The Girdle of Gaia
“The Tree of Life bears twelve manner of monthly fruit and the leaves are for the healing of the nations”– Revelation
Just as the twelve signs of the Zodiac – the Belt of Ishtar – are an arbitrary classification of the millions of stars in the galaxy into prominent configurations, so the diverse floral stars of the evolutionary process – the many psychoactive, medicinal and food plants are beyond number.
Nevertheless, in human history there are a small number of constellations of sacred plants which, because of their great cultural significance, deserve to be treated as the fabled twelve-fold fruit of the Tree of Life.
Each constellation represents a collection of species sharing a particular molecular arrangement which is psychoactive in the human brain, and which also has a significant cultural history of religious use to induce visionary, mystical or shamanic trance states.The purpose of this article is to acknowledge the stature and respect these sacred fruits deserve, and to indicate beyond them those other stars without number which further enrich the diversity of our conscious life. In compiling this list, it should be borne in mind that ancient uses of such plants were negotiated in a sacred and ritual manner and that some, despite their historical use are toxic.
Others despite not being physically harmful have profound effects on the conscious mind, which, without proper guidance, could lead to social consequences detrimental to the respect in which these and all medicinal plants should be held. Eliade’s failure to recognise the central role of hallucinogens in the shamanic path, both in Siberia and particularly in the Americas constitutes one of the most misleading episodes in modern anthropology.
Pivotal to this realization is also an overturning of James Frazer’s sequence of civilized attainment from magic to religion and finally to science. The idea that magic is more primitive than religion and that religion is more primitive than science arises from a basic confusion between causal mechanics and the intrinsic uncertainty of conscious experience. From a quantum-mechanical perspective the ancient roles of science and magic, look if anything complementary. Science explains what the probabilities are in a given situation and magic addresses the area of uncertainty – why one outcome rather than another actually is chosen by nature.
Religion has been caught somewhere in the middle, falling from its primal roots in visionary trance in the formation of mass belief systems, and yet neither conforming to the rational developments of scientific reason. One could thus take the position that through a combination of scientific reason and shamanic vision, we will finally correct the folly of religion and regain the Tao of vision-and-reason which the gatherer-hunters with their vast knowledge of plants gave us as their sacred heritage of the Garden – the fruit of knowledge and immortality.
The Ancient Use of Sacred Plants
“By the Later Old Stone Age (the Upper Palaeolithic period, beginning about 45,000 to 38,000 years ago and ending around 10,000 years ago in Europe – perhaps earlier elsewhere) our species Homo sapiens had firmly established itself with an economy based on hunting, fishing and the gathering of plants”.
“Almost all hunter-gatherer societies have been shown to have a fairly clear-cut division of labour between the sexes. The men hunt whilst the women gather plants and collect or hunt small animals (e.g. shellfish, birds, eggs, etc.). Whilst animal proteins are highly prized, the bulk of the staple foodstuffs are usually the result of female labour. This division of labour may suggest that in prehistoric times women’s role vis-a-vis plants was not limited to the culinary or even the medical spheres, but extended into the discovery of psychoactive plants (this has a distant echo in the female- dominated European witchcraft tradition. Gatherers have an extremely detailed knowledge of their land and its natural resources, and having considered the technical and intellectual achievements of hunter-gatherer communities past and present we should not be surprised that they were able to identify, collect and process a variety of psychoactive species”.
“That there was ample time for such spiritual or recreational activity in the hunter-gatherer society is not in doubt: Some contemporary cultures practice a similar way of life and until recently it was presumed that nearly all their waking hours were spent in a relentless quest for food. In fact case-studies from various parts of the world show that sufficient food can be obtained in an average adult working day of 3-5 hours. The hunter hunted by starvation may be the exception rather than the rule.
The leisure time of many hunter-gatherers seems to be abundant: Extrapolating from ethnography to prehistory, one may say as much for the Neolithic [New Stone Age] as John Stuart Mill said of all labour-saving devices, that never was one invented that saved anyone a minute’s labour. The Neolithic saw no particular improvement over the Palaeolithic in the amount of time required per capita for the production of subsistence; probably, with the advent of agriculture, people had to work harder.
Much the same conclusion is arrived at by an eminent prehistoric archaeologist:There is abundant data which suggests not only that hunter-gatherers have adequate supplies of food but also that they enjoy quantities of leisure time, much more in fact than do modern industrial or farm workers, or even professors of archaeology.From the basis of a comparatively stable economy and adequate leisure time Palaeolithic populations were able to develop technology, science and art to a surprisingly high degree. Prehistoric thought, albeit different in scale and content from our own, deserves our admiration”.
In the Alchemy of Culture, Richard Rudgley gathers evidence from several researchers that Palaeolithic cultures, based on such detailed knowledge of local flora and fungi utilized the natural distributions of psychoactive species in their locale as an early feature of their cultural development. Rudgley notes the research of other authors including David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowdson who make a case that the abstract patterns that occur in parallel with the animals found in such pre-historic caves as Lascaux, which have long been ascribed to shamanic rites of hunting, are representations of the phosphenes that accompany meditative and trance states, accompanying shamanic practices, particularly those associated with psychoactive plants.
Somewhat later we indeed find more definitive suggestions of such ‘phosphene art’ in the form of the Neolithic Tomb of Gavrinis in Brittany, where carved megaliths from a neolithic tomb show striking abstract patterns of this nature. These are also nearby another find of pottery ‘vase-supports’ from Er Lannic, some of which show signs of being used as braziers, and are consistent with an early spread from the South of ritual burning possibly of opium.
Papaver somniferum:The Poppy of the Holy Mother
The opium poppy, which is one of the most medically important plants known to man and which still plays a central role in the control of pain and suffering, particularly in terminal conditions, shows a very early pattern of use and cultivation. Although the exact origins of the poppy remain uncertain, it seems to have been domesticated in the west Mediterranean by the sixth millennium BC. Several finds of remains poppy seeds have come from Neolithic lake villages in Switzerland, and also in Germany and Italy point to widespread domestication in Neolithic times. These are complemented by full pods at burial sites at Albunol in Spain from around 4200 BC which are more indicative of medicinal use.
The use of poppies in Crete is attested to by Minoan statues and seals from the second millennium BC clearly indicating ritual use of opium resin in the cultures of the fertility Goddess, consistent with her role in gathering medicinal plants and using them as an integral part of her ritual worship. It is natural for the fertility Goddess to utilize and respect as spiritual those emanations of her own manifestation of physical fertility as an aspect of the very body of the Earth Goddess: ‘Kritikos has shown that during the Late Minoan period opium was taken by participants in certain religious ceremonies to induce a state of ecstasy essential for the performance of the sacred rites. Might not opium have been used in the same way in Egypt? How appropriate it would be if the island of Aphrodite could be proved to have introduced Egypt to the drug which served that Goddess so well!’… It would be impossible to believe that advantage was not taken by the ancient Egyptians of the purely sensuous or erotic affects that opium also produces’.
From a similar period come Cypriot juglets from tel Amarna in the 18th dynasty of Egypt of Akhenaten. It has been suggested that these juglets were designed to iconically represent their contents as indicated above left making them so-called skeuomorphs. Chromatographic evidence confirms the presence of opiates in at least some of these juglets.The role of opium in the ancient world is well attested. There are references to it in writings from Egypt, Assyria and Greece. Egyptian medical texts list among opium’s many uses its sedative powers to alleviate the pain of wounds, abscesses and scalp complaints. For the Romans too it was something of a panacea, being used to treat elephantiasis, carbuncles, liver complaints, epilepsy and scorpion bites, according to Pliny. Opium is Greek for poppy juice. It is dedicated to Nyx goddess of the night, who is shown distributing it to youths in repose in a cameo. Almost every major writer of antiquity from Hippocrates, who recommended poppy wine, mentions it.
It has also been suggested that the poppy was an integral part of sacrificial rites from Sumer to Babylon. It has been noted that in at least some of the sacrificial Tombs of the early Kings Ur the sacrificed servants and courtiers appear to have died peacefully, suggesting they were given a potion to relax them, or even to bring on unconsciousness. Sumerian tablature of the second millennium BC mentions its efficacy in bringing sleep and an end to pain.
