Archive for the ‘Drug use and religion’ Category

To re-capitulate, in my post of 15 March 2012  I discussed the fact that the number of psychoactive plants in use in the New World when the Spanish invasion occurred was far greater than the number of psychoactive plants in the Old World; that  is 80-100 in the New World versus 8-10 in the Old World.

Changing economic, social and religious conditions account for this difference, not lack of psychoactive plants in the Old World, according to  Weston La Barre (1979). Visionary shamanism complemented the hunting and gathering life-styles in both Old and New World societies. As long as this life style dominated, wide knowledge and use of drug plants existed. But when societies in Europe and Eurasia turned to farming  in the Neolithic period (the New Stone Age), people of that time found visionary shamanism less valuable or appropriate, and knowledge of psychoactive plants slowly declined. The intolerant fanaticism of Old World religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, added further impetus to the trend. These patriarchal, monotheistic belief systems transformed areas where their values took hold and almost, but not quite eliminated the more ancient visionary shamanism.

In Europe, after the arrival of Christianity, dark and heinous reputations soon shrouded visionary shamanism: another case  of the victor writing the history. Nevertheless, vestiges of shamanistic practices remained, and  emerged as ‘Witchcraft’  in the late Medieval and Renaissance period.

Behind some segments of witchcraft  lay the tropane alkaloids.  These chemicals are found world wide in members of the Solanaceae  plant family  Largely unknown to lay people today,  tropane allkaloids have probably taken out more significant individuals than the Mafia.  They carry esoteric folk names; henbane, deadly nightshade, devils apple, belladonna, mandrake and hemlock.

Tropane alkaloids alter consciousness; but, spook-like, far more. Users get retrograde amnesia. They lose all memory of using the drug and what  happened immediately before that. Tropane alkaloids are also transdermal : you absorb them through your skin. And they are hallucinogenic, but like many hallucinogens, the visions experienced tend to be hallucinogen-specific:  Soul flight, mind –body separation and sensations of flying are typical of tropnane  hallucinogens.

These effects are hallmarks of European witchcraft,’ Would-be-witches mixed the chopped leaves of tropane-bearing plants like henbane, belladonna, mandrake etc into animal fats, making the so- called ‘flying ointment’. Women smeared the greenish paste over their bodies, including the genitals, with a small stick. Loss of consciousness followed almost immediately. Hallucinations flooded their minds together with sensations of flying through space, the original  application stick now their  broomstick.  Users eventually regained consciousness with vivid images of the Sabbat they imagined attending. No memory of their immediate ‘sober’ past remained.

When real Sabbats took place, as opposed to drug-induced fantasies of Sabbats, it was at night, often in the open air at lonely spots. A Grand Master presided; the spirit dwelled in him, and it was worshipped by the participants. Spiritual and social  matters were the agenda  In short, witchcraft ceremonies were examples of classic visionary shamanism that held sway before Christianity attempted to stamp it out.

Although witches and broomsticks may sound slightly humorous today, witchcraft was an important religious, economic and political issue in its time. It is though that the search for scapegoats for political and economic disasters lay beneath the persecution of witches.  Protestant and CatholicChurches alike persecuted them, torturing and killing thousands of people during a 200 year period. Victims were mainly women; in Germany entire populations of them were eradicated in some areas.  Families suffered as did the economy of country villages right across the middle and north portions of Europe ( Harner 1979a:130).



Harner, M 1973a  The role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft’. In  M.. Harner (ed.). Hallucinogens and Shamanism.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press. ss

Holinshed, Raphael, 1577. Holinshed’s Chronicles.

La Barre, Weston. 1970a  ‘Old and New World Narcotics:  A Statistical Question and an Ethnological Reply.’  Economic Botany VOL. 24

Sherratt, Andrew. 1995 Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology.

Wesson, R. Gordon,  1980  The Wonderous Mushroom,  MacGraw-Hill .

Read Full Post »

It it is compelling that, in the first recorded appearance of psychoactive substances in the New World, drug use presents itself as a mechanism used by a population to meet social, economic, and religious needs. Pecos people and their neighbors consumed their drug as a means of confronting the fear and anxiety of the hunt or the war, the economic imperative of locating food in perilous environments, the drive some individuals felt to achieve power, ritual privileges and leadership, and the possible standards ordinary members of society might apply in judging an individual’s capacity for leadership.

Something of comparable value can be said about the use of pituri by pre-European Aboriginal Australians. Although no white knowledge exists of how this population conceptualized pituri use, nor or any significant social-cultural features which linked to pituri consumption, it was obvious to white observers that  people who controlled access to the drug  wielded power over others, and that individuals possessing sufficient surplus of the drug could initiate the annual flow of  complex trading systems. Demand for the drug  was so high that at least one community seems to have responded by an intensified use of land.

Given that both these ancient drug histories illustrate a linkage between drug consumption and economic, political, religious and social goals, could these  patterns be discerned through time?  Probably some of them, I concluded, perhaps enough to establish that frequently drug consumption is culturally useful and appropriate, as well as potentially dangerous.

If  modern accounts of psycho-active substances are added to ethnographic data, to fragmentary evidence from archaeology, information from old pharmacopoeias, the findings from linguistic, botanical, and folkloric studies, and references to drug use  in ancient scripts, what emerges is that societies generally find three major tasks for drug consumption in the socio-cultural area. In the economic and political field, the picture is more complex.  Drug use  is frequently associated  with profound changes in these areas. And in many situations the relationship seems a causal one,  in which those who control access to drugs manipulate supply for their own gain.


Societies and individuals address one or more of three socio-cultural issues with drugs

  •  People employ drugs to facilitate communication  with the ‘supernatural’.  Under this term  I include all those abstract entities,  referred to by  terms such as  god/s,  spirits, deities, religious and heavenly beings, and inspirers of creativity.
  • People consume drugs to create a socially-shared and altered reality in  which structured, differentiated society loosens its hold, creating an ‘anti-structure ‘in which  role playing and hierarchies diminish, human interaction increases, and social bonding occurs.
  • People consume drugs to  create or emphasize an image of themselves or others which is relevant to a particular situation. In this case, use lies along a spectrum from the instrumental to the symbolic

Communication with the supernatural. All societies seek the values of the ideal life and the practices by which these  can be achieved.  Communication with supernatural forces is a means to this end in most ethical/religious systems.  ‘Upwards’ go petitions, prayers, request for help, spiritual offerings, and sacrifice. In return down come advice, warnings, omens, occasional divine  appearances, demands for further human privations such as fasts or quests for enlightenment, plus rewards for virtue and punishment for evil.  In  most parts of  world  societies have,or still do, link this communication with consumption of  mind-altering substances. As mentioned earlier in the post of  March 15th 2012, Paleolithic people living in the Northern Hemisphere employ plant drugs for this reason, as did those first  populations who migrated into North, South and Middle America. At least ten thousand  years elapsed as this pattern of use continued in the Americas alone. Australian Aborigines have a 5, 000 use of pituri in what appears to be  a spiritual connection.

 The archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt from the University of Oxford wrote that it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens (1995).  Taking this statement as written,  Sherratt is not  claiming outright that drug use and spiritual communication  are as old as humanity. But since drugs alter states of consciousness, drugs by definition allow consumers to transcend ordinary or common experience,  thoughts or beliefs and interrogate alternatives. From an atheistic and humanist perspective, this potentially links drug consumption to spiritual concepts.

Providing a comprehensive account of this association between drugs and religion world-wide is un-achievable, given the vast  number of  instances, the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and the fact that no written  languages existed prior to 5000 BC. Nevertheless,two instances have intrinsic interest: one because  it  is the oldest written record drug use in a religious context; , the second because its probably the last significant bloom of ancient shamanism in European history.  I repeat them below


Perhaps as long ago as 4 000 B.P, a  nomadic people calling themselves Aryans spread south-east from their point of origin, finally settling in the Indus valley in what is now Iran. They were patriarchal cattle herders who  spoke Sanskrit, and were the first peoples  to domesticate the horse. Not surprisingly, their religious beliefs and rituals related to cattle and the way of life which herding imposed on them. Intrinsic to their prayers, wishes and rituals was soma, an intoxicating, and now, today, a mysterious, plant substance.  Soma was also a male moon god, perhaps a unique conjunction in mythologyy.  The  insights and pleasures soma  bestowed appear in The Rig Vedas, the oldest literary product of  Hindu religio.n

Thy juices, purified Soma, all pervading, swift as thought, go of themselves like the off-spring of swift mares…

He  [Soma] excites reverence, watches over the herds, and leads by the shortest road to success…

  He makes the sun rise in the heavens, restores what has been lost, has a thousands ways and means of help, heals all, chases away the black skin and gives everything into the possession of the pious Ary

Soma is an example of difficulties faced by researchers seeking information about psycho-active plants in the distant past. For some unknown reason, the Aryans gave up the consumption of soma soon after arriving in the IndusValley. Perhaps they failed to get the plant to grow in their new territory. Consequently nobody today is certain of the plant’s identity.  After decades of studying the issue, R.Gordon Wasson, the ethno-botanist from  Harvard University’s Museum of Botany, argued that soma is the hallucinogenic fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria). This is the mushroom of Alice in Wonderland and other children’s tales, with its red top spotted with white.   Many disagree with Wesson’s conclusion. One caveat is that, during ritual, priests produced a juice from soma,  and this seems unlikely were the latter a mushroom. Other suggestions identify soma with  Ephedra, (the source of the stimulant ephedrine), or fermented mares milk, or haoma,  a chemical found in Syrian rue (Peganum harmala). The secret may never be revealed. Scholars able to translate the Rig Veda usually lack skills in botany, pharmacology and pharmacognosy, and perhaps  miss significant clues to the plant’s identity.

Read Full Post »

Margaret Mead and Tobacco Producers has relevance today. First is the question of what part, if any, does time play in a society’s ability to control and integrate drug production and consumption? Integration should be at a level sufficient for the society to continue its life and  vital activities without becoming hostage to drug demand. An opportunity to discuss this point arises because I have two series of posts on nicotine-containing plants: nicotine-in-tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) among the Mundugumor and nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines.

In Mead’s account of the Mundugumor, its people have allowed tobacco to become central to the universal tasks the Mundugumor, like all societies,  must accomplish to stay viable. The only route to leadership for the Mundugumor  is by extensive tobacco cultivation. This presents problems in labour and time. The Mundugumor solve the former by capturing foreign (non-Mundugumor) women to work the tobacco fields; the later solution also involves foreign labour: manufactured items like fishing nets, mats, and baskets once woven by the Mundugumor themselves are now outsourced to the grass villages. The time saved allows Mundugumor leaders’ wives more time in the tobacco fields, and men more opportunity to create theatrical spectacles. In turn the latter brings prestige to the leader which brings him more followers, more success in warfare, more wives etc. etc.

Similarly Mundugumor people have allowed tobacco wealth to trigger the timing of initiation rites. Once these were once-in-a-life time events; the whole community participating as young adolescents adopted the role and responsibilities of manhood. Now Mead claims initiations are ‘faddish’,  held  when one or other of the grass villages offers a spectacular cult figure to a Mundugumor leader. The latter then stages initiations into the new rites from which many individuals can be excluded.

Rage jealously and violence  fill Mead’s account of the Mundugumor.  You can understand why. I was left wondering how long it would be before the Mundugumor group imploded. (Note the question of drug legality or illegality as a cause of dysfunction does not arise here.)

My posts about nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines run from 3/9/2011 to 13/11/2011. In the hundreds of references to pituri production, exchange/trade, and use which I consulted, there is no suggestion of anger or any of the ill-will that bedevils tobacco production exchange and consumption among the Mundugumor.  It is true that material on pituri suggested Aboriginal people had developed methods of exchanging pituri that differed from customary exchanges among hunter/gatherers; and similarly the scale of pituri involved in distribution also suggested some sort of planned plant manipulation not usually part of this life-style. But these changes do not appear as a source of angst.

Many  differences existed between the two situations of course: pituri was a perennial; tobacco an annual. Mundugumor were horticulturalists, Aboriginal people hunter/gatherers.  The Aboriginal people appear to have had far greater knowledge of the effects of nicotine on human physiology than did the Mundugumor; the former exploited nicotine’s bi-phasic  and trans-dermal qualities but the Mundugumor did not. But I think the salient difference may have been time. Use of nicotine-in-pituri has existed for about 5 millennia (Yen  1993). The Mundugumor experience of nicotine-in-tobacco may be no more than two generations old. That is a  coloe difference, time enough to bring drug demand under control  if the society so desired. .

This argument that the Mudugumor only had tobacco crops for a short while, is a bit circuitous. Mead herself observed  the Mundugumor lacked skill at managing their canoes, and their wives continuously worried about children drowning. This led Mead to believe the Mundugumor had only been resident in their  present river-side site for one or two generations . Villagers confirmed this,  saying they had moved from their  ‘arse ples’ to better their lives.  Taking a generation span as  15 –25 years, the Mundugumor may have arrived at the site which Mead found them some time between 1880s-1900s. So was the tobacco plant already on site, just waiting to be loved?

Possibly. However tobacco was not native toNew Guinea. After its enthusiastic ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492  the plant spread rapidly outwards from South America.  Because tobacco is addictive, sailors and travellers carried tobacco seeds with them. At every port of call they distributed seeds freely, ensuring they themselves were always able to replenish supplies. South American tobacco reached New Guineain the 1500s, along with Europe and almost everywhere else ships could drop anchor. But the plant did not  really get established as a crop inNew Guinea because of the hostile terrain and climate.

I think a likely scenario is that tobacco and the incoming, soon-to-be,  Mundugumor population arrived  together on the Yuat River,  At that time, the later half of the 1800s ,New Guinea  was wide open to outsiders.  Europeans arrived to administer, missionaries came searching for souls; adventurers looking for adventure; groups slogged through the terrain prospecting for gold and minerals, plantation enthusiasts searched for potential commercial crops.  In the time frame in question, 1880-1900,  Germans  and British/Australian  groups were both on  Yuat River and grass villages, presumably with indigenous porters, guides etc. I think one or other of these expeditions brought tobacco seeds with them, sowing them  together with copra (coconuts) where ever they visited. Only on the one patch of  high well drained soil in the region, the Mundugumor site, did tobacco grasp hold and flourish.  For some reason, the Europeans left the isolated and malaria-riven site. Their indigenous companions may have remained on what must have seemed to them a godsend: empty, fertile, well-drained land in an otherwise inauspicious region.

The newly arrived Mundugumor were drug naïve. They had no reason to think of tobacco as any different from taro, yams and sugarcane they already possessed: just another plant they could grow, eat and exchange/trade with one another and with the grass villages. In fact tobacco was addictive and initial use promoted further use. Demand must have increased exponentially in the 30 to 50 years which passed in Mundugumor before Mead arrived.  The decisive question is, could tobacco use have become so entrenched and the society so socially and economically disrupted, in only 30 to 50 years?

I can only speculate here.  Since tobacco took only about 50 years to spread from outwards from South America round much of the globe, it seems possible for tobacco to have the impact it did in Mead’ s   Mundugumor over the 30-50 years before Mead arrived.


My analysis of the role of tobacco in Mead’s account of the Mundugumor is the second issue which I believe resonates today. Mead was a pioneer in human rights and feminism. She always argued that patterns of racism, sexism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned behaviour and could be changed by discussion. Her capacity to educate the American public in these areas was exceptional. Therefore her description of the Mundugumor in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies came as a shock.  Why was she so harsh and judgemental? She was even more outspoken with friends, referring to the Mundugumor as disorganized and dysfunctional, with an  increase in complexity of life that made their society unworkable (Young 1993).

A few individuals commented that Mead had lost her fine ethnographers’ eye;  others mentioned the stress marriage breakdowns cause when both partners are doing field work together. But I do not think the fault lay with Mead. I think this is another example of society’s values  determining knowledge,  a theme in my blog.

Mead was possibly as naïve about drugs as the Mundugmor.  It was 1932 when she did her research: drug consciousness among English-speaking and European peoples did not really begin until 30 years later with the adoption of a large range of psychoactive substances among US students.  Tobacco itself was not considered addictive until the later decades of the 20th century.  I think Mead’s descriptions of the anger and breakdown of Mudugumor life were probably correct.  Her error lay in believing the three societies was comparable. Actually there were only two comparable societies, both  producing vegetables, carbohydrates and fruit; and one society focusing on producing and

consuming a highly addictive drug.   Mainly because of the time period, Mead lacked the background to recognize an ‘Acapulco on the Sepik’.



McDowell, Nancy 1991   The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Smithsonian Institute Press.

 Mead, Margaret. 1963  [1935]   Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.  New York; William Morrow.


 Michael Young 1993   A Review:  The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Pacific Studie, Vol16 No.4

in Pacific Studies Vol 16 No 4

Read Full Post »

The Sepik River basinbecame the general area within which Mead  selected three societies to investigate links between sex and temperament. While each society would be unique in terms of culture, they would be similar in life styles: ‘primitive’ tribal people living in permanent homes and cultivating small mixed gardens.  Stone and wood technology would shape their material lives.

Mead arrived in the Sepik River Basinsociety of the Mundugumor  people in late 1932 with her colleague and husband Reo Fortune. Three years before the couple’s arrival, the Australian  Administration outlawed war, headhunting and cannibalism.  Mead noted (1963[1935]:167),’ Mundugumor life stopped dead, like a watch of which the mainspring is broken’. Mead decided her account would be ‘the life as it had been lived up to three years before we came to the people’ (Mead 1963:167).   Accordingly, her material is not the result of direct  observation as is customary with anthropologists, but a reconstruction of what went before and passed through several heads and mouths before her own.

