An innate sense of ‘mystery’ has always been one of the defining features of the human condition. The appearance of this trait, a long time ago, – say a few thousand centuries ago –, coincided, one must assume, with an obscure and progressive emergence of the consciousness itself, – mixed with a certain consciousness of the presence of the unconscious, – or of what was still lying unknown, hidden behing the veil of consciousness.
These two phenomena, the intuition of the mystery and the intuition of the unconscious, also opened the way to the progressive bursting of the consciousness of the Ego itself, – and of the ‘Self’.
The appearance of consciousness itself has undoubtedly been particularly favored by the repetition (encouraged by rituals) of many individual, acute, unprecedented, ‘proto-mystical’ experiences, – some of them with literally unspeakable implications, and whose essence was to reveal unexpectedly some of the depths of the Self, to some ‘initiated’ minds.
The accumulation of these experiences, by countless successive generations, not only by individuals but also by tribal groups during collective trances, suggests that these ecstatic states of consciousness must have been described and shared according to socialized forms (proto-religions, cult rites, initiation ceremonies).
The progressive experience of self-awareness and the proto-mystical experience are in fact indissolubly linked and reinforce each other. Both must have been made possible and encouraged by clusters of favorable conditions (environment, surroundings, climate, fauna, flora).
Moreover, through the effect of epigenesis, they must have had an impact on the neuronal, synaptic, neurochemical evolution of the brain (in hominids, then in humans), producing an organic and psychic terrain more and more adapted to a continuous increase in ‘levels of consciousness’.
For innumerable generations, and during multiple trance experiences, whether deliberate or hazardous, prepared or undergone, provoked during religious rites, or melting like lightning following personal discoveries, the mental ground of Homo brains never stops sowing, then sprouting, as if under the action of a psychic yeast intimately mixed with the neuronal dough.
Powerful proto-mystical experiments accelerated the neurochemical and neuro-synaptic adaptation of the brains of Paleolithic man, and thus revealed the incalculable immensity and radical unspeakability of the underlying, immanent, deep-seated ‘mysteries’.
These mysteries manifestly dwelled not only in the brain itself, and in a human consciousness that seemed to be barely awake, but also all around, in Nature, in the vast world of Cosmos, and beyond the Cosmos itself, deep in the Night of Origins.
Mysteries seemed to be hiding, not only in the ‘Self’, but also in the ‘Other’ , in the ‘Everywhere’ and in the ‘Elsewhere’.
The neuronal, synaptic and neurochemical evolution was, and still is, obviously, the essential condition for a mental, psychic and spiritual evolution.
This evolution was accelerated by increasingly powerful and complex feedback loops, intertwining the sudden physiological modifications available, and the ‘neuro-systemic’, cultural and psychic effects that they could cause in individuals, by genetic propagation within human groups, and by catalyzing the potential exploration of unfathomable, unresolved, abyssmal depths.
We can safely postulate the existence of an immanent and constantly evolving epigenetic link between the evolution of the brain’s structure, the network of its neurons, synapses and neurotransmitters, their inhibitory and agonizing factors, and its increasing capacity to support proto-mystical, spiritual and religious experiences.
What is a proto-mystical experience?
There are undoubtedly many of them… But to fix the ideas, we can evoke the experience reported by many shamans of an exit from the body (‘ecstasy’ or ESPs), followed by the perception of a great lightning bolt, then accompanied by surreal visions, coupled with an acute development of Self-consciousness, and the inner spectacle created by the simultaneous excitement of all parts of the brain.
Let us imagine a Homo erectus, hunter-gatherer in some region of Eurasia, who consumes, by chance or by tradition, such and such a mushroom, among the dozens of species possessing psychotropic properties, in his living environment. Suddenly, a ‘great flash of consciousness’ invades and stuns him, following the simultaneous stimulation of a massive quantity of neurotransmitters affecting the functioning of his neurons and his cerebral synapses. In a few moments, there is a radical difference between his usual state of ‘consciousness’ (or ‘subconsciousness’) and the suddenly occurring state of ‘over-consciousness’. The novelty and the incredible vigor of the experience will mark him for life.
He will now have the certainty of having lived a moment of double consciousness, a moment when his usual consciousness was as if transcended by an over–consciousness. In him, a true ‘dimorphism’ of consciousness has been powerfully revealed, which is not without comparison with the daily dimorphism of wakefulness and sleep, and the ontological dimorphism of life and death, two categories undoubtedly perfectly perceptible by Homo erectus’ brain.
Let us add that, since ancient times, probably dating back to the beginning of the Paleolithic, more than three million years ago, hunter-gatherers of the Homo genus must already have known the use of psycho-active plants, and consumed them regularly. Long before the appearance of Homo, many animal species (such as reindeer, monkeys, elephants, mouflons or felines…) also knew their effects themselvesi.
Their daily example was to intrigue and disturb humans living in close symbiosis with them, and, if only to increase their hunting performance, to incite them to imitate the so strange behavior of animals putting themselves in danger by indulging in the grip of psychoactive substances – otherwise (and this in itself is an additional mystery) widespread in the surrounding nature, and throughout the world …
There are still about a hundred species of psychoactive fungi in North America today, and the vast territories of Eurasia must have had at least as many in the Paleolithic, – although nowadays there are only about ten species of fungi with hallucinogenic properties.