A key paragraph from Babel Tower (273) expresses this use in poetic terms: ‘We are told by antiquaries … that in ancient Babylon, in the chamber at the top of the ziggurat which was reserved for the activities of the god Baal, he came sometimes to sleep with the priestess, and sometimes to share a feast at a giant stone table, and sometimes, in difficult times, to demand a sacrifice. And there are many tales of what this sacrifice was – a red human heart, tastefully roasted, a whole human infant, the first-born, trussed and tossed into the flames of his altar fire. It is told that on his feast days a great cake was baked, and cut into small portions, one of which was blacked with the soot of the eternal Fire of his altar.
The people took their cakes blindfold, and he who chose the black square was the Chosen One, devoted to the god. And for a time this Devoted One was fed and fattened, granted his desires of the flesh, sweet cakes and wine, sweet bedfellows and smoky opiates. And when his time came, he was led smiling to the fire, and the god was pleased, and did not wilfully torture or persecute the people for the following year, but let their corn and vines grow rich and their children spring up plump and healthy.’In Eurasia there is a legend that Buddha cut off his eyelids in order to prevent sleep overtaking him, and where they fell, there grew a herb which bore a nodding violet flower which was to give sleep and tortured dreams to all mankind.
Cannabis: Ganga, the Sacred River of the Sadhu
“A similar case can be made for the use of hemp (Cannabis sativa) as an intoxicant in prehistoric Europe. Hemp seeds have been found at a variety of Neolithic sites in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Romania. Like the opium poppy, hemp grows as a weed, and its proximity to prehistoric communities was a factor in its domestication”. One of our oldest cultivars, Cannabis has been a five-purpose plant: fibre, seed oil, for its seeds as food, for its psychoactive properties, and therapeutically as a medicine.
“In several parts of eastern Europe decorated pottery “polypoid bowls’ have been found, dating from the early third millennium BC. The earliest of these bowls, often interpreted as braziers ‘ came from the Pontic Steppes. Examples found in the Carpathian Basin and then in Czechoslovakia and southern Germany are somewhat later, indicating that this type of pottery spread from east to west. Cannabis sativa, too, is generally thought to have originated on the steppes and subsequently to have spread into Europe. Could it be that these polypoid bowls, rather like the earlier ‘vase-supports’, were braziers for the ritual burning of an intoxicant? Two further finds of associated artefacts add weight to the possibility of a later Neolithic cannabis cult. A pit-grave burial of the later third millennium in Romania was discovered to include an item described as a ‘pipe cup’ which itself contained charred hemp seeds.
Another ‘pipe cup’ from the same period and belonging to the north Caucasian Early Bronze Age was found with hemp seed present. Although the seeds are not themselves psychoactive, they are the most heat-resistant part of the plant, and these two finds suggest that the intoxicating flowers and leaves had been burnt away”.
“Contemporary with the rise of the polypoid bowls on the steppe was the development of a novel style of pottery ornamentation. While the bowl was still wet, cord was wrapped around it in order to impress it with a pattern. … Sherratt has suggested that this cord decoration may have been a way of celebrating the contents of the bowls. In this case it was not by imitating the shape of the Cannabis sativa plant (as the Cypriote juglets imitated the opium poppy) that the contents of the vessels were announced, but by decoration applied by the use of hemp cord.”
Both the fibre and intoxicating qualities of hemp were exploited by later cultures such as the Thracians. A Greek source informs us that they made their garments from its fibre” and it is known that their shamans (Kapnobatai) used cannabis to induce states of trance.”As the polypoid bowls decorated with cord impressions began to be used further westward, they entered cultural areas with a tradition of alcohol use. It is possible that in such regions the two substances were used together to produce a new psychoactive effect. just as it can be shown that the use of opium was widespread in the early historical period in the east Mediterranean, there is also sufficient evidence that hemp was being used as an intoxicant by the Iron Age. Cannabis has been discovered in the grave chamber of the Hochdorf Hallstatt wagon-burial near Stuttgart in Germany (circa 500 BC), and also at Scythian sites on the steppes” (R 30).
