Beware of any article published in the first issue of the first volume of a new scholarly journal.

Scholars and researchers are not going to risk placing their breakthrough career-making articles in an untried journal that may, within a few issues, sink into oblivion. Rather, they often see the newly founded journal as a place to publish pieces that they had previously tossed into a drawer, in order to get the article out of the drawer and onto their curriculum vitae.

Benny Shanon

I think this may be what happened with Benny Shanon’s article Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis, which appeared in issue one of volume one of a new journal called Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture. Shanon is a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, best known for his well-received book Antipodes of the Mind, a comprehensive phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience in the Santo Daime church. His article on Biblical entheogens is clearly labeled, in both the title and the abstract, as a “speculative hypothesis,” and bears every sign of being the sort of article a respected researcher will pull out of a drawer and send off to a new journal.

It is probably also true that Shanon was taken aback at the kerfuffle that ensued. Newspaper headlines were unkind to his hypothesis. High on Mount Sinai?, asked the Reuters News Agency. Moses was stoned when he set Ten Commandments, researcher claims, said The Guardian. Moses was high on drugs: Israeli researcher, said Breitbart. Hebrew University researcher: Moses was tripping at Mount Sinai, said the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Part of the interest was no doubt due to the novelty of the claim itself, but part may also have been due to the fact that such a transgressive claim was made by an Israeli — and presumably Jewish — researcher.

And the claim is, in fact, a very weak one. Shanon is speculating that the experience of the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai was the result of ingesting a mixture of two plants that constituted an ayahuasca analogue — an Acacia species to supply the hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine, and Syrian rue, Peganum harmala, to supply the MAO-inhibiting β-carbolines that allowed the dimethyltryptamine to be orally effective. Such plants were presumably available to the Hebrews at the time, but the argument for their use is based entirely on analogy. There is simply no evidence that such plants were ever actually used in the way Shanon describes.

Archeologist Thaddeus Nelson, in his blog on archeology and pseudoscience, Archaeoporn, has a lengthy critique of Shanon’s hypothesis, which is worth a careful read. He concludes that

there is no chemical analysis or archaeobotanical evidence to suggest Shanon’s entheogens theory. Shanon also fails to explain why we should not expect that these supernatural events which fit so well within the Near Eastern traditions we know of, must be the effects of entheogens, and not just mythic beliefs…. I certainly do not mean to say that there is no possibility that the Israelites used entheogens, but that there is at present no archaeological evidence and textual evidence is questionable at best.

What I find most problematic, however, is that Shanon argues his claim as one of exclusion. Shanon writes:

As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don’t believe, or a legend, which I don’t believe either, or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics.

What this means is that Shanon is ideologically committed to the idea that the encounter on Sinai actually happened, since it is not a legend; but, since he is a secularist, that there must be a naturalistic explanation for it, which of course could only be that the participants were under the influence of a hallucinogen. I am reminded of Immanuel Velikovsky, who also believed in the literal truth of the events described in the Bible, and, as a naturalist, invented a series of global natural catastrophes to account for them — for example, that the sun standing still at Jericho could be explained by the close passage of a comet that then settled into orbit as the planet Venus.

What such explanations have in common — and here I include the whole complex of theories that see the origins of human religiosity in the use of psychoactive plants and fungi — is a distrust for the innate spiritual creativity of human beings. We need to be believers in neither theism nor hallucinogens to account for the story — whether myth or history — that Moses had an experience that the Hebrew tradition characterized as meeting God. There is every reason to believe that human beings can have such transcendent experiences all by themselves.

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10 Responses to “Moses and Ayahuasca”

  1. David Mendoza says:

    I have spent a little time in deserts, including the Sinai. I think the emptiness and the majesty of the extremes can help open people to spiritual experience without any substance abuse.

    Part of the Havdalah ritual at the end of the Jewish Sabbath is to inhale fragrant spices. Maybe that has an older origin.

    There is an interesting book, “The Magic of the Ordinary” by Gershon Winkler, a former orthodox rabbi, which seeks to recover the shamanic roots of Judaism. He has a website at http://www.walkingstick.org/

  2. Steve Beyer says:

    Thank you for the book reference, and especially the thought about the Havdalah ceremony. I have done vision fasts in Death Valley, and I agree with you completely: there is something about the desert that cleanses and opens the heart to the great mystery. The use of sacred plants certainly can be part of powerful spiritual traditions, but powerful spiritual traditions can certainly grow without it.

  3. David Mendoza says:

    Sorry, I was in such a hurry this morning that I forgot to say thanks for the blog. Only recently found you. My really enjoying it.

