CHAPTER SEVEN: ONES
THE ROPE TRICK
Among the most famous of biblical passages, the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery, Jesus presented with simple beauty a profound lesson for humanity about compassionate non-judgment. It may have been his last authentic teaching before the Arrest, Crucifixion, Descent into Hell, and Resurrection. When the scribes brought before Jesus a woman caught in the very act of adultery, they cited the Law of Moses that such women should be stoned to death, asking the Rabbi,
What do you say?
But Jesus stooped down and with his finger wrote on the ground. And as they continued to question him, he stood up and said to them, "Let whoever of you is sinless be the first to throw a stone at her." And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. And when they heard this, they went out one by one, the older ones first.
[Stephen Mitchell, "Introduction," The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to his Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers, Harper Collins, New York (1991), pp. 58 ff.]
This story, although it is without any documentation in the oldest manuscripts, has such a ring of truth that it was perpetuated by oral tradition until the fourth century AD, when ecclesiastics then began trying to find some place for interpolating the parable into written texts. Stephen Mitchell, author of the brightest new translation and interpretation of the Essential Gospel (the actual teachings of Jesus, as best determined by careful scholarship, shorn of the dogmatic additions fabricated by the early Church Fathers), in noting the story's strange history, identifies as paramount among the details contributing to the convincing authenticity of this account,
Jesus' gesture of writing on the ground, which has eluded scholars and theologians for at least sixteen centuries. The very fact that it has no obvious meaning is evidence for its authenticity, since subtlety of this kind is never present in the church's stories, in which "Jesus" becomes more and more supernatural as the decades go on. I can't imagine any disciple inventing a Jesus who has to think and doodle on the ground. This gesture was, in fact, so irritating or baffling to some Christian exegetes that they converted it into another superhuman display: according to them, what Jesus wrote on the ground was the sins of all the accusing scribes.
[Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 59 f.]
Let us suppose Jesus to have been drawing a labyrinthine mandala. If the scene were described to a child in the community of South West Bay on the Island of Malekula in Vanuatu, the exact nature of baffle-ment would then be perfectly clear. A labyrinth may be thought of as composed of "baffles," variously represented as episodes or stages in the heroic journey through life to the Land of the Dead and eventual rebirth...as stops along the pilgrimage way before returning home--Christianized as the Stations of the Cross in the closed cycle culmin-ating in the Resurrection, and popularized in the medieval church pavements as the Road to Jerusalem. It is eminently probable that the meaning of some linear mandala-like figure, drawn in the dust of the temple ground--as the labyrinth was drawn in the sand on Malekula, or the threshold designs painted in South India--would have been understood then by the scribes in Jerusalem, too. This hypothesis, anyway,does not depend upon arguments requiring a path of diffusion for the concept from the South Pacific back to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The focal point of a great spiritual Master, the point from which his teachings begin, tells us something important about him...Lao Tzu...begins with the vision of wholeness...the Buddha begins with the mind...Jesus begins with the kingdom of God in the heart. His teachings have such a deep moral resonance that they take us beyond the realm of the moral and make righteousness seem like the most beautiful thing on earth...What is required of us is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Not "behind": "with." But few people are ready to enter the kingdom of God. So Jesus has a second focal point: forgiveness.
It is Jesus' most important teaching for those who aren't ready to enter the kingdom of God...forgiveness is a sign pointing us toward that kingdom....But actually, forgiveness is an experience that happens only outside the kingdom of God. If you have to let go, then there was something to hold on to. Where there is no offense to begin with, there is nothing to forgive. It is more accurate to say that inside the kingdom of God there is only acceptance.
[Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, pp. 18, 54 f.]
Setting aside the later and well-studied efforts of the church to confound the teachings of a great, and very human Master with the eternal nature of transcendent divinity, the suggestion here is that the historical Jesus may have wrestled with the Angel of Forgiveness over the social and psychological implications of circumstances sur-rounding his birth. His mother Mary thus may have appeared to him very much in the same role as that of a Devouring Ghost for a Malekulan, or as a Sibyl from the classical world, guarding the gateway to the great Cave, with Forgiveness as his passport to the World Beyond.
