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 Music & Psychedelic Shamanism

Psychedelic Shamanism: Old World to New Age 

Alastair McIntosh


Published in The Christian Parapsychologist, Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1985, pp. 123-133; also in Dutch translation as Psychedelisch sjamanisme: uit de Oude Wereld Naar de Nieuwe Tijd, Bres, Holland, No.119, 1986, pp. 24-36. The original published version of this contained a number of errors caused by transcribing the Pink Floyd lyrics by ear. These have been corrected and minor amendments made in this internet version. 

The ‘wicca’ re-evaluated

Although it is a prevalent attitude amongst present-day scholars that late medieval and Renaisdance witchcraft was essentially a fiction created by the Church, recent research has brought out another side to the story. For the medieval witch, it seems; was the forerunner of the modern psychedelic drug “tripper” as well as having been heir to shamanic practices with which some of our world’s greatest religions have links, if not their genesis.

Chemical and empirical studies of the principa1 “magic” (and some­times deadly) plants used by European witches—datura (thorn apple), mandrake, deadly nightshade, and henbane -show that all contain tropane alkaloids which can have similar psychological effects to psy­chedelic drugs in contemporary use such as cannabis and LSD.

Furthermore, some the of active constituents of these plants are readily absorbed through the skin. Hence, the “magic ointment” with which witches were reputed to rub themselves before flying off on their broom­sticks. And as for the Freudian notion that broomsticks were merely of phallic significance, a more probable explanation is that they were a convenient means of applying “flying ointment” to the vaginal mem­branes, from where it would more readily be absorbed.

As the authorities wrote after investigating Lady Alice Kyteler in 1324, “... in rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon the which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed”.[1]  

Illustration from Harner op. cit., p.136

Undoubtedly some of Europe’s witches were participants in what the Church called “devil worship”. However, the majority were probably merely herbalists and healers, playing the same role as shamans still play in less technologically advanced societies today.

Indeed, the word witch is derived from the Old English, wicca, which means wise. And there is much to suggest that from a perspective of caring for the Earth and its environment, the pantheistic perspective of shamanic beliefs worldwide show considerably more wisdom in their practical results than does the more divisive dualism which has claimed Christianity and, arguably, sanctioned the rape of the Earth. As one contemporary wicca puts it, repression by the Church meant that:  

no longer were the groves and forests sacred. The concept of a sacred grove, of a spirit embodied in nature, was considered idolatrous. But when nature is empty of spirit, forest and trees become merely timber, something to be measured in board feet, valued only for its profit­ability, not for its being, its beauty, or even its part in the larger eco­system.[2]

  New World Psychedelic Shamanism

  The accusation of devil worship got carried to the New World along with the Spanish Inquisition. Amongst the native American peoples a wide range of plants containing psychedelic agents were (and still are, under the legalised auspices of the Native American Church) used to induce mystical and other altered states of consciousness.

The missionaries were not amused. As one described the Aztecs’ use of morning glory seeds, which contain lysergic acid amide—a close relation of LSD (lysergic acid di-ethylamide)— “... they place the mixture before their gods, saying that it is the food of the gods... and with it they become witch-doctors and commune with the devil”.[3]

The Inquisition succeeded only in driving the use of psychedelics underground. But the essential meaning of Christianity made rather a deeper impact, for many Indian cultures recognised in it the same God as they communed with while in elevated states of consciousness.

Thus, contemporary Zapotec Indians in southern Mexico refer to the morning glory (Ipomea—often “Heavenly Blue”) as Semilla de la Virgen— “seed of the Virgin”. Likewise, the Delaware Indians who use the peyote cactus as a source of mescaline say, “God made Peyote. It is his power. It is the power of Jesus. God (through peyote) told the Delawares the same things that Jesus told the whites. God told the Delawares to do good even before he sent Christ to the whites, who killed him…”

And again, “The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus: the Indian goes into his teepee and talks to Jesus”.[4]    

Proto-Indo-European Connections

Perhaps it is fortunate that there was no Inquisition when the ancient religions of the East were being established, otherwise we might never have had the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching or the Dhamrnapada. For although contemporary gurus generally advise against the use of psychedelic drugs, the same was manifestly not so with some of their distant predecssors.

A Taoist legend maintains that the “sacred” flowers of datura are carried by the spiritual envoys which mediate between earth and the heavens. Similarly, it is said that when Buddha was preaching, heaven sprinkled the datura plant with dew or raindrops.

