Old World Hallucinogens
Existing evidence indicates that man in the Old World —Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia—has made less use of native plants and shrubs for their hallucinogenic properties than has man in the New World.
There is little reason to believe that the vegetation of one half of the globe is poorer or richer in species with hallucinogenic properties than the other half. Why, then, should there be such disparity? Has man in the Old World simply not discovered many of the native hallucinogenic plants? Are some of them too toxic in other ways to be utilized? Or has man in the Old World been culturally less interested in narcotics? We have no real answer. But we do know that the Old World has fewer known species employed hallucinogenically than does the New World: compared with only 15 or 20 species used in the Eastern Hemisphere, the species used hallucinogenically in the Western Hemisphere number more than 100!
Yet some of the Old World hallucinogens today hold places of primacy throughout the world. Cannabis, undoubtedly the most widespread of all the hallucinogens, is perhaps the best example. The several solanaceous ingredients of medieval witches' brews—henbane, nightshade, belladonna, and mandrake—greatly influenced European philosophy, medicine, and even history for many years. Some played an extraordinarily vital religious role in the early Aryan cultures of northern India.
The role of hallucinogens in the cultural and social development of many areas of the Old World is only now being investigated. At every turn, its extent and depth are becoming more evident. But much more needs to be done in the study of hallucinogens and their uses in the Eastern Hemisphere. (page 22)
Fly agaric mushrooms grow in the north temperate regions of both hemispheres. The Eurasian type has a beautiful deep orange to blood-red cap flecked with white scales. The cap of the usual North American type varies from cream to an orange-yellow. There are also chemical differences between the two, for the New World type is devoid of the strongly hallucinogenic effects of its Old World counterpart.
Amanita muscaria typically occurs in association with birches.
Amanita muscaria typically occurs in association with birches.
The use of this mushroom as an orgiastic and shamanistic inebriant was discovered in Siberia in 1730. Subsequently, its utilization has been noted among several isolated groups of Finno-Ugrian peoples (Ostyak and Vogul) in western Siberia and three primitive tribes (Chuckchee, Koryak, and Kamchadal) in northeastern Siberia. These tribes had no other intoxicant until they learned recently of alcohol.
These Siberians ingest the mushroom alone, either sun-dried or toasted slowly over a fire, or they may take it in reindeer milk or with the juice of wild plants, such as a species of Vaccinium and a species of Epilobium. When eaten alone, the dried mushrooms are moistened in the mouth and swallowed, or the women may moisten and roll them into pellets for the men to swallow.
A very old and curious practice of these tribesmen is the ritualistic drinking of urine from men who have become intoxicated with the mushroom. The active principles pass through the body and are excreted unchanged or as still active derivatives. Consequently, a few mushrooms may inebriate many people.
A siberian Chukchee man with wooden urine vessel, about to recycle and extend intoxication from Amanita muscaria.
The nature of the intoxication varies, but one or several mushrooms induce a condition marked usually by twitching, trembling, slight convulsions, numbness of the limbs, and a feeling of ease characterized by happiness, a desire to sing and dance, colored visions, and macropsia (seeing things greatly enlarged). Violence giving way to a deep sleep may occasionally occur. Participants are sometimes overtaken by curious beliefs, such as that experienced by an ancient tribesman who insisted that he had just been born! Religious fervor often accompanies the inebriation.
Recent studies suggest that this mushroom was the mysterious God- narcotic soma of ancient India. Thousands of years ago, Aryan conquerors, who swept across India, worshiped some, drinking it in religious ceremonies. Many hymns in the Indian Rig-Veda are devoted to soma and describe the plant and its effects.
The use of soma eventually died out, and its identity has been an enigma for 2,000 years. During the past century, more than 100 plants have been suggested, but none answers the descriptions found in the many hymns. Recent ethnobotanicol detective work, leading to its identification as A. muscaria, is strengthened by the reference in the vedas to ceremonial urine drinking, since the main intoxicating constituent, muscimole (known only in this mushroom), is the sole natural hallucinogenic chemical excreted unchanged from the body.
