Chas S. Clifton
Colorado State University-Pueblo

published in Researching Paganisms: Religious Experiences and Academic Methodologies,
edited by Jenny Blain, Doug Ezzy, and Graham Harvey
Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira Press, 2004


In his book Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America, the historian of religion Robert S. Ellwood, Jr., uses the term excursus religion to describe to describe the practices those who turn away from the dominant religious ideologies of an era. He included among the recurrent markers of American excursus religion "such symbols as meditation, monism, feminine spiritual meditation, and orientation towards a distant and exotic culture," at least three of which (and in some cases all four) of which apply to contemporary American Pagan traditions. For the individual, Ellwood observed,


If emergent religions are the alternative to which those who turn away from established religion of the temple have recourse, their journeys are individual excursions. If the emergent religious tradition has certain unifying themes, and a hidden history which shows continuities among its many manifestations past and present, for each voyager the journey is unique and solitary because it enacts a personal subjective quest. However much both goal and pilgrim path may pre-exist or conform to well-trodden patterns, the experience ordinarily comes to a person conditioned by normative cultural religion as an exursus away from the familiar and toward that which draws just because it is strange, yet in its very strangeness seems to offer a promise of new kinds of self discovery.[1]

Ellwood's book was published in 1979, and I encountered it as a graduate student in religious studies in the mid-1980s. The term excursus resonated with me, because it could easily define a constellation of my own interests. An essay, too, is a sort of excursus, a moving outwards to try out some idea, and in this essay I want to show how that idea connects for me both two areas of scholarship as well as a religious path, one which I must in turn move out from. First, I had entered on the Pagan path in the early 1970s as a solitary pilgrim, not even knowing for certain if there were others like me. Second, as a budding academic, my interest lay not in the established religious traditions with their textual accretions, but in the new religious movements and the ways in which they manipulated symbols, histories, and rhetoric to establish themselves as legitimate--a process further complicated in Wicca's case by its practitioners' ambivalence towards the word "witchcraft," which in turn would produce various strategies (such as the promulgation of alternative etymologies) to simultaneously tame its connotations and exploit its ancient glamour. And third, I had come of age during the Psychedelic Era of the 1960s and 1970s. While too young to have sat at the feet of Timothy Leary, the apostle of LSD (let alone his more urbane forerunners such as Aldous Huxley or Richard Schultes), I had grown up in the shadow of Leary's own exhortation to excursus: "Turn on, tune in, drop out." By age 20 I was well familiar with the "turn on" part, having sampled most of the "psychedelics" available. Whether I was "tuned in" or not is debatable, but I had "dropped out" at intervals, even living briefly in a religious commune.[2] More importantly, my psychedelic experiences had contributed to my rejection of the "religion of the temple," although that process had well begun before the first tablet of LSD crossed my tongue. It was and is possible to "drop out" while still going to work every day.

In fact, my personal "psychedelic era" had ended when my Witchcraft practice began in the mid-1970s. I was even a little astonished to learn that certain friends, such as the late Craft musician Gwydion Pendderwen, had never drawn the same line of separation but had cheerfully continued, at times, to carry out magical ritual under the influence of what I later came to call "entheogens." In fact, as national Pagan festival scene blossomed around 1980, not long before his death, he traveled to several and led what he called "the Faerie shaman" ritual, an ingestion of LSD (which he sold) combined with invocations and meditations to establish the participants' mind set before they went their individual ways. Nevertheless, my earlier experience with entheogens would have two lasting effects. In a practical sense, when I returned to the hands-on examination of some of the plants associated with traditional witchcraft, I had those experiences to draw on, rather than being a completely uninstructed neophyte. Secondly, my earlier experiences, particularly with LSD, had done much to break down such distinctions as "sacred" and "secular," "nature" and "culture." I could never go meekly into "the temple" again.

Then, after about a decade in the Craft, I made the decision to switch professions from journalism to academia, and the new perspectives and intellectual habits gained from that experience would in turn both set me at odds with some of my co-religionists (as happens so often in other faiths as well!) and place me in another liminal position, on the border between the world of scholarship and the world of witchcraft. Finally, I would learn that my interest in exploring the connections between entheogens, shamanism, and witchcraft also would not be universally welcomed by other Pagans, particularly some of those involved in interfaith councils and others having a vested interest in presenting outsiders with a conventional and nonthreatening version of our religion.

