The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios by Marlene Dobkin de Rios

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros and Ethnobotanists
Marlene Dobkin de Rios
Park Street Press, 2009
190 pages

Note: This review is by Bronwen Forbes, who has been a huge help in cleaning up the last of the backlog of review books.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been all that interested in reviewing this book. Even though I grew up in the 1970s, my drug of choice has always been alcohol, not marijuana, not hash, not (passé though it may have been by then) LSD. My chosen Pagan path cannot under any definition be considered shamanic. However, over this past winter I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig reading tarot cards at a local shop that sold and promoted ethnobotanicals. When the store was raided and preemptively temporarily shut down by a SWAT team (literally) in anticipation of a state bill making the pot-like K2 illegal (K2 brought about $7,000 profit into the shop a day) I suddenly became very interested in ethnobotanicals, their history, and why the Powers That Be shut down a shop over a substance that wasn’t even illegal yet.

The Psychedelic Journey didn’t answer my questions, but it did provide some very interesting insight into why naturally hallucinogenic plants are such a big deal for a culture – whether that culture is “for” them or “against” them. de Rios did most of her academic research in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, but was able to apply much of what she learned to the drug culture in America.

What de Rios learned, or at least what she was most interested in studying, is how the ritual and cultural influences surrounding the consumption of ethnobotanicals (native hallucinogenic plants) impact the user’s experience. Here in the 21st century we may say “Well duh!” at the notion that one’s background and cultural orientation influences one’s altered-state experience, but back in the 1960s and 1970s this was apparently a totally new idea.
Knowing that de Rios is an academic, and having ready my share of dry, scholarly research (I was first editor for my husband’s Ph.D dissertation in ancient history), I expected to be bored silly by this book. I wasn’t. de Rios writes in a very accessible, easy style that even a novice in the field – like myself – can understand.

For the mainstream Pagan community, The Psychedelic Journey probably isn’t going to be very interesting or very useful, although the references to bufotonin (prime ingredient in old witches’ flying ointment recipes) are interesting. For anyone following a more shamanic path, I’m sure that de Rios’ insights in the field of ethnobotany and how native healers around the world use those plants will be of great value to their personal spiritual practice.

Four and a half paws out of five

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The Teachings of Don Juan – Carlos Castaneda – January BBBR

The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
Carlos Castaneda
University of California Press, 1998
215 pages

While I’ve read de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, I’m not going to attempt to prove whether don Juan Matus actually existed, or whether he was a creation of Carlos Castaneda himself. Instead, I’m going to focus on the quality of this, his first book.

First, I really have to question whether this really is a “Yaqui way of knowledge”. There’s no connection between the Yaqui culture and what don Juan talks about. According to, among other places, the official Pascua Yaqui website, there’s no mention of any of the hallucinogenic plants that Castaneda speaks of, though perhaps more importantly Castaneda never brings up things that are culturally important to the Yaqui, such as the deer dancer or flowers, nor their language. While shamanism isn’t always the same as the main religion of a culture, there are still cultural elements in it. This in and of itself makes me suspicious as to the cultural validity of the material, never mind the functional validity.

Functionally this book is a disaster. I’ve been told you have to “read between the lines” to really get what don Juan was saying. However, all I read is a lot of obfuscation of lore and mysticism. We’re given a few tips and tricks for how to deal with the spirits of some hallucinogenic plants, with no reasons as to why these practices are important. Occasionally there’s something basic and functional, such as the lesson of “finding one’s place”, but this should not be used as a practical text. Castaneda’s analysis is so-so; again, lack of connection between don Juan’s teachings and the actual Yaqui culture is a major flaw.

I would have respected this book a lot more if it had been presented from the beginning as either a novel, or a book “based on a true” story without claiming to be an anthropological breakthrough. As for the claim that it’s a huge breakthrough in popular entheogen lore–popular doesn’t always mean accurate or good quality. There were numerous researchers of various hallucinogens prior to Castaneda; for example, in the 1950s R. Gordon Wasson along with Valentina Povlovna, his wife, went through a series of experiments in Mexico with psilocybin mushrooms. Wasson later cowrote this article in Life magazine about his experiences. Real names were used, people who were traceable were cited, and photos of the rituals were taken–much more respectable than Castaneda’s attempts at mystifying the reader.

I’m pretty underwhelmed. The only saving grace was that it was an entertaining read, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Castaneda was describing trips he’s actually been on. Reportedly the later books have less entheogen use and more teachings, so I may check them out at a later date. Still, I recommend this only as a way to familiarize yourself with Castaneda’s work and for entertainment only–in other words, don’t try this at home, kids!

One and a half pawprints out of five.

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Animals and Psychedelics – Giorgio Samorini

Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness
Giorgio Samorini
Inner Traditions, 2002
97 pages

I had heard good things about this book, which apparently is pretty well unique in its field (not a surprise there). It’s really more of a long academic paper in paperback book format, but it’s worth the read.

The first part of the book is dedicated to defining what a drug is and what its inherent functions are. He also introduces us to the basic idea of animals deliberately seeking out specific plants (even carnivorous animals) to meet certain ends beyond nutrition–to aid in healing, or to alter the state of consciousness the animals are in.

The bulk of the book is composed of specific examples of animals drugging themselves. More well-known examples, such as cats getting high on catnip, or elephants seeking both natural and manmade alcohol, are cited. However, Samorini also discusses California robins gorging themselves on holly berries, caribou and reindeer devouring Amanita muscaria, and drunken slugs. It would seem that drug-induced altered states are found from insects to mammals, from the Arctic to the savannah, and are definitely not limited to the human animal.

The final chapter is where the author really shows off his ideas. These can be summarized thus: that animals do, indeed, intentionally drug themselves, and that the resultant altered states of consciousness are a part of evolution. While I agree with the first half of this, there’s much evidence lacking in the second. We have yet to show a definite connection between animal intoxication, and the changes in a species’ behavior, which he postulates. However, in Samorini’s defense, this is such a niche area of research that only has a handful of people studying it that this particular book is pretty much the first one to focus exclusively on it, or so he says. I’m inclined to agree, as it’s the only book I know of either on the topic or–for that matter–by this author.

Overall, I really enjoyed this brief but good read. While the final evidence isn’t complete, this is understandable in light of the limited research available. However, it is a groundbreaking text, IMO, in the area of chemognosis, as it supports the idea that seeking altered states through drugs is natural, rather than an unhealthy human compulsion that inevitably leads to ruin. The inclusion of cases of animals being addicted to alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, right along with marijuana, datura and psilocybin mushrooms, is also useful for showing that intoxication doesn’t discriminate on the basis of human choices.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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