What Are Entheogens And How They Remove Us From Our Day-To-Day Experience: Entheogenic Culture And History

This article by Caine Barlow was originally published on Microdose and appears here with permission.

For most of us, the consciousness we experience in our day-to-day lives, what we perceive to be “normal,” is directed towards just that, the day-to-day. We are blinkered both culturally and neuropharmacologically to focus on the task in front of us.  When we relax, this state changes, our mind wanders, crossing between multiple ongoing internal narratives in a matter of moments, school, work, dinner tonight, dinner tomorrow, children, parents, partners.  A powerful aspect of our day-to-day thought process is placating those thoughts about our mortality or questions around our purpose and what we value as important.  Many people find solace in long-standing belief systems of traditions that provide a reassuring sense of purpose, while others find their own private beliefs.  In some societies, there is the socially sanctioned use of entheogenic compounds to find self and find the divine.

Entheogens remove us from our day-to-day experience of life and, in some cases, remove us from time and space, imparting a sense of the infinite. By removing ourselves from the usual, by suspending our social context, through psychological transformation, we can often gain a better perspective of who we are and what we want from life – to see complex events in our lives in new ways and start a healing process. It may seem like a cliche, but humans have stared at the stars since time immemorial, wondering about their place in the universe; in a similar sense, humans have used entheogens to help find a renewed sense of perspective.

Our ancestors discovered the properties of all entheogenic plants by deliberate ingestion, likely from a sense of curiosity about their environment and a desire to identify food and medicinal plants, or quite simply through necessity. Many important plants have been discovered by observing the habits of animals.  Coffee, for example, was discovered by a shepherd who noticed that when their goats ate the coffee berries, they became excited and playful. Deciding to try the coffee for themselves, they discovered its stimulating effect.  It has is proposed that the properties of the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) were discovered through observing Jaguars chewing on the vine – something they regularly do.  Through exploring the environment and sampling plants and fungi, some would have triggered unusual experiences, a change in perception, visions of other beings, a sense of death, and rebirth. These plants, in time, either became sacred or taboo, their use sanctioned with matching myths and rituals.

Photo by Ion David

We are in mind and body no different to our ancestors, the same fears, hopes, and ecstasies. As a consequence of our mortality, we all experience a primal need for purpose and connectedness, “who am I,” “why am I here,” “what am I,” “why here, why now.”  A well-guided Entheogenic experience can go a long, long way to helping give us a perspective, a reason, and in some cases, a sense of community.  What once was an accidental discovery becomes a way of easing the existential angst, facilitating a pathway through a life full of meaning.

Traditional societies accept entheogens as part of life.  They are socially sanctioned and only used in a ritual setting where transformation is accepted. Many cultures have an individual whose accepted role is their healer. For example, a shaman when referring to a healer from Siberia, or a Curandero/a a healer from Central or South America.  This is a person who is often socially separate, possibly having had some profound experience, a death and rebirth.  Their expertise is navigating the spiritual realms and knowing the plant medicines which can take you to those places. While some plants are part of ritual, other plants are unwieldy, the tropanes, for example, are reserved only for the select few willing to take the risk to journey to the unknown dark unwieldy places provided by the plant.  Brugmansias are often planted in cemeteries due to their association with death.

Our best insight into the rituals of the past is either through existing ritual practices or by examining archaeological sites.  Caves represent important spaces in the history of humanity, with many caves containing drawings of animals, mysterious beings, and also shapes and patterns that mirror entopic phenomena – patterns created by the eye, and reinterpreted by the brain.  Joseph Campbell writes about how entering into caves was akin to entering into the womb of the earth. Caves were sacred spaces where rituals for the initiated could occur and transformative experiences are undertaken.  In “The Long Trip” Paul Devereaux describes a process by which various groups created cave-like structures for ceremony in the earth, which in time evolved into temples and churches. Spaces where participants have to travel through narrow spaces that open into a more expansive space – for example, the temple complex at Chavin de Huantar.  Over time, these became more complex, designed according to sacred ratios, to create spaces that potentiates a sense of the divine and the sacred, as can be found in modern cathedrals.


Many techniques have been developed over time to find suitable methods of ingestion of Entheogens.  Discovering that a plant creates a psychoactive response is one thing; elucidating its effects and toxicity is another.  At their most basic, methods of ingestion include eating raw or dried material, then simple water extractions through soaking or boiling. Some extractions were more complicated; the combination of Banisteropsis caapi and Psychotria viridis to make Ayahuasca seen by some westerners as an impressive accident of vegetal pharmacology.  Other forms of ingestion include snuffing, or the forcefully blowing of powdered plant material up the nostrils, while in some cases, the skin is burnt and the entheogen applied to the wound.  Smoking is one of the quickest and most effective means of ingestion for many entheogens – a practice Europeans were not aware of till Christopher Columbus’ journeys of discovery.

The first references to psychoactive plants in scientific literature can be found in a variety of anthropological references – the first western reference to Ayahuasca was by botanist Richard Spruce describing the use of a variety of plants in the Amazon, and his own experience with the brew! Historical sources, from Herodotus to Pliny, through to the herbals of the middle ages contain a variety of anecdotes about how plants are used in a variety of societies. From the renaissance onwards, with the development of the scientific method and a strong desire for a classification system, plants and their uses became better understood through botany and chemistry. The publication of various Materia Medica included detailed descriptions of plants, their chemistry if known, and their uses.

A fascination with opium and cannabis had been present since the early 1800s, as the century progressed, the psychoactive pharmacopoeia came to include cocaine and mescaline – derived from psychoactive plants from the Americas – to newly discovered compounds such as nitrous oxide. This fascination with narcotic plants and drugs led to the publication of “Seven Sisters of Sleep” by mycologist Mordecai Cooke, and Louis Lewin publishing “Phantastica,” describing many plants and their effects in detail.

This interest continued into our modern era, but in contrast to our ancestors, where entheogens had a defined place and were respected, ours is, for now, a troubled relationship.

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