In its simplest definition, an entheogen is a substance, usually a plant, fungus, or seed, used in religious ceremonies or shamanic rites.
Those who use these substances are doing so to achieve spiritual revelations and enlightenment or to heal themselves from physical or psychological illnesses. Direct translation of the word entheogen is, “becoming the God within” and the use of entheogenic substances can be a profound part of one’s search for a more transcendent existence. In broader terms, an entheogen is a psychoactive (brain-altering) substance that is used for spiritual outcomes. This can take place in a structured religious ceremony or in a less regulated environment, as long as it’s for religious, shamanic, or healing purposes. This is fundamental to entheogenic spiritualism because it is not to be confused with recreational use of these substances. Throughout the Americas as well as in Europe and Asia, these substances were respectfully regarded and solely used to reach that heightened state of otherworldliness with a higher power.
The chemical composition of entheogens is similar to neurochemicals naturally produced by the human body. Most entheogens fall into the hallucinogenic drug category, but any substance used for this purpose is derived from organic sources. This is a vital dissimilarity between substances used for entheogenic purposes and other synthetically produced drugs that, while they may have similar effects, do not fall into this category, nor do they meet the criteria for entheogen classification. There are many examples of entheogens, including: peyote, blue lotus, tobacco, hashish, cannabis, kava, henbane, and fly agaric. Some are familiar, like tobacco. The use of tobacco as an entheogen can be traced back to Native Americans who introduced it to European explorers.
From its description, one might assume that the use of entheogens is or was limited to tribal religions and not the larger, more mainstream ones. That is not the case. The origins of many Christian and Hindu traditions include the ingestion of a variety of plants, fungi, and fruits used for the sole purpose of transcendent insight and enlightenment.
The practice of ingesting entheogenic substances for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment or to heal illness is, based on historical findings, as old as religion itself. In ancient practices, the intake of substances to communicate with God (or Gods) was prevalent. While psychedelic drugs, a term which entheogenic substances are often synonymous, were popularized and often glamourized in the 1960s, the use of these substances far precedes this time and is exhibited on cave walls in Africa and in tombs in prehistoric Europe.
Recently there has been a resurgence of the use of entheogenic substances. The Entheogenic Movement, as it is often called, is on a mission to reinstitute the practice of using entheogenic substances as part of religious ceremony and tradition. The use of entheogens can be contentious for some. It can be, for instance, difficult to determine if someone is taking an entheogen for recreational versus religious purposes. In the United States as well as internationally, there has been an increase in the legal acknowledgment of the use of these substances within the framework of certain religious and shamanic practices and rites. Perhaps the most successful model of acceptance for the use of these substances is the Native American Church (NAC). The NAC has efficaciously integrated prescribed entheogenic substances into their ceremonies. In fact, currently there are three formally established religions in the United States that can legally consume entheogenic substances as part of their ceremonies and rites. In addition to the NAC, the Santo Daime (SD) and Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) have been given the legal green light to observe the practice of entheogenic spirituality.
The availability of entheogens has also become increasingly widespread. The Internet has a number of sources where those wishing to observe the practice can legally purchase an extensive assortment of entheogenic plants and fungi.
Check out a powerful documentary by Nick Polizzi, about an amazing healing journey using ancient medicines, called Sacred Science.