A brief overview of human interaction with Psychedelics
All-Encompassing Origins: From Soma to Santa Claus
What’s perhaps most interesting when looking at the history of psychedelics is how abundant and rich of a history it really presents itself to be, approachable from so many different angles of perspective or discipline of study.
One can examine the tremendous social or cultural history of certain substances like Psilocybin or Peyote, or learn about the intricate pharmacological history of LSD. We can go further to discern ancient histories from modern, legal and economical, spiritual or scientific.
It’s this very relationship that seems to have taught us more about ourselves than it has about the psychedelics we seek to understand so desperately, and that’s perhaps one of the most intriguing themes that one would stumble into when examining their history from whichever angle: the innumerable ways by which we, as one seemingly united but inherently divided species, sought to exploit them to their fullest potential.
From pharmaceutical gain to psychological understanding; from utilizing psychedelics as a military weapon to treating them as a supplement for creativity; from ritualistic ceremonial necessity to staple of cultural identity.
Interestingly, each main hallucinogen (LSD, Mescaline, Psilocybin and DMT) has a uniquely rich history worth exploring on its own. Psilocybin, beyond presenting itself as a staple of ritualistic ceremony throughout Native America for millennia, is also referenced abundantly throughout ancient Sanskrit texts of the Hindu religion (‘Soma’); likewise, LSD’s origins can be traced to the Eleusinian ceremonies of ancient Greece (from an Ergot fungus that grew on wheat).
We can go back further and bump into assertions by historians and anthropologists alike which would form a convincing narrative that the consumption of psychedelics had been responsible for the rapid leaps in the growth pattern of the human brain or that the original conception of Santa Claus himself sprouts from a cultural love affair with the Amanita Muscaria mushroom.
Not only do such histories detail our fascination with trying to understand psychedelic compounds themselves, but they also prove emblematic of our unrelenting attempt to understand ourselves through the alteration of our consciousness, and they vividly detail the ways by which we sought to journey into the deeper dimensions of our conscious potential.
Take Mescaline for another example — it had been initially synthesized for pharmaceutical purposes when it presented itself as a tool to treat schizophrenia and a range of other psychological disorders. It was shortly thereafter adopted by the creative crowds of the world — by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and authors like Aldous Huxley — before being utilized as a potential truth serum by the Third Reich in Germany and as part of Project MK Ultra in the United States. All the while it had been used as a ceremonial substance amongst Native American populations dating back thousands of years.
The wide-range of desired applications not only speaks to the versatility of psychedelics, offering something more than a simple high for recreational purposes, but it also reveals our insatiable desire to learn more about them, from every field of study we can think of.
History In Progress: Taking the Scenic Route
In a rather arrogant fashion, we often seem to disregard the reverent qualities of hallucinogens like psilocybin, qualities that have been portrayed as spiritual by ancient cultures, and we sought to only exploit them for immediate gains — military or pharmacology.
However, the unstable thirst for profits or power — which itself had resulted in decades’ worth of insensible legal barricades — has seemed to settle down. And as the murky waters surrounding these substances have cleared a little bit, we’ve begun to realize the true potential (and potency) of their effects on our culture as a whole.
Whether we’re investigating the therapeutic nature of DMT or the productive micro-effectuations of psilocybin, we’ve begun to witness a reframing of psychedelics, from an unknown threat associated with countless moral panics to an innocuous expander of our perception and potential.
We see this kind of ebb and flow time and time again. Peyote, of which the active ingredient is mescaline, was initially seen as a catalyst of cultural friction between Native American populations and European settlers in the New World. LSD, often referred to as Acid, was considered a dangerous drug that was assumed to lead to addiction, brain damage, and violence.
Today, both mescaline and LSD are seen as anything but — in fact, they’re presented as supplements to productive ends or conveyors of wisdom relating to existential quandaries.
And so the history of psychedelics remains far from being complete as our relationship grows and evolves into new dimensions of understanding. Fortunately, the last few decades have proved that we’re capable of assessing their effects on an unbiased level as we continually work to unlock the true powers of their potential.
From therapy to productivity, the horizon only grows more infinite as we slowly learn that, through the study of psychedelics, we’re simply learning more about our own consciousness and ultimately ourselves.
Dates Through History
~5000 BC: Cave paintings of shamans possessing psilocybin mushroom, located in Algeria
~4000 BC: Further cave depictions of psilocybin mushrooms, located in Spain
~3700 BC: Sculptures of Peyote buttons (cacti) of Native American tribes, found in Rio Grande
~2000 BC: Ergot, a wheat fungus, reportedly used by the Greeks in a mixture referred to as kykeon
~1500 BC: Indian scriptures of the Rig Veda refer to a psychedelic drink called Soma
1897: Mescaline is isolated from the Peyote Cactus for the first time by Artur Heffter
1919: Mescaline is first synthesized by Ersnt Spath
1931: DMT first synthesized by Canadian chemist Richard Manske
1938: LSD first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman
1952: The CIA, partnering with ex-Nazi officials in Germany, administered LSD to Soviet spies captured by German authorities as part of Operation Paperclip.
1953: Project MKUltra begins, overseeing the administration of LSD to mental patients, prisoners, and those afflicted with drug addiction
1958: Psilocybin isolated from the mushroom P. mexicana, also by Albert Hoffman and his team
1963: The Spring Grove Experiments commenced, consisting of hundreds of psychiatric patients receiving psychedelic treatment at the Spring Grove Clinic in Maryland. It had been the most comprehensive study of its time, prompting new understandings into psychedelics but also generating concerns over scientific credibility.
1966-1971: The possession, sale and manufacture of most psychedelic drugs begins to become prohibited in the US, Canada, and UK
Iconic Figures in History
Plato (c. ~429-347)
There's an often-touted claim that the very origin of philosophy is rooted in or triggered by the intake of psychedelics, and it doesn't take much sifting through the works of the most famous Greek philosophers (like Plato) to see how this could be so.
Plato's work delves seemingly deeper into metaphysics than any since his time as he describes notions that are, today, considered a staple of typical psychedelic thought - for instance, his transcendent notion of the ideal realm of existence (separate from the immaterial) or his ego-dissolving thought experiments relating to identity.
Plato regularly attended the Eleusinian Mysteries, whereby it is conjectured that an early prototype of LSD ('kykeon' - ergot) had been consumed to allow for the blossoming of intellectual discourse.
It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Plato, and many philosophers alongside him, had used this early psychedelic as a catalyst for their thinking, especially when it came to mind-body dualism that became a central element of philosophy.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
Famous author Aldous Huxley, known for his seminal work "Brave New World", had also been a fervent experimenter of mescaline and LSD throughout the 50's and 60's, going as far as to publish his thoughts on psychedelics in a lesser known work entitled "The Doors of Perception", whereby he discussed the perceptual privileges and perspective-shifts associated with the consumption of psychedelics.
Huxley treated psychedelics as a tool, one that can promote creativity and be utilized for productive ends.
In an interview from 1960 for the Paris Review, Huxley is quoted as saying:
"While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one's own life. Many people get tremendous recalls of buried material. A process which may take six years of psychoanalysis happens in an hour -- and considerably cheaper! And the experience can be very liberating and widening in other ways. It shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. It's a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is. I think it's healthy that people should have this experience."
Alan Watts (1915-1973)
An icon throughout many circles of modern culture, Alan Watts sought to bridge the gap between East and West as he became renowned for popularizing Eastern spiritual and religious traditions, most notably Taoism and Zen Buddhism.
While he doesn't make the kind of frequent and ostensible references to psychedelics as his counterparts do (say, Terence McKenna), his commentary revolving around perspective, morality, identity and all existential clearly delineate the mind of an experience psychonaut.
Currently in the midst of a cultural resurrection, Watts' lectures and quotations are found in all corners of the internet, proving his insights to be as timeless as they are useful.
An excerpt from one of his many orations:
“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary of useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones."
Terence McKenna (1946-2000)
Likely the most outspoken and influential figure to promote psychedelic use, McKenna's love affair with psychedelics (chiefly psilocybin) can be described as boundless and eternal.
An ethnobotanist, butterfly collector, mystic, phenomenal orator and exceptional thinker, McKenna tends to break through the limitations of his audience's imagination with his trapeze-style commentary on the nature of reality, brilliantly exemplifying the effect of psychedelics in real time - he remains a testament to the unparalleled power that various hallucinogens can have on a contemplative and curious mind.
While he may lose some listeners with his repeated praise of psychedelics - again, psilocybin being his chosen muse - he himself admits that a trip or two a year suffices to expand consciousness to a level that makes one question the true nature of reality, necessarily reframing perspective and making the most out of our conscious capabilities.
McKenna, survived by his brother Dennis (who himself has more than enough interesting anecdotes to take in), can be considered as having been critical in the latest renaissance of the psychedelic movement and will likely forever remain a driving force behind the survival of the psychedelic culture.
An excerpt from one of his numerous lectures:
“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”
Research & Footnotes
A Psychedelic timeline
From Sacred Plants to Psychotherapy
Psychedelic Research Timeline
A Brief History of Psychedelic Psychiatry