Ecstasy, Entheogens, and Ecstatic Witchcraft (PBP – week 9)

This week my PBP is actually going to be the first in a two part series.  I didn’t think that this would turn into a two part post, but since I know there is a lot of ground to cover in order to provide context as well as my own experiences, it’s best to do one part this week and another next week.  In this week’s post I’m going to lay the ground work, talk about these topics from a more factual, cerebral place, and then next week I’m going to share my personal experiences and my personal practices and beliefs around this topic.  This is all going to come up again sometime later in the year when we hit another associated letter, but that will come up in next week’s post.

But first, a little disclaimer…

I do want to say, before we go any further and before we get to part two next week, I am not advocating that anyone take entheogens.  This is something that is not for everyone and each individual practitioner needs to determine how they want to work with these plants if they wish to work with them at all.  Some are far more dangerous than others and some are non-psychoactive and deemed safer to use, however they still bring on a variety of effects on the mind and spirit.  I am not an expert in entheogens in any way, shape, or form.  For that I advise researching the work of the late and amazing Terence McKenna. I am an ecstatic Witch who has spent a number of years studying, working with, and exploring the world of entheogens, herbs and plants, and their connection to spirit and magick, including the direct effects they have when we partner with them, both in the physical and as spirit allies.  This post and next week’s post are based on my study, experience, beliefs, and ideas surrounding entheogens, ecstasy, and Ecstatic Witchcraft.

In order to get the things started, I want to first define the keywords and terms that are going to center around this whole thing.  Those words are:
Entheogen
Ecstasy
Ecstatic Witchcraft
Entrainment

Entheogen
The story of entheogens and their use, the history of the different cultures that utilize them, how they are used, and to what end is extensive and much more in-depth than we have time to explore here.  But in the terms of Witchcraft they are often used in the form of flying ointments or oils and incenses used for the same purpose, to help alter consciousness and extend awareness outside the body and into the other worlds.  Not all Witches work with these herbs, and rightly so since not all Witches would be able to handle the spiritual experiences that these herbs can bring about.  Here I’ll share some of the basics of what entheogens are and some of the ones traditionally used in Witchcraft.  More of the specifics about their applications and effects will be discussed next week.

An entheogen is defined as a psychoactive substance that is used in a spiritual, religious, or shamanic setting or context in order to help achieve an altered or ecstatic state.  When we talk about entheogens we can be talking about everything from the Ayahuasca herbal brew of the shamans and healers of the Amazon to the flying ointments of Traditional Witchcraft both of old and modern times.  While the original idea of the entheogen was that of a plant in some form it has also come to refer to products that are synthesized from plants or compounds found in these plants.  One of the most powerful synthesized entheogen, which is classified as a hard entheogen because of it’s long lasting impact, is LSD.

Entheogens are substances that are used specifically to work on the opening of the crown chakra, they help to let spirit out as well as in.  Though it’s ironic in a sense because some people will say that when you use entheogens in a trance state or in a journey state, you’re not really leaving the body but going deeper within.  The spirit doesn’t actually leave the body and go to journey outside of itself but rather it journeys through the inner worlds and it’s what is allowed into those worlds through the opened crown chakra that may differ from other types of similar experiences.

The term “entheogen” was coined in 1979 by a group of ethnobotanists and mythology scholars.  They were Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Otto, and R. Gordon Wasson.  In their work they found that there were only two words to describe the consciousness altering substances they encountered, psychedelics and hallucinogen.  These terms posed a few problems in the context they were working within.  Hallucinogen was a word that has associations through its etymology with the ideas of delirium and insanity.  Psychedelics was not only connected to the idea of psychosis but it was also too intimately connected to 1960s pop culture that there was a concern that the use of the herbs and plants in a religious context could be confusing.  Ruck, Bigwood, Staples, Otto, and Wasson co-authored an article titled “Entheogens” in the an early 1979 edition of the “Journal of Psychedelic Drugs” where they presented the definition of entheogens.

“In a strict sense only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a loose sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.”

I talked very briefly about entheogens when I did my post on baneful herbs and talked about flying ointments.  One of the reasons that I had mentioned it there was because of an encounter that I had with someone in an herb shop that dealt in legal highs and legal entheogens.  I think that it’s important to understand that these herbs and plants and the things that the spirit of the plant provides to the person that uses it is not the same as just taking the plant or substance to get high for kicks.  While some of these plants and their byproducts certainly are used for that purpose in greater society, the experience isn’t the same and the after effects can be quite different.

