- Etymologically, entheogen derives from Greek entheos, “possessed by a god” (which is related to the modern English giddy and Old English gidig, “possessed by a god/spirit”) and genous “produced.” Hence entheogen is literally “generate god or spirit within.” The term has currently gained popularity in describing consciousness-altering substances such as the peyote cactus, datura, ayahuasca vine, and LSD. Related terms are arguably more pejorative, overly generalist, or too specific: drugs is vague and retains negative associations, while visionary plants excludes a number of naturally occurring and synthesized substances and also unhelpfully privileges vision over other senses; psychedelic refers also to a specific, contentious era, and hallucinogen inevitably has connotations of mental aberration (illness) as does psychoactive in the prefix psycho-. Entheogen appears to be more sensitive to shamanic, rather than illegal or “recreational,” use of these substances, but Andy Letcher argues that it presumes a monotheistic ontology. Moreover, indigenous accounts attest that these substances are understood not as significant for what Western science would term active chemical agents, but as other-than-human persons in their own right, especially as helpers. Hence, for ayahuasceros, it is the brew itself that is crucially important rather than the chemical constituent DMT, since the brew is carefully produced and comprises a number of plant-people who help the shaman call upon altered styles of communication with other-than-humans. Notably, none of the popular Western terms discussed here recognize the importance of the purifying and purging aid given by significant helpers.
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.