Interview explores theory suggesting that hallucinogenic substances were central to the development of religious thought and practices.
Alex Tsakiris: In your book, you connect the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by Shaman, depicted in these cave paintings, with some rather shocking ideas about how mushrooms might have been cultivated and used in early Christian. Take us through that.
Earl Lee: My theory is that in ancient times there were people who were identified as a Shaman, either male or female, who was the person who would consume the mushrooms in order to prophesize the future, whether it was good crops or they needed to travel to some other place, and that sort of thing. Over time, as a Shaman used the mushrooms, the mushroom spores would get on their clothing and then later when that person dies and is buried, I think there’s a very strong likelihood, especially if they’re in a shallow grave, and a moist grave, for those mushrooms to actually grow, living off of the mixture of the natural fibers plus whatever viscous liquids might be wicked up from the decaying body.
The reason I think this is probably what happened is because I think that at some point the bodies were accidentally unearthed and people saw these mushrooms growing on these bodies and decided that this person was particularly holy and that the mushrooms that come from a corpse are probably particularly valuable in terms of communicating with the gods or the next world or the afterlife. That linked in people’s minds that this is what we use to communicate with the dead. With the gods that listen to the dead. And how we have visions of the next world. You can see that idea reflected, particularly in Egyptian religion, but in other religions, too.
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Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with the leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko I have an interview with a professor from Pittsburg State University where we explore his interesting theory that the origins of many of our religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, can be traced back to the use of hallucinogenic drugs. He even has some startling evidence about the cultivation of those mushrooms but we’ll leave that for the interview.
What I want to do before the interview is to add a little context to this dialogue, particularly since Earl Lee is an Atheist, a rather outspoken Atheist, and as much as I appreciate his scholarship on this topic and the information that he’s brought forth which is really important for understanding these traditions that are so much a part of our culture—I don’t care if you live in Europe and you think you’ve shed yourself from all religious trappings and all the rest of that. Hey, these Abrahamic traditions are woven deep, deep, deep into our culture and there’s no escaping that. So this kind of work, that aims at seriously re-writing or rectifying that history, I think is important to all of us.
At the same time, I’m amazed how academics in general and Atheists in particular can’t look deeper into the psychedelic experience and what it points to in terms of extended human consciousness. I mean, all the current research we have with hallucinogenics, Rick Strassman, David Nutt, all the rest, suggest that hallucinogenics are pointing us not towards the same old mind equals brain paradigm but to this idea of extended human consciousness.
Now, to Earl’s credit, I think he’s willing to go there more than most people are but it still amazes me that more can’t see how this little twist in the story from “tripping early Christians” to “early Christians who are achieving transformative spiritual experiences through the aid of psychedelic drugs”, why that little twist in the road isn’t more obvious.
This was a fascinating discussion for me. I really appreciate the scholarship of Earl Lee, whose work continues to fly under the radar despite its massive implications. I hope you enjoy this dialogue with Earl Lee from Pittsburgh State University:
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Earl Lee to Skeptiko as a faculty member and honorary professor at Pittsburgh State University. Now that’s in Kansas, folks, but it is called Pittsburgh State. Earl is the author of a fascinating book titled, From the Bodies of the Gods: Psychoactive Plants and the Cults of the Dead. Fascinating stuff. Earl, thanks so much for joining me and welcome to Skeptiko.
Earl Lee: I’m glad to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: You’ve written quite a book here and I have to say the first thing that really caught my eye is a blurb on the back of it from none other than Dr. Larry Dossey, someone I’ve interviewed before and who I really respect a lot. Let me read what he writes: “From time to time a book comes along that stops you in your track and stuns your mind. From the Bodies of the Gods is such a book. It will and should provoke intense discussion about some of the most fundamental underpinnings of Western religions.”
Wow, powerful stuff. Congrats on that. I have to say in reading it, it’s packed with a lot of historical references but it’s also very readable. So congratulations on this book.
Earl Lee: Well, thanks very much. I appreciate it.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m doing a lot of talking here before I dig into all this other stuff. Tell us, at a high level, what kind of picture this book paints about these Cults of the Dead and the connection to hallucinogenics and also the connection to the modern day religious movements that we know about.
Earl Lee: What I did was I collected material going back 30 years. I first began work on this in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and at that time I really hadn’t connected with the hallucinogenic mushroom side of it but over time I kept fitting pieces together and I’ve finally come up with I think a fairly good theory about where modern religion comes from.
I believe particularly in the Mediterranean area and in the Near East that we have little religions all over the place that are essentially Cults of the Dead. Now, they’re called Cults of the Dead as kind of a generic term for religions that are based around the idea of worshipping our ancestors or our ancestors who have transitioned to being almost god-like or supernatural leaders. This kind of worship is really common all over the world.
Alex Tsakiris: If I could just interject, one of the first things that I encountered when I read the book is like, yeah, so what? And then I had to really think about it and go, “Wait a minute. Why is there this obsession with death?” And moreover, as you point out in the book, not just an obsession with death but a series of very elaborate rituals that get even more elaborate as time goes on. You do a nice job of tracing how it just gets more and more elaborate, these cultish rituals around death, right?
Earl Lee: That’s especially true with the Egyptians because they had a really rather strange—I don’t know if I should call it strange—but they had an unusual way. They built a religion in layers. I believe in one of his books, Sir Wallis Budge, who has written many books on Egyptology, points this out. He said that apparently the Egyptians would try this rite and try that rite and try one spell and try another spell and if it worked they kept it. If it didn’t work they tossed it out. But they never seemed to have actually gone back and gotten rid of anything.
So you have like a pearl being created, layer after layer after layer, more and more spells being added until finally you end up with this thing the size of—well, actually the Egyptian Book of the Dead is kind of an accumulation of spells and rites that have at some point worked. Whether they stopped working after that, apparently they didn’t know or care. It worked once. So they ended up with this very elaborate religion based on spells and rites and rituals that at one time seemed to have worked for what they were trying to accomplish.
Alex Tsakiris: As you point out in the book, the Egyptian religion and some of these other religions, particularly in Crete, stay with us and influence the religions that we’re more accustomed to.
Earl Lee: Yeah, I think it’s especially interesting to study the religion on Crete because of its influence on some extent to the Greeks. The religion of Crete was a very strong influence on the Greeks as was the Egyptian religion. The Egyptians, back in the old days, used to send out missionaries all over the world, including to Greece. So there’s a very strong Egyptian influence on Greece, too.
But the interesting thing, I think, in knowing the history of Crete is that at one point, about 1,000 years before the birth of Judaism, they had this disaster where an island in the Mediterranean had exploded and this shockwave of water went in all directions and hit Crete. It did an enormous amount of damage and from that point on, the Minoans really were never quite recovered from that disaster.
Quite a few people living on Crete actually migrated to Palestine and Egypt and other areas and took with them a lot of their religious ideas. So I believe that a lot of the ideas that were developed on Crete ended up being adopted and absorbed by the people living in Palestine and the people in Egypt and elsewhere. Some of those ideas are still very alive today in Christianity.
Alex Tsakiris: So let’s switch over and talk about the part that really is going to fascinate so many people, and that’s the use of these hallucinogenics, these mushrooms. And in particular, as your book posits, where these mushrooms are being cultivated. Because you connect in your book the use of mushrooms in prehistoric times by Shamans in these cave paintings with some rather shocking ideas about how mushrooms might have been cultivated and used in ancient times, in early Christian times, and right around that period. Take us through that.
Earl Lee: My theory is that in ancient times there were people who were identified as a Shaman, either male or female, who was the person who would consume the mushrooms in order to prophesize the future, whether it was good crops or they needed to travel to some other place, and that sort of thing. Over time, as a Shaman used the mushrooms, the mushroom gets spores on their clothing and then later when that person dies and is buried, I think there’s a very strong likelihood, especially if they’re in a shallow grave and a moist grave, for those mushrooms to actually grow, living off of the mixture of the natural fibers plus whatever viscous liquids might be wicked up from the decaying body.