There is a group of entheogenic plants which are commonly used within Witchcraft which come from a family of plants known as Solanaceae.  The name comes from the Latin Solanum which means “the nightshade plant”.  Some people may not know, but potatoes are part of this family of nightshade plants and as such among some of the traditional Witches herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, some types of peppers, and some kinds of tobacco are part o the Solanaceae family.  But the plants most Witches will recognize, which are considered entheogens, include:

Deadly Nightshade
Bittersweet Nightshade
Black Nightshade
Datura
Henbane
Mandrake

These herbs should never be taken internally.  They are often used in topical applications like ointments, which while they do absorb into the skin which is what causes them to have the effects they do, taking them directly can be even more dangerous because of a compound within them called tropane.  The body can build up a tolerance to tropane but the heart is unable to do so.  As a result, over time with regular use, the body needs more and more of the herb to achieve the desired effect but as the dosage increases the heart can succumb to the amount of tropane and death becomes a real possibility.

In summary, an entheogen is either a plant or fungi that contains psychoactive properties, or a product that is a synthesized from of these plants which are then used in a spiritual or ritualistic context.  Other non-psychoactive plants and compounds can also be used for similar purposes in a similar manner but they are not traditionally considered to be entheogens.

And to that same end it’s important to know that not everything you encounter as an entheogen is a true entheogen.  There is a tendency for people to sometimes call a drug an entheogen in order to justify their use of it, and in some cases in order to try and avoid  legal troubles by claiming religious usage (to my knowledge the only drugs that are covered under this auspice in the states is peyote in certain Native American tribes and Ayahuasca among US members of the Brazilian church União do Vegetal).

One thing to consider is that we don’t always have to work with these plants in the physical.  They can also be spirit allies and we can work with them through the necromancy of plants.  Necromancy, for those that might be unclear on the term, is not related to any form of dark or black magick.  Necromancy is the summoning of the spirits of the dead in order to communicate with them to gain knowledge, wisdom, and foresight.  If you stop to consider that, when working with plants in our magickal recipes like incense, ointments, and oils, as well as for herbal blends for spellwork, we are working with the dead parts of the plant most often (dried leaves, flowers, roots, and stems).  When we call on the spirit of the plant to aid us we are working another form of necromancy; by calling on the spirit of the dead plant to come forward and partner with us, give us its knowledge and wisdom, and help us in our work, we are working what boils down to plant necromancy.  This can be used in working with entheogens in a sort of round-about, non-traditional way by working with the plant spirit ally rather than consuming the plant in some form.

Ecstasy and Ecstatic Witchcraft
When I talk about ecstasy here I am talking about it in two forms, the feeling and the drug (yes, the drug).  States of ecstasy in spiritual work are achieved when we reach deep states of trance which remove us from the physical body.  By its working definition anything that is ecstatic takes us out of our bodies.  Shamanic journeying is sometimes debated as being ecstatic because there is the idea that we’re going within more than without during these kinds of practices, but I personally see it as an ecstatic technique.  Other common ecstatic techniques including dancing, drumming, chanting, sensory depravation, breathwork, repeated movements like rocking or tapping, and the use of entheogens.  The Traditional Wiccan practice of tying the arms and blindfolding an initiate during their initiation ritual is a way of inducing an ecstatic state.

The other ecstasy that I’m looking at here is the drug, MDMA.  MDMA is not an entheogen but am empathogen.  Empathogens differ from entheogens in that they are not crown chakra activators but heart chakra activators.  Empathogens are psychoactive plants and compounds that produce euphoric emotional feelings (the openness of the heart chakra) and a sense of empathy that connects one to those around them on a much higher level than normal.  MDMA is classified as a hallucinogen but its hallucinogenic properties are not the same as what we commonly think of when considering hallucinogens like LSD.  The visual elements of MDMA are commonly much softer and less of a part of the experience than with other hallucinogens.  But MDMA is a drug that helps to elicit very strong ecstatic experiences when used in the proper setting.

The practice of Ecstatic Witchcraft is a unique one in that a large portion of the energy work and magickal process involves the use of tools and techniques for reaching these states of ecstasy.  Ecstatic work is that which makes us “free from flesh” (which is how one of my teachers describes the work).  In Ecstatic Witchcraft we are working in the Upper World, the Lower World, and the Middle World or the World Aside.  We may work with entheogens in the form of teas, oils, incense, and ointments in order to help free the spirit in order to heal ourselves or others, and in order to look beyond the veil as well.  At the core of Ecstatic Witchcraft is the process of attaining and working within an altered state.  For some people this is something that puts them far out of their comfort zone because there is an element of losing control that is inherent to ecstatic practice.  But when trained in how to properly achieve these states and how to work within them, there is a great power of control within the loss of control.