The ancient Hindu brahmins left no doubt that their philosophy of the fundamental unity of all creation was inspired at least to some extent by psychedelic experience. Of the more than 1,000 holy hymns in the Rig­Veda, 120 are devoted exclusively to the “Soma”: “Enter into the heart of Indra, receptacle of Soma, like the rivers into the ocean … mainstay of heaven!”.[5]

Up until 1968 experts believed Soma to have been a drink prepared from cannabis, but then extensive interdisciplinary research revealed it to have almost certainly been the fly agaric mushroom—a much more potent, albeit possibly dangerous, source of psychedelic chemicals.

Probably it is little coincidence that this red and white-spotted fungus (amanita muscaria) illustrates every self-respecting book of children’s “fairy” stories, contemporary and otherwise. The psychedelic effects it produces on ingestion are perhaps a major factor accounting for simiIarities in the outlooks of the great Eastern religions, the Siberian shamans and the Western wiccas and druids, amongst others.

The historical and philosophical links between these apparently diverse groups are actually much closer than many realise. As Fuller summarises:  

About 1500 BC, a branch of the Indo-Europeans that spoke proto­Iranian invaded India in war chariots from a homeland on the Asian steppes. They conquered the native civilization of the Indus Valley and gave rise to the Hindus and the Sanskritic languages. The similarities between Hindu and Celtic traditions are often cited as evidence of a common Indo-European heritage....

There are cognate Indo-European words that survive only in Sanskrit and Celtic, and many parallel myths and gods. The caste system of India shows vestiges of a three-part social structure like the Celts’ priests/warriors/commoners. Hindu brahmins were originally reli­gious leaders comparable to Druids....

The Proto-Indo-European word for God, Deiwos (shining sky) contains the roots of words like deity and divine in Latinized English, Tiu (a sky god) in Old Germanic, Zeus in Greek, Devah (God) in Sans­krit, Dieu (God) in French and dia (day) in Spanish....[6]  

We can probably say with reasonable certainty that the European witch or wicca was heir to much more ancient traditions via the ancient Celts, and that the psychedelic “magic” potions and ointments were a part of this legacy. Let us now turn to the present and see what the wicca may have in terms of contemporary successors.  

Transcendental Music and the Dawning of the New Age  

We are now in the middle of the third decade of what has variously been called the “New Age”, the “Aquarian Age”, and the “Psychedelic Revolu­tion”. [Since writing this the term “New Age” has become less positive, having become associated with guru figures who divorce spirituality from practical engagement with social and ecological justice, thereby compounding the problems of the world by selling a supposed escape from them. A.I.M., 2000].

What’s new about it? Where is the revolution?

The changes were mainly internal. The “revolution” was in human consciousness. The “human potential movement”, spearheaded by such thinkers as Jung, Maslow, Assagioli, Huxley, Alan Watts, and others had been born and was waiting to be discovered by those who wanted to know.

What opened the movement out was not academic instruction in these people’s thought, because for the most part they were anathema to the materialistic “positivism” which at that time was enjoying its heyday in academia. No, it was “pop culture” which helped rouse widespread interest in the newly emerging “transpersonal psychologies”.

This found expression through music that,  in symbolic terms, represented a mystical metaphysic beingabout deeper aspects of the psyche; in particular, about God. Through music by groups like the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and some purely instrumental pieces like Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn, a Trojan horse entered Western culture.  God had crept in through a back door. Set in the context of  transpersonal psychology —Jung in particular—symbols used in the music and lyrics could be understood as symbols of the psyche; its healing—integration—the process of indviduation or self-actualisation.

Let me show some of what I mean by quoting lyrics which to many people would be meaningless, but may in fact be deeply spiritual. These, and the evocative music which usually goes with them are what I call “transcendental music”, which I define as being any kind of music which rouses within one higher emotions and sentiments which are not normally experienced in ordinary states of consciousness.

The Beatles are a renowned example, though by no means the most exemplary. They travelled to India to learn meditation and they also had Ravi Shankar teach them to play sitar, giving rise to the name “Raga Rock” for music with lyrics like these, from the song Tomorrow Never Knows: “Turn off your mind; relax and float down-stream: it is not dying. Lay down all thought: surrender to the voice: it is shining. That you may see the meaning of within: it is Being.”

Apart from during their brief flirtation with India, the Beatles like most rock groups were not noted for the spirituality of their lifestyles. But perhaps that is beside the point. Perhaps the artist is but a medium for a message, and should not necessarily be looked on as its embodiment also. Many artists whose work has been of spiritual relevance deny that it is so. Paul McCartney of the Beatles, for instance, has pointed out that people read things into their music which were not there, but that after­wards you cannot deny that they arc there. As he put it in an interview with Alan Aldridge, “We write songs: we know what we mean by them. But in a week someone else says something about it, says that it means that as well, and you can’t deny it. Things take on millions of meanings. I don’t understand it”.[7]

One versed in the transpersonal psychologies would, of course, under­stand it very well. A symbol, be it a dream, a parable, a fairy tale or imagery in a lyric, can take on a thousand relevant interpretations depend­ing on the condition of the individual psyche resonating with it. The meanings of symbols can vary for each individual. That is part of their magic.

