Psychedelics and Western Culture

When most people research the History of Psychedelics, they typically start with the Albert Hofmann and his synthesis of LSD about 80 years ago, but to assume that psychedelics are only about 80 years old would be naïve. Human history doesn’t start in the Western world and neither does the history of psychedelics. It is important to take a moment to pay tribute to native cultures that used these entheogens as such a big part of their culture. The fact that there are so many native cultures makes it difficult to discus all at once in just one section.  


Psychedelics in Ancient Cultures

Different psychedelic substances have been used by different cultures throughout the entire world since ancient times.

  • In Spain, prehistoric rock art near Villar del Humo suggests that the “magic” mushroom, psilocybe hispanica, was used in religious rituals 6,000 years ago.
  • In Mesoamerica, the Psilocybe genus has a long history of use among the native people going back to the Aztecs and Mayans.
  • In Ancient Siberia the “magic” mushroom Amanita Muscaria was widely used by several indigenous tribes.
  • In South America, indigenous people have used ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea that contains DMT, for thousands of years.


A Comparative Approach

Indigenous history is a difficult thing to pin down.  Ancient indigenous cultures all used psychedelics differently. Some of these cultures were oral traditions and for those that kept written record it was difficult to preserve those records over time.  I don’t think it would be possible to pin down the first time psychedelics were used and what that specific culture used them for. 

However, there are some comparative aspects to the way psychedelic’s have been used by ancient indigenous cultures. If we look at what we do know about the history of psychedelics, and compare them with one another, we can see a pattern emerge. These may not be universal along every culture but these are trend s that different cultures tend to follow.

  • Used for spiritual or medicinal purposes, not necessarily as a recreational drug.
  • Typically used in some sort of ceremony.
  • Typically administer by some type of expert or spiritual guide, commonly referred to as a shaman.

It is rare to find one of these cultures that would use psychedelics recreationally. Typically there was a deep respect for these mysterious substances. 


Psychedelic’s Intro to Western Culture

The story of psychedelics in Western culture is a captivating journey through a landscape of curiosity, controversy, and transformation. In recent decades, these mind-altering substances have not only challenged conventional norms but have also spurred a reevaluation of the human experience, mental health, and spirituality. This section will take you on a fascinating exploration of how psychedelics were introduced to Western culture. By understanding this history, we can appreciate how psychedelics have contributed to a broader cultural dialogue that continues to shape the modern world.



The discovery of peyote, a small, unassuming cactus native to North America, is a tale that weaves together history, spirituality, and native culture. This unique plant has been used for centuries by various Native American tribes for its profound and sacred properties. Today, it is also known for its role in the counterculture movement of the 20th century. 


The Peyote Cactus: An Overview

Peyote, scientifically known as Lophophora williamsii, is a small, spineless cactus found in the arid regions of North America, primarily in the southwestern United States and Mexico. It typically grows low to the ground and has distinctive button-like segments. However, it’s not the cactus itself that holds the secret; it’s what lies within – a psychedelic compound called mescaline.


Indigenous Roots: The Ancient Use of Peyote

The use of peyote by indigenous peoples in North America predates recorded history. Archaeological evidence suggests that peyote has been used by native tribes for over 5,000 years. The Huichol, Tarahumara, and various Plains Indian tribes are just a few of the indigenous groups that have incorporated peyote into their spiritual practices.

For these tribes, peyote is regarded as a sacred plant that allows direct communication with the spirit world. It’s used in religious ceremonies to connect with ancestors, heal the sick, and gain spiritual insights. The peyote experience is said to be a deeply introspective and transformative journey, with profound implications for the user’s spiritual understanding.


The Arrival of European Explorers

The first recorded encounter between Europeans and peyote occurred during the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 16th century. Spanish explorers noted the use of peyote in indigenous rituals but largely dismissed it as heathen practices. As a result, the significance of peyote remained concealed from the western world for centuries.


Peyote in the Modern Era

The discovery of peyote by the western world is largely credited to a German pharmacologist named Louis Lewin in the late 19th century. Lewin learned of the plant’s psychoactive properties from Native American sources and brought samples back to Europe for analysis. He published a comprehensive account of peyote’s effects, marking the first time that the plant was documented scientifically in the western world.

In the early 20th century, the peyote religion, also known as the Native American Church, began to emerge. This religious movement sought to integrate traditional indigenous practices with Christian elements and the use of peyote as a sacrament. The Native American Church played a pivotal role in safeguarding the legal rights of peyote use in the United States.


Peyote and the Native American Church 

In the rich tapestry of indigenous cultures and spiritual traditions, the peyote cactus holds a special place as a sacred and revered plant medicine. Among these cultures, the Native American Church stands out as a unique spiritual movement that incorporates the ceremonial use of peyote as a central sacrament. This section will guide you through the captivating history, cultural significance, and spiritual practices surrounding peyote within the context of the Native American Church. By delving into this profound connection, we gain insight into the spiritual heritage and healing traditions that have endured for centuries and continue to flourish in the modern world.


Quanah Parker

Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief, and the indigenous use of peyote hold a significant place in the history of Native American culture and spirituality. Born in the mid-19th century, Parker played a crucial role in preserving the traditions and spirituality of the Comanche people during a time of great change and upheaval. He is particularly known for his influence on the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies, which eventually led to the establishment of the Native American Church. In this blog, we will explore the life of Quanah Parker and his profound impact on the spiritual use of peyote.


The Life of Quanah Parker

Quanah Parker was born around 1845, the son of Comanche Chief Peta Nocona and a white captive named Cynthia Ann Parker. His early life was steeped in the traditions and nomadic way of life of the Comanche people. However, the mid-19th century brought significant challenges to Native American tribes as they faced the encroachment of settlers and the U.S. government’s efforts to forcibly assimilate them.

Quanah Parker emerged as a prominent leader during this tumultuous period. He was a fierce warrior who led his people in battle against the U.S. Army, but he also understood the importance of adaptation to preserve Comanche culture. His leadership and vision played a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of his tribe and their traditions.  Quanah Parker is credited with introducing peyote to the Comanche people as a sacrament, incorporating it into their religious ceremonies.

Quanah Parker’s life and influence on the use of peyote in Native American spirituality are a testament to his leadership, resilience, and commitment to preserving the traditions of his people. His introduction of peyote as a sacrament and his role in founding the Native American Church have had a lasting impact on indigenous cultures, allowing them to maintain their spiritual practices and cultural identity in the face of adversity. Today, the spiritual connection between Quanah Parker and peyote remains a symbol of resilience and the enduring strength of Native American traditions.

This move was significant in several ways:

  1. Spiritual Renewal: Quanah Parker recognized the potential for peyote to bring spiritual renewal and connection with the divine. The use of peyote in Comanche ceremonies allowed his people to maintain their spiritual beliefs in the face of overwhelming societal changes.

  2. Cultural Adaptation: By embracing peyote as a sacrament, Parker enabled his tribe to adapt and evolve in the face of encroachment by settlers and the U.S. government. This adaptation allowed the Comanche to hold onto their cultural identity while navigating the challenges of the modern world.


The Native American Church

The Native American Church (NAC) is a unique and deeply spiritual religious movement that has had a profound impact on the lives of indigenous people in North America. At the heart of this movement lies the sacramental use of peyote, a small cactus with powerful psychoactive properties. In this blog, we will explore the formation of the Native American Church and how they incorporate peyote into their religious practices.


The Native American Church: A Cultural and Spiritual Renaissance

The Native American Church, also known as the Peyote Religion, emerged in the late 19th century, primarily among the Plains Indian tribes. This movement was a response to the tumultuous changes brought about by European colonization, including the suppression of indigenous religious practices. The NAC represented a cultural and spiritual renaissance, blending indigenous traditions with elements of Christianity.


