Regular readers know that I am quite fascinated with the role drugs have played in shaping our myths, both ancient and modern. I daresay I am not alone either. In fact, many that have found this blog have seemingly found it while searching for drug-related material -by far my most popular post is one dealing with the links between entheogens and paranormal encounters.
Drugs are one of those things that inspire radical passions in individuals whether they be for or against. I am sure many of you are aware of the radical division in ideology between the pro and anti drug factions in the US. An equally radical division exists between many historians, mythologists, anthropologist, social scientists, and the like, but in regards to the importance of drugs in human development. In many of those fields drugs were almost entirely ignored up to the mid-20th century in terms of human and religious development. When they were mentioned by researchers they were largely held up as signs of a declining culture that had replace 'purer' spiritual practices. Then beginning in the late 1950s researchers such as R. Gordon Wasson began examining the role certain drugs played in the development of our social structures, especially religion. By the late 20th century researchers such as Terence McKenna were speculating that the evolution of the human brain were almost entirely the result of psychedelic drugs.
"My contention is that mutation-causing, psyoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain's information-processing capacities. Alkaloids in plants, specifically the hallucinogenic compounds such as psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmaline, could be the chemical factors in the protohuman diet that catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection. The action of hallucinogens present in many common plants enhanced our information-processing activity, or environmental sensitivity, and thus contributed to the sudden expansion of the human brain size. At a later stage in this same process, hallucinogens acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion."
(Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna, pg. 24)
Drugs are no doubt important, but to what extent? I am not a big fan of McKenna and feel that his theories put an over emphasis on the importance of drugs to all of human development. On the other hand, I do feel that drugs were instrumental in the development of religion and mythology. This article seeks to examine the uses of various drugs in the earliest stages of religion and their implications. But first, we must examine what types of religion early human practiced. And we also must search for the legendary Scarlet woman, who is one of the major keys to this whole puzzle. So, we begin...
In his legendary The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology Joseph Campbell broke early civilizations and their religious practices down into three stages of development. The first stage was marked by a curious equality and openness the more complex societies would largely forgo.
"...these humble hunting, fishing, and collecting people do not give rise to either a strong patriarchal or a strong a strong matriarchal emphasis; rather, an essential equality prevails between the sexes, each performing its appropriate task without arrogating to itself any special privileges or peculiar rights to command. The ceremonies of initiation at puberty are not confined to the boys and men, nor separated into male and female rites, but are nearly identical for the two sexes. Nor do the rites involve any physical deformations or the communication of mystical secrets. They are simply concentrated courses of education for adolescents, to the end of making good fathers and mother of the initiates."This first stage is about as close to the so called 'Golden Age' that the ancients were found of reminiscing upon. It is with the second two stages of development that we are most concerned with.
"The second stage or type of primitive society... is that of the large, totemistic hunting groups, with their elaborately developed clan systems, age classes, and tribal traditions of ritual and myth... Their rites of initiation... are secret. Women are excluded; physical mutilations and ordeals are carried sometimes to almost incredible extremes, and they culminate generally in circumcision. Moreover, there is considerable emphasis placed on the role and authority of the men, both in the religious and in the political organizations of the symbolically articulated community...
"... A very different course of development is to be traced, however, in the sphere of the tropical gardening cultures, where a third type or stage of social organization matured that was almost completely antithetical to that of the hunting peoples. For in these areas it was the women, not the men, who enjoyed the magico-religious and social advantages, they having been the ones to effect the transition from plant-collecting to plant-cultivation... Here it was women who showed themselves supreme: they were not only the bearers of children but also the chief producers of food. By realizing that it was possible to cultivate, as well as to gather, vegetables, they had made the earth valuable and they became, consequently, its possessors. Thus they won both economic and social power and prestige, and the complex of the matriarchy took form."
(ibid, pgs. 319-320)
Essentially the two dominate types of social structures early humans found themselves living under were those of the hunter-gatherers and the agriculturally based societies.
"Hunting and gathering societies are typically much smaller than those based on agriculture, and the lives of the hunter-gathers are marked by greater contingency. They need to be mobile, to move to find game and avoid famine. Unlike agricultural societies, hunter-gatherers are unable to stockpile large caches of food to tide them over lean years. They are more dependent upon the vagaries of nature. Agriculture requires long-term planning and care of crops over a period of months, unlike hunting parties that might be a few hours or days long. Thus hunter-gatherer societies are typified by greater instability, fluidity, uncertainty, and more contact with the wilderness; they are perhaps more part of nature than separate from it, and they participate in it more than trying to control it. Agricultural societies are less mobile; they exert more control over nature and are less subject to its vagaries."
