The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society 
by Richard Rudgley.
British Museum, 160 pp., £14.95, October 1993, 0 7141 1736 6
Show More
Show More

‘One of the aims of anthropology,’ Richard Rudgley says, ‘is to understand the self by way of the other.’ Are we to take it that if the Koryaks of Siberia had a high old time on the fly-agaric – or on the recycled urine of a fly-agaric consumer – we too should stock up on magic mushrooms? Rudgley maintains that humans have ‘a universal need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence, satisfied by experiencing altered states of consciousness’. The state can be achieved by meditation, aesthetic or sexual ecstasy, or by a quick fix. Rudgley, though embarrassed by the social problems of drugs in modern society, seems willing to give equal value to each route.

His survey of mind-expanding substances starts as far back as the Stone Age artists of Lascaux. By serpentine loops through Siberia, Persia, the Americas, and the traditional societies of New Guinea, he arrives at present-day manifestations of the same urge: glue-sniffing among punks, petrol-sniffing by Australian Aborigines. As example follows example, the constancy of our search for intoxication is made abundantly clear. Neolithic Iberians, Swiss lake dwellers, and ancient Minoans and Egyptians were not strangers to hemp and poppy; mushrooms guided Siberians, Indo-Aryans and American Indians; and we in turn have trodden the paths of traditional medicine and religion to discover their secrets for our own purposes. There is a disclaimer at the front of the book, in case it should be bought by enthusiasts: ‘This book is not intended as a practical manual for the use of intoxicating substances. Details of certain plant preparations have been omitted to prevent its use as such.’

Rudgley’s route is surprisingly peaceful. Blood is rarely spilled by groups anxious to wrest control of one substance or another. For him, the Opium Wars might never have happened, and even the street violence of the United States is sanitised by anthropological description: ‘Philippe Bourgeois has made a special study of the crack economy in Spanish Harlem and notes that, far from being alienated from mainstream values, the dealers pursue – albeit in their own fashion – many of the ideals of the American dream. The quest for upward mobility is manifested in their entrepreneurial aggression at the workplace.’ ‘Their own fashion’ here means killing the odd dozen or two hapless people who cross their paths.

Perhaps because he wanted to show that traditional societies do it better or more sanely than our own, Rudgley has minced tiptoc through the thickets of drug ingestion. His users are largely shamans or initiates seeking a route to the world beyond. Their means were hallucinogens too rare to permit universal distribution: hence their confinement to the priestly classes. A typical instance is found among the Bimin-Kuskusmin community in New Guinea where males are put through a nine-stage initiation, and adepts may qualify for a further three-stage ritual which, if completed, will confirm the supplicant as a senior elder, privy to knowledge of Afek, the ancestral being. Preliminary phases of sensory deprivation and exclusion from normal society are central elements of the rituals, as are various stimulants. Candidates are first given ginger, then graduate to tobacco, before finally doing the business with three grades of mushroom. It seems a benign process, doing no harm to anybody, though some might question the exclusion of women from the rite – as indeed they were excluded from most interesting uses of hallucinogens the world over. However, the intrinsic value of the activity may be placed in some perspective by the note that other Mountain Ok communities in New Guinea manage the same processes of initiation ‘without the stress on intoxicants as catalysts for revelatory experiences’. Are we to understand that the Bimin-Kuskusmin way was better, different, or what? How we deal with intoxicants depends more on the nature of the consuming society than on the substances themselves. At least, that was true before the arrival of processed or industrially derived drugs that cause addiction. Hence, even in New Guinea, ‘mushroom madness’ was likely to result in unrestrained violence and lasciviousness in communities that had not managed to constrain ingestion within tight ritual bonds. In the Orinoco basin, the Otomac Indians took snuff ground from the seeds of the Anadenanthera, called yopo. Its consequences were a form of battle frenzy, the Norseman’s berserk. The same substance had quite different results among more pacific neighbouring communities, who just mellowed out.

Though purporting to be a general survey, The Alchemy of Culture is really a saunter down little-known byways of hallucination, dodging round most problems of current drug abuse and, more surprisingly, not really addressing the question of alcohol. In a long and wide-ranging chapter on stimulants in general – bringing in coca, cola, qat, betel, kava, tobacco and pituri – Rudgley omits alcohol altogether, even though the drug has often been used by traditional societies. In the West, indeed, alcoholic beverages, particularly strong distillates such as brandy and eaux de vie, found their original purpose in exclusive cults much like the hallucinogens that he discusses.

