The History of Hallucinogens
Hundreds of species of plants contain the chemical substances we call hallucinogens, and have been altering the thoughts, moods, and perceptions of animals and people all over the world for thousands of years. A hallucinogen user may "see" a song, "hear" purple, or hold seemingly coherent conversations with family pets or house plants. A minute can feel like hours, and hours can feel like seconds. A user might become intrigued by a piece of furniture that appears to walk about the dining room, a wall that seems to breathe, or a rainbow of colors that appears streaming from his or her outstretched hand.
The ability to see visions, become more creative, discover deep insights, or witness "shadow" selves—the part of our inner selves that holds our darkest secrets—are often motivations to use hallucinogens. Some users report strong feelings of love and "connectedness" with all people, nature, and the planet, while others report feelings of depression, despair, and anxiety. Whether specifically used for healing and self-revelation, in religious ceremonies, or for pure pleasure and entertainment, hallucinogens create a mind-altering experience that advocates seek out while others swear "never again."
We do not have to dig too deeply to discover references to the use of hallucinogens throughout history. Researchers say ancient mushroom paintings found in the Sahara Desert may represent the first documented ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by
Many cultures throughout history have used hallucinogens like these flowers from the morning glory plant, ipomoea violacea, in religious ceremonies and rituals. The Aztecs made a paste, called teotlaqualli, from the morning glory plant, which was rubbed on the skin of priests and soldiers. The Aztecs believed teotlaqualli helped priests and soldiers achieve the mental state necessary to serve their gods.
Paleolithic people 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. Giant mushroom statues have been found in Guatemala and El Salvador, dating back to 1000 b.c. Presumably, these statues were erected to pay homage to the spiritual powers of the psychedelic mushroom. The remains of hallucinogenic snuff and paraphernalia from 320 to 910 a.d. were discovered at an archeological site in Chile.
Many cultures have used hallucinogens to achieve mystical and spiritual wisdom. The Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico made a paste called teotlaqualli from the hallucinogenic flower ololiuqui (a part of the morning glory plant). Rubbed on the skin of Aztec priests and soldiers, ololiuqui was thought to eliminate fear and place the user in a proper mental state to serve the Aztec gods. Throughout the ages, peyote, a cactus whose above ground "button" portion contains a hallucinatory alkaloid, has been used ceremonially by the peoples of Mexico and, more recently, the Native Americans of the United States to attain closer spiritual communion.
Two thousand years ago, the ancient Athenians conducted secret nocturnal ceremonies in the temple at Eleusis to worship the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Since initiates were sworn to secrecy, little is known of the rituals except that a drink called kykeon, a mixture of barley with water, mint, and ergot (from which LSD is derived), was noted as the focus of this annual event. Homer, author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, described the ceremony as "a blissful experience that could lift men out of a gloomy darkness."
In many cultures, witch doctors or shamans have relied on "magical" plants to cure ailments and relieve pain that did not respond to more conventional treatments. Today, research is being conducted on the effects of MDMA (Ecstasy) in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the active chemicals in psilocybin ("magic mushrooms") are being used in the treatment of cancer and other diseases.
Whether synthesized (man-made in a laboratory), or found naturally in plants, a hallucinogen is literally "a producer of hallucinations." It is no surprise, therefore, that the word hallucinate comes from the Latin verb alucinari, meaning "to wander in mind or attention" or "to dream," since the user's mind wanders from image to image as a result of the steady stream of sensory effects from hallucinogens.
In the 1950s, the term "psychotomimetic" was often used to describe the effects of hallucinogens. This was based on the belief that these substances made people temporarily insane, a belief that has subsequently been discredited. In fact, from the 1940s to the 1980s, hallucinogens were widely prescribed and used in the field of psychiatry to treat a variety of mental illnesses.
The term psychedelic was coined in the 1960s by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who was studying the emotional effects of LSD and mescaline. The word originates from the Greek roots psyche (mind, soul) and delos (clear or visible) and is commonly interpreted to mean "mind revealing." The desire to search deeply into the mind and soul in order to understand the "self" with true clarity is a frequently reported motivation for using hallucinogens. Thus, we can see the connection between the spiritual and religious practices of ancient peoples and their use of hallucinogens, and more modern desires to "see within." Today, the terms psychedelic and hallucinogen are used interchangeably.
The myriad of hallucinogenic plants available in nature share a colorful history. More recently, laboratories have added to the plethora of hallucinogens available for human consumption by mimicking the hallucinogenic ingredients of these natural plants. In the following pages, we shall focus upon the history of some of the more well-known hallucinogens, both natural and synthetic, that are likely to be encountered by teenagers: LSD, psilocybin and psilocin, peyote and mescaline, and MDMA. The fly agaric mushroom and PCP also are relevant to the human history of hallucinogens but will only be covered briefly in this historical overview section.
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