Definition of “Entheogen”

Quick Definition: mind altering, psychedelic, spirit inducing, shamanistic substance

Some of you who stumble upon this website may be slightly puzzled by a word in our header that is probably unfamiliar to many: Entheogen. Converted into a noun, the word becomes Entheogen, and the two terms have recently become quite popular among aficionados of botanically and chemically fueled visionary experiences. Rolling off the tongue somewhat easier than the earlier “psychedelic” and also free of that word’s accumulated cultural baggage, they have become the terms of choice for many modern psychonauts to refer to their plant and chemical teachers and the states of consciousness that result from their ingestion; in fact, there is now even a print publication devoted to such matters entitled “The Entheogen Review.” The term means literally ‘becoming divine within’. Or…

En = Within, Inner
Theo = Divine, God
Gen = Becoming, Creating

This is not a word that is destined to replace any other word such as “drug” or “psychedelic”, but as a rule, it’s a bit more inclusive of all the substances that produce altered states of mind.

Jonathon Ott wrote of the creation of this word in his book (page 37) of “The Age Of Entheogens / The Angels Dictionary” :

In 1978 R. Gordon Wasson convened an informal committee of researchers interested in the ethnopharmacology of shamanic inebriants, to look for a substitute for inadequate terms like ‘hallucinogenic’ (which implied delusion and/or falsity, besides suggesting pathology to psychotherapists), ‘psyichotomimetic’ (implying also pathology) and ‘psychedelic’ (besides being a pejorative term prejudicing shamanic inebriants in the eyes of persons unfamiliar with the field, this term had become so invested with connotations of 1960s western ‘counterculture’ as to make it incongruous to speak of a shaman ingesting a psychedelic plant).

I have summarized the history of psychedelic and hallucinogenic in my recent book Pharmacotheon. Members of our committee were classical scholars Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples of Boston University, and independent entheobotanist Jeremy Bigwood, Wasson and me. One of Ruck’s early suggestions was epoptic from the Greek epoptai [ …singular in ancient Greek is “epoptes”… 😉 ] to describe initiates to the Eleusinian Mysteries who had seen ta hiera, ‘the holy’. Wasson didn’t like this term… as he said, it sounded like ‘pop, goes the weasel’! I proposed pharmacotheon, which had the advantage of already being in the Oxford English Dictionary , but it seemed too much a mouthful, besides not adapting gracefully to the adjectival form.

We finally settled on the neologism entheogenic, from the Greek entheos, a term used in the classical world to describe prophetic or poetic inspiration. The term means literally ‘becoming divine within’, and can be seen as the user realizing that the divine infuses all of the creation, or specifically that the entheogenic plant is itself infused with the divine. It is not a theological term, makes no reference to any deity, and is not meant to be a pharmacological term for designating a specific chemical class of drugs (psychedelic, for example,has come to be seen by some sensu strictu as a term to designate mescaline-like B-phenethylamines or DMT-like tryptamines). Rather, it is a cultural term to include all of the shamanic inebriants – sacraments, plant teachers, the stock-in-trade of shamans the world over.

As Bernard Ortiz de Montellano has pointed out, this word best reflects traditional conceptions of shamanic inebriation, as indicated by ancient Nahuatl terms itech quinehua ‘it takes possession of him’ or itech quiza ‘it comes out in him’ to describe this (Ortiz de Montellano 1990]. We launched the neologism in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, in an issue which I edited and in which I suggested the name be chamged to Journal of Entheogenic Drugs . This didn’t come to pass, but I think I influenced the editors to change the name to Journal of Psychoactive Drugs two years later, consigning psychedelic ever more to the obscurity it deserves. By my count, our new word has appeared in print in at least seven languages; the major European languages plus Catalan, and has been widely accepted by many leading experts in the field. I expect the recent publication of my Pharmacotheon to establish the word more solidly in the Englsih-, German-, and Spanish-speaking worlds.”

The meaning of the word Entheogen was told by Gordon Wasson.