Home (theory of the ego death and rebirth experience)

Competing Views about Entheogens in Religious History

April 12, 2007, Michael Hoffman



The Various Main Views on Entheogens in Religious History. 2

Various entheogen-history views as competing discourses. 2

How each paradigm/discourse is maintained and sustained as a stable state. 3

Not circular argument, so much as self-sustaining stable assumption-sets. 3

Criteria for identifying and differentiating views. 3

Maximal Entheogen Theory. 4

Adherents/representatives. 4

Why adherents are interested in it 4

Definition of this view.. 4

Evidence cited by this view.. 6

The strong entheogen theory before Wasson. 6

Heinrich as first proponent of the maximal entheogen theory. 6

Plaincourault Fresco as litmus test for paradigm taxonomy. 7

Maximal Mushroom Theory. 7

Adherents/representatives. 7

Definition of this view.. 8

Religious Mushroom Image Evidence Gallery. 8

Moderate Entheogen Theory. 8

Definition of this view.. 8

Why adherents are interested in it 9

Evidence cited by this view.. 9

Minimal Entheogen Theory per Psychedelics Advocates. 9

Adherents/representatives. 9

Andy Letcher's Book, Shroom.. 9

Needs to Cover More Plants, Evidence, and Interpretation-Frameworks. 12

Plants considered in Shroom.. 12

Pieces of evidence considered in Shroom.. 12

Pieces of evidence not considered in Shroom.. 12

Interpretation options considered in Shroom.. 12

Main flaws in Shroom that Most Need to Be Addressed. 13

Objectives in Refuting Aspects of Shroom.. 14

Minimal Entheogen Theory per Scholars of Religion. 15

Adherents/representatives. 15

Definition of this view.. 15

Why adherents are interested in it 15

Evidence cited by this view.. 16


The Various Main Views on Entheogens in Religious History

This article defines the main competing views regarding the entheogen theory or the mushroom theory of religious origins, what the evidence for those views is, and what the interpretation-framework or assumption-set for them is.  It defines what the entheogen theory does and does not assert, and what the mushroom theory of religion does and doesn't assert, and what the major variants of both are (or would be).  It shows how narrow Letcher's chosen enemy-theory is, out of the set of potential contenders, to the point of having limited relevance for some concerns. 

There is a spectrum of theories/attitudes/views on entheogens in religious origins and religious history:

·         Maximal Entheogen Theory

·         Maximal Mushroom Theory

·         Moderate Entheogen Theory

·         Minimal Entheogen Theory per Psychedelics Advocates

·         Minimal Entheogen Theory per Scholars of Religion

This article provides a high-level framework that can serve as a lever, a system of organization, into which to place the details such as various corrections of Letcher's treatment of Wasson & Allegro, without getting lost in isolated bits of trivia and quibbling, without leaving the big picture implicit and unformed. 

This article spells out the several competing variant views regarding entheogens in religious history.  This extends work I've done previously, on defining views, thus my distinction "the maximal entheogen theory", which already implies a spectrum of distinct competing views.  Letcher is reacting against Wasson/Allegro/McKenna; I'm reacting against Ruck (moderate entheogen theory) and scholars of religion e.g. the two editors of Gnosis magazine (minimal entheogen theory).  More writers (authors, scholars) adhere to some form of the minimal entheogen theory (but treat it only briefly) than to the moderate entheogen theory.

A corrective refutation of Shroom, or critical commentary, helps strengthen and clarify the maximal entheogen theory of religion.  The publication of Shroom provides an opportunity to do something of broader usefulness than address one particular book.  It's an opportunity to define and contrast some 5 distinct views regarding entheogens and religious history.  Defining these 5 systems would be widely helpful and could turn an article "refuting Letcher" into a worthwhile project. 

Various entheogen-history views as competing discourses

These are competing discourses, big-picture views, models, interpretive frameworks, paradigms, or assumption-sets. They include value-systems.

Letcher has some awareness of competing discourses, though he doesn't show awareness of entheogen-history views or interpretive frameworks other than the maximal mushroom theory.

Mad Thoughts on Mushrooms: Discourse and Power in the Study of Psychedelic Consciousness

by Andy Letcher


Accepted for publication by the journal Anthropology of Consciousness, Fall 2007

"Uses Foucauldian discourse analysis to pick apart the differing ways in which we represent the psychedelic experience."  Delivered at the 'Exploring Consciousness' Conference in Bath 2004.

The References section lists:

·         Letcher, Andy.. 2001. The Scouring of the Shire: Fairies, Trolls and Pixies in Eco-Protest Culture. Folklore 112: 147-161.

·         Letcher, Andy. 2004. 'There's Bulldozers in the Fairy Garden': Re-Enchantment Narratives within British Eco-Paganism'. In Hume, Lynne Hume and McPhillips, Kathleen (eds). Enchanted Worlds: Religion in the Borderlands. Forthcoming.

·         Letcher, Andy. (in prep). Mushrooming Religions. Book manuscript in preparation.