The Legal Battle for Peyote Sacrament

One of the significant milestones in the formation of the Native American Church was the legal battle to protect their sacramental use of peyote. Peyote was classified as a controlled substance, and its use was prohibited in the United States in the early 20th century. However, the NAC fought tirelessly to secure legal protections for their religious practices.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed, which recognized and protected the use of peyote as a sacrament in NAC ceremonies. This was a significant victory for indigenous religious freedom and allowed the church to continue its practices without fear of legal repercussions.


The Sacramental Use of Peyote

The central component of NAC ceremonies is the consumption of peyote as a sacrament. Participants, known as “Roadmen” or “Roadwomen,” lead the ceremonies, which often take place in tipis or other sacred spaces. The peyote buttons are ingested as part of a prayerful and meditative ritual.

During these ceremonies, peyote is seen as a divine messenger and a conduit for spiritual connection. It is believed to provide direct access to the spirit world, offering guidance, healing, and wisdom. Participants often experience deep introspection and a sense of unity with the universe. The peyote experience is regarded as a way to communicate with the Creator, gain insights, and find solace.


Cultural Significance and Healing

The Native American Church’s use of peyote extends beyond religious sacrament; it is deeply interwoven with cultural preservation and healing. The plant is considered a source of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. It is used to address various issues, including addiction, trauma, and illness. The NAC offers a supportive and compassionate environment for individuals seeking solace and recovery through their ceremonies.

The Native American Church and its sacramental use of peyote stand as a testament to the resilience of indigenous spirituality in the face of adversity. This unique religious movement has not only preserved ancient traditions but also provided a platform for healing, unity, and cultural revival. The legal recognition of peyote as a sacrament in NAC ceremonies has been a pivotal step in acknowledging and respecting the religious freedom of Native American communities. In doing so, it ensures that the profound connection between peyote and the spiritual journey of indigenous people in North America remains an essential part of their identity and heritage.

Quanah Parker’s influence on peyote didn’t stop with the Comanche tribe. He played a crucial role in the founding of the Native American Church (NAC), which has become a prominent spiritual and religious movement among Native Americans. The NAC, established in the late 19th century, incorporated the use of peyote as a sacrament in its ceremonies.

The NAC provided a unifying structure that allowed various tribes, including the Comanche, to come together and practice their spiritual traditions. Quanah Parker’s leadership and vision were instrumental in creating this organization that continues to flourish and protect the religious rights of Native Americans to this day.


Peyote in the Counterculture

During the 1960s and 1970s, peyote experienced a resurgence in popularity as it became associated with the counterculture movement. Influential figures like Carlos Castaneda and Aldous Huxley brought the plant’s mystical and spiritual qualities into the mainstream consciousness. It was seen as a vehicle for self-discovery and expanded consciousness, much like other psychedelics of the era.

The discovery of peyote represents a fascinating intersection of cultures, beliefs, and time. Its long history of sacred use by indigenous peoples and the subsequent recognition by the Western world highlights the complexity of humanity’s relationship with psychoactive plants. Peyote continues to be a symbol of cultural preservation and spiritual exploration, offering a unique window into the diverse tapestry of human experience. Its enduring significance lies in its ability to bridge the gap between the material and spiritual realms, providing those who partake in its journey a connection to something much greater than themselves.



The Great Accident of LSD

It all started with a Swiss Chemist named Albert Hofmann. Hofmann was particularly interested in chemistry involving plants and animals and because of this interest he took a job at the pharmaceutical/chemical department of Sandoz Laboratories. While employed at Sandoz Labs he began participating in a program to purify and synthesize active constituents for use in pharmaceuticals. During this program he began studying and synthesizing different compounds in a fungus found on rye called ergot. The 25th compound form ergot he synthesized was called Lysergic Acid 25 (LSD25). LSD 25 was first synthesized on November 16th 1938, it was tested on rats and they noted that the rats seemed “restless” but then sat on a shelf till April 16th 1943.

