Santa Claus, Mushroom Beer, and the Dutch

In my home country, The Netherlands, Santa Claus does not come for Christmas. By then he has already left. Santa Claus comes every year to the Netherlands to celebrate with us his birthday on 6 December. A few weeks before his birthday he sets out from his home in Spain by sea, on a steamer (he has arrived a week ago).  Santa Claus is accompanied by his assistants, the so-called Zwarte Pieten, or ‘Black Petes’. What is rather strange about Zwarte Piet or Black Pete is that his skin actually is black. To some this is offensive. To these people the fact that Santa Claus’ assistant (not himself) is a black person is a racist trait, a legacy from the age of slavery. The first appearance of the modern incarnation of Zwarte Piet in Dutch popular culture seems to date from around 1850, when slavery still existed in the Dutch colonial empire and when black slaves still worked the plantations in Dutch Suriname in the Guianas. Other interpretations seek the origins of Zwarte Piet in a more distant past. Might it already be a surprise to many children and their parents to learn that Zwarte Piet could actually be a Surinamese slave, it might be even more surprising for them to learn that he could be the descendant of a psychoactive plants or mushrooms consuming Germanic warrior.

Santa Claus and his Zwarte Pieten

Relating the Santa Claus traditions to ancient pagan beliefs and rituals is common in literature on psychoactive mushrooms – more in particular, in the literature on the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). In this perspective Santa Claus is Odin (Wodan), the Germanic god of ecstasy, warfare and poetry. Some nights he haunts the countryside on his Wild Hunt, with his warriors and his Valkyries, the immortal maiden who inspire the mortal heroes and select them for Valhalla. In ancient and medieval times Odin’s special warriors were the bear- and wolf warriors, the Berserkers and Ulfheonar who would fight naked (that is, without armor) in an uncontrollable and trance-like fury. This trance was, it is maintained, induced by the consumption of psychoactive substances. The fly agaric is routinely mentioned as the most likely candidate for the substance used. This mushroom is also commonly used as a decoration motif in Christmas trees and on Christmas cards.

Read more

Conference Report: Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research, October 6-7 2012

Today Points welcomes Netherlander guest blogger Wim Best, PharmD. and registered toxicologist (ERT). He started his career in the pharmaceutical industry and has held positions both in Quality Assurance and Control and Regulatory Affairs. He now works for the Healthcare Inspectorate of the Dutch governmen, where he is responsible for controlled substances. Since 2009 he has been active as a forensic toxicologist dealing with crimes possibly committed under the influence of drugs or medicinal products, and since 2010 he has served as an honorary investigator at Maastricht University, Faculty of Psychology, Dept. of Psychopharmacology.

A hundred years after the first International Opium Convention in The Hague and the discovery of MDMA in Germany, Amsterdam hosted the Third Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research organized by the OPEN Foundation. The conference lasted two days, during which speakers and public discussed research, experiences, new ideas and philosophical approaches.

Founding (Freakin’) Father, Albert Hofman

Before I start about the conference, let me introduce the OPEN Foundation. OPEN is an interdisciplinary initiative, started around 2006, the year Albert Hofmann celebrated his 100th birthday. Its aim is to stimulate research regarding all facets of the psychedelic experience.  How?  Well, by organizing lectures and conferences and spreading honest information on both the potential and the risks of psychedelics. Furthermore the foundation hopes to lessen the stigma that is still part of researching psychedelics and hopes to awaken the interest of researchers. And last but not least it wants to create a virtual meeting place for all students that are interested in doing research.

For the latest Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research the OPEN Foundation offered a warm atmosphere to both established investigators and rising researchers. Other interested parties, such as the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Science (ICEERS) who contributed with a clinical track on plant based products and their possible uses in mental health, were also welcome to add their knowledge and experience. Paraphrasing Zinberg: “It is all about drugs, set and setting.”

Setting and Set

The setting: the spiritual ambiance of the Moses and Aäronkerk, a beautiful 19th century church in the center of Amsterdam, spiced up by the introductory lecture by Wouter Hanegraaff titled “Entheogens and Contemporary Religion.” High is in the air!  The set: around 400 people of various backgrounds, interested in psychedelics. Neuroscientists, clinicians, anthropologists, philosophers and users joined forces to open up new ways in the field of psychedelic research.  The drugs: psychedelics.

Read more

The Points interview — Don Lattin

Editor’s Note:  Where do philosophy, LSD, and AA-style recovery meet?  Journalist Don Lattin explores the nexus in his latest book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk (University of California Press, 2012).  His bestseller, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America (HarperOne, 2010), garnered high critical praise.   The “redemptive power of storytelling and the strength of fellowship,” Lattin observes below, were two of the lessons learned from writing this new book.  Bill W.’s experimentation with LSD offers a suggestive historical interface between Wilson’s personal struggle with alcoholism and the drug culture of the Sixties.  Points warmly welcomes Lattin to its growing cache of book author interviewees.  BTW, “distilled spirits” — get it?

