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What is an Entheogen?

An entheogen is a substance, often from plants or fungi, that's used in spiritual or religious contexts to foster profound experiences or awakenings. These natural compounds can alter perception and consciousness, connecting users to deeper aspects of the self or the divine. How might these ancient practices inform modern spiritual journeys? Join us as we examine the role of entheogens across cultures.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An entheogen is a drug which has a history of religious or shamanic use. Most entheogens are hallucinogens, although some are mood-altering substances. Entheogens are all derived from plants and other natural sources, a key difference between entheogens and synthetically compounded drugs. The use of entheogens is controversial in some cultures, primarily out of concern that these drugs can all be used for recreational as well as religious use, making it difficult to determine when someone is using such drugs for religious or personal reasons.

The use of psychoactive substances to communicate with the divine appears to be ancient, judging from archaeological evidence. Many early human cultures used a variety of substances in an attempt to communicate with God or the Gods, and this tradition evolved as human cultures became more complex. Entheogens were most typically taken by priests and shamans, or by groups of religious celebrants at specific festivals and events, and often taboos banned the use of such drugs in a non-religious context.

Cannabis plants are an entheogen.
Cannabis plants are an entheogen.

Some examples of entheogens from around the world include: kava, ayahuasca, peyote, mead, henbane, psilocybin, blue lotus, tobacco, fly agaric, hashish, and cannabis. As can be seen from this list, some entheogens began to be used in a secular context at some point in history. Tobacco, for example, was introduced to Europe by explorers who met Native American tribes who used it, and mead was a common beverage in the medieval era. Other entheogens have become restricted substances in many societies.

Tobacco, which is commonly found in cigarettes, is an entheogen.
Tobacco, which is commonly found in cigarettes, is an entheogen.

Like other hallucinogens, an entheogen can profoundly alter brain chemistry. The safety of entheogen use is largely dependent on how the drug is grown, harvested, and handled, and the individual levels of mind-altering compounds in the plant. People respond very differently to entheogen use because these drugs cannot be carefully compounded and controlled like their synthetic counterparts, and adverse reactions have been known to occur. Prolonged entheogen use can also have adverse health effects.

The fly agaric mushroom is an entheogen.
The fly agaric mushroom is an entheogen.

Many cultures list entheogens as controlled substances, reflecting the fact that they have no apparent medicinal value, and they can be quite dangerous. In regions where there is a legitimate historic use of entheogens, people from cultures and religions which use these drugs may be allowed to carry and use limited amounts. Especially in regions where religions freedom is valued, the use of entheogens by qualified individuals is protected by law, but penalties for selling the drugs to outsiders can be severe.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is an entheogen?

Freedom of religion might protect the right of some individuals to use an otherwise illegal entheogen.
Freedom of religion might protect the right of some individuals to use an otherwise illegal entheogen.

An entheogen is a class of psychoactive substances that are used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context to induce alterations in perception, consciousness, cognition, and mood. The term is derived from the Greek words "entheos" (full of the god, inspired, possessed) and "genesthai" (to come into being). Entheogens have been used in ritualistic ceremonies for centuries and are often associated with facilitating transcendent experiences and personal insights.

Can entheogens be found in nature?

Yes, many entheogens are naturally occurring and have been sourced from plants and fungi. For example, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote cacti, and ayahuasca vine are well-known entheogens that have been used traditionally by indigenous cultures. These natural substances contain psychoactive compounds that interact with the brain's serotonin receptors, leading to altered states of consciousness.

Are entheogens legal?

The legality of entheogens varies widely by country and substance. In the United States, for instance, many entheogens are classified as Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, making them illegal for general use. However, there are exceptions for certain religious groups, such as the Native American Church's use of peyote. Additionally, some cities and states are beginning to decriminalize or legalize the use of certain entheogens, like psilocybin mushrooms.

What are the potential benefits of using entheogens?

Research into entheogens has suggested potential therapeutic benefits, including the treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. According to studies, substances like psilocybin can provide significant and lasting reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms. For example, a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that a single dose of psilocybin significantly improved life satisfaction and positive mood in participants (Griffiths et al., 2016).

How do entheogens differ from other psychoactive substances?

Entheogens are distinguished from other psychoactive substances by their traditional use in spiritual or religious contexts. While recreational drugs are often used for pleasure or escape, entheogens are typically consumed with the intention of facilitating spiritual experiences or personal growth. The set (mindset of the user) and setting (environment in which it is used) are considered crucial in the entheogenic experience, emphasizing the substance's purpose as a tool for exploration of the psyche and spirit.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon259793

Entheogenic drugs work for a intense spiritual experience with god. Trust me.

sunnySkys

@KaBoom - I understand your skepticism. I personally don't feel comfortable judging the validity of another person's religious experience. Entheogenic drugs may not be my cup of tea, but if other people consider them an integral part of their religion, that's their prerogative.

I definitely do think there should be harsh penalties for selling the drugs to outsiders to use recreationally. In my opinion, recreational drug use and drug use as part of a religious ceremony are two very different things.

KaBoom

I've always thought this was a really interesting topic. I have a few friends that have tried entheogenic drugs in a religious setting, and they had fairly profound experiences. In their opinions at least.

Part of me can't help but wondering if they were just, well, high. I know I've had some "profound" revelations while drunk before. Of course, when I sobered up I realized it was ridiculous. My friends who tried the entheogens still thought their experience was valid when they came down from the high.

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    • Cannabis plants are an entheogen.
      By: Boyan Dimitrov
      Cannabis plants are an entheogen.
    • Tobacco, which is commonly found in cigarettes, is an entheogen.
      By: Nomad_Soul
      Tobacco, which is commonly found in cigarettes, is an entheogen.
    • The fly agaric mushroom is an entheogen.
      By: Jag_cz
      The fly agaric mushroom is an entheogen.
    • Freedom of religion might protect the right of some individuals to use an otherwise illegal entheogen.
      By: oconnelll
      Freedom of religion might protect the right of some individuals to use an otherwise illegal entheogen.