The reason I think this is probably what happened is because I think that at some point the bodies were accidently unearthed and people saw these mushrooms growing on these bodies and decided that this person was particularly holy and that the mushrooms that come from a corpse are probably particularly valuable in terms of communicating with the gods or the next world or the afterlife. That linked there in people’s minds psychologically that this is what we use to communicate with the dead, with the gods that listen to the dead, and how we have visions of the next world. You can se e that idea reflected, particularly in Egyptian religion, but in other religions, too.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s a fascinating, fascinating theory and it kind of makes a lot of sense just anecdotally as you tell it. But isn’t there some evidence that you point to in the book of cave paintings that would support this idea?
Earl Lee: Well, they found a series of caves in Southern Algeria and this area is particularly interesting because they have these cave paintings that show people dancing in a circle and the people have heads that are shaped like mushrooms. But the most interesting painting they have is a picture of this body or this man—of course, since it’s two-dimensional you can’t tell if it’s lying down or standing up—but his whole outline is covered with little mushroom shapes. Not only that but his body itself has kind of a net shape.
People who have looked at this say this is an imaginary painting of a Shaman in communication with the spirit world and these mushrooms are how he did it. But I really believe this painting is fairly realistic because I think this is actually the dead body with mushrooms growing off of his body because the mushrooms are everywhere except on this strange bee shaped mask that he’s wearing, which of course the mushrooms wouldn’t grow on a mask, whatever it was made out of, but would grow on the body. I think that’s a clear indication that this is one of the very early mushroom shamans who had mushrooms growing from his body that people could consume.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, let’s connect that with mushroom or hallucinogenic use in Christianity as depicted in medieval art that we know of. What can you tell us about that? I know there’s some controversy surrounding that, but how well established is it that we can look at medieval art as a source of understanding the importance of these hallucinogenics among Christians?
Earl Lee: Actually, the use of hallucinogenics in Christianity goes back to the very beginning and earlier than that. According to the theory I’ve worked out, when the Jews first moved from Egypt to Palestine they took with them a religion that combined their sort of ethnic ideas about religion along with a layer of Egyptian ideas. They actually created kind of a hybrid religion that I guess I would call the Hebrew Cult of the Dead as opposed to the Egyptian Cult of the Dead, or the Semitic version. This is kind of a merger of the Semitic and the Egyptian together. That was what the Hebrew religion really was in the beginning, a worship of the dead who they called the “Elohim.”
In the beginning in Palestine they had all these individual shrines and religious sites all over the country. If you were a typical Hebrew, or anyone else living there, you could go to the shrine of whoever the shrine was dedicated to, whether it was to Moses or some other historic figure or some other god, and you could sacrifice your goat or animal or whatever there and the smoke would ascend into the heavens and the gods were happy.
But as urbanization took place, there was a stronger sense of trying to reunite the countries under one capitol and under one religion. It’s particularly true in Jerusalem that they didn’t like the fact that there were all these little shrines all over the place they had no control over. They wanted to centralize the religious belief in Jerusalem, so they actually started a campaign around 800 B.C. to try to put these other guys out of business.
Very often they would make deals with whoever the kings or rulers were to help them do that. The Old Testament’s full of stories where they’ll go out and try to kill this bunch of priests or that bunch of priests. They always called them “the priests of Baal.” They’re worshippers of Ashroth or whoever they are, but in fact they’re just the local guys who have been there for ages. If you want a rite for Yahweh they’ll do Yahweh. If you Ashroth they’ll do Ashroth. They didn’t care as long as you showed up with the animal you wanted to sacrifice and a couple bucks for them.
But the Jerusalem Temple really wanted to focus religion in Jerusalem and the kings wanted that, too, because they liked being able to use the power of the Church to back them up. So there was a campaign starting around 800 B.C. in Palestine to try and bring all the religious groups and center them in Jerusalem and get rid of these other sites that were causing problems. That went along off and on with some success but they were never really able to suppress the Cult of the Dead as it existed among the various families.
If your parent passed away you would have a rite and you would have this religious ceremony called the “Marzeah,” which was common throughout the whole Near East. You would drink whatever potion it was that was provided that was probably psychoactive. It probably included opium and various mushrooms. The particular recipe didn’t matter; it differed from place to place. As part of the death ceremony someone, maybe even the children, would see visions of the afterlife where they would see the dead parent or relatives. That was how that worked.
