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Book Review – Psychedelic Mystery Traditions: Spirit Plants – Magical Practices – Ecstatic States by Thomas Hatsis

February, 2019


Book Review
Psychedelic Mystery Traditions
Spirit Plants – Magical Practices – Ecstatic States
By Thomas Hatsis
271 pp. Park Street Press

Although it has been the subject of great speculation and demonetization by various religious and political bodies, psychedelic mystery tradition remains one of the great buried seeds of Paganism, hidden under mythology, misinformation, and religious and political oppression — not to mention suppression of information. In “Psychedelic Mystery Traditions,” Thomas Hatsis uncovers a vast history of psychedelic spirit plants in Western tradition and ritual, focusing especially on Greco-Roman tradition and the early days of Christianity.

From the earliest prehistoric discoveries of psychedelic plants and their spiritual potential to the conflation of their use with Satanic witchcraft, Hatsis delves deeply, weaving together the political scenes in which each stage of pharmaka* use developed, while following a coherent narrative through the years. For those who were hoping for a more international subject matter, it’s useful to note that Hatsis doesn’t verge far from the focus of Europe and the Near East — you won’t find information here about the use of ayahuasca in Peru, or psilocybin mushrooms in China.

What you will find is an extensively-researched, academic approach to a controversial subject that synthesizes herbalism, ethnopharmacology, entheogenic practice, ritual, mythology, politics, religion, and linguistics. This may make the book a bit slow going for those who lack the context for the work, but anyone with a good familiarity with Western mystical traditions, herbalism, early Christianity, or mythology will probably find something to enjoy here.

The book boasts a treasure trove bibliography. Hatsis occasionally cites and refers to his other book, called “The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic,” where the subject matter overlaps, but he also taps an impressive number of primary sources, as well as many modern authors. In a few cases, he points them out only to call them out, diverging at several points to argue some misconceptions, such as the popularized idea that ergotism poisoning is similar to the LSD experience (it’s actually much more dangerous, poisonous, and unpleasant), or that the origins of Santa Claus lie in the historical shamanic use of Aminata muscaria (a popular theory for which there is little evidence). It is clear that Hatsis has great love for this subject, but he also preserves respect for the academic process. In exploring the controversy surrounding the historical use of pharmaka, he has an even hand and doesn’t play favorites on the basis of his own bias, pointing fingers not only at those who dismissed or vilified these spirit plants, but also at those who misused and abused these plants for nefarious purposes, such as poisoning, manipulation, and rape.

This rare glimpse into the mechanisms and mythology of mystery traditions is also peppered with humorous observations, as Hatsis refers to bad trips as “what we would call a bummer,” relates amusing historical anecdotes, and makes the occasional pun. But where the book shines the most is in those poetic moments when Hatsis explores the narratives of mythology and ritual that weaved together the experience of pharmaka by exposing and bestowing new cosmological understanding. In these stories, the relationship between humans and spirit plants takes on a life of its own, illuminating both the dark recesses of the human psyche, and the strange roots of spirit plant practice.

Psychedelic Mystery Traditions can be found on Hatsis’ website, https://psychedelicwitch.com/, along with many other writings and YouTube videos as well.

Psychedelic Mystery Traditions: Spirit Plants, Magical Practices, and Ecstatic States on Amazon

[*An all-encompassing Greek term for the various plant-derived substances whose uses included theogenesis, medicine, recreation, aphrodisiac, poison, and more.]

For those whose interests are primarily herbological, here’s a short list of some of the spirit plants and pharmaka mentioned in this volume: 

Aconite, amanita mascara, barley, cannabis, haoma, hash, hemlock, henbane, kykeon, laurel, LSD, mandrake, mushrooms, opium, solanaceae (including but not limited to Atropa belladonna), and wine.

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About the Author:

Sarah McMenomy is an artist and witch. Her craft incorporates herbalism, spellwork, trance, divination, auras, and more. Her work can be found at https://sarahmcmenomy.tumblr.com