What, Exactly, Is An Entheogen?

What, Exactly, Is An Entheogen?

An entheogen is a term that people use to describe psychedelics. In fact, some people will use this term as an alternative to “psychedelic”, preferring its use for different reasons. It may not be a common term that people use to refer to psychedelic substances but it is one that is worth exploring, especially since its meaning is quite distinct from “psychedelic”.

We take a look at the meaning of the term entheogen, describe the history of the term, compare and contrast it to alternative terms for these compounds. We then offer some analysis on why the term is appropriate for some people and inappropriate for others.

The Meaning Of The Term “Entheogen”

Entheogen comes from the Greek word entheos, which means “the god (divine) within” and gen, which means “creates” or “generates”. So the literal translation of entheogen is “generating the divine within”. An entheogen is any substance that has the ability to achieve this.

These psychoactive substances are usually found in plants or fungi but they sometimes exist in the secretions of non-human animals as well, such as toads.

The Sense Of The Divine

To be an entheogen, a substance should be capable of inducing a spiritual or mystical experience, in which the user feels a sense of the divine. This sense of the divine can be experienced in a range of ways.

  • The feeling that there is a divine presence during an experience
  • Feeling oneself becoming divine or merging with the divine
  • Coming into contact a religious conception of the divine, such as specific deities
  • Receiving messages, insights, inspiration, and healing from this divine presence or being
  • Communicating with a divine consciousness

Mystical States

People may use the term entheogen more broadly, however, to refer to any substance that can lead to mystical states. As well as a sense of the divine, these experiences can involve the below.

  • Ego dissolution
  • A feeling of being unified with the universe
  • The sense of gaining insights into important truths
  • A feeling of existing outside time and space
  • The feeling of experiencing ultimate reality
  • Ecstasy and bliss
  • Ineffability

The Traditional Use Of Entheogens

Entheogen also refers to the psychoactive plants and mushrooms that people use in traditional, sacred contexts. This includes the ritualistic use of these psychoactive substances for religious, magical, shamanic, or spiritual purposes. Such use exists all over the world, in many different cultures. Some examples (both historical and present) include the following.

  • Using peyote, morning glory seeds, psilocybin mushrooms, salvia, and the dried skins of toads of the Bufo genus in North America
  • The use of San Pedro, yopo, and ayahuasca in South America
  • Using Tabernanthe iboga in Central West Africa
  • The use of the Amanita muscaria mushroom in Siberia

The History Of The Term

In 1979, a group of ethnobotanists and scholars of mythology (Carl Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, and R. Gordon Wasson) coined the term entheogen. They proposed it as an alternative to pejorative terms such as “hallucinogen” and “psychedelic”. They believed it more accurately conveyed the “transcendent and beatific states of communion with deity”. Ruck and others state the following:

“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 looser 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.”

The term entheogen is meant to reflect the perspectives of indigenous peoples who traditionally use these substances. This perspective includes the belief that these substances have spiritual properties and intelligence. Ruck (2004) defined an entheogen as “any substance that, when ingested, catalyzes or generates an altered state of consciousness deemed to have spiritual significance”.

Entheogen vs. Other Terms

Let’s now examine why Ruck and these other authors wanted to use the term entheogen as an alternative to “hallucinogen” and “psychedelic”.

Entheogen vs. Hallucinogen

Ruck et al. argued that the term hallucinogen was inappropriate, given its etymological relationship to words related to delirium and insanity. They thought this term was pejorative, implying false and deluded perceptions.

Indeed, hallucinations, which hallucinogens supposedly induce, refer to the perception of a non-existent object or event. Many people who use these psychoactive substances, however, believe they are perceiving something real.

Entheogen vs. Psychedelic

In 1956, the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond and writer Aldous Huxley exchanged a series of letters, discussing what term should be used to refer to substances like mescaline and LSD. (Huxley famously took mescaline under the supervision of Osmond in 1953, an experience recounted in his 1954 book The Doors of Perception.)