My initial separation of the two realms of the Craft and Psychedelia (a position that I have since abandoned) and Gwydion Pendderwen's integration of the them might exemplify two attitudes towards the interplay of magical religion and entheogens. The first is the position often found in the works of such writers as Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith, who argued that certain kinds of mystical experience, with or without the aid of entheogens, were phenomenologically identical. Given a person's description of his or her mystical experience, an outsider could not tell the difference. Smith, in fact put that assertion to the test (as did the psychologist Lawrence LeShan. During a period of the 1960s when Smith was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where Huxley was briefly a visiting professor, Smith "took accounts of classical mystical experiences and intermingled them with descriptions that [Timothy] Leary's subjects [in LSD and psilocybin experiments at Harvard] provided and asked knowledgeable judges to separate them into their original piles. They were unable to do so."[3] But the corollary of that identity was summed up by Smith in the phrase, "altered traits, not altered states," which he borrowed from psychologist Robert Ornstein; in other words, there was much more to a person's life than peak experiences. "Experiences come and go, whereas it is life's sustained quality that count."[4]

In his book Cleansing the Doors of Perception, which collects his writings on entheogens from the 1960s through 2000, Smith adopted the term "entheogens" where before he had used "psychedelic drugs." The term "entheogen" was birthed by a group of researchers including Jonathan Ott, R. Gordon Wasson, and Carl A.P. Ruck. Ott commented, "As we know from personal experience that shamanic inebriants do not provoke ‘hallucinations' or ‘psychosis,' and feel it incongruous to refer to traditional shamanic use of psychedelic plants (that word, pejorative for many, referring invariable to sixties' western drug use), we coined this new term in 1979. . . . The term is not meant to specify a pharmacological class of drugs . . . rather, it designates drugs which provoke ecstasy and have traditionally been used as shamanic or religious inebriants, as well as their active principles and artificial congeners."[5] In other words, the term "entheogen" is a definition based on context rather than on chemistry.

This first attitude towards entheogens, then, is that they are a foretaste of paradise, an opening of the door of mysticism which must, however, been kept open by other forms of spiritual practice. In The Doors of Perception, which summarized his thinking in the early 1950s, Huxley reflects,

I am not so foolish as to equate what happens under the influence of mescalin or of any other drug, prepared or in the future preparable, with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment, the Beatific Vision. All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call ‘a gratuitous grace,' not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully, if made available. To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large--this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.[6]


Thus the title of Huxley's book, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."

Huston Smith and many of my colleagues in religious studies would probably be comfortable with this approach to entheogens, the "gratuitous grace" approach. It enables them to categorize the entheogenic experience. Having encountered The Doors of Perception as an undergraduate, it was the way that I too rationalized my use of entheogens in my early twenties and whatever aspirations towards Enlightenment that I entertained. The drugs were just showers of the way, reminders of larger realities, but not ends in themselves. They were instruments, not allies.

The clouds on the western horizon hint at rain, but in this dry spring, when the phrase "100-year drought" keeps popping up in the newspapers, I walk through the pines to where I have planted two species of datura and one of henbane. The witch's garden, blooming at night and attracting hawk moths seemingly out of nowhere.

Carlos Castaneda has been treated as a guru and as a hoaxer: did his books accurately recount his experiences, were they fictionalized versions, or were they concocted in his university library? But The Teachings of Don Juan and his other works gave us the term "ally" for plants such as Amanita muscaria, the Daturas, and many others. "Ally" is a useful word. Its connotations of friendship and relationship match another approach to entheogenic plants: they are allies in a mysterious journey of exploration. We could also call this the gnostic approach: it is not for everyone, it is socially rebellious, even antinomian; and, once experienced, it marks a person forever.

I think there is a difference between a plant and a pill in this regard, for it is difficult to think of a pill as an "ally" in quite the same way. "Mother's little helper" was the last generation's slang for the "minor tranquilizers" so frequently prescribed for unhappy women. Someone manufactures a pill and hands it to you, and it really does not matter whether the process took place in a clandestine laboratory or a major drug firm's pharmaceutical factory where thousands of identical capsules rumble down chutes past white-coated inspectors. Compare that to the traditional, if sometimes over-elaborated, rituals of gathering plants according to their season, the phase of the Moon, and various seasonal holy days. "It is preferable to employ these plants fresh, having been ritually gathered according to the Tabu of their genii," as one occultist puts it.[7]

Contemporary Witches and other Pagans, however, are hopelessly divided on the issue of entheogens. For all their self-definition as an excursus religion, much of their discussion simply rehashes the rhetorical clichés of the so-called War on Drugs versus those of cognitive liberty. Missing from the discussion is the very sense of inspiration by ancient Paganisms and by "nature" that are so often invoked at other times. In many cases, the anti-entheogen response is based on fear, an argument that goes like this: "Society says that witches are bad. Society says that drugs are bad. It is tough enough to call ourselves ‘witches' and to try to reclaim that word without being labeled ‘drug-users' as well." Other contemporary Pagans strike the rhetorical position of school crossing guards. For instance, after the late Evan John Jones published an article on the ritual use of nightshade wine in the British Craft magazine The Cauldron, reader P. Hampton reacted, "Should material of this type be put out to the public, or rather should it remain safely within the secret, initiated circle of the Craft?. . . . I would be very interested to know what possessed Mr Jones to break cover and go public on this matter."[8]

One also encounters the argument of "Who needs a crutch to meet the gods?" which is, if nothing else, historically inaccurate.[9] From the cannabis seeds in Neolithic burial mounds to the opium poppies depicted with the goddess Demeter and the Datura flowers shown in some Egyptian sacred art, to the strong possibility that the Eleusinian mysteries involved an entheogenic substance, to the debates over whether the soma of the Vedas was Amanita muscaria or Peganum harmala, entheogens have been intertwined with pre-Christian Indo-European religions for millennia. And that is to speak only of the Old World--we should also consider the enormous part played by entheogens in much New World tribal religion, shamanism, and newer movements such as the Native American Church, Santo Daime, UDV, and the like.

In the 1990s I began a project of seeking out people who were still making use of the traditional "witch's garden," which from a botanical standpoint means a heavy reliance on the Solanaceae: the daturas, mandrake, henbane, belladonna, and their relatives, plus other traditional Eurasian entheogens such as Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) and Amanita mushrooms. (From the viewpoint of America's drug wars, none of these are currently illegal.) As the German ethnobotanist Christian RĢtsch points out, Cannabis could also be included in this group, based on archaeological and folk traditions. Cannabis, of course, is one of the group whose users, depending on locality, face legal penalties, which is ironic in that it, unlike henbane, for example, cannot produce a fatal overdose. RĢtsch describes how he himself progressed from treating Cannabis as an exotic recreational drug to realizing that its use in Germany (not to mention ancient Greece and Rome) had ancient precedents: "To me it was a revelation to understand that this plant belongs to my ancestors and belongs to my cultural roots, and therefore I have to worship it and to use it and to continue the tradition of the place." He continues:


"If you look at the [previous] literature on ancient Greece, you never find any hint of the use of psychoactive plants by these people. The nineteenth-century humanistic perception of Classical antiquity really pictures the ancient Greeks like very noble men who were certainly not ‘into drugs,' but it's not true. The Greeks had a whole pharmacopoeia of psychoactive materials. You can find a lot of reference in all the Classical textbooks. For example in Pliny you find statements of twenty to thirty psychoactive plants. . . . The literature is full of that, but it has never been fully received. The same is true of Greek authors such as Dioscorides.[10]


As a practitioner and researcher, I must of course realize that there is an element of advocacy in my writing and teaching. By presenting and then publishing a paper on, for example, the use of Solanaceous plants by contemporary Pagans, I am in effect saying to my co-religionists, "Here is a part of your tradition which too many of you are neglecting, because you are swayed by the official propaganda of the War on (Some) Drugs. Think like a true witch, shaman, polytheist, rebel, and you might find some value in these plant allies." Furthermore, as practitioner and researcher, I must maintain my authorial credibility, if only for myself, by learning something firsthand about these sacred plants--conducting "bioassays," as the contributors to The Entheogen Review are fond of saying. If my local environment permits, I should grow them and learn all of the plant's life cycle. And that word "bioassay" reminds me that "essay" and "assay" are etymologically twins. Both are attempts to test an idea or a perception, journeys of the mind and psyche, not recapitulations of received doctrine or someone's "party line."

To write on entheogens, then, is consonant with one of my longtime concerns, that those of us who say we practice an "earth religion" or "nature religion" truly walk the walk as well as talking the talking. As an academic, I have long pondered how new religious movements articulate themselves and "position" themselves in the advertiser's sense (I will confess to having been briefly a copywriter in an ad agency), while my second major concern the constantly fluid relationship between "culture" and "nature" in the American psyche, a relationship exploited by the use of the term "nature religion" by American Pagans.

