Ancient Civilizations and The Psychedelic Experience

The article Ancient Civilizations and The Psychedelic Experience was originally published on Microdose.

Have you ever thought about the use of psychedelics by ancient civilizations? How did they know such potent substances and practices? Could our modern society miss out on the wisdom these cultures possessed through psychedelics, rituals, and death? 

For thousands of years, humans have used plants, medicines, and other substances to create altered states of consciousness for religious, mind expansion, and recreational purposes. But what kind of understanding and technology did ancient cultures need to rely upon to access these powerful states of being? 


The ancient and sacred use of psychedelics

It is believed that over 5,000 years ago, various native plants were consumed or inhaled to induce altered states, which allowed individuals to commune with the spirit world.

Additionally, rhythmic dancing was used as a right of passage into adulthood or as a way to say goodbye when facing death. This practice also connected worlds; it bridged this world with the afterlife. In many societies, psychedelic use has been integral to cultural traditions since time immemorial. Even today, we can witness how certain indigenous tribes continue to practice their traditional rituals involving various substances.  

I believe that this begs the question: how advanced were ancient civilizations when it comes to accessing altered states through ritualistic means? Perhaps there are secrets yet to be uncovered regarding how our ancestors utilized psychedelics to raise consciousness, for spiritual transformation and healing. Moreover, one has to wonder if “modern society” has somehow gone backwards, given its disconnection to the planet, spirit, and the use of psychedelics and their potentials. 

In this article, we look at a few of these ancient cultures to understand their use of psychedelics and entheogens to reach higher planes of consciousness and enlightenment. We look at ancient wisdom and ask the question, what was lost, and what can be found?


Ancient Egyptians

In ancient Egypt, death was seen as a gateway to the afterlife and an integral part of the religious belief system. Psychedelic plants were believed to provide visions of the underworld and open communication with the gods. But how advanced were the ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids, and what role did psychedelics play in this? Did their use of these powerful substances unlock areas of consciousness that enabled them to access knowledge that was lost over centuries?

The Egyptians had an advanced understanding of geometry, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and construction, allowing them to build impressive monuments like the pyramids. It’s thought that they used sophisticated surveying techniques such as rope stretchers, leveling rods, and graduated staffs—which is remarkably similar to modern-day surveying equipment. It’s possible that psychedelics also assisted them in accessing more profound knowledge needed for such complex engineering feats.

We can never know just how influential psychedelics were on ancient Egyptian culture. Still, it seems plausible that they played some part in unlocking hidden potentials within individuals’ minds — areas of consciousness that enabled them to develop technologies lost over time. From artwork depicting psychedelic mushrooms being consumed to historical texts about shamans guiding spiritual journeys, we have some clues about this possibility. Still, no clear consensus exists around this hypothesis yet.

Stephen Berlant’s paper discusses the possible use of psilocybin and other entheogenic mushrooms by the ancient Egyptians. He posits that the Egyptians may have grown Psilocybe cubensis on barley in early forms such as Egyptian White and Triple Crowns. Furthermore, he argues that Osiris, a prominent god in Ancient Egyptian religion, may have been personifying these entheogenic mushrooms. Lastly, he suggests that the Eye of Horus — a plant associated with healing and protection — might have been the cap of an entheogenic mushroom.

This theory is supported by archaeological evidence indicating that entheogens were used in Ancient Egypt for religious and medicinal purposes. Many artifacts depicting Osiris holding out a mushroom cap or eating mushrooms have been uncovered. Additionally, scholars cite numerous references to sacred plants with psychoactive properties in Ancient Egyptian texts and religious symbols with psychedelic overtones. These suggest that psilocybin was likely consumed and venerated during this period. Moreover, specific hieroglyphic motifs reference various fungi types or their effects when ingested. 

To further support his hypothesis, Berlant points to evidence from worldwide cultures that show the use of entheogens predating ancient Egypt — including cave art from modern-day Algeria depicting ritualistic mushroom consumption as far back as 9000 BCE. We should also consider genetic studies indicating a close evolutionary relationship between Psilocybe cubensis found today and those found during archaeological digs at Hierakonpolis (a city in Upper Egypt). All this makes it plausible that ancient Egyptians cultivated, revered, and consumed sacred entheogenic mushrooms like Psilocybe cubensis for spiritual and medicinal purposes since prehistory.



Ancient India & the Vedic Rigveda 

Psychedelics may be the oldest psychopharmacological agents known to man. Important examples of these substances include a substance used in ancient India known as Soma, which was highly revered and is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, with numerous Vedic hymns written in praise of Soma (Wasson and Ingalls, 1971). 

In the painting below, we see the gods and demons churning an extraordinary Ocean of Milk — this is a psychedelic substance known as Soma, which would give them access to immortality, which was thought impossible for mere mortals. To obtain this elixir, the two sides worked together in harmony one final time and pooled their unique strengths together. During their efforts, they were able to unlock the secrets of the magical Soma and create a potent brew that allowed them to achieve the goal of immortality. 

Soma is this ancient mythological plant or beverage thought to have been used in religious ceremonies, healing, and rites of passage. Although its exact identity has been shrouded in mystery for centuries, it is known that Soma was likely created by pressing a plant between stones, filtering through sheep’s wool, and mixing with other substances, such as water, milk, and honey. When consumed, it would induce hallucinogenic and ecstatic states. The ancient Rig Veda texts tell us that Soma was supplied as a libation to the gods during Vedic fire sacrifices, and the priests and participants of the rituals also consumed it.


In addition to being associated with spiritual experiences, some scholars have suggested that Soma contained properties beneficial to health, such as pain relief or energizing effects. It has been proposed that the active ingredients of Soma could include ergot (a fungus), ephedra (ma huang), wild mushrooms, rhubarb root, chicory root, cannabis Sativa (marijuana), sugarcane juice or sacred lotus flowers. It has been hypothesized that the various components of Soma were chosen not just for their psychoactive properties but also for their purported medical benefits. For example, ephedra may relieve congestion, while cannabis Sativa may promote relaxation. 

The specific preparation process of Soma remains unknown, but evidence suggests that it had both physical and psychological effects when consumed correctly. The spiritual effects could include enhanced awareness and altered states of consciousness – possibly allowing devotees to experience a higher level of insight into divinity or a greater connection with nature. Additionally, evidence suggests that taking Soma enabled people to transcend their limits, encounter supernatural beings, or even journey between different universes. In sum, Soma appears to have been an integral part of religious ceremonies in ancient India, providing physical health benefits and facilitating spiritual enlightenment.


Ancient Greece and The Eleusinian Mysteries 

Known as the Eleusínia Mysteria, these ancient religious festivals were celebrated for nearly two millennia, from around 1450 BCE to 392 CE., as the most revered and secret celebrations. Slaves and women could participate, but all initiates swore a vow of secrecy. The Greater Mysteries typically occurred in Athens and Eleusis during the month of Boedromion (September), which coincided with the autumnal equinox. Scholars have long studied these festivals as they are believed to have influenced the development of Greek religion and society.

The mystery surrounding the Eleusinian Mysteries has long captivated historians, anthropologists, and theologians, all searching for their purpose and significance. For many Greeks at the time, these ceremonies may have provided psychological healing or even religious liberation from conventional norms or societal expectations – offering a glimpse into one’s spiritual destiny. These festivals were also thought to bring peace to souls that had passed away before their time by allowing them to access back into our earthly plane through psychedelic journeys. Despite modern scholars being unable to piece together the complete picture of what took place at these ceremonies over two thousand years ago, we can safely assume that psychedelics played an integral role in helping participants achieve heightened states of awareness and unlock mysteries about life, both physical and metaphysical. 

Despite the lack of solid evidence, many have speculated that the drink consumed during Eleusinian rites, known as kykeon, may have had psychoactive effects due to its ingredients. The primary component of kykeon was a mixture of barley and pennyroyal, which may have been mixed with ergot. This fungus contains psychedelic alkaloids similar to those found in LSD. However, little research has been done on this matter until recently, when the Mas Castellar site (Girona, Spain) was excavated, and fragments of ergot were discovered inside a temple dedicated to Demeter and Persephone. This finding provides some legitimacy for the theory that kykeon could potentially contain psychotropic properties from ergot. While more research is needed to understand the psychoactive effects of Kykeon fully, it is possible that Demeter’s all-night vigil at Eleusis could have included an altered state of consciousness through the consumption of this beverage. 

Although it is difficult to know what the real purpose behind these religious rites was given the solemn oaths sworn by those who attended them, theories suggest that they were intended to bring people closer together through collective spiritual experience. These experiences may have helped participants become more aware of their mortality while also deepening their appreciation for life and its mysteries. By sharing this sacred knowledge, members of ancient Greek society may have formed powerful bonds that served an important role in keeping their culture alive for centuries until its eventual decline during Roman imperial rule.


Red-figured Kalix Krater, National Archeological Museum Ferrara, Italy.


Ancient Central and South America

Ancient shamanic practices incorporated spiritual practices and the use of psychedelics, which have been around for thousands of years and often involve ingesting plant medicines known to facilitate conversations with the dead. One example is a 1,000-year-old shamanic pouch of three fox snouts containing the earliest known evidence of ayahuasca preparation. This particular entheogen is known for its strong psychoactive properties, capable of producing intense hallucinations and profound spiritual revelations.

Studies have found that ayahuasca may have promising therapeutic applications, including mitigating symptoms of anxiety and depression and having anti-addiction properties. Ayahuasca consumption in traditional ceremonies has also been associated with positive effects on mental health, such as improved self-esteem and social integration. Moreover, reports suggest that ayahuasca’s capacity to induce shifts in consciousness may also be beneficial in helping people address complex emotional issues and gain life insights. 

Overall, it appears clear that traditional shamanic rituals involving entheogens like ayahuasca can offer more than superstitious beliefs; they may provide promising medicinal possibilities and psychological benefits for those who consume them. As such, it makes sense why these rituals were held in high regard throughout history by many ancient cultures across Central and South America.


