Food of the Gods

Book by Terence McKenna

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on January 4, 2007.

I took some drugs today to help me write this review. Specifically, a xanthine-family drug called caffeine that appears in the berries of a largely equatorial bush, along with a few weaker xanthine-family alkaloids that aren't as well known but are also present in the coffee bean.

Last night before going to bed, I took another drug. Fermented from the fruit of a vine grown in the south of France, the alcohol in the glass of wine I drank altered my consciousness in a way I found pleasant, while the raw juice (wine is not heated) contains, its promoters say, some other chemicals that may be good for my heart.

Fact is, we're a society of drug-takers. Outside of Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses (and a few other smaller mostly Christian sects), we as a society nearly all take drugs specifically to alter consciousness. We use the most addictive drug known to human kind -- five times more addictive than heroin -- in a way that earns the tobacco barons billions of profits every year. The three primary drugs of our culture -- caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol -- are ubiquitous. As are other drugs McKenna takes aim at -- sugar, chocolate, and television.

And, says Terence McKenna, they're the wrong drugs for us to be using. Or at least some of us.

In "Food of the Gods: The search for the original tree of knowledge," McKenna points out that in indigenous and aboriginal societies, it's not the "average person" who takes strong psychedelic plants to tear open what Aldous Huxley referred to as the "doors of perception" and lead us into other worlds. Instead, it's the shamans. It's not the ill person who takes the drug -- it's the healer. And using that substance, the shaman steps into the more-real-than-real world that parallels this like Plato's cave-images, to manipulate the fundamental stuff of reality or entreat the spirits who reside there to help and heal.

In fact, McKenna warns us away from some drugs, like the sip of coffee I just took. The "accepted" drugs of our culture, he points out, are the ones that enhance brain and personality function appropriate to hierarchical, male-dominated cultures. The "unacceptable" drugs -- from pot to mushrooms to peyote -- all are interwoven in egalitarian cultures.

Perhaps the most intriguing assertion McKenna makes is that human consciousness came about in its present form as the direct result of the interaction of higher primates with psychoactive plants (primarily mushrooms, in his opinion), which amped up and increased the complexity of our brains, giving these newer primates (us) an evolutionary advantage.

Calling for an "Archaic Revival" (the title of another of his books), McKenna says:

Obviously, we cannot continue to think about drug use in the same old ways. As a global society, we must find a new guiding image for our culture, one that unifies the aspirations of humanity with the needs of the planet and the individual. Analysis of the existential incompleteness within us that drives to form relationships of dependency and addiction with plants and drugs will show that at the dawn of history, we lost something precious, the absence of which has made us ill with narcissism. Only a recovery of the relationship that we evolved with nature through use of psychoactive plants before the fall into history can offer us hope of a humane and open-ended future.

"Before we commit ourselves irrevocably to the chimera of a drug-free culture purchased at the price of a complete jettisoning of the ideals of a free and democratic planetary society, we must ask hard questions. Why, as a species, are we so fascinated by altered states of consciousness? What has been their impact on our esthetic and spiritual aspirations? What have we lost by denying the legitimacy of each individual's drive to use substances to experience personally the transcendental and the sacred? My hope in answering these questions will force us to confront the consequences of denying nature's spiritual dimension, of seeing nature as nothing more than a "resource" to be fought over and plundered. Informed discussion of these issues will give no comfort to the control-obsessed, no comfort to know-nothing religious fundamentalism, no comfort to beige fascism of whatever form.

"The question of how we, as a society and as individuals, relate to psychoactive plants in the late twentieth century, raises a larger question: how, over time, have we been shaped by the shifting alliances that we have formed and broken with various members of the vegetable world as we have made our way through the maze of history?"

McKenna points to the story of the Garden of Eden -- the original drug bust, as he calls it -- and adds:

"If we do not learn from our past, this story could end with a planet toxified, its forests a memory, its biological cohesion shattered, our birth legacy a weed-choked wasteland. ... If we can recover the lost sense of nature as a living mystery, we can be confident of new perspectives on the cultural adventure that surely must lie ahead. We have the opportunity to move away from the gloomy historical nihilism that characterizes the reign of our deeply patriarchal, dominator culture. We are in a position to regain the Archaic appreciation of our near-symbiotic relationship with psychoactive plants as a wellspring of insight and coordination flowing from the vegetable world to the human world.

"The mystery of our own consciousness and powers of self-reflection is somehow linked to this channel of communication with the unseen mind that shamans insist is the spirit of the living world of nature. For shamans and shamanic cultures, exploration of this mystery has always been a credible alternative to living in a confining materialist culture. We of the industrial democracies can choose to explore these unfamiliar dimensions now, or we can wait until the advancing destruction of the living planet makes all further exploration irrelevant. ...

"Our culture, self-toxified by the poisonous by-products of technology and egocentric ideology, is the unhappy inheritor of the dominator attitude that alteration of consciousness by the use of plants or substances is somehow wrong, onanistic, and perversely antisocial. ...[S]uppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life's meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrongheaded assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style.

"It is time for a change."

"Food of the Gods" is a thoroughly researched, startling inquiry into the relationship -- a necessary relationship, McKenna argues -- between humans and the plant world, particularly those plants that carry the ability to alter consciousness. He traces this relationship through dozens of cultures on several continents, over tens of thousands of years. And suggests that unless we drop our wall of denial of this relationship, and re-embrace our fellow inhabitants of this Gaian planet, we will continue along the path of conquest, war, destruction, and ultimately, our own cultural and planetary suicide.

This book is an excellent introduction to McKenna. I also found particularly fascinating his books "True Hallucinations" and his collaboration with Ralph Abraham and Rupert Sheldrake, "Trialogues at the Edge of the West." Regardless of your personal inclination to experiment with, or advocate for or against, psychoactive plants, you'll find it a fascinating and thought-provoking read that extends well beyond the realm of psychopharmacology and reaches deeply into our cultural underpinnings -- and our culture's possible futures.

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