artifacts that are the direct result of visionary experiences with psychoactive plants and products (Andritsky 1995). The yarn paintings of the Huichol are representations of their experiences with peyote, and the visions induced by ayahuasca have been the subject of numerous ayahuasca paintings.


The most important magical plants of Mexico were first described in the Aztec-language work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, the Florentine Codex: 515 Tlapatl (Datura spp.); 516 Nanacatl (Psilocybe spp.); 517 Peyotl (Lophophora williamsii); 518 Toloa (Datura innoxia). (Paso y Troncoso edition)