Only in the last few years, too, has the chemistry of the intoxicating principle been known. For a century, it was believed to be muscarine, but muscarine is present in such minute concentrations that it cannot act as the inebriant. It is now recognized that, in the drying or extraction of the mushrooms, ibotenic acid forms several derivatives. One of these is muscimole, the main pharmacologically active principle. Other compounds, such as muscazone, are found in lesser concentrations and may contribute to the intoxication.
Fly agaric mushroom is so called because of its age-old use in Europe as a fly killer. The mushrooms were left in an open dish. Flies attracted to and settling on them were stunned, succumbing to the insecticidal properties of the plant.
Map of Northern Eurasia shows regions of birches and pines, where Amanita muscaria typically grows, and areas inhabited by ethnic groups that use the mushroom as a hallucinogen.
AGARA (Galbulimima Belgraveana) is a tall forest tree of Malaysia and Australia. In Papua, natives make a drink by boiling the leaves and bark with the leaves of ereriba. When they imbibe it, they become violently intoxicated, eventually falling into a deep sleep during which they experience visions and fantastic dreams. Some 28 alkaloids have been isolated from this tree, and although they are biologically active, the psychoactive principle is still unknown. Agara is one of four species of Galbulimima and belongs to the Himontandraceae, a rare family related to the magnolias.
ERERIBA, an undetermined species of Homalomena, is a stout herb reported to have narcotic effects when its leaves are taken with the leaves and bark of agara. The active chemical constituent is unknown. Ereriba is a member of the aroid fomily, Araceae. There are some 140 species of Homalomena native to tropical Asia and South America.
KWASHI (Pancratium trianthum) is considered to be psychoactive by the Bushmen in Dobe, Botswana. The bulb of this perennial is reputedly rubbed over incisions in the head to induce visual hallucinations. Nothing is known of its chemical constitution. Of the 14 other species of Pancratium, mainly of Asia and Africa, many are known to contain psychoactive principles, mostly alkaloids. Some species are potent cardiac poisons. Pancratium belongs to the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae.
GALANGA or MARABA (Kaempferia galanga) is an herb rich in essential oils. Natives in New Guinea eat the rhizome of the plant as an hallucinogen. It is valued locally as a condiment and, like others of the 70 species in the genus, it is used in local folk medicine to bring boils to a head and to hasten the healing of burns and wounds. It is a member of the ginger family, Zingiberoceae. Phytochemical studies have revealed no psychoactive principle.
MARIHUANA, HASHEESH, or HEMP (species of the genus Cannabis), also called Kif, Bhang, or Charas, is one of the oldest cultivated plants. It is also one of the most widely spread weeds, having escaped cultivation, appearing as an adventitious plant everywhere, except in the polar regions and the wet, forested tropics.
Cannabis is the source of hemp fiber, an edible fruit, an industrial oil, a medicine, and a narcotic. Despite its great age and its economic importance, the plant is still poorly understood, characterized more by what we do not know about it than by what we know.
Cannabis is a rank, weedy annual that is extremely variable and may attain a height of 18 feet. Flourishing best in disturbed, nitrogen-rich soils near human habitations, it has been called a "camp follower," going with man into new areas.
It is normally dioecious—that is, the male and female parts are on different plants. The male or staminate plant is usually weaker than the female or pistillate plant. Pistillate flowers grow in the leaf axils. The intoxicating constituents are normally concentrated in a resin in the developing female flowers and adjacent leaves and stems.
CLASSIFICATION OF CANNABIS is disputed by botanists. They disagree about the family to which it belongs and also about the number of species. The plant is sometimes placed in the fig or mulberry family (Moraceae) or the nettle family (Urticaceae), but it is now usually separated, together with the hop plant (Humulus), into a distinct family: Cannabaceae.
