Open the white Dragon Home page
Close Window 


Strange Fruit - Magick and Drugs

By Julian Vayne

Published at Beltane 2002

The search to find a reliable tree of knowledge, a drug that would spiritually awaken humans on a consistent basis, has been on for at least 100 years. Since the death of god declared by Nietzsche (and others), we have had wave after wave of chemical prophets who have wanted to tell us exactly what humans are going to need to snort or toke before we can become 'Supermen'.

Aldous Huxley waxes lyrical about Mescaline, while Timothy Leary extols LSD as the saviour chemical. Most recently Terrence McKenna has argued that it is tryptamine-based hallucinogens that will save us all. Some writers have projected with own favourite drug back into history. A classic example of this is to be found in the work of Wasson. An ethnomycologist who, in attempting to discover the basis of the Hindu mystical material 'soma', became more and more fixated on the idea that fly agaric was the answer.

To be fair many writers on drugs, including those mentioned above (in most instances), do attempt to place their favourite chemical in a broader context. Few drug writers over the last 50 years have failed to point out that just sniffing a line of miracle chemical X is unlikely to have the effect of turning everyone into a 'groovy person'. However there is still a general tendency to imagine that there is one key drug, one saviour chemical. This desire for a, literal, wonder drug, is totally understandable in the context of western mass-produced society. If we are going to have an answer to life, the universe and everything, it's got to be one answer. One creed, one grand unified theory of everything, and one chemical gnosis.

Drugs can have different effects depending on a literally infinite number of factors (from what you had to eat, to the last film you saw, to the fact that your trip is undertaken close to the ocean). What I believe is important is not the drug so much as the drug experience itself. Moreover it is not simply a question of taking drugs to partake fully of the drug experience but neither is it necessarily a question of elaborate formalised ceremony and training.

Drugs in Context

As well as using drugs, there are many other ways of entering the magical 'liminal' realm. In terms of drug use some writers prefer to emphasise the drug, whereas others stress the preparation of the mind and body prior to the attempt. Huxley, during his experiments with mescaline, came to believe that the lengthy ritual preparation for the use of hallucinogens was largely unnecessary. Equally Leary believed (at least in his earlier writings) that, although 'set and setting' were important, there was no need for elaborate preparation before taking LSD. Again these beliefs are symptomatic of a product-based view of the world, where drugs are external stuff that we take and have definable effects. In ancient religion, according to writers such as Wasson, the mystical crux of ceremony was taking the holy drug. Indeed the very root of religion and the emergence of human consciousness itself might well be the result of a specific drug ( Amanita muscaria in the work of Wasson, psilocybe in the writings of McKenna). Once again the complex network of relationships which defines what a drug is submerged in the monolithic idea that a particular chemical is the answer. This emphasis plays down the complexity of the spiritual or religious impulse in humanity. A drug (the wine of the mass, the peyote of native American religion) may be a focal and important part of a spiritual tradition but it is not the raison d'être for human spirituality. Rather spirituality is the context within which the drug is taken, and in terms of which the experience of intoxication is interpreted.

We do have plenty of ancient historical texts that describe divine intoxication. Many of these intoxications are referred to in terms of religious ecstatic experience and may well have been linked to the use of drugs. But we must also appreciate that, just as drugs might catalyse religious insight, so too drug experience can be used as a metaphor or description of mystical spontaneous mystical illumination. In ancient western religion we know that the use of alcohol was widespread and there may well have been other drugs employed also. For instance in the classical rites of Eleusis it has been conjectured that ergot (which contains LSD like alkaloids) was used, though this is unlikely since a common effect of repeated ergot intoxication is gangrene. Historians and ethnobotonists have proposed other candidates for the Eleusis drug including McKenna's suggestion of psilocybe mushrooms.

Intoxication often features in mythology. For example in Hinduism where lord Shiva sits up in the Himalayas, smoking dope all day. But it is primarily from the Americas that we have the best documented and contemporary knowledge concerning the use of drugs in a 'traditional spiritual' context. Yet even within such 'psychedelic' societies drug use is not necessarily the centre of either these cultures as a whole, or what we might recognise as there spiritual practice in particular.


There are many ancient cultures and groups who may have used transformative drugs, though the emphasis is placed on the transformation, the magical experience itself, rather than on the drug. This might be because the knowledge of these herbs was itself sacred and secret. It may also be because the drug is the doorway but not itself the journey. In our culture we tend to look for the reason , the herb that is responsible for the mystical experience. This overlooks the fact that the drug experience occurs within a certain set and setting (e.g. the ceremonies of the Eleusis cult or the rituals of the native American peoples). As stated above the point is the transformative drug experience , not the drug material alone.