The Moody Blues, for example, claimed in a recent BBC radio series that far from being aboutotherwise induced altered states of consciousness, their album To Our Children’s Children’s Children was merely about the wonders of the Apollo moonshots. But with lyrics like the following, the reader may judge for his or her self whether space walks or mind trips are the true subject matter:


Everything’s turning, turning around

See with your mind, leave your body behind

Now that we’re out here open your heart

To the Universe, of which we’re a part.


But if you want to play

Stay right back on Earth

Waiting for rebirth.


Their moral philosophy is simple as it is timeless: Christian as it is Hindu. Those who will “give just a little bit more: take a little bit less, from each other this day” will, throughout life “stand on the Threshold of a Dream”. In short, “So love everybody, and make them your friends.”

In their masterpiece album, In Search of the Lost Chord, the inner Self, the Atman, and its ultimate unity with universal Self, Brahman, is sym­bolised as a (musical) chord. Having earlier in the album with a song about Timothy Leary implied the use of LSD to induce elevated states of consciousness, they say:


Two notes of the Chord, that’s our full scope

But to reach the Chord is our life’s hope

And to name the Chord is important to some

So they give it a word, and the word is


OM (pronounced aum), is the Hindu/Buddhist expression of all Being. And so, as they conclude in On the Threshold of a Dream:


Now you know how nice it feels

Scatter good seed in the fields

Life’s ours for the making

Eternity’s waiting, waiting

For you and me.


The object of the exercise, then, is to see how it feels—to see that spiritual reality is for real. Having achieved that; having obtained empiri­cal proof; the real work of life must then begin—that of scattering good seed. Mystical experience, whether induced by psychedelic or any other means, must never be looked on as a goal in itself. It is merely a pointer, a witnessing that the top of the mountain really does exist and waits to be climbed by those who feel ready, or left alone by those who do not. From Children’s Children again:


If you think it’s a joke, that’s all right

Do what you want to do

I’ve said my piece and I’ll leave it all up to you.


Pink Floyd are another celebrated group whose “weird” music is at times hauntingly beautiful and deeply mystical. Other times it is quite the contrary! There is no secret about the influence which psychedelic experience has had on their music. Here I shall look at just one piece, a track called Echoes which takes up a full side of their early album, Meddle.

Like the main track on their album Atom Heart Mother, the music is tremendously evocative in a sense which has been described as having the timeiess quality of an Indian raga. In symbolic terms which would have delighted Jung, both the lyrics and the music in Echoes seem to portray the individuation process; comprising a journey into the unconscious, a seeking for the Self during the “dark night of the soul”, and finally, a transformation of psychic contents and structure resulting in seif-realisation.

Echoes commences with a regular, hypnotic pipping sound as made by a submarine’s sonar, integrated into the magnificently uplifting and deeply peaceful main theme. An atmosphere of plumbing the ocean’s depths is thus created, and as the music swells in a manner suggestive of inward striving, the vocalist paints the opening scene:


Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air

And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves

The echo of the distant tide comes willowing across the sand

And everything is green and submarine

  The sea is an ancient symbol of the unconscious. The “echo of the distant tide” is suggestive of its atavistic contents—the fundamental constituents of the psyche; “archetypes” in Jungian terminology. And the albatross may be seen as representing the ego, perched outwith the unconscious, yet dependent on it for existence.

The image portrayed by the first verse, then, is one of the composer contemplating the unconscious and what waits to be discovered and integrated within it. The sonar pips and thc albatross’ overhead position suggest that he is already embarking upon his journey, which leads us to the second stanza alluding to the goal sought:


And no-one showed us to the light

And no-one knows the wheres or whys

But something stares and something trys

And starts to climb towards the light


Light and associated objects such as the sun, candle, or fire, are ancient symbols of higher Being, soul, or the “Self” as I shall call it here. The experience of intense light is a common characteristic of mystical ex­perience. The path towards self-discovery is sought by few, and is different for each individual (note Jung’s term, “individuation”). Hence no-one is able to guide the writer or others; only that stirring deep within can advance us on our way.


Strangers passing in the street

By chance two separate glances meet

And I am you, and what I see is me.

