Saturday, June 13, 2015

On the Use of Mind Altering Substances

Over the years, I have been asked many times about the use of mind altering substances in regards to ancient Canaanite polytheistic religions. Indeed, I’ve seen the subject cross my desk twice this week. Sometimes this has been asked only with genuine interest, but sometimes I would lay odds that it is asked more with an eye towards legitimizing a modern personal activity one already wishes to engage in. I realize that the use mind altering substances is a controversial topic, but I don’t think it always needs to be. For whatever the questions are asked, I think the topic of mind altering substance use in polytheistic religions is a topic that would benefit from discussion. My background is in Canaanite studies and I will include some of that here but this isn’t limited to Canaanite matters.

Shifting Contexts
In an ancient Canaanite polytheistic setting, people may well have engaged locally in using mind altering substances. There are at least four different contexts in which the substances may have been used. These categories include but are not limited to:
1.  Formal ritualized temple-complex religious rites or situations,
2.  Informal ritual religious rites or situations in private or in a less-formal settings,
3.  As a recreational substance, or for personal reasons, alone or in groups
4.  As medication and/or pain relief for people or animals
I would wager that similar contexts apply in many ancient polytheistic religions beyond ancient Canaanite worship.

When I mention “temple-complex” in this situation, I refer not only to a Canaanite temple itself, but also to the sanctified reserved grounds around it which often included a courtyard,  other facilities contained therein and administrative offices. In the research of Canaanite polytheistic religions, I have come across substances used in contexts two and four above.  This doesn’t mean that one or three didn’t happen, it just means that I have not seen evidence one way or another on those: they are plausible but I could not attest to likeliness or frequency.

Some of these contexts listed above in 1-4 can and likely did overlap; it does not mean that these contexts are the same, nor does it mean that anything goes in regards to using mind altering substances. Sometimes modern folks can misperceive what is an overlap in category as being an exception to rules, and thus make the assumption that there are no rules. Sometimes people then think that rules are meaningless and therefore useless. I’ve even seen the attitude that rules are silly constructs that we’ve somehow outgrown and become too evolved to bother with. This is a mistake. In the modern dominant western culture(s) we find ourselves in, the numbered contexts I have listed above have often become obscured and blurred, or lost altogether. We’ve forgotten, merged, ignored, and disrespected the distinctions between sacred contexts and non-sacred contexts, and all the myriad contexts in between.

Canaanite Substances, Contexts, and the Marzichu Drinking Rite
What could generally pass as appropriate for one context may not be appropriate for another.  We know the Canaanites used alcohol in an informal private religious setting, and probably used it as a mind altering substance. We also have evidence they used poppy somehow, but the context is uncertain and whether or not they used it as a mind altering substance is also uncertain. There’s a remote chance they may have had cannabis, but whether it was used at all for anything from clothing and rope to a mind altering substance, we just don’t know. It seems likely that the ancient Israelites, and perhaps the Canaanites, used nutmeg and a Hyoscyamus of some sort (Disclaimer #6)—since these were found surrounded by sacred artifacts it is likely that these substances were used in sacred rites of some sort but beyond this, we do not know.

It is clear that there is one situation which likely uses alcohol as a mind altering substance in a Canaanite religious context: the marzichu drinking rites. There was a social structure around marzichu including the use of a formalized contract signed by members of groups who met regularly for marzichu—this comes from a preserved clay text in Ugaritic cuneiform, from about 3200 years ago. In Canaanite polytheism, alcohol is the only substance well-known potentially to be used as a mind altering substance in context of a sacred rite.

