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EXTATIC INTOXICATION IN RELIGION* 



By James H. Leuba, Bryn Mawr College, Penna. 



In the religions of nearly all savage and semi-civilized 
peoples, extatic intoxication is regarded as communion or 
union with the divine ; and even in the higher religions, similar 
conditions enjoy the same consideration. Why should intoxi- 
cation and extasy be assigned the supreme place in religion ? 

Religious intoxication is not always produced by drugs. It 
may arise from physical excitement, from dancing, for in- 
stance; or it may be generated by psychic means; those 
used by the Christian mystics. Although in this brief paper 
I shall be able to do little more than indicate the con- 
nection that exists between drug intoxication and the higher 
mysticism, I hope to show that despite the diversity of their 
origin they are closely related to one another by certain psy- 
chological characteristics, by the purpose they serve, and 
by the significance usually ascribed to them. I shall take up 
successively the several classes of means used to produce 
intoxication in religious ceremonies, the usual explanation of 
the exalted character ascribed to these states, and the deeper, 
more fundamental reason for this fact. 

I had probably better say at the outset that I have no inten- 
tion of reducing mysticism to drunkenness. For the best of 
the Christian mystics I have a real admiration ; they are noble 
men who, on the whole, have deserved well of humanity. It 
seems to me childish, however, to pretend to dispose of the 
subject, as religious writers are wont to do, with vague high- 
sounding words such as ineffable, infinite, unutterable, abso- 
lute, divine. That is not the way to make intelligible the 
nature and the function of mysticism; it merely encourages 
a romantic megalomania already too conspicuous among 
religious believers. 

Chemical means, i. e., drugs, are employed almost exclu- 
sively by uncivilized peoples in order to produce intoxication 
during religious ceremonies. Brinton tells us that "in every 
savage tribe we find a knowledge of narcotic plants which 
were employed to induce strange and vivid hallucinations 
or dreams The negroes of the Niger had their 'fetish 

* The substance of a paper read before, the American Psychological 
Association, December, 1913. 



EXTATIC INTOXICATION IN RELIGION 579 

water', the Creek Indians of Florida their 'black drink' for this 
purpose. In many parts of the United States the natives 
smoked stramonium, the Mexican tribes swallowed the peyotl 
and the snake-plant, the tribes of California and the Samoyeds 
of Siberia had found a poisonous toadstool ; all to bring about 
communication with the Divine and to induce extatic visions." 1 
The Indians of New Mexico who are " unacquainted with 
intoxicating liquors . . . find drunkenness, in the fumes 
of a certain herb smoked through a stone tube and used chiefly 
during their religious festivals." Among the old Mexicans, a 
seed called Olilinhgue entered into a vision-producing " divine 
medicine," which could be obtained only from the priests. 2 

" In the Jndic and Iranian cult there was," we are told, " a 
direct worship of deified liquor analogous to Dionysiac rites." 
It has even been maintained that the whole Rig Veda is but a 
collection of hymns for soma worship. The drinking cere- 
mony was accompanied by magical incantations and by re- 
ligious invocations. During the frequent libations that marked 
the sacrifice of soma, the officiating priest asked repeatedly 
for inspiration. He offered the liquor with these words : " O, 
Indra, accept our offering . . . drink of the soma, thou 
the friend of prayer and of the liquor; well disposed God, 
drink in order to intoxicate thyself." " I pour it out into the 
double cavity of thy belly; may it spread through thy mem- 
bers ; may it be sweet to thy taste ; may it steal upon thee, O 
deliverer, veiled as women seeking a rendez-vous. Hero with 
the strong neck, full bellied, strong of arms, O Indra, praised 
by many, accept the pressed out soma, father of divine 
energy." 3 

Modern India has not renounced the use of drugs in re- 
ligious ceremonies. The India Hemp Commission appointed 
by the English Government to investigate the use of hemp 
drugs in its Hindoo possessions, reported that several hemp 
preparations are " extensively used in the exercise of religious 
practices." They found evidence of the " almost universal 
use of hemp drugs by fakirs, jogis, sanyasis, and ascetics of 
all classes, and more particularly by those devoted to the 
worship of Siva." 4 The hemp plant is believed by priests 
and people to be a special attribute of that god. 

