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The History Of Hallucinogens, Psychedelics & Entheogens -

The History Of Hallucinogens, Psychedelics & Entheogens

October 11, 2022
Psychedelics and Hallucinogens History
Psychedelics and Hallucinogens History

When you think of the early years of psychedelic drugs, you probably picture the counterculture movement in the 1960s, a decade that popularized the use of LSD and gave rise to many psychedelic songs, books, poems, and works of art. But the history of these mind-altering substances goes back much further than that.

Prehistoric Uses of Hallucinogenic Substances

Stoned Ape Theory posits that psilocybin mushrooms played a crucial role in human development, giving us an evolutionary head-start that allowed us to hunt better and form altruistic communities. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not based on any actual scientific research and there’s simply no way that magic mushroom use would have altered our DNA.

However, it’s fairly safe to assume that our ancestors did use some psychoactive and psychedelic drugs, both accidentally and intentionally.

Not only were these substances widespread in the natural world, but we’ve also seen how important they can be to Amazonian tribes, many of which live like our ancestors would have done. These drugs would have provided early humans with mystical experiences and may have assumed a spiritual significance among tribes trying to come to terms with the world around them.

Of course, we don’t know for sure, as very little survives from that period and they weren’t exactly meticulous with their record keeping.

Hallucinogens in the Ancient World

One of the earliest records of psychedelic use comes from a religious rite in ancient Greece.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were annual initiations for the cult of Demeter and Persephone, the Goddess of the Harvest and the Queen of the Underworld. At the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a drink known as kykeon was consumed and it is widely believed to have been psychoactive.

The drink contained a mixture of wine, grains, and cheese. It may also have contained ergot, a fungus that infects grain and has strong hallucinogenic properties.

Ergot contains an alkaloid known as ergotamine, which is a precursor to LSD. During the middle ages, this fungus occasionally found its way into the food supply and led to mass poisonings. In 944, it’s believed to have killed over 40,000 people across France, and in the 18th century, it also struck down the army of Peter the Great.

Ergot poisoning has also been blamed for many cases of mass hysteria, and some have attributed it to the hysteria that led to the Salem witch trials.

Hallucinogenic drug use was also common in early Mesoamerican civilizations. Many different cultures in the Pre-Columbian era used psilocybin mushrooms and other hallucinogens in a ritual or religious context.

Hallucinogens in the Modern Era

The first mention of magic mushroom use in European medical reports came in 1799. A London man harvested Psilocybe semilanceata (Liberty Cap) mushrooms and gave them to his child, thinking them to be harmless edible mushrooms.

The child was later treated by an apothecary, who noted that the child was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter”.

Magic mushrooms became popular during the 1950s. In 1955, two ethnomycologists became the first European Americans to participate in an indigenous magic mushroom ceremony. A year later, the mushrooms that the pair brought back with them were identified as Psilocybe, and in 1958, Albert Hofmann identified the compounds in those mushrooms as being psilocybin and psilocin.

A decade earlier, Hofmann had synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) from lysergic acid (by way of ergotamine) and recorded many of his experiences.

All of this paved the way for the 1960s when recreational drug use exploded. This drug class became popular with rock stars, poets, authors, and actors, inspiring everyone from Allen Ginsberg to The Beatles.

The 1960s was also a great decade for psychedelic research, with a number of clinical trials suggesting that psychedelic drugs could be used to treat everything from substance dependence to mood disorders.

Unfortunately, this research pretty much ground to a halt during the 1970s, but it has picked up again in recent years.

Hallucinogen Use in the Military

During the Second World War, German soldiers were given a drug called “Pervitin”, which was nicknamed Panzerschokolade or “tank chocolate”, as it was often given to Panzer tank crews.

Today, it’s better known as crystal or ice.

In other words, many German soldiers were high on methamphetamine.

Cocaine and heroin were also used during the First World War, both as painkillers and anesthetics, and if you go back many more centuries, you’ll find countless incidents of opium and alcohol being used to heal and sedate injured and scared troops.

It’s fair to say that psychoactive substances have a long history of use in warfare. But what about hallucinogens? Opium kills pain and stimulants can make a soldier fearless, but what good will a hallucinogen do?

Believe it or not, these drugs were used in several major conflicts.

During the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879, for instance, Zulu troops were said to have been given a mixture of stimulants and hallucinogens, the latter of which likely came from amanita muscaria mushrooms, better known as fly agaric.

It has been speculated that berserkers (a name given to Norse warriors who would enter a trance-like state) also used amanita muscaria, and that mescaline cacti were used by Aztec warriors.

FAQ About the History of Hallucinogenic Substances

If the guide above didn’t answer your questions on the historical use of psychedelic and psychoactive drugs, then check out the following FAQ:

When Was The First Hallucinogen Used?

Albert Hofmann was the first person to use LSD in 1943, but the first-ever users of psychoactive mushrooms and cacti have been lost to history.

Why Were Hallucinogens Used In Ancient Times?

The psychedelic effects produced by these drugs may have led users to believe they were connecting to a spiritual world.

They may have even believed that they were visiting the gods.

Early humans were animists, which means they believed that animals, objects, and places had spirits and could influence human events.

Imagine that you don’t have the benefit of modern medicine and science. You don’t know how the human brain works and think that everything around you possesses a soul.

One day, you stumble across a mushroom. You’re hungry, so you eat, and the next thing you know, your perception has shifted, your mind has opened to new thoughts and ideas, and it feels like you’re “one” with the world. There’s a good chance that you’ll start to believe the mushroom gave you its spirit/power or allowed you to see the spirits around you.

Not only will you have a great deal of respect for that mushroom, but you may come to worship it or use it in important religious practices.

What Is The Origin Of Psychedelic?

The word psychedelic is a combination of the Greek words “ψυχή” which means “mind” or “soul” and “δῆλος”, which means “manifest”.

Incidentally, ψυχή also gives us the first part of psychology (“study of the soul”), as well as a number of other words (psyche, psychosis, psychiatry).

What Is The Oldest Hallucinogen?

Mescaline is often called the oldest known psychedelic. It was also the first psychedelic to be synthesized.

Mescaline is the main active component of peyote and San Pedro cactus.

Amanita muscaria could also be one of the oldest, though, in truth, we don’t know which came first or even which was used first.

What are Entheogens?

Entheogens are drugs that promote religious and spiritual experiences. Most examples are from the Americas, where there is a long history of drugs being used for spiritual purposes.

What Does Entheogen Mean?

Unsurprisingly, the word “entheogen” also comes to us from ancient Greek. It roughly translates as “god within”.

It’s a combination of the words “εν” meaning “in” and “θεός” meaning “god”.

You may also recognize “θεός” or “theos” from words like Atheism (without god), polytheism (many gods), and monotheism (one god).

What Are Examples Of Entheogens?

Ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, and peyote are all examples of entheogens.