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Hallucinogenic Plants Essay, Research Paper

The use of hallucinogenic plants dates back thousands of years. Over the years, many different cultures and civilizations have used them for different purposes. The common belief that similarities exist between cultures that rely upon the use of herbal hallucinogens is greatly exaggerated. The cultural variables between these cultures are often so significant that the only major similarity between them is the fact that they use hallucinogens. The common generalization by society that every culture that uses hallucinogens must be similar can be proven false by comparing the Australian Aborigines and the Navaho Peyote Cult.

Before the two cultures and their use of hallucinogenic plants can be examined and compared, a brief explanation of hallucinogenic plants must be given. As with most things, the use of hallucinogenic plants is effected by cultural variables. These variables strongly reflect the different needs for, and usage of, these plants among societies. One of the most complete lists of these variables is presented in Marlene Dobkin de Rios? Hallucinogens, cross-cultural perspectives. Rios states, ?As various writers have pointed out, the hallucinogenic experience comprises an interacting set of variables such as the attitude, expectations, motivation, mood, and personality of the user and the physical setting? (8). Due to the fact that these plants are mind-altering drugs, all of the variables listed by Rios have a significant effect upon the user of these drugs. These variables are not only cultural, but they are also personal. If a person is entering into the experience with a bad state of mind (i.e. attitude or mood) their hallucinations will most likely reflect this attitude. If their expectations are too high, their disappointment may result in a change of mood. In contrast, if a person is not prepared for what they are going to experience then the drug may surpass their expectations. When the drug surpasses the user?s expectations, he or she may become frightened. Physical setting is one of the most important cultural variables due to the fact that each culture has a distinct physical setting in which they live directly effecting the hallucinogenic experience. Different physical settings (i.e. populated cities, rural country, heat, cold, etc) have a direct effect on the mental state of a person which effects their hallucinogenic experience. Although it is important to have this brief understanding of the cultural variables of this type plant usage, it is not the only aspect of hallucinogenic plants that one must understand.

A general understanding of the ethical and moral systems of the cultures that use hallucinogenic plants is also important. In most of the societies that use herbal hallucinogens there is an idea that the plant itself possesses a type of ?power?. This ?power? is often referred to as ?mana.? As Rios explains, ?The manna itself, although neutral, can be directed by the drug user (either shaman or layman) to specific moral and ethical ends. At times, it is difficult to use a simplistic notion of good and evil as encapsulated in the Judeo-Christian tradition? (14). When discussing the morality of the plant use, the categorization that Rios uses of good and evil really does not apply to non-western societies. The use of hallucinogenic plants does not pose moral dilemmas for most non-western societies, unlike in western societies. The moral dilemmas in non-western societies are based upon the proper use of the hallucinogens. The mana, or ?power?, produced by the plants can be used for many things such as healing, foreseeing the future, bewitching someone, and attracting a lover. The moral question posed for these non-western cultures is based upon deciding which (if any) of these uses is ethical. It is important to have an understanding of the ethical ideas surrounding the hallucinogenic plants. Furthermore, it is also important it is also important to have a brief understanding of how the plants work in order to be able to successfully compare the two cultures? use of their plants.

There are many different types of hallucinogenic plants that provide many different types of effects. Most of these plants can be found in Mexico and South America, with the exception of Asia, that has a scarce few. As sited by Nevill Drury, the author of Shamanism, the hallucinations brought on by the plants are generally thought to come from the ?alkaloids, resins, glucosides, and essential oils found in the leaves, bark, stem, flowers, sap, roots, or seeds of the plants? (61). This is a general list of what is in the hallucinogenic plants that cause their effects. A more in-depth explanation of how Peyote and Duboisia Hopwoodii, are used by the two cultures being examined, will be discussed later in the text.

The hunter-gatherer Aborigines of Australia will be the first culture examined. Their culture has existed for at least 40,000 years but has changed greatly over time. At the time of the first European contact by the Dutch around 1788 there were about 500 tribes of the semi-nomadic Aboriginal people in Australia. Each tribe consisted of about 100 to 500 people. Only a few thousand Aborigines still exist today and they can be found primarily in Arnhem Land, in central Australia, and the central Australian dessert. The Aborigines have a ?shamanistic culture? in which they believe that illness, death, and accidents are caused by magic or animistic actions. They refer to their shamans, or medicine men, as Karadji, or ?clever man.?

Magic is a prominent belief among aborigines and is often used for what western societies would consider evil. This belief of magic provides a distinct difference from the Peyote Cult, which will become apparent later in the text. As Drury explained about the Aborigines, ?The shaman operates in a world where both imitative and contagious magic are practiced? (31). Imitative magic imitates the expected result of the ritual. Drury uses the example of a voodoo doll where ?the image of a person is subjected to hostile acts (pins, burning etc)? (31). Contagious magic, on the other hand, is done with something that is linked to someone. For example, a ritual can be performed over a personal possession of a person. This contagious magic can also be used to cause harm. The Aboriginal magicians can also ?sing? a person to death or ?point a bone.? This is done when a shaman points a bone (most often a kangaroo bone) at the intended victim.

In contrast, the healing samanistic practices of the Australian Aborigines rely on ?out-of-body? experiences that can be achieved in two ways. First, they can use bull-roarers that are swung around in the air producing a unique sound. This sound is said to be the voice of their god, Baiame. As they listen they stare into a fire in the middle of a sacred circle where visions appear to them. Second, they can also rely on the use of hallucinogenic plants. Their use of these plants will be discussed in great detail later when compared to the use of Peyote by the Navaho Peyote Cult.

The Navaho Peyote Cult evolved from the Navaho Indians, the largest tribe in the United Sates, and began to come together in the 1930?s. This cult spread rapidly until 1951 when more than one out of seven Navaho families had joined. The word ?cult? is used only for the lack of a better word. It is not technically a cult, but rather a peyote religion or church. The phrase, ?Peyote Cult?, has been used for so long that it has been coined as the group?s name.

Navaho peyoteism got its origin from the Ute Peyote Cult of Towaoc, who joined with Oklahoma Indians and created priests. The group spread quickly throughout Navahos until the use of peyote began to be looked down upon in the early 1950?s. Similar to the Australian Aborigines the Peyote Cult is also only a small fraction of what it once was. However, unlike the Aborigines the Peyote Cult does not use magic as any part of their religion. Instead, it is based on the use of hallucinogenic plants in ritual. It combines Christianity with ritual that is distinctively Indian and incorporates the use of hallucinogens as a form of power, or ?mana,? and a connection to god. This idea of mana also provides a distinct difference between the two cultures. It is something that is very important to the Navaho Peyote Cult but is not discussed among the Australian Aborigines. The use of peyote in rituals will be discussed in greater detail later.

The Peyote Cult has received persecution not only from the western culture but also from the Navaho Indians themselves. As David F. Aberle, the author of The peyote Religion Among The Navaho, explains, ?By 1951 peyotism had no appeal whatsoever to more than 80 per cent of the Navaho tribe? and that number has consecutively increased each decade since (205). Furthermore, most of those who are not cult members are very opposed to its usage. Neutrality to the issue is very rare. The main complaints that opponents to peyotisim have are that it causes illness, death, insanity, or they stigmatize it as being a habit-forming drug. Another significant complaint, given predominantly by Navahos who don?t practice peyotism, is that it is ?not of the Navaho religion.? Many Navahos claim that it is not native to the Navahos and that it has caused a disruption in the relationships of the community. The final and most significant complaint about peyotism is its effect on the behavior of its participants weather it be sexual misconduct, priests profiting from gifts in return for the drug, or simply the economic decline of the tribes which is said to be due to their peyote usage. In any event, peyotism is strongly look down upon by a majority of Navahos, yet the members of the Peyote Cult still continue to practice. The fact that the Peyote Cult is only a small division of a larger culture also provides a distinct difference between them and the Aborigines. There is no division among the Aborigines over plant usage because their entire culture accepts the use of hallucinogenic plants, which is unlike the Navahos.

The hallucinogenic plant used most by the Australian Aborigines is Duboisia Hopwoodii, also known as pituri, which characteristically grows in dry, hot, arid regions such as the one that the Aborigines reside in. Its root can be mashed up and mixed into water as a drink or it can be eaten whole. It is the tropane alkaloids found in the root of this flowering plant that induces its effects. These alkaloids effect the central nervous system, which includes the regulation of internal organs, heartbeat, circulation, and breathing. Small doses of pituri are said to induce hallucinations and illusions as well as detachment from time and space. The plant was also known by the early Aborigines to repress hunger or thirst, which not only made life tolerable, but also enabled them to travel for long periods of time in search of the basic elements of life.

The hallucinogenic plant used by the Navaho Peyote Cult is obviously peyote and it differs in many ways from pituri. The first, and possibly the most obvious way that it differs is its physical state. Peyote is a is a small, low-growing, hairy cactus, whose flesh and roots are eaten by the members of the cult. Its skin looks like a pincushion, and when dried it looks more looks like a button. It grows predominately in Texas and Mexico. Unlike pituri and its one alkaloid, peyote contains eight alkaloids, the most important of which being mescaline. Peyote is a much more psychological drug than pituri and has been described many times as a sequence of reactions and feelings. Aberle describes this in detail when he says,

To begin with, there is wakefulness, mild analgesia, and a sensation of fullness in the stomach or loss of appetite. Some observers state that there is also a euphoric quality in the early phases of the peyote experience? If the dosage continues, there may be active nausea, a feeling of tightness in the chest, and some muscular tetany, often particularly evident in the jaw muscles, and heightened sensitivity to nuances of sound, color, form, and texture. For some subjects, continued dosage or later phases include ?visions? with eyes closed, ranging from fairly elaborate scotomata to quite detailed pictures, and even in fewer cases there may be full-fledged visions with eyes open, including what are evidently major distortions of visual and auditory stimuli. (5-6)

Furthermore, there are strong emotional effects that accompany experience. Often mild to acute anxiety, followed by depression are effects of the drug. It is also said by some participants of peyote ceremonies that all night ceremonies are followed by a state of euphoria in the early morning. Some say this may stem from a sense of shared experience and completion of a difficult ceremony while others claim it is an effect of the drug. Through this comparison of the two plants and their effects, the distinct differences of their physical properties become clear. However, the comparison of the way that the two plants are used in the two societies and their respective rituals, will clearly display specific differences between the two societies themselves.

The Australian Aborigines use of pituri is basically social and recreational. Although there are a multitude of uses, Marlene Dobkin De Rios provides a very clear, comprehensive list in her book The Wilderness of Mind,

1) Given to strangers as a token of friendship

2) Used as a pick-me-up and social comforter, fostering feelings of friendship

3) Used in small water holes to trap large birds like emu or parrot, or kangaroos

4) Chewed as a part of social interaction behavior

5) Used by old men who acted as seers to obtain power and riches

6) Used as payment for circumcision and subincision rites (14-15)

Pituri, though not used as much today as it was before the early 1950?s, is used most often in social situations. As Rios stated, it is used in exchange between friends and is often taken in a social setting. It was also very prominent in trade at one time. In fact, the only form of written communication know to the aborigines was linked to the trading of pituri. It was also used at one time for survival by mixing small amounts of it in watering holes to act as a tranquilizer for large animals who came to drink there; thus making the animals easier to capture. Although, no particular ritual activities are directly connected to the use of pituri, the substance was said to be added to certain ?magic potions.” The closest the plant use came to ritualistic use was its use in circumcisions. Circumcisions are a large part of aboriginal ritual. Although pituri does not eliminate the pain, it does effect the memory often enabling the patient to forget surgical trauma. Besides this one example, there is no other evidence of the plant being used in any other rituals.

Peyote, on the other hand, is used predominantly in ritual. This aspect of the Navaho Peyote Cult displays a distinct difference from the Aborigines. Although peyote is used today by people not of Navaho decent for recreational use, for the most part, the Peyote cult uses it only as a part of their ritual. The ritual of the Peyote Cult is an all night experience, which, for the believer, involves communicating with god. The peyote, along with prayer, song, and drumming are all thought of as ways of communicating with god. By consuming the peyote, one is said to feel a personal significance, which enables them to communicate one on one with god through visual and auditory hallucinations. The idea of the mana, or the power that they get from the peyote, provides them with a feeling of closeness to god. Another significant part of the ritual is the bonding with fellow participants. There is a joint eating of the peyote, drinking of water at midnight and early morning, and a breakfast that closes the meeting. The purpose of these meetings and of the peyote use is to cure, to avert evil, to promote future good, and to thank god for past blessings. It is believed to be the joint efforts and prayers that enable the groups to accomplish their purpose, through peyoteism.

There are obviously many distinct differences between the Australian Aborigines and the Navaho Peyote Cult. The cultures themselves differ dramatically in everything from ethics to division among their cultures. Magic is an important aspect to the Aboriginal culture often used for harm. Ethically they feel it is acceptable while the Navahos believe in karma and try to promote good and wellbeing. The idea of mana is another aspect that separates the two culturally. The peyote cult bases their use of peyote on the idea that mana comes from the plant and enables them to be closer to god. This is an idea used by many cultures that use hallucinogenic plants, but it is something that provides no bearing on the Australian Aborigine?s herbal usage. Finally one of the most significant differences between the two cultures is the complete acceptance of the plant use among the Aborigines verses the division that the usage had created between Navaho tribes.

Not only do the two cultures differ in a cultural respect, but they also differ drastically in their usage of herbal hallucinogens. This being the aspect that is supposed to group them together. Beginning with the physical properties of the hallucinogenic plants that they use, pituri is a small flowering plant where as peyote is a cactus. Although they both cause hallucinations to some degree, pituri provides mainly physical sensations while peyote provides strong emotional effects as well. The two cultures uses of their plants differ dramatically as well. The Aborigines use pituri as a predominately recreational drug while the Navaho use peyote mainly for ritual purposes. Even with the use of pituri in the circumcision ritual, its ritualistic use is far different from that of the Peyote Cult. Pituri is used as an anesthetic in Aboriginal rituals, whereas peyote is used as a connection to god and a form of power. The peyote ritual is used to cure, to avert evil, for good fortune, and to thank god. The Aborigine?s only ritual is simply a ?coming of age? ritual.

In comparing the Australian Aborigines and the Navaho Peyote Cult, two cultures that still rely on the use of hallucinogenic plants today, it becomes apparent that they are not inherently similar. This is despite a common belief, that cultures who use herbal hallucinogens are inherently similar. By comparing the type of plants they use, the uses they have for them, the rituals that they involve them in, and even the basic beliefs of the cultures, it is obvious that they should not be grouped together. The cultural variables between these cultures, not only the ones discussed in the text, but all of those who use hallucinogenic plants, are so significant that in reality the only major similarity between them is the fact that they use hallucinogenic plants.


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