(The Trickster and the Paranormal, George P. Hansen, pg. 98)
As noted above, the former tended to be patriarchal while the later was matriarchal. Environment seemingly played a large role in which type of social structure humans found themselves living under, for hunting based societies usually occurred in colder climates while agriculturally based ones were more likely to occur amongst peoples near the equator. To me one of the more striking differences between these two social structures is the role of the individual.
"The highest concern of all the mythologies, ceremonials, ethical systems, and social organizations of the agriculturally based societies has been the suppressing the manifestation of individualism; and this has been generally achieved by compelling or persuading people to identify themselves not with their own interests, intuitions, or modes of experience, but with archetypes of behavior and systems of sentiment developed and maintained in the public domain. A world vision derived from the lessons of the plants, representing the individual as a mere cell or moment in a larger process -that of the sib, the race, or, in larger terms, the species -so devaluates even the first signs of personal spontaneity that every impulse to self-discovery is purged away...
"In the paleolithic hunter's world, where the groups were comparatively small -hardly more than forty or fifty individuals -the social pressures were far less severe than in the later, larger, differentiated and systematically coordinated long-established villages and cities. And the advantages to the group lay rather in the fostering than in the crushing out of impulse."
(The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, pgs. 240-241)
The role of the individual in these types of societies seems crucial to the type of religious structure the society will ultimately reflect. Thus, the dominate religious authority in hunter-gatherer societies is the shaman, while the priest reigns supreme in agriculturally based civilizations.
"...shamans are typified by use of altered states of consciousness... in which they command spirits to do their bidding, and they display a variety of paranormal powers. Divination, healing, and finding game animals through magical means are primary activities of the shaman. They come to their vocations after involuntary visions, serious illness, or vision quests. These individuals are typically part-time practitioners who also assist with their tribes' subsistence efforts. They generally hold high status in their societies and are regarded as healthy, charismatic leaders. Shamans are found in hunting and gathering societies with no social class and little or no political hierarchy beyond the local level...
"Priests make little or no use of altered states of consciousness for their endeavors. Much of their work involves ritual, worship, and propitiation of the gods. They have no control over spirits. Priests are selected through social inheritance or political appointment and are generally full-time professionals who enjoy high social and economic status. Their profession typically has hierarchically ranked positions. Priests are found in agricultural societies with political integration beyond the local level."
(The Trickster and the Paranormal, George P. Hansen, pgs. 98-100)
I'm not crazy about Hansen's definition of the priest, especially in regards to altered states of consciousness, but it will have to do for now. Here's a bit more on the contrasts between the priest and shaman:
"The contrast between the two world views may be seen more sharply by comparing the priest and the shaman. The priest is the socially initiated, ceremonially inducted member of a recognized religious organization, where he holds a certain rank and functions as the tenant of an office that was held by others before him, while the shaman is one who, as a consequence of a personal psychological crisis, has gained a certain power of his own. The spiritual visitants who came to him in vision had never been seen before by any other; they were his particular familiars and protectors. The masked gods of the Pueblos, on the other hand, the corn-gods, and the cloud gods, served by societies of strictly organized and very orderly priests, are the well-known patrons of the entire village and have been prayed to and represented in the ceremonial dances since time out of mind."A most curious development of the priesthoods of agriculturally based societies are the secret lodges or secret societies that seem to flourish therein.
(The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, pg. 230)
"... the ceremonials of these secret lodges are to be distinguished radically from those of the hunting-tribe initiations, their psychological function being different and their history different too. Admission to them is through election and is generally limited: they are not for all. Moreover, they tend to be propagandist, reaching beyond the local tribe, seeking friends and members among alien people... As already noted, a particular stress is given in these secret men's societies to a skull cult that is often associated with the headhunt. Ritual cannibalism and pederasty are commonly practiced, and there is a highly elaborated use made of symbolic drums and masks. Ironically (yet by no means illogically), the most prominent divinities of these lodges are frequently female, even the Supreme Being itself being imagined as a Great Mother; and in the mythology and ritual lore of this goddess a lunar imagery is developed..."
(ibid, pg. 321)
|in the ancient world many of these secret lodges were also known as the Mystery schools|
This blog has dealt with ancient examples of decapitation as a ritual before here. Overall, the approach toward sacrifices is one of the most striking differences between hunter based civilizations and those centered around agriculture. As one may image, sacrifice in hunter based societies revolves around the killing of animals.