My own view is that, to be genuinely useful, drug experience needs to be of a certain type in order to be really transformative. We each have a context within which we place our drug experiences. Huxley is perhaps the best example of a writer who, after experimenting with mescaline, was able to contextualise his insights in the form of books. Huxley was already a writer when he took mescaline, but his writing certainly takes on a new dimension afterwards. In order to have a transformative drug experience it is necessary to have an internal system that can conceptualise, analyse and subject itself again to, the drug experience. So a religious belief that, say, LSD is a sacramental substance is only a transformative belief if it allows the believer to incorporate, analyse and return to the LSD experience remaining open to new insights. This process of understanding, considering, and re-engaging with the drug experience is the process of learning . The idea that the drug experience is itself both representative of and, in some ways, identical to the process of learning is a vitally important one. This process, this transformative engagement with the drug experience, and being able to use that experience to learn, is what I mean by using a drug as an act of transgression. To support this practice with techniques (such as ceremony, myth, or certain attitudes) is the practice of magic.

The magical use of drugs may come as a spontaneous knowledge. It may also be the result of training, either with drugs themselves or by using other methods of self-development and change. Any process can be carried out in a 'magical manner' - examples across time and culture include martial arts, ritual drama, sex, surfing, or meditative practice. As with many things in life - and with the magical use of drugs in particular - it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.

Marshalling the Allies

There are any number of ways in which drugs may be classified. Perhaps the most commonly used system, in day-to-day use as well as (hidden within more complex terminology) in pharmacology is a 'common sense' tripartite division;

Downers - drugs that make you relaxed, disconnected from 'reality', sleepy etc. E.g. opium.

Uppers - drugs that stimulate and excite, making the users feel engaged and alert. E.g. amphetamine.

Psychedelics - drugs that make the world seem weird. E.g. LSD.

A more formal system is used by Albert Hofmann, who, developing an older system of classification, recognises four broad categories:

Analgesics and euphorics . E.g. Opium and Coca.

Sedatives . E.g. Reserpine

Hypnotics . E.g. Kava Kava

Hallucinogens or psychotomimetics. E.g. Peyote, Marihuana.

The problem with even this simple and conventional classification is that the lines are not just blurred but often obliterated as the effect of one drug, and also of the same drug taken in different circumstances, can vary tremendously. For instance, MDMA is a modified amphetamine (chemically), but is gently psychedelic (in that it breaks down interpersonal boundaries) in its action. It can act like an opiate in that it kills pain. Whereas an analgesic, such as Ketamine, can produce hallucinations and, if taken over a long period, may begin to act more like a powerful amphetamine.

The 'classic' way of categorising drugs is that of Louis Lewin, one of the most important toxicologists of his time, who set forth his classification of drugs in Phantastica first published in 1924.

Euphorica - sedatives of mental activity, these substances diminish or even suspend the functions of emotion and perception

Phantastica - hallucinating substances

Inebriantia - causing cerebral excitation followed by depression.

Hypnotica - sleep producing agents

Excitantia - mental stimulants.

There are, of course, other ways of categorising drugs. Some systems of classification may seem 'unscientific' (and therefore less 'reasonable') but in reality they are all arbitrary or at least based on certain assumptions about what is significant and what is not. In 777 & Other Qabalistic Writings , by Aleister Crowley, drugs are classed with respect to a series of forces that are drawn from the Tree of Life and in turn linked to astrological symbols.

This is just as reasonable a categorisation as any other. Especially when we consider that any categorisation is attempting to link the chemical structure of the drug with the experienced effect . Two differing interpretations of the drug material which, whilst not necessarily mutually exclusive, involve very different types of experience.

Different categorisations of drugs are useful for different purposes. One might, for example, consider drugs that cause mydriasis (pupil dilation) to be all of one type, or drugs that depress sexual arousal or whatever. Although I will be using certain broad definitions (such as 'stimulant' and 'psychedelic') below it must be remembered that these terms apply better to descriptions of the drug experience than they do to specific chemicals.

The best way to categorise drugs may well be the personal and experiential. I am familiar with contemporary occultists (and others who have explored drug effects) who have built up their own maps of drug relationships, detailing how each drug works from a personal perspective. Equally, in shamanic tribal cultures specific drugs may be related to particular animal ancestor spirits.

Certainly the drugs that present most problems for classifiers are those that are vaguely grouped together as psychoactive. A plethora of terms have been used to sum up the complex effects of these chemicals - hallucinogenic, ethogenic, psychotomimetic, psychedelic etc. Lewin proposed the term phantastica although he admitted that it "does not cover all that I should wish to convey". He does not use the German term Genußmittel , which means 'medium or agent of enjoyment', normally applied to 'narcotics' and also 'stimulants', but which might also be applied to some aspects of psychedelic intoxication.

