Entheogens

CARL A. P. RUCK*, JEREMY BIGWOOD†, DANNY STAPLES*,
JONATHAN OTT † & R. GORDON WASSON†

All languages grow together with the peoples who speak them,
borrowing or inventing terms to keep pace with what is new and
retiring others when they are no longer needed. When the recent
surge of recreational use of so-called "hallucinogenic" or
"psychedelic" drugs first came to popular attention in the early
1960s, it was commonly viewed with suspicion and associated with
the behavior of deviant or revolutionary groups. Apart from the
slang of the various subcultures, there was no adequate terminology
for this class of drugs. Words were manufactured, and in their
making they betrayed the incomprehension or prejudice of the
times.

Out of the many words proposed to describe this unique class of
drugs only a few have survived in current usage. It is the contention
of the authors who have subscribed their names to this article that
none of these terms really deserve greater longevity, if our language
is not to perpetuate the misunderstandings of the past.

We commonly refer, for example, to the alteration of sensory
perceptions as "hallucination" and hence a drug that effected such
a change became known as an "hallucinogen."1 The verb
"hallucinate," however, immediately imposes a value judgment
upon the nature of the altered perceptions, for it means "to be
deceived or entertain false notions." It comes from the Latin
(h)al(l)ucinari, "to wander mentally or talk nonsensically," and is
synonymous with verbs meaning to be delirious or insane. It
appears, moreover, to have been borrowed from the Greek, where
it is related to a group of words that imply restless movement and
perplexed excitement, such as that caused by grief and despair.
How can such a term allow one to discuss without bias those
transcendent and beatific states of communion with deity that
numerous peoples believe they or their shamans attain through the
ingestion of what we now call "hallucinogens?"

The other terms are no less damning. During the first decade
after the discovery of LSD, scientific investigators of the influence
of these drugs on the mental processes (most of whom, it is clear,
had no personal experience of their effects) had the impression that
they seemed to approximate deranged and psychotic states. Hence
the term "psychotomimetic" was coined for a drug that induced
psychosis. Psychology, which is etymologically the study of the
"soul," has until recently concerned itself only with mental illness
and aberrant behavior, and all of the terms formed from the psycho-
root suffer from this connotation of sickness: psychotic, for
example, cannot mean "soulful." Osmond attempted to avoid these
adverse associations when he coined "psychedelic,"2 the only word
in English that employs the anomalous root psyche- instead of psycho-,
in hopes that this term, as distinct from "psychotomimetic," might
indicate something that "reveals the soul." However, not only is
"psychedelic" an incorrect verbal formation, but it has become so
invested with connotations of the pop-culture of the 1960s that it is
incongruous to speak of a shaman's taking a "psychedelic" drug. It
is probable, moreover, that even its anomalous formation cannot
isolate it from confusion with the psycho- words, so that it suffers
from the same problem as "psychotropic," which tends to mean
something that "turns one toward psychotic states" instead of
merely toward an altered mentality.

We, therefore, propose a new term that would be appropriate for
describing states of shamanic and ecstatic possession induced by
ingestion of mind-altering drugs. In Greek the word entheos means
literally "god (theos) within," and was used to describe the condition
that follows when one is inspired and possessed by the god that has
entered one's body. It was applied to prophetic seizures, erotic
passion and artistic creation, as well as to those religious rites in
which mystical states were experienced through the ingestion of
substances that were transubstantial with the deity. In combination
with the Greek root gen-, which denotes the action of "becoming,"
this word results in the term that we are proposing: entheogen. Our
word sits easily on the tongue and seems quite natural in English.
We could speak of entheogens or, in an adjectival form, of entheogenic
plants or substances. In a strict sense, only those vision-producing
drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious
rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the ter
could also be applied to other drugs, both natural at artificial, that
induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for
ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.

NOTES

1. "Hallucinogen" and "hallucinogenic" were first used in print
by Donald Johnson, an English physician, in a pamphlet entitled
The Hallucinogenic Drugs (Christopher Johnson, London, 1953).
Johnson, however, borrowed the term from three American
physicians, Abram Hoffer, Humphry Osmond and John Smythies,
who did not use it in print until the following year.

2. In a letter to Humphry Osmond dated 30 March1956, Aldous
Huxley proposed that mescaline be called a "phanerothyme."
Huxley penned the sprightly lines:


To make this trivial world sublime,
Take a half a gramme of phanerothyme.

Osmond replied with the following ditty:

To fathom Hell or soar angelic,
Just take a pinch of psychedelic.

Much of the credit must go to Ralph Metzner and Timothy
Leary for popularizing "psychedelic." In the spring of 1963, the
premier issue of Psychedelic Review was published in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, under the editorship of Metzner, Osmond and
Leary, among others. Psychedelic Review is now defunct, but the term
is perpetuated by the title of the present Journal of Psychedelic Drugs.
Huxley's odd term did not fare so well. From Huxley's letter it is
clear the word meant "soul-manifester" to him. Greek thymos,
however, means "organ of passion, temper and anger," and
"phanerothyme" would indicate a drug which made intense
emotions manifest.



* Department of Classical Studies, Boston University Boston,
Massachusetts 02215.

† Independent researchers.



Journal of Psychedelic Drugs (now Journal of Psychoactive Drugs)
145-146 Vol. 11(1-2) Jan-Jun, 1979

 

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