To Earth’s far-distant confines we are come, The tract of Scythia, waste untrod by man. Aeschylus – Promethus Bound
In the eighth century BC Scythian groups from the east began to migrate westward with their flocks and herds. After a successful alliance with the Medes, which resulted in the sacking of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in 613 BC, both the Asiatic and the European Scythians began a series of conflicts with the Persian kings of the Achaemenian Dynasty.Among the tribute-bearing delegations depicted on Achaemenian reliefs at the royal site of Persepolis is a people named saka tigraxauda, or ‘pointed- hat Scythians’, on account of their distinctive headgear. Another group that features in a number of trilingual inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian’ is the saka haitinaiaixa or ‘hao a-drinking Scythians’ after Haoma.
In the fifth century BC Herodotus travelled widely in the area to the north of the Black Sea and includes the following account of Scythian intoxication in his Historics: “On a framework of tree sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woollen cloth. Inside this tent they put a dish with hot stones on it. Then they take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians are so delighted they shout for joy.”Like other cultures, the Scythians gradually passed through the transition to alcohol use. It is however mentioned occasionally by the Greeks. Democritus around 400 BC noted its use occasionally with wine and myrrh to produce visionary states. The Assyrians were also during the first millennium BC known to use Hemp as incense.
Tradition in India maintains that the gods sent man the Hemp plant so that he might attain delight, courage, and have heightened sexual desires. When nectar or Amrita dropped down from heaven, Cannabis sprouted from it. Another story tells how when the gods, helped by demons churned the mile ocean to obtain Amrita one of the resulting divine nectars was Cannabis, able to give man anything from a good health and a long life to visions of the gods. It was consecrated to Shiva and was Indra’s favourite drink. Cannabis bears the name Vijaya for the victory the gods had over the demons in retaining guardianship of Amrita. Ever since the plant has been held in India, to bestow supernatural powers on its users. As Bhang it was thought to deter evil, bring luck and cleanse man of sin.
Hemp fibre can be found from 4000 BC in China and 3000 BC from Turkestan, and a possible specimen from early Egypt. It is described as Ma-fen (Hemp-fruit) in China where a legendary emperor of 2000 BC said “If taken to excess, it will cause you to see devils. If taken over a long time it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body”. Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung in 2737 BC noted its bisexual nature and recommended for a variety of uses from malaria to absent-mindedness. A Taoist priest in 500 BC noted that Cannabis “was employed by necromancers, in combination with Ginseng to set forward time and reveal future events” (S&H 95). In later China, this use seems to have disappeared.
Hashish is also associated with the Old Man of the Mountain and his garden of paradise which was to convince kidnapped young men that if they obeyed his orders as assassins, they would gain such a reward. It was described as a physical realization of Muhammad’s paradise promised to the followers of Islam: “In a beautiful valley between two mountains [Aloedin] formed a luxurious garden, with delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub … with streams of milk and honey and beautiful damsels accomplished in the arts of singing and playing on all sorts of instruments, dancing, dalliance and amorous allurement”.
However historical accounts of the Islamic leader Hasan-i Sabah say he built the castle Aluh Amut ‘the eagles teaching’ on an eyrie and was a recluse learned in geometry, astronomy and magic. As an opponent of the caliph who did commit assassinations, he has been fancifully denigrated by his Sunni opponents (R101). It is thus very doubtful whether hashish should receive the stigma of the assassin.
Despite Islam’s unambiguous stand against alcohol, the use of Hemp spread widely in the Islamic world, and into Africa, subsequently spreading throughout the globe through movements of both slaves and migrants.Cannabis is also the sacred herb of the Rastafarians, setting an unusual biblical tradition of being cannabis-smoking followers of Yahweh. The Ethiopian tradition also runs through the Shulamite Queen of Sheba.”The psychoactive effects of Cannabis and its preparations vary widely, depending on the preparation the user and the background. Perhaps the most frequent characteristic is a dreamy state. Long-forgotten events are often recalled and thoughts occur in unrelated sequences. Perception of time and occasionally space are altered. Visual and auditory hallucinations follow the use of large doses. Euphoria, excitement and inner happiness – often with hilarity and laughter are typical”. Schultes comments: “it behoves us to consider the role of Cannabis in our past and learn what lessons it can teach us … for it appears that it will be with us for a long time”.