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Plants and Human Cosmologies
Cosmologies are branches of philosophy
which deal with the origins and structures of
the universe - religions that explain how the
universe formed and our place within it are
one kind (a very powerful kind) of
The Oak of Guernica
Basque coat of arms with
Oak of Guernica
Oak of Guernica by Wordsworth - 1810
The ancient oak of Guernica, says Laborde in his account of Biscay, is a most
venerable natural monument. Ferdinand and Isabella, in the year 1476, after
hearing mass in the church of Santa Maria de la Antigua, repaired to this tree,
under which they swore to the Biscayans to maintain their "fueros"
(privileges). What other interest belongs to it in the minds of this people will
appear from the following.
OAK of Guernica! Tree of holier power
Than that which in Dodona did enshrine
(So faith too fondly deemed) a voice divine
Heard from the depths of its aerial bower-How canst thou flourish at this blighting hour?
What hope, what joy can sunshine bring to thee,
Or the soft breezes from the Atlantic sea,
The dews of morn, or April's tender shower?
Stroke merciful and welcome would that be
Which should extend thy branches on the ground,
If never more within their shady round
Those lofty-minded Lawgivers shall meet,
Peasant and lord, in their appointed seat,
Guardians of Biscay's ancient liberty.
Guernica by Picasso
The Fall by Michelangelo – detail
from ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Moses and The Burning Bush
The sacred Maori Waka Huia
The sacred Maori Waka Huia
Miro tree – Podocarpus ferruginea
Cosmologies are branches of philosophy
which deal with the origins and structures of
the universe - religions that explain how the
universe formed and our place within it are
one kind (a very powerful kind) of
From William Blake
• "If the doors of
perception were
cleansed every thing
would appear to man
as it is, infinite. For
man has closed
himself up, till he sees
all things through
narrow chinks of his
cavern." – The
Marriage of Heaven
and Hell - 1793
Entering the Another World
• In the western tradition, plants and plant
products are used symbolically.
• Ritual intoxication is the point of many
religions that use plants to enter another
Quanah Parker – Last Commanche
Chief, co-founder of Native
American Church
“The white man goes
into his church and
talks about Jesus;
the Indian goes into
his tipi and talks to
Areas where special plants are
used to enter another world
Cover of English edition
Of Phantastica by Louis Lewin
Categories of Psychoactive Plants
- from Lewin Phantastica
1. Euphorica - sedatives of mental activity - this
group included opium and its derivatives
morphine and heroin, as well as cocaine
2. Phantastica - drugs that cause evident cerebral
excitation in the form of hallucinations,
illusions, and visions - may be accompanied by
unconsciousness or other symptons of altered
cerebral activity - this group included plants like
Datura sp., belladonna, peyote, ayahuasca from
Banasteriopsis sp., ebena from Virola sp., fly
agaric, Psilocybe and related mushrooms
Categories of Psychoactive Plants
- from Lewin Phantastica
3. Inebriantia - substances produced primarily by
chemical synthesis or some other manipulation of
raw materials - such as alcohol, chloroform, ether,
benzene - these produce a primary phase of
cerebral excitation, followed by a state of
4. Hypnotica - substances that induce sleep, such as
5. Excitantia - stimulants that result in apparent
excitation of the brain without altering
consciousness - coffee, cola nuts, betel nuts,
• Hallucinogens are defined as: a nonaddictive
substance that consistently produces changes in
perception, thought, and mood, occurring alone or
in concert, without causing serious disabilities like
major disturbances to the autonomic nervous
• High doses may elicit disorientation, memory
disturbances, hyperexcitation, stupor, or narcosis,
but these reactions are not characteristic.
• Strictly speaking hallucinogens should be limited
to those chemicals that mimic serotonin – the
indolalkylamines like psilocybin, and
phenethylamines such as mescaline.
• But sometimes other substances that cause
changes in mood and perception along with
causing disability are included as hallucinogens.
Such substances include tropane derivatives like
scopolamine, and dibenzpyran derivatives like
THC, tetrahydracannabinol.
• Strictly speaking narcotic refers to
morphine and related substances that are
addictive and sedatives. But narcotic
sometimes is used for any drug that alters
mental state.
Methodological Considerations
1. When studying the plants it is critical to study
them in a controlled clinical setting. There is a
considerable placebo effect with hallucinogenic
and psychoactive plants.