On this day, while examining the LSD 25 Hofmann accidently spilled some on his hand….


Bicycle Day

After feeling the “wonderous” effects of LSD, Hofmann decided to take a much larger dose on April 19th 1943. This is the first recorded intentional LSD trip, and this might be the first recorded time a member of Western Culture intentionally tripped on a psychedelic! He took 25 milligrams… which is a very large dose. LSD is typically measured in micrograms.

April 19th will forever be known, to LSD fans, as bicycle day! After ingesting the LSD, Hofmann found it difficult to even speak and was unsure that he was going to be able to make it home , so he asked his assistant to escort him home on bicycle.

While he was riding home Albert Hofmann actually began to feel the negative affects of the LSD . Hofmann doesn’t describe the trip as a pleasant experience. He apparently experienced everything around him turning into demons, from people to furniture!

But… he describes coming down off the trip as a very pleasant experience!

As if everything was brand new!


LSD Early Use in Psychotherapy

Hofmann then began synthesizing LSD through Sandoz Laboratories. They started an open source program for LSD and began sending it away for free to other researchers who promised to study the drug. This started a robust time of research in LSD and how it would be useful in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

A British psychiatrist and psychotherapist named Ronald Arthur Sandison came in contact with Albert Hofmann during a trip to Switzerland. At the time, Sandison worked for a psychiatric hospital, named Powick Hospital, as a consultant. He returned to Powick Hospital with 100 vials of LSD and used it on patients whose therapy in psychoanalysis was not advancing. He reported significant success.

Later Sandison built the worlds first LSD unit at Powick Hospital in 1958, where they treated illnesses such as severe depression and schizophrenia. He called this type of therapy “Psycholytic Therapy” which means “mind loosening” or “soul dissolving” therapy. The program ended in 1965 when their supplies where taken away due to suspicion of recreational use.  Records indicate that 683 patients had been treated with LSD in 13,785 separate sessions before the program was discontinued. 

Seeking the Magic Mushroom

LSD was certainly a happy accident in the lab of Albert Hofmann, but that is a pretty rare occurrence. Most psychedelics were used by indigenous cultures way before they ever made it to the west. Hofmann accidently came across LSD in the early 1940s but the next psychedelic to be introduced to Western culture is the “magic” mushroom in 1957!


Robert & Valentina Wasson

Robert Gordon Wasson is an interesting character to say the least… He was, first off, a banker who worked for J.P. Morgan.  However, himself and his wife were both armature mycologist who were particularly interested in mushrooms impact on society and first coined the term “magic” mushrooms.

Robert Wasson, and his wife Valentina Guercken, were fascinated on the differences in cultural attitudes towards fungi in Russia and in the United States. Russians tend to be a little more fungi friendly than Americans! Together the Wassons worked on a book entitled “Mushrooms, Russia and History” which they discussed Magic Mushrooms in great detail. “Mushrooms, Russia and History” was part of a 3 part, related body of work which all came out at around the same time. Next, was an article that was released in Life Magazine called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” written by Robert Wasson. Lastly was an interview of Valentina Wasson in This Week Magazine called “I Ate the Sacred Mushroom” released only 6 days after “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” came out in Life.

“Seeking the Magic Mushroom” has been considered by many to be the first introduction of psychedelics and psilocybin to the Western world. This was certainly the first mass published writing on psilocybin to have garnered mass public attention from Western Culture. This article describes Wasson’s journey of traveling to a small village in the Mexican country side and his interactions with a indigenous Mazatec woman named Maria Sabina. Sabina would preform ceremonies where she would prepare and administer magic mushrooms to the ceremony’s participants.


Maria Sabina

It is really hard to discuss “magic” mushrooms without discussing Maria Sabina. While the Wassons were the armature mycologists that introduced the Western world to “magic” mushrooms, Sabina was the “indigenous mycologist” who taught the Wassons about the “magic”.