But the Jerusalem Temple, they didn’t like that because they couldn’t control it. They couldn’t make any money off of it; it was a problem so they worked to suppress that. It worked to some extent up until about the time of the Babylonian captivity, when the Babylonians came in and took all the elite and carried them off to Babylon for about 60 years.
The interesting thing then is that while they were in Babylon, the Hebrew priests saw how things worked in Babylon and they liked that pretty well because it was very organized. You had a hierarchy of priests; you had one temple. They thought, ‘We could do this back home, too.’
So sure enough, 60 years later when they moved back to Jerusalem, they more-or-less kicked everybody out. They took the stuff leftover from Moses, like the Brazen Serpent, which was still in the Temple and destroyed it. They destroyed anything that wasn’t clearly monotheistic, Yahweh-based. And then they somehow found this supposed book that told them what they’d done just now was the right thing to do, and they went on from there. They continued to try and suppress the smaller religious groups outside Jerusalem and they had success there up until about 200 B.C. when they got their own kingdom.
Once they had a Jewish king, then they really went after everybody because they were determined to get rid of everything that wasn’t Yahweh. The result was that again, all these groups were suppressed and there was just the one religion up until Christianity came along. Now, the problem with Christianity—and this is interesting too if you go back and study some of the books that are written about the origins of Christianity. You’ll find that it’s not really clear exactly when it started. It appears that the Jerusalem priests were really against Jesus and his followers and John the Baptist from the very beginning.
Alex Tsakiris: And that would fit in with the history that you just painted there that there was this on-going battle for control, toward centralization, towards cooperation with other ruling entities. They didn’t like that diversity.
I hope you’ll weave into this, and I’m sure you are because it’s a wonderful history that you’re recounting here, about how the Dead Sea Scrolls come along and really substantiate a lot of the picture that you’re painting about this early Christian movement not being anything about Christianity but being much more about bringing back some of these rites and bringing back the freedom to practice their rites and their sacraments as they saw fit, which was in conflict with the Jerusalem Church. I think that’s where you’re leading. Can you fill in what I’m missing there?
Earl Lee: Basically they felt that during the last 200 years they’d finally managed to get rid of these guys and they knew they were still operating in the hinterlands like Galilee and the places up north that hadn’t been completely wiped out. So they’re sitting pretty, they’re having to deal with the Romans who are creating problems, but they are very much in control of the religious rites at least in the southern part of Palestine.
Anyway, all of a sudden this guy shows up and he starts preaching this stuff about the Cult of the Dead and you can just see the priests standing at the Temple wall saying, “Jesus Christ! Is he back again?” Here are these same things they worked so hard to suppress and here’s this guy who’s become a popular figure and he’s preaching the same stuff that they thought they had gotten rid of. I can imagine they were just really irritated and wanted to get rid of him as soon as possible.
Alex Tsakiris: And it works both ways, too. The evidence that we have suggests that he was really irritated and that those folks who were against Jerusalem and the control of the Church were really irritated too because these practices were very important to them. So it was a genuine conflict.
Earl Lee: Yeah, yeah. I’m sure they were because these people had literally been fighting for 800 years. At least 800 years if you follow the Old Testament’s chronology of it. The people in the Jerusalem Temple had thought they’d won and it was all over with. Suddenly here are these guys again. They tried everything they could and they treated Christianity as if it were a heresy because in their minds that’s what it was. Where in fact, maybe they were the heresy. They were the ones who went away from what religion had been 1,200 years earlier, if you want to look at it that way.
Alex Tsakiris: And we shouldn’t even call it Christianity at this point because this group out in the hinterlands is really calling for what they believe is a return to the true Judaism that they’ve always known, right?
Earl Lee: Well, the Judaism as established by Moses, this was the Mosaic thing. You see little traces of this too in the first early Christian books that were written. For example, in Acts they make a great point of saying that we are followers of Moses. Moses was considered the most important person and we’re simply going back to Mosaic stuff and you guys are the problem. There’s a line that I’ve adapted slightly but it says pretty much that in the Book of Acts.
