Psychedelics and Entheogens: A Very Brief History

As Christmas and New Year have now quickly disappeared under the mass of mince pie packets and ‘2016’ banners, and as I’ve never been a fan of Home Alone (yes, I know), I thought I would turn my attention to writing a little about something which is slowly being rekindled in the field of mental health and medicine.

After watching David Nutt’s inspiring lecture in conjunction with the Maudsley Psychedelic Society (, it felt apparent that Psychedelics and Entheogens are starting to take more of a spotlight role in mainstream science, and the academic community have again begun to apply rigorous observation to this enigmatic group of substances, despite recent legislation.  The use of psychedelics in the scientific community in the last century have been somewhat well documented, from Aldous Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’, to Kary Mullis’ LSD induced vision, inspiring him to develop the Polymerase Chain Reaction. Outside of the scientific community, psychedelics have played a more central role, being a significant fuel in music, art, and culture, such as the relatively recent LSD culture of the 60’s, as well as inspiring, and exclusively contextualising, ‘Acid House/Acid Jazz’ and Rave music in the 90’s. Pretty much anyone who was around for the Acid House movement in the 90’s will say that without psychedelic input, the music definitely didn’t really make any sense. But how much have psychedelics historically played a role in culture? Are they a transient and irrelevant phenomena, or produced a significant and meaningful experience which may have shaped seminal thought and therapeutic intervention?

Psy-che-del-ic originates from the words Psyche (the human soul, mind or spirit) and Delein (to make manifest), and an Entheogen is a chemical compound used in a spiritual context, which is derived or obtained from natural species (Roberts & Hruby, 2002). There are a variety of forms that these ethereal substances take, such as natural flora, like the Psilocybin mushroom, Ibogaine, San Pedro cacti (Mescaline), or Cannabis. However there are also number of synthetic psychedelics, such as LSD-25 (although this is also derived from the Ergot fungus). Here is a brief history of a few psychedelics and entheogens:


Starting back at around 4000-5000 years ago, religious texts such as the Arthava Veda make reference to mind-altering substances, most likely thought to be Cannabis, and hence was regarded as one of the five sacred plants of India (Kalant, 2001; Stafford, 1992). There has been reference to Cannabis’ use in the daily life to early Chinese and Tibetan cultures, as well as its use in Tantric Buddhism using the plant to induce heightened awareness during deep meditation. The Greeks and Romans were not alien to the effects of Cannabis either, with records referencing its use in medicinal, therapeutic, and social contexts (Stafford, 1992).

Napoleonic invasions and exploration of North Africa in the late 18th century and early 19th century facilitated the French discovery of the plant, and was taken back to France for observation into its effects on mood (Kalant, 1971). In the UK and US, cannabis was later adopted as a medical treatment in the late 19th and early 20th century, mainly playing a role as an anticonvulsant and hypnotic (Mikuriya, 1969). By the early-mid 20th century, cannabis had fallen from medical use in the US and UK. Kalant (2001) writes that this owed to its replacement by other more advanced treatments, such as opiates, and further suggests that continued clinical interest may have furthered its development into a more useful drug.

In a modern context, Cannabis’ constituent chemicals have been implicated for therapeutic use in regards to spasticity, neuroprotection, anxiety, and pain reduction, and research seeks to continue exploration of its therapeutic benefit (Walsh et al., 2013; Baker et al., 2003).

Peyote, Mescalin, & San Pedro

Moving across to South America, evidence from the conquistador invasions has suggested the shamanic ceremonial use of the Peyote and San Pedro cactus was used by Toltec and Aztec cultures, however has also been suggested to have been used as far as back as 2,900-3500 b.c., often depicted in murals alongside animals or mythological beings (Sharon, 2000). The substance has been perpetually used by shamans throughout history to facilitate the journey to other worlds, and enabling the ‘passage of the soul’ (Glass-Coffin, 2010). The Moche culture of South American between 1,900-1,2000 b.c., and the Inca culture around 500 years later, have been evidenced to have used San Pedro intimately with fertility and cosmological ceremonies (Sharon, 2000; Glowacki & Malpass, 2003). More recently, from around the early 17th century to mid 18th century, peyote was denounced by the Catholic church in North America due to its entheogenic and ‘future telling’ effects (Stafford, 1992).

San Pedro and Mescaline currently still hold an ambiguous legal status in the US (Glass-Coffin, 2010), are banned in the UK in their dried forms, and among Mid and South American cultures, Peyote is still culturally and spiritually taken during sacred site ceremonies (Stafford, 1992).

Ayahuasca & DMT

Ayahuasca (or Caapi and Yage, as it is also known) use is said to date back to pre-Colombian periods, and its production of visionary and spiritual experiences responsible for the rich mythology depicted in that era (Stafford, 1992). It is a Quechua term, meaning ‘Vine of the Souls’, and while ancient in its use, it is almost impossible to pin point the beginning of its use, however archaeological evidence  suggests its use was well established at around 1500-2000 b.c. in the Ecuadorian Amazon (McKenna, 1998). The mixture contained in Ayahuasca is said to have been cosmically stumbled upon, as the active ingredient, DMT, is only orally active after its addition with a mono-amine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), both of which are extracted and prepared from different plants (Luna, 1984).

It’s more modern discovery may lie with an English botanist, Richard Spruce, who encountered it in the Rio Upas, in Brazil (Schultes, 1982). During the late 19th and early 20th century, chemical and taxonomic investigations were carried out into Ayahuasca (McKenna, 1998), and in the early 21st century, the book ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule‘ (Strassman, 2000) was published after a series of research examining the intravenous injection of the compound into a series of willing volunteers who vividly described their experiences.

Modern clinical studies have suggested its safe use in healthy adults, however current legislation in the US and UK render it difficult to explore its potential therapeutic avenues (McKenna, 2004).


Psilocybin is the name of the active compound found within certain species of naturally occurring fungi (Guzman et al., 1998). Again, turning to central and south America, early 16th century manuscripts from the invading Spanish forces document the use of ‘mushrooms’ with psychoactive properties during tribal rites (Stafford, 1992). The natives of Mexico mainly have been suggested to have used psilocybin mushrooms for a few thousand years (Carod-Artal, 2015), and during the Catholic occupation of these regions, many artistic depictions illustrated ‘the devil’ handing these fungi out to the natives (Stafford, 1992). These regions still use these substances in conventional practice today (Hofmann, 2005).

In 1957, it is suggested that Western science was introduced to these fungi by Robert Wasson, and taxonomy completed by Roger Heim (Aboul-Enein, 1974), with its first isolation and synthesis in 1958/1959 by Albert Hofmann (Hofmann et al., 1958).

In modern day research, publications including psilocybin have gone up from approximately 42 in 5 years, in 1959, to around 70 between 2008-2012 (Tyls et al., 2014). Psilocybin is currently the most commonly used psychoactive compound in human studies, due to its relative safety, good oral absorption, and long duration of action (Griffiths et al., 2008). Therapeutically, Psilocybin has been reported to induce long-term positive changes to life attitudes, even after a 25 year follow up (Doblin, 1991), as well as this being confirmed more recently in drug-naive participants in a double-blind study (Griffiths et al., 2006).

Iboga & Ibogaine

Possibly popularised after Ed Musky was famously rumoured to have been addicted to the substance during the 1972 presidential campaign, which Hunter S. Thompson owned up to starting, Ibogaine has a long history of use in Africa, during ritual hallucinatory experiences (Alpa & Glick, 2001).

In 1864, the first identification of T.Iboga was published in France, from a sample brought back from Gabon. Throughout the 20th century, Iboga was used in various therapeutic interventions, including addiction to opiates; however in 1967 was listed in the US as a Schedule I substance (Kaplan, et al., 2001). In 1993, the University of Miami was given approval for use in human studies, and from around 1994-2001, Ibogaine became increasingly available in Europe and the US (Alpa & Glick, 2001).

In a modern context, Ibogaine has been implicated as a potentially effective treatment for addiction, as well as continued research trials conducted to assess the mechanism of action of Ibogaine, in aid of developing more specifically targeted treatment options (Mash, 2010; Alpa & Glick, 2001).


Derived from the Ergot fungus, which commonly grows on rye grain, LSD-25’s psychedelic properties were originally discovered by Albert Hoffmann in 1938 (Stafford, 1992). LSD went on to become a feature of main stream psychiatry by the end of World War Two for therapeutic and research purposes (Becker, 1967).

Probably from around the 1960’s onwards, the use of LSD in US and UK culture is hardly a secret history. A majority of music and culture of this decade, from Jimi Hendrix to Jefferson Airplane, took the experiences from LSD and transformed them into an entire social milieu. Hippy culture was heavily cracked down upon in the US by Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’, and the use of LSD dropped drastically.

In a modern context, LSD is starting to be looking at seriously again in research and therapy, and indeed has shown to be a potential avenue for mental health issues, such as alcohol addiction (Krebs & Johansen, 2012).


Entheogenic and psychedelic substances have a rich and culturally diverse history, suggested to be responsible for many of the spiritual and mythological symbols from a number of traditions. Alongside this, during the 19th and early to mid 20th century, scientific research has taken an interested stance into these compounds. In a modern context, while legislation continues to hold these compounds under tight control, research suggests that clinically, these substances may provide a hugely beneficial avenue for therapeutic interventions toward a number of physical and mental issues (Sessa & Johnson, 2015).


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Alper, K. R., & Glick, S. D. (2001). Ibogaine: Proceedings from the First International Conference (Vol. 56). Gulf Professional Publishing.

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