We should set aside, first, the Christmas legend. We don't have to eliminate it; it is beautiful and has its place; but we should realize that it is a fairy tale and, though it is suffused with the joyful spirit of Jesus, tells us nothing about his actual birth....The first thing we ought to realize about Jesus's life is that he grew up as an illegitimate child....If an angel appeared, he appeared only to Mary, and she was unmarried, and her too- early pregnancy was a scandal to the whole village. There would have been no corroboration of the miracle, no protection. She would have been exposed to the contempt of her neighbors, and not only for six months after her swollen belly became visible--she would have had to eat derision and insult with her daily bread for as long as she lived....For most people, and for Christians who don't accept the virginal conception literally but see it as a pious legend and metaphor, the evidence of Jesus' illegitimacy is fairly clear....
[Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus, pp. 18 ff. Mitchell notes that the matter has been studied in great detail by contemporary scholars, the most exhaustive treatment being, Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, Harper and Row (1987).]
This issue involves both the notion of the Immaculate Conception by the Virgin Mary, and the theologically distinct issue of the Virgin Birth, that is, delivery of the child without rupture of the hymen. This says nothing of the separate belief concerning the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary herself by St. Anne--about which Early Christian documents are mute--and which, without the dogmatic stop put to logic by the Papal Bull, might lead to an infinite regression in search of suitably divine vehicles. Because of the strong patrilineal emphasis in Jewish tradition, a peculiar feature in the genealogy of Jesus given at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel is the mention of four women, in addition to Mary (while Luke's Gospel mentions none):
they are Tamar, whose children were born of incest; Rahab, the madam of a brothel; Ruth, a non-Israelite, who got hEr second husband by solicitation, if not fornication, and so became the great-grandmother of David; and Bathsheba ("the wife of Uriah"), whose relations with David began in adultery, though she became the mother of Solomon. That the author of a genealogy for a Messiah should have chosen to mention only these four women requires an explanation. the most likely one is that Matthew wanted to excuse Mary by these implied analogies.
[Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, Harper and Row (1968), pp. 26 ff. cited by Mitchell, p. 22 f, with an extensive note pp. 78 ff.]
Insofar as the figure of Jesus may be interpreted symbolically, as an illustration, say, of a mythological type, or as an archetypal manifestation of the psyche, his maternal lineage emblematically and inevitably links him with all those other victims sacrificed to the Great Mother Goddess, whether she be called Cybele, Kali, Artemis or Pasiphaë, She who not only shines for all, but who also eats Her own children. In this territory we should be mindful of distinctions respectfully drawn between the realms eternal and sublunar, for then we may interpret the figure of Jesus with all the empathy and compassion we can find in our hearts for another human being.
As for the social effects on a young child: growing up with the shame of being called a bastard...in the ancient world, both Jewish and Roman, illegitimacy was considered one of the most shameful of human conditions. The central bibilcal text is Deuteronomy 23:3 "No mamzer shall enter the assembly of YHVH, even to the tenth generation" (mamzer is usually translated as "bastard," and interpreted as "the child of an adulterous union") ....This was by no means only a Jewish attitude; the contempt for illegitimate children was just as strong among Gentiles....For people living in the first century, then, whether they were Jews, pagans, or Christians, it was inconceivable that an illegitimate child could grow up to be a decent man, much less a prophet or a great spiritual teacher. They didn't have a category for that. Most people still don't.
I don't think that we can fully appreciate who Jesus became unless we realize the overwhelming difficulties he must have had as an illegitimate child in a small provincial town, which one has to assume was fairly harsh and moralistic when it dealt with such matters. Mary may have been the most loving of mothers, and Jesus himself was no doubt an unusually gifted and joyful child; but even so, the atmosphere of public contempt and derision must have felt like a continual attack on his soul. When we imagine such a beginning, our admiration for him can only increase.
[Mitchell, The Gospel According to Jesus,pp. 24 ff., 27.]