Paleolithic Homo was thus daily confronted with the testimony of animals undergoing the effect of psychoactive substances, regularly renewing the experience of their ingestion, affecting their ‘normal’ behavior, and thus putting themselves in danger of being killed by hunters on the lookout, quick to seize their advantage.
There is no doubt that Homo has imitated these animals ‘delighted’, ‘drugged’, ‘stunned’ by powerful substances, and ‘wandering’ in their own dreams. Wanting to understand their indifference to danger, Homo ingested the same berries or mushrooms, if only to ‘feel’ in turn what these so familiar prey could ‘feel’, which, against all odds, then offered themselves easily to their flints and arrows…
Even today, in regions ranging from northern Europe to far-eastern Siberia, reindeer still consume a lot of fly-agarics during their migrations – just like the shamans who live on the same territories.
This is certainly not a coincidence.
In Siberia, the reindeer and the hunter-breeder both live, one could say, in close symbiosis with the Amanita muscaria fungus.
The same molecules of Amanita muscaria (muscimoleii, and ibotenoque acid) that affect man and beast so intensely, how can they be produced by such seemingly elementary life forms, by ‘simple’ fungi? And moreover, why do these fungi produce these molecules, for what purpose?
This is a mystery worthy of consideration, for it is a phenomenon that objectively – and mystically – links the fungus and the brain, lightning and light, animal and human, heaven and earth, by means of a few molecules, common and active, though belonging to different kingdoms?
It is a well-documented fact that in all continents of the world, in Eurasia, America, Africa, Oceania, and since time immemorial, shamans have been consuming psychoactive substances that facilitate the entry into trance, – a trance accompanied by deep psychological effects, such as the experience of ‘divine visions’.
How can we imagine that these incredible experiences can be so mysteriously ‘shared’, if only by analogy, with animals? How can it be explained that these powerful effects, so universal, are simply due to the consumption of humble mushrooms, and that the active ingredients are one or two types of molecules acting on neurotransmitters?
R. Gordon Wasson, in his book Divine Mushroom of Immortality iii, has skillfully documented the universality of these phenomena, and he did not hesitate to establish a link between these ‘original’, shamanic practices and the consumption of Vedic Soma (from the 3rd millennium BC), whose ancient hymns of Ṛg Veda accurately describe the rites, and celebrate the divine essence, – occupying the heart of the Vedic sacrifice.iv
During several thousand years, shamanism naturally continued to be part of the sacred rites and initiation ceremonies of the wandering peoples who migrated from the North of Eurasia to the « South »,
In the course of time, Amanita muscaria has probably had to be replaced by other plants, endemically available in the various geographical environments crossed, but with similar psychotropic effects.
These migrating peoples referred to themselves as āryas, a word meaning ‘nobles’ or ‘lords’. This very old Sanskrit term, used since the 3rd millennium BC, has nowadays become sulphurous, since its misuse by Nazi ideologues.
These peoples spoke Indo-European languages, and were slowly but surely moving from Northern Europe to India and Iran, but also to the Near and Middle East, via Southern Russia. Some of them passed through the Caspian and Aral Sea, through Bactria and Margiana (as the remains of the ‘Oxus civilization’ attest), through Afghanistan, and finally settled permanently in the Indus Valley or on the Iranian highlands.
Others went to the Black Sea, Thrace, Macedonia, present-day Greece and to Phrygia, Ionia (present-day Turkey) and the Near East.
Arriving in Greece, the Hellenic branch of these Indo-European peoples did not forget the ancient shamanic beliefs. The mysteries of Eleusis and the other mystery religions of ancient Greece can be interpreted as ancient Hellenized shamanic ceremonies, during which the ingestion of beverages with psychotropic propertiesv induced mystical visions.
At the time of the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, this beverage, kykeon, made from goat’s milk, mint and spices, probably also contained as active ingredient a parasitic fungus, the rye spur, or an endophytic fungus living in symbiosis with herbs such as Lolium temulentum, better known in English as ‘ryegrass’ or ‘tares’. Rye ergot naturally produces a psychoactive alkaloid, lysergic acid, from which LSD is derived.vi
Albert Hofmann, famous for synthesizing LSD, wrote in The Road to Eleusis that the priests of Eleusis had to treat the rye spur Claviceps purpurea by simply dissolving it in water, thus extracting the active alkaloids, ergonovine and methylergonovine. Hofmann suggested an alternative hypothesis, namely that kykeon could be prepared using another species of rye spur, Claviceps paspali, which grows on wild herbs such as Paspalum distichum, and whose ‘psychedelic’ effects are even more intense, and indeed similar to those of the Aztec ololiuhqui plant, endemic to the Western Hemisphere.
Our mind, in a state of awakening, is constantly torn between two very different (and complementary) forms of consciousness, one turned towards the external world, that of physical sensations and action, and the other turned towards the internal world, reflection and unconscious feelings.
There are, of course, varying degrees of intensity for these two types of ‘consciousness’, external and internal. Dreaming with your eyes open is not the same as ‘dreaming’ under the influence of fly agaric, peyote or any of the many hallucinogenic plants containing psilocybin.
Upon ingestion of these powerful psychoactive principles, these two forms of consciousness seem to be simultaneously excited to the last degree, and may even alternate very quickly. They ‘merge’ and enter into ‘resonance’ at the same time.
On the one hand, the sensations felt by the body are taken to extremes, because they are not relayed by the nervous system, but are produced directly in the very center of the brain.
On the other hand, mental, psychic, or intellectual effects are also extremely powerful, because countless neurons can be stimulated or inhibited simultaneously. Under the sudden effect of psychoactive molecules, the action of inhibitory neurotransmitters (such as GABA) is massively increased. The action potential of post-synaptic neurons or glial cells is just as suddenly, and sharply, diminished.
This massive inhibition of post-synaptic neurons translates, subjectively, into a kind of radical decoupling between the usual level of consciousness, that of the consciousness of the external reality, and an entirely different level of consciousness, ‘internal’, completely detached from the surrounding reality, but by this very fact, also more easily sucked into a psychic, independent universe, which C.G. Jung calls the ‘Self’, and to which innumerable traditions refer under various names.
The set of complex neurochemical processes that occur in the brain at these times can be summarized as follows.
Psychoactive molecules (such as psilocybin) are structurally very close to organic compounds (indolesvii) that occur naturally in the brain. They suddenly put the entire brain in a state of almost absolute isolation from the immediately nearby world of external sensations.
The usual consciousness is suddenly deprived of any access to its own world, and the brain is almost instantaneously plunged into a universe infinitely rich in forms, movements, and especially ‘levels of consciousness’ absolutely unequalled with those of daily consciousness.
But there is even more surprising…
According to research by Dr. Joel Elkes at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a person’s subjective awareness under the influence of psilocybin can ‘alternate’ between two states – an ‘external’ state of consciousness and an ‘internal’ state of consciousness.
The alternation of the two states of consciousness is commonly observed, and it can even be provoked simply when the subject opens and closes his or her eyes…
We can therefore hypothesize that the original emergence of consciousness, in hominids and developed even more in Paleolithic man, may have resulted from an analogous phenomenon of ‘resonance’ between these two types of consciousness, a resonance that was itself strongly accentuated when psychoactive substances were ingested.
The back and forth between an ‘external’ consciousness (based on the world of perception and action) and an ‘internal’ consciousness, ‘inhibited’ in relation to the external world, but consequently ‘uninhibited’ in relation to the ‘surreal’ or ‘meta-physical’ world, also reinforces the ‘brain-antenna’ hypothesis proposed by William James.
Psilocybin, in this case, would make the consciousness ‘blink’ between two fundamental, totally different states, and by the same token, it would make the very subject capable of these two kinds of consciousness appear as overhanging, a subject capable of navigating between several worlds, and several states of consciousness…
In the tares hides the spur of (divine) drunkenness…
« As the people slept, the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and departed. When the grass had grown and yielded fruit, then the tares also appeared. « viii
Should it be uprooted? No. « Lest you pick up the tares and uproot the wheat with it. Let the two grow together until the harvest. And at harvest time, I will say to the reapers, ‘Gather the tares first and bind it into bundles to consume it; but the wheat will be gathered into my granary. « ix
The interpretation is rather clear, on the one hand. The tares must remain in the wheat until the ‘harvest’. It is also obscure, on the other hand, for the tares must be burned, and then it is as an image of the fire that consumes the spirit and opens a world of visions.
And there is the parable of the leaven, which is ‘hidden’ in the flour, but of which a tiny quantity ferments the whole doughx…
The leaven ferments and makes the dough ‘rise’. In the same way the rye spur, the tares, ferment the spirit, and raise it in the higher worlds…
Spirits can just burn in the way of tares.
Or they may become infinitely drunk with the divine.
They can then understand within themselves how consciousness came to be, through the humble and radiant power of plants, the potency of grass linked to the potency of cosmos, uniting the secret depths of roots and what may be beyond the heights of heavens…
iDavid Linden, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. Penguin Books, 2011
iiMuscimole is structurally close to a major neurotransmitter of the central nervous system: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), whose effects it mimics. Muscimole is a powerful agonist of GABA type A receptors. Muscimole is hallucinogenic at doses of 10 to 15 mg.
iiiRichard Gordon Wasson, Soma : Divine Mushroom of Immortality, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Inc, 1968
ivThe article Amanite fly killers of Wikipedia quotes that anthropologist Peter T. Furst’s Hallucinogens and Culture, (1976) survey analyzed the elements that may or may not identify fly killers as Vedic Soma, and (cautiously) concluded in favor of this hypothesis.
vi In their book The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck estimate that hierophant priests used the rye ergot Claviceps purpurea, available in abundance around Eleusis.
viiiMt 13, 25-26
ixMt 13, 29-30
xMk 4, 33-34