Alex Tsakiris: So if that is the history, and there is some controversy there, as your book points out and anyone who reads your book will see, there are a lot of references to sources that they can follow up on and come to their own conclusions. But you paint a pretty convincing story of that being the case. Bring us up to the present where some of these rites and rituals, as you posit in your book, remain with us today and they’re deeply embedded in the symbolism and the sacraments of modern Christianity and Judaism that people would be familiar with. Tell us a little bit about that.
Earl Lee: Perhaps the greatest irony of all in my mind is that once the Christian Church got established and once it was settled in Rome and was very actively recruiting people, suddenly they began acting just like the Jerusalem Temple had done. They began consolidating power; they began lining up their lines of power with Roman authorities. They got to a point when eventually they decided that these rites and what they were established on were becoming a problem.
The issue is if you’re a person who’s had a vision of the Christ and you have a teaching that came to you by way of the mushrooms that you’ve eaten, you believe your vision is more important than anything that the priests say. So fairly soon, after the establishment of Christianity, the priests began working to get rid of this. This is how they started; yet now they were turning the opposite direction now that they had their hands on the throttle of power and they were going to take control. So for several hundred years you see the Church struggling to suppress these rites and driving people out of the catacombs, closing up the catacombs, doing everything they can to suppress this Cult of the Dead.
Then around 600 they made all the other religions besides Christianity illegal and they had the full force and power of the Roman Empire and the Roman armies to enforce that. People had to go into hiding all across Europe. In Egypt you have the Nag Hamadi documents being buried out in the desert. All these different smaller groups among the Celts and others on the edges of the Empire, they all had to go underground.
Alex Tsakiris: I’ll tell you one small piece that really caught my attention. I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church and in the Greek Orthodox tradition and they have this practice of anointing with oil once a year. I forget when it is. They come and dip their thumb into a little bit of oil and they put it on your body. Your book reminded me that that’s really something that’s kind of unique to the Orthodox tradition. It’s been whittled out of mainstream Christianity but it has its origins way, way back and it’s deeply tied into this idea of sacred, perhaps hallucinogenic, substances. Can you tell us about anointing and how that’s woven in and what the true origin of that is?
Earl Lee: Well, let me say first of all that I was raised Southern Baptist so the whole idea of anointing just seems to me—I just don’t understand it because it was never a part of my religious upbringing at all. The Baptists don’t anoint anybody. In fact, they barely have a Communion. If you have Communion you have grape juice; you don’t even get wine. Juice and crackers is what you get at Communion.
Anyway, when I first started writing this book, I kept running across these references to anointing all over the place. I thought, ‘Did the early Christians anoint?’ I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. But then as I kept looking I kept finding all this stuff. In fact, early on in the Christian Church, apparently they would anoint practically your whole body. There’s this one passage that I put on my blog that I found where they talked about men and women and getting anointed from head to foot. This one guy in particular even had his teeth anointed, which I thought was pretty strange.
The whole idea was to drive out these evil spirits that were inside your body and that’s what you accomplished by putting this anointing oil on. The anointing oil probably had a variety of hallucinogens. If you look at the book, The Golden Ass, a Roman novel, a guy in there describes a pagan rite where he gets anointed and he says he felt like his whole body was put on fire because it was so strong. I imagine that the anointing that the early Christians did probably had very similar qualities. You probably had this burning sensation on all of your skin and a sense of all these evil spirits being driven out by this sacred fire that was associated with the Holy Spirit.
You are quite right. The anointing continued in the Orthodox Church to a much greater degree than it did in the Roman Church because I think as time went on they just felt it was safer to get away from that. Does that make any sense?
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. So again it’s one of these cases where like you point out in the book some strong evidence to suggest that this ritual that’s still carried on today in thousands and thousands of churches has its origins with some kind of other psychoactive substance that has, through time, been disjointed from the original purpose of it. We have to go back and try to recreate that history, which is what you do in your book, and it’s fascinating.
Earl Lee: Thank you. It’s a labor of love that’s gone on for a long, long time. I feel I’ve come up with a fairly good theory of how Christianity came into existence and I’m surprised that more people aren’t jumping on this and saying, yeah, this is the way things really began. It’s not the story about these prophets traveling all these places and being persecuted and converting people. It’s not so much that, but how they did it, and they did it by way of these rites where you anointed people with these special oils and they had Communion with these various substances that were part of the Eucharist.