Among the Celtic peoples in early Britain and Ireland, the Great Goddess of triple form was called Brighid, later nominally identified with the Christian St. Brigit of Kildare--or, in her larger person, with the Virgin Mary. In unbroken continuity with the Celtic heritage, "Brighid" was revered as the ruling spirit of wells and springs, and so, as the Mother of Life. Her icon at Chartres, for example, was the Black Virgin, the deity of the Sacred Well, directly above which is the true location for the high altar. Veneration of the essentially Neolithic, emblematically female spirit, in the form associated with the historical figure of the mother of Jesus, led to major liturgical and doctrinal disagreements with the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Whatever confusions may have abounded in the medieval church about the nature, the gender, the historic roots, or the manifest tokens of the divinity to be enshrined and worshipped, the modern church carefully distinguishes the "veneration" of the Virgin Mary, Notre Dame, since worship is understood as being appropriate only for God. The verb "to venerate," of course, comes from the goddess Venus.
Related issues of divinity and humanity were invloved in seemingly interminable christological disputes of the Early Christian church councils and synods about the nature of the Unity and the Trinity, and particularly about the respective components of divinity and humanity present in the person of Jesus. By placing Mary on a pedestal of veneration, it became possible to reinstitute the otherwise irrelevant old patriarchal notions of a wrathful deity, insinuating vengeance, hellfire and damnation into what then was held out to be the true New Testament of Jesus. Among the Celts, the tradition holding most powerful sway regarded Jesus as a Master teacher, an extraordinary and very great teacher to be sure, but nonetheless human. This doctrine was associated with the Arian "heresy," declared to be anathema by the Council of Nicea in AD 325. The problem had been raised before by the Donatists of North Africa, who believed the efficacy of the sacrament depended upon the sanctity or spiritual state of the person performing it, whereas the orthodox position held the sacraments were sacred in themselves. A source for both the Arian and the Donatist "heresies," and for a related current within Celtic Christianity, can be found in
the Cappadocian-Syrian school of Antioch, where Christ's humanity was stressed: represented chiefly by the great heresiarch Nestorius, who would be condemned by St. Cyril and destroyed...[but who] in the year 428...became the bishop of Constantinople. Trained at Antioch, where the doctrine of the reality of Christ's human nature was argued, the new bishop of the Second Rome proposed that Mary had not been the mother of God (theotokos), but only the mother of Christ's human nature. "I cannot speak of God as being two or three months old," he is reported to have said; and again: "Well, anyhow, don't make the Virgin a goddess!"
Theodosius II [the Byzantine Emperor] summoned a Council in the year 431 at Ephesus, which happened to be the city in Asia Minor that, for millenniums before the Christian era, had been the chief temple site of the great Asian goddess Artemis, mother of the world and of the ever-dying resurrected god. We can reasonably assume that her lingering influence, no less than that of the virginal matriarchs of the palace [the pious and politically powerful sisters of the Emperor in Constantinople] worked upon the counsels of the bishops there assembled. For it was there that the Virgin Mother was declared to be theotokos, the Mother of God--five days before the delegates from Antioch arrived. Nestorius had refused to attend. He was condemned and deprived of his see. Together with the Antioch group, however, he held a council of his own, condemning Cyril, but in the end was forced to acquiesce. And in exile, in the desert of Egypt, he finally was slain, by the hand, apparently, of a great (sic!) and well-known desert monk, Senuti.
[Campbell, Occidental Mythology, pp. 386, 389, 409 ff. The Nestorian tradition, however, continued richly interacting with various Asian religions along the silk route, and with Celts in the British Isles.]
The abstract, philosophical crisis occasioned by the counter-council of Nestorius, will have occurred in the year AD 432, the same in which Patrick was to have driven out "snakes" from Ireland. Having already suggested their real nature as manifestations of kundalini energy, we may now better appreciate the significance of the means by which one was to arrive at an appropriately sacramental spiritual state of being. The essential lesson seems to have been that any sufficiently motivated human being with proper instruction can learn--and with correctly guided practice, master--an exercise by which one can transcend constraints of the psyche and other manifold worldly limitations, thereby opening oneself to receive, by the Grace of God, a gleam of enlightenment. It was not any badge of office conferred by other institutions-- however presumptuously selfrighteous--of human beings, but the clear, open, receptive quality of this experience--however attained, and beyond all dialectics or judgments--that defined the spiritual state of being most appropriate to the sacraments.
