Books Society, Politics & Philosophy Essential Substances

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Pages: 202

Language: English

Publisher: Arktos Media Ltd (23 Oct. 2014)

By: Richard Rudgley(Author)

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Richard Rudgley's first book, Essential Substances, was the winner of the British Museum Prometheus Award and hailed as a masterpiece by the Director of Harvard Botanical Museum, the world's leading authority on hallucinogenic plants. It is still one of the few books to have explored the role of drugs in the religious, political, economic and sexual life of our species from prehistory to the present day, covering a range of cultures as diverse as the Amazonian Indians, the Scythians of the ancient world and the witches of Medieval Europe alongside inner city crack and drugs in the counterculture. It is a magical tour of the fantastic and often bizarre world of intoxicants peopled by tribesmen and mystics, statesmen and writers, housewives and yuppies. Rudgley cogently shows how the significance of these substances extends beyond simple pleasure to the economic, political, and sexual life of a community. In the process, he challenges our assumptions that deem certain intoxicants socially and legally acceptable, while others remain taboo. Essential Substances remains a timely, much-needed reconsideration of the roles intoxicants play in our lives and society. Added for this edition is a new appendix, 'A Psychoactive Bestiary'.'A splendid contribution to the new wave of scholarship that is forcing a different approach to our ages-old fascination with hallucinogenic plants and altered states.Richard Rudgley is to be congratulated' - Terence McKenna, author of Food of the Gods and True Hallucinations'Should be required reading for all legislators who think disliked substances can be made to vanish by means of criminal sanctions' - Andrew Weil MD, author of The Natural Mind'A unique contribution to the literature on intoxicants...destined to have a tremendous effect on how future writings treat the history and contemporary use of drugs.In short, the book is truly a masterpiece' - Richard Evans Schultes, Director Emeritus of the Harvard Botanical Museum'This book will help to illuminate our own arbitrary and confused attitudes' - Hanif KureishiRichard Rudgley is a critically acclaimed author and TV presenter whose books have been translated into twelve languages. He was born in Hampshire, England in 1961. After receiving a first class degree in Social Anthropology and Religious Studies at the University of London, he continued his studies in ethnology, museum ethnography and prehistory at the University of Oxford. In 1991 he became the first winner of the British Museum Prometheus Award which resulted in the publication of his first book, Essential Substances: A Cultural History of Intoxicants. His equally well-received book, The Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive Substances, was published in 1998. In the same year his book Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age presented overwhelming evidence that the historical civilisations owed a much greater cultural debt to their prehistoric ancestors than is generally accepted.He has written and presented several documentaries that have aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom and on various channels internationally, including Secrets of the Stone Age, Barbarians and Pagans. He also wrote books to accompany the former two. In 2006, he published Pagan Resurrection: A Force for Evil or the Future of Western Spirituality? which describes the various ways the archetypes of Northern European mythology have re-emerged in the Western psyche. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Asatru Folk Assembly.Arktos has republished his books Wildest Dreams: An Anthology of Drug-Related Literature, which collects writings both ancient and modern describing the drug experience; and Barbarians, which is about the Dark Ages.

Richard Rudgley studied social anthropology and religious studies at the University of London, and went on to study ethnology and prehistory at Oxford. He is currently based at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, undertaking research into the prehistoric and ancient use of psychoactive plants. In 1991 he became the first winner of the British Museum Prometheus Award, which resulted in the publication of his first book, "The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society". He is married with a daughter and a son and divides most of his time between London and Oxford.

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  • By Rob Dickins on 11 February 2015

    The history of humans ritually using psychoactive substances goes back beyond the written record, and stretches across the globe through many disparate and far-flung cultures. The ubiquity of psychoactive plants, and substances, is cogent with our world today. However, as Richard Rudgley notes in his excellent cultural drug survey Essential Substances:‘Most communities have used psychoactive substances in both secular and sacred contexts: our own usage, which is almost exclusively secular, makes our culture in certain important respects the exception rather than the rule’ (Rudgley 2014, 145)He goes on to write, ‘The use and abuse of intoxicants in our communities is part of a wider problem of secular society, namely that altered states of consciousness are not perceived as culturally valuable” (ibid). In many respects, this underpins the important critical aspect of Rudgley’s book, wherein history demonstrates a failing in today’s society. How is it that our society today has found itself in a position where it not only fails to see a value in altered states of consciousness, but then also fails to provide a territory on which positive values might be culturally produced? Ultimately, it is a dogmatic position.The two substances with the inarguably longest recorded and evidential tradition is Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and Cannabis sativa (cannabis). Artefacts made to resemble opium heads, paraphernalia, and remains in burials and caves give us ample examples of their ritual use. Famously, Herodotus – the father of history or lies depending on your take – described the Steppe dwelling people known as the Scythians employing hemp in smoke-based rituals. Rudgley makes a strong case, based on archaeological evidence. that Herodotus was more likely in his guise as historian, rather than lies, in this respect.Of course, the ‘alcohol complex’ is discussed as one of the most pervading intoxicants to have emerged in any society, and its arrival appears to often mark the end of older methods and substances for intoxication. For instance, the various tribes of Siberia who used Amantia muscaria (the fly agaric mushroom), to the extent it was a very valuable commodity in their economy, but they later became less important with the introduction of alcohol. Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A cultural history of the magic mushroom is another good source of information on the Siberian use of fly agaric.Personally speaking, I found Rudgley’s chapter, Lucifer’s Garden, to be particularly interesting. Rudgley traces the history of the flying-ointment motif from Lucius Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, written in the second century CE, through to the Early Modern witch-hunts, and also the manner in which the ‘devil’ epithet was a common feature in the names of folk botany. Oddly, on first thought, the rise of psychedelia and modern hallucinogen culture is also included in this section. While the substances in question might differ, I think Rudgley is making an important point that both classes of substance have been demonised, which likens our contemporary villianisation of psychedelic drug use to witch-trial mentality.Along with insightful sections on the mystery of hoama, stimulating substances from across the world, and of course ayahuasca, an appendix entitled A Psychoactive Bestiary is included in this edition. Originally published in the excellent Strange Attractor Journal, Rudgley discusses Native Americans eating ants, folk tales about the fat of hares, and the magickal use of frogs and toads. This last one is very interesting so far as a discussion of Michael Scot, a thirteenth century alchemist, who describes the use of toads for transformation – an avenue very worthy of more investigation in my opinion.‘The universal human need for liberation from the restrictions of mundane existence is satisfied by experiencing altered states of consciousness. That we dream every night – whether we remember it or not – shows that we have a natural disposition to these altered states, but people also pursue them in more active ways’ (Rudgley, 2014 XV)As the brilliant William Emboden, author of Bizarre Plants, writes in this foreword to Essential Substances: ‘The often surprising ways in which our views have changed over time also illustrate the need for greater understanding and a reasoned perspective when considering the roles of intoxicants in society’ (Rudgley 2014, XII). A work such as this does so excellently, and I’d highly recommend reading Essential Substances – a beautifully written and presented book .(Review originally appeared on

  • By steven shaw on 7 October 2013

    So far i am about half way through this book and i must say im quite taken back at the wealth of historical research that has gone into this great book. It reads like a university paper on the subject looking at not only the cultural origins of the plants covered in this book but also the misinterpretations of people that had in the past researched the subject. Some areas i think could have been better such as the parts on 'peyote' which does contain the odd inaccurate and popular misconception about the plant.All in all i think for the wealth of information and the global and historic coverage of ethnogens that this book gives far out weigh the minor errors here and there.

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