Entheogenic plants and fungi have been venerated as sacred sacraments and tools of divination and healing among Indigenous peoples for millennia. The traditional and religious use of entheogens has thrived in many cultures: ayahuasca and yopo in the Amazon basin, mescaline-containing cacti in South and North America, psilocybin mushrooms and Salvia divinorum in southern Mexico, and iboga in western Africa. In this section, we will overview some of the most common plant-based and fungal entheogens.
Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a Quechua word meaning “vine of the souls.” It is an entheogenic tea that Indigenous groups in the Amazon basin have used sacramentally for millennia. Most commonly, it is made from the DMT-containing shrub Psychotria viridis (known as chacruna), and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. B. caapi acts as an MAOI, rendering the DMT in P. viridis orally active. The ritualistic use of ayahuasca is foundational to several religious organizations, including the Brazil-based União do Vegetal (UDV) church and The Santo Daime Church. entheogenic plants
The Indigenous people of Amazonian Peru have traditionally used ayahuasca for healing, spiritual transformation, and to attain peak mystical experiences. Historically, ayahuasqueros have claimed they received instructions on how to make ayahuasca directly from the plants or plant spirits themselves. Ayahuasca began to receive more exposure from the West following the publication of True Hallucinations by the McKenna brothers, who documented their experiences in the Amazon.
Yopo is a powerful entheogenic snuff that has been used in healing ceremonies and rituals by a multitude of South American tribes for over 4,000 years. The name refers to the Anadenanthera peregrina tree, a perennial native to South America and the Caribbean. Its seeds, which are ground to make the snuff, contain the psychedelic tryptamines DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and bufotenin. Traditionally, it is consumed by having another person blow the snuff into one’s nasal cavities with a bamboo tube or similar pipe-like object. Some South American tribes have used yopo alongside the MAOI Banisteriopsis caapi, producing effects similar to those of ayahuasca. entheogenic plants
Peyote is a small psychoactive cactus native to Mexico and the southwestern United States. The word peyote comes from the Aztec Nahuatl word peyotl. Peyote contains the psychedelic phenethylamine mescaline, which produces similar effects as LSD and psilocybin. In terms of human use, it is one of the oldest psychedelics. Archaeological evidence has shown that Native American tribes in Mesoamerica have used it for over 5,500 years. Its medicinal and spiritual use originated with the Tonkawa and Mescalero tribes. In addition, the Huichol, Chichimeca, Tarahumara, and Cora tribes have also used it sacramentally.
By the 19th century, the ceremonial use of peyote by the Indigenous peoples of Mexico spread north to native tribes in the United States. This diffusion of peyote practices north of Mexico coincided with the establishment of the North American Church, also known as Peyotism. As of the 1979 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom act, ceremonial use of peyote by Native Americans is legal in the United States. entheogenic plants
San Pedro Cacti
San Pedro is a mescaline-containing columnar cactus native to the Andes mountains in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is also known by the Quechua word huachuma, which translates roughly to “removing the head,” a probable nod to its ego-annihilating potential. Traditionally, San Pedro has been consumed by itself or with other plants in an entheogenic brew known as cimora. In these forms, shamanic healers use it as a spiritual tool to facilitate the divination of their patients’ afflictions and to communicate with their ancestors.
The effects of San Pedro are characterized by out-of-body journeys, ego dissolution, and powerful empathogenic effects, all of which catalyze significant personal transformation and healing. San Pedro has been used for thousands of years by several pre-Colombian cultures, including the Cupisnique, Chavin, Lambayeque, and Moche.
“Psilocybin mushrooms” refers to roughly 200 gilled mushrooms that contain the serotonergic tryptamine psilocybin, and/or its derivative psilocin. The tryptamine itself is found predominantly in the genus Psilocybe, but also in other genera such as Panaeolus, Inocybe, Gymnopilus, and others. Shamanic and religious ceremonies have used psilocybin mushrooms for thousands of years. Prehistoric art across the world has depicted the mushroom, with some murals from the Sahara Desert dating as early as 9000 BCE. Shamanic cultures within pre-Colombian Mexico used psilocybin mushrooms widely. These cultures included the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Aztec. entheogenic plants
The Aztecs referred to psilocybin mushrooms as teonanacatl, or “flesh of the gods.” Once the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztecs in the 16th century, they declared psilocybin mushroom use heresy. This forced the practice underground for several hundred years. After the ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson published an article in Life Magazine titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” in 1958, the West began to popularize magic mushrooms. This article detailed his psilocybin experience in Oaxaca, Mexico with the Mazatec mushroom shaman, Maria Sabina.
Salvia divinorum is a psychoactive plant in the mint family, endemic to the Sierra Mazateca region of Oaxaca, Mexico. Traditionally, users consume Salvia by chewing the fresh leaves or by drinking an infusion. Salvinorin A is the main psychoactive compound found in the leaves. It produces entheogenic effects by binding to κ-opioid receptors in the brain. This atypical pharmacological action distinguishes it from the classical psychedelics, which bind mainly to the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor.
Mazatec shamans have used S. divinorum sacramentally for healing, divination, and religious communion, often when psilocybin mushrooms weren’t available. The Mazatec see the plant as an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, referring to it as “ska Maria Pastora”, meaning “the herb of Mary, the Shepherdess.” entheogenic plants
Tabernanthe iboga, or commonly just iboga, is a rainforest shrub indigenous to central west Africa. Its roots and bark contain the tryptamine ibogaine, a pharmacologically-complex alkaloid that binds to multiple neurotransmitter systems. At mid-to-high doses, ibogaine produces powerful visionary, introspective, and dissociative effects. Similar to ayahuasca, iboga has a long history of ceremonial use, particularly in the coming-of-age rituals among the practitioners of the Bwiti religion in Gabon, Africa.