Amongst the many tools of the traditional shaman to achieve journeys to other realities are entheogenic herbs. These are materials that seem to ease the transition from “ordinary reality” to the visionary quality that is at the core of the “shamanic trip.” The word entheogen is a neologism meaning “generating divinity within” coined to replace the words “psychedelic” and “hallucinogen,” since so many of the materials that fall under these umbrella terms are traditionally used psychoactive plants used in a religious or spiritual context. I myself have not used these materials since I was in my teens, but remember well the experiences that these plants and chemicals engender.
The experience of hallucinogens, in a very gross sense, is similar to many other types of intoxication. There is a sense of euphoria, sometimes a feeling of sickness. In other ways, psychedelics are different from ordinary "intoxication." There are visual and auditory experiences that are quite out of the ordinary. The ability of the herbs to confuse and combine sensory input in strange ways is likely the part of the experience that feels like a journey. Most people who have had an experience with psychedelics recall the experience of walls “breathing,” of background noise organizing itself into conversations, and the like. These experiences are not unlike those that happen in the trance of the seer, so it seems reasonable to expect that entheogens could be used to enhance the ability of the seer to either enter or hold trance, or both.
Most of these materials are on the DEA’s Schedule of Controlled substances, in spite of their long history of traditional use. They are therefore not practical for me to experiment with their use in my role as seer and priestess.
These entheogenic plants and chemicals are not the only way to have a trancelike experience, however. A high fever will induce both visual and auditory perturbations that are not entirely unlike those stimulated by drugs. During a confused feverish state, I once mistook my cat, Max, for a bear. It was this experience that made me connect the activation of visual “confusion” with the trip-like interpretation of the fever. I began to look for ways to induce the visual strangeness without drugs and sickness.
The first of these experiments took place during the initiatory rite of the Lunar Sphere to which I have referred in the previous post. I set the altar with a series of highly polished, curved bowls and candlestick holders, all positioned on a round, flat mirror. Inside the top bowl, I placed a ring with a snowflake obsidian sphere on top. That bowl was filled with holy water. Around the perimeter of the silver surfaces were positioned four candles. The silver bowls, when illuminated in this way, presented a dazzling and confusing array of distorted images. Many of the bowls possessed both concave and convex surfaces, so that although some the images in the surfaces of the bowls had a familiar color, no details of the images could be discerned. Some of the images encountered during the rite were incredibly disturbing. In one instance, I encountered my own face with only one eye. In another, I saw fixed items behind me as moving and blood red liquid seemed to pour from one bowl to another.
With the silver surfaces as only real cause for these intense visual experiences, as the rite proceeded, the trance broadened to auditory strangeness, complete with voices. It was a deep and long-lasting trance experience. Could it be that “visual confusion” could be a key to a class of psychedelic experience?
Two illustrative photos are included in this blog post. The first is a photograph of my hand holding a concave optical mirror. Notice haw the image is upside down? The mirror also could be said to “contain too much information,” as compared with a flat surface mirror, with a more collimated field of view. Both of these effects contribute to the tripiness of the ritual. The second photograph is a subset of the altar arrangement for the initiatory rite. Some of the surfaces shown here are concave, but some are also convex. These images are upright, but “contain too little information,” than expected from experience with flat mirrors. Additionally, the convex surfaces yield images that are disturbing because they appear to be bloated.
These initial experiments make me wonder how much of a psychedelic experience we can have in the absence of the chemistry, just by playing with our own sensory input. Preliminary results seem to indicate that, while it is unlikely to generate the entirety of an entheogenic journey without the entheogens, one can obtain interesting results within a spiritual or religious context by using creative sensory confusion.
More to come.
Be thou blessed,
Photos by Harper Feist. Please do not use without permission.