"The hunt itself, therefore, is a rite of sacrifice, sacred, and not a rawly secular affair... The proper sacrifice for the hunter is the animal itself, which through its death and return represents the play of the permanent substance or essence in the shadow-world of accident and chance. One may hear in the chant of the dancing buffalo, therefore -slow and solemn, ponderous and deliberate, as is fitting to such great beasts..."In agriculturally based societies, the sacrifices were typically human beings.
(ibid, pg. 293)
"It has been shewn that in rude society human beings have been commonly killed to promote the growth of the crops. There is therefore no improbability in the supposition that they may once have been killed for a like purpose in Phrygia and Europe; and when Phrygian legend and European folk-custom, closely agreeing with each other, point to the conclusion that men were so slain, we are bound, provisionally at least, to accept the conclusion. Further... the victim was put to death as a representative of the corn-spirit, and this indication is in harmony with the view which some savages appear to take of the victim slain to make the crops flourish. On the whole, then, we may fairly suppose that both in Phrygia and in Europe the representative of the corn-spirit was annually killed upon the harvest-field."
(The Golden Bough, James Frazer, pgs. 446-447)
But it was not only Europe or Phrygia, nor in ancient times, that such customs were observed.
"Today we find throughout this immense area a well-developed style of village life based on a garden economy of yams, coconuts, bananas, taro, etc., as well as a characteristic culture assemblage including rectangular gabled huts, drums made of split logs and a way of communicating by drum beats, a galaxy of distinctive musical instruments, secret societies of a particular kind, tattooing, a type of bow and feathered arrow, such forms of burial and skull cult as have just been described for South or East Africa, bird-, snake-, and crocodile-worship, spirit posts and huts, particular methods of making fire, and a way of fashioning cloth of palm fiber and of bark. Add to these an elaborate ritual lore culminating in communal rites of animal and human sacrifice, a mythology of the journey to the land of the dead in many particulars resembling that of the Malekulan guardian of the labyrinth, an astonishing community of folklore motifs, and the spread of a single linguistic complex (the Malayo-Polynesian) from Madagascar, off the coast of Southeast Africa, or Easter Island, and you have a considerable base from which to argue for a common sphere. Furthermore, when it is observed... that it was beyond the eastern finger of this sphere that a highly developed system of agriculture appeared in Peru and Middle America, based largely on maize but including also some fifty-odd other crops and associated with the breeding of llamas and alpacas (in Peru) and turkeys (in Mexico), whereas midway in the same vast zone (the Southeast Asian neighborhood of Indo-China and Indonesia) rice agriculture, the soybean, the water-buffalo, and domestic fowl first appear, it cannot be surprising that a number of scholars have developed the concept of a single culture realm, out of which, or in association with which, three major matrices of grain agriculture matured, namely: Southeast Asia (rice), the Near East (wheat and barley) and peru and Middle America (maize).
(The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, pgs. 137-138)
Note the sections of the prior passages in bold, especially concerning the labyrinth as we shall return to those mysterious structures in latter parts of this series. For now, I shall allow Campbell to wrap up the psychology of the different approaches to sacrifice found in hunting and planting cultures.
"The beast of prey deals death without knowledge. Man, however, has knowledge, and must overcome it to live. Among the primitive hunting societies the way was to deny death, the reality of death, and to go on killing as willing victims the animals that one required and revered. But in the planting societies a new insight or solution was opened by the lesson of the plant world itself, which is linked somehow to the moon, which also dies and is resurrected and moreover influences, in some mysterious way still unknown, the lunar cycle of the womb...
"Moreover, when the will of the individual to his own immortality has been extinguished -as it is in rites such as these -through an effective realization of the immortality of being itself and of its play through all things, he is united with that being, in experience, in a stunning crisis of release from the psychology of guilt and mortality. Among the tropical planters the rendition of this fundamentally religious experience was effected through rites of the kind that we have observed...
"In the primitive ritual, on the other hand, which is based on the viewpoint of the species rather than that of the individual, what for us is 'accident' is placed in the center of the system -namely, sudden, monstrous death -and this becomes therewith a revelation of the inhumanity of the order of the universe."In the next installment we shall wrap up with human sacrifice and address the Scarlet Woman before finally moving on to dope. Stay tuned.
(ibid, pgs. 180-181)