[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
Astro-Theology and Shamanism both explore the intersection of ancient astronomy, early religion and psychoactive plants, as part of a genre known as entheogen studies. This focuses primarily on past and present use of psychoactive plants and fungi in spiritual/religious contexts. A variety of authors in the genre claim that aspects of Judeo-Christian tradition are rooted in fertility cults, pagan rituals and the use of hallucinogenic plants — such as mushrooms and peyote – which were integral to worship. As the subject matter necessarily entails a study of ancient cultures and mythologies, supporting evidence for some claims are drawn from rich stew of fact, conjecture, educated speculation, and uncertainty. Caution regarding claims and evidence is advisable.
The field of archaeoastronomy examines the historical, cultural and scientific roots of humanity’s relationship with the sky. Prehistoric skies, undimmed by modern bright lights, were a rich source for ancient myths and cosmologies. Astro-theology is rooted in this tradition. Even today, references to God assume a position skyward, in the heavens.
The earliest astronomers and astro-theologians, the Chaldeans of Babylon, were priests and scribes in the 6th century BCE. They believed planets were deities — Ishtar was their name for the planet Venus — and the practice of naming gods for planets continued through the Greek and Roman empires. The Chaldean legacy is written in the surviving legends, artifacts, calendars, relics, rock paintings, and megalithic structures, More importantly, their attempts to understand the world through observation and record-keeping was an early example of the scientific method.
Historically, shamanism refers to northern European and Siberian beliefs in “an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits, responsive only to the shamans,” according to Merriam-Webster. In the context of their native cultures, shamans are seen as community leaders and intermediaries with the spirit world, a role that bears similarities to modern clergy.
Shamans functioned as doctors at a time when an understanding of medicine was incomplete. Their knowledge of natural resources, particularly plants, could be useful for the alleviation of pain or illness. They employed entheogens in ritual, such as to cleanse away evil spirits, and thus entheogens became imbued with mysticism in recognition of their mind-altering properties. Beyond physical pain or illness, hallucinogens were considered a way to treat sickness of the soul and communicate directly with guiding spirits.
The authority of astro-theologians was based on their knowledge of the sky and their interpretation of its meaning. The authority of shamans was based on their understanding of plants and their ability to heal. Between them, they sought understanding of the earth and the sky.
Prehistoric use of psychotropics and worship of astronomical phenomena is well-documented. It is known that Mayan, Aztec, Egyptian and other ancient civilizations used entheogens spiritually and celebrated its use through art. Modern groups still practice entheogen use in spiritual contexts; examples include the Urarina of South America and Rastafari of Jamaica.
Evidence cited in support of entheogen origins of Christianity include a 13th century illustration in the French Plaincourault Abbey that appears to show Adam and Eve separated by a large mushroom, suggesting that the mushroom is the “forbidden fruit” in Genesis. Also cited is a King James version biblical passage in Exodus 16:14-15 that describes manna as a small round growth. The intimation is that the growth is a psychotropic mushroom.
John Marco Allegro’s 1970 book “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” develops the thesis that Jews in Rome created a pagan fertility cult to hide their true convictions during a time when Christianity was illegal. According to this view, aspects of the cover story, particularly the use of entheogens, were adopted as part of early Christian practice and spread as the religion did. Allegro’s analysis met with controversy, with some critics declaring he had committed academic suicide.