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The first thing my bartender would say to me is, “Dude! Where have you been?” You see, I’ve been clean and sober for 6+ years now  and the two people I’ve seen the least are my bartender and my coke dealer. But I’d tell Joe, the bartender at the Tempest, the newspaper bar in San Francisco, that I’ve been busy writing a memoir about my misadventures as a religion reporter who spent too much of his life worshipping at the altar of drugs and alcohol. No, I’d tell Joe Distilled Spirits is not just another recovery memoir.  I tried to do something different. I weave my own story into a group biography of  three visionaries whose life work and long friendship  helped transformed the landscape of Western spirituality. The subtitle of my book is a mouthful —  Getting High, Then Sober with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk.  The famous writer is Aldous Huxley, who wrote a book called The Doors of Perception, which inspired me and countless others in my generation to search for the face of God in a tab of acid. The forgotten philosopher is Gerald Heard, who you never heard of but who is the secret Godfather of the New Age movement. The hopeless drunk is Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who did lots of LSD in the 1950s, twenty years after he got sober. That’s right, Joe, the guy who started AA was an acid head.

Read more

Freaky Friday: A Points Interview with Mark Christensen

Editor’s Note:  Those who follow the Points Interview series know that Joe Spillane has managed this aspect of the blog since our founding.  While in today’s iteration we mourn Joe’s departure, we are also delighted to announce that Contributing Editor Ron Roizen has agreed to take over as our official interview steward.  A member of the merry research staff at the Alcohol Research Group at “Berzerkeley” in the early 1970s, it’s fitting that his first Points Interview is a “Freaky Friday” confab with Mark Christensen, another denizen of the Wild West.  In addition to publishing several novels, Christensen has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Oregon Magazine.  Here he graces Points with his replies to our series of probing interrogatives on Acid Christ: Ken Kesey, LSD, and the Politics of Ecstasy (Schaffner Press, 2010).

How did you come to write Acid Christ?  And what’s its focus?

I was contacted by a former editor working for my eventual publisher, Tim Schaffner.  Tim had an idea for a new kind of nonfiction book,  a “shepherd and his sheep” biography in which the writer would tell the story of  a major modern “culture changer” and the change the “shepherd” brought from the writer’s own  perspective. As one of the sheep.  That would be me.  A former upper middle-class “suburban-urchin,” I’d written about counterculture icons like David Crosby, Richard Pryor and Paul Krassner for Rolling Stone and High Times and, so to speak, the paradise that was “pre-AIDS ‘Freak Freely’ America.” So I guess I was a good get.

As for the shepherd, larger than life Ken Kesey was an easy choice.  By age 28 he had two critically acclaimed bestselling novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, a feat never bested by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow or John Updike.

Read more

Magic Trip’s Druggy Sixties Origin Story (or, Why Historians Should Think About Selling Out)

When people tell me the 1960s aren’t history, I try to convince them otherwise by describing the process of transcribing decades-old audio from a reel-to-reel tape player. Gingerly string the tape onto the player and try to avoid mangling a piece of history. Miss a word and a say a prayer that the tape doesn’t get gnarled when you rewind. The headphones are like a phone line to another time; if you accidentally splice the tape, you’ll need to ask the archivist to patch you through again.

The Bus
(Source: Magnolia Pictures)

Filmmakers Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood had an infinitely more difficult job. Working with UCLA’s Film and Television archive and an illustrious group of funders, they had the opportunity to take day-glo canisters of footage from Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip and craft a coherent chronicle out of them. What they made with the film—some of it shrunken, lost, or reassembled in a variety of alternative narratives—is Magic Trip, a historical argument riding on an origin story about where the “Sixties” began.

The movie’s press kit wants you to know that the film’s guiding metaphor is the collision between the Pranksters and the Happy Plastic Family, featured in Dupont’s musical The Wonderful World of Chemistry at the 1964 World’s Fair. This collision “gave us the sixties.”

Read more

On Acid: LSD and the Sorcerer’s Apprentices

Editor’s Note: Readers coming to Points for the first time may be interested in some of our other posts treating psychedelic experience.  They include (but are not limited to) Religious Studies Professor Gary Laderman’s meditations on the place of LSD in the late 20th-century US; a two-part series by Comparative Literature scholar Tace Hedrick, looking at the influence of Gordon Wasson on US psychedelic culture and of psychedelics on feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua; and some by Brian Herrera of Performance Studies.  Search under the Tag “psychedelics” for a complete inventory.

LSD is one of the most mythical drugs in history. As with regard to many other drugs, our culture is almost satiated with perceptions, sentiments and opinions about the substance. Most of them have a history that can be traced back to the Sixties, that strange and almost mythical period when the most fundamental certainties of western society seemed undermined – at least to those high on acid.  But more than myths and vague associations are hardly discernible when looking at present-day perceptions and sentiments around LSD in popular culture. Sixties and hippies are one set of associations often encountered; adolescent users becoming psychotic and jumping out of windows and of balconies or eating the bark of trees another. Or, on a more positive side, people envision mystical enlightenment and heightened sensual perceptions. As a mythical drug LSD can be everything to everyone, a focal point of contestations about social, political and metaphysical realities.

The recent Swiss documentary The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD, directed by Martin Witz and produced by Andreas Pfaaffi, tries to reconstruct the tumultuous history of LSD from its discovery by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the Sandoz laboratory in Basel in 1943 until the end of the Sixties. In must be said at the outset that the movie basically follows the story as outlined for instance in Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987), though adding some material from psychedelic therapy sessions in recent years and interviews with participants. [Editor’s note: an article on some of these experimental protocols appears in last Sunday’s New York Times.] To those viewers who are familiar with the story the documentary offers nothing new. What is most interesting is the documentary footage

Read more

Freaky Friday: Cross-Posting Gary Laderman on “LSD”

Editor’s Note: Today marks the third in a series of cross-postings from the Social Science Research Council’s Frequencies project– earlier posts from that “genealogy of spirituality” examined the AA Big Book and Marijuana.  Here, in a piece that’s sure to get that Freaky Friday groove on, Emory University Professor of Religion Gary Laderman explores LSD’s contribution to the contemporary spiritual landscape of the US.  The original illustration from the Frequencies site is by Joe Meiser.

Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties.
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile,
The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

— The Beatles,
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967)

When I was 17 I dropped my first tab of acid. A friend and I excused ourselves from school, drove to Chatsworth Park in the San Fernando Valley, and tripped for about seven hours. The experience was breathtaking, to say the least: the blue sky and clouds took on geometric shapes and impossible proportions; when I waved my hand in front of my face it left multicolored trails and incandescent traces that confounded my sense of bodily space; I was overcome with a strange and powerful love for all of humanity that seemed to be personally exhilarating and cosmically liberating at the same time; and an indescribable awareness of inner light and profound insight overwhelmed my consciousness that was as mystical as it was psychologically illuminating.

The year was 1979, way beyond the psychedelic and tumultuous decade of the 1960s often associated with drug experimentation and mind-expanding possibilities with altered states of consciousness. But it is a fitting anecdote to begin this essay for one specific reason: it was through the ingestion of LSD that I came to understand the utility and value of the word “spirituality.” Previous to this experience the only thing I knew about religion was based entirely on the many years of Sunday school and endless hours of Hebrew school at my reform Jewish temple in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah several years earlier. What I experienced under the influence was nothing like religion as I knew it, and while I had heard the word “spirituality” used occasionally over the years, I had no idea what it referred to until my psychedelic trip in Chatsworth Park. After that day the meaning of the word spirituality became crystal clear to me and I began to use it more frequently in my own speech and imagination to identify perspectives and experiences that were decidedly not about religion, and most assuredly about sacred insights, expansive consciousness, transcendence of the body, and inner knowledge.

Unlocking the Doors of Perception

The point I would like to make here—and in an effort now to shift the narrative from personal confessional to cultural analysis—is that LSD contributed to a society-wide awareness of spirituality as a viable and meaningful alternative to institutional religion. LSD was itself a trip through categorical space, a tab that transitioned a tripping public from one idea of experience to another, from an idea of religion to one of spirituality. Even with the obvious dangers and bad trips associated with LSD, use of this drug and the public commentary about it provided Americans with a vocabulary to describe personal religious experiences utterly disconnected from conventional language used to identify the sacred, and not quite tethered to but not completely separated from the deep-rooted histories of spirituality provided by Leigh Schmidt in Restless Souls and Catherine Albanese in A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, LSD was, for many, a potent manufactured sacrament that unlocked the doors of perception in an American culture imprisoned by theological conformity, blew open the boundaries of religious experience hemmed in by doctrine and narrow ideas about social propriety, and legitimated popular cultural transformations that idealized notions of inner truth, self-seeking personal illumination, and consciousness expansion. In other words, experiences with LSD and the publicity surrounding them gave shape and content to modern understandings of spirituality.

Read more

“Rock” Raines and The Good Doctor

Baseball fans are generally a conservative lot, deeply resistant to the idea that the National Game has long been tainted by the presence of drug pushers and dope fiends. Ken Burns’ wildly successful and stupefyingly long PBS series on the game is a testament to the perseverance of the “good ol’ days” nostalgia that Major League Baseball has so carefully maintained. Baseball pundits and journalists struggle to keep the game’s mythologies alive and professional pontificators like George Will and Bob Costas nurture an image of the game as both innocent and heroic. It is the sport of nineteenth-century farm-boys and twentieth-century immigrants, Abner Doubleday and Jackie Robinson. There is no room in this anachronistic narrative for cocaine, anabolic steroids, or LSD. Maybe drinking has a place, but it better come with a good story.

Read more