The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This entry covers entheogens in the strict sense of the word (i.e. hallucinogenic drugs used in a religious or shamanic context). For general information about these substances and their use outside religious contexts, see hallucinogenic drug and psychedelic.

The word entheogen is a modern term derived from two Ancient Greek words, ενθεος (entheos) and γενεσθαι (genesthai). Entheos means literally "in God", more freely translated "inspired". The Greeks used it as a term of praise for poets and other artists. Genesthai means "to cause to be". So an entheogen is "that which causes (a person) to be in God". The translation "creating the divine within" that is sometimes given is not quite correct -- entheogen implies neither that something is created (as opposed to just perceiving something that is already there) nor that that which is experienced is within the user (as opposed to having independent existence).

In its strictest sense the term refers to a psychoactive substance (most often some plant matter) that occasions enlightening spiritual or mystical experience, within the parameters of a cult, in the original non-pejorative sense of cultus. In a broader sense, the word "entheogen" refers to artificial as well as natural substances that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional shamanic inebriants, even if it is used in a secular context.


Terminology and uses of the word

The term "entheogen" was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (Carl A. P. Ruck , Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson). The term was coined as a replacement for the term "hallucinogen" (popularized by Aldous Huxley's experiences with mescaline, published as The Doors of Perception in 1953) and "psychedelic" (a Greek neologism for "soul-expanding", coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, a friend of Huxley's). Ruck et al. argued that the term "hallucinogen" was inappropriate due to its etymological relationship to words relating to delirium and insanity. The term "psychedelic" was also seen as problematic, due to the similarity in sound to words pertaining to psychosis and also due to the fact that it had become irreversibly associated with various connotations of 1960s pop culture.

The meanings of the term "entheogen" were formally defined by Ruck et al.:

In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.

Since 1979, when the term was proposed, its use has become widespread. In particular, the word fills a vacuum for those users of entheogens who feel that the term "hallucinogen", which remains common in medical, chemical and anthropological literature, denigrates their experience and the world view in which it is integrated. Use of the strict sense of the word has therefore arisen amongst religious entheogen users, and also amongst others who wish to practice spiritual or religious tolerance.

The use of the word "entheogen" in its broad sense as a synonym for "hallucinogenic drug" has attracted criticism on three grounds. On pragmatic grounds, the objection has been raised that the meaning of the strict sense of "entheogen", which is of specific value in discussing traditional, historical and mythological uses of entheogens in religious settings, is likely to be diluted by widespread, casual use of the term in the broader sense. Secondly, some people object to the misuse of the root theos (Greek: god) in the description of the use of hallucinogenic drugs in a non-religious context, and coupled with the climate of religious tolerance or pluralism that prevails in many present-day societies, the use of the root theos in a term describing non-religious drug use has also been criticised as a form of taboo deformation. Thirdly there are some substances that at least partially fulfil the definition of an entheogen that is given above, but are not hallucinogenic in the usual sense. One important example is the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist.

Ideological objections to the broad use of the term often relate to the widespread existence of taboos surrounding psychoactive drugs, with both religious and secular justifications. The perception that the broad sense of the term "entheogen" is used as a euphemism by hallucinogenic drug-users bothers both critics and proponents of the secular use of hallucinogenic drugs. Critics frequently see the use of the term as an attempt to obscure what they perceive as illegitimate motivations and contexts of secular drug use. Some proponents also object to the term, arguing that the trend within their own subcultures and in the scientific literature towards the use of term "entheogen" as a synonym for "hallucinogen" devalues the positive uses of drugs in contexts that are secular but nevertheless, in their view, legitimate.

Use of entheogens

Naturally occurring enthegens such as Datura were, for the most part, discovered and used by older cultures, as part of their spiritual and religious life, as plants and agents which were respected, or in some cases revered. By contrast, artificial and modern entheogens, such as LSD, never had a tradition of religious use.

Currently entheogens are used in three principle ways: as part of established traditions and religions, secularly for personal spiritual development, and secularly in a manner similar to recreational drugs. A lesser use of entheogens for medical and therapeutic use is rarely pursued due to legislative and cultural objections.

The word Psychonaut has been coined in recent years to describe people who deliberately take entheogens in order to explore their psyche with a view to personal growth.

The remainder of this entry pertains to the use of entheogens in a religious context. See Also: hallucinogenic drug, psychedelic.

Entheogen-using cultures

The use of entheogens in human cultures is generally ubiquitous throughout recorded history, including Christian society if the Eucharist is counted, and including Islamic society if Sufi practices are counted. The number of entheogen-using cultures is therefore very large. Some of the instances better known to Western scholarship are discussed here.


The best-known etheogen-using culture of Africa is the Bwitists, who used a preparation of the root bark of Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga). A famous entheogen of ancient Egypt is the Blue Lotus (Nymphaea caerulea). There is evidence for the use of entheogenic mushrooms in Côte d'Ivoire (Samorini 1995). Numerous other examples of the use of plants in shamanic ritual in Africa are yet to be investigated by western science.