Ancient China and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Psychedelic drugs have been used in Ancient China for centuries, especially during the Daoist period. According to historians and archaeologists, the earliest evidence of psychedelic drug use in China dates back to around 400 BCE. During this time, Daoists explored the potential of psychedelic drugs for spiritual experience and personal healing. This resulted in the adoption of certain mushrooms, herbs and plants by members of the religious sect as a means of communing with nature or achieving higher levels of consciousness.

The main psychoactive substances used during this period were plant-based psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline-containing cactus (peyote), and cannabis. Although there is no concrete evidence that psychedelic drugs were consumed recreationally in Ancient China, they likely served some medicinal purpose, particularly for mental health issues like depression and anxiety. 

Archaeologists have also unearthed ancient Chinese alchemy texts describing techniques for making elixirs from psychedelic plants. The most famous example is a text called “The Immortals” written by Han dynasty author Ge Hong which outlines methods for extracting active ingredients from hallucinogenic plants and mixing them with wine to create potions capable of inducing visions or hallucinations. This practice was popular among alchemists hoping to develop supernatural abilities or contact spirits while under the influence of these concoctions. 

In recent years, there has been increased interest in researching the use of psychedelics in Ancient China due to their potential benefits for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. While further research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be made about their effects on humans, it seems clear that psychedelics played an important role in Chinese culture throughout history, both as a means of spiritual exploration and healing purposes.


Ancient Mayan and Aztec Cultures

The ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, including the Maya and Aztecs, had a long history of entheogenic use. These practices used various plants, fungi, and animals to achieve altered states of consciousness for ceremonial and recreational purposes. For example, the Maya employed the Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) as an entheogen. The poison present in the skin of this toad contains numerous Bufotoxins that can produce powerful psychedelic experiences with proper preparation and consumption. Mesoamerican culture viewed this toad as sacred, likely contributing to its ritualized use. 

Another common entheogenic practice among Maya and Aztec cultures was the consumption of psychoactive plants. Studies have identified at least 48 species belonging to 38 plant genera used by these cultures for this purpose. Psychoactive components commonly used included narcotic analgesics, psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline, DMT, muscimol, and ibogaine. Many of these plants were thought to be capable of communicating with spirits and deities associated with religious ceremonies or practices such as divination and shamanism. 

Aztec cultures have used several entheogenic substances in addition to those mentioned above. This includes morning glory seeds (Ipomoea tricolor), Ololiuqui (Turbina corymbosa), and Yopo (Anadenanthera peregrina). Ololiuqui is particularly interesting because it is believed that combined with other substances, such as tobacco or honey, it could produce audio-visual hallucinations that shamans interpreted as visions from another world or spiritual realm. Similarly, Yopo was often smoked together with tobacco for ceremonial purposes involving shamanistic rituals or healing practices involving soul retrieval and spirit communion. 

Overall, it is clear that the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica employed a wide range of entheogens in their religious practices and rituals over time. Some substances were also likely consumed recreationally. Ultimately, many, if not all, played a role in facilitating communication between humans and spiritual beings – providing access to other realms beyond what we can experience through everyday reality.

In addition to these traditional entheogens, other plants native to Mesoamerica were also discovered to have powerful psychoactive properties. These include extracts from jimson weed or datura stramonium and various Acacia tree resin species containing dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The use of these psychedelics among ancient cultures may have been driven by a need to explore altered states of consciousness to gain insight into reality and connect with higher spiritual powers. These groups likely benefited from what some practitioners today call ‘spiritual technology’ – a way to access profound knowledge without requiring years or even lifetimes of study.

In conclusion, the use of psychedelics is not a modern phenomenon but has been part of human societies for thousands of years. Our findings indicate that ancient civilizations from Egypt, Greece, Mesoamerica, Aztec and Mayans cultures, the Chinese, and many others have used hallucinogenic plants and other substances in their consciousness-raising, spiritual ceremonies, and community activities. This was especially true within initiation rituals, seen as a part of the heroic arc, as a way to pass through a transpirational process, from one life into another, childhood to adulthood, old age, and death, to gain insight into the next life and the afterlife. 

Many indigenous cultures still adhere to the traditional medicinal values attached to psychedelics, utilizing them for physical, mental, and spiritual healing. It is also worth noting that recent studies suggest that even today, psychedelic drugs can be used therapeutically to treat various psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.

In light of this evidence, it seems clear that psychedelics have played an integral role in human history. They have connected us with our ancestry, provided an avenue for creative exploration, and enabled us to explore our innermost thoughts and feelings. Ultimately psychedelic experiences offer us a unique glimpse into an alternate reality that may provide new insights about ourselves and our place in the universe.


Note: This article presents research and should not be taken as advice. The author offers mindfulness-based coaching, counseling, and Psychedelic Assisted guidance. For more information, go to – and listen to The Mindfulness Experience podcast  #themindfulnessexperience podcast.


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