How Ancient Religion Got You High

May 8, 2016

Earlier this year a small group of self-designated nuns in California known as the Sisters of the Valley were been embroiled in a legal battle over their right to grow, bless, and distribute marijuana. It’s a peculiar case, the roots of which lie in an error in the newly introduced California Medical Marijuana Safety and Regulation Act. The discrepancy was cleared up but the case drew attention to the Sisters of the Valley and their unusual vocation: to turn stoner culture into healing culture.

Many people, including the founder of the order, would question whether or not the Sisters of the Valley are actual nuns (the founder, Sister Kate, decided to assume the status of nun when in 2011 Congress decided that two tablespoons of tomato paste qualified as a vegetable. She felt that if pizza was a vegetable she could be a nun). But irrespective of their official status, the Sisters of the Valley aren’t the first group to blend religion and narcotics.

There are veiled references to drugs in the religious literature of a number of ancient societies. In Homer’s Odyssey the protagonist Helen, the daughter of Zeus, casts the antidepressant drug nepenthe into wine in order to quiet the drinker’s “pain and strife.” According to Homer, the drug originally came from Egypt, and Helen obtained it from the wife of an Egyptian nobleman.

Although the prohibitions are not Biblical, most branches of Judaism and Christianity disapprove of drugs other than alcohol.  But, in 1967, a Polish anthropologist claimed that the plant kaneh bosm, mentioned five times in the Hebrew Bible and used as an ingredient in anointing oil in Exodus, was actually cannabis. This theory has been dismissed as “ridiculous” by subsequent generations of scholars.

Then there are groups for which drug use is an integral part of religious practice and ritual. Most famous of these are the Rastafarians, who smoke ganja as an aid to meditation and religious observance. They cite Biblical passages like Genesis 1:29, in which God gives humanity every herb bearing seed to humanity, as proof that God intends them to use cannabis. By contrast, Rastafarians see alcohol and other drugs as destructive.

References to mind-altering substances in religious and mythological texts have led some to formulate the theory that religion in general, and certain religions in particular, are the byproduct of a chemically induced hallucinogenic experience. This theory—known as the “entheogenic theory of religion”—postulates that visionary experiences or supernatural encounters are the result of deliberate or accidental exposure to hallucinogens.

In their book Inside the Neolithic Mind, archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce argued that Neolithic rock art and religion was shaped by hallucinogens. Others have claimed that the prophesies delivered by the famous Delphic Oracle were the result of vapors that were emitted naturally from the ground.

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