It has been widely thought that there is one species, Cannabis sativa, which, partly as a result of selection by man, has developed many "races" or "varieties," for better fiber, for more oil content, or for stronger narcotic content. Selection for narcotic activity has been especially notable in such areas as India, where intoxicating properties have had religious significance.. Environment also has probably influenced this biologically changeable species, especially for fiber excellence and narcotic activity. Current research indicates that there may be other species: C. indica and C. ruderalis. All Cannabis is native to central Asia.
Chinese characters TA MA, the oldest known name for cannabis
TA (pronounced DA). Literally this means an adult man, and by extension may signify great or tall.
MA. It represents a fiber plant, literally a clump of plants, growing near a dwelling. Hence, the two symbols together mean "the tall fiber plant,'' which everywhere in China signifies cannabis.
HISTORY OF CANNABIS USE dates to ancient times. Hemp fabrics from the late 8th century B.C. have been found in Turkey. Specimens have turned up in an Egyptian site nearly 4,000 years of age. In ancient Thebes, the plant was made into a drink with opium-like effects. The Scythians, who threw cannabis seeds and leaves on hot stones in steam baths to produce an intoxicating smoke, grew the plant along the Volga 3,000 years ago.
Chinese tradition puts the use of the plant back 4,800 years. Indian medical writing, compiled before 1000 B.C., reports therapeutic uses of cannabis. That the early Hindus appreciated its intoxicating properties is attested by such names as "heavenly guide" and soother of grief. " The Chinese referred to cannabis as "liberator of sin" and "delight giver." The Greek physician Galen wrote, about A.D. 160, that general use of hemp in cakes produced narcotic effects. In 13th century Asia Minor, organized murderers, rewarded with hasheesh, were known as hashishins from which may come the term assassin in European languages.
Hemp as a source of fiber was introduced by the Pilgrims to New England and by the Spanish and Portuguese to their colonies in the New World.
Objects connected with the use of cannabis were found in frozen tombs of the ancient Scythians, in the Altai Mountains and the border between Russia and Outer Mongolia. The small, tepee-like structure was covered with a felt or leather mat and stood over the copper censer (four-legged stool-like object). Carbonized hemp seeds were found nearby. The two-handled pot contained cannabis fruits. The Scythian custom of breathing cannabis fumes in the steam bath was mentioned about 500 B.C. by the
Greek naturalist Herodotus.
THE MEDICINAL VALUE OF CANNABIS has been known for centuries. Its long history of use in folk medicine is significant, and it has been included more recently in Western pharmacopoeias. It was listed in the United Shtes Pharmacopoeia until the 1930's as valuable, especially in the treatment of hysteria. The progress made in modern research encourages the belief that so prolific a chemical factory as Cannabis may indeed offer potential for new medicines.
THE CHEMISTRY OF CANNABIS is complex. Many organic compounds have been isolated, some with narcotic properties and others without. A fresh plant yields mainly cannabidiolic acids, precursors of the tetrahydrocannabinols and related constituents, such as cannabinol, cannabidiol, tetrahydrocannabinol-carboxylic acid, stereoisomers of tetrahydroconnabinol, and cannabichromene.
It has been demonstrated recently that the main effects are attributable to delta -1-tetrahydrocannobinol. The tetrahydrocannabinols, which form an oily mixture of several isomers, are non-nitrogenous organic compounds derived from terpenes (see page 16). They are not alkaloids, although traces of alkaloids have been reported in the plant.
Until recently, little was known about the effects of pure tetrahydrocannabinol on man. Controlled studies are basic to any progress. These are now possible with the recent synthesis of the compound, a major advance in studying the mechanism of physiological activity of this intoxicant. Because the crude cannabis preparations normally used as a narcotic vary greatly in their chemical composition, any correlations of their biological activity would be relatively meaningless.
A crude woodcut illustration of cannabis from the 1517 edition of the European herbal Ortus sanitatis de herbis et plantis.