C. Anne Wilson has traced the strong connections between alchemy, distillation and cultic initiation in her paper ‘Philosophers, Iosis and the Water of Life’, dating the development of wine-distillation to no later than Anaxilos of Larissa (c.40 BC) and placing its origins among the Orphic-Dionysiac mysteries and the Pythagorean sects of Ptolemaic Egypt. Jewish and Samaritan gnostics took up the practice, which spread to the Christian gnostics and, through them, to the dualist Cathars who were its heterodox channel of introduction to Western Europe. The exclusivity, magic properties and ritual use of strong spirits are identical to those of the more arcane fungi and hallucinogens, such as the toad poison bufotenine used in Central America (and by witches in Europe, who pitched a toad into their cauldrons to give their potions added zip).

When Richard Burton recounted his exploration of the source of the Nile, he wrote of Zungomero, at the head of the Kingani river, which debouches opposite Zanzibar, that

the main attraction is the plenty of provisions. Grain is so abundant that the inhabitants exist almost entirely upon the intoxicating pombe or holcus-beer – a practice readily imitated by their visitors. Bhang and the datura plant, growing wild, add to the attractions of the spot. In the lowlands of East Africa it grows before every cottage door. As in hot climates generally, the fibre degenerates, and the plant is only valued for its narcotic properties. The Arabs smoke the sun-dried leaf with, and the Africans without tobacco, in huge water-pipes, whose bowls contain a quarter of a pound.

This is introduction enough to the most important use of intoxicants, which gets a lesser billing from Richard Rudgley: intoxication as a means of forgetting, or reconciling the suffering body to the deprivations of daily life. If life is not tough at all, then the use of drugs may be called hedonist, but even the richest yuppie would claim that it was the stresses of life that had led to his coke habit. Hunger, suffering and tedium can be alleviated by simple and relatively available stimulants, which quicken the ebbing powers of the body and brain or, eventually, dull the pressing messages of hunger or pain. One in ten of the world’s population chews betel. As many again smoke tobacco. Even more drink alcohol. All to the same, or a similar end. The alternative to stimulation, forgetfulness, may be an even easier, more thorough solution. Opium was helping people to achieve this as long ago as the first century AD, when Batavian auxiliaries at Vindolanda on the north British frontier requested that it be sent to them – a move which recalls the wholesale consumption of marijuana by American conscripts in Vietnam.

None of these reasons for indulging in stimulants or soporifics seems to have much connection with shamanistic ritual or hierarchical social organisation, which are the chief spurs and structures of intoxication in Rudgley’s world. That a ritualised context or a rigidly stratified system of social exchange is the most effective means of containing the use of intoxicants is the book’s most important message. When constraints break down, drugs that may be harmless in themselves become a threat to ordered society. In the Horn of Africa, qat (the leaves of the tree Catha edulis) was once the preserve of the élite. It needs to be consumed within 48 hours of being picked, and it was costly. However, the revolution in air and land transport combined with the great increase in wealth of the Arab region to extend the charms of qat to the population at large. Suddenly, everyone was growing, harvesting, selling, distributing or chewing the stuff. Up to 200,000 people were involved in the trade in Somalia alone. This provoked repression, as the élite felt threatened by the social organisation that followed from increased consumption – qat being a stimulant taken in chattering groups, rather like alcohol.

That drugs were the catalyst of change – as well as being expressions of social stability when controlled by the magic men – is evident from the experience of the Australian Aborigines who chewed or smoke pituri, the leaves and tips of Duboisia hopwoodii. After being steamed in a sandpit, pituri releases nicotine and scopalomine. Use was addictive, yet the plant was rare and its processing difficult. Hence trade in pituri took place over long distances and on a more businesslike footing than normal Aboriginal barter. Clans of traders controlled the exchange and in consequence wielded a power which only dissolved in the face of competition from white man’s tobacco.

In the firmament of intoxicants, hallucinogens and narcotics seem of less interest or significance to Europe than good old stimulation. (I count inebriation as stimulating.) While the consumption of most narcotics is solitary, and often disabling, stimulants are at the root of much social interaction. Alcohol is drunk in parties, at taverns and inns. Chocolate and coffee spawned coffee-houses. Tea was a social drink par excellence. Even tobacco was taken in Victorian divans such as the one opened by Soapey Sponge and Lucy. Most significant cultural shifts in the last five centuries probably saw the light under the influence of one of these drugs. To that extent, what the Amazonian Indians get up to seems, from a Western perspective, irrelevant, though the author would have it otherwise. ‘Anthropology can counteract the tendency to perceive our own practices and values as universal models for human behaviour ... Many accounts bear witness to the active role which altered states of consciousness play in the shaping of culture ... we have much to learn about the supernatural world, from which we are alienated.’ This parallelism is great fun, but until now we have had a more or less workable relationship with stimulants. It was only when we started tampering, exploring and comparing that we began to make such an utter mess of them.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences