A potion is a drink which acts medicinally or magically. Strictly speaking, it’s just a drink, but it suggests a drink prepared by a witch, sorcerer, healer or herbalist which acts as a medicine, a poison, or an enchantment.
(This article focuses on psychoactive drugs for entheogenic purposes during the late sixteenth century English renaissance – the time of Marlowe and of his Doctor Faustus; of the European Age of Discovery; and of John Dee, Elizabeth I, and the Spanish Armada.)
Witchcraft & Poison
Potions are things of the legends of witches – dangerous weeds like henbane and belladonna could be mixed into potions which caused sensations and visions. To an observer, they would have caused madness, delirium, and possession.
Potions are also the stuff of poisoners. Poison has a long and continual practice throughout history, which we may underestimate now that forensics makes it more difficult to poison people and get away with it. The profession of poisoner might be handed down within families, or one might just take to it, like La Voisin and her band of friends in Paris around 1680, who allegedly practised Satanic Masses. They were fortune tellers who tried to make their client’s dreams come true.
Potions are also the stuff of healers – people who know the values of the herbs and other plants which grow locally. They can diagnose and treat ailments and collect and prepare the remedies, using knowledge passed down through generations. Historically, they were the cunning folk, or wise men and women – locally powerful people who in perpetuating pagan ways and offering counsel contrary to the wisdom of priests and physicians, were particularly at risk of being accused of malevolence and witchcraft.
Today those plants are our pharmaceutical drugs: digitalis, Valium, and opiates like morphine, among many others, gathered from throughout the world. Heart medicines, tranquilizers, pain-killers – all counted as the successes of medicine, were first the triumphs of witches, poisoners and herbalists.
And we don’t call them potions anymore. A potion is just a specific means of delivery, popularized in historical fiction and fantasy. Inhaled, injected, ingested, inserted, or imbibed, we call them drugs.
There are drugs which create a spiritual experience, and bring one closer to God; which change perceptions, altering the mind, and bringing revelations. Some say they bring knowledge and understanding. Materials – plants and animal – used that way are called entheogens. Since about the nineteenth century in Europe, picking up popularity in the nineteen sixties to today, entheogens have been used not for recreation, but for knowledge.
Given the curiosity of alchemists and the dedication of the devout, and the tremendous changes of the Age of Discovery, where is the history of the use of entheogens in Europe for the purpose of discovery?
There doesn’t seem to be one. Entheogenic use of psycho-actives in Western Europe is essentially unknown. The nineteenth century interest and rise in the use of psycho-actives isn’t a resurgence of an old tradition; it was due to the introduction of drugs from other cultures.
A big reason why we don’t hear of drug use is likely because Western European native psycho-actives are highly dangerous in some way – and were all the more so hundreds of years ago before emergency care and standardized medicines. Nobody who had a bad trip would be likely to ascribe it to angels or God, and no one would want to meet the Devil that way. People were afraid of poisoning.
Additionally, while mushrooms can be a superior source of psycho-actives, in the case of England, as John Parkinson noted in his Theatrum Botanicum (1640), people like neither the good or the bad mushrooms.
So it may not have happened.
New and impressive entheogens from the Americas and Asia (coca, opium, cannabis, tobacco, etc.) became available in the mid sixteenth century, but were long used largely for their medicinal values. Coming in short supply, degraded by travel, and without instructions or guidance, it’s not that surprising they weren’t abused, but additionally, Europeans would have had a prejudice against submitting to the potions of witch doctors (as they might put it). At that time – the time of Faust the person, and the first Faust manuscript in Germany, and then Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in England, Western civilization was discovering the formula for success in grim materialism and reason, hard work, discipline and faith in God – the Protestants (as in Faust’s England and Germany), particularly. They were not necessarily expecting a personal relationship with God, especially one that could contradict the One Truth of Church-mediated Christianity from which kings legitimized their power.
As if there needed to be any more reason for distrusting psycho-actives, Christians – maybe Protestants particularly – tend to see Earth as a sinful place, ruled by the Devil. All pleasures become sinful, and the Devil is ever at the door, like the wolf. Perhaps to a Christian it was too obvious that drugs were not God’s sacraments. Mind-altering drugs created madness, damaged health, and led to addiction, guilt, and shame. Also there is an attitude that drugs shouldn’t be required to meet God. Hard work and prolonged effort are the only legitimate routes. If we look at our attitudes to drugs these days, we can see remnants of ancestral attitudes: drugs are artificial aids, real change must come from effort.