How each paradigm/discourse is maintained and sustained as a stable state

How does each paradigm avoid destablizing and becoming or giving way to one of the other paradigms?  The moderate entheogen paradigm is sustained by halting at focusing on the plants themselves, on the sheer presence of the physical form of the plants, and by not moving on to also treat myth as phenomenology descriptions serving as evidence for the plants.

The moderate theory does the heavy lifting to discover the evidence explicitly pointing to the presence of the physical form of the visionary plants.  The maximal theory leverages that research and adds an emphasis on the full range of cognitive phenomenology encountered in the loose-cognition state. 

The minimal entheogen theory (discourse, view, assumption-set) sustains itself by not considering, treating, perceiving, or looking at the moderate or maximal entheogen theories.  The minimal entheogen theory is aware of the least amount of evidence possible, and provides the most hasty treatment of the question of how much visionary plants were influentially used throughout the history of religion – almost never raising that question.  To even raise that question would cause the minimal theory to collapse and lead into the moderate entheogen theory.

The maximal theory has depth, because it leverages phenomenology as evidence (descriptions of experiences or insights induced by plants), rather than centralizing only plant-descriptions as evidence as the moderate entheogen theory does.  The moderate theory sustains itself in a steady-state by focusing always and only on (myths as) descriptions of plants and not treating various myth themes as phenomenology-descriptions that point to (and therefore serve as) evidence for the presence of plants. 

Were the moderate theory to treat various myth themes as descriptions of plant-induced experiential phenomenological insights, that therefore indicate presence of plants, that would indicate the presence of visionary plants across all myth and all religion.  The result would be that the moderate theory would collapse to lead instead to the view that is the maximal theory.

Not circular argument, so much as self-sustaining stable assumption-sets

Scholarly research is harnessed in support of constructing a viable Theory, framework of assumptions, or explanatory paradigm.  Interpretation is more important than evidence.  To simply levy the accusation of circular reasoning would show lack of understanding of how mental models and theory-construction work -- all theories are significantly circular, or more exactly, any sustainable view depends on sufficiently self-consistent assumption-sets, mental associations, and patterns of reasoning.  Is there insufficient "hard evidence" in support of the historical religious use of psychoactives?  Much depends on one's concept of "hard evidence", as well as one's system of interpretation, explanatory framework, and system of assumptions.

Criteria for identifying and differentiating views

For each view, the following needs to be identified:

·         Adherents/representatives

·         Definition of this view

·         Evidence cited by this view

·         Interpretation-framework used by this view

·         Challenges for this view; criticisms other views levy against this view

·         The reading-audience accepting this view.

Maximal Entheogen Theory


Clark Heinrich, James Arthur, Michael Hoffman, perhaps Chris Bennett and Benny Shanon.

Why adherents are interested in it

This view considers entheogens to be interesting because they are the key to pre-modern mainstream religion, mystic experiencing, and culture.

Traditional access to primary religious experiencing is no mystery; entheogens are the traditional perennial method of accessing the esoteric mystic altered state.

Definition of this view

Radical.  Takes entheogen theory as far as conceivable, as far as the evidence at all could permit.  All mystics and perennial practioners of Western esotericism are suspected entheogen users.

The maximal theory is inherently transdisciplinary, because if all religion and pre-modern and early modern culture is primarily entheogenic (primarily based in the altered state rather than in the ordinary cognitive state), then entheogens are completely mainstream and normal, and thus any discussion of the mystic cognitive state, theology, the Roman Empire context of Christian origins, and Jewish practice in the Christian formative era, all must include a strong component of entheogen usage and analysis.

From http://www.egodeath.com/EntheogenTheoryOfReligion.htm --

... the essence and origin of religion is the use of visionary plants to routinely trigger the intense mystic altered state ...

The entheogen theory of religion holds that the main origin and ongoing wellspring of religion is visionary plants, such as Psilocybe mushrooms, Peyote, Ayahuasca combinations, Salvia divinorum, Cannabis, Opium, Henbane, Datura, Mandrake, Belladonna, ergot, and Amanita mushrooms.

Visionary plants have been commonly used around the world throughout the history of religion and culture (Hofmann, Schultes, & Ratsch 1992), including in the various forms of Western Esotericism (Heinrich 1994). Greek and Christian mythic-religious systems often refer to visionary plants (Ruck, Staples, & Heinrich 2001). Leading mystics throughout the history of various religions have used on-demand, visionary-plant sessions with rationality-oriented mystic-state experiencing (Merkur 2001).

Meditation, shamanic drumming, and liturgical ritual were developed as activities to do in the plant-induced dissociative state, not as methods of inducing the dissociative state in the first place.

Origins of Christianity in Entheogenic Initiation

The extent of entheogen use throughout Christian history has barely been considered yet (Hoffman 2006). Early Christianity involved mystical, religious, visionary experiencing, including the experience of the transformative, transcendent power of the Holy Spirit at Eucharistic agape meals (Johnson 1998). Early Christian writings show familiarity with ecstatic mania, inspiration, elevated sobriety, and “drunkenness” (Nasrallah 2003).