These things got pushed out of Christianity within the first couple hundred years and they went to just plain bread and plain wine and oils that were no different than Wesson oil, I guess, anymore. I suppose today a Catholic priest could go down to a shop and buy a jar of Wesson oil and use that to anoint people for all the difference it makes.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But I think we’ve come to the junction point here, the rub, if you will. Why aren’t more people jumping on this? Why aren’t more scholars trying to connect this? I feel like there’s an elephant in the room here and that we have to deal with it. You are an Atheist and pretty much of a hardcore Atheist if there is such a thing. You’re in Atheist groups and you publish Atheist books and all that.
That has nothing to do with this masterful job you’ve done of weaving together this history but it does make me wonder. Are you coming at this from a biased perspective? Are you trying to jam all of these accounts back into this we’re all biological robots so there couldn’t be any possibility of life after death perspective? The question is are these people using hallucinogenics to experience something real or are they using hallucinogenics and having a brain-based experience that is a hallucination?
Earl Lee: That’s a good question. It’s a question that I feel I’m not qualified to answer. I think it’s very nice…
Alex Tsakiris: But it’s at the center of the book because your book can be totally true and factual but it doesn’t get at this question. You know, recently I had a chance to interview this guy who directly relates to what we’re talking about. His name is Talat Phillips. The title of his book is The Electric Jesus. He’s this political activist who is an Atheist and then went on this rather amazing journey using all sorts of different hallucinogenic drugs and Ayahuasca and DMT and mushrooms and all the rest of this.
He becomes this kind of modern day Gnostic who’s convinced, like thousands of other people are through their personal existence, that he is accessing these other realms and that there’s a reality to these other realms. So this is modern. This is today. How do we read that story into your story? The way that I would read it, just taking it at face value, is that there is something real to these realms and these folks are accessing it. It puts a totally different spin on the creation of these religions and the perpetuation of these religions. They were really getting something real out of the experience and not just a trip and a fake experience.
Earl Lee: Well, if my book has any success ultimately, my hope is that the existing religious groups, whether they’re established ones or newly formed ones or New Age groups or whatever, I think they need to start seriously thinking about trying these things again and getting back into a spiritual connection using these various hallucinogens.
See if they can make them work and if they improve their religious experience because we’ve got to get away from this world where you decide if you’re religious or not based on what your standards on abortion are or you decide what your religion is based on by what you feel about gun ownership or any of a dozen other issues that are pressed as being religious these days. Get back to some natural directed experience of the Divine.
I think this is something that the Church has gotten so far away from now that it’s ridiculous. They need to step up and do this. It’s nice if your church has a soup kitchen. It’s nice if your church helps support unwed mothers or any of these dozens of different social issues. If people are going to your church and they’re not having the experience of the Divine, then what are you good for?
Alex Tsakiris: I hear you. And as a matter of fact, Talat Phillips, who I just talked about, he’s directly involved in a church that does just that. They use some derivative of Ayahuasca, in which DMT is the psychoactive element in that, to have this direct religious Christian experience that is fundamental to their religion. I don’t know if hallucinogenics are the answer but I think that certainly what you’re positing there makes a ton of sense.
I do want to push a tiny bit further. I understand your position. I think that’s a fair one to say. You’ve done a fantastic job. You’ve done your work so you can sit back and say, okay, it’s for other people to pick it up and push it this way or push it that way. But I do think that this issue of consciousness surviving death is fundamental to understanding this history.
Another former guest we’ve had on this show is critical care physician, Cornell University Professor and Doctor of Resuscitation, Dr. Sam Parnia. This is a guy who studied cardiac arrest patients for 10 or 20 years and has finally come around to the conclusion that every other near-death experience researcher has come around to. That is that consciousness survives death.
So your book, as well as these religions that we’re talking about, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are embedded in this culture that has this schizophrenia. On one hand we have science saying no, no, no, there can’t be anything after death. There cannot be survival of consciousness. Then you have these religions that just blindly say, oh yeah, there’s some truth to that and this is what it is. It’s only our way. And now we have science coming in-between and saying, well, I don’t know about what either side of you are saying but our evidence suggests that there is a reality to survival of consciousness. There is a reality to life after death, if you will.
