Cannabis as an Entheogen – an Essay by KC Mackey

KC Mackey is a senior at Boston University where she studies philosophy and administers the on-campus organization entitled SSDP or Students for Sensible Drug Policy:

Cannabis users all have their own unique reasons for consuming this plant. Some people use it to relax after a long day of work; some people use it to relax at work. Some use it to relieve horrendous pains. Lynn Morse, a Vietnam veteran, used it to stay alive. Through the horrific memories of the things he saw, he found solace in cannabis. Some use it to inform their consciousness and creativity. Nineteenth century European writers, such as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud openly praised “Lady Cannabis” for her magical powers of inspiration.

(photo by Michael Pitter)

And countless groups throughout history used Cannabis to commune with gods and spirits. It was one of many psychoactive agents available to the antique world, and enough archaeological evidence has survived to strongly suggest that humans have used these agents in shamanic, religious, and spiritual contexts for as far back as we can trace the history of the our species. We’ve found 4,000-year old mescal beans in caves along the Pecos River in southern Texas, with rock paintings depicting shamans. Residues of Cannabis and other plants have been uncovered from Neolithic archaeological sites in Europe and Central Asia indicating their role in funeral rites and thus communication with the spirits of the Otherworld. According to the late Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman, plants that alter the normal functions of the mind and body have always been considered by peoples in nonindustrial societies as sacred. In Carl Ruck’s work in progress, Entheogens, Myth, and Cosmic Consciousness, he leads us through the mythical motifs and religious symbols that are metaphors for botanical agents that alter consciousness: “These plants worldwide are metaphorically the food of the gods and angels, ambrosia and nectar, holy bread, the forbidden fruit of a true.”
In this kind of context, it is inaccurate and inappropriate to call these plants “drugs.” This is why in 1979, a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (among them Carl Ruck, Richard Evan Schultes, and R. Gordon Wasson) coined the term “entheogen.” Combining the ancient Greek adjective entheos meaning “god within” or “inspired” and the verbal root in genesis which means “becoming,” it signifies “something that causes the divine to reside within one.” According to Ruck, “Entheogens are sacramental foods whose ingestion makes the celebrant consubstantial with the deity, providing a communion and shared existence mediating between the human and the divine.” It mediates because it embodies the spirit of the deity. Ingesting it allows the spirit to reside within one. I am here to talk about cannabis not as a recreational drug, but as an entheogen.

Spirit Communion
(photo by Michael Pitter)
Although I plan to stick strictly to the use of cannabis in shamanic, religious, and spiritual contexts, sometimes this is inseparable from its role as a medicine. For instance, in the past, Luo elders in Kenya and Tanzania grew and smoked Cannabis sativa, which they called njaga, to communicate with their ancestors. They believed ancestral spirits protected the cannabis gardens. And families kept small amounts of cannabis in their homes to protect themselves from both malevolent spirits and cholera, believed to be a spirit-borne disease. Cannabis was a medicine then, associated with both good and evil spirits.
The Luo word for “to smoke” is madho njaga, literally “to drink cannabis,” and madho ndawa, “to drink tobacco.” Thus, through their perspective, smoke is as much of a liquid as it is air. It is believed to wash away spiritual maladies as water washes away dirt. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire. From a religious perspective, fire is a mediator between gods and mortals. Writes Carl Ruck, “Fire is both the heat perceptible in living creatures and the clear transmutation of matter as it dissipates into the fumes of spiritual transcendence.” So cannabis is a plant of the earth connected to air, fire, and water. Cannabis connects elements of the ordinary world, and it connects the ordinary world with the spirit world. According to anthropologist Parker Shipton, this last is a theme common to other Nilotic peoples too.Examples in HistoryThe original home of Cannabis was thought to be Central Asia, and it spread throughout the world by human agency. The Scythians, a nomadic central Asian barbarian group, introduced cannabis to the European world around 700 B.C. Herodotus describes their fumigation funeral ritual with Cannabis:

“After the burial, those engaged in it have to purify themselves. First they well soap and wash their heads; then, in order to cleanse their bodies.. they make a booth by fixing in the ground three sticks inclined towards one another, and stretching around them woollen felts, which they arrange so as to fit as close as possible: inside the booth a dish is placed upon the ground, into which they put a number of red-hot stones, and then add some hemp-seed…this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam… the Scythians, transported by the vapor… rise up to dance and betake themselves to singing.”