In addition, seeing entheogens as "allies" produces a more shamanic view of the universe, one of interpenetrating realities and multiple powers. In his book Psychedelic Shamanism, Jim DeKorne, the first editor of The Entheogen Review, suggests that the entheogenic experience wakes up people so that they can no longer approach Deity as "passive and obedient" children.[11] DeKorne seems torn between suggesting that entheogens serve as catalysts for "entities" in our own unconscious and an self-consciously gnostic interpretation in which there are indeed Powers -- Archons -- in the universe that only wish to exploit humankind. Comparing the speech of the famous Mazatec Indian shaman María Sabina, entheogen writer Terence McKenna, and some of the Nag Hammadi gnostic gospels, DeKorne notes, "The consistently overblown language broadcast through these [human] channels suggests the existence of incorporeal forces infesting human awareness which are primarily concerned with impressing us with their importance. . . . The gnostic Archons, then, are intelligences existing in the imaginal realm in ‘bodies' consisting of thought and feeling. . . . . They feed off of our allocation of energy to their dimension and compete with other Archons on other levels in the overall hierarchy for their nourishment."[12]

While resonating with much of the Classical Gnostic literature, DeKorne (and I) do not share the Gnostics' methods. He does not seek to purify himself and bypass the archonic checkpoints on his way to The Light. Rather, his method is shamanic: "It is also the essence of shamanism to acquire helpers (allies, teachers) who instruct one how to manipulate the artifacts of non-ordinary reality. In traditional cultures these entities are often seen as the resident spirits of the hallucinogenic plants."[13]

Studying new religious movements, being a witch, and advocating the use of entheogenic plant "allies" together comprise a set of minority positions. The last, in fact, is a minority position even within contemporary Paganism, as I described in a 2001 paper on the use of the Solanaceae in today's witchcraft.[14] Within the discipline of religious studies, new religious movements remain problematic, unsteeped as they are in tradition and as short as they usually are on ancient scriptures with reams of commentary. As a discipline, religious studies is the stepdaughter of theology and still most comfortable with textual studies. Thus all three positions are each an excursus, a going out, a reconnaissance, a scout trip.

Members of minority religious communities are open to the criticism made by Sam Gill of the University of Colorado in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion that we privilege our own status as participants, insisting in an essentialist way that only we are uniquely qualified to conduct, in our case, Pagan studies. "[W]hat has thrived [too often in the academic study of religion] is the religious study of religion, that is studies in which the scholar is studying his or hr own religion . . . primarily for the purpose or purposes stipulated by the religion studied rather than the purpose or purposes stipulated by the academy" [emphasis added].[15]To do so, Gill strongly hints, is a recipe for being marginalized. There is some truth to Professor Gill's remarks: I have seen members of minority communities at some times show two faces among their colleagues in religious studies, one reserved and laconic--and another more lively when in the safer spaces and community of "their people." Gill's essay describes the entire field of "the academic study of religion" as under-developed because too many of its members are pursuing instead "the religious study of religion." Within that larger category, "Pagan studies" is but an infant; the term itself was only introduced in the second half of the 1990s when a group of Pagan scholars--and scholars of Paganism--began meeting on their own during the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting. (I believe that the first British academic conferences on Pagan studies were held at about the same time.) Much of our energy has gone into "discourse about the shape and nature of [our] field," to quote Gill again--a necessary developmental step--but the remainder of his sentence should caution us: "[I]t is a sure sign of the tenuousness and irrelevance of the field when this talk about the field becomes the principal topic of discussion, the main product of the field."

From the "insiders" perspective the relationship between scholarship and cotemporary, revived Paganism has been close but contentious. Thinkers whom the contemporary academy regards as exhibits in the museum of ideas, such as the anthropologists Frazer and Bachofen, or Margaret Murray as historian of witchcraft, still loom large in contemporary Pagan writing, despite the critiques of academic Pagans. For example, the scanty bibliography of a rather vapid new work entitled Philosophy of Wicca lists Frazer's Golden Bough, Robert Graves' White Goddess, and of course Margaret Murray , but not Ronald Hutton, Carlo Ginzberg, or any other deeply rooted contemporary historian.[16] This author is not unique, unfortunately, and it is easy to conclude that an attitude of "don't confuse me with new ideas" is at work.