The Jesus figure is portrayed in the New Testament as a spirit-possessed altered-state shamanistic healer (Davies 1995). The figure of Paul the Apostle is portrayed as a shamanistic mystic (Ashton 2000), and the apostles are portrayed as adepts in shamanic altered-state mystic experiencing (Pilch 2004).

From http://www.egodeath.com/WassonEdenTree.htm --

The entheogen theory of religion asserts that the main source of religion by far is visionary plants, including Psilocybin mushrooms, Peyote, Ayahuasca combinations, Cannabis, Opium, Henbane, Datura, Mandrake, Belladonna, ergot, Amanita mushrooms, and combinations of these.  Religious myths are, above all, metaphorical descriptions of the cognitive phenomenology accessed with a high degree of efficacy through these plants.

Religious myths are descriptions of visionary plants and the experiences they produce.  Visionary plants are incomparably more efficacious and ergonomic than meditation; they are historically the source and model for meditation, and meditation was developed as an activity to do in the midst of an entheogen-induced mystic cognitive state.  There is abundant and plentiful evidence, in various forms, for the entheogen theory of each of the major religions, including Jewish religion and Christianity.

The entheogen theory of religion finds visionary plants in the Bible and related writings such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi library, and Gnostic writings, together with metaphorical descriptions of the experiences and insights induced by the plants.  The fruit of the trees of knowledge and life in Eden meant Amanita muscaria and its host trees such as birch and pine.  Ezekiel’s visions were induced by ingesting entheogens.  John’s visions in Revelation were induced by ingesting entheogens.  ‘Strong wine’ in the Old Testament means wine with visionary plants such as henbane.

‘Drunk’ means inebriated with visionary plants, not merely alcohol, throughout the Bible.  ‘Mixed wine’ means visionary plants, including its use in the Last Supper and Eucharistic meals, banquets, and feasts. 


The ‘Holy Spirit’ means the dissociative cognitive state, including the experience of divine wrath and then divine compassion toward the initiate as pseudo-autonomous agent.  Anywhere any form of ingesting plants is found in the Bible – anointing, eating, drinking, or incense – likely indicates visionary plants.


The [minimal] entheogen theory of religion holds that entheogens have occasionally been used in religion, to simulate the traditional methods of accessing mystic states.  The maximal entheogen theory of religion holds that entheogen use is the primary traditional method of accessing the mystic altered state, and that pre-modern cultures differ from modern cultures precisely in that they are altered-state-based cultures; the modern era is deviant in its lack of integrating the mystic altered state into its cultural foundation.

http://www.egodeath.com/MaximalEntheogenTheoryOfReligion.htm presents ideas including:

·         Strong (maximal) vs. weak (minimal) entheogen theory of religion

·         The great Traditions, Gnosis, and the Perennial Philosophy all had a mystical entheogenic core and basis

·         Primacy of visionary plants in religion

·         Strong entheogenic influence on official theology and practice

The maximal theory has depth and comprehensive potential: it integrates theology (and cognitive phenomenology), perceiving theology as a kind of evidence for the presence of the experiential insights that are induced by visionary plants, and therefore (almost "by the way") as evidence for the use and presence of visionary plants within the sources of theology, including the institutional sources of theology. 

The maximal theory inherently lends itself to incorporating theology and cognitive phenomenology; it holds that myth describes the phenomenology induced by plants, more than as descriptions of the plants themselves per the moderate theory.  The moderate theory tends to assert or imply that what's revealed in religious revelation is the plants themselves; the maximal theory considers what's revealed in religious revelation to be the experiential insights that are induced by the visionary plants.

Evidence cited by this view

The maximal theory holds that there is plentiful evidence, more than enough, to back it up.  Firstly, make the attempt to look for the evidence, don't just assume it is lacking and rare, and don't be carelessly biased against interpreting it as indication of entheogen use as Wasson was in his perfunctory manner of dismissing the Plaincourault fresco.  We are in no position to estimate whether there is much or little evidence, given that we've hardly begun to even try to look for it and recognize it.

The strong entheogen theory before Wasson

The books by Salverte 1846, Blavatsky 1877, and Hall 1928 merely touched on the entheogen idea.  The history of visionary plants was also covered in Baron Ernst von Bibra, Plant Intoxicants, 1855; Mordecai Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep, 1860; and Louis Lewin, Phantastica, 1924.  These include the use of visionary plants in religion, but do not make that the consistent main focus.

Heinrich as first proponent of the maximal entheogen theory

Clark Heinrich was the first proponent of the strong or maximal entheogen theory of religion.  His book Strange Fruit is suggestive of a maximal view, pointing to more widespread use than Ruck assumes.  The Egodeath theory takes that book's implicit suggestion of the maximal view all the way, to systematize the implied view.

In my statement somewhere:

>>All the scholars to date have proven themselves unable and unprepared to face the issue of entheogen use throughout Christian history squarely, properly, and clearheadedly; none can write clearly nor read each other clearly on the subject.

"All the scholars to date" essentially refers to the two currently predominant paradigms: the minimal and the moderate entheogen theory.  A "Heinrich vs. Ruck" contrast or opposition is basically the moderate vs. maximal entheogen theory.  It would be good to evaluate what views and assumptions in Strange Fruit express the moderate, vs. the maximal, entheogen theory.