2. But it is also essential that we test the plants in
the way indigenous people use them. If they eat
the plant, the plant must be eaten. Indigenous
people use psychoactive plants in many different
Curandero and Tobacco Ceremony
South America
Psychoactive plants as a
communal experience
• Many psychoactive plants
have very subtle effects
and appear to facilitate
social interactions among
people - plants included in
this group include plants
that yield recreational
beverages such as beer,
wine, herba mate, coffee,
chocolate, and tea
Piper methysticum – source of Kava
Kava Chemical Activity
• The active chemicals in kava are lactones
• The two most important ones are kavain and
dihydrokavain –
• As Polynesians moved east, they tended to
select plants rich in kavain and poor in
Samoan women prepare Kava for the
Kava ceremony
Different varieties of Kava
• There are 9 major groups of kava plant
clones - each differs in chemical activity
• A Samoan clone called “fellowship and
brotherhood” makes one feel very friendly
• Another called “the white pigeon” imparts a
sense of heightened perception, as though
one were flying over the rain forest like a
More rapid entry to another world
• Many plants have been used around the world to
enter another realm - as hallucinogens which
permit one to travel to the spirit world
• They have been discovered in many parts of the
world and interestingly all have somewhat similar
chemical structure
• They all have features similar to serotonin - a
major chemical messenger in the brain
Chemical structure of serotonin
and psychoactive chemicals
Virola theiodora – source of Ebena
Justicia pectoralis – also used in Ebena
Ebena – “The Semen of the Sun”
• Ebena is usually prepared from the fresh
inner bark of the tree Virola theiodora (F.
Myristicaceae – the nutmegs). It is
combined with ash of the tree Elizabetha
princeps (F. Caesalpiniaceae – subfamily of
legume trees) and dried powdered leaves of
the herb Justicia pectoralis (F. Acanthaceae
– Acanthus family)
Ebena Chemicals
• The sap of Virola contains the active ingredients.
The sap contains several psychoactive compounds,
primarily tryptamines, particularly N,Ndimethyltryptamine (DMT), Nmonomethyltrptamine (MMT), and 5-methoxyN,N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT) – these
are all related to serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine).
The sap also contains several beta-carbolines,
compounds that enhance the effects of orally
ingested tryptamines and that are psychoactive in
their own right.
Waika Indian inhales Ebena snuff
blown through a tube
Steps involved with preparation of
Ebena snuff
“Vine of the soul” - Banisteriopsis
caapi – Source of Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca or Yaje
• Two species of the vine Banisteriopsis are used,
depending on the area - either B. caapi or B.
inebrians - both produce powerful psychoactive
substances that are beta-carboline alkaloids harmine and harmaline
• Ayahuasca bark is collected and boiled in a pot, a
bitter tea is produced which is then drunk
• Sometimes ayahuasca is used with leaves of
another plant Psychotria viridis to enhance its
effects - it contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine
which is also a powerful hallucinogen
Psychotria viridis
Painting by Pablo Amaringo, Peruvian shaman –
showing visions received from Ayahuasca
Advantages of Ayahuasca
• In the words of Padrino Alex Polari de Alverga of
the Santo Daime Community in Brazil, “Daime
(ayahuasca) is basically a shortcut, it’s as if we
had been traveling down the same highway as the
rest of humanity, but then, in order to arrive at our
destination more quickly we took a side road.
When taking such a shortcut, however, we must be
very careful and clear-minded. It is a shortcut that
leads us to truth, but only if we follow in the
footsteps of the Masters who have preceded us.”
Wysoccan – Datura sp.
Native Virginians - 1673
A priest and a conjurer
Black Elk’s Vision Quest
Wysoccan - Datura stramonium
• Given to boys in adolescent rites lasting 1820 days - after which they were considered
to be adults
• From it comes stramonium a drug used in
the treatment of asthma - hallocinogenic
agents are tropane alkaloids hyoscamine
and hyoscine
Marijuana – Cannabis sativa
Ancient Use of Cannabis
• 2000 BCE – Writings of
Shen Nung mention
Cannabis as an important
plant for the treatment of
various illnesses including
beri-beri, malaria, and
forgetfulness. He also
described the plant as
freeing the psyche: “If
taken over a long term, it
makes one communicate
with spirits and lighten
one’s body.”
Ancient Use of Cannabis
• Writers in China warned that Cannabis was
a “liberator of sin.” ~ 2000 BCE
• By 1500 BCE the plant known as “ma” was
reported as useful for shamanistic purposes
• 2nd Century AD Chinese physicians mixed
it with wine and used it as an anaesthetic
during surgery
Ancient Use of Cannabis
• 500 – 300 BCE - ancient Scythians in the
Near East used Cannabis as a psychotropic
• Herodotus reported that Scythians delighted
in vapor baths scented by Cannabis seeds
placed on heated stones
• 4th Century BCE - discovered with skeleton
in tomb in Jerusalem
Al-Hasan ibn al-Sabbah
• By 1090 had
established fortress on
trade routes to China
and India – ruled army
of thieves whom he
supplied with hashish
and women in return
for their loyalty
Introduction to Europe
• Europeans were introduced to Cannabis as a
psychoactive plant by Napoleon’s soldiers after
the conquest of Egypt in 1800. They began by
consuming resin of Cannabis flowers and leaves
(hashish). At first the resin was used to treat
mentally ill, but soon it was used recreationally
too. By 1844 so many fashionable Parisians were
enjoying their visions from use of hashish that
they formed a club, Le Club des Haschischins, and
held monthly meetings at the Hotel Pimodan on
the Ile Saint-Louis.
The Hotel Pimodan
Modern Water Pipe and Hashish
Bob Marley and the Wailers
Album Cover - 1973
Cannabis smoker – Southeast Asia