METHODS OF USING CANNABIS vary. In the New World, marihuana (maconha in Brazil) is smoked—the dried, crushed flowering tips or leaves, often mixed with tobacco in cigarettes, or "reefers." Hasheesh, the resin from the female plant, is eaten or smoked, often in water pipes, by millions in Moslem countries of northern Africa and western Asia. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the resin is commonly smoked. Asiatic Indians regularly employ three preparations narcotically: bhang consists of plants thst are gathered green, dried, and made into a drink with water or milk or into a candy (majun) with sugar and spices; charas, normally smoked or eaten with spices, is pure resin; ganjah, usually smoked with tobacco, consists of resin-rich dried tops from the female plant. Many of these unusually potent preparations may be derived from C. indica.
NARCOTIC USE OF CANNABIS has grown in popularity in the past 40 years as the plant has spread to nearly all parts of the globe. The narcotic use of cannabis in the United States dates from the 1920's and seems to have started in New Orleans and vicinity. Increase in the plant's use as an inebriant in Western countries, especially in urban centers, has led to major problems and dilemmas for European and American authorities. There is a sharp division of opinion as to whether the widespread narcotic use of cannabis is a vice that must be stamped out or is an innocuous habit that should be permitted legally. The subject is debated hotly, usually with limited knowledge. We do not yet have the medical, social, legal, and moral information on which to base a sound judgment. As one writer has said, the marihuana problem needs "more light and less heat." Controlled, scientifically valid experiments with cannabis, involving large numbers of individuals, have not as yet been made.
EFFECTS OF CANNABIS, even more than of other hallucinogens, are highly variable from person to person and from one plant strain to another. This variability comes mainly from the unstable character of some of the constituents. Over a period of time, for example, the inactive cannabidiolic acid converts to active tetrahydrocannabinols and eventually to inactive cannabinol, such chemical changes usually taking place more rapidly in tropical than in cooler climates. Material from plants of different ages may thus vary in narcotic effect.
The principal narcotic effect is euphoria. The plant is sometimes not classified as hallucinogenic, and it is true that its characteristics are not typically psychotomimetic. Everything from a mild sense of ease and well-being to fantastic dreams and visual and auditory hallucinations are reported. Beautiful sights, wonderful music, and aberrations of sound often entrance the mind; bizarre adventures to fill a century take place in a matter of minutes.
Soon after taking the drug, a subject may find himself in a dreamy state of altered consciousness. Normal thought is interrupted, and ideas are sometimes plentiful though confused. A feeling of exaltation and inner joy may alternate, even dangerously, with feelings of depression, moodiness, uncontrollable fear of death, and panic. Perception of time is almost invariably altered. An exaggeration of sound, out of all relation to the real force of the sound emitted, may be accompanied by a curiously hypnotic sense of rhythm. Although the occasional vivid visual hallucinations may have sexual coloring, the often-reported aphrodisiac properties of the drug have not been substantiated.
In many parts of Asia the use of cannabis preparations is both socially and legally acceptable. In predominantly Moslem countries, Cannabis is usually smoked in water pipes sometimes called hookahs. The illustration shows an Afghani using one of the many kinds of water pipes seen in Asia.
Market forms of cannabis include finely ground or "manicured" marihuana, "reefers" (smaller than commercial tobacco cigarettes), pure hasheesh, ond compressed kilo bricks.
Whether cannabis should be classified primarily as a stimulant or depressant or both has never been determined. The drug's activities beyond the central nervous system seem to be secondary. They consist of a rise in pulse rate and blood pressure, tremor, vertigo, difficulty in muscular coordination, increased tactile sensitivity, and dilation of the pupils.
Although cannabis is definitely not addictive, psychological dependence may often result from continual use of the drug.
TURKESTAN MINT (Lagochilus inebrians) is a small shrub of the dry steppes of Turkestan. For centuries it has been the source of an intoxicant among the Tajik, Tartar, Turkoman, and Uzbek tribesmen. The leaves, gathered in October, are toasted, sometimes mixed with stems, fruits, and flowers. Drying and storage increase their aromatic fragrance. Honey and sugar are often added to reduce their intense bitterness.