From http://www.egodeath.com/WassonEdenTree.htm --

>>So who is actually the first to cover at length the role of visionary plants in religion throughout Western history?  Clark Heinrich is a strong candidate, having written a book organized by era, Strange Fruit, 1994, not squeamish about dealing head-on with the question of entheogens within Christianity.  Allegro’s book has less-even coverage of the various eras.

A key characteristic of the maximal theory is its assumptions regarding how normal the use of visionary plants was during:

o  The Roman Empire (eg mystery religions, cultic sacrifice libations at altars, "drinking clubs", symposiums)

o  The duration of Christian history prior to the modern era.

Entheos magazine, due to Ruck's influence, would hang back and merely put forth the moderate theory.  However, despite that tendency, Entheos of necessity, despite itself, finds itself accidentally developing and discovering the maximal theory -- i.e. visionary plants were universally significantly normal. The more that Mark Hoffman and Carl Ruck strive to convince the world to move from the minimal to the moderate entheogen theory of religion, the more they will find themselves making the case instead for the even stronger, maximal entheogen theory of religion.

Plaincourault Fresco as litmus test for paradigm taxonomy

It is surprising that Strange Fruit doesn't seem to mention Plaincourault, which is a litmus test for the minimal, moderate, and maximal theories.  How a scholar spins Plaincourault pretty much shows whether they adhere to the minimal, moderate, or maximal entheogen theory:

·         If a scholar holds that Plaincourault does not indicate Amanita use, that scholar adheres to the minimal entheogen theory of religion.

·         If a scholar holds that Plaincourault indicates underground Amanita use by a deviant pseudo-Christian cult, that scholar adheres to the moderate entheogen theory of religion.

·         If a scholar holds that Plaincourault indicates substantially culturally normal use of Amanita within Christianity, that scholar adheres to the maximal entheogen theory of religion.

Maximal Mushroom Theory

(Letcher's "the MORT") -- pop audience not widely read in entheogen books; McKenna audience, scholarly followers (yes-men) of Wasson, popular followers of Allegro (Acharya?); Wasson/Allegro/McKenna.


Wasson/Allegro/McKenna/!Letcher; "the MORT". 

Definition of this view

More emphatic/extreme and hype-prone than moderate entheogen theory, but narrower in its interest/outlook.  This narrow/strident emphasis is an effect of oversimplification.

While Wasson advocates the maximal mushroom theory for prehistory, he adheres to the minimal entheogen theory from antiquity onwards.  McKenna leaps over Christianity, only asserting that Christianity (as though simple and monolithic) had nothing to do with entheogens.  Allegro comparably leaps from Amanita use by earliest Christians, to the 13th Century Plaincourault as indicating Amanita use – with no real discussion of the latter or of the invervening years.  In contrast, the maximal theory does not suppose such leaps; there is an ongoing virtual tradition, not composed of a single secret cult, but rather, of individual mystics and sometimes groups, conveying the tradition largely through rediscovery communicated through art as well as through informal cultural channels.

Religious Mushroom Image Evidence Gallery

Scan-in images of mushrooms in religious art, to construct a webpage gallery of the best.  Some of the images are at:






Moderate Entheogen Theory

Carl Ruck, Mark Hoffman, Entheos journal (predominantely moderate, but with maximal leanings despite itself).

Definition of this view

Liberal.  Affirms that visionary plants were not uncommonly used throughout religious history, including the origins of some religions, but considers such use to be secret, rare, and soon forgotten.  Takes it for granted that Christianity was monolithic, almost completely lacked psychoactives (as implied in the Christianity chapter in Apples of Apollo, despite itself), and the Eucharist was always a placebo substitute.  Any evidence of visionary plant use in Christianity is treated as proof that there was no visionary plant use in central, normal, mainstream Christianity – whether house-church pre-Constantine or later groups or individual monastics/mystics.

Inherently isolationist.  If entheogen use was deviant, underground, rare, and ever-sidelined, then it had little influence on mainstream topics, and is therefore an isolated specialist subdiscipline, an isolated field of study and theorizing that only has a few secret influences in pre-modern mainstream religion and culture.  Considers entheogen use to be cultish, underground, marginal, exotic, "Oriental", fringe appeal, "Other", in a positively valued sense.

The moderate view can be considered the upper layer of the minimal entheogen theory; this group is Liberal regarding the degree of entheogen theory (but not Radical).

Why adherents are interested in it

This view considers entheogens to be interesting, to a narrow select group of researchers, because it is an esoteric in-group, membership club.

Evidence cited by this view

The moderate theory holds that there is some rare evidence, if one works very hard, for the occassional use of visionary plants in religious history.

Minimal Entheogen Theory per Psychedelics Advocates


Leary/Alpert/Metzner 1967, Letcher 2007

Andy Letcher's Book, Shroom

Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

by Andy Letcher

http://amazon.co.uk/o/asin/0571227708 -- June 15, 2006

http://amazon.com/o/asin/0060828285 -- February 27, 2007

Author's websites:



Shroom is essentially a reaction against the extreme mushroom theory of religion as extracted from Wasson/Allegro/McKenna (the "Mushroom Origin of Religion" Theory [MORT]).  Shroom cannot perceive or address the entheogen theory of religion because Shroom is fully busy reacting against the isolated narrow mushroom theory of religion.

Letcher's view doesn't engage with some clearly relevant alternative views; for example, per the maximal entheogen theory, entheogenic mushroom use was common (agrees with "the MORT", disagrees with Letcher), and entheogenic mushroom use was not in the form of a single secret official cult (agrees with Letcher, disagrees with his particular chosen monolithic variant of "MORT").

The book amounts to a limited refutation of one subtype of the maximal theory, while among religion scholars, and faux-"hip" esotericism scholars (Gnosis mag) and even among many entheogen scholars, today's predominant scholarly view is the minimal entheogen theory.  Among a pop audience (not widely read in entheogen scholarship), a kind of "maximal mushroom theory of religion" may indeed be predominant.

The minimal entheogen theory uses the "divide, isolate, and diminish" strategy: it separates into isolation each instance of possible historical or literary evidence for psychoactive use, then states that for each isolated instance, there's not compelling evidence to support this instance being evidence of religious psychoactive use.

A key, differentiating set of questions to ask Letcher (as representative of a certain anti-MORT paradigm):

·         Did mystic-state religious experiences happen, in the history of religion?

·         Were many of them induced by mushrooms (in terms of numbers and percentage)?

·         If they weren't induced by mushrooms, then how did they come about?

·         Are religious myths metaphorical descriptions of the mystic altered state?

Letcher is an adherent of the minimal entheogen theory of religion, in many ways, except that he has no interest or feigned interest, in spirituality sans psychoactives.  He's like the position which Alpert or Metzner recently repudiated: the late 60s model which defended "psychedelics" as if a new discovery, and which failed (the most terrible lost opportunity) to leverage the truth, the traditionalness of visionary-plant use throughout pre-modern religious history. 

They should have emphasized that entheogens were always the main method of effective access to mystic-state primary religious experiencing -- or at least, that they were "a" main method.  The entheogen-positive variant of the minimal entheogen theory of religion is an important, somewhat popular view.  It's less than the moderate entheogen theory of religion, but more than the entheogen-negative or entheogen-diminishing attitude that's a hallmark of the minimal entheogen theory of religion.

Letcher is advocating largely the same theory as the predominant view of Establishment scholars -- the minimal entheogen theory -- but cares only about modern "psychedelic" usage, whereas mainstream scholars care (or pretend to care) only about history of spirituality (where it's taken for granted that pre-modern primary religious experiencing wasn't induced by psychoactives)

Letcher's view thus ends up being essentially like psychedelics enthusiasts in the late 1960s before Wasson's book Soma raised the question, the possibility, of entheogen (mushroom) use in "our", Western, European, or Indo-European, history.  Their outlook was the same as Letcher's, except that they were ignorant of Wasson's theory, whereas Letcher knowingly rejects Wasson's theory.  For example, as defining representatives, Leary/Alpert/Metzner deeply, though unconsciously, entrenched the taken-for-granted assumption that traditional primary religious experiencing wasn't induced by psychoactive plants.

Where would Alex Grey fit?  Same as Leary/Alpert/Metzner circa 1967, he hasn't given much thought to historical entheogen use in relation to historical access to mystic-state primary religious experiencing.  Thus by default it is implicitly assumed and taken for granted that "psychedelics" are a "new thing".  Even if one can manage to ferret-out a few isolated statements by Leary/Alpert/Metzner circa 1967, or Grey, mentioning the traditionalness of visionary plants, perhaps even in "our" culture or in the "prehistory" (Wasson) of "our" culture, nevertheless their overall direction of emphasis holds: "psychedelics" are treated as a "new, modern way" of accessing the mystic state, "simulating" the "traditional approaches". 

Recognize the difference between unintegrated mere lip-service, vs. core driving assumptions; the pre-Wasson view among psychedelics enthusiasts was, at heart, the assumption that "psychoactives" were new to "our", Western culture, even if isolated exceptions were mentioned -- they were mentioned as rare, deviant exceptions. 

A defining hallmark of the minimal entheogen theory (view, assumption-set) is the often-voiced, cliched complaint (full of assumptions that are kept implicit) that "the big bad Christian church was anti-entheogen and did everything possible to eliminate visionary drug use, which was a pagan practice, and suppress all memory of it" (the moderate entheogen theory holds this too).  Alpert or Metzner recently wrote that he would put less emphasis on the newness of "psychedelics" today; that he overemphasized their newness.  Thus the 60s-era Leary/Alpert/Metzner view, or assumption-set, defines the pre-Wasson view.

Letcher's view is a kind of throwback to the historically oblivious view and assumption-set of Leary/Alpert/Metzner circa 1967, back when there was no entheogen theory of the history of religion.

·         Leary/Alpert/Metzner 1967: (implicitly): traditional primary religious experiencing wasn't induced by psychoactive plants.

·         Wasson/Allegro/McKenna 1968/1970/1990: traditional primary religious experiencing was induced by psychoactive plants; above all, mushrooms.

·         Letcher 2006: traditional primary religious experiencing wasn't induced by psychoactive plants; at least, it "certainly" wasn't induced by mushrooms

Letcher's positive valuation of entheogens, combined with his denial of significant mushroom/entheogen usage in religious history, puts him in almost the same camp as the Gnosis editors (who, generally, were positive about acid during the 60s, but are now apologetic about it and only half-legitimate it as a "glimpse" of what was seen through "the traditional methods").  However, Letcher's lack of interest in the history of mystic-state religious experiencing makes him hard to group with the Gnosis editors; like me with the max entheogen theory, he's somewhat of a 1-man paradigm-adherent.

The cultural path of the Gnosis magazine editors: acid-positive in the 60s, acid illegalized Oct. 6, 1966, they were forced to "become interested in" esoteric religion and historical scholarship about "Western esotericism & mysticism") and were forced to develop a false consciousness, to deceive themselves that they were now "above" the "crutch" of psychedelics. 

This Prohibition dynamic among the community of writers caused people who were previously essentially psychedelics enthusiasts to remake themselves as "esoteric spirituality" scholar/practitioners, leaving a diminishing, vanishingly small role for visionary psychoactives (narrowed and reduced down to "psychedelics", especially evoking LSD, emphasized as a modern new invention synthetically created in a modern scientific chemistry laboratory, thus putting the emphasis as far away from historical plant-entheogen use as possible). 

Letcher approaches mushrooms with this same mentality as Leary/Alpert/Metzner framed LSD in 1967, prior to Wasson's theory that the use of "psychedelics", specifically Amanita, was the very origin of "our" religions, in "prehistory", "before Christianity suppressed and covered over all that" per McKenna's book Food of the Gods.  Western scholars of religion and entheogens have a cultural blind spot, due to habitual enmity, when it comes to mushrooms and entheogens in the very heart of mainstream pre-modern Christianity, including 'mixed-wine', the Eucharist, and the resulting Holy Spirit experience.

Ayahuasca and Shanon present a basic, fundamental challenge to the predominant mainstream bias against any significant entheogen theory of religion.  The tactics used to put-down and diminish acid would, by parallel, insult (politically incorrect) the Ayahuasca religion as well.  And the pussyfooting around with diminishing how much shamans use psychoactives, isn't possible at all with the Ayahuasca churches, which are defined specifically by their central use of an entheogen/psychoactive.  Shanon provides a solid, no-nonsense foundation here, to shut out such scholarly pussyfooting and strategic spin.

It's ironic that Letcher's thinking is concerned with and occupies the same paradigm as Wasson/Allegro/McKenna, just as an article about rabid atheists is the same thing (territory) as an article about rabid fundamentalists.  This is also the idea in Chomsky's statement "if you want to get rid of Socialism, get rid of Corporate Fascism".  It's a "reactionary" pattern, a permanent stable standoff; if Letcher asks for or challenges scholars to provide evidence for "the MORT", he's setting up a perpetuation of a permanent standoff.  Shroom is essentially a reaction against the extreme mushroom theory of religion as extracted from Wasson/Allegro/McKenna.  Shroom cannot perceive or address the entheogen theory of religion because Shroom is fully busy reacting against the isolated narrow mushroom theory of religion.

Needs to Cover More Plants, Evidence, and Interpretation-Frameworks

Letcher still needs to put forth scholar-quality argumentation, to have a chance of changing the views of entheogen scholars.  Letcher's book may be constrained by the publisher's mandate for popular appeal; the result, the cost of that strategy, is that the book cannot become a simply respected classic among entheogen scholars – it is no better or worse than most other entheogen scholarship.  It is too lightweight to carry weight to persuade entheogen scholars; it covers too narrow a range of plants, too few of the known pieces of potential evidence, and neglects to consider any theories other than a false choice between just 2 theories or interpretive-frameworks: the "maximal mushroom theory" and the "minimal entheogen theory per psychedelics advocates".

Plants considered in Shroom

·         Amanita mushrooms

·         Psilocybin mushrooms

·         Only a little peyote

·         Only a little cannabis

·         See also ShroomLetcher.htm

Pieces of evidence considered in Shroom

·         The Liberty Cap mushroom tree in the Eden scene on the German church door

·         The Plaincourault fresco

·         See also http://www.egodeath.com/ShroomLetcher.htm, which is a topic inventory of the relevant pages of Shroom, a keyed reference as refutation.

Pieces of evidence not considered in Shroom

·         Dionysus victory chariot drawn by 4 mushroom-tigers

·         The similar/equivalent crude fresco Mark Hoffman found

·         The red/white mushrooms & snails floor mosaic in Italy

·         The Christian/religious art in the Egodeath.com webpages

·         Image with Mandrake-tree and psilocybin mushroom-tree on parchment

·         Identify evidence (or evidence-and-interpretation) in Heinrich's book which Letcher appears to have merely skimmed & overlooked.

·         See also ShroomLetcher.htm

Interpretation options considered in Shroom

List-out his arguments (or arg+interp) to refute -- not just bits of evidence, but his typical argumentation-patterns he places around those, eg. his brief, hasty, and conceptually limited discussion of the Liberty Cap mushroom on the cathedral door.

Letcher doesn't consider the Wasson/Allegro/Eden trees article by Irvin and myself, and the article's views and critiques of the Wasson/Panofsky dismissal (non-treatment) of the Plaincourault fresco.

The endnote about the Liberty Cap cathedral door leads to the vague endnote reference "Personal correspondence", the same useless-for-scholarship dead-end bluff as Wasson's "lots of art historians have discussed the many Christian mushroom trees, in lots of places, experts agree, their various researches and many discussions have concluded these are merely stylized Italian pines" (or a "stylized fig tree" per Letcher).  This endnote is a pseudo-reference, leading nowhere, for the purposes of scholarly communal verifiability.

Sadly, careful consideration of the context in which the doors were made shows only a slight chance that this interpretation is true. ... Bishop ... Given that every detail ... held significance, and that the message on the doors was so carefully constructed, it seems improbably that a magic mushroom could have been surreptitiously slipped in without anyone noticing.  Nor could a secret mushroom cult have persisted and left such an emphatic mark upon such a high-profile expression of religious power and piety without there being some other evidence for its existence.  But of course there is none to be found anywhere, for there was no cult.  The image on the door is simply a sytylised representation of that most biblical of plants, the fig-tree[33]. – Letcher, Shroom, p. 36

Endnote 33 reads only "personal correspondence".

Note the strong claim, "Nor could a secret mushroom cult have persisted ... without there being some other evidence for its existence.  But of course there is none to be found anywhere ..."  It's needlessly restrictive to habitually frame the religious mushroom use scenario as "a secrete musrhoom cult".  It's straightforward to show evidence for religious mushroom use (regardless of whether it was "secret" or not) by presenting a gallery of the best examples of mushrooms in Western religious art.

Main flaws in Shroom that Most Need to Be Addressed

·         Conflation of entheogen with mushroom theory, and reductionism of the entheogen theory down to the mushroom theory.  The book suffers from irrelevance to the entheogen theory, because it is silent regarding the entheogen theory of religious origins and tradition, and acts like all there is is the mushroom theory of the origins of religion.

·         Lopsided thoroughness of his reading.  Overnarrow reading.  He's read with some quantity and some selective depth, but with limited range.  He merely skimmed Strange Fruit, it seems; he merely skimmed books about entheogen theory to extract only the mushroom aspects, it seems; he evidences no reading of Entheos journal.

·         Monomania obsession with the particular detail, of the 'secret single cult' aspect of pop mushroom theory of religion, as though disproving our grounds for thinking that such usage existed would cause the entire mushroom (or entheogen) theory to immediately and totally collapse into near-nothing.

·         Systemic blindness to evidence and especially to evidence read in light of entheogen theory; claiming that examples of depictions of mushrooms in religious art "don't count", without any real justification for waving aside that evidence and with little effort to coherently read such evidence.

·         Monolithic approach to theory-critique or to theory-testing.  He defines in rigid detail one particular variant that's largely of his own choosing/selection, "the MORT", and treats it as a single entity to debunk; when that particular variant is debunked, as if it is the only possible, only conceivable variant, he overgeneralizes into concluding that "it's all" just recent fabrication.  Conflates his particular chosen variant with all possible mushroom or entheogen theories of religion.

·         Single-plant mis-focus.  The only proper way to understand mushroom religious history, is to first understand entheogen history, as context for historical religious use of any particular plant.  Otherwise, you're bound to commit the single-plant monofocus fallacy, of divide/isolate/diminish.

·         Jumps from "no conclusive proof" to "has been disproven", regarding the Mushroom theory of religious origins (which theory, however, isn't as important as the entheogen theory of religious origins).

Objectives in Refuting Aspects of Shroom

The book Shroom requires attention by entheogen scholars, as cohorts or fellow researchers working within the general framework of the entheogen theory of religion, to analyze and refute the flawed aspect or layer of this attack on this field of study.  Researchers in this field need to collaborate to confront this book and refute some major aspects of it regarding the study of ethnomycology and ethnobotany.  Letcher attacks major aspects of the works of T&D McKenna, Wasson, Allegro, Heinrich, Stamets, Kat Harrison, Ruck by name, as well as some of the views or framework developed by Mark Hoffman, Herer, Irvin, Rutajit, Michael Hoffman, Strassman, and Bennett. 

It is a frontal, popular/academic attack in a mainstream-published book which seeks to disprove the mushroom (and sometimes the entheogen) theory of religion and culture; he only permits a mushroom (or enth) theory of religious practice on a very small scale (such as Maya and Mazatec).  The book seeks to show that there is zero archaeological/historical evidence of the mushroom (sometimes entheogen) theory of religion. 

In a collaborative effort, entheogen scholars need to debunk various components of it quickly. For instance, correct some errors he makes regarding Allegro, errors which Michael Hoffman and Jan Irvin debunked last year in the article http://www.egodeath.com/WassonEdenTree.htm. While retaining those specific critiques of Wasson’s research, need to correct Letcher's attempt to demolish Wasson’s research and reputation altogether. 

Such correction needs to be driven by a comparative-paradigm approach, not primarily driven by a details-first approach, which tends to mis-handle and prematurely interpret pieces of evidence through an implicit, unconscious lens.  Evidential data is always firstly perceived through some paradigm-lens; there is no theory-free observation.  All data is theory-bound.  In a sense, the paradigm always comes first, whether we are aware of it or not – so when we consider potential evidential data, we had better consciously choose and handle the paradigms we use, and not just leap into choosing from what turns out to be a falsely restricted pair of interpretive options.

Letcher discusses how late 20th Century culture formed the theory that treated the mushroom as the central aspect of archaic religion in prehistory.  The book's primary target it tries to demolish is the legendary banker-turned-amateur ethnomycologist Wasson, the originator of the "sacred mushroom" theory of religious origins.  Letcher attempts to debunk Wasson's historical legacy, criticizing all his legendary theories and his approach to research and theorizing.

Minimal Entheogen Theory per Scholars of Religion


Conservative.  Eliade, the two editors of Gnosis magazine (Richard Smoley & Jay Kinney), most contributors to the Tricycle Buddhist magazine special issue on "psychedelics" and the subsequent expanded book based on that special issue, Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics. 

The Minimal or Diminishing Variant of Entheogen Theory is held by mainstream religious scholars, Ken Wilber, everyone else except the most stodgy conservatives but even them too; split into two camps re: attitude & frankness.

Definition of this view

Restricts entheogen-history theory as far as possible, granting the theory only when even a fleeting treatment of entheogens forces it to.  Admits, when forced, that visionary plants were used in religious history, but strives to delegitimate, marginalize, and diminish the ramifications of such use.  Takes for granted that "psychedelics" and "shamanic use of psychoactive plants" stands in contrast to non-drug "contemplation techniques" that are "the traditional methods" of accessing the mystic state in Western religion.  It remains an open, accustomed mystery in this view, accustomed to remaining unexplained, of how the early Christians managed to experience the Holy Spirit.

Hallmark belief: "drugs can more or less mimic and simulate the authentic traditionally accessed mystic states"; Eliade; tends toward a mixed, entheogen-negative attitude, embarrassed/apologetic; admitting that drugs are undeniably relevant to spirituality studies & spirituality history.  Ranging from quasi-"hip" spirituality authors such as the Gnosis editors; these writers consider psychoactives-and-spirituality a controversial awkward topic to discuss.  Adherents of such a view would typically rather avoid the topic, but it exerts pull despite their mixed feelings and posture of aversion.  The popularity of this view among its adherent-seqment is largely a product of media-filtering/self-censorship and literal de-facto censorship.

Mircea Eliade asserted that the use of drug-plants by shamans is:

a decadence among the shamans of the present day, who have become unable to obtain ecstasy in the fashion of the ‘great shamans of long ago’ ... where shamanism is in decomposition and the trance is simulated, there is also overindulgence ... this (probably recent) phenomenon ... for ‘forcing’ trance ... the decadence of a technique [by] ‘lower’ peoples or social groups ... is relatively recent ... a vulgar substitute for ‘pure’ trance ... a recent innovation ... a decadence in shamanic technique ... an imitation of a state that the shaman is no longer capable of attaining otherwise ... Decadence or ... vulgarization of a mystical technique ... this strange mixture of ‘difficult ways’ and ‘easy ways’ of realizing mystical ecstasy ... produces contact with the spirits, but in a passive and crude way. ... this shamanic technique appears to be late and derivative ... a mechanical and corrupt method of reproducing ‘ecstasy’ ... it tries to imitate a model that is earlier and that belongs to another plane of reference ... comparatively recent and derivative. – Eliade, discussed in Wasson, Soma, pp. 326-334

Why adherents are interested in it

The minimal entheogen theory views entheogens as interesting because this foreign, alternative method of simulating mystic experiencing provides instructive, useful parallels in order to shed some light on the still-mysterious nature of access to the mystic state through the traditional methods such as "contemplation".  Studying how primitives use entheogens to simulate authentic mystic experiential states is valuable because it provides a little bit of light, by a distant parallel, on the kinds of experiences that provide the early foundation of our own civilized religions and cultures, that are so civilized and developed, we have become accustomed to having moved beyond the ability to experience these states, and can only simulate them now by introducing a new crutch, psychedelics, into our study of Western religion, for the first time in Western history.

Evidence cited by this view

The minimal theory holds that there is almost no evidence to support an entheogen theory of religious origins in prehistory or antiquity, especially for "our", Western culture.  This view can only be sustained by wholesale ignorance of the evidence, combined with lack of trying to look for it, combined with dismissing quickly and superficially whatever evidence is revealed, with facile argumentation that has no power to persuade opponents, useful only for self-mollification.  For example, see Wasson's hasty, argument-from-authority treatment of the Plaincourault fresco, a view that was necessary to avoid raising the possibility of sustained entheogen use throughout "our" pre-modern Christian history.

Home (theory of the ego death and rebirth experience)

Copyright © 2007 Michael Hoffman