Huxley suggested the term phanerothyme (from the Greek phanein, “to reveal” and thymos, “mind, soul”). This term literally meant “soul-revealing”. Osmond proposed, instead, the term psychedelic (from the Greek psyche, “mind” and delos, “manifesting”). The literal translation of this term is “mind-manifesting”. Psychedelic, as we all know, is the term that stuck.

Many people prefer the term psychedelic to hallucinogen as it does not carry the same negative connotations. Also, “mind-manifesting” is much broader and can encapsulate more aspects of the psychedelic experience than hallucinogen, which focuses just on hallucinations. Psychedelics do not always induce hallucinations, so many find that the term hallucinogen is inappropriate.

However, Ruck et al. thought the term psychedelic was also problematic since it sounded similar to words related to psychosis. Also, the term had become irreversibly associated with 1960s drug subculture. Entheogen, on the other hand, avoids these connotations.

People may prefer to use the term entheogen to emphasize the spiritual effects of these substances. It may be chosen to contrast with recreational use of the same drugs.

Entheogen vs. Plant Medicine

Another popular term referring to entheogens is “plant medicine”. These include certain psychoactive plants and mushrooms. It also refers exclusively to natural psychoactive substances. An entheogen, meanwhile, may include synthetic or semi-synthetic compounds capable of inducing mystical states, such as LSD, 2CB, and DPT.

One reason to prefer the term plant medicine over entheogen is that the former underscores the healing power of these compounds. Many people prefer to view these psychoactive plants and mushrooms as medicines, capable of promoting psychological health. The term entheogen, on the other hand, focuses more on spiritual effects. Some users might relate strongly to the healing potential of these compounds but not to concepts like the “divine”.

The Term Entheogen Makes Sense For Some People, But Not Others

There is a sense in which the term entheogen is justified. Research shows that it is common for people to have “God encounter experiences” under the influence of classic psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT. Psychedelic-occasioned religious experiences are often interpreted as an encounter with God (i.e. the God of the user’s understanding), a higher power, ultimate reality, or an emissary of God (e.g. an angel). The attributes of this “divine” presence include the below.

  • Benevolence
  • Intelligence
  • Sacredness
  • Eternity
  • Omniscience (knowing everything)
  • Agency (the ability to affect outcomes in reality)
  • Existing in another dimension

However, not all users have had God encounter experiences when using psychedelics. For this reason, they may not find the term entheogen is appropriate. They might find that the term psychedelic is preferable since it is broader and better describes what their experience was like. After all, these compounds can manifest your mind — various thoughts, insights, feelings, and emotions — without necessarily manifesting a divine being.

Moreover, some users of these psychedelics may have experiences involving the perception of an outside presence or entity but choose not to attach labels to it like “divine”, “God”, or “spirit”. If you subscribe to a secular, atheistic, or naturalist worldview, then these terms may not make sense for you.

Indeed, many users find that their perception of this outside presence or being is a reflection or aspect of themselves. The experience, then, is a manifestation of their mind, rather than the appearance of a totally separate being existing in another reality. In this case, the term psychedelic would more accurately convey the nature of this experience than entheogen.

In Conclusion

As we can see, the decision to use (or not use) the term entheogen depends on a particular person’s religious or metaphysical worldview.

For those who describe these compounds as entheogens, the experiences they provide are deeply meaningful and profound. They play a central and important role in many people’s spiritual life and allow them to connect with something greater than themselves. For this reason, people may find it especially problematic that these substances are illegal. This means that people are being prevented from fully engaging in spiritual life as they see fit, with the threat of legal punishment if they take these substances.

However, the legal landscape surrounding psychedelics is slowly changing. Across North America, laws relating to the possession of psychedelics are relaxing. Soon it may be possible for people to have spiritual experiences; and not just in a medical context. Many people want the freedom to have experiences with psychedelics in a sacred context, without having to travel to countries where it is legally permissible to do so.

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Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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