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Wasson (1898 – 1986) worked as a journalist and political analyst before becoming an investment banker with J. P. Morgan and Company, where he remained until 1963. His first book, The Hill Carbine Affair (1941), in which chronicled different versions of a rumor that J. P. Morgan sold defective rifles to the U.S. Army in the Civil War, has been described as “a book analyzing the development of historical myth.” Wasson's inceptive interest in myth was to be expanded enormously in later writings where he investigated the lore of mushrooms and mystical plants drawn from many cultures.
Wasson's interest in mushrooms was sparked by his Russian wife, Valentina, when they were honeymooning in the Catskills in 1926. The story of how her Slavic love for fungi turned him from a mycophobe into the world’s most influential mycophile is now part of planetary folklore.
In the May 1957 issue of Life magazine, Wasson published as part of its Great Adventures series (!!) an article on “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” It recounts his experience, with Valentina and some associates, of a velada (mushroom ceremony) conducted by Mexican shamaness Maria Sabinas in Huautla de Jiminez, a small village in the mountains of central Mexico. In the remaining thirty years of his life, Wasson wrote many research papers and self-published several books on psychoactive mushrooms, including his masterpiece, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968). With Albert Hofmann (Swiss chemist who discovered LSD), and Carl Ruck, professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, he wrote The Road to Eleusis (1978), proposing that the kykeon drunk in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece was a potion of the psychoactive fungus, Claviceps purpurea, fermented ergot, the chemical base of LSD. His last book, Persephone’s Quest (1986), written with Ruck, Stella Kramrisch, Indologist at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and Jonathan Ott, world-renowned psychophamaracologist, rounds out the Wasson thesis.
The Wasson thesis developed in three stages, a progression reflected in the books he produced: first, the discovery of the sacred mushroom cult in Central America, second, the identification of the psychoactive mushroom, Amanita muscaria, with the Vedic Soma, and third, the description of the sacred potion of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the kykeon, as a psychedelic brew. At each stage, Wasson, a self-admitted amateur, worked closely with respected and world-renowned specialists such as chemist Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, and botanist Richard Evans Schultes, professor of biology at Harvard University and Director Emeritus of the Harvard Botanical Museum. Wasson corresponded with poet Robert Graves, who also wrote on psychoactive plants in antiquity (Food for Centaurs), and Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian archeologist whose work provides important grounding for the Goddess revival. He collaborated with anthropologist Weston La Barre and Orientalist Wendy Doniger. The visionary aspects of the Wasson thesis were closely followed and supported by Aldous Huxley.
Although he himself never claimed to be an academic, but simply a lover of books and mushrooms, over the years Wasson came to be highly regarded in the academic world. His books were privately produced masterpieces of fine art, written in an elegant and engaging style. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality is widely recognized as a literary chef d'oeuvre. By all accounts, he was a rigorous and indefatigable researcher. Upon his death, his books and files were bequeathed to Harvard University where they now comprise the Tina and Gordon Wasson Ethnomycological Collection in the Harvard Botanical Museum.
Today the Wasson thesis continues to be developed, tested and expanded by psychonauts such as Ralph Metzner and Jonathan Ott, to name but a few. In the 1990s Terence McKenna developed the first coherent revisionist extension of Wasson's view. See McKenna thesis. The theory and practice of sacramentalism in a Gaian perspective, developed through Metahistory.org, might be considered as a "third generation" development of the Wasson thesis.
For the best introduction to Wasson, his life and associations, see The Sacred Mushroom Seeker, edited by Thomas J. Riedlinger (Part Street Press, Rochester VT). It contains first-hand testimonials of Wasson's life and work.
For an overview of the key cultural and intellectual events relating to the Wasson thesis, see the Introduction to Ralph Metzner's Teonanacatl (Four Trees Press, Green Earth Foundation, El Verano, CA)
For a revolutionary manifesto of the "Entheogenic Reformation" inspired by the Wasson thesis, see Jonathan Ott, The Age of Entheogens (Natural Products, Kennewick, WA). See also faith.
With the description of the kykeon as a psychoactive view, Wasson linked the Mysteries to the entheogenic theory of religion. Metahistory.org takes up and extends this connection by proposing that Gnostics were teachers in the Mystery schools. It then follows that Gnosticism, as a formally sophisticated version of indigenous shamanism, would have involved the use of psychoactive plants in practices of experimental mysticism. This idea was originally proposed by poet Robert Graves who himself experimented with sacred mushrooms.
