Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge by Terence McKenna is a book that’s frequently mentioned by experts in the psychedelic community, and for good reason. McKenna, a legendary writer and commentator on drug culture, was an ethnobotanist by training. In this book, he explores humanity’s ancient relationship with chemicals that alter consciousness, as well as the historical impact of drugs on Eastern and Western societies. Food of the Gods Key Takeaways will be focused on the major historical points as well as McKenna’s prescriptions but I highly recommend reading this book yourself to get the entire (complicated and entertaining) story.
Food of the Gods Key Takeaways
Key Takeaway #1: McKenna advocates a return to an Archaic attitude to plant substances
While some view Terence McKenna’s work as advocating for irresponsible drug use, a reading of this book clearly shows McKenna is urging humanity (particularly Western civilization) to return to its ancient roots in its attitude towards life and psychoactive plant substances. As McKenna states in the book’s introduction:
This book will explore the possibility of a revival of the Archaic – or preindustrial and preliterate – attitude toward community, substance use, and nature – an attitude toward community, substance use, and nature – an attitude that served our nomadic prehistoric ancestors long and well, before the rise of the current cultural style we call “Western.” The Archaic refers to the Upper Paleolithic, a period seven to ten thousand years in the past, immediately preceding the invention and dissemination of agriculture. The Archaic was a time of nomadic pastoralism and partnership, a culture based on cattle-raising, shamanism, and Goddess worship.
McKenna’s opinion on Western society’s perception and use of drugs is that it is unsustainable. The tug of war between users and enforcers, combined with the lack of a philosophical basis and cultural/religious context for users has created a destructive and unsustainable tragedy. Again, from the introduction:
Obviously, we cannot continue to think about drug use in the same old ways. As a global society, we must find a new guiding image for our culture, one that unifies the aspirations of humanity with the needs of the planet and the individual. Analysis of the existential incompleteness within us that drives us to form relationships of dependency and addiction with plants and drugs will show that at the dawn of history, we lost something precious, the absence of which has made us ill with narcissism. Only a recovery of the relationship that we evolved with nature through use of psychoactive plants before the fall into history can offer us hope of a humane and open-ended future.
Key Takeaway #2: Dominator cultures are a major culprit in the current attitude towards drugs
One of the key distinctions McKenna makes in Food of the Gods is that there is a fundamental difference between paternalistic “dominator” cultures versus “partnership” models of society. Dominator cultures are defined explicitly as:
hierarchical, paternalistic, materialistic, and male-dominated.
Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade and a major influence on McKenna, states that:
the tension between the partnership and dominator organizations and the overexpression of the dominator model are responsible for our alienation from nature, from ourselves and from each other.
Key Takeaway #3: Language shapes reality
This was one of the most shocking, yet intuitive takeaways from this entire book. I had never thought much about the power of language to shape the reality we experience but this section from McKenna really woke me up:
Common sense assumes that, though languages are always evolving, the raw stuff of what language expresses is relatively constant and common to all humans. Yet we also know that the Hopi language has no past or futures tenses or concepts. How, then, can the Hopi world be like ours? And the Inuit have no first-person pronoun. How, then, can their world be like ours?
This section is what first alerted me to the fact that there are aspects of reality which, though I may have an intuitive sense exist, I am consciously unaware of. Our culture and our language make sure of this:
The rational, mechanistic, anti-spiritual bias of our own culture has made it impossible for us to appreciate the mindset of the shaman. We are culturally and linguistically blind to the world of forces and interconnections clearly visible to those who have retained the Archaic relationship to nature.
Key Takeaway #4: Shamanism is the world’s original religion…and it is intimately connected with psychedelic use
Another frequently quoted source McKenna uses is Mircea Eliade (coincidently also read by Jordan Peterson). Eliade is one of the top scholars of Shamanism and notes the similarities in shaman techniques in many cultures around the world. As McKenna says:
Eliade showed that, while the particular motifs may vary between cultures and even individuals, shamanism’s general structure is clear: the neophyte shaman undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection, which is understood as a radical transformation into a superhuman condition. Henceforth, the shaman has access to the superhuman plane, is a master of ecstasy, can travel in the spirit realm at will, and most important, can cure and divine.
McKenna goes on to make clear that ecstasy is a commonality in all shamanic traditions but that:
Not all shamans use intoxication with plants to obtain ecstasy, but all shamanic practice aims to give rise to ecstasy. Drumming, manipulation of breath, ordeals, fasting, and theatrical illusions, sexual abstinence – all are time-honored methods for entering into the trance necessary for shamanic work. Yet none of these methods is as effective, as ancient, and as overwhelming as the use of plants containing chemical compounds that produce visions.
Key Takeaway #5: Psychoactive compounds may be responsible for the rapid emergence of human self-reflection
The rapid development of human intelligence, awareness, and language is one of the big mysteries of biology. McKenna’s theory is as good as any and states that he believes:
mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the rapid reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities. Alkaloids in plants, specifically the hallucinogenic compounds such as psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmaline, could be the chemical factors in the protohuman diet that catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection. The action of hallucinogens present in many common plants enhanced our information-processing activity, or environmental sensitivity, and thus contributed to the sudden expansion of the human brain size. At a later stage in this same process, hallucinogens acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion.
An experiment in the late 1960s may add credence to the evolutionary fitness value of this theory:
Roland Fischer gave small amounts of psilocybin to graduate students and then measured their ability to detect the moment when previously parallel lines became skewed. He found that performance ability on this particular task was actually improved after small doses of psilocybin.
When I discussed these findings with Fischer, he smiled after explaining his conclusions, then summed up, “You see what is conclusively proved here is that under certain circumstances one is actually better informed concerning the real world if one has taken a drug than if one has not.”
How could this be? It would be hard to believe unless takeaway #6 were also true…
Key Takeaway #6: The function of our brain and sense organs may be to filter external experience
This is one of the central points of the book and there is a long explanation on the mechanisms by which this might be true. However, there is an excerpt of the genius Aldous Huxley’s writing which I believe captures this theory in full:
I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider the suggestion that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. ” The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funnelled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born. That which, in the language of religion, is called “this world” is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and as it were, petrified by language. The various “other worlds” with which human