Moses the Psychonaut: From Entheogens to Biblical Bioterrorism

Moses the Psychonaut:

From Entheogens to Biblical Bioterrorism

by : Cody Noconi

 

All of the Abrahamic traditions hold the character of Moses to one degree of reverence or another. Regardless of where one lands in terms of the factual historicity of the story of Moses and the emancipation of the Tribes of Israel, it is a compelling and thrilling narrative to say the very least. What should be of particular interest to the psychedelic community, is that no matter who originally compiled the story, and for whatever reason, evidence for the employment of psychedelic substances by the Israelites is quite substantial. “Admittedly, the smoking gun is not available to us. However, so many clues present themselves which, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, seem to cohere into an intriguing unified whole. I leave it to the reader to pass his or her judgment.” (Shannon, 2008)

Of course, not every culture recognizes or avails themselves of every psychotropic in a given epoch or environment. Some groups can remain ignorant of highly psychoactive substances, seemingly right under their collective noses. There are dozens of such plants which were endemic to the Sinai region at the professed time of Moses, and this paper rather conservatively highlights only those which adequately fit the descriptions given in the sacred texts.

Moses was allegedly born during during a period of Hebrew enslavement at the hands of the ancient Egyptians. The Pharaoh at the time decided that the enslaved Israelite populations had grown too large, and rather than just free the lot of them, he ordered the execution of newborn Hebrew boys in the region. Sounds a lot easier, right? In order to save her newborn from this massacre, Jochebed, Moses’ mother, secreted him away and placed the wee babe in a reed basket along the Nile. In a wonderful twist of fate, the daughter of said murderous Pharaoh, miraculously finds the baby Moses and adopts him into the royal household. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV)

As an adopted member of the Egyptian royal family, growing up right alongside the Prince, Moses would have been familiar with the esoteric ceremonies and higher orders of learning of at least the some of the priest-class. As such, he would have been well familiar with the use of medicated alcohols and beers, not to mention the wide ranging and well documented pharmacopeia. (Shultes, Hoffman, Ratsch, 1992) When Moses later fled across the Red Sea after killing an Egyptian slave master, he arrived in Midian with what we can only assume, was at the very least a cursory understanding of the medicinal, intoxicating and potentially entheogenic effects of some plants and fungi.

 

Misty Mountains and Burning Bushes

After joining up with the priest Jethro and his band of Midianite shepherds, the next major event in the life of Moses is his experience of theophany and vision of the burning bush. This experience takes place atop Mt. Horeb; a place which will prove of paramount importance to Moses and his early abilities to communicate with Yahveh.

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV)

Interesting to note that during the experience, the burning bush was not consumed by the holy fire. Such visions of divine fire, ego dissolution, time dilation and periods of theophany are regularly reported in the DMT experience. (Strassman, 2000) It is during this experience that Moses has a radical epistemological shift in worldview, realizing his ability and obligation to liberate the tribes of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Edward Knippers, Moses and the Burning Bush.

The sacred staff that Moses receives from Yahveh at this time, with which he and Aaron perform most of their miracles, comes from the same source as the ever-burning bush. Upon receiving said staff, it immediately transforms into a snake, and then back into a staff once more. Visions of transmorphic snakes, are one of the most commonly reported motifs among DMT induced visions. (Shannon, 2008) Apparently this was a reliably reproducible experience, one that Moses and Aaron will repeat later on. This staff has been identified as chitim wood. The same chittim wood that is later used to meticulously construct the tabernacle, and which is more commonly known today as the species acacia. (Orr, 1915)

This overt veneration of acacia is a trope we will see over and over throughout the tale of Moses. One reason for this reverence, could be that there are over 80 varieties of acacia that contain significant quantities of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT in their root bark. Many of these varieties are endemic to the Sinai region in which Mt. Horeb is located.

Dimethyltryptamine can be taken in a variety of ways in order to induce entheogenic effects. Some varieties of acacia contain sufficiently high amounts, that the root bark can be vaporized and inhaled, or fumigated. Benny Shannon suggests that this first communication with Yahveh was brought on by some kind of ayahuasca analogue, which included the incorporation of peganum harmala as the necessary monoamine oxidase enzyme inhibitor. (Shannon, 2008) Although Shannon’s hypothesis comes across as unnecessarily over complicated, Moses would have still needed to build a fire to make the tea. The case for fumigation seems much more likely given that such an experience could have hypothetically occurred unintentionally, such as by carelessly collecting firewood from a dead acacia. It is certainly worth noting that the practice of ritual fumigation pops up some time later inside the tabernacle ceremonies.

John Everett Millais, Victory O Lord (1871)

John Everett Millais, Victory O Lord (1871)

Further on in the story, when the host of Israel flees Egypt, it seems no mere coincidence that the first place the group heads for is Mt. Horeb, otherwise known as the Mountain of God due to the burning bush scenario. Once more, we see Moses making repeated trips up and down the mountain in order to commune with Yahveh. When he does so, “...all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking.” (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV) They saw thunder and the noise of a trumpet? This peculiar choice of language is suspiciously similar to psychedelically induced experiences of synesthesia, wherein the input signals from an individual's sensory organs become confused. For example, one begins to see sound, or feel colors. Clearly there was much more at play at the Mountain of the Lord, than scholars have so far accounted for.

Regardless of the catalyst and delivery method for this first set of communications with the Israelite thunder god, the recurring combination of acacia worship, and a smoking Mt. Horeb in conjunction with a direct experience with Yahveh can no longer be ignored by theologians.

 

Biblical Bioterrorism

After being told that it is his duty to free the enslaved Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, Moses high-tails it back to Egypt to confront his adoptive step-brother, and we get the famous “Let my people go” scene. Yahveh even instructs Aaron and Moses to transform the staff of acacia into a snake once more, which ignites a sort of magical battle with the Egyptian priests. Pharaoh is unimpressed with Moses and Aarons ethnobotanical prowess when the Egyptian priests immediately produce the same ‘miracle’, and as such he refuses to release the Hebrew slaves. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV)

It is important to keep in mind that there is not one shred of tangible evidence to support this supposed period of Hebrew enslavement in Egypt, especially when we take into account the social and structural devastation that the Ten Plagues must have brought on. This lack of evidence however, may simply be due to a long standing misinterpretation of the legend.

Ergot is a fungus that grows on cereal grains, most notably rye, and barley. Ergot poisonings were common in the pre-industrial period and it’s use can be traced back several thousand years. (Shultes, Hoffman, Ratsch, 1992) In Europe, during the Middle Ages, Ergot poisoning was known as St Anthony’s Fire, and was responsible for mass hallucinations and the death of countless individuals who had eaten bread or other foods which had been prepared from ergot infested grains.

...from which LSD and its psychoactive relatives are derived. Ergot is the...mushroom Claviceps purpurea, which is parasitic on rye, wheat, barley and other cultivated grains, and which also infests wild grasses. After infection of the host grass with spores (technically ascospores), the mushroom forms purplish sclerotia, which project from the husk of the ripening grain. Some...may be harvested with the grain and ground into flour, which they then contaminate with toxic alkaloids. (Ott, 1993)

Ergot infestations are easily identified and isolated among cultivated barley and wheat fields. As the alleged slave class, the Hebrews would have been ingrained into every level of Egyptian society. They would have worked the grain fields, threshed out those harvests, then run the bakeries and breweries which supplied the rest of Egypt with its staple commodities, and finally delivered those commodities to the ruling class. The series of plagues that terrorize the Egyptians after Pharaoh's refusal to free the Jewish peoples, can all be interpreted as a prolonged ergot poisoning.