    David

  4. Fred Smith says:

    I have also spent a lot of time in the desert and can also testify to it’s awe inspiring powers. But whaat I want to mention is that Shanon’s thesis here reminds me of a theory proposed in a few articles in the early 1980s that deity or spirit possession, particularly by women, was due to a deficiency in calcium. This theory is now wholly discredited. But it brings up the point that overdependence on scientific or naturalistic explanations for spiritual experience, or even experience that is thoroughly psychological in origin, can be completely off the mark. This is not to argue against the fact of physical resonances to psycholigal or spiritual states; certainly these are beyond doubt. I would venture to guess that Shanon was suffering from a particularly feral hyper-positivist state when he wrote this – and yes published it in a new journal. What’s your sense, Steve, of his book (which I have, but have not yet studied thoroughly)?

  5. Nathan H says:

    I’ve read Benny’s book & am quite fond of it. I think he went out on a limb with the article and its hypothesis, but the book is more conservative; it’s a deeply detailed catalog of the kinds of experiences and visions which ayahuasca drinkers experience, and it discusses them in terms of their relevance to the field of cognitive psychology, i.e., in terms of what they can tell us about the human mind.

    There’s no reason why Benny’s hypothesis should be ruled out; however, I have a crank hypothesis of my own, which lies in territory somewhere between Benny’s hypothesis and Steve’s. My impression is that the revelation at Mount Sinai–if it did really happen, which of course is not a given–was caused by a collective overproduction of DMT by the brains of the people present. (DMT being the vision-inducing molecule in ayahuasca which is naturally produced in trace amounts by the human body.)

    Let me approach what I’m saying from two directions. First, the !Kung of the Kalahari do a trance dance whose phenomenology is virtually identical to the ayahuasca trance. The shamans see inside people, pull sicknesses out with their hands or by sucking, sing, travel outside their bodies and go see God, and even are said to transform themselves into lions, as jungle shamans are said to transform themselves into jaguars. That suggests to me that the dance could be a way to generate a larger than normal dose of DMT all by oneself.

    Second, it seems to me that two or three thousand years ago, there really might have been a higher level of DMT in people’s brains. Or it could have shot up more often. That would go a long way toward explaining the more frequent substance-free spiritual experiences of the people back then. And myths, and legends, and the druids, and encounters with faeries, and all sorts of good and bad witchcraft. Since those times, as we’ve focused more on the material world, it may have become less necessary for us to enter trances.

    The origin of the holiday of Pentecost, as per Wikipedia: “On the day of Pentecost all the Lord’s followers were together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there. The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.” That sounds to me like a spontaneous, collective DMT experience. You know what I mean? I can picture the scene, because I’ve seen things like it on ayahuasca.

  6. glyph says:

    the Pentecost as described is, to be sure, an entheogenic experience. techniques of ecstatic trance go far beyond exogenous substances. In actuality, the entheogens are one of the safer and less invasive routes to gnosis. These types of trance states, the gnosis, or insight derived from them, attained and translated by individuals and collectives of sages and mystics are the raw material for all of our world religious traditions. The whole of the Yogic tradition, Shamanic practices from all parts of the globe, and most esoteric traditions use practices, rituals, techniques etc. that are based around the same mechanism of interruption of the causal reality apparent. The research has been done, assumptions proved and disproved, discernment has been applied to the ancient texts and traditions, there is little doubt at this point, once one has assembled these findings and has dug deep enough into comparative religion, mysticism…
    in the Christian tradition the ‘recipe’ of the anointing oil of the Chrism, which is held in esoteric tradition the original pentecostal ritual of Jesus being inspired with the Christ impulse (therefore making him the Christ), is biblically documented, and is a quite potent admixture of, among a few other elements, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing Cassia as well as Kaneh’ bosm, widely known today as Cannabis. this is one example of many, it’s strange to me, the difficulty people in western cultures have such a hard time with externals like substances in relation to spiritual experience. i think it is a matter of association in part, to what cultures are seen today as less developed or primitive even. Another large factor that is less spoken of is that in the enthogenic experience there is ‘no faking it’. There is an experiencing of one’s self that for most folks with maligned intent and spiritual inequity have no recourse to make justifications and excuses, when, as per usual, things could be written off based on intentional misinterpretations of doctrine, as this has been a method of reducing and trivializing the individual’s spiritual experience. The Church loses it’s earthly power and influence, no longer able to ‘contain’ man’s consciousness. Within much religious practice, there is room for much contrivance, the entheogenic experience can eliminate this. The essential gain in the entheogenic experience is ability to know, and therefore not need to be told of things such as our relationship to Diety, what we are, what we are doing, why we are… these are all truths that exist, in original form, in the depths of each of our individual personalities. We do know right from wrong, without a system of law to tell us what is. Is this not the origin of our humanity, the story of ‘the fall’? Is it not the gaining of this knowledge of good and evil the initiating event that lead us to the situation we are in? This is the crux. We know, individually, we do not need to depend on anything external for our sense of right and wrong. Moral systems, later, sytems of law, written and manipulated to the gain of one and the loss of another, can only lead to the confusion of our inherent knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil. can we not tell the day from night, black from white? Most dis-information is exactly opposite of what is true, otherwise it is partial truth missing the crucial content. In this way it ‘computes’ but in an inverse or incomplete way. In personal integrity, personal honesty, we know that when we cause harm to others, things like ‘mental reservation’ and justifications based on distorted interpretations of old doctrine as mentioned earlier have become extremely prolific. when, reduced to the experience of the immediate present, with no escape, we find all of our secret falsehoods that we have been given and many that we have created ourselves on prompt from our upbringing.
    In short, I believe the entheogens are intimidating because the immediacy of reality is inescapable in the absolute encounter with one’s self, the flashing of one’s life before their eyes, like the moment of death, the reckoning. That is what role these mystic traditions serve, the ‘little death’ is a way of knowing exactly where you are in relation to Diety and self, no fantasy or contrivance, which many people who consider themselves spiritual thrive on.
    Contrary as it seems, I am far from alone in understanding this as a more accurate view on these matter than is widely spoken of.
    Feedback, negative and positive is welcome, we can only come to collective truths by distilling and combining our own.

    †In Christo vivimus
    movemur et summusΩ

    • JNChachie says:

      I grew up Christian and would have automatically called any entheogen as something wrong to take. However, after experiencing various entheogens, I have clearer, more profound experiences and connection with Jesus. After my first ayahuasca experience, I thought Moses must have had something similar when talking with a burning bush. While I do believe there are other ways to connect with spirit, entheogens are one powerful way to do so, and in my opinion, much needed today. We are off balance with a materialistic ego-centric paradigm.

  7. glyph says:

    sorry to have gone off topic there. i was responding to elements from several other responses and went on quite a rant. it’s difficult to write about any of this without so much back story, we’ve all got such different and dynamic paradigms, things are so easily misunderstood or unappreciated without everything being connected together. it a big Mosaic, the parts are better understood when the whole is comprehended.

  8. glyph says:

    sorry again for the triple-post, but i guess i should tie some relevancy to my banter. reading again the Genesis account in the KJV, it’s quite apparent that Moses was, by any standards, a shamanic character. Psychopomp in every way, an initiate into a higher order of thought, an intermediary between the Logos and the tribe. the rules concerning the tent, the columb of smoke, the passion for his people, the very words appropriated to him, these and more are all elements of what we know commonly as shamanistic practice. if he was not employing entheogenic substances, the paradigm of the situation is ‘psychedelic’.
    consider this, in this movement of our decent into materiality, emerges, seemingly of it’s own accord, LSD- a material, quantifiable, tangible and quite effective Sacrament, which would point out all of the fault lines of the religious establishment individually and experientially, then, in course, would open the floodgates to the plant medicines and chemistry of mystical experience. it was a decent into matter that initiated what we are, a forgetfulness was necessary for a time, but these ancient truths are written on each of our souls.
    the Mosaic/Genesis story is the pinnacle of an evolving mythos that began in the Vedas of ancient Tibet. The story cycle in the Vedas is like an expanded (exaustingly) version of the tale in Genesis. The archetypes and themes are important. the actual plants involved in the earliest rituals are actually diefied and later encoded into different forms of syntax that would assure the survival of such a crucial wisdom, or more simply, our souls ‘owner’s manual’. in foresight, wise men knew of the patterns, the need for polarities and spiritual development of the whole, knew the failings of man and his inability to remain integral when given a position of authority and responsibility. men have never been able to rule other men. this is not a natural state, it is a state of perpetual tension, causing evolution. the king, god and sovereign have been the themes of our aeon, soon we may have compiled enough collective experience to know what is is to be in accordance with Divine Harmony. lofty sounding, yes, but only because these words are used these days with so much triviality, harmonic relationships are the foundation of the interaction of life in this strange design of ours.

    so… yeah, Moses was, to be sure, experiencing a flood of dimethytryptamine upon Sinai. because we can identify the chemicals, mechanisms, ect… this in no way devalues the Divine quality of the events, or what the tale is attempting to preserve.

    i realized after posting my original post that this was a pretty specific conversation, and i was bringing up all kinds of things that may be commonly understood. forgive me one last time, i’m new to this forum, which is incredible by the way.

  9. AnonJohn says:

    Agree with the last three comments, keep finding myself unsure but Ayahuasca does bring overall good!! It is divination but have we misunderstood the biblical intent/meaning in this regard?


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