Valued as a folk medicine and included in the 8th edition of the Russian pharmacopoeia, it is used to treat skin disease, to help check hemorrhages, and to provide sedation for nervous disorders. A crystalline compound isolated from the plant and named lagochiline has proved to be aditerpene. Whether or not it produces the psychoactive effects of the whole plant is unknown. There are some 34 other species of Lagochilus. Members of the mint family, Labiatae, they are native from central Asia to Iran and Afghanistan.
SYRIAN RUE (Peganum harmala) grows from the Mediterranean to northern India, Mongolia, and Manchuria. Everywhere it has many uses in folk medicine. Its seeds have been employed as a spice, and its fruits are the source of a red dye and an oil.
The seeds possess known hallucinogenic alkaloids, especially harmine and harmaline. The esteem in which the peoples of Asia hold the plant is so extraordinary that it might indicate a former religious use as an hallucinogen, but the purposeful use of the plant to induce visions has not yet been established through the literature or field work.
The caltrop family, Zygophyllaceae, to which Syrian rue belongs, comprises about two dozen genera native to dry parts of the tropics and subtropics of both hemispheres.
KANNA (Mesembryanthemum expansum and M. tortuosum) is the common name of two species of South African plants. There is strong evidence that one or both were used by the Hottentots of southern Africa as vision inducing narcotics. More than two centuries ago, it was reported that the Hottentots chewed the root of kanna, or channa, keeping the chewed material in the mouth, with these results: "Their animal spirits were awakened, their eyes sparkled and their faces manifested laughter and gaiety. Thousands of delightsome ideas appeared, and a pleasant jollity which enabled them to be amused by simple jests. By taking the substance to excess, they lost consciousness and fell into a terrible delirium."
Since the narcotic use of these two species has not been observed directly, various botanists have suggested that the hallucinogenic kanna may actually have been cannabis or other intoxicating plants, such as several species of Sclerocarya of the cashew family. These two species of Mesembryanthemum do hove the common name kanna, however, and they also contain alkaloids that have sedative, cocainelike properties capable of producing torpor in man.
In the drier parts of South Africa, there are altogether 1,000 species of Mesembryanthemum - many, like the ice plant, of bizarre form. About two dozen species, including the two described here, are considered by some botanists to represent a separate genus, Sceletium. All belong to the carpetweed family, Aizoaceae, mainly South African, and are believed to be related to the pokeweed, pink, and cactus families.
BELLADONNA (Atropa belladonna) is well known as a highly poisonous species capable of inducing various kinds of hallucinations. It entered into the folklore and mythology of virtually all European peoples, who feared its deadly power. It wos one of the ingredients of the truly hallucinogenic brews and ointments concocted by the so-called witches of medieval Europe. The attractive shiny berries of the plant still often cause it to be accidentally eaten, with resultant poisoning.
The name belladonna ("beautiful lady" in Italian) comes from a curious custom practiced by italian women of high society during medieval times. They would drop the sap of the plant into the eye to dilate the pupil enormously, inducing a kind of drunken or glassy stare, considered in that period to enhance feminine beauty and sensuality.
The main active principle in belladonna is the alkaloid hyoscyamine, but the more psychoactive scopolamine is also present. Atropine has also been found, but whether it is present in the living plant or is formed during extraction is not cleor. Belladonna is a commercial source of atropine, an alkaloid with a wide variety of uses in modern medicine, especially as an antispasmodic, an antisecretory, and as a mydriatic and cardiac stimulant. The alkaloids occur throughout the plant but are concentrated especially in the leaves and roots.
There are four species of Atropa distributed in Europe and from central Asia to the Himalayas. Atropa belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Belladonna is native to Europe and Asia Minor. Until the 19th century, commercial collection was primarily from wild sources, but since that time cultivation has been initiated in the United States, Europe, and India, where it is an important source of medicinal drugs.
HENBANE (Hyoscyamus niger) was often included in the witches' brews and other toxic preparations of medieval Europe to cause visual hallucinations and the sensation of flight. An annual or biennial native to Europe, it has long been valued in medicine as a sedative and an anodyne to induce sleep.
