The Psychedelic in Society: A Brief Cultural History of Tripping
The term psychedelic is derived from the Ancient Greek words psuchē (ψυχή - psyche, "soul") and dēlōsē (δήλωση - "manifest"), translating to "soul-manifesting".
A psychedelic experience is characterized by the striking perception of aspects of one's mind previously unknown, or by the creative exuberance of the mind liberated from its ostensibly ordinary fetters. Psychedelic states are an array of experiences including changes of perception such as hallucinations, synesthesia, altered states of awareness or focused consciousness, variation in thought patterns, trance or hypnotic states, mystical states, and other mind alterations.
These processes can lead some people to experience changes in mental operation defining their self identity (whether in momentary acuity or chronic development) different enough from their previous normal state that it can excite feelings of newly formed understanding ranging from revelation & enlightenment to the opposing polarity of confusion & psychosis. Psychedelic states may be elicited by various techniques, such as meditation, sensory stimulation or deprivation, and most commonly by the use of psychedelic substances. When these psychoactive substances are used for religious, shamanic, or spiritual purposes, they are termed entheogens.
The term was first coined as a noun in 1957 by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond as an alternative descriptor for hallucinogenic drugs in the context of psychedelic psychotherapy
Psychedelics are notorious today because of the rude splash they made in the Sixties and Seventies, when the tidal wave of altered consciousness they unleashed billowed across the social landscape, upsetting many an apple cart, Newtonian and otherwise, along the way. During the course of this insurrectional drive to expand the human mind, millions of students, artists, and other seekers were ushered by chemical agents toward – and, hopefully, through -- the Doors of Perception, a term borrowed from William Blake by Aldous Huxley to describe, in his 1954 book of the same title, the expansive universe to which drugs such as LSD can open up the mortal brain -- a realm in which everything appears, in Blake's words, "as it is, infinite."
Timothy Leary’s calls to “tune in” psychedelically and Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, the multimedia LSD extravaganzas immortalized by Tom Wolfe, steered untold legions through these portals into a molten state of being which is all but smothered today beneath the buttoned-down collars of straight-laced yuppie composure. Because most psychedelic drugs have been illegal since 1966, there are no accurate polls to determine the numbers of people who experimented. But many at least temporarily heeded Leary's clarion call to abandon middle-class security and catch the wave of revelation by gulping down psychotropic chemicals. Leary's death in 1996 has sparked a burst of introspection on the impact of the drugs he proselytized, and the high numbers of Baby Boomers who stormed heaven with them now have the stature to contemplate the fruits of their rebellions.
The demographics of tripping are actually much broader than one might suspect. You needn't be a hippie to have a psychedelic background. The corporate and civic leaders who are running the country today are likely to have once been experimental long-hairs in their school days.
We know that President Bill Clinton and both major-paty candidates vying to succeed him, Texas governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore, have admitted or intimated they've used illegal drugs. Indeed, many in high places today have been in even higher ones in their youth, touring the outer galaxies of their own minds on acid and other psychedelics. Millions have a unique lens embedded in their minds composed of the rarefied fibers of their hallucinogenic experiences. Meanwhile, many who didn't "turn on" are wondering, "What did I miss?" Still others, psychedelic veterans among them, find “recreational” drugs and the culture of their “indulgence” disquieting, and for good reason from their perspective. Trips, after all, were known to go awry.
As the new millennium begins, the use of psychedelics is again on the rise after tapering off in the 1980s. How could this be happening? Wasn’t the first time around, the convulsive Sixties and Seventies, too unsettling for anybody to want to go back? Well, the fact is that human beings will always want to suspend everyday reality, be it by legal means or otherwise, and they will always be at least curious about alternate states of consciousness, especially those that are consecrated in many of the world’s ancient traditions.
Veneration for the induced visionary experience has roots in virtually every culture on earth, however sublimated or repressed it is today. In fact, one could argue that the use of visionary plants and hallowed drafts has been seminal to the development of civilization. Two of the most pervasive and influential cultures the planet has ever seen, that of Hellenistic Greece and Aryan India, contained at their very core inspirations derived from the ingestion of psychedelic concoctions.
For two thousand years before its eradication by Christians in the fourth century A.D., the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries was the peak-experience of the ancient Greeks, a “holy institution,” according to religion historian Huston Smith, for regularly opening ”a space in the human psyche for God to enter.” After a half year of rites, the pilgrimage to Eleusis just west of Athens climaxed with the re-enactment of a sacred drama that was enhanced by the drinking of kykeon, a grainy beverage believed to contain barley ergot. Among notable initiates were Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Cicero, Pindar, and possibly Homer. A communion between gods and men, between the living and the dead, the ceremony at Eleusis was a symbolic journey to the underworld to claim back from death Persephone, the daughter of the grain goddess Demeter. The setting for this ur-psychedelic experience was a telesterion (initiation hall) at the very site where Persephone is said to have emerged from Hades
with the newborn son she’d conceived in death there. A series of breathtaking, masterfully orchestrated special effects enthralled the senses and conjured the specter of deliverance from the forces of darkness through a ritualized resurrection. The whirlpool of stimuli that washed over initiates involved an Oz-like chimera of voices, music, perfumes, mists, light and shadows. At the peak of the crescendo, the “bellowing roar of a gong-like instrument that outdid…the mightiest thunderclap, coming from the bowels of the earth” announced the arrival of the queen of the netherworld.
All were forbidden by penalty of death to tell what they’d seen. According to Carl A.P. Ruck, co-author with R. Gordon Wasson of The Road to Eleusis (1978), “Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by God. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.” Of course, some couldn’t hold their tongues about such a marvel. A scandal ensued when some aristocratic Athenians began celebrating the Mysteries at dinner parties in their homes with groups of “drunken” revelers. Socrates himself was tried and condemned for using the sacred brew recreationally. (Such a profanation of the holy potion might have a modern-day parallel in the spilling of LSD into the well water of the mass media and youth culture during the early Sixties).
Notably, the Mysteries were not freely conjured by anyone who could get their hands on the kykeon. They were the exclusive charge of two families who served as hierophants for two thousand years. Clearly, the indoctrination and rites leading up to the swigging of the mash were at least as influential as the concoction itself in weaving the phantasm that stole over the pilgrims’ senses. Such congregational participation and extensive preparation for a psychedelic experience is almost unheard of in the modern West. If anything like the Eleusinian Mysteries had survived the hi-tech world of today, it would almost certainly be diluted and profaned, taking the form of a commercialized adventure-tourism attraction involving a multimedia circus of light and sound somewhat akin to the group-mind experience of a Trance Festival or a rave. Re-creation of the kykeon brew has proved elusive, however, even to such consummate ergot specialists as Albert Hofmann, who used the fungus in his 1938 invention of LSD.