The introduction of new drugs from the Americas only began in the sixteenth century. Even addictive drugs like tobacco and coffee took some time to become ubiquitous, particularly after the states gave up on their attempts to control their spread through taxation and legal restrictions. As production and distribution improved, costs went down and abuse went up. At the same time medical and health issues were being recognized and addressed. Results of this were the standardization of qualities and dosages, and knowledge of how the drugs affect the body, and how to treat drug-related issues like overdose. It became far safer to ingest drugs, with the assurance that someone may be able to extract you from the experience. With the growth of psychology, they could be used to understand the workings of the mind.
Opposition to addictive drugs (coffee, tobacco, alcoholic spirits) caused governments to apply taxes and duties to reduce consumption. It largely worked, although it had to be balanced against smuggling which increased as the taxes were raised and decreased as they were lowered. As the use of those drugs spread, opposition fell, to the point that today it’s odd to refer to coffee or tobacco as “drugs.”
While alcohol is the one great psycho-actives of Europe, and responsible for many of the great works of mankind, many marriages and children, and is a sacrament of Christianity, it is not a valuable entheogen. Wine and beer were watered down in common consumption, and even distilled spirits only began to become common in the fifteenth century with drunkenness becoming a growing problem into the sixteenth and beyond.
Tobacco is considered an entheogen, particularly the wild species, Nicotiana rustica, in special preparations and dosages. Although it was ostensibly available in Europe since the mid-sixteenth century we don’t see evidence that it was used as an entheogen.
Cannabis – as hemp – was a large crop in England and elsewhere, especially valuable in the maritime industries for rope and also used to make paper, but the variety of Cannabis sativa used for hemp is not entheogenic. Hemp was an essential commodity – growing good fiber for industry and in defense was more important than growing good pot.
So we don’t see a history of such drug use – or abuse – in Western Europe until the nineteenth century or so, when imported drugs like opium/heroin, hashish, and cocaine became popular, coincident with an upsurge in interest in the occult, spiritualism, and other esoterica.
On a positive note, the rise of coffee in England apparently reduced drunkenness and critically, the establishment of coffee houses provided a non-alcoholic social gathering place. Coffee houses, like the salons before them – and like pubs – became a home for merchants, bankers, traders, the intelligentsia, and artists of all layers of society, where they met to make deals and discuss ideas. Indirectly, by lubricating social interaction, of all the psycho-actives around Europe over the centuries, it may be that coffee, tea, tobacco and booze, have made the greatest contributions to European culture, but we can’t call them entheogens when used that way.
The Middle East
Now if we go back to before the rise of Western Civilization, to the Roman Empire, and back thousands of years more to ancient tribes, then we have many other opportunities to find entheogens.
But this is contentious, speculative stuff people don’t like to hear about, because it raises the question: are religions inspired by drug use?
Given the nature of drug plants such as marijuana, opium poppy, mushrooms, rye (ergot/LSD), Syrian Rue, and particularly acacia (DMT), all available within the reach of the empires who ruled the Middle East, it is striking that they don’t appear very much in the standard history of the religions that sprang from Abraham (Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the Abrahamic religions).
We don’t read of anybody getting really, really high and seeing God.
Some people argue that the most pivotal events in the Bible – where people see and talk to God – are conceivably drug-induced visions. Others speculate that psychoactive sacraments are at the core of separate, secret teachings (for example, referencing the Tree of Life) – a hidden knowledge, even a parallel religion.
Given the ability of certain drugs to provide a very convincing experience of God, and the odds that someone every few hundred or thousand years might ingest something, by accident or deliberately, we are open to the idea, and in fact are progressively inclined toward suspicion that at least one person got stoned and preached and prophesied. Is it reasonable to think that in 5,000 years nobody got stoned but at least a dozen people had one-on-one meetings with God?
The burning bush in which Moses saw God is said to be an Acacia. Acacia are distributed throughout the Middle East and contain DMT, a psychoactive which can provide a convincing experience of God.
To really experience the effects of DMT, you need to prepare both the plant (or plants) and one’s self which limits the odds of accidentally having a significant DMT experience. But it’s not impossible, and a valuable adjunct is Syrian Rue seeds, which have long been burned as incense in religious rites in the Middle East and is even suspected of being the long-lost Indian ritual drink called Soma. Could a fasting – or Syrian Rue nibbling – Moses have prepared a fire on Mount Sinai, and ended up inhaling the smoke from the Acacia he had built the fire with?
The long odds simply makes it a highly notable experience when it does happen, and virtually irreproducible. As long as people were unaware of the expected effects of DMT, and how to create them, a religious experience would be about the best explanation.
But such suggestions are unpalatable and remain on the fringes of serious inquiry and speculation. Who wants to consider that not only is their religion due to a mistaken ingestion of a plant product, but grew out of an activity which is now considered sinful – even demonic?
This was a dilemma which faced Faust and John Dee among others – how do you know you talked to God and not to a demon or a hallucination? Even worse though is, what do you do when you discover you’ve wasted your life chasing fantasies?