Psychoactives in Religion: A Brief Survey Of Weird and Interesting Religious History

Elio Geusa

Elio Geusa

January 17, 2024

What you will be learning

In this article you will learn about a few examples of the influence that plant medicines may have had in the development of world religion, starting with ancient Judaism and Christianity, then exploring the pagan traditions of Scandinavia, and concluding with a quick look at the long-standing cosmology of the native Shipibo of the Amazon.

For what seems like centuries, the idea that psychedelics played a significant role in the development of modern religions was treated with disdain and repulsion from nearly all walks of life, from religious authorities to academic scholars. Indeed, it has been hundreds of years since the first academics raised questions regarding the possibility that psychedelics had a place in the narratives of spiritual texts of ancient times.

Of course, evidence is abundant that the religions of the world were influenced by psychedelics; abundant, at least, for those interested and open-minded enough to see it. There is certainly enough in the historical record to justify further investigation and discussion – which is exactly what some authors began doing, principally in the 1960s, coincident with the hippie movement and increased awareness of psychedelics.

It may come as a surprise to some that psychedelics have been a part of human history for millennia, but an abundance of archeological evidence shows clearly that ancient civilizations had relationships with the native psychoactive species of their respective regions. In the Americas, for example, native civilizations used active species of plants, cactus, and mushrooms, with evidence of these practices dating back over five thousand years. In North Africa, psychedelic mushroom use has been identified dating back as far as 9,000 years.

Ancient cave drawing includes mushrooms in its artwork
Ancient cave drawings depict mushrooms in their artworks

Actual psychoactive substances have been confirmed among ritual artifacts unearthed in the Andes Mountains. A cave mural in Spain dating back approximately six thousand years ago depicts mushrooms in ceremony. The Near East contains ample evidence of psychoactive plant use dating back several thousand years.


The Burning Psychedelic Bush

Considering such a long-standing relationship that humans have had with psychoactive substances, it makes sense to further consider the possibility that historical references to religious experiences were in some ways influenced by this relationship. Take for example the very real possibility that Moses, of Old Testament fame, was under the influence of a substance akin to ayahuasca during his extraordinary experience talking to the angel of god. As the story goes, Moses experienced an extraordinary interaction with a heavenly angel who was situated in a bush that was on fire, but neither the bush nor the messenger of God burned. This story is found in Exodus, in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible.

Many who have read this story have considered it to be a strange and even nonsensical tale, while others have inevitably drawn the conclusion that the protagonist of the story may have ingested something that made him hallucinate. And on its face, this is not too much of a stretch: removed from all religiosity and context, it is a story of a man who is talking to a supernatural being inside of a tree that is on fire and yet not burning the tree.

The acacia tree growing in an arid desert climate
Growing in desertlike climates, the acacia tree can contain up to 2% DMT in its bark.

Dr. Benny Shanon, an Israeli psychologist and linguist, is one of many academics who has pointed out that Moses stood a very good chance of being under the influence of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, during this extraordinary divine experience, and the fact that this possibility has been largely overlooked may simply be due to a poor understanding of its prevalence in those ancient times. Native to Moses’s homelands in the Middle East, the acacia is a tough shrubby tree that is a pioneer specie and often appears after fires. The bark of the acacia tree contains up to 2% DMT and extracting it is a simple matter of boiling it down, much like boiling down the DMT-containing psychotria plant tissue used in South American ayahuasca. Dr. Sharon points to the use of Syrian Rue, peganum harmala, also native to the area and rich in monoamine oxidase inhibitors, as an analog to the baniseriopsis caapi plant used to make ayahuasca. A decoction of Acacia together with Syrian Rue is a viable means of creating an ingestible DMT-containing psychedelic that acts much the same as ayahuasca brews in South America. (Important note, this forumla for making an ayahuasca-like brew is associated with its own set of risks; please be aware of them and always choose professional ayahuasca retreat practitioners to accompany and guide you on your journey. )

Dr. Shanon’s research also goes beyond the story of Moses. He is keen to point out that plant species at the time were considered sacred and the keepers of knowledge. Anyone who is familiar with the beliefs of the Shipibo tribe of the Amazon and their belief in the power of ‘Master Plants’ will immediately draw the connection between the intimate similarities here.

Dr. Shanon is not the only Hebrew religious scholar who has made these connections: Dr. Rick Strassman has written extensively on the topic. He points out that the spiritual experiences described by figures in the Old Testament are strikingly similar to testimonies of modern day peoples’ DMT journeys, and may well have been a result of the same experiences.


Christianity’s Psychedelic Influence

Historical Christian artwork depicting mushrooms in a religious context
Historical Christian artwork depicting and associating mushrooms with prayer and divine presence

Following the Judeo-Christian tradition of religion, early Christianity may well have also been replete with influence from psychedelic substances. Author John Marco Allegro pioneered investigation into the use of psychedelics in early Christian development. Partly because his work was published well before its time in 1970, and partly because his pioneering work was breaking new ground and had little to no precedent, Allegro’s book was met with considerable scorn and ridicule, but it also opened the door of inquiry that had been long shut, allowing further inquiry and research to come forth.

Dr. Jerry Brown’s work addressing hallucinogens in early Christianity ponders the role that psychedelics may have played in the life of Jesus Christ and the possibility that the role of psychedelics in the development of Christianity has been suppressed by Christian institutions over the last two millennia. The more recently published work of investigator Brian Muraresku delves deeper into this same subject with a wealth of new evidence and documentation.


Merry Mushroom Christmas

The Christmas holiday with all of its iconology and symbolism is perhaps the most relatable modern-day religious occasion from which psychedelic influences can be drawn from history, particularly with its connection to amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, a psychedelic and mildly poisonous mushroom. In fact, there are so many connections to draw that for many people, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that many Christmas traditions that we are familiar with trace back to this entheogen.

By way of background, amanita muscaria is a red and white mushroom that grows abundantly in the Northern hemisphere. The traditional shamans of modern-day Russia and Northern Europe collected these mushrooms and dried them for winter storage by hanging them on the branches of trees, a technique that also reduced the mushroom’s toxicity. According to the historical narratives dating back hundreds of years, the shamans who collected and dried amanita muscaria would travel from house to house and deliver the dried mushrooms as gifts. Because of the amount of snow that could often accumulate at the base of houses, people would enter in and out of houses by way of a hatch or door in the roof of the house.

Amanita muscaria has an affinity for growing below pine trees. It is a favorite snack of reindeer, which forage for the mushroom throughout the year, including in winter. Reindeer are prevalent throughout much of the range where amanita grows, including the Northernmost regions of Siberia.

Old Scandinavian holiday artwork showing elves and red and white speckled mushrooms
Old Scandinavian holiday artwork shows the connection between mushrooms and winter elves with bags full of gifts

It is not difficult to make some fairly obvious connections here between these olden-days traditions of the far north with modern-day traditions of Christmas. Santa Claus dresses in red and white matching the colors of amanita muscaria. He goes traveling from house to house, entering through the chimneys of homes to deliver brightly colored gifts that he has created over the course of the past year, placing them under pine trees inside peoples’ homes, just as traveling shamans used to enter homes through roofs to bring dried mushrooms which grow under pine trees that they had prepared over the course fo the past year, hanging the mushrooms on the branches of trees to dry just as people today hang ornaments on the branches of their Christmas trees inside their homes.

Santa Claus travels with reindeer, the same reindeer which eat amanita muscaria mushrooms, and one of his reindeer has a nose that is bright red like an amanita mushroom. And of course, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, in the far north, where reindeer naturally range. And finally, all historical similarities aside, the simple storyline of a flying magical man who knows whether everyone on earth has been naughty or nice, who can come and go undetected, who lives with little elves in a winter wonderland…indeed one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more psychedelic story than that.

Whether it’s Santa Claus taking a trip across the winter sky, or ancient biblical figures experiencing hallucinatory visions, or perhaps ancient accounts of many-armed human-animal deities of the Hindu tradition, one simple conclusion that can be made from these interesting stories is that some of the religious traditions that we know of today must inevitably describe psychedelic experiences of ancient times. From this it is entirely logical to believe that psychedelics can open the doors of perception to facilitate extraordinary experiences – experiences which many would have no trouble calling divine, and therefore ascribing religious meaning to them. Such an idea is not an opinion or statement one way or another regarding the validity of any theology or cosmology; rather it is an insight into the uncanny similarities found between divine stories of religions and extrasensory experiences found in psychedelics.


The Shipibo’s Intrinsically Psychoactive Cosmology

Of course, the more spiritually-minded members of the Shipibo in the Peruvian Amazon will tell you that psychedelics such as the ayahuasca native to their region are a means to attain a more spiritually attuned way of life. Indeed, according to the cosmology of the Shipibo, ayahuasca is one of many tools to do exactly that. In the Shipibo belief system, ayahuasca allows us to see the patterns that make up the sacred tapestry of existence, the fabric of our reality which was once unified in ancient. The patterns of this divine tapestry are visible to us in our minds’ eye when imbibing ayahuasca; they are the same patterns that the Shipibo incorporate into their textiles and their earthwares.

The Shipibo embrace a cosmology wherein order, harmony and balance are the natural tendencies of the universe, and ayahuasca facilitates the removal of blockages which prevent human beings from living in a state of harmony and balance. Not only is the psychedelic experience not shunned or denied a place in the Shipibo cosmology, it is indeed a notable part of it.

It is with these shamans that AYA Healing Retreats works in the Amazon region of Peru outside of Iquitos in our ayahuasca retreats.