I don’t know how we’re going to be able to sort all that out and then go back and reclaim our history. It seems to be almost too big of a challenge.
Earl Lee: I’m at a loss, too, to know exactly what direction to take. I think I’ve painted a pretty good picture of where religions came from but the real challenge is trying to figure out which direction everything’s going in the future. Are they going to continue with these political crusades constantly? Are they actually going to do something that actually helps somebody for a change? I just wish I knew what I can do except try to give people a better sense of where they came from and what it was the founders of their religions actually did.
I’m speaking here too also of Islam. I didn’t go into that at all in my book but I found some interesting stuff there, too, that I think could be explored. There’s a lot of strange stuff in Islam, too. Let’s put it that way.
Anyway, there’s certainly a role to be played by religious belief and if it turns out that there is life after death, that would be a wonderful thing too. But that’s not what the current churches are doing. They’re saying, oh, there’s life after death. Why even discuss it? And then they just go on their merry way with their bake sales or whatever. I guess I don’t understand that.
Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough. So the book is, From the Bodies of the Gods: Psychoactive Plants and the Cults of the Dead. Earl, if I could, I just want to mention that you have a couple of other blogs that you maintain with some interesting little tidbits that I’ve pulled out and I want to touch on just a couple. They don’t really relate directly to what we’ve talked about but I found them fascinating.
One is this account of Sigmund Freud and one of his children talking about going with their father for a session of gathering psychoactive mushrooms in the forest. Tell us about that.
Earl Lee: Well, it’s really strange but back when I first began reading about Amanita Muscaria mushrooms and where they grow and this sort of thing…
Alex Tsakiris: Now these are the mushrooms that are associated with Christmas. They grow under Christmas trees. They’re brightly red and they grow in that area in Germany and Europe and other places, right? Is that the mushroom?
Earl Lee: Right. They pretty much grow at high altitudes in the mountains but they can be in Germany or the Pyrenees. Any high altitude that has the right kind of trees, which are cedar and a couple other varieties that are where they grow. And also they often grow where a tree has died because that’s where the fairy rings actually come from. You’ll see a ring of mushrooms where a dead tree used to be. The Amanita Muscaria are a bright red or bright yellow and they have these little white spots on them. They’re pretty distinctive.
Anyway, I was reading this book by a woman who had written about the Freud archives. She had a little quote in there where she quoted Freud’s son, his memoir. And in there he described his father taking him out in the woods to look for these Amanita Muscaria mushrooms and I’m like, what? This is not something I heard of in reading about Freud or in average life.
So I went back to the original source and read Martin Freud’s memoir and sure enough, he described his father, Sigmund Freud, taking him and his brothers and sisters out into the woods in the mountains and hunting for these red-and-white mushrooms. It’s pretty clear that’s what they’re looking for except that Freud was kind of deceiving them, too, because he was saying, yeah, we’re looking for these red-and-white mushrooms but we’re not going to eat those. We’re going to eat these other mushrooms that grow nearby.
I’m sure when he found them he’d remember where that little patch was and he could come back later to get them. But he had them out there looking for these edible mushrooms. The problem with edible mushrooms is I don’t think they grow in the same area as the Amanitas grow. So that whole story doesn’t make any sense to me.
Anyway, I wrote an essay about this and put it in my book I published some years ago called, Libraries in the Age of Mediocrity. Most of the book deals with the sensitive issues in libraries and Libertarian ideas, but there was that one chapter on Freud. The funny part is everybody who read the book said, “Oh yeah, that book was really good. But that article on Freud, that was just weird.” No one wanted to hear it. The fact is, I don’t think even after more than a decade that anybody in the psychology field has looked at it or even seemed to care. I don’t think the people who are writing biographies are even aware or have said anything.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s just this taboo. I think, as you quote in the book, Terence McKenna did more than anyone else while he was alive in just laying out how obvious this is. I mean, these people are out there—certainly not Freud as a modern—but ancient people were out there eating everything they could, foraging through and eating.