In our process of unravelling the various lines of speculation and discussion about With Hidden Noise, Marcel Duchamp's ingenious and disingenuous, crafty and cunning piece of sculpture that contains the wound, renowned ball of twine, we have sought to follow one of the basic principles for untying knots and untangling strings.
To untangle anything stringlike keep pulling the mess outward, making it larger and looser until the loops untangle themselves. This is your only hope of success.
[Kevin Kelly, Athens, Georgia. Cited by Tom Parker, Rules of Thumb, Houghton Mifflin, Boston (1983), No. 425, p 67.]
THE ROPE TRICK
Believe it or not, a Mountain View, California father and his young daughter were out flying a 12-foot kite in the winds of March, 1988. Dad had just handed over the 200-pound-test line to the 73-pound girl, and was eating a piece of fried chicken, when he saw a plane heading for the kite and "he spun around to see an empty hill as a dark shadow passed over his head."
Following her father's admonition to hold tight to the string of her kite,[the] 8-year-old girl was swept into the air for a brief and terrifying treetop ride after the kite was snagged by[the] low flying plane.
"I was super scared," said De Andra (Andi) Anrig...."As soon as I got to the hill with the kite, my hair blew in front of my face. I wiped it away. Then my feet were off the ground, and I was flying." She was deadpan when she said, "I was the first one to notice I was up in the air."
Little Andi soared ten feet off the ground and was towed 200 feet in the air across the city park, finally letting go and tumbling safely to the ground when she realized she was about to hit some trees. For the tourists in San Francisco, Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum is enshrining the kite that helped to lift the girl into the air after the plane's propeller snagged its string.
[San Francisco Chronicle (March 23, 1988 and April 27, 1988).]
The standard version of the trick in the annals of mystic lore, however, has the child ascending the string or rope, and the blades of the propeller (or the shaman's knife) slicing the body up into bloody bits. But then--usually after the bones have been gathered up--all is miraculously restored once again to wholeness. Mircea Eliade, in his sometimes very useful book on Shamanism, in a chapter devoted to "Shamanic Symbolism and Techniques in Tibet, China and the Far East," in the initial section on "Buddhism, Tantraism, Lamaism," presents a discussion of this amazing piece of magic theater known as the Indian rope trick. The locus classicus for this fabled illusion is a story about the Buddha, himself:
When, after his Illumination, the Buddha returned for the first time to his native city, Kapilavastu, he exhibited several "miraculous powers." To convince his relatives of his spiritual capacities and prepare them for conversion, he rose into the air, cut his body to pieces, let his head and limbs fall to the ground, then joined them together again before the amazed eyes of the spectators. This miracle is described even by Avaghoa[in the Buddhacarita, vv. 1551 ff.], but it is so essentially a part of the Indian tradition of magic that it has become the typical prodigy of fakirism. The famous rope trick of the fakirs creates the illusion that a rope rises very high into the sky; the master makes a young disciple climb it until he disappears from view. The fakir then throws his knife into the air, and the lad's limbs fall to the ground one after the other.
This rope trick has a long history in India, and is to be compared with two shamanic rites--the future shaman's initiatory dismemberment by "demons" and the shamanic ascent into the sky. The "initiatory dreams" of the Siberian shamans will be recalled: the candidate witnesses the dismemberment of his own body by the ancestral or evil spirits. But then his bones are put together again and fastened with iron, his flesh is renewed, and, on returning to life, the future shaman has a "new body" that enables him to gash his flesh with knives, run swords through himself, touch white hot iron, and so forth. It is remarkable that the Indian fakirs are reputed to perform the same miracles.
In the rope trick they, as it were, subject their assistants to the "initiatory dismemberment" that their Siberian colleagues experience in dreams. In addition, although the rope trick has become a specialty of Indian fakirism, it is also found in places as distant as China, Java, ancient Mexico and medieval Europe.
[Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask, originally published as Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaques de l'extase, Librairie Payot, Paris (1951), Bollingen Series LXXVI, Pantheon Books (1964), pp. 428 ff. Eliade also refers us to his volume, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, translated by Willard R. Trask from the original French Le Yoga. Immortalit et Libert, Librairie Payot, Paris (1954), Bollingen Series LVI, Princeton University Press (second edition, 1969), pp. 321 ff., where he repeats two paragraphs identically in his text. See also by Eliade, "Remarques sur le `rope trick,'" in Culture and History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, edited by Stanley Diamond, New York (1960), pp. 541-551.]
A Moroccan traveller the fourteenth century named Ibn Batutah, who is justly renowned in Arabic letters as a chronicler of the world's wonders, recorded a very complete version of the famous rope trick that he claims to have witnessed in China. The tale is passed along by Professor Eliade in the form of an extensive note:
(A juggler) took a wooden ball, with several holes in it through which long ropes were passed, and, laying hold of one of these, slung it into the air. It went so high that we lost sight of it altogether. There now remained only a little of the end of a thong in the conjurer's hand, and he desired one of the boys who assisted him to lay hold of it and to mount. He did so, climbing by the rope, and we lost sight of him also. The conjurer then called to him three times, but getting no answer, he snatched up a knife as if in a great rage, laid hold of the thong, and disappeared also. Bye and bye he threw down one of the boy's hands, then a foot, then the other hand and the other foot, the the trunk and last of all the head. Then he came down himself all huffing and panting, and with his clothes all bloody...the Amir gave him some order...and our friend then took the lad's limbs, laid them together in their places and gave them a kick, when. presto, there was the boy who got up and stood before us. All this astonished me beyond measure.
[Eliade, Shamanism, p. 429, n. 3.]
A major part of the contemporary game of scholarly writing lies in citing sources, weaving the accounts of information like various strands of a complex textile. We may remind ourselves that the words for text and textile come from the same Indo-European root teks, meaning to weave, while the term used to indicate the sacred Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, sutra in Sanskrit, is also the word for thread, and comes from the Indo-European syu, also cognate with the English words "suture" and "to sew." Accordingly, in conventional, exoteric, academic practice, the preferred way to pursue the true meaning of the rope trick--an example of which Mircea Eliade's work may (or may not) provide--would be to follow the thread of references, tracking the story all the way back--if not to the original event, then to some authentic instance: ideally, to a real experience. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, "The real is only the basis. But it is the basis."
Professor Eliade credits the translation of the Ibn Battuta story into English by Edward Conze, Buddhism, Its Essence and Development, New York (1951), p. 174., which in turn was made from the Arabic to French in the work of Charles Franois Defrmery and B. R. Sanguinetti, translators and editors, Voyages d'Ibn Batoutah, Paris (1853-1879), Volume IV, pp. 291-292. There are, of course, further scholarly questions relating to the textual sources, both the later Arabic editions that might have been used by the French savants, and source manuscripts in fourteenth century Maghribi Arabic. Ibn Battuta was one of the world's greatest travellers and story-tellers, so all of this may actually turn out to be not much more than passing along the legend of the rope trick from one story-teller to another, as the accounts are translated from language to language, down through the centuries. And, just as in the instructive campfire exercise about mutations in the form and content of a message being passed around a circle, we have scant ways of telling with any degree of detail and precision, nor with any great confidence, what objective evidence may actually derive from a genuine performance of the trick.
In one lineage of the legend, the text by Eliade refers to a study (in German) of Indian fakirs by Jacoby who, in turn, quotes E. Melton, who saw it in Batavia (now Jakarta) in seventeenth century Java. Eliade says that Bernardino de Sahagán attests the phenomenon in Mexico, described in almost identical terms. Because of their dates, however, neither of these two sources promise fresher or more direct evidence than the Ibn Battuta story from the voyage "as far as China."