The principal alkaloid of henbane is hyoscyamine, but the more hallucinogenic scopolamine is also present in significant amounts, along with several other alkaloids in smaller concentrations. Henbane is one of 20 species of Hyoscyamus, members of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. They are native to Europe, northern Africa, and western and central Asia.
MANDRAKE (Mandragora officinarum), an hallucinogen with a fantastic history, has long been known and feared for its toxicity. Its complex history as a magic hypnotic in the folklore of Europe cannot be equaled by any species anywhere. Mandrake was a panacea. Its folk uses in medieval Europe were inextricably bound up with the "Doctrine of Signatures," an old theory holding that the appearance of an object indicates its special properties. The root of mandrake was likened to the form of a man or woman; hence its magic. If a mandrake were pulled from the earth, according to superstition, its unearthly shrieks could drive its collector mad. In many regions, the people claimed strong aphrodisiac properties for mandrake. The superstitious hold of this plant in Europe persisted for centuries.
Mandrake, with the Propane alkaloids hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and others, was an active hallucinogenic ingredient of many of the witches' brews of Europe. In fact, it was undoubtedly one of the most potent ingredients in those complex preparations. Mandrake and five other species of Mandragora belong to the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and are native to the area between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas.
DHATURA and DUTRA (Datura metel) are the common names in India for an important Old World species of Datura. The narcotic properties of this purple-flowered member of the deadly nightshade family, Solanaceae, have been known and valued in India since prehistory. The plant has a long history in other countries as well. Some writers have credited it with being responsible for the intoxicating smoke associated with the Oracle of Delphi. Early Chinese writings report an hallucinogen that has been identified with this species. And it is undoubtedly the plant that Avicenna, the Arabian physician, mentioned under the name jouzmathel in the 11th century. Its use as an aphrodisiac in the East Indies was recorded in 1578. The plant was held sacred in China, where people believed that when Buddha preached, heaven sprinkled the plant with dew.
Nevertheless, the utilization of Datura preparations in Asia entailed much less ritual than in the New World. In many parts of Asia, even today, seeds of Datura are often mixed with food and tobacco for illicit use, especially by thieves for stupefying victims, who may remain seriously intoxicated for several days.
Datura metel is commonly mixed with cannabis and smoked in Asia to this day. Leaves of a white-flowered form of the plant (considered by some botanists to be a distinct species, D. fastuosa) are smoked with cannabis or tobacco in many parts of Africa and Asia.
The plant contains highly toxic alkaloids, the principal one being scopolamine. This hallucinogen is present in heaviest concentrations in the leaves and seeds. Scopolamine is found also in the New World species of Datura (pp. 142-147). Datura ferox, a related Old World species, not so widespread in Asia, is also valued for its narcotic and medicinal properties.
IBOGA (Tabernanthe iboga), native to Gabon and the Congo, is the only member of the dogbane fancily, Apocynaceae, known to be used as an hallucinogen. The plant is of growing importance, providing the strongest single force against the spread of Christianity and Islam in this region. The yellowish root of the iboga plant is employed in the initiation rites of a number of secret societies, the most famous being the Bwiti cult. Entrance into the cult is conditional on having "seen" the god plant Bwiti, which is accomplished through the use of iboga.
The drug, discovered by Europeans toward the middle of the last century, has a reputation as a powerful stimulant and aphrodisiac. Hunters use it to keep themselves awake all night. Large doses induce unworldly visions, and "sorcerers" open take the drug to seek information from ancestors and the spirit world.Ibogaine is the principal indole alkaloid among a dozen others found in iboga. The pharmacology of ibogaine is well known. In addition to being an hallucinogen, ibogoine in large doses is a strong central nervous system stimulant, leading to convulsions, paralysis, and arrest of respiration.
"Payment of the Ancestors," taking place between two shrubby bushes of tabernanthe iboga in the Fang Cult of Bwiti, Congo. (Photo by J. W. Fernandez )
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