Why would they not come across these substances and use them? And then given that these substances are creating these amazing experiences, and maybe they’re all brain-based like you think, or maybe they truly are allowing these people to access other realms like I think. Either way, we seem to be bound and determined to not include that in our history and paint this narrative that totally excludes that from ever happening when it’s obvious that it did happen. I think Freud’s just another example of that.
Earl Lee: The other thing is that we’re in the middle of this drug war and anything that smacks in any way is taboo. Instead of ending the drug war, which is what I think a lot of people hoped Obama would do, he’s making it worse. He’s amped up the drug war.
Alex Tsakiris: Oh, don’t even get us started on the whole political thing. Of course Obama is obviously at this point a pure extension of George W. Bush’s most important policies. Anyone who doesn’t see that or thinks that there really is a left/right paradigm in this country is asleep at the switch.
But wait! I’ve gone there and I’ve jumped into that whole thing. I tell you what. I want to quickly pick up on one other tidbit. Again, it’s something that I guess I knew or a lot of people know is out there but you did a great job of adding something to it and that’s Joseph Smith, one of the founders of the Mormon religion. You document his use and his father’s use of this “peer stone” scam. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Earl Lee: It’s interesting because this has all been clearly documented. It’s been known since the 1970s and even before then that basically Joseph Smith was a scam artist like his father. They ran this scam where they would go to a rich farmer and they’d say, “Oh, we used our little magic stone here. We can tell there’s pirate treasure or Indian treasure buried on your farm. For a small fee we will help you find it and you can get your workers to dig it up and you’ll be rich.”
They found lots of farmers who thought it made sense so they’d collect their fee and they’d go out there with their little stone. They’d hold it up to their eye and say, “There’s the treasure. It’s buried right over there.” So the farmers, of course, would get their shovels and start digging. He’d say, “Oh, it’s just a little bit farther.” He’d play them along as he still had his audience. Then suddenly he would say, “Oh, wait a minute. No, the ghosts have taken the treasure away. It’s gone. That’s too bad. Sorry about that.” Then he leaves with his fee.
Alex Tsakiris: Now this is a historical fact that Joseph Smith’s father is actually arrested for this, tried for this. He’s known to be this kind of swindler, right? This is in the historical record.
Earl Lee: The interesting thing too is that in the 1970s they found an arrest record of some kind for Joseph Smith himself. They hadn’t found that until then. I’m not quite sure why they didn’t find it earlier but there is a record for Smith himself, too. The police thought of him as one of the usual suspects, yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: Obviously the connection, if anyone doesn’t know it, go ahead and tell people the connection between that and the Mormon Church.
Earl Lee: Well, sometime later when he decided to found this church, he claims to have found these golden plates that were hidden. Angel Moroni helped him find these golden plates. He would interpret them by looking through this “peer stone” at the plates because you couldn’t actually read the writing on the plates. You had to use the peer stone to look at the plate and interpret what it said. So the peer stone continued to be part of his story in writing the Book of the Mormon and establishing the Mormon Church. But it was just a scam on a much larger scale than his earlier scam.
Of course, we all know too that at some point he decided that, well, maybe I should have multiple wives. And why not? If they believe this other bullcrap, why wouldn’t they believe this, too? So that’s where that went.
Alex Tsakiris: Earl, tell folks quickly how they can reach you. Some web addresses. We’ll have them linked up, of course. Tell the folks who are listening how they can find out more about you and your writing.
Earl Lee: Well, I’m doing a lot of documenting right now on my website called, Among the Cannibal Christians: The Origin and Ritual of Cannibalism, and the address for that site is www.cannibalchristians.blogspot.com. It’s probably easiest to get to me through there or there’s a link to my Google address if you want to send me a message.
That’s where I’m putting all the documentation I’ve collected about the Christian Church and the catacombs and how they used their ointments and potions during that first 200 or 300 years of Christian history. I think you’ll find it fascinating because there’s just a ton of evidence there. There is. It’s mind-boggling.
Alex Tsakiris: There really is and you do a great job of bringing it forward. You can also Google the book’s title, From the Bodies of the Gods, and you’ll go immediately to Earl’s website.
Earl, thanks so much for joining me. A fascinating work and best of luck with it.
Earl Lee: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.