As indicated by the title, what we have here is really two books under one cover. Together they add up to a mere160 pages but as with all of Ott’s books that I have read, it is densely packed with knowledge. The Age of Entheogens is a call to draw us out of the Dark Ages in which we live into a brighter future where people can reconnect with the spirit through the immediate experience of the sacred through the ingestion of entheogens (sacred plants, hallucinogens, psychedelics or what have you). Ott argues that this is what our distant ancestors did before the world tree of knowledge and life was cut down to build the church of artifice, dominion and repression of the sacred.
The basic message is essentially the same as Terence McKenna’s concept the “Archaic Revival.” In the book The Archaic Revival, and in countless lectures, McKenna suggested that in the distant past humanity lived in harmony with Nature, connected with the sacred through the shamanic use of vision plants, and that history has been the story of the repression of these practices and thus the symbolic banishment from Eden. McKenna argued that religion, as an institution, is the flaming sword that bars us from reconnecting with the sacred and that as a society we would do well to reconvene with nature through the use of these sacred plants. In this sense, McKenna’s Archaic Revival accords with the “Entheogenic Reformation” that Ott describes.
But Ott and McKenna present this message is significantly different yet complementary ways. McKenna’s presentation is better suited to wider audiences, and serves as an introduction to this important idea. Ott’s approach, on the other hand, is much more suited for scholarly readers. This includes people who require academic-style citations and references to established and foundational works, and people who have gotten McKenna’s message and want to delve into the sober knowledge that supports it. Whereas skeptics may understandably dismiss McKenna’s Archaic Revival as lacking in supporting evidence, Ott’s Age of Entheogens would likely convince them that the basic idea is at least very plausible and possibly very important. On the other hand, the more general reader interested in entheogens may find Ott’s Age of Entheogens too difficult, too bogged down by notes and details. Personally I find The Archaic Revival and The Age of Entheogens to be complimentary accounts.
The Age of Entheogens opens with Ott’s “Exordium,” a tour de force. Here, in something like a manifesto, Ott shatters the hypocrisy of organized religions, characterized as non-experiential and non-vital, as well as the so-called “war on drugs”. In their place, Ott triumphantly wins back the high ground for that real “old time religion": the original, organic practice of direct experience of the spirit through entheogens.
In recent history, most orthodox anthropologists have held that, although what is called shamanism is the universal root of all religions, the use of psychoactive plants is a “decadent” form of shamanism compared to those forms that rely on what are classified as ordeals to alter consciousness (i.e. fasting, isolation, prolonged pain, marathon drumming, etc.). But, as Ott points out in his first chapter, Wasson and other scholars have argued that quite the opposite is the case: entheogen-based shamanism is actually the original shamanism, and it is only when no entheogens are available that shamans turn to other, less effective techniques.
In the next chapter, “The Pharmacratic Inquisition”, Ott argues convincingly that the rise of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire meant the downfall of Western civilization. All effort was made to eradicate science, independent thought and any practice involving entheogens and the knowledge thereof. Central to this plunge into ignorance was the deliberate substitution of the age-old entheogenic sacrament provided to seekers in the Eleusinian mystery rites – a sacrament that produced an undeniably profound experience – with the Christian Eucharist, which provided no direct experience but which required faith in order to have any meaning at all. As Ott puts it, “the forced imposition of Christianity as state religion in the reign of Constantine, far from being a progressive change, as Christians would have us think, plunged Europe into a millennium of atavism and book burning, of barbarous destruction and desecration of classical art and literature, in which the torch of science and learning, lit in such a promising fashion by the Greek philosophers, was all but extinguished, and during which the hard-won pharmacognistical and other scientific knowledge of the ancients was forgotten, if not lost completely.”
Ott also discusses the centuries of repression and persecution that eradicated any folk knowledge of medicinal and entheogenic plants in Europe. Witch hunts and inquisitions abounded. Grab your torches, Bibles and pitchforks! Onward Christian soldiers! As Ott says, “I suggest that, as far as religion goes, we are still in the Dark Ages, and that the Entheogenic Reformation at last heralds the dawning of the Entheogenic Renaissance, a spiritual Renaissance which hopefully will do for religions what the mediaeval Renaissance did for art and science a half-millennium ago.” This takes us to the next chapter, “The Entheogenic Reformation,” where Ott looks at various entheogen-based forms of spirituality that live on outside of the empire of church and state. Finally, in “Agape: Vac or Logos,” Ott looks forward to a possible future when the Age of Entheogens will dawn. “Christianity and suchlike symbolic, dogmatic religions,” he writes, “will prosper only by forsaking the Pharmacratic Inquisition and embracing the Entheogenic Reformation with open arms.” Indeed.
The second book tucked within this book is descriptively entitled The Angels’ Dictionary: Toward a Vocabulary for Sacred Inebriants, Ecstatic States and Kindred Topics. For anyone who has experienced entheogens or who has studied the traditional use of visionary plants and fungi, such words as “intoxication” and “hallucination” can be dreadfully inadequate. Relying on these terms is rather like trying to describe the colors of the rainbow using only the words “black” and “white.” As R. Gordon Wasson wrote in 1961, a few years after he rediscovered (for the modern Western world) the traditional use of psilocybian mushrooms in Southern Mexico, “What we need is a vocabulary to describe all the modalities of a Divine Inebriant”.
Here we have Ott’s answer to Wasson’s call. The Angels’ Dictionary is a dictionary of terms related to divine inebriants, shamanism, psychonautica and the like. The entheogenic experience of the ineffable is still beyond language, but this dictionary is at least a good start. Indeed, like all of Ott’s books, it is excellent, and deserves a spot on the shelves of all serious students of entheogens, alongside the works of R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl Ruck and other masters in this field.
As this book is out of print, interested readers are urged to acquire a copy before they truly disappear (try www.abe.com or other used-book services online). Despite the fact that Ott’s books are undeniably among the very best texts that deal with entheogens, they all seem to be printed in limited numbers and go out of print. Afterwards, used book sellers tend to charge a good deal of money for Ott’s books because people who know how well he writes are willing to pay for them. Some of his books are being sold for hundreds of dollars but for the time being, one can find this particular book for a reasonable price. I would imagine that this will not last.
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