In protohistoric times, the worshipers of the gods sought out mystic union with their deities by means of bodily mortification and ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs. These practices are spelled out both in the Rig Veda of India and the Chinese Book of Songs. In the Veda, Indra is worshiped in a ritual that includes large doses of soma. The Book of Songs, compiled by Confucius from the many texts of poetry and myth at his disposal, contains repeated accounts of trance and religious ekstasis. In the twenty-second chapter of St. John's Revelation, the Koine Greek term translated as sorcerers in the King James Bible is pharmakeusin Literally, this word denotes those who use drugs to achieve arcane effects. Since plants were the mainstay of medical science in those distant days, a secondary meaning might be applied: herbalists. Robin Fox, in his book Pagans and Christians, argues that the role of such figures as the Sybil of Cumae and the Delphic prophetess in relation to ancient society was synonymous with our modern profession of psychotherapist.
Turning specifically to Greek mythology, there are various references to herbalism and herbal "magic." For instance, metamorphic episodes-such as that of Apollo and Daphne-are related. In these tales, either a god or the beloved of said god is transformed into a sacred plant and ascribed the character of the divinity. It is believed that the celebration of the Eleusian Mysteries involved the consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms to effect union of the initiate with the gods.
At this point, a brief summary of the events leading to Odysseus' underworld experience is in order. The hero and his crew make landfall on an island ruled by the Sorceress, Circe. According to several traditions, she is daughter to Helios, the sun god. When encountered by an advance party commanded by Eurylokhos, Circe transforms all the men into pigs by means of a powerful drug insinuated into food and drink. Eurylokhos escapes this fate and is able to warn Odysseus. Hermes then descends to instruct Odysseus in how to overcome the witch. It is curious that, instead of displaying his power to nullify Circe's magic, Hermes arms Odysseus with a sprig of a plant called moly. Evidently, the aura of herbalism was such that only more herbalism could compete. Having rendered the sorceress helpless, Odysseus is persuaded by her to remain on the island for a full year. At year's end, Circe advises the hero to journey to Hades in order that he may learn from the shade of the blind prophet, Tiresias, how a return to Ithaca can be safely accomplished.
If we recall the fact that witches and warlocks enjoyed the status of psychotherapists and counselors in classical times, the "magic" involved in helping Odysseus reach Hades can easily be discerned. Let us imagine the preparation for his "voyage."
The hero has reclined on a reed mat and is repeating the mantra given him by the witch. His body is growing numb after drinking a proffered cup of fermented honey mixed with sacred herbs. Circe annoints his body with pomade-possibly containing henbane and belladonna, the herbs used by medieval witches to gain the ability to fly-as she begins her own prayers to Hecate and Hades. As Odysseus…