James J. Tissot, The Signs on the Door

The final plague, the death of the firstborn of Egypt, is eerily analogous to the late stage symptoms of long term ergot poisoning. Symptoms of ergot poisoning, are absolutely devastating on the body and include intense, alternating feelings of heat and cold, the development of gangrene sometimes resulting in loss of limb, delirious hallucinations, and severe gastric disturbances usually ending in death.(Ott, 1993)

The ‘mark across the threshold’ that spared the angel of death from entering Jewish homes, would also work to alert the breweries and bakeries of which homes to deliver the edible or ‘safe’ batches. (Heinrich, 1995) The Hebrew community in Egypt would have certainly had the means, method, and motive to administer a truly biblical onslaught onto Pharaoh and his people. Immediately after the death of the Egyptian first born, Moses parts the Red Sea and leads the Israelite people out of Egypt, presumably while the Egyptians are still mourning their dead and/or strung out from Yahveh knows how long of ergot exposure. The tribes of Israel certainly had enough time to gather the herd animals and a good portion of Egyptian loot as well, before leaving the area forever.

Once more, if we take into account that there has yet to be any archaeological evidence found to substantiate any of these events (rivers flowing red, locusts, toads, boils, fire from the sky, ending in mass die offs, etc.), the plagues of Egypt sound a lot like hallucinations rather than the epic events described in the texts.

 

Myco-Manna – The Bread from Heaven

While the tribes are on their way to the Mountain of God, the provisions were running scarce. Moses then produces the miracle of Manna. Every morning, Yahveh would bless the people with what is described as a bread or wafer of sorts, which would miraculously appear and satiate the people's hunger. The word manna comes from the name given to it by the Israelites themselves upon first encountering the mysterious and miraculous bread, which can be roughly translated into “what is it?”

And it came to pass, as Aaron spake unto the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and, behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud...At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God. And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host. And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV)

Since Yahveh also blessed the children of Israel with quails to eat, must we assume that manna was to feed the belly as well, or is this an illusion to spiritual hunger?

The people of Israel are then given specific instructions as to the method and amount harvested each day. Each was to collect an amount ‘according to what he eats’. If more is collected than is needed, the bread is infested with maggots when the next day comes. Moses then goes on to assert that the host of Israel, after ingesting the miraculous bread from heaven, envisioned the glory of god, all at the same time. This is one of the only scenarios in the texts of simultaneous hallucinations en mass.

“The miraculous capacity of manna to satiate, in all quantities great or small, may be understood not as a fabulous motif, but as a straightforward discussion of the recommended dosage...‘Gather of it, every man according to what he eats.’ He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that had gathered little had no lack. Each had gathered according to what he ate.” (Merkur, 2000)

The popular interpretation of Manna emerging at this point, is that it is another direct reference to ergot. (Merkur, 2000) Ergot mushrooms fitting nicely into the general description of ‘small as hoar frost’, whereas most psilocybin varieties are often much larger. The problem with this idea, is that the Israelites would have worked the grain fields and processed those harvests as mentioned earlier, and so would have been well familiar with ergot infestations. If so, then why name the new bread from heaven, ‘what is it’?

JamesTissot, The Gathering of the Manna

JamesTissot, The Gathering of the Manna

While the host of Israel, and in particular the priest class, likely held the secrets of ergot alkaloids as illustrated by the ten plagues, psilocybin or panaeolus mushrooms are a far better candidate when it comes to the descriptions given of manna. Panaeolus varieties in particular can be quite small, and also decay extremely fast when left out in the sun without employing proper harvesting and drying techniques. (Stamets, 1996) Both psilocybin and panaeolus varieties are safer in almost every respect, and also have a better reputation for positive experiences.

There is another reason that psilocybin varieties should be re-examined when it comes to this hypothesis. According to the King James Version of the Bible, the Israelite camp contained approximately 600,000 people along with the cattle and sheep herds. Even if the true population size were a fraction of that number, that is a lot of human and animal excrement to contend with on a daily basis in a desert environment. Where and how did these people deal with their literal shit? Also consider the dung that must have been left by the quail landing next to the camp every evening. The mind reels at the amount of waste that must have been produced every day by this host.

In a culture that venerated cleanliness and hygiene to such a degree, the majority of the herd animals would have been set to graze on the outskirts of the camp so as to keep the walkways relatively clear of fecal matter. The human waste would similarly be reserved for, or transported to the outskirts of the camps. This seems like a great way to establish steady nutrient sources for the fungal colonies. Not only would the mushrooms help break down hazardous materials, but would produce prolific amounts of hallucinogenic material as a miraculous byproduct. What an otherworldly occurrence it must have seemed that the sacred food source which induced visions of god, followed the camp wherever it went, appearing every morning on the outskirts of camp speckled and crowned in precious dew. This would conveniently explain the traveling miracle of Manna and it’s regular appearance ‘round about the host.’ (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV)

 

The Tabernacle – A Hot Box Powered Line to Yahveh

After descending the Mountain of the Lord for the first time since freeing the host of Israel, Moses instructs the tribes to build the tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant. Prominently featured in the instructions is the chittim wood, which has been confidently identified as a species acacia. The acacia is not only a motif on the main panels of the ark, but also the wood used to build and transport the object, which were afterward inlaid with gold. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV) The tabernacle itself, the large tent structure in which the Ark rested, was constructed with acacia wood as well. Once again, the veneration of acacia to this degree strongly supports the DMT/acacia hypothesis.

The holy of holies was the room at the back of the tabernacle in which the high priests would commune with Yahveh. Before entering the holy of hollies, these priests would be ‘anointed’ or massaged in a psychotropic oil. Author Chris Bennett makes a convincing case for cannabis being a key ingredient in this oil, which would certainly account for both it's psychoactive and healing properties. (Bennett, 1996) Although the precise contents and recipe for this oil is hotly debated at times, (Bienenstock, 2013) the oil is psychoactive whatever the case, it would have been to one degree or another, a relaxing and euphoric quality to it. (Loftis, 2015)

Another practice that has yet to receive the attention it deserves, is that the priests would also ingest pellets of frankincense alongside the showbread during these rituals in the tabernacle. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV) Frankincense, when ingested in larger quantities, will begin to kill off the natural bacterial flora found in the gut. (de Rapper S, 2012) Scholar must then reconsider it’s role in the tabernacle ritual, and frankincense should certainly be scientifically reanalyzed as a potential monoamine oxidase inhibitor.

High priest offering incense on the altar; illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop, "Treasures of the Bible," published 1894.

High priest offering incense on the altar; illustration from Henry Davenport Northrop, "Treasures of the Bible," published 1894.

After the high priest was suitably ‘anointed’ in psychotropic oil, and had ingested a possible MAOI, he was then ready to enter the holy of holies and commune with Yahveh. As the name suggests, this room was of paramount importance to the Israelites. It was separated from the rest of the tabernacle by a very heavy cloth (the thickness of a man’s hand), which effectively shut out a good deal of light and sound. Once inside, the priest would then burn incense in huge quantities, turning the holy of holies into an effective hot box of sorts. (Nemu, 2016) It is more than just mere coincidence, that only after all of these ritual preparations, cleansings, anointings, and fumigations, that the priest could properly commune with Yahveh on behalf of the tribes. While thus anointed and receiving instruction from a thunder god, the priests were not allowed to leave the tabernacle, under pain of death.

Lastly, a careful reader must take note that the texts describe the tribes of Israel following the guidance of Yahveh for forty years, in the form of a pillar of cloud or smoke. (The Holy Bible, 1611 KJV) When one considers that the tabernacle must have looked like a Dr. Dre video when the priests finally emerged from the holy of holies, madly dictating their communications from the thunder god, this description of the pillar of smoke seems transparently obvious.

Although our ancestors did not use the same words as we do today, they clearly appreciated the variables dose, set, and setting. The tabernacle is a prime example of absolutely masterfully crafted execution of those variables, specific to that culture and time.

 

 

Thus far, this hypothesis has been largely limited to one substance or entheogenic catalyst, which is ludicrous considering the wide-range of applications and side effects described by the Abrahamic traditions. If the greater academic world is to take this reanalysis seriously, then psychedelic researchers need to be particularly wary of one answer solutions and parroting information without first evaluating its merit.

Once the entire story of Exodus has been reanalyzed from a multidisciplinary and open minded perspective, the birth of the Abrahamic traditions begins to take on a new light. Clearly the tribes of Israel had adopted and incorporated a well observed and broad ranging pharmacopoeia. Whoever first wrote this story of Moses, and for whatever purpose, what is interesting is that intoxicating plant medicines made their way into the narrative nonetheless. The constant themes of acacia veneration, in conjunction with the consumption of other psychoactive plants such as cannabis or mandrake have gone unappreciated for far too long. When one takes into account Yahveh the thunder god giving guidance through pillars of smoke, the chain obvious motifs should be too obvious to ignore or glaze over any longer. Theologians and researchers of religious history must take a calculated step backwards and begin to fairly reexamine these metaphorical breadcrumbs which were left behind in the major religious texts of the world.

 

 

References:

  1. Shannon, B (2008). Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture, 1(1), pp. 54-74.

  2. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Exodus 2:3.

  3. Shultes R, Hoffman A, Ratsch C, (1992) Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: VM: Healing Arts Press.

  4. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Exodus 3:2-4

  5. Strassman, R (2000). DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Rochester, VA: Park Street Press.

  6. Shannon, B (2008). Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture, 1(1), pp. 54-74.

  7. Orr, J (1915). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Chicago, IL: Howard-Severance Co. Entry for ACACIA.

  8. Shannon, B (2008). Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture, 1(1), pp. 54-74.

  9. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Exodus 20:18.

  10. Ibid. Exodus 17:10.

  11. Shultes R, Hoffman A, Ratsch C, (1992) Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: VM: Healing Arts Press, pp. 102-105.

  12. Ott, J (1993). Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History. Occidental, CA: Jonathan Ott Books, pp. 120.

  13. Ibid. pp. 121.

  14. Heinrich, C (1995). Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy. Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, pp. 75-78.

  15. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Exodus 16:10-14.

  16. Ibid. Exodus 20:18.

  17. Merkur, D (2000). The Mystery of Manna. Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, pp. 14.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Stamets, P (1996) Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide. Emeryville, CA: Ten Speed Press.

  20. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Exodus 16:10-14.

  21. Ibid. Exodus 26:37.

  22. Bennett, C (1996) Kaneh Bosm: Cannabis in the Old Testament. Cannaculture [online] Available at: http://www.cannabisculture.com/content/1996/05/01/1090 [Accessed October 10, 2017]

  23. Bienenstock, D (2013) The Anointed One: Did Jesus Perform His Miracles with Cannabis Oil? Vice [online] Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/bn5z7v/did-jesus-perform-his-miracles-with-cannabis-oil [Accessed October 10, 2017]

  24. Loftis, K (2015) Psychoactive Plants in the Bible. Waking Times [online] Available at: http://www.wakingtimes.com/2015/05/30/psychoactive-plants-in-the-bible/ [Accessed October 10, 2017]

  25. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Leviticus 24:7.

  26. de Rapper S, Van Vuuren SF, Kamatou GP, Viljoen AM, Dagne E. (2012). The additive and synergistic antimicrobial effects of select frankincense and myrrh oils--a combination from the pharaonic pharmacopoeia. Lett Appl Microbiol, 54(4) : 352-8

  27. Nemu, D (2016). Entheogens in the Bible. Beyond Psychedelics 2016 [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaf1nrN51N8 [Accessed October 10, 2017]

  28. King James Version (1611). The Holy Bible, Exodus 13:21.