CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances

Edited by J. Harold Ellens
2014, published by Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA
ISBN-10: 1440830878 ISBN-13: 978-1440830877
2 vols.; 830 pages; hardcover
Price: ranges from $80-130

Of the many aspects of mushrooms and other fungi that make them alluring to the general public, is their use (down through history and in present times) as entheogens.

An entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is “a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context that often induces psychological or physiological changes. Entheogens have been used to supplement many diverse practices geared towards achieving transcendence, including meditation, yoga, prayer, psychedelic art, chanting, and multiple forms of music. They have also been historically employed in traditional medicine via psychedelic therapy” (from Wikipedia).

Mushrooms including Psilocybe spp., Amanita muscaria, and others likely have been used for millennia (and thus long before Timothy Leary and Gordon Wasson dosed the hippies with them during the Summer of Love) as entheogens for religious and other ceremonial purposes. The term “entheogen” can be used more broadly to refer to any psychoactive drugs when used for their religious or spiritual effects, whether or not in a formal religious or traditional structure. This terminology is often chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same drugs. Studies such as Roland Griffiths’ psilocybin studies at Johns Hopkins University have documented reports of mystical/spiritual/religious experiences from participants who were administered psychoactive drugs in controlled trials.

Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances is a two-volume set (I do not have a copy of volume 2, and so this review pertains to volume 1) compendium of articles and essays written by many authorities ranging from theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and acclaimed myconauts. The editor of this title is J. Harold Ellens, PhD, whose lengthy resume states he is a retired professor of psychology and philosophy, a retired Presbyterian theologian and pastor, and a psychotherapist in private practice.

The volume starts with an essay by the scholar Thomas Roberts, who lays out the three main ideas of the text: 1) that in the current era, religion is changing from the word propagated through scripture to increasingly democratized, personal sacred experiences cultivated within the lives of individuals; 2) that the common core of all religions is mysticism, in other words the idea of a perennial philosophy; and 3) that psychedelics can cause mystical experiences. What follows are essays that are either illustrations or explanations of these principles and range from reviews of scientific literature, pseudoscientific (in my opinion) theories about ancient cultures’ uses of entheogenic plants and fungi, and hippy-trippy personal accounts of entheogenic use—with commentary on “what it all must mean, maaaan!” A who’s who from psychedelic study are included in Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances including many household names to mycophiles, like Roland Griffiths and Carl A. P. Ruck. Ruck supplies two essays in volume 1 that are certainly fascinating reading (if mostly fantastic and implausible) on some religious uses of magic mushrooms and other substances from long lost civilizations— these will likely be well-known to many mycophiles, but if not, Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances will bring you up to speed. But whereas Ruck—standard bearer for the brigade of myconauts (R. Gordon Wasson, Terrence McKenna, John Allegro, et al.) who interpret every religious symbol of every religion on earth as evidence that all religions have their origins in bizarre mushroom cults—entertains us with fascinating (if unanimously dismissed by mycologists) flights of fancy, many of the other contributors’ essays are much more grounded in reality and scientific evidence. The journey down the long technicolor tie-dyed road that is Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances is one worth taking and I recommend this book to anyone interested in this facet of mycology. There are some side trips into the fantastic (and a couple essays could have benefitted from a spellchecker) but that did not spoil the ride for me.

There has been a recent resurgence in interest by the general public for information on psychedelic mushrooms and other entheogens. I hope this continues as it is an interesting topic to me personally, but I think there is tremendous potential in turning the chemistry of these curious mushrooms into powerful medicines that can help people who suffer afflictions that are untreatable with current drugs. There’s no doubt that hamstrung researchers will be free to do the research that sorely needs to be done, as entheogens goes from taboo to mainstream. The first step has been the rise in the use of “entheogen” over other similar terms like “hallucinogen” and “psychedelic.” It’s worthy to note that the neologism “entheogen” was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson). The term is derived from two words of ancient Greek, (entheos) and γενέσθαι (genesthai). The adjective entheos translates to English as “full of the god, inspired, possessed” (and is the root of the English word “enthusiasm;” the Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists). Genesthai means “to come into being.” Thus, an entheogen is a drug that causes one to become inspired or to experience feelings of inspiration, often in a religious or spiritual manner. Indeed, entheogen was coined as a replacement for the terms hallucinogen and psychedelic. Hallucinogen was popularized by Aldous Huxley’s experiences with mescaline, which were published as The Doors of Perception in 1954. Psychedelic, in contrast, is a Greek neologism for “mind manifest,” and was coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond; Huxley was a volunteer in experiments Osmond was conducting on mescaline. Ruck et al. argued that the term hallucinogen was inappropriate owing to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term psychedelic was also seen as problematic, owing to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960s pop culture. In modern usage entheogen may be used synonymously with these terms, or it may be chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same drugs. Ruck & Co. pioneered writing and thought about “magic mushrooms” several decades ago and it’s good to see they’re evangelizing. Although progress has been made, there is still a long ways to go.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi