The earliest known written record on the medicinal use of a plant (a Sumerian herbal) dates back to 2,200 B.C. Needless to say, medicinal knowledge was as important then as it is today. The identification of the correct plants with which to prepare successful curative compounds cannot have been an easy task and must have thus required great expertise. Those that did master this science were afforded immeasurable power and control over the running of the community. This knowledge appears to have once been the exclusive occupation and preserve of sorcerers, or shamans, the latter name finding its roots in the Sanskrit shramana, meaning ‘religious ascetic’. Shamans were also those mesmeric botanists who would later claim to be a separate people. Taoist priests, for instance, had been particularly renowned for their knowledge of traumatology, and in Josephus, we find that ancient priests had “…knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men.” Of Solomon, the same historian reports that “…he composed incantations (medicinal concoctions) by which illnesses are relieved.” The Greek Cult of Asclepius was a religion and system of therapeutics, and sanctuaries such as those at Tricca, Epidaurus, Cos, and Pergamus were built outside towns on particularly healthy sites. Here, the priesthood in charge of the sanctuaries would hold on to the monopoly of herbal remedies traditionally handed down from father to son. Elsewhere, in Mayan culture, the priests lived “on high”, leading a semi-reclusive and separatist existence up in the highlands and in locations that were forever out of bounds to the laity who, congruently enough, always settled the lowlands. The universal view that held priests as the Guardians of our Souls and the Keepers of the Keys to Heaven appears to find its genesis in Sumerian fertility culture, where as we shall see in our next chapter, they had been the Guardians of the Semen and the shepherds responsible for the fecundity and salvation of the flock placed in their charge. Without any doubt, this is the fertility-rooted biblical mission of Israel, that is to say, a god-ordained nation of priests, separate unto Himself and tasked with the planting of His seed in the heart of humanity.
Once sustenance could be secured, procreation was progressively encouraged especially among those smaller tribes whose future survival and establishment then hinged precisely on going forth and multiplying in great numbers. Human fertility, broadly speaking, was hailed as a gift from God, and sexual dysfunction would be vigorously condemned in consequence. Those afflicted found themselves stigmatized and relegated to the fringes of society. As recently as a century ago and in some parts of India, for instance, widows were still being ostracized and in many cases brutally burned at the stake. The Hebrew word for ‘widow’, meaning ‘wasted womb’, thus admirably underpins the significance attached to fecundity in those days. In short, sexual impotence and infertility were a waste in the pursuit of the all-crucial and delicate balance of nature earlier referred to, and its victims, understandably enough, were rendered destitute and branded reprobates who could no longer secure His favours.
Aphrodisiacs thus became extremely popular throughout these primitive societies. Although most of these preparations were innocuous and served only to stimulate the imagination of users, others, by contrast, were potentially lethal to aspiring lovers. It was pretty clear that the potency of botanicals needed to be ascertained before ingesting. The Mandragora Officinarum, better known as the mandrake, had to be taken in minute quantities, as mental derangement and even death have been known to often follow its abuse. This particular fruit was perhaps the most sought-after love potion in Asia. The hedonic Greeks knew it as the Antimimon, which is a word traceable to the Sumerian Heavenly Shade, implying ‘ecstasy’, and which means, literally, ‘to stand beside oneself’. Phythagoras also named this plant the Antropomorphon, meaning ‘Human Figure’. A member of the Night Shade family known as Solanaceae, meaning ´mandrake´, it was once commonly referred to as the Phallus of the Field and the Devil’s Testicles. This plant is also a sedative and was later routinely administered by the Romans to their prisoners awaiting crucifixion.
Other natural psychedelics (from the Greek for ‘mind-revealer’) had an excellent reception in antiquity. Here, they satisfied mankind’s persistent craving for euphoria, eventually also serving as soul detonators that would in due course engender sentiments of awe, mysticism, and reverence. In China, for instance, opium was said to be capable of transforming the human personality, while in Central America, the peyote cactus is still reputed to provide glimpses of the Divine. Known to the ancient world as incense from India’s Indus Valley, the inebriant cannabis was ritually burned in the temples of Babylonia, Assyria, Phoenicia and, particularly, in those of Israel, where as part of the Jewish Holy Friday night many thousands of devotees would ritually inhale from incense burners filled with qaneh-bosem. Ancient Hindus regarded vijaya (‘victory’) as having been bestowed upon them by the gods to both induce spiritual enlightenment and to help achieve physical restoration. This is the reason why Indian Saddus (´holy men´) revere and consume the cannabis plant on a daily basis. It is written that Siva had collected the “Sacred Plant” from the Himalayas, and that upon his return to India he had commanded the word bhangi (‘cannabis’) to be chanted repeatedly during its sowing, weeding, and harvesting. The Bhagavad-Gita corroborates, featuring Lord Krsna himself, claiming: “I Am the Healing Herb.” Krsna also taught that this plant had been given for “the welfare of mankind.” This supra-nutritional botanical was held as the most holy by Chinese Buddhists, whose tradition includes its master surviving exclusively on hempen seeds during a period of six years before pressing ahead with his revolutionary Four Truths. In 500 B.C., Herodotus was writing about the Scythians and their ceremonious inhalation of cannabis during funerary and religious rituals. In Japanese Shintoism, cannabis is said to have been taken to bind married couples together and also to drive away evil spirits. The Egyptian priesthood had also plied its religious initiates with cannabis on a regular basis in order to aid their spiritual development, a practice which is still observed nowadays by a number of religious movements. The word ´cannabis´ comes from the Sumerian kana-bis, or kana-ba (qunapam in later Assyrian texts), meaning ‘twin reed’ and ‘cane of two’ respectively. So indispensable had this plant become in Israel that the Sumerian derived Hebrew word qaneh (‘canon’ in English) must have been coined in remembrance of the Jewish nation´s traditional association with it. Despite the outstanding popularity of one of the world´s oldest cultivars, it was in fact the toadstool known as the Amanita Muscaria that played the key role in early human psychogenesis and in the ensuing quest for godliness throughout the ancient world.
‘Mycology’ (from the ancient Greek mykes) estimates the total number of different species to be as high as 100,000. Micro-fungi are immensely relevant to our lives. Indeed, fungi-extracted yeasts have been used by man for centuries to ferment his food and drink, and the beer, wine, and dairy products that we consume today all use enormous amounts of especially cultured yeasts. Moulds, as well as posing a serious threat to stored provisions by causing decay whenever the conditions are damp enough, also represent, in the cases of Cyclosporin and Penicillium, an invaluable suppressant and antibiotic in the fight against disease. Notwithstanding, other fungi can be extremely harmful. For instance, the Claviceps Purpurea, better known as the argot, is a parasite on rye and, occasionally, also on grain. The infection is so powerful that during the Middle Ages almost 20,000 people lost their lives in a single outbreak after eating bread made from poisoned grain. Moreover, hysteria during the Spanish religious Inquisition would see dozens of impoverished peasants perish at the stake allegedly for dabbling in witchcraft, when in reality these had become almost demented from eating bread baked with the more readily available and less costly contaminated rye. Nevertheless, the ergos has also been put to good medical use, particularly in childbirth, as it arrests bleeding by contracting the uterus.
Among the fungi kingdom the Agaric family is the better known. Typical of these is the extremely notorious genus Amanita which includes such poisonous toadstools as the so-called Death Cap and the Fly Agaric. The toxicity of the latter’s stem stupefies and kills flies, whence its first name, whilst the second part of the name, that is, ‘agaric’, owes its philological origin to its umbrella-like pileus where, according to the Sumerians, resides its inebriating substance, or the very Father of Celestial Visions. The haoma, the holy and euphoriant beverage and symbol of immortality of the Persian Zend-Avesta, as well as the Indian Vedic soma, were both obtained from the Amanita Muscaria by squeezing the toadstool between two mill-stones, after which it was processed and fermented before imbibing. In Taoism, it was known as lingchih (‘divine mushroom of immortality’), and in India it was often called the Nectar of Instruction, while in Persia it would be referred to as the Drink of the Gods. In Yasna we find that the haoma is “correct in faith” and “the adversary of death”. The Koryaks of Siberia have for centuries gathered the muchumor to induce vigour and boisterousness, and legends here describe the arrival of the mushroom men, who would take users of the fungi on imaginary paths to other worlds. In the tales of the Koryak peoples, fungi is connected with the gods and even accepted as a gift from heaven. The Koryaks maintain that the God Existence once spat upon the ground and that the Fly Agaric had then sprouted to give strength to the warrior Big Raven in his time of need. Another tale current in parts of Europe speaks of St. Peter spitting bread on the ground and producing mushrooms in the process. In retaliation, the Devil is said to have also spat on the ground to produce beautiful but deadly toadstools. This fungi was also abused by the Norse to enter the berserk state (‘Berserk’ was the name of a Viking leader who had violently opposed the establishment of Christianity in Norway around 1,200 A.D.) which saw them perform super-human feats, while in Mexico, a surviving cult consumes the toxic fungi known as Teonanactl, the ‘Food of the Gods’. In Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, the rapid growth-rate of fungi was associated with the full-moon and with thunder. Here, the Amanita Muscaria was referred to as the Thunder Mushroom not so much for its surprising susceptibility to gravity, but for its ´mind-blowing´ capabilities. The Brothers of Thunder of the New Testament suddenly spring to mind. The Mayan priesthood prescribed the sacred fungi to religious hopefuls, and a total of three mushrooms were ceremoniously administered to these during their lifetime; on conversion if the apprentice had been a youngster, when middle-aged, and, lastly, when death had been imminent. In ancient Asia Minor, the psychoactive fungi had come to represent good living, and this may probably be why the biblical Adam and Eve are featured as vegetarians, living it out in the Garden of Eden as sybarites, and, as in the mythical Garden of Hesperides, “walking with God.” It is thus no surprise that in many translations, the word gan, which is Sumerian for ‘mushroom´, has often been confused for ´paradise´.
Unlike most of the vegetation, fungi lack the green pigment known as chlorophyll -the result of photosynthesis. Like bacteria, fungi reproduce agamously by spores rather than seeds. These spores are usually as small as a few thousandths of a millimetre and are thus invisible to the naked eye. The mushroom, moreover, happens to resemble an erect human penis before it fully develops its pileus. It is also a fact that hallucinogenic fungi can blossom anywhere in the world. Evidently, this combination of peculiarities, that is, the fungi’s physiognomy and omnipresence, its seedless birth, and its enlightening properties are clearly some of the characteristics of most religious messiahs.
Scientists agree that the Amanita Muscaria is particularly psychoactive and that it can lure users into a parallel existence. In the USA and some parts of Europe during the Sixties, Timothy Leary inadvertently expounded the Sumerian view, claiming that LSD, whose mind-altering effects are not entirely at variance with those of the fungi, actually illuminates the mind. “Tune in, turn on and drop out” had been Leary’s motto. Soon enough, countless young Americans and Brits would take to spirituality and love, some even emigrating to more exotic and supposedly less materialistic communities, such as the Indian. Hallucinogenic fungi are further thought to have been used frequently by ancient Egyptians in addition to cannabis and in association with this nation’s obsessive experimentations with disembodiment. Curiously, in Yucatan, there is a famous ancient sculpture of a toad sitting under the shade of a mushroom. It is a fact that the secreted glands of frightened toads, like those of the Australian cane-toad, for example, are also hallucinogenic. Clearly, some natural toxins have represented a welcomed respite from the drudgery of quotidian life. Paradoxically, whereas the mushroom was anciently symbolic of sacredness and life, the bellowing mushroom-shaped clouds of nuclear explosions are today synonymous with evil and death.
With few exceptions that include wine (the addictive and highly toxic national drink of Christian Rome traditionally drunk on the Sabbath by the Jews to induce a sanctified state of communion with the Divine), these mind-altering substances which according to the Rig Veda: “…preceded even the gods by three ages,” continue to be surrounded by an aura of illicitness in most western and democratic countries where they are further deemed immoral by the very religionists who, incredibly enough, are today unwittingly pushing what must surely rate as a lingering, infectious hangover from past drug-induced heavenly glimpses. In the words of Aldus Huxley: “For unrestricted use the West has permitted only alcohol and tobacco. All the other chemical Doors in the Wall are labelled Dope, and their unauthorized takers are Fiends.” But we shall continue to examine the shocking contribution of fungi-induced deliriousness to the establishment of ancient religious organisations, particularly in our next chapter.
The rotation of the seasons, the so-called Wheel of Life and its effects upon plant life denote a likeness to the birth and death of humanity itself, and the annual return of vegetation must have eventually prompted the first notions of reincarnation among the ancients. As Isaiah extrapolates, “they that sleep in the earth will awake and shout for joy, for thy dew is a dew of sparkling light and the earth will bring these long dead to birth again.” The main festivity of the ancient agrarian cults was obviously that held in the spring to commemorate the manifestations of this particular season. This was a time of pure revelry and thanks-giving. In Phoenicia, for instance, the people had celebrated the harvest and the Adonai. Says an ancient fertility goddess: “You will sing, dance, feast, make love and music in my praise, for mine indeed is both the ecstasy of the spirit and the joy on earth. Worship me within the heart that rejoices, for behold, to me belong all acts of love and pleasure.” Spring was also the opportunity for truce and magnanimity aimed at famished and menacing nomads then prowling along the fringes of the well-protected Fertile Crescent. These New Year festivities were observed in most ancient cultures. In India, for example, the festivals had concerned Gavampati, the God of Drought and Wind also known as Ga-Tum-Dug in Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian religious traditions. In Phoenicia, Gavampati was renamed the goddess Ashtarte, who like the Phoenician Ba’al, for instance, was believed to die and resurrect annually in sympathy with the natural cycle. Finally, in Greece, celebrations focused on Demeter, the goddess of the fertile and cultivated soil.
Today, this and three other festivals occur in almost every pagan religion and with appropriately saintly labels have survived ineradicably in the Christian calendar in particular. The May /Day festivals, for example, are the oldest and the ones that have survived with the maximum of popular vigour and the minimum of Christian refashioning. For its part, the festival of the Eleusinian Mysteries began in the month of Boedromion (‘September´), which is the traditional time for grape gathering. This festival would start on the 15th and end on the 22nd of this same month. The Phoenician and Hebrew equivalents known as the Feast of Ingatherings and the Feast of Tabernacles were therefore held in the month of Ethanim, a word that flows precisely from Adonim, Adonia, and Attenim, the three names clearly bearing salacious connotations as already mentioned.
Lastly, the Winter Solstice is the true New Year astronomically as well as spiritually. Christianity actually acknowledged the religious significance of the turn of the year when it settled on December 25th (the date of birth of the earlier Egyptian Horus and the Persian Zoroaster) as the date of Jesus’ birth, after three or four centuries of argument during which March, April, and November had all been strong contenders. Indeed, whilst most scholars would allow the Gospel accounts of Christ to have at least a basis of historical fact, the story of His birth clearly bears all the hallmarks of the far older tradition of the Goddess giving birth at the Winter Solstice to the promised new Sun God, who would, in due course, be ceremoniously sacrificed as prelude to rebirth or resurrection.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in