Ancient Shamanism and Modern Psychotherapy: From Anthropology to Evidence-Based Psychedelic Medicine

By Bragazzi, Nicola Luigi; Khabbache, Hicham et al. | Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, January 2018 | Go to article overview

Ancient Shamanism and Modern Psychotherapy: From Anthropology to Evidence-Based Psychedelic Medicine


Bragazzi, Nicola Luigi, Khabbache, Hicham, Vecchio, Ignazio, Martini, Mariano, Perduca, Marco, Zerbetto, Riccardo, Re, Tania Simona, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy


INTRODUCTION

In the last years, the debate on the therapeutic use of psychoactive drugs and compounds has intensified and has attracted a progressively growing body of research as well as of conferences and training courses. Some researchers feel to live a true "psychedelic Renaissance" (Sessa, 2017), which is anticipated to revolutionize future mental health care, whereas other scholars perceive a still persisting medieval obscurantism limiting this "Renaissance bloom" (Miller, 2017).

Psychotropic or psychoactive substances, as the term itself says, are able to act on the ordinary state of the psyche and, as such, to enable humans to experience non-ordinary states of consciousness. In the ancient times, in the traditional cultures, this was achieved through the administration of plant derivatives and was considered as a highly respected, sacred practice to perform within a ritual context.

We do not want here to express a praise of the myth of the "good savage" or of the "good drug", but we would make a serious anthropological reflection on the use of "narcotic substances" that always accompany the life of human beings and even animals on the Planet Earth.

With this regard, we can remember how in Europe drugs use was already present in the times of the Greeks before, and of the Roman Empire, subsequently. The Dionysian rites and the mysteries of Eleusi are historical examples of the use of psychoactive plants.

Archaeological traces of the therapeutic, religious and ritual use of substances such as coca and psilocybin in South America are millennial and bring us to a reality that the Spanish conquest first and the prohibitionist policies then altered so much to lead the public to a distorted view of such substances as demonic plants or capable of leading to madness and death.

In the East, cannabis, similarly, had a comparable fate: the first ascertained evidence of using this plant for therapeutic purposes dates back to the third millennium before Christ (BC) as described in the Nei-Ching text, written between 2700 and 2600. The plant was prescribed to treat diarrhoea, bronchitis, migraine, insomnia, appetite and nerve disorders. In India it is witnessed the use of cannabis in the second millennium in the sacred texts of the Vedas, where the demon of the nostrils Vide-Vadat, is symbolized by hemp, which also has the function of favouring ecstasy. In India, hemp is called bhang and takes a significant religious meaning as it is the favourite plant of Shiva God; his followers use it as a source of mystical inspiration. In the Indian religious literature, vijaya is called "victory" and in some Sanskrit scripts it is called indracarana or "God food".

But "the food of the gods", including not only cannabis, but all psychoactive plants, are defined in the various traditions, are forbidden to humans.

In the history of the Western civilization, prohibition begins its work of destroying use of psychotropic substances, stating that everything that alters the ordinary state of consciousness is potentially damaging and therefore prohibited.

This decision taken by most, if not all of the Western states, has put a halt to psychotropic substances-related research that in the 1970s saw, for example, in the work of Richard Hoffman and of the chemist Richard Evans Schultes, a prestigious ethnobotanist working at Harvard University, discoverer of the so-much discussed lysergic acid diethylamide (Lysergsaurediethylamid or LSD), as well as of many other scientists, the opportunity to go through the "Doors of Perception" (just to quote the title of the 1954 Aldous Huxley's essay).

The doors of psychoactive substance research over the last 50 years have been closed and research has been relegated to some laboratories or practitioners who have continued experimenting and reporting their personal experiences, however, contributing to the scientific progress that calls up for designing investigation protocol, carrying out the experimentation and testing, following a strict, rigorous and statistically robust methodology. …

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