1 David Brinton, The Religions of Primitive Peoples, pp. 67. 
2 H. H. Bancroft, Native Races, vol. I, pp. 566-567. 

3 Galand and Henry, L'Agnistonia, vol. I, pp. 162, 155, 249; vol. II, 
P- 3«- 

4 Report of the India Hemp Commission, 1893-94, Vol. I, pp. 160, 
161, 165. 



580 LEUBA 

Wine drunkenness was conspicuous in the worship of 
Dionysos. To the effect of the wine was added that of danc- 
ing, music, shouting, and expectation of divine extasy. 5 

But drugs are not the only means of securing the blessed 
intoxication in which people of every degree of culture find 
delight. Rhythmic bodily movements, sufficiently violent and 
long continued, yield results similar in several respects to 
those of alcohol, stramonium, cohoba, and other drugs. There 
are in Grosse's The Beginnings of Art, interesting descriptions 
of Australian dances ending in a condition of extatic trance. 6 

As soon as a somewhat spiritual conception of divinity arose, 
drugs and mechanical means could no longer be regarded as 
proper means of approaching it. These grossly material 
methods appeared incongruous with the god-ideas that were 
taking shape. Furthermore, the disagreeable after-effects of 
these practices were not easily reconcilable with the theory of 
god-possession. Yet intoxication was too delightful and grati- 
fied too many deep needs to be given up. Thus arose the 
problem of finding a method of intoxication consistent with 
the higher conception of the divine nature. This problem was 
solved by the discovery of psychic methods, which, associated 
with drugs, appear already in Dionysiac and in Soma wor- 
ship. In the Yoga practices, physical and psychical means 
are equally employed. In Christian mysticism, only the latter 
are acknowledged, although physical influences have not ceased 
to lend their aid. Even at the present day, physical means 
are not altogether excluded ; in so-called " revival meetings," 
for instance, the monotonous repetition of rhythmical songs, 
accentuated by shouts and bodily movements, help to produce 
a condition similar to that in which the dervish attains partial 
anaesthesia and visions of Allah. 

Why this extraordinary association of extatic intoxication 
with the gods? The common and well-known explanation is 
that intoxication in bringing visions and, with them, alleged 
superhuman powers of healmg, of making rain, of destroying 
enemies, of forecasting the future, of controlling spirits, etc., 
raises man to the level of the gods. 

Revelations and specific powers account perhaps sufficiently 
for the connection established in the unenlightened mind be- 
tween intoxication and a higher world ; but these characteristics 
do not fully explain its irrestible attraction. There are other 

5 See the description in Erwin Rohde's Psyche, Seelencult und Un- 
sterblichkeitsglaube, 4th ed., Tubingen, 1907, vol. II, pp. 9-10. 

6 See chap. III. 



EXTATIC INTOXICATION IN RELIGION 581 

and more fundamental reasons than those for the supreme 
place granted in religion to intoxication and extasy. The 
allurement of intoxication arises not so much from the belief 
that it affords esoteric knowledge and a share in the power of 
the Invisibles, as from the gratification it provides for cer- 
tain deep needs and cravings. The truth of this statement 
is borne out by the fact that when intoxication ceases to be 
regarded as union with God and as a source of superhuman 
power, it continues to inspire the pen of the poet and to 
entice the unwary often beyond his power of resistance. 

Some of these more fundamental values are indicated in 
the quotations I have given from religious customs of various 
peoples. They will appear more clearly and completely in 
instances of intoxication disconnected from any relation with 
religion. I quote one of the classical descriptions of the 
wonders worked by alcohol, " I send you," writes Colonel 
Ingersoll, " some of the most wonderful whiskey that ever 
drove the skeleton from the feast or painted landscapes in 
the brain of man. It is the mingled souls of wheat and corn. 
In it you will find the sunshine and the shadow that chased 
each other over the billowy fields; the breath of June, the 
carol of the lark, the dew of night, the wealth of summer and 
autumn's rich content, all golden with imprisoned light. Drink 
it, and you will hear the voices of men and maidens singing 
the 'Harvest Home' mingled with the laughter of children. 
Drink it, and you will feel within your blood the star-led 
dawns, the dreamy, tawney dusks of many perfect days. For 
forty years this liquid joy has been within the happy staves 
of oak longing to touch the lips of men." If all this and 
nothing worse was alcohol's gift to man, it would be in truth 
a " divine " beverage. 

The information that has resulted from careful observation 
of the effect of narcotic drugs is still far from complete. We 
know, however, that their action may vary from person to 
person, and even in the same person under different circum- 
stances, I shall mention only the more usual and constant 
effects to which these drugs owe their place in religion as 
well as outside of it. The drug devotees disregard all except 
those particular effects which are to them desirable; my pur- 
pose authorizes me to do likewise. 

The effect of mescal (anhalonium lewinii), the very re- 
markable drug used in the religious festivals of Mexican and 
American Indians, has been studied by Dr. Weir Mitchell, 
Havelock Ellis, and others. The most noteworthy of its ef- 
fects are marvellously beautiful color-hallucinations. Of these 



582 LEUBA 

the first investigator named wrote, " The display which for 
an enchanted two hours followed, was such as I find it hope- 
less to describe in language which shall convey to others the 
beauty and splendor of what I saw." 7 

Although there is a certain insensitiveness to fatigue, motor 
weakness and disinclination to activity is experienced. Ellis 
who notes this fact, remarks that this only throws " the sub- 
ject of mescal intoxication more absolutely at the mercy of 
the waves of unfamiliar sensory impetus which strike him 
from every side. Every sense is affected . . . the sim- 
plest food seems to possess an added relish . . . and to 
the sense of touch, the body seems as unfamiliar as everything 
else has become." " The ' trailing clouds of glory,' the tend- 
ency to invest the very simplest things with an atmosphere 
of beauty, a ' light that never was on sea or land,' the new 
vision of even ' the simplest flower that blows,' all the special 
traits of Wordsworth's poetic vision correspond as exactly as 
possible to the actual and effortless experience of the subject 
of mescal." 8 

A uniform physiological effect of the drugs with which we 
are concerned is a reduction of the efficiency of the higher 
nervous system. They produce a partial break down of the 
interrelations by which the higher nervous centres exercise 
their control over the lower. The hilarious mood into which 
cannabis indica, ether, alcohol, and other drugs plunge their 
devotees, is due probably in part to this physiological action. 
In the description of his experiments with cannabis indica 
and ether, Dunbar wrote, "Time seemed to have no existence. 
I was continually taking out my watch thinking that hours 
must have passed, whereas only a few minutes had elapsed. 
This, I believe, was due to a complete loss of memory for re- 
cent events." Amnesia accounts, in part at least, for the free- 
dom from all care and worry noted by this experimenter as 
well as by every other. 

The beginning of the action of hasheesh is described thus 
by Dr. V. Robinson, 9 "The flood of laughter was loose, the 
deluge of mirth poured forth." One of the persons with 
whom he was experimenting exclaimed, "Cast aside all irrele- 
vant hypotheses, and get to the laughing. I proclaim the 
supremacy of the laugh, laughter inextinguishable, laughter 
eternal, the divine laughter of the gods." 

7 The effect of Anhalonium Lewinii, Brit. Med. Jr., vol. II, 1896, 
pp. 1625-1628. 

8 Popular Science Monthly, vol. LXI, 1902, pp. 52-71. 

9 An Essay on Hasheesh, Med. Rev. of Reviews, New York, 1912. 



EXTATIC INTOXICATION IN RELIGION 583 

The more important psychological consequence of the re- 
duced efficiency of the higher nervous centres is the partial or 
total removal of the checks imposed upon us by society and 
logic. This means a turning away from the insistent purposes 
of life, a relief from daily tasks and besetting unpleasant 
memories. The "primary" self enjoys a period of rest from 
the war waged against it by the social self. Thus, there comes 
recovery from the insufferable staleness to which we are some- 
times brought by the unremitting demands of civilized life. 
Great and many are the evils into which people are enticed 
simply through the dullness of their existence. Tormented by 
the yearning for something to stir up the sluggish organism 
and restore a keen sense of life, man is often induced to seek 
excitement in drugs and in other forms of stimulation. 

The need for relaxation by excitation is so universal that 
means of gratification have everywhere, and at all times, been 
sanctioned by society. Sacred and secular festivals, to which 
various purposes may be assigned, but which serve primarily 
to refresh through relaxation, form a part of the order of 
every society. When the faculty of Paris threatened to abol- 
ish the Feast of Fools, a petition was presented with the fol- 
lowing argument, "Wine casks would burst if we failed 
sometimes to remove the bung and let in air. Now we are all 
ill-bound casks and barrels which would let out the wine of 
wisdom if by constant devotion and the fear of God we 
allowed it to ferment . . . Thus on some days we give our- 
selves up to sport, so that with the greater zeal we may after- 
wards return to the worship of God." When one means of 
refreshing the organism becomes impossible another is sub- 
stituted. 

The removal of social checks and of logical constraint 
manifests itself in a delightful sense of freedom and of power. 
In intoxication the galling limitations of our ordinary selves 
seem gone. One of Robinson's subjects exclaimed, throwing 
off his blanket, "Throw off the bonds of all existence." To 
feel that impediments vanish before the fiat of one's will, that 
one is equal to every demand and can soar above all obstruc- 
tions, is an entrancing experience indeed. What matters it, if, 
as in ordinary dream, this conviction be unfounded? The 
delight remains a real part of the experience. 

The weakening of critical ability leads, in addition, to the 
liberation of the fancy. In intoxication one enjoys all the 
pleasures of untrammeled imagination. Its quality, judged 
objectively, may not be high, but the subject thinks otherwise 
and is proudly happy. 



584 LEUBA 

Perhaps the most insidious of the allurements of ecstatic 
intoxication is an intensification of the indescribable sensa- 
tional and affective background of consciousness. If normally 
the vital organs are only faintly represented in consciousness, 
they provide nevertheless an essential part of the background 
of consciousness. The significance of these obscure feelings 
is well known to the student of mental disorders ; their disap- 
pearance or alteration may cause profound mental perturba- 
tion and may lead to strange hallucinations. The first stages 
of intoxication instead of removing, apparently intensify both 
the sensational and the pleasurable aspects of this somatic 
background. When the brakes and the fly wheels which con- 
trol the primary self are removed, it seems as if vital organs 
reawakened to sentiency, and their multitudinous voices are 
lifted in a paeon of life. Nothing but sexual erethism com- 
pares with the delights of this awakening of certain ordinarily 
silent parts of the organism. 

Philosophic poets may interpret this experience as an up- 
ward surge of the Breath of Life, the Elan Vital, freed from 
the opposition of that Other, the alien Reason. It may please 
them to think that "through the intermediacy of organic life, 
we correspond, if confusedly, with the universe." Or, they 
may turn to the speculations of Frederick Meyers, and see in 
it a transient reinvasion of the focus of consciousness by vital 
parts of the organism which, in the far distant past, were the 
chief source of sentiency. Be that as it may, we shall, I trust, 
agree that the primary and essential value of the intoxication 
consciousness to the performer of religious rites, lies not in 
any alleged superhuman knowledge and power, but in other 
very substantial results. Intoxication and extatic states possess 
in themselves, — i. e., independently of an interpretative con- 
nection with the divine — a delightful, sensuous, rapturous 
quality; they bring deliverance from the fatigues, the re- 
straints and tensions of the daily struggle, and they create a 
sense of unlimited possibility and exhaustless energy. In these 
effects, characteristic alike of the extasy of the Christian 
mystic and of the drug intoxication of the lowest savage, is to 
be found the deeper significance of the notion that in extasy 
man communes with the gods.