As a Pagan scholar, I feel this tension acutely, for I have also written for a popular market, including editorship of the four-volume Witchcraft Today series published in the early 1990s by Llewellyn Publications, largest publisher of Pagan books in the United States. Earlier, I had edited a short-lived journal called Iron Mountain: A Journal of Magical Religion from 1986–1988, which was in turn absorbed by a larger publication, Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions. With the Llewellyn work, I knew that the audience was not particular about historical underpinnings, wishing at most to know that underpinnings existed. I forbade use of such phrases as "legend has it . . ." and "it is said that . . .," insisting that contributors provide some reasonable documentation of what, for instance, the "ancient Celts" did, but I could not in that venue examine such tricky questions as just who was a "Celt" and whether they themselves proclaimed any sort of "Celtic" identity. Gnosis, while not the journal of a learned society, had higher standards of documentation to begin with, although contributors were expected to write for that other useful fiction, the interested but general reader. In all cases, I wanted to show that one could write for people for whom new Pagan traditions were vital without sacrificing academic rigor in favor of copying older books and writing voluminous how-to-be-a-witch passages that were ungrounded in personal experience.

Pagans outside academia do tend to regard those of us inside it as being in the proverbial ivory tower, yet, ironically, lately I have begun to find the writing of Pagan academics more provocative, more "edgy," and more grounded in experience than much of what is produced by Llewellyn, ECW Press, and the other publishers catering to the Pagan market. These tend to produce countless blandly assured self-help manuals that, increasingly, appear to reflect a desire for religious respectability while surrendering those aspects of Paganism--Witchcraft in particular--that might raise eyebrows at the interfaith council luncheon.

Excursus might well define my roles as scholar and practitioner in the world of "drugs, books, and witches."  Scholars such as Huston Smith and Robert Fuller have made theoretical arguments for the roles of entheogens in religion: as Fuller, writes, they are part of "a quest for greater subjective richness, a more intense mode of experiencing life."[17] That quest is what brought me to the Craft, as it has many others. In a way, "a more intense mode of experiencing life" was also a product of returning to graduate school at age 32 after a decade in the marketplace: certainly a "greater subjective richness" results from the immersion in the academic study of religion. To follow a minority religious path is an excursus; to leave the certainties of that (Pagan) world for academia is another. To enter the world of entheogenic plants is, of course, a going-out; and to enter the new academic field of Pagan studies is still another excursus from the temple. ("Pagan studies" as an academic discipline began to take shape only in the late 1990s.)         The result of all this excursus is a new web of connections. At a recent Pagan festival in my home state of Colorado, I presented a lecture and discussion on the issue of "flying ointments" in the witch-trial period, illustrated with sample plants from the witch's garden. (A fascinating monograph remains to be written on this aspect of the trials in light of more recent historical studies of the period.[18]) The audience was engaged, interested, and in some cases quite knowledgeable. At the end, I had no trouble finding homes for my tray of henbane and datura seedlings.

[1] Robert S. Ellwood, Jr. Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 20–21.

[2] This communal household in Loveland, Colorado, was actually the project of a group of Ba'haís, a religion that does not normally practice communal living. But communes were part of the cultural landscape that year, 1969. See Timothy Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999).

[3] Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and chemicals (New York, Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), 152.

[4] Smith 153.

[5] Jonathan Ott, Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic drugs, their plant sources and history , second edition, (Kennewick, Wash.: 1996), 15.

[6] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: Harper and Row, 1954, 1970), 73.

[7] Daniel A. Schulke, "The Garden of Oneiros," The Cauldron 102 (November 2001), 32. The noted research chemist Alexander Shulgin, discoverer of dozens of psychoactive compounds, however, vociferously disagreed with this "vitalist" approach. See his autobiographical work Pihkal (Berkeley: Transform Press, 1991).

[8] P. Hampton, letter to the editor, The Cauldron 109 (August 2003), 39.

[9] Daniel Webster Christiansen, "Who Needs a Crutch to Meet the Gods?", PanGaia 22 (Winter 1999-2000), 31-32.

[10] Christian RĢtsch, "Sacred Plants of Ancient Europe," lecture presented at the conference Entheobotany (San Francisco, 18-20 October 1996).

[11] DeKorne 47

[12] DeKorne 47–48.

[13] DeKorne 58.

[14] Chas S. Clifton, "If Witches No Longer Fly: Today's Pagans and Solanaceous Plants," The Pomegranate 16 (May 2001), 17-23,.

[15] Sam Gill, "The Academic Study of Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62 (1994): 964-75.

[16] Amber Laine Fisher, Philosophy of Wicca (Toronto: ECW Press, 2002).

[17] Robert C. Fuller, Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), 190.

[18] The anthropologist Michael Harner presents some interesting speculation in his edited book Hallucinogens and Shamanism (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), but they need to be revisited in the light of subsequent historical study.