Although there seems to be no direct or indirect reference to the ingestion of psychoactive plants in the Gnostic materials, there is a such a reference in Gnostic mythology. Alluding to profound knowledge of the sky among the Gnostics, Jacques Lacarriere notes that the sect of the Peratae ("Those Who Pass Though") saw in the constellation of Draco, the Dragon, the image of the primordial Serpent who brought Gnosis, liberating knowledge, to humanity. (The Gnostics, p. 14) In the Gnostic creation myth, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden is not a tempter and enemy, not a vile reptile who deceives the first woman, but the benefactor who brings illuminating wisdom to primal humanity. Since the Serpent does so by offering them a mysterious fruit to eat, Gnostic myth may be seen to align closely with the entheogenic theory proposed by R. Gordon Wasson.
Describing the primordial revelation of the Divine among the shamanic cultures of prehistory, Wasson wrote:
wisdom endowment Proposed term for the wisdom innate to the human species, considered as a dose of divine intelligence implanted in the human genome by the Goddess Sophia. Gnostics designated this dose by the Greek word nous. See also Sophianic Principle.
This entry in development... or, let's say, and better still, the wisdom endowment is in development. But how? Where? In Whom?
In orientation reading for Metahistory, Memories and Visions of Paradise by Richard Heinberg compares various examples of World Ages from different cultures. Heinberg offers valuable insights on the meaning of the overall scheme. For instance, he observes that with a couple of exceptions all systems of World Ages (and there are hundreds) assume a decline of human potential as time advances.
Arktos by Jocelyn Godwin gives a good explanation of the celestial mechanics of precession, basis for the Western model of the Ages. Godwin describes various occult movements, including the Nazis, who incorporated the notion of World Ages into their ideology.
The Zodiac (the band of star-patterns on the path of the sun) consists of thirteen constellations of uneven extent, so in the grand scheme of World Ages there are thirteen periods of unequal length. Some systems of the Ages attempt to play with the data and produce a uniform sequence of Ages. Adopting the erroneous notion that there are twelve ages, we can assume that each Age is equivalent to one-twelfth of the full circle: that is, 30 degrees of extent in the Zodiac. The rate of shift of the equinox (precessionasl shift) is about one degree in 72 years. In the uniform model of the Ages, each Age is 30 X 72 years long: 2150 years. This gives a total cycle of 12 X 2150, = 25,800 years. There are half a dozen variants of this time-cycle in use, depending on the rate of precession chosen.
It is one thing to define the world Ages in astronomical
terms, it is quite another to explain the fantastic beliefs attached
to this scheme. No scientist will deny that the spring equinox
in different parts of the sky over long periods of time. The
rate of precessional shift is due to the rotation of the axis
earth around a fixed point, the celestial pole. Due to this action
the north pole of the earth points to different stars in different
epochs. Thus there is a "great polar cycle" related
to the Zodiacal Ages.
In doing so, they invariably cite classical sources and
religious texts that also present this analogy, either directly or
by inference. The complex of beliefs implied in world-denial is relatively
clear. This message is life-negating, and can obviously be spun in
very destructive ways, but it also casts a glimmer of hope, and it
carries an explicit command: Look beyond this world, for there is a
In the perspective of metahistory, world-denial is a stumbling-block,
an extremely problematic issue, because metahistory relies on Gnostic
ideas for some essential criteria and guidelines, and Gnosticism
has invariably been accused of world-denial. The instances of
in scholarly writing and research are too numerous to cite. They
are everywhere, for the assumption that Gnostics embraced world-denial
is endemic to religious studies. It is difficult, or almost impossible,
to access and assess Gnostic materials without having this filter
one assumes at the outset that Gnosticism is a philosophy of world-denial.
Yet I would submit that this assumption is wrong. Here, like the
feminists, I must take a stand and plant myself firmly on a three-legged
I base my position on three arguments:
two, Gnostic materials, taken on balance, do not exhibit a saturation of world-denial elements strong enough to warrant viewing it as a predominant feature; and
three, Gnostics were Pagan mystics devoted to the Magna Mater, the Earth Mother, and so they could not have detested the physical world.
This is a Lexicon entry and not a full-blown essay, so I will try to set out each of these arguments in a concise manner.
This quote is extremely valuable because it both states the imputation of world-denial and presents the evidence for refuting it. Campbell does not intend to refute it, of course. He goes along with the misrepresentation, lumping Gnosticism with Christianity. The latter is, by its own admission, a religion of world-denial. Even though the Christian is dedicated to good works in this world, the aim is to be rewarded in a better world. Even though we suffer in this world, suffering makes us better people, and the better we become the better our chances of going to heaven, etc. These are trite but totally apt examples of "christian doublethink," as Mary Daly ( Gyn/Ecology) calls it.
