Hallucinogens and Culture (on 'Thinking Allowed' w/ Jeffrey Mishlove)

Day Month 1988

Location, City, State


[Theme music]

[On screen text: 'Thinking Allowed productions presents' ... 'Inner Work Videotape' ... 'Hallucinogens and Culture with Terence McKenna']

Jeffrey Mishlove: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is hallucinogens and culture. We're going to examine the way that various cultures throughout the planet have been influenced in their social and cultural and intellectual development by hallucinogenic substances in the food chain. With me in the studio is Terence McKenna, author, lecturer, explorer, and philosopher. Terence is the co-author with his brother, Dennis McKenna, of a book called "The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching." He's also the co-author of "Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide." He is the author of a computer program called "Time Wave Zero," and he's the co-founder, and president, of an organization called Botanical Dimensions, which devotes itself to saving botanical plants used in shamanistic traditions throughout the world. Welcome Terence.

Terence McKenna: It's a pleasure to be here.

JM: It's a pleasure to have you here. I think a good starting point for our discussion would be the ancient Vedic culture of India; one of the world's great and and one of the world's earliest religions. The Rigveda is, is considered by all scholars to be one of the most, uh, beautiful composite of religious hymns and deep philosophical discussions, and and yet when one reads the Rigveda carefully one discovers an enormous emphasis on a mysterious, apparently hallucinogenic, substance called Soma.

TM: Yes, you're quite right. The ninth mandala of the Rigveda is entirely devoted to singing the praises of Soma, and yet we do not know what Soma is or was. R. Gordon Wasson spent a considerable portion of his life researching this problem and reached the conclusion that Soma was Amanita Muscaria, a mushroom that is symbiotic to pine and birch trees, uh, in much of the North Temperate Zone. However, uh... scholars have cast doubt on his identification of Soma. Nevertheless, uh, what we learn from Wasson's scholarship is that plants with hallucinogenic chemical principals in them have had an enormous impact on shaping the psychology of various cultures, both preliterate and literate, throughout the world.

JM: It seems quite clear that the references to Soma in the Rigveda were not really symbolic; they referred to some actual plant substance.

TM: Oh yes, definitely. Some sort of plant substance was prepared and ingested by a priesthood who then use the ecstatic experience induced by that plant as a basis of all of their metaphysical and philosophical speculations on the nature of the universe. The case of Soma is by no means unique. My own field of, uh, interest was, uh, the Amazon Basin, where we don't have a great, uh, written literature, but we do have an extensive oral tradition and a tradition of hallucinogenic plant use that persists to the present day.

JM: While I think most notable in South America is the drug ayahuasca.

TM: Yes, ayahuasca is, uh, perhaps the worlds largest and most thriving psychedelic religion; it touches the lives of millions of Mestizos and, uh, Indians in the basin. It is a combinatory drug, which makes it especially interesting to pharmacologists, because its two principal ingredients are themselves inactive expect in the presence of each other. So, what we have in the case of ayahuasca is an example of a highly evolved folk pharmacology. And, how a discovery like this was ever made in the first place is one of the challenging questions that anthropologists have to deal with. After all, in a square mile of Amazonian rainforest it is not unusual to encounter 50,000 distinct species of plants. How, then, did these uh so-called primitive or preliterate people make the connection between the combining of the bark of one, with the leaves of another, boiled and put through a number of procedures to, uh, produce an intense visionary hallucinogen. This is an extremely interesting and, uh, to this day, unanswered question.

JM: Isn't it the case, that, I believe it was the German, uh, chemist who isolated this, uh, chem [stumbles] the chemical active ingredient in ayahuasca originally named it telepathine.

TM: Yes, that's right, uh. Based on field reports of the states of group mind induced by ayahuasca, which is also called yage, he felt it was fitting to name it telepathine. Now, the rules of scientific nomenclature are such that, uh, the first name of a compound is always given precedent, and about 20 years after it was name telepathine, it was realized that the identical compound had been isolated around the turn of the century from the giant Syrian rue, Peganum harmala, and named harmine. So today the active ingredients of ayahuasca are known as harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine. But your point is well taken, the- what struck the early explorers and ethnographers into the Amazon Basin was the fact that the people seemed to be taking this plant preparation in order to unders- uh, undergo states of community group mindedness, and during these intoxicating intervals, uh, social plans, relative to migration hunting and warfare, were undertaken by the elders of the tribe and, uh, though the name has been changed to the more innocuous harmine, nevertheless there's a continued persistence of the feeling that, uh, telepathic and group mind states are induced by this particular plant mixture. And, it's particularly interesting in the light of the fact that the chemical constituents which make it go are in fact found endogenously in the human brain. These are not exotic compounds from the point of view of ordinary human brain chemistry. So there is a suggestion there, that, uh, manipulation of neurohumoral compounds, brain neurotransmitters, and that sort of thing may in fact open the door, to, uh, untapped areas of human potential.

JM: I would imagine that many of our viewers have seen the movie "The Emerald Forest" which seems to deal with the use of substances of this sort in the Amazon culture.

TM: Yes, John Boorman did a wonderful job with that movie. He was portraying the use of epená snuff. Uh, that's a hallucinogenic drug complex that occurs in the eastern part of the Amazon drainage and in rural Venezuela. Uh, epená is, uh, contains DMT and is blown up the nostrils by a cooperative friend and induces an intense state of hallucinogenesis. Yes, that was, I think, most people's first exposure to the real richness of the visionary pharmacopoeia that does exist in the Amazon.

JM: And there's also the suggestion there then, I guess, that DMT would trigger telepathic-like experiences, or clairvoyant types of experiences.

TM: That's right, and DMT is also a product of endogenous human metabolism. It's interesting that the most intense of the hallucinogens, DMT, which you mentioned, are the ones which are most closely related to our own brain chemistry. So, far from these compounds being, uh, alien to the brain or being an insult to the physical brain, what they really represent are the shifting of ratios of compounds already present in the ordinary brain.

JM: Well, well DMT I believe is dimethlytryptophan-

TM: -Tryptamine

JM: -Tryptamine?

TM: That's right

JM: Tryptamine. It's related to the protein tryptophan, is it not?

TM: It's related to the protein tryptophan and it's also related to Serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which occurs in all life, and is most concentrated in the higher primates, and most concentrated there in man. It is 5-Hydroxytryptamine. While DMT is, as you mentioned n,n-Dimethyltryptamine, so there is a very close structural affinity between this extremely potent and exotic hallucinogen and the very, uh, common basis for ordinary consciousness, Serotonin, that's correct. Mhm.

JM: No, other cultures around the world have also used other types of substances. I think it might be interesting to talk, at least briefly, about alcohol which is referred to so often, in the Bible for example.

TM: Yes, well we tend in our culture to made a radical distinction between drugs and foods with what we call spices sort of falling somewhere in the middle. In point of fact, a culture is what it eats, and an individual's personality is, uh, often largely a reflection of their diet. There has not been a human culture, uh, that did not bear upon it the stamp of its relationship with certain plants which altered the individual and mass psyche. We can think of numerous examples, the influence, for instance, of sugar on the growth of 19th Century mercantilism. Or the way in which the British manipulated opium policy in the far east. Or, as you mentioned, uh, alcohol, which has always been the drug of choice, uh, in Western culture. Who can imagine modern industrial office culture without coffee? These are major drug dependencies that have placed their stamp on the lives of millions and millions of people. It's simply that we choose to linguistically define it in such a way that the effect is not something most people are cognizant of.

JM: I think coffee is a very interesting example because when it was first introduced into our culture, as I understand, it was considered virtually a hallucinogenic drug.

TM: Oh yes, when coffee was first introduced into Western culture, uh, it was associated with certain establishments where loose women and loud music were available, and the bohemian literati would gather and drink coffee and talk into the night, and it was considered quite a, uh, risqué thing to be involved with, that's right.

JM: And, and wasn't tobacco also viewed that way initially?

TM: Yes, tobacco was a very similar case. The anthropologist Eduardo Luna has pointed out that tobacco, which had a history of millennia of use in the new world, was, within a hundred years of being introduced into Europe through Portugal, was being buried in the graves of subarctic, Lapland, shamans. So, it shows how the character of the drug is quickly discerned by a culture, even a culture that is encountering that plant or that drug for the first time.

JM: I.., It wouldn't be fair really to talk about drugs without mentioning, socially, what's happened in western culture, particularly during the 60s and early 70s when there was quite a wave of psychedelic drug use.

TM: Yes that's right. Following upon the discovery of LSD by Albert Hoffman in the late 30's and then the writing on the subject of the psychedelic experience that was done by Aldous Huxley, uh, Metzner, and others, it became a fad of the self-exploring youth culture of the 60's to be involved with these things. Uh... this was during a time of great social upheaval for other reasons, and the end product of that historical episode was the complete suppression of the study of psychedelic drugs, and, in my opinion, to the great detriment to the development of psychology. I feel that, uh, potentially psychedelic drugs could be for psychology what the telescope became for the science of astronomy. The problem with the psychedelics is, that they, uh, dissolve cultural programming and hence, inherently, have a political charge about them. You see, culture is the product of the unperturbed human mind. The human mind, unperturbed, through the medium of language, erects institutions and social structures which into which it then secretes itself, and sort of lives in a private Idaho. A psychedelic drug will dissolve these linguistic and cultural assumptions. It is a perturbation of the mind, and the perturbed mind is a mind in the act of rediscovering the nature that lies outside of culture. So this tension between cultural values and what we might call, for want a better word, reality, creates a tension between institutions and the users of these substances.

JM: It's as if our culture, if I understand you right, acts as a filter, uh, between our minds and and direct experience of of reality and the drugs, somehow, blow away that crust of culture and allow more of a direct, a gnostic experience.

TM: That's right; and the business of culture, any culture, is to perpetuate it's cultural models, and if the hallucinogenic plants have not been integrated into the cultural model then they are definitely seen as dangerous forces for an unpredictable sort of social change. Now, if the hallucinogenic plants have been integrated into the cultural model, this is not then a problem, and this is the case with Shamanism. Shamanism is the, uh, culturally sanctified institution of, uh, inner exploration via psychoactive plants. Where psychoactive plants are not present, shamanic institutions tend to become vitiated, to rely on ritual, or ordeals, or, uh, other methods of elucitin- eliciting these ecstatic states, but, to my mind, and this is a great argument which rages in anthropology, uh, to my mind, and I'm in agreement with Wasson here, the hallucinogenic plants are the sine qua non for an active shamanism.

JM: For authentic-

TM: An authentic shamanism, that's right. Now, Mircea Eliade, who's the great, uh, commentator on shamanism took then an entirely different point of view and said reliance on, what he called narcotics was a decadent phase of shamanism, but if we examine Eliade's, uh, personal history, I think it can be clearly seen that this was simply the cultural myopia of a European scholar in the great 19th century model.

JM: Sort of still under the sway of a Victorian sense of, uh, morality.

TM: Uh, yes, sort of taking the point of- the superior point of view that, while these are primitive people, surely our greater epistemological sophistication puts us in a position to judge them.

JM: You have the same controversy, don't you now, within the Hindu tradition where many gurus say 'no drugs', and are denying I suppose the, uh, um, the tradition of the Rigveda which we spoke of earlier.

TM: That's absolutely correct uh, the Mahabharata, which is the central core text of late reformed Hinduism, explicitly forbids mushrooms to the Brahman class; they are a forbidden food, but in ethnography we're taught that a taboo usually indicates a previous involvement and fascination, and, uh, in fact, the early Hinduism of the Vedic phase was definitely more analogous to the hallucinogenic shamanism of the Amazon Basin than it is to the extremely stratified, uh, Hinduism of modern India

JM: Do you find the use of drugs of this type, hallucinogenic drugs, in the Tantric traditions, the traditions that deliberately use taboos in order to inculcate higher states of awareness?

TM: Yes, well, when you go to India, you discover that the one thing that is not stressed in Hinduism as it is exported to the West, is the immense reliance on cannabis. Hashish, Ganja, is, uh, the stable of these Sadhus. This is a fact of their daily life, that they are relying on this for a, uh, constantly reinforced contact with the, uh, transcendental dimension. Mhm.

JM: You know, I think it's interesting how you referred earlier to the, uh, shamanistic religions as being the ones that really have sanctified the use of these drugs for religious purposes, and yet we find in our Western tradition, Christianity has come and in an effect labeled these sorts of things as diabolic. Uh for example, uh, drugs, I believe, uh, were used, uh, amongst various witchcraft groups that were persecuted by the church.

TM: That's right, however, the church was concerned that the magic of the witches be seen as real, number one, and number two, entirely caused by the agency of the devil himself, and so the church downplayed the operational role role that plants had in inducing these states, because, after all, if the devil cannot lead you astray without the use of plants, why, what kind of devil is it? So in our own, uh, historical tradition, there is a curious blindness to the efficacy of hallucinogenic plants.

