What is an Entheogen?

Mary McMahon

An entheogen is a drug which has a history of religious or shamanic use. Most entheogens are hallucinogens, although some are mood-altering substances. Entheogens are all derived from plants and other natural sources, a key difference between entheogens and synthetically compounded drugs. The use of entheogens is controversial in some cultures, primarily out of concern that these drugs can all be used for recreational as well as religious use, making it difficult to determine when someone is using such drugs for religious or personal reasons.

Freedom of religion might protect the right of some individuals to use an otherwise illegal entheogen.
Freedom of religion might protect the right of some individuals to use an otherwise illegal entheogen.

The use of psychoactive substances to communicate with the divine appears to be ancient, judging from archaeological evidence. Many early human cultures used a variety of substances in an attempt to communicate with God or the Gods, and this tradition evolved as human cultures became more complex. Entheogens were most typically taken by priests and shamans, or by groups of religious celebrants at specific festivals and events, and often taboos banned the use of such drugs in a non-religious context.

The fly agaric mushroom is an entheogen.
The fly agaric mushroom is an entheogen.

Some examples of entheogens from around the world include: kava, ayahuasca, peyote, mead, henbane, psilocybin, blue lotus, tobacco, fly agaric, hashish, and cannabis. As can be seen from this list, some entheogens began to be used in a secular context at some point in history. Tobacco, for example, was introduced to Europe by explorers who met Native American tribes who used it, and mead was a common beverage in the medieval era. Other entheogens have become restricted substances in many societies.

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Tobacco, which is commonly found in cigarettes, is an entheogen.
Tobacco, which is commonly found in cigarettes, is an entheogen.

Like other hallucinogens, an entheogen can profoundly alter brain chemistry. The safety of entheogen use is largely dependent on how the drug is grown, harvested, and handled, and the individual levels of mind-altering compounds in the plant. People respond very differently to entheogen use because these drugs cannot be carefully compounded and controlled like their synthetic counterparts, and adverse reactions have been known to occur. Prolonged entheogen use can also have adverse health effects.

Many cultures list entheogens as controlled substances, reflecting the fact that they have no apparent medicinal value, and they can be quite dangerous. In regions where there is a legitimate historic use of entheogens, people from cultures and religions which use these drugs may be allowed to carry and use limited amounts. Especially in regions where religions freedom is valued, the use of entheogens by qualified individuals is protected by law, but penalties for selling the drugs to outsiders can be severe.

Cannabis plants are an entheogen.
Cannabis plants are an entheogen.

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Discussion Comments


Entheogenic drugs work for a intense spiritual experience with god. Trust me.


@KaBoom - I understand your skepticism. I personally don't feel comfortable judging the validity of another person's religious experience. Entheogenic drugs may not be my cup of tea, but if other people consider them an integral part of their religion, that's their prerogative.

I definitely do think there should be harsh penalties for selling the drugs to outsiders to use recreationally. In my opinion, recreational drug use and drug use as part of a religious ceremony are two very different things.


I've always thought this was a really interesting topic. I have a few friends that have tried entheogenic drugs in a religious setting, and they had fairly profound experiences. In their opinions at least.

Part of me can't help but wondering if they were just, well, high. I know I've had some "profound" revelations while drunk before. Of course, when I sobered up I realized it was ridiculous. My friends who tried the entheogens still thought their experience was valid when they came down from the high.

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