The type of inexpressible feeling and reactions that psychedelic drugs can provoke may lead to a transformative or numinous experience. The world is perceived as being the same yet different in our altered state. This shift in relationship with the world may be accompanied by a range of other experiences. These could include heightened sensitivity and alertness or quiet and lassitude. They may include 'distortions' of the senses and hallucinations. These changes may be felt to lie more or less inside the drug takers mind, or appear quite objective.


It is worth remembering that some drugs do have quite toxic effects on the body. Whilst most chemicals in sufficient amounts can permanently disrupt or stop the normal functioning of bodily systems, most of the drugs we are talking about can provide very profound effects in very small amounts. Toxic conditions or extreme stress of the chemical systems of the body (such as those produced by fasting or fever) can create experiences that are very similar to drug induced states, including the states reached by ingesting psychedelic chemicals. At the numinous peak of an acid trip, one might have experiences that are paralleled remarkably with near-death experiences.

The important factor in drug experiences is that these states can be reached without going anywhere near toxic overload. Thus one of the beauties of using drugs for self transformation, for magic, is that you can stress your mind to it's limit but without stressing your physical organism to exhaustion. In this sense perhaps drugs are the 'easy way out' (as they are often dismissed by the ascetic mystic) but as we've already seen, even your lofty retreat of passive meditation could be thought of as a drug. So where is the real difference in value?

Although toxic doses of certain drugs are astonishingly high (it is often, jokingly, said that the fatal dose of cannabis is 2 kilos, dropped on the head from a fifth storey window) much lower doses can cause massive changes in the mind that may well lead to death. In an individual with a heart condition it is not at all impossible that a strong hallucinogen could engender a heart attack during a bad trip. Equally drugs can certainly be used, with a combination of ritual techniques (such as imprisonment, psychological and physical torture), to permanently unhinge the mind. The worst examples of these practices are inevitably from military and medical sources. There are many accounts of huge doses of LSD (and many other drugs) being given in various experimental, military and medical circumstances that have certainly caused much human suffering.

Drugs and Madness

In medical and pharmacological works the mental effects of any drug (especially of 'hallucinogenic' drugs) is often referred to as 'psychotomimetic'. This term suggests that this type of intoxication resembles madness. Aside of the shaky philosophical ground for this classification (after all, what is mad?) the effects of these drugs, whilst similar to 'psychotic' states do not replicate them however imperfectly. There are distinct differences between the intoxication that LSD produces and that found in people with serious schizophrenia. Although there are certainly interesting parallels to be learnt between mental illness and drug states equating the two is over simplistic and serves only to brush the meaning of drug experience under the scientific carpet.

Of course madness does have its' fans. For the last hundred years, and increasingly since the pseudo post-modern deification of madness, many philosophers have argued that permanent insanity is ultimate liberation (as exemplified by the insanity of people such as Neitzche or Artaud). Certainly experimentation with drugs for transformative process must require a certain sort of character, but madness is not the aim of the experiment. An individual, to participate fully in the drug experience must, in simple terms, be unlikely to flip out and permanently loose the plot. Humans are social beings. Even a personal drive towards permanent insanity can be easily described as emerging out of the culture that lunacy supposedly seeks to undermine and escape from. My feeling is that any transformative process must include what I refer to as 'the shamanic return'. That is, after gaining some new insight, some new view of the world through the transgressive experience, it must be possible to return to society and utilise that experience within a social context - to have learned something. What use is it if the mad utter profound truths if we, the supposedly sane, cannot understand them? If madness does have a message it must be understood and conceptualised in such a way that it can feed back into culture. This is one of the most important points concerning the special usefulness of drugs as transformative agents. The key element, but by no means the whole of the transformative story is the drug material itself. I can show you the material key to my own transformation, I can explain about the general action of the drug, I can relate my personal experiences, I can listen to you and allow for your interpretations. However if the acid I take is of such dosage, or taken in frightening conditions and I 'lose it' permanently it is unlikely that I would even understand your words, let alone desire to move toward sharing your experience. After the transgression we must be able to deconstruct the experience, to subject it to rational analysis. We must be able to see the consequences of the drug experience, to relate what it has taught us to the 'normal' reality of every-day life.

Natural Highs?

The concept of drugs straddles not only the divisions between Self and Other and between matter and mind, but also the division between natural and artificial. In fact, as we will see, the fact that drugs occupy this liminal state is part of their particular potency for transformative purposes.