Sabina was a Mazatec curandera, or shaman, that would use psilocybin mushrooms in healing ceremonies called veladas. The psilocybin mushrooms she would use were indigenous to the area, particularly psilocybin caerulescens,  and would be foraged for before the ceremony. These mushrooms are very important to the Mazatec and would often be used to communicate with god!

Robert Wasson was able to earn Maria Sabina’s trust and was able to participate in one of these ceremonies. He describes the ceremony in the article in great detail but used the name “Eva Mendez” to protect the identity of Sabina and didn’t reveal her location either. However, they did end up publishing her name and location, Huautla de Jimenez, in the second volume “Mushrooms, Russia and History”.

Although this helped the Western world discover “magic” mushrooms this also popularized the small village and it caused a slew of westerners to come seek the “magic” mushroom. Traditionally a veladas was used to cure the sick, now Huautla de Jimenez is overran by westerners who were looking to “communicate with god”. This growing interest in Sabina, the slew of psychedelic tourists and the visitors lack of respect for the traditions of the veladas altered the social dynamics of the Mazatec community and threatened to terminate the custom. The local police began to suspect Sabina as a drug dealer and many of the locals blamed Sabina and she was ostracized from the community, her house was burned down, her son was killed, and she was even imprisoned for a brief amount of time.

She eventually regretted her interactions with the Wassons…


Other Indigenous Psychedelics

Although these psychedelic substances were not the first to make it to Western Culture they are still very well respected psychedelic substances. Many different psychedelics substances are used by many different indigenous cultures. However, ayahuasca and peyote are gaining more and more popularity when it comes to Western Culture.



Deep within the lush Amazon rainforest, among the indigenous tribes and communities, lies a potent secret that has been guarded for centuries. This secret is Ayahuasca, a mystical brew revered for its transformative and healing properties. The indigenous use of Ayahuasca is a practice deeply intertwined with their cultural, spiritual, and medicinal traditions.

The use of Ayahuasca has ancient origins that predate written history. Indigenous communities in the Amazon have long believed that the Ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and the Chacruna plant, Psychotria viridis, hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the universe and connecting with the spirit world. This sacred brew is known by various names, such as “yagé,” “natem,” and “daime,” among the indigenous groups across South America.

Ayahuasca is regarded as a powerful spiritual and medicinal elixir. Indigenous shamans, often referred to as “ayahuasqueros” or “curanderos,” administer Ayahuasca in carefully orchestrated rituals. These rituals are designed to facilitate deep healing and spiritual growth, addressing physical, emotional, and psychological ailments.

The brew’s active ingredients, primarily DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) from Chacruna and MAO inhibitors from the Ayahuasca vine, induce intense visionary experiences that are believed to cleanse the body, purify the soul, and provide insight into the spiritual world.

Ayahuasca ceremonies are central to the indigenous use of this sacred brew. Participants gather in a ceremonial space, often a maloca (traditional communal dwelling), and the shaman leads the proceedings. The ceremony typically involves chanting, singing icaros (healing songs), and the consumption of Ayahuasca. The experience is highly individual, with participants reporting encounters with spirits, visions, and personal revelations.

These ceremonies serve as a means to connect with the spiritual realm, seek guidance from ancestral spirits, and gain insights into life’s purpose and challenges. Ayahuasca is seen as a profound teacher and healer, offering wisdom and solace to those who partake.

Despite its profound cultural and spiritual significance, the indigenous use of Ayahuasca faces modern challenges. Encroachment on traditional lands, legal restrictions, and issues related to cultural appropriation threaten the practices of these communities.

Nonetheless, many indigenous groups, alongside advocates and researchers, work diligently to protect and preserve the sacred traditions surrounding Ayahuasca. Efforts are underway to ensure that the knowledge and wisdom of the rainforest’s indigenous peoples, along with their use of Ayahuasca, are respected, understood, and safeguarded for future generations.

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