In his search for food, early man tried all kinds of plants. Some nourished him, some, he found, cured his ills, and some killed him. A few, to his surprise, had strange effects on his mind and body, seeming to carry him into other worlds. We call these plants hallucinogens, because they distort the senses and usually produce hallucinations - experiences that depart from reality. Although most hallucinations are visual, they may also involve the senses of hearing, touch, smell, or taste - and occasionally several senses simultaneously are involved.
The actual causes of such hallucinations are chemical substances in the plants. These substances are true narcotics. Contrary to popular opinion, not all narcotics are dangerous and addictive. Strictly and etymologicolly speaking, a narcotic is any substance that has a depressive effect, whether slight or great, on the central nervous system.
Narcotics that induce hallucinations are variously called hallucinogens (hallucination generators), psychotomimetics (psychosis mimickers), psychotaraxics (mind disturbers), and psychedelics (mind manifesters). No one term fully satisfies scientists, but hallucinogens comes closest. Psychedelic is most widely used in the United States, but it combines two Greek roots incorrectly, is biologically unsound, and has acquired popular meanings beyond the drugs or their effects.
In the history of mankind, hallucinogens have probably been the most important of all the narcotics. Their fantastic effects made them sacred to primitive man and may even have been responsible for suggesting to him the idea of deity.
Paramount among the hallucinogens of religious significance is the peyote cactus. This illustration, called "Morning Prayer in a Peyote Ceremony," is adapted from a painting by Tsa Toke, a Kiowa Indian. These Indians are ritual users of peyote. Central fire and crescent shaped alter are flanked by ceremonial eagle feather fans; feathers symbolize morning, and the birds, rising prayers.
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