And do I take you by the hand

And lead you through the land

And help me understand the best I can?  

  Different parts of the psyche are encountered, to be accepted, recognised as part of the whole, and therefore integrated in full realisation of the writer’s being. Ultimately, the psyches of other people may be included in this process as God-consciousness reveals the fundamental unity of all creation.


And no-one calls us to the land

And no-one crosses there alive

And no-one speaks and no-one tries

And no-one flies around the Sun.


Again, nobody forces us on the journey. But it is a one-way journey. Once embarked upon, there is no going back to the life that was before. You cannot, as Jesus put it, be new wine in an old skin. You cannot cross there with the former self still alive. And you cannot hedge your bets, keeping the destination at a safe orbital distance. God is a question of all or nothing.

At this stage in the music, variations on the main theme suggestive of diving to great depths and then climbing to tremendous heights gradu­ally cease. Strange sound effects suggest chaos—the “dark night of the soul”. These merge into the haunting cries of whales in the ocean. The impression created is one of having attained profound depths in the unconscious; of being amongst its very archetypical constituents.

And then, little by little, the whales give way to the sounds of a rookery— new life; rebirth; yet associated with the crow—a symbol of death [and, in the Tibetan tradition, of eternity]. For transcended, life and death are one.

Now the sonar bleep returns, but this time one hears not only the transmitted pip, but the reflected echo too. The echo quickens. The goal is close. The music begins a majestic re-formation. And then joyfully, triumphantly, the main theme bursts forth again.


And now this is the day you fall

Upon my waking eyes

Inviting and inciting me to rise

And through the window in the wall

Comes streaming in on sunlight wings

A million bright ambassadors of morning.


And no-one sings me lullabies

And no-one makes me close my eyes

So I throw the windows wide

Haunting you to cross the skies!

  The Self (the “Sun”) has been realised. Normal consciousness transcended. The prospects for freedom, for Being, are infinite. No more are we trapped in Plato's cave, lulled asleep to reality. The windows of perception are open. Life is unlimited.

And yes, the shaman, the wicca, is still very much with us in the twentieth century. “If the establishment knew what today’s popular music really is saying”, explained one musician interviewed by Alfred Aronowitz in 1963, “not what the words are saying but what the music itself is saying, then they wouldn’t just turn thumbs down on it. They’d ban it; they’d smash all the records and they’d arrest anyone who tried to play it”.[8]

Burning times all over again? Not quite, but certainly contemporary music has found itself to have few friends in countries dictated by the extreme left or right. In some cases—in Chile, behind parts of the Iron Curtain, and elsewhere—repressive campaigns against radical musicians could honestly be described as witch hunts.

Music is a manifestation of “magic” in the true sense of the word. Magic, as one authoritative wicca defines it, is “the art of changing consciousness at will”. And according to that definition, she continues, “magic encompasses political action, which is aimed at changing consciousness and thereby causing change”.[9]

  The Validity of Induced Mystical Experience

  I have tried to show that since ancient times, there have been close links between the prophets of mystical metaphysic and the use of procedures to alter consciousness. These procedures are varied. They may include the use of psychedelics, but other techniques include prayer, meditation and fasting. (In referring to psychoactive compounds, we must, by the way, clearly distinguish between the psychedelic, i.e. “mind manifesting”, drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and cannabis, which expand consciousness and are generally considered non-addictive and relatively safe in psychologically stable people; and narcotic drugs such as heroin, other opiates, cocaine, etc., which are addictive and do not normally expand consciousness.)

But how valid are such experiences when induced? What right does anybody have to claim that they are, indeed, “mystical”?  Let us take the most difficult category to consider - psychedelic drug induced experience - as an example.

Only a small proportion of psychedelic “trippers” are said to have mystical or “peak” experiences and, usually, only when on high dosages and in conducive circumstances—both inwardly and outwardly. However, studies of the nature of these experiences has generally come to the conclusion that in every describable respect such induced mystical states are the same as “naturally’ occurring ones.[10]  This applies irrespective of the religious background with which it may or may not be associated.

That raises challenging questions about the validity of any sort of mystical experience. Does the ostensible fact that you can find God by munching mushrooms mean that we should discard much of humankind’s spiritual heritage? Is God merely a symptom of brain poisoning? And should we therefore side with Bertrand Russell who trenchantly said “From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes”?

Probably not.[11] For an hallucination is at odds with the “real” world as seen by others. In so far as consensual validation of the percept is lacking, its objective reality must be highly questionable.

Although psychedelics can induce hallucinations projected onto the real world, these are fairly uncommon. The main effect is to act on con­sciousness and therefore perception. Psychedelics appear to work by mimicking certain of the neuro-transmitter chemicals used in the brain to carry impulses from the synapses of one nerve to the next. With more “switches” turned on than normal, the perception of both inner and outer reality is enhanced.

Far from being at odds with normal reality, the psychedelic state under positive circumstances may, according to documented reports, transcend it. The doors of perception are opened. The ego-created distinctions between self and non-self start to dissolve until a sense of undifferentiated mystical one-ness (unio mystica) may be attained.

This can best be illustrated by analogy. Having a mystical experience is a bit like waking up out of a dream. In an ordinary dream, my “greater mind” as it might be called, projects a dream “me” into a dream world where I interact with other dream people, until I wake up and realise that the dream’s only reality has been as a mental fantasy entertained by my now alert “greater mind”.

Likewise, as a person enters into a mystical state she sees that her ordinary self and the mundane world are no more “real” than the dream world appears in retrospect to the awakened sleeper. It becomes intrinsi­cally evident that, at heart, she is not a separate entity. Rather, the greater part of her—that which has never really been “born” in the first place— is bound up in the whole of creation.

Creation itself comprises a mighty cosmic dream, born of love in the mind of her greatest Self, which is one with universal Self, or “God”. “Atman is Brahman”, as the Upanishads put it. Or in Christian terms, we are all “members one of another”—all branches on the vine.

Since ordinary reality is not contradicted but is merely being viewed from a different and apparently broader perspective, there are no episte­mological grounds for suggesting that the mystical experience is any less valid than our every-day experience. Russell’s argument fails because it is not comparing like with like.

In his hypothesis known as emanationism, the philosopher, Henri Bergson, suggested that the brain may act as a kind of “reducing valve” for cosmic consciousness. Researchers into the higher altered states of consciousness have found this to be a useful working hypothesis on the basis that psychedelics, meditation, fasting etc., perhaps reduce the brain’s efficiacy at keeping material out, thereby permitting reality to be perceived at a more fundamental level. Presumably the reason we do not perceive like this all the time is that such a starry-eyed state would not be conducive to the physical survival of the species. Neither would it give much opportunity for spiritual growth by taking up the challenge to be “in this world, but not of it”.

Whatever the truth of these matters, the fact remains that throughout history techniques to act upon consciousness including the use of psychedelics have had a powerful impact on spiritual beliefs, artistic creativity including music, and philosophical thought. As correspondence published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research recently reveals for the first time, C. G. Jung himself concluded that psychedelic experience originates from the “collective unconscious”. Huxley would undoubtedly have concurred, and we can only speculate as to the effects which their recently publicised experiments with mescaline might have had on the thinking of such influential British philosophers in the field of psychical and mystical research as H. H. Price, C. D. Broad and R. C. Zachner. [12]

Although legal constraints since the sixties have effectively clamped the inquisition on further formal study of psychedelic drugs, we should not underestimate the impact their illicit use has had on our culture. Through music and the arts, this touches many more than those who have actually experienced altered states of consciousness. It may be, therefore, that in our modern society the shaman is suppressed, but not eliminated. And in true totemic tradition, he or she changes outward form taking many guises. 



Alastair McIntosh, is Financial Adviser to the South Pacific Appropriate Technology Foundation in Papua New Guinea. He has various publications in the fields of parapsychology, anthropology and metaphysics as well as standard works on PR and marketing for charities.


[1] Harner, M. J., Hallucinogens and Shamanism (New York, Oxford University Press, 1973).

[2] “Starhawk”, Dreaming the Dark (Boston, Beacon Press, 1982).

[3] Schultes, R.. B. and Hofmann, A., Plants of the Gods (UK, McGraw-Hill, 1979).

[4] Schultes and Hofinann, Ibid. 

[5] Schultes and Hofmann, Ibid.

[6] Fuller, F., “Barbarians and Empire” (Sausalito, California, Co-Evolution Quarterly, Summer 1983). 

[7] Eisen, J. (ed.) The Age of Rock : Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution (New York, Random House, 1969). 

[8] Eisen, Ibid. 

[9] “Starhawk”, Dreaming the Dark (Boston, Beacon Press, 1982). 

[10] Tart, C. T. (ed.), Altered States of Consciousness (New York, Wiley, 1969). 

[11] McIntosh, A. I, “Mystical Experience, Hallucination, and Belief in God” in The Christian Parapsychologist, Vol.3 No.1 (December 1978). 

[12] Smythies, J. R., “The Impact of Psychedelic Drugs on Philosophy and Psychical

Research”, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 52, No. 795 (October 1983).



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