Entrainment
The last thing that I wanted to mention is entrainment.  Entrainment, specifically brainwave entrainment, which is also known as brainwave synchronization, is a big part of group ecstatic work.    This is the process of using a single rhythm that is capable of bringing us to a specific brainwave state and using that as a means of getting all the people in a group or tribe to rise up (or sink down, depending on the case) to the same brainwave state.  In various shamanic tribes this would be accomplished through the use of drummers all beating drums at the same number of beats per minute.  Dancers would dance to the same rhythm and those who might fan the sacred flames would also do this at the same rhythmic timing.  All of this would bring everyone present into the same state of trance and group healing could be achieved.

What does it all mean…
Next week I’m going to share personal experiences and practices with all these things.  My path is an ecstatic one.  I consider myself to be an Ecstatic Witch, one with a very heavy leaning on shamanic practices of all kinds.  I have experimented with a number of different ecstatic technologies over the years and I am still studying, practicing, and experimenting.  I have a few favorites (chanting, drumming, and working with entheogens) and there are those that just don’t work well for me (dancing being the big one, except in one very specific circumstance which I’ll talk about next week).

While my path is largely ecstatic it also has been focused on technopaganism during different periods of my life.  Technopaganism has a few different definitions but the one that I am referring to here is modern urban tribal culture, which sometimes crosses lines with the modern primitive movement which is also an ecstatic belief system.  For me this is how is all ties together.  The use of entheogens or empathogens in a very defined setting with a spiritual intent, working with the process of entrainment in order to reach ecstatic states.  This isn’t something that I get to do often, though about 10 years ago it was a weekly think (minus the use of any substances, this was a once a month thing).  Typically my work with entheogens is more subtle and in a more traditional setting.

But again, I’ll get into that next week.  I think I’ve bored you all to tears enough at this point.  🙂

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  • Serket Nemesia
    March 3, 2012 at 3:52 am

    Thank you for this very interesting post Rowan! 🙂 I’m looking forward reading your next week post.

  • Serket Nemesia
    March 3, 2012 at 3:52 am

    Thank you for this very interesting post Rowan! 🙂 I’m looking forward reading your next week post.

  • Janet MacIsaac
    March 3, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Very Interesting, Rowan. Looking forward to part II.

  • Harzgeist
    March 3, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Very interesting post! I’ve read quite a lot on Native American uses of peyote and especially of Black Elk’s experiences, so I’m really looking forward to reading about your personal experiences next week!

  • Michael
    March 3, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed this pleasant and informative reading on this lazy Saturday morning. Is this the gist, I’m wondering, of Ecstatic Witchcraft? I’ve heard references to it, but I’ve never known what it was. Thank you for the insight on the spiritual uses of entheogens. Lets me known I’m not the only one using them for spiritual experiences.

  • Michael
    March 3, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed this pleasant and informative reading on this lazy Saturday morning. Is this the gist, I’m wondering, of Ecstatic Witchcraft? I’ve heard references to it, but I’ve never known what it was. Thank you for the insight on the spiritual uses of entheogens. Lets me known I’m not the only one using them for spiritual experiences.

  • Polly (Pagan by Design)
    March 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    This is very intriguing. Is entrainment similar to the state achieved when both the right and left hemisphere of the brain are working in near synchronization? I read about this some time ago and it caught my attention. Essentially, when we recite something from memory (such as the Star-Spangled Banner) that we don’t have to consciously “think about”, then we are achieving this state – I know for me I feel sort of a tingly sensation…the words or rhythm just sort of pours forth and THIS is precisely what leaves our brain free and leaves us open to experience much MORE at the same time. I hope I explained that so it makes some sort of sense.

  • Xaia
    March 3, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    I found this post fascinating. I never knew so much detail about the entheogens and estacy witchcraft. Ordinarily, it is something that would put me off (largely because of my ex-husband and his drug usage), but in the way you’ve presented it, it doesn’t sound nearly so threatening as I would have thought. It is something I’m looking forward to reading more about. Can’t wait til next week!

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    March 12, 2012 at 3:30 am

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