Essential Substances

In ESSENTIAL SUBSTANCES, subtitled “a cultural history of intoxicants in society,” Richard Rudgley strives to provide a context for modern use and abuse of mind-altering drugs. This context includes an amalgamation of history, alchemy, science, mysticism, religion, occultism, botany, and witchcraft.

Rudgley uses the term “essential substances” to refer to intoxicants traditionally classified into four groups: hallucinogens (various mushrooms, peyote, marijuana); inebriants (alcohol and solvents); hypnotics (tranquilizers and narcotics); and stimulants (tobacco, cocaine, tea, coffee). He then proceeds to describe in greater or less detail the functions of these substances in various societies, offering evidence of their use in one capacity or another since before time was recorded. What emerges is an overwhelming collusion of anecdotes, artifacts, and theory suggesting the inextricable connection intoxicants have and have had with both the spiritual and daily rituals of the societies and tribes who use them. Rudgley suggests that it is only within the last one hundred years that the use of intoxicants has become divorced from its role as a spiritual aid. Politics and technology are largely responsible for this rending, which has led to widespread misuse of intoxicants and a disavowal of the good that can come from an altered state of conscious.

Rudgley relies heavily on scientific research and makes very little conjecture of his own. ESSENTIAL SUBSTANCES contains many photographs and illustrations which are beneficial and provocative. The use of intertextual citations, however, is overabundant, frequently unilluminating and ultimately distracting. Nevertheless, the author does succeed in showing how political, legal, economic, religious, and ceremonial life all shape the way psychoactive drugs are used. Rudgley opens the door of debate surrounding the issues of legal and illegal intoxicants as viewed by contemporary western civilization, and leaves any conclusions to be drawn from the evidence presented to that of the reader.