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The Stone(d) Age: Altered Consciousness Past and Present

Studying the Stone Age is almost so boring that it’s rude, right? Researcher Yulia Ustinova has the right idea (second only to studying history while actually stoned) by approaching ancient peoples specifically to find out what type of mind-altering shenanigans they were into back then.

Her research focuses mainly on the role of Greek religion within society, and her current project is entitled “Mania: Altered States of Consciousness and Insanity in Ancient Greece.” Sounds entertaining to say the least. Among a ton of papers and chapters in collective volumes, Ustinova has written two books entitled: "The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom: Celestial Aphrodite and the Most High God" and "Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind. Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth." She currently teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but has also taught in London and Chicago and conducted research in Leningrad. Suffice it to say she’s pretty legit.

Her article “Consciousness Alteration Practices in the West from Prehistory to Late Antiquity” gives an overview of the people, practices, and potentially harmful substances we can study beginning with the Stone Age. The specific stories she mentions can be understood outside of their cultural context, making them easy for us uncultured swine to understand what they’re all about.

So let’s rewind a few years.

Not your average refrigerator art

PREHISTORY: What a mystery

Because humans in the Stone Age didn’t communicate with writing, we are left with their art, i.e. cave paintings, for clues about their experiences with altered consciousness. We have vague ideas that they did indeed have these experiences, because their drawings tend to mimic certain visual hallucinations like zigzags, grids, and dots. Some consider these images “embodied metaphors expressing subjective feelings of death” which describe an individual’s experience of altered consciousness. In the Neolithic period, art started resembling certain visual phenomena like spirals, which according to modern shamans may represent doorways between dimensions. From Paleolithic to Neolithic eras, people began using various other methods of altering their consciousnesses, including:

  • Music and Dance- Picture lots of repetitive stomping and banging on things.
  • Psychoactive plants- While there is little hard evidence that hunter-gatherers used them intentionally, it's highly likely they were aware of the plants' effects, because, c'mon.
  • Opium- Accounts surfaced in the Neolithic era.
  • Alcohol- Accounts showed up in the 4th millennium in eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

It's likely that all of these were used in a religious context.

PROTOHISTORY: Or as I like to call it, Brotohistory

Protohistoric peoples are less mysterious because they began leaving texts giving us the dirty details. Herodotus gives the first account of a “purification rite” involving hemp seeds as a hallucinogen. This showed that in Iranian-speaking cultures, hallucinogens were used in religious ceremonies, and that other Europeans used hemp as a psychoactive substance. Also, accounts from this time period give us more information about the Germans, Celts, and a few other peoples beginning to use alcohol in their cultures.

File:Levant (orthographic projection).png
Geographical reference

ANCIENT NEAR EAST: Things get interesting

In the Ancient Near East, which Ustinova clarifies as being “part of the West because the Mediterranean world has always served as a bridge between Northern Europe and the Levant,” we find more of these kooks using opium and other plants like water lilies for mind-altering. In several cultures such as Minoan and Egyptian, opium and other plants were most likely used specifically to alter states of consciousness. They also used beer and wine in social and ritual contexts. Around this time period, people started believing that altered states of consciousness were linked to prophesy giving. The Mari texts from 18th century BCE give counts of men and women “possessed” by spirits and they named them ecstatics or respondents. These texts detail the culture's perception of prophetic moments. Furthermore, in ancient Israel, what they called “inspired prophecy” played a huge role in the culture. For example, Ezekiel’s vision in the Old Testament gives a primary recollection of altered consciousness. His experience takes on several hallucinatory forms: visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, and kinesthetic. This may have been some form of synesthesia.

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
His beard is full of secrets.

ANCIENT GREECE: The really good stuff

In Ancient Greece, some versions of this “madness” were sought and revered, and others were looked down upon. States of altered consciousness were viewed as a blessing if "the divine" had inspired them. Plato named four different types of “god-induced frenzy”: prophetic, initiatory, poetic, and erotic. In Greece, someone had to be possessed by a god to gain inspiration—an inspired person was seen as a medium between two realms. The terms used for these experiences were “enthousiasmos” or “mania.”

  • Prophetic: There were many methods seers or prophetic priests used to induce this state of prophetic “enthousiasmos”: drinking sacred water, dipping feet into sacred water, shutting themselves in a temple, mounting sacred structures, fasting, seclusion, and many more. People involved in these frenzies were disposed to hallucinations because of their lifestyles and the rituals they underwent in preparation. One example of this was the “Daimonion of Socrates” by Plutarch. This detailed an out-of-body experience of a man who, in a “prepared” state, enters an oracular crypt and experiences some larger-than-life sensations, leading him to profound conclusions about his mortality. Such mystery rites were directly relevant to the individual, and were aimed to influence that person’s attitude toward life and death.
  • Initiatory: The most important objective of Greek initiations was to make participants live through a certain experience; they
    Eleusinian Mysteries

    had to be inducted into a certain state of mind to achieve it. Ustinova asks us to consider the questions: what was the nature of the experience, and what methods were used to make the initiated “fit for the purpose”? The pay off for this ritual was that the individual gained peace of mind and acceptance of death. They were essentially forced to endure death and learn not to fear it. This mirrors modern individuals who experience life threatening situations (such as a heart attack or trauma injury) and come back from the experience with a whole new personality or outlook on life.

  • Poetic: Lastly, in this era it was believed that poetry and prophecy sprung from the same source and that poets inspired by muses must "celebrate past and future."

The Greeks studied many ways to liberate their souls from their bodies at will, including meditation, bringing themselves to the verge of death, welcoming possession, and so on. They viewed this separation of the body and soul as the ultimate way to gain wisdom--a wisdom that was not attainable when the soul was restricted by the body.

ROMAN EMPIRE: Basically copycats

Goddess Isis

Lastly, Ustinova examines the Roman Empire, which essentially adopted the consciousness-altering practices of the Greeks when the Greek and Near East cultures flooded theirs. This led to mysteries such as the Greco-Roman Mystery of Isis; initiates were made to feel the anguish of the goddess Isis and live through it. They approached the "threshold of death" and experienced contact with the divinity. The Roman Empire also birthed Plotinus, the Father of Wetstern Mysticism.




From the Stone Age to Late Antiquity, individuals definitely experienced and experimented with altered states of consciousness. As time passed, accounts and records became more specific, individualized, and culturally relevant. These events and people have extreme influence in the development of human history, and the study of such practices is still very relevant today.

So the next time you're bored in history class, wondering how it's possible that at one point the Austrian army actually attacked itself to the point of self-inflicted decimation, just remember it could be due to the fact that they were probably high on opium. #history.