[Adolf Jacoby, "Zum Zerstückelungs-und Wiederblebungswunder der indischen Fakire," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, Leipzig, XVII (1914), pp. 460 ff. The Sahagán reference is presumably to his Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espaa, Mexico (1829-1839), although Eliade credits the citation of Edward Seler, "Zauberei im alten Mexiko," Globus, LXXVIII, 6 (August 11, 1900), p. 84 f., reprinted in his Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur amerikanischen Sprach-und Alterthumskunde, Berlin (1902-1913), Volume 2. For Sahagn, see the translation by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble consisting of 13 parts in 9 volumes (Monographs of the School of American Research 14), Santa Fe (1950-1959).]
As for Europe, numerous texts, at least from the thirteenth century on, mention the very same prodigies, performed by sorcerers and magicians, who also possessed the power to fly and to make themselves invisible, exactly like the shamans and yogins. (It is still difficult to decide definitely whether the rope trick of the European sorcerers is due to an influence from Oriental magic or derives from local shamanic techniques. The fact that, on the one hand, the rope trick is attested in Mexico and, on the other, the magical dismemberment of the sorcerer is also found in Australia, Indonesia and South America leads us to believe that in Europe it may well be a matter of a survival of local pre-Indo-European magical techniques....)
The rope trick of the fakirs is only a spectacular variant of the shaman's celestial ascent; the latter is always symbolic, for the shaman's body does not disappear and the journey takes place "in the spirit." But the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder, necessarily implies communication between sky and earth. It is by means of a rope or ladder (as, too, by a vine, a bridge, a chain of arrows, etc.) that the gods descend to earth and men go up to the sky. This is an archaic and widespread tradition, found both in India and Tibet....
[Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 428-430. Eliade garnered most of this information from Guiseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Rome (1949), Volume 2, pp. 733 ff. His intriguing references to pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon- po traditions (see, R. A. Stein, p. 431, n. 9) do not check out in the edition (1968 printing) of Jäschke's. To be sure, looking up words in a Tibetan dictionary does not involve quite the same straightforward process as using an English dictionary; our guess is that Eliade didn't even try. Also cited is Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, New York (1943), p. 83, n. 269]
Rogan P. Taylor also passes along the story--which he gleaned from Eliade--in his study of the deep origins of rock 'n' roll titled The Death and Resurrection Show. He adds his own astute note on the long rope by which the shaman is assisted, that may represent, among other things, the magical tradition itself, and further speculates:
If the rope were made of hemp, which was extremely likely, it may well also serve as an indirect allusion to the use of a power-plant to encourage "ascent."
[Rogan P. Taylor, The Death and Resurrection Show: From Shaman to Superstar, Anthony Blond, London (1985), p. 34 f.]
However, this is not an idea that finds favor with Eliade, a Professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, reluctant to acknowledge any importance in his field of research for hemp or other psychotropic substances--which he insists upon calling "toxins." A continuing and obvious source of discomfort, narcotics, for the Professor, are only a vulgar substitute for "pure" trance, so he draws the patronizing and very problematical conclusion that
the use of intoxicants (alcohol, tobacco, etc.) is a recent innovation and points to a decadance in shamanic technique....Narcotic intoxication is called upon to provide an imitation[Eliade's emphasis] of a state that the shaman is no longer capable of obtaining otherwise. Decadence or (must we add?) vulgarization of a mystical technique--in ancient and modern India, and indeed all through the East, we constantly find this strange mixture of "difficult ways" and "easy ways" of realizing mystical ecstasy or some other decisive experience.
[Eliade, Shamanism, p. 401. The parenthetical remarks are his.]
The issue of very ancient, certainly authentic use of psychotropic mushrooms in several parts of the world has been addressed in a brilliant series of ethno-mycological studies by R. Gordon Wasson and colleagues. Specifically, Mr. Wasson provides a detailed rebuttal to those passages from Eliade's work in which mushrooms are discussed.
There is every reason to think that the inebriating mushroom in its religious rle is millennia old, long outdating the emigration of the Aryans to the Iranian plateau....(T)here is valid linguistic evidence that the use of inebriating mushrooms in Siberia goes back to the Uralic period, at a time when the Ob-Ugrian and the Samoyed languages had not yet evolved out of their mother Uralic tongue, more than 6000 years ago.
His[Eliade's] preference on moral grounds for other techniques to attain ecstasy has affected his critical faculty when we discuss what is purely an historical question: how old is mushroom inebriation?
We know incomparably more about the world of psychotropic drugs than was known even as late as 1951, when Professor Eliade's work on shamanism was first published. The abuses of these drugs by unbalanced or childish people that are reported in the press do not speak for their use. The West is on the threshold of penetrating their secrets. There is an unexplored world there before us and we should not prejudge it.
[R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, (Ethno-mycological Studies No. 1), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York (1968), pp. 331, 328, 333. See also pp. 165 ff. Prior to publishing Soma, Wasson wrote, with Valentina P. Wasson his wife, Mushrooms, Russia and History, Pantheon Books, New York (1957). He also collabor-ated with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD, and Carl A. P. Ruck, a classical scholar specializing in ethnobotany, to write The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, and in the same series of Ethno-mycological Studies, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica, dedicated to Roger Heim (1900-1979), First among Mycologists of his Time, Président, Académie des Sciences: 1963, Directeur, Musum National d'Histoire Naturelle: 1951-1965. For an updated critique of Wasson's theories--though with problematical conclusions, see McKenna, Food of the Gods, pp. 105 ff.]
If the academic professors of religion, et cetera, ever try a mushroom experience as Mr. Wasson (the scholarly corporate executive) actually has done, they might write about it with more empathy, respect, and understanding. There are, in this field anyway, decided drawbacks to methodological dependence upon the rigidly exoteric, academic mode in which interactive ignorance is offered as a sop to the vicissitudes of social conformity or as a rationalizing substitute for real knowledge based on actual experience. Newly sensitive studies could help to overcome the benighted, puritanical academic hysteria about the subject matter of psychoactive substances themselves, exacerbated by the current mean and politically motivated "anti-drug" hypocrisy. However, some good work has been done. In addition to the publications of Wasson, outstanding instances are provided by Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann, Andrew Weil, Alexander Shulgin, Terence McKenna, and other sometimes heroically honest writers. While valuable, traditional knowledge about psychotropics remains alive, principaled scholarship would seem to mandate objective, empathetic field participation, in the empirical tradition of applied scientific methods, to explore one of humankind's and the world's great secrets.
All over the world, wherever anthropologists have been making their way, they have been finding the native peoples utilizing as shamanic inebriants natural plant products. With astonishing resourcefulness untutored folk, or rather their herbalists, in ages past discovered these "drugs," as we call them, and how best to prepare them for magico-religious ends. The plants themselves and the methods of treating them are often secrets of the shaman, not to be had for the asking....The inebriants used in food-gathering communities seem to be myriad, their use going back to prehistory. Each represents a problem to our biochemists and pharmacologists, whose abilities are taxed to isolate the active ingredients, to describe their molecular structure, to synthesize them, and to explore their potentialities.
[Wasson, Soma, p. 333.]
Very much in this spirit, Terence McKenna has discovered in his profound study of plants and their manifold interactions with human culture, a powerful key to understanding the development of language, and the refinement of our perceptual senses, as well as to heightened intelligence and the formation of certain cultural institutions themselves. An awareness of and respect for these common roots of human culture in one of animalia's collateral kingdoms may contribute to a new Archaic Revival in which plants could serve as exemplary process models of "symbiotic connectedness and efficient resource recycling and management."
Our present global crisis is more profound than any previous historical crises; hence our solutions must be more drastic. Plants and a renewal of our Archaic relationship with plants could serve as the organizational model for life in the twenty-first century, just as the computer operates as the dominant model of the late twentieth century.
If we acknowledge that the Archaic Revival will be a paradigm transformation and that we really can create a caring, refeminized, ecosensitive world by going back to very old models, then we must admit that more than political exhortation will be needed. To be effective, the Archaic Revival must rest on an experience that shakes each and every one of us to our very roots. The experience must be real, generalized, and discussable.
We can then begin this restructuring of thought by declaring legitimate what we have denied for so long. Let us declare Nature to be legitimate. The notion of illegal plants is obnoxious and ridiculous in the first place.
[McKenna, Food of the Gods, p. 97 f.]