JM: I have heard, for example, in you know the old story of, of witches using toad skins in in their brews that that there's a drug called bufotenine in- which is a hallucinogenic that comes from the skin of toads.

TM: Well, there was excitement about bufotenine in the mid-60s; it was later shown to be non-psychoactive. However, since then, toads have been found which do secrete DMT-like compounds, and it's fairly clear that the cauldron chemistry of the witches which relied on datura, hellebore, monkshood, henbane, these sorts of plants, was a powerful, uh, visionary chemistry, although these compounds, uh, the tropane alkaloids that occur in those plants, tend to be more deliriants and confusants than what I call the classical psychedelic compounds, which are more the tryptamines and the beta-carbolines. There are many chemical compounds in nature which are psychoactive, but a much narrower spectrum of these compounds are truly what we call psychedelic, or mind-manifesting.

JM: Now, other than the, uh, obvious spiritual and religious implications which we see again and again in different cultures, even, and I suppose we should mention the Native American Church and their use of

TM: -peyote.

JM: peyote uh, uh, what are the other kinds of cultural developments that we can trace to the use of these drugs?

TM: Well, I think the most profound cultural development is, it is possible to make the case that language itself is an ability that was coaxed out of an evolving primate species by virtue of the fact that there were hallucinogenic plants in the diet of that creature. You see, psilocybin has been shown in low doses to actually increase visual acuity. Well, at the stage of evolution where human beings encountered psilocybin mushrooms, we were essentially baboon-like, pack hunting hoards of veldt-living creatures in Africa. In that situation, a compound which increases visual acuity will give a tremendous adaptive advantage to the animals that are including it in their diet, and those animals not including it in their diet will be quickly eliminated by the process of natural selection from the evolutionary scenario. So, it's possible to argue that this mind-manifesting quality of the psychedelics actually conferred an evolutionary, uh, advantage on certain primates who then were able to bootstrap themselves to higher and higher states of reflective self-awareness. This may lie behind the very early coincidence of cattle, goddesses, and mushrooms in the apparent obsessions of early man as reflected by the cave paintings on the Algerian plateau and in southern France and Spain. We always find the notion of the mystery, circa 18,000 years ago, connected with the idea of cattle, and we always find the cattle connected with the notion of the great Goddess. Now, it may be that the hidden and third member of this trinity was a hallucinogenic mushroom of some sort.

JM: We've got only about 2 minutes left but I, I wonder what the connection; I don't, I don't quite see it between the mushroom and the cattle and the Goddess.

TM: The mushrooms grow in the manure of the cattle. When the hunting packs of early primates followed along behind the cattle, they inevitably encountered the mushroom, ate it, had their visual skills thereby increased, bred more readily therefore, and survived more easily than their non-mushroom eating cousins, and so, the eating of mushrooms and the development of higher aspects of consciousness, including self reflection, were thereby enforced, leading to the conclusion that it was actually a symbiotic relationship between early primates and these hallucinogenic plants that laid the basis for the appearance of what we call human beings.

JM: Well, Terence McKenna, this is a very interesting discussion. You seem to be suggesting that our evolution, I suppose, from the animal kingdom into the human kingdom itself was catalyzed or, or triggered by our encounter with these hallucinogenics um.

TM: Yes, we are an ape with a symbiotic relationship to a mushroom, and that has given us self-reflection, language, religion, and all the spectrum of effects that flow from these things.

JM: Yeah. And one can only wonder how these hallucinogens might affect our future evolution as well.

TM: They have brought us to this point and as we make our relationship to them conscious, we may be able to take control of our future evolutionary path

JM: Terence McKenna, thank you very much for being with me.

TM: It was a pleasure.

JM: For me too. And thank you very much for being with us.

[Theme music]

[On screen text: 'Inner Work' ... 'For a complete catalog of videotapes please write to:

5966 Zinn Drive
Oakland CA 94611

(415)339-0466' ... 'Series hosted by: Jeffrey Mishlove Produced and directed by: Arthur Bloch' ... 'Production crew: Don Anderson Stacy Bailey Julie Barker Monica Caldwell Laura Chariton Giselle Kappus' ... 'Theme music: Joseph Marc Title animation: Video Arts' ... 'THINKING ALLOWED productions (c) 1988']

Original Transcription by: John C
Review 1 by: Eva Petakovic
Review 2 by [admin only]: Kevin Whitesides

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