(photo by Michael Pitter)

Obviously, they knew inhaling the smoke was the most effective route of ingestion, but they did not yet have a means of directly smoking it, like a pipe.

In ancient Germanic paganism, cannabis was associated with the Norse love goddess, Freya, who was believed to be a fertile force in the plant’s feminine flowers. By ingesting them one became infused with the divinity of her love.
The holy anointing oil described in Exodus 30:22-25 was created from pure Myrrh, Sweet Cinnamon and Cannabis. This oil formed an integral part of the ordination of the priesthood and the high priest as well as in the consecration of the articles of the tabernacle (Exodus 30:26) and later, temples in Jerusalem. The purpose of anointing was to cause the anointed persons or objects to become qodesh – most holy (Exodus 30:29).

Indian history overfloweth with deep mythological and spiritual beliefs about this plant. Indian Vedas sang of Cannabis as one of the divine nectars, able to give humankind anything from good health and long life to visions of the gods. One preparation of it, Bhang, was so sacred that it was thought to deter evil, bring luck, and cleanse man of sin. Those treading upon the leaves of this holy plant would suffer harm or disaster, and sacred oaths were sealed over Hemp. Soma, the favorite herbal drink of Indra, god of the firmament, was believed to have come from Cannabis, and the Hindu god Shiva commanded that the word Bhangi must be chanted repeatedly during sowing, weeding, and harvesting of the holy plant.

Why Is This Relevant?
The purpose of citing different cultural traditions involving cannabis as a sacrament is to point out the degree to which the style and way of life an entire culture can be imbued with the attitudes and assumptions engendered by a psychoactive plant or drug. J. Campbell Oman, writes:

“It would be an interesting philosophical study to endeavor to trace the influence of these powerful narcotics on the minds and bodies of the itinerant monks who habitually use them. We may be sure that these hemp drugs, known since very early times in the East, are [responsible] for some of its wild dreamings.”

In his book Bitter Money, about the African meanings of forbidden commodities, Parker Shipton reports that today in Luo country, cannabis is prohibited by both national law and Kenyan Christian Churches. Of the countless Catholic and Protestant churches that claim as members most of the Luo, nearly all have objections to smoking cannabis. Many Luo converts decided it was not a spirit of ancestors but of Satan; some decided it was both. So you see, new beliefs may dominate the old but never destroy them. We see the same thing in Europe and Western Eurasia. Even after the old religions were overrun by the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox Churches, they persisted beyond the borders of Rome’s control, the beliefs and symbols are now hidden in less objectionable forms like fairy tales. In The Hidden World: The Survival of Pagan and Shamanic Themes in European Fairy Tales, Carl Ruck writes:

“Herbal lore of Europe long ago was secularized… labeled as superstition. As early as the arrival of the conquistadors and the wave of immigration, the healing plants of the indigenous peoples were gathered and classified with proper Linnaean nomenclature. The lore was colonized. The chemicals without the resident deity.”

The “recreational” context for substance use, as in the United States, is an atmosphere that trivializes the cognitive impact of the substance used, but, writes Terence McKenna, “there is also no doubt that when used occasionally in a context of ritual and culturally reinforced expectation of a transformation of consciousness, cannabis is capable of nearly the full spectrum of psychedelic effects associated with hallucinogens.”
When we look at the drug war, not only do we see politics trump science, like in the cases of medical cannabis or psychedelic research, but we also see it trump religion and spirituality. Before legalization of this plant occurs, and I think it will, I believe it is indispensable to consider the diverse and powerful roles of Cannabis in human history and to learn the lessons that history can teach us.
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