In the west, we tend to see the beautiful as 'natural'. Certainly since the Enlightenment a perception of nature (albeit often the carefully modelled nature of the Capability Brown landscape) as essentially good has formed. Today, for many people, artificiality has become synonymous with contrivance, affectation and of appearance but not substance. The difference in meaning and value ascribed to natural and artificial is another widely mutable concept. For instance; vitamin C is held up as a natural material, something that will help one ward off 'flu (rather than using a 'drug' to do so). If we consume it in our diet we are taking a food supplement - a natural product not an artificial drug with a range of effects. However most vitamin C is produced in pharmaceutical factories, buildings which we would probably consider 'artificial' or possibly 'unnatural'. To eat an orange means to absorb vitamin C, this is the vitamin in its 'natural' state. Yet the same problem arises. The orange will probably be a specially selected and bred variety, it may even be genetically engineered. It is quite likely that this orange was farmed, a 'natural process' (?) and so on. Even my reason for eating it, to get my recommended intake of 'vitamin C', relies on the existence of the human made categories of 'vitamins'. The point I am making is not that the categories 'natural' and 'artificial' are useless but rather that they are not absolute and that things like drugs play across these divisions.

Once again writers on the transformative power of drugs tend to have widely varying views on the position and relative merits of synthetic over natural substances. Leary, working in the industrialised 1960s, had no ethical problems using psychedelics that were produced in the quintessentially artificial conditions of Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland or by Oswley in illegal laboratories. It is perhaps not surprising that, for the baby boomer generation, the idea of mass-produced religious experience did not seem paradoxical.

Leary insists that: "If you are serious about your religion, if you really wish to commit yourself to the spiritual quest, you must learn to use psychochemicals. Drugs are the religion of the twenty first century. Pursuing the religious life today without using psychedelic drugs is like studying astronomy with the naked eye because that's how they did it in the first century AD, and besides, telescopes are unnatural."

Today many neo-pagan writers, and others, want wholesome natural substances. Drugs such as psilocybin and cannabis are 'better' than laboratory made substances. This view is certainly understandable given the current importance of the political ecological movements in the west. Personally I firmly support much contemporary green politics, however there is a real danger in simplistically asserting 'nature good, culture bad'. The problem is basically that it is we humans who decide on what is, and what is not, 'natural'. To claim that there is an absolute, definable nature is to miss the point. Nature is a concept, one that plays in and out of different cultural meanings. In the 19th century most people viewed homosexuality as not only abominable in the sight of God but also as 'unnatural'. Today most intelligent people see homosexuality as no big deal. But either way it is us humans who do the defining. In the case of drugs I agree that growing a plant that one can have a complex relationship with, that you then smoke and get high on, is a very rewarding experience. If nothing else because it exists on so many levels (one waters the plants, talks to them, strips off shade leaves and smiles as they come into bud). But I would also rather have a predictable dose of a known strength drug should I need surgery. The dosage of drugs in some plants can vary widely. In the past some occultists, such as Dion Fortune, saw this natural variation of concentrations as being one reason not to use drugs for self-transformation. So Fortune's argument, unlike that of modern Pagans, says we should avoid using hallucinogenic plants precisely because of their 'natural' variations in potency.

Without a doubt there are many artificially manufactured chemicals that are today ambient in the world that are contributing to ozone depletion, asthma epidemics and cancers. However there are natural materials that do the same. The problem with human technology is that industrial societies can produce huge volumes of materials and often have a very short-sighted idea of their use. When we create a new chemical, as well as asking what can we do with this stuff, we should also ask, is it appropriate to use it? what will it do to us and other species? When and how will it break down into other simpler materials and what effects will this have?

Drugs come from pre-given materials (hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen etc.) in forms that are synthesised by some plants and some animals. Indeed part of the neurochemical reason for the power of many hallucinogenic drugs relates to their similarity with neurotransmitter chemicals that occur in the brain. Yet we can create completely artificial groups of chemicals, such as the phenylalkylamines (of which MDMA is an example). These molecules do not appear to occur in 'nature' in anything like sufficient quantities to be used as drugs and would be unlikely to be discovered by anything other than modern chemistry (unlike relatively simple chemicals such as alcohol). One argument might be that we should only artificially create chemicals that already occur 'naturally'. This would mean that brewing beer would be all right but distilling alcohol would not be. The problem with this attitude is that a) the distinction itself is a human construct (and therefore itself artificial), b) distillation is a 'natural' process in that it is possible according to existing (presumably pre-given) physical laws and c) who is to say that is not 'in the nature of' humans that they manufacture, along with writing, levers and gender concepts - gin?