A marzichu was (and is) often recreational and enjoyable, however it isn’t always necessarily a happy rite. Regardless, this does not mean that the goal of the marzichu is the recreational or personal use of a mind altering substance. The goal of a marzichu is honoring the deities and the ancestors, honoring the dead, honoring life events, and engaging in fellowship. Yes, it was (and is) generally expected a person got at least a bit tipsy at marzichu, but it’s not the same thing as “I just feel like getting drunk with a few friends. Let’s party!” There’s nothing wrong with getting drunk with a few friends—provided you’re following local laws; but that is not a sacred context met with the express purpose in honoring deities, honoring the ancestors, honoring the dead, honoring life events, and engaging in fellowship. Marzichu is. An end result of drunkenness is the same whether it’s a party with friends or a marzichu; but the original equation, the route taken to that drunkenness, is entirely different and it makes all the difference.

Contexts and Modern Situations
By way of a modern example about different contexts, one doesn’t generally headbang at an orchestral recital. Just because both headbanging and orchestral recitals involve the use of music, it doesn’t make the venues the same things and it doesn’t mean that the same behavior is expected, warranted, or appropriate. Neither headbanging venues nor orchestra recitals are necessarily better than the other, and to focus on classifying one as always better than the other misses the point of the contexts being different and having different strengths, different weaknesses, and different uses. In this manner, contexts can be thought of as tools: a screwdriver is good at being a screwdriver. A hammer is good at being a hammer. Trying to use a screwdriver where you need a hammer, under the misunderstanding that they’re both tools they should be able to do the same things, isn’t going to get a job done.

Before going deeper into this matter, we also should consider that the substances ancient people had access to were usually not the refined, potent, highly addictive street drugs and pharmaceuticals we have today. (See Disclaimers 1 & 2) An ancient crude preparation of poppy is absolutely nothing like  morphine or heroin today, even though they are all opiates. Opiates are addictive, but morphine and heroin are even more so because of their potency. With the cruder ancient preparations of substances, these substances in general were likely not only less potent, but they also included a complex relationship with nature and with many other natural chemicals in the plant, or fungus, etc., which would affect the body differently from the modern extracted, refined, and often artificially constructed chemicals in most of the pharmaceuticals and street drugs of today. (See Disclaimer 3)

If a person wants to use a mind altering substance for recreation or non-recreational personal use, it is sometimes ok (See Disclaimer 1 & 2).  What a person puts into his body is his business. A person must be honest with herself, with the deities, etc., that she is using it specifically for personal reasons, and must follow common sense, local laws, and medical advice. If she is honest that she is using substances for personal use, and she doesn’t try to pull religion as an excuse or a reason when it is not, then using mind altering substances for personal use isn’t likely to do discredit to the deities, the ancestors, or individual choice, unless she does something really harmful or inappropriate. The substances must be used only in the proper context and with the proper supervision and knowledge. I also say “follow the laws” because that’s necessary—if you think the laws are wrong, work to change them (see Disclaimer 4). Although one could take substances for personal reasons on the same day as a rite, showing up to almost any religious rite while already under the influence is usually deeply inappropriate and potentially dangerous not only to oneself, but to others.

In sacred contexts, I would highly advise against using mind altering substances unless laws are respected; unless the deities or spirit beings in question require it through oracle; unless it is appropriate to the cultural and ancestral ways; and unless the people there know who in that situation is using, who will not be using, how that substance is best and carefully used, if people have allergies, and how a substance could interact with other medications that people could be taking, and only if all are consenting adults, and there are even more issues of safety and concerns to consider than I have noted here. These matters are complicated; if you are in any doubt about these matters, just go without the substance. I would highly advise that there is at least one person sober and functioning well enough to assess situations cogently and call quickly for emergency assistance if it is required.

The more unstructured people and events are likely to become, the more vital it is to have structure in place around them, serving as both safety net and containment field. If structure and context, and knowledge and consent, aren’t there or if you have even a shadow of a doubt that what is there isn’t enough, don’t use mind altering substances in a rite. If you even think it might not be right for the sacred beings honored at the rite: don't do it.

Just because mind altering substances can be used in sacred contexts and in personal contexts, it doesn’t mean that these boundaries can be ignored. Indeed, I would argue that especially with mind altering substances these boundaries are even more vital to providing safety, structure, and framework. Mind altering substances are dangerous forces of nature, and as such they should be respected and treated carefully.

So What’s the Big Deal, Anyway?
Using a mind altering substance for personal use while claiming that it is for a religious context messes up several things. It blurs the contexts, and therefore throws out the structures and frameworks both in ritual practice and in mindset that are necessary, valuable, and useful. Blurring contexts, ignoring contexts, and tampering with contexts effectively degrade these contexts. Degradation of context not only can change a holy thing into a unholy thing very quickly, it can also end up making the situation dangerous. Clear contexts are vital to someone who is in the midst of having his mind altered for purposes of sacred communication and communion. Degrading contexts and expecting someone to perform Work under those circumstances could be likened to demanding that someone perform a tightrope walk not just without a net, but without the tightrope itself, and over a sea of upended blades suspended in fiery lava.

Having these contexts blurred causes the erosion and failure of sacred rites and the Work done in them. It is disrespectful to the deities, the ancestors, the spirits, and other participants. It is demeaning to the priest or shaman and the Work, and it can endanger that person, and it can endanger other participants. It also causes us to be insincere in our rites and we can end up not taking the rites seriously. Others, too, end up not treating these rites with dignity and respect; how can they take our rites seriously if we don’t? It also means that by claiming “religion says we can do this,” we have ceded away our own responsibility for our own actions and choices; we have demeaned our own free agency which we as thoughtful individuals should not so casually throw away.

As an example of some of this context blurring: we know of the use of Hysoscyamus from archaeological evidence—there was an article posted about it.  Although this article is of some limited usefulness, it misses another mark entirely because it defiles what was a sacred, holy experience and brings it into direct association with the crime, corruption, and filth by calling the ancient city where this find was discovered a “center of a thriving drug scene." This find was discovered with sacred artifacts in a sacred setting, and not as a part of illicit activity. When I talk about how dangerous and inappropriate it is to merge these context, this is at least one an example of some of what I’m talking about.

In another matter, it is dishonest for a person to claim that he is engaging in substance use for religious purposes when he just wants to legitimize his personal use of the substance. A person shouldn’t look to religion as a permission slip for using mind altering substances. That kind of dishonesty about one’s own motives in a sacred context constitutes a misdeed in regards to ritual acts. A person’s legal personal use of substances isn’t the problem; the problem is in claiming it is a religious act so as to add an air of false legitimacy to what he’s doing, or use religion as an excuse to get away with doing what he wants to do anyway. These acts ruin the very sacred nature they purport to preserve, can put people in danger, and can actually curtail personal freedom. That’s not ok.

If we want these sacred things treated with dignity and respect we must ourselves treat these rites, past and present, with the dignity and respect they deserve, and we must maintain these different contexts. We must maintain these boundaries between the contexts of sacred uses and the contexts of personal uses of mind altering substances. We must not claim “sacred use” as an excuse for personal use.


Alas, I lament that I even think an article of this nature would be required to have disclaimers, but this is the dominant culture and times we live in. My disclaimers below can be summed up as: don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt other people or animals, don’t do anything stupid, don’t do anything illegal. See a medical professional; consult a pharmacist. I am not giving medical advice, I am not prescribing, and I am most certainly not suggesting or condoning the use of any mind altering substance, medications, or drugs. I am not a medical professional, pharmacist or herbalist. Use common sense. Take personal responsibility for your choices.

Disclaimer #1:
I do not condone or suggest engaging in illegal activities. I am not in any way suggesting anyone can or should take any mind altering substances, medication, or drugs of any sort. Also, substance use and substance abuse are two different things: do not abuse substances. I do not condone using any mind altering substance and operating heavy machinery. Kids should never, ever “do drugs” unless they are under adult supervision and it is medication prescribed by a medical professional. Never give a person a mind altering substance without their express consent: that is a reprehensible and foul thing to do and it is the very definition of wrong. Also, do not give animals mind altering substances, drugs, or medication, without the advice of a qualified veterinarian. I don’t care if you think it’s funny, either with people or with animals. It’s no joke. It’s cruel.  Messing around with people and other beings in this manner is disgusting, loathsome, usually illegal, and often evil. Don’t hurt yourself, use care to avoid addiction, and don’t hurt or endanger other people and beings either. If you do end up in an addiction situation, this is serious business: contact qualified health care providers.

Disclaimer #2:
Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine are the typical legal substances I can think of at the moment; provided you meet the required legal conditions for using these things. I do not condone the overuse of these substances because overuse can be harmful to the body, but ehn, it’s your body and your responsibility. I do not suggest or condone over-the-counter pharmaceutical medications for recreational or personal use, nor do I propose raiding the spice rack or hitting up the herbal section of a health food store, or trotting around the backwoods for mushrooms or wildcrafted herbs, and so on. I also do not suggest or condone other highs gained through the likes of sniffing glue, paint, or markers or whatever else people do for cheap barely-legal highs. All of these things can be quite dangerous especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, and worse, when you don’t realize that you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t suggest or condone doing anything illegal, harmful, or ignorant. Please use some common sense; don’t earn a posthumous Darwin Award.

Disclaimer #3:
Do not take morphine unless prescribed by a doctor. Do not take heroin. I am not prescribing, diagnosing, or offering medical advice. If you are on medication, do not stop taking medication without consulting a medical professional. Always follow a medical doctor’s advice, and a pharmacist’s advice. Respect local laws, too. If you want to know about the evolution of an ancient drug into a modern one, ask a pharmacist—they are specialists in this field and will likely love the chance to nerdtalk with you. If you want more information on healing herbs, like willow bark, ask a professional certified herbalist. Do not take any herb or substance without consulting a professional first, and without gaining information ahead of time as to what that substance will do and how it will interact with your body or with other substances. While pharmacists are specialists in this field of chemical substances and their effects on the body, keep in mind that I am not a pharmacist nor am I a professional herbalist. I am not a professional on mind altering substances, herbalism, or medication.

Disclaimer #4:
I think many laws about mind altering substances are holdovers from Puritan attitudes and even corporate greed from pharmaceutical, alcohol ,and tobacco companies, but they are still the laws on the books right now. Many of these laws should be revisited and modified or rendered obsolete. If you don’t like a law, work to change it, and vote.  Until they are changed, we are still required to acknowledge them.  Even though I urge people to follow the laws, ultimately how a person acknowledges a law, and whether or not a person chooses to act in accordance to it is that person’s own responsibility. You are responsible for your own choices.

Disclaimer #5:
Taking mind altering substances for personal use in hopes and efforts of expanding the mind and/or improving the soul(s), is personal use. It is generally not sacred use. It may or may not be recreational use either, but it is personal use. Sacred use and personal use are different contexts.  Sacred use involves honoring the deities, the ancestors, the spirits and so on in a religious setting of some sort in order to work with these beings, honor them, and commune with them. Although working on the self is absolutely vital to honoring the deities (etc.), it is not the same thing as honoring the deities (etc.). Think of it this way: a commute to work is not usually the same as being at work, even if it is necessary in getting to work. Also note that work on the self is vital to pretty much doing anything in life ever; however using substances is not at all necessary to that process, and may not even be beneficial in that process. I do not suggest the use of mind altering substances in the development of the self. Always follow medical advice. Always follow psychiatric advice and counseling where applicable.

Disclaimer #6:
Hyoscyamus, the henbanes, are toxic.  Nutmeg can be toxic as well.  Toxic means poisonous, dangerous, causing bodily harm, and potentially fatal--these things can cause death. I do not suggest the use of these substances.

Photo Credits: Photo of an opium poppy, Papaver somniferum by Louise Joly, used under Creative Commons License.