Mead found about a thousand Mundugumor people living in four villages on opposite sides of the swift  flowing Yuat River. The villages had a monopoly of land which was both high and fertile This was exceptional: all the land for many miles around  was a vast grass land swamp. The Mundugumor lived in huts made from sago palms. Each family had near-by a garden of fruit and vegetables and at least three tree crops: coconuts, betel nut and sago palms. Some of the families also had tobacco plots. The river provided plentiful fish. The rain forest near-by offered (for free) varieties of game, wild foods and spices; ochres and feathers for rituals; timber for musical instruments, for house and canoe building, and for fashioning spears and shields for head hunting and cannibalism.

All the material culture items Mundugumor people needed in their daily lives they got  by trading their tobacco to the miserable half-starved ‘grass’ villages who surrounded them: items of fishing technology like nets, lines and canoe paddles; baskets of all sizes, cooking pots; sleeping baskets, floor mats etc. Once the Mundugumor had made their own implements. Now they preferred to outsource their needs. They claimed this gave their  men more time for theatrical spectacles and head hunting, and the women longer periods of toil in their husband’s tobacco gardens (Mead 1963:171).  And see figure below) Nevertheless the Mundugumor appreciated the possible conflict of interests that could arise. They were careful, they told Mead, not to eat those villagers who supplied essential items like mosquito nets.

Mundugumor power and plenitude did not produce a peaceful, united society. Instead it was a competitive one. Mundugumor men and women alike were violent and aggressive: ‘actively masculine, virile and without any of the softening and mellowing characteristics we are accustomed to believe are inalienably womanly’ (Mead:1963:236) Sons were alienated from fathers,  brother stood against brother and step brother, neighbours distrusted one another .

Mead explains this by an absence of factors among the Mundugumor that might have softened the brutality. The Men’s House, found everywhere else in PNG, no longer existed.  Male initiations had lost their traditional meaning. They were no longer an enriching event with their community witnessing young males being admitted to manhood. Instead initiation had become a faddish event.  Occasionally some leader would decide to ‘import’ a foreign religious figure, and this required every male to be initiated into the new cult (Mead 1963:175) See figure. This split the villagers.  Not every man chose to under go an additional initiation, and not every man was given the opportunity.

Then their was the issue of descent. Normally everywhere, this occurs through the father, the mother, or both parents. What Mead describes in action among the Mundugumor in 1932 is unique: daughters belong to their father’s line of descent and sons to their mother’s. Consequently in a large polygamous family of husband, four  wives and their children, five lines of descent would exist. within the same household. In Mead’s time about two or three of every 100 men achieved polygamous marriages.  Achieving this ideal caused intense arguments within marriages.

Tobacco lay at the center of these disputes. Mead claimed that a mans only chance of power and prestige lay in having extensive tobacco fields and enough wives to work them. (Mead 1963: 191)But obtaining a wife among the Mundugumor required brother sister exchanges. So any man wanting a wife, or another wife, needed a sister to marry the brother of his future wife. Consequently men struggled to control the disposition of their sisters, while fathers  attempted to manipulate their daughters; each male in the polygamous family aiming for greater tobacco production, more wealth and prestige and swelling  numbers of followers, etcetera.


Figure 1.The flow of tobacco through Mundugumor society in 1932 as described by Margaret Mead in her book Sex and Temperament in a Primitive Society.

To recapitulate,  Mead’s research interest in New Guinea reflected an anthropological theme  prominent in her early work( 1924-1935). Was culture more  influential in human behaviour than  biology?   Did  males and females have the characteristic temperament recognized in  United States culture  as ‘typically’ male and ‘typically’ female because biology determined these traits? Mead believed not. In her mind, a society’s values, its world view, its history, its environment etc, would determine whether bold and assertive behaviour attached to males; or to females; or to neither; or both.   Mead chose to research this question in three separate ‘primitive’ and tribal horticultural groups in the Sepik River Basin of Papua New Guinea.  In  the Mundugumor Mead found a violent aggressive people:  men and women alike being masculine and without softness or tenderness. From Mead’s  point of view,  Mundugumor society had standardized the temperments of  both men and women in the same mold. This was a plus for Mead’ s hypotheses.

I believe Mead was recording something different, a process rarely described:  the collapse of a society whose values and social structures are being eroded away–almost by chance–because  their community happens to possess a regional monopoly of tobacco in a region which craves it.

My next post examines the relevance of Mundugumor tobacco use for contemporary questions about drugs.

Read Full Post »