Due to the split-mind attitude produced by the dichotomy of material versus spiritual, doublethink is inevitable, and so is projection. This mechanism is well-known in modern psychology. The splitting off of negative or repressed elements of the psyche is always attended by their projection on the other. Christianity is so loaded with schizophrenic binds, it lavishly fosters projection, diabolization of the Other. This occured early in the rise of the "One True Faith," with the result that early Christians projected their world-denial on Gnostics, their arch-enemies. The Church Fathers falsely represented Gnostics as world-haters, and the label stuck.
I have dedicated 35 years of my life to Gnostic studies. My research indicates that, taken on balance, Gnostic materials do not show a strong proponderance of elements expressing world-denial. Yes, there are passages in the NHL that are explicitly and inarguably world-negating. But the nature of the surviving Gnostic materials, derivative and fragmentary as it is, does not warrant a wholesale characterization of world-denial to Gnostic thought. That is just too simplistic.
In 1996 religious historian Michael Allen Williams published Rethinking 'Gnosticism' in which he challenges, and convincingly overturns, the stock imputation of world-denial. Williams' aim is to "dismantle" the semantic category of Gnosticism, which he, like Karen King and other experts, consider to be useless. Williams writes:
Although I would argue for developing a coherent description of Gnosticism on its own terms (see my Lego Method of Gnostic scholarship), rather than scrapping the term, I am immensely grateful for Williams' work. If the category of Gnosticism really ought be discarded, it is precisely because all we know, and assume to know, about the Gnostic world-view is so tainted with the disinformation and projections imposed on it for centuries, that it is virtually useless. This is Williams' conclusion, and it is also my second position.
The quote from Campbell asserts that "in the pagan mysteries it [the world of nature] was known as divine." In my view of Gnosticism, widely developed through the site, I propose that the gnostokoi, "those with special and superior knowledge," were identical with the telestes, the initiate-teachers who directed the Mystery Schools. If this were the case, Gnostic materials can best be evaluated by putting them in the context of the Pagan Mysteries, the actual setting from which they emerged. Scholars positively refuse to make this connection, however.
There are rare exceptions, however. Writing in 1900, G. R. S. Mead noted that Gnostic materials "are found to preserve elements from the mystery-traditions of antiquity in greater fullness than we find elsewhere." (The Gospels and the Gospel, p. 210) A hundred years later, Elaine Pagels, speaking about the emphasis on "the mysteries of sexuality, death and transcending death" in the mystery cults of antiquity, is still insisting that "I don't see any evidence of those in the texts that we found." ("What Was Lost Is Found," interview in Secrets of the Code, edited by Dan Burstein, p. 104) I could make a case for Gnostic materials being saturated with these elements. It all depends on which passages one cites, and how one patches them together (my "Lego method"). If scholars do not see the deep compatibility of Gnostic materials with the Mysteries, it is due to selective blindness, or informed denial, but not to lack of evidence.
I could elaborate this phase of my argument at length, but I will limit myself to one outstanding point. At the least, I consider it to be outstanding, mainly because it is so obvious, so self-evident.
Modern scholars and early Christian opponents of Gnosticism agree that the Mysteries were universally dedicated to the Magna Mater, the great Mother. In Gnostic cosmology the Goddess Sophia falls from the Pleroma (the extra-terrestrial company of Gods) and becomes transformed into the earth. Sophia is literally incarnated as the planet we inhabit, Gaia. Now, it is self-evident that Gaia is identical to the Magna Mater, the embodied Sophia, and it is equally self-evident that any religion dedicated to this divinity could not be world-negating. Gnostics who regarded the terrestrial Sophia as the central redemptive figure in their cosmology could not possibly have despised the natural world and the human body.
Just in closing, to support the third leg of my argument, here is a quote from modern Gnostic Stephen Hoeller:
Certainly the greatest obstacle to comprehending what Gnosticism was about is not lack of evidence, invoked by Pagels, but lack of experience. From Hoeller's interpretation we understand that Gnostics detected the projection of an alien mind, a Demiurgic screening force, upon the natural world. They indicated the operation of what science fiction author Philip K. Dick called "a two-source hologram." We see nature through a filter, and what Gnostics rejected was the false impression produced by the filter (our mental conditioning, including beliefs that alienate us from our true potential as humans), not the mysterious, life-sustaining world upon which it was projected. This distinction cannot be grasped, however, if we do not enter into the living experience of the Gnostic seers. The concept of world-denial is tricky and sticky, like a tar-baby. The direct awareness of the dualism inherent to our perception of the world, not to the world itself, is an experiential test that few scholars would accept to undergo, and even fewer could pass.