From ancient Greece to the Amazon rainforest the use of psychedelics for healing or spiritual practices is so tightly woven into history that we could consider experimentation a defining characteristic of humanity. For thousands of years, cultures that developed independently around the world have found comfort and enlightenment in plants that temporarily free them from mental and circumstantial barriers.
In the days of Achilles and Alexander, the Oracle at Delphi derived her entranced visions from the fumes which flowed from beneath the Temple of Apollo. Scandinavian warriors made use of psychoactive mushrooms to induce a crazed and emboldened battle readiness that instilled fear in their enemies. Though less well known, even the Bible contains ancient traditions borrowed from Egypt which combines psychoactive substances like frankincense.
While today psychedelics have largely been stigmatized, they have been an integral part of multiple civilizations.
Here are five Indigenous cultures that use psychedelics for ritual healing:
The Mazatec and Magic Mushrooms
As one of the more widely known recreational psychedelics, it seems there isn’t much left to say about psilocybin mushrooms. What we know today about magic mushrooms is largely the result of second-hand knowledge passed down by pop-scientists like Timothy Leary and the legendary creator of LSD Albert Hoffman, but their ubiquity is really the result of western over-indulgence. For the Mazatec people of Mexico, these special fungi are “tiny gods”.
The ceremony around psilocybin is one which involves extreme spiritual reverence. Foraging requires that the mushrooms are found in places where they could never have been seen by humans before they were picked. Its consumption, administered by tribal healers like the legendary Maria Sabina, is purely to diagnose and heal not for spiritual awakening. For the Mazatec, God has already been discovered within the mushroom and its healing power is its gift.
Today, studies conducted by researchers at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Sciences (MAPS) and the Beckley Foundation have found that there is scientific substance behind the thousand-year-old practices of the Mazatec. Namely that psilocybin carries the potential to treat mental illness, especially when administered by a therapist or as the Mazatec know them Curandero or healing mystics.
The Pacific Islands and Kava
This energy inducing brew is among the less mind-blowing substances on this list, but medicinal none-the-less. It is consumed by cultures among the Pacific Islands and is revered in Vanuatu.
Its use is culturally ingrained and drinking Kava can be heavily ritualistic. Often served in a coconut shell and shared in a communal ceremony, some cultures only allow Kava to be served by women and only at specific times of day, while others take a more casual approach.
Kava is considered to have a coffee-like energizing effect but is also known to relax the drinker and treat muscle pain.
In Fiji, Kava is the national drink, where legend states that it was discovered by a broken-hearted princess. Today it is mostly consumed in a public setting, where it is prepared in front of everyone from a mixture of the Kava leaf and water in a coconut shell. The eldest is always given the first drink and the same cup is then shared down the line.
The Bwiti People of Gabon and the Mystical Iboga Root
Mostly found in the Bwiti tribal culture of Gabon the Iboga root is at risk of being extinct due to deforestation. As a result, it is protected under the UN Convention on Biodiversity and in the country of Gabon, it is subject to cultural reserve laws.
Used as an initiation among hunter-gatherer tribes, the initiates are called Banzis. The Bwiti believe that the root allows those who consume it to travel to the afterlife through a shaman-led ceremony which is akin to a baptism and involves chanting and the playing of a Mongongo mouth harp for a potentially 48-hour trip. Not only is Iboga believed to send the Banzis to the afterlife, but it allows them to travel through time to experience or relive memories of previous generations meeting ancestors and integrating with the universe.
Still a largely misunderstood substance, Ibogaine – the primary psychoactive chemical of the root – is currently the subject of studies which suggest that it might be used to treat addiction and mental illness.
The Huichol and Their Pilgrimage for Peyote
Found in the deserts of northern Mexico and the southeastern United States, this healing cactus is commonly known as peyote. Ritually consumed by the Huichol people, this plant is also considered one of the culture’s four deities and grows where the tribe’s legend says life began.
This sacred place is known as Wirikúta in the mountains of northern Mexico. Once a year the Huichol embark on a pilgrimage to this place to retrace the steps of their ancestors. Dressed as their deities they go in search of peyote and its wonderous effects. To the Huichol, peyote is a window to their souls and allows the tribe’s shaman to communicate with the gods and ensure that their souls will be taken care of.
Today the substance is protected by the Mexican government – its consumption made illegal for anything other than religious practice – as peyote tourism not only threatens to pick the plant out of existence but also destroy a way of life for an entire people.
Amazonian Tribes and Ayahuasca
Native to the Amazon river basin, the number of tribes that use Ayahuasca in their healing practices are too many to list. Made from a combination of Banisteriopsis caapi and varying other plants which activate its psychoactive properties. The resulting brew contains the active chemical DMT.
Its curative qualities come from both a psychological and physical cleanse known as “la purga” in which the individual taking part in the ceremony is guided through by a shaman. Considered unpleasant to most the experience is an hour-long journey of personal reflection and occasional vomiting from which the individual emerges with a greater sense of self-awareness.
Though DMT is considered a Schedule 1 substance in the United States – despite the fact that it naturally occurs in the human body – certain religions are still allowed to consume it legally. Many Westerners now flock to Colombia and Peru to experience la purga, but the practice of Ayahuasca tourism is looked down upon by traditional shaman not only because it commoditizes their spiritual practice, but because some practitioners or brujos (sorcerers) fake their credentials to take advantage of tourists.