Entheogens have played a pivotal role in the spiritual practices of most American cultures for millennia. The first American entheogen to be subject to scientific analysis was the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii). Used traditionally by many cultures of what is now Mexico, its use spread to throughout North America in the 19th century, replacing the toxic entheogen Sophora secundiflora (mescal bean). Other well-known entheogens used by Mexican cultures include psilocybin mushrooms (known to the Aztecs under the Nahuatl name teonanacatl), the seeds of several morning glories (Nahuatl: tlitliltzin and ololiuhqui) and Salvia divinorum (Mazatec: Ska Pastora; Nahuatl: pipiltzintzintli). Indigenous peoples of South America employ a wide variety of entheogens. Better-known examples include ayahuasca (Banesteriopsis caapi plus admixtures), borrachero (Brugmansia spp), San Pedro (Trichocereus spp) and various tryptamine-bearing snuffs, for example Epená (Virola spp), Vilca and Yopo (Anadananthera spp). The familiar tobacco plant, when used uncured in large doses in shamanic contexts, also serves as an entheogen in South America.


The indigeneous peoples of Siberia (from whom the term shaman was appropriated) have used the Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) as an entheogen. The ancient inebriant Soma, mentioned often in the Vedas, may have been an entheogen.


The use of entheogens (other than the Eucharist) in Europe was all but eliminated with the rise of post Roman Christianity and especially during the great Witch hunts of Early Modernity. European witches used various entheogens, including deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). These plants were used, among other things, for the manufacture of "flying ointments". In Christian society, witches were commonly believed to fly through the air on broomsticks after using the ointment. Consequently, any association with these plants could have proven extremely dangerous and lead to one's execution as a practitioner of witchcraft.


The Aborigines of Australia, the largest island of Oceania, are generally supposed not to have used entheogens, although there is a strong barrier of secrecy surrounding Aboriginal shamanism, which has likely limited what has been told to outsiders. Natives of Papua New Guinea are known to use several species of entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp, Boletus manicus; Thomas). It has been suggested that the Maori of New Zealand used Maori Kava (Macropiper excelsum) as an entheogen (Bock 2000).

"Entheogen" in Classical mythology and cult

Although entheogens are taboo in Christian and Islamic societies, their ubiquity and prominence in the spiritual traditions of other cultures is unquestioned. The entheogen, "the spirit, for example, need not be chemical, as is the case with the ivy and the olive: and yet the god was felt to be within them; nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god's spirit had to offer." (Ruck and Staples)

Most of the well-known modern examples, such as peyote, Psilocybin and other psychoactive mushrooms and ololiuhqui, are from the native cultures of the Americas. However, it has also been suggested that entheogens played an important role in ancient Indo-European culture, for example by inclusion in the ritual preparations of the Soma, the "pressed juice" that is the subject of Book 9 of the Rig Veda. Soma was ritually prepared and drunk by priests and initiates and elicited a paean in the Rig Veda that embodies the nature of an entheogen:

"Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!... O [Soma] Pavāmana, place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set, and everlasting lustre shines.... Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joy and felicities combine..."

The Kykeon that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries is another entheogen, which was investigated (before the word was coined) by Carl Kerenyí, in Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Other entheogens in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean include the poppy, Datura, the unidentified "lotus" eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey and narkissos.

According to Ruck, Eyan, and Staples, the familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought with them was knowledge of the wild Amanita mushroom. It could not be cultivated; thus it had to be found, which suited it to a nomadic lifestyle. When they reached the world of the Caucasus and the Aegean, the Indo-Europeans encountered wine, the entheogen of Dionysus, who brought it with him from his birthplace in the mythical Nysa, when he returned to claim his Olympian birthright. The Indo-European proto-Greeks "recognized it as the entheogen of Zeus, and their own traditions of shamanism, the Amanita and the 'pressed juice' of Soma — but better since no longer unpredictable and wild, the way it was found among the Hyperboreans: as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the entheogen was now cultivable." (Ruck and Staples)

Amanita was divine food, according to Ruck and Staples, not something to be indulged in or sampled lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and it mediated between the two realms.

Even in cultures where they are acceptable, improper use of an entheogen, by the unauthorized or uninitiated, has led to disgrace, exile, and even death. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden can be understood as such a parable of an entheogen misused, for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge by its very nature is clearly part of what is denoted by "entheogen" a point made clearly by the Elohim:

"And the Lord God said, 'Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:'
Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the East of the garden of Eden cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life."
Genesis 3:23-25.

Indeed the entheogen offers godlike powers in many Traditional tales, including immortality. The failure of Gilgamesh in retrieving the plant of immortality from beneath the waters teaches that the blissful state cannot be taken by force or guile: when Gilgamesh lay on the bank, exhausted from his heroic effort, the serpent came and ate the plant.

Another attempt at subverting the natural order is told in a (according to some) strangely metamorphosed myth, in which natural roles have been reversed to suit the Hellenic world-view. The Alexandrian Apollodorus relates how Gaia (spelled "Ge" in the following passage), Mother Earth herself, has supported the Titans in their battle with the Olympian intruders. The Giants have been defeated:

"When Ge learned of this, she sought a drug that would prevent their destruction even by mortal hands. But Zeus barred the appearance of Eos (the Dawn), Selene (the Moon), and Helios (the Sun), and chopped up the drug himself before Ge could find it."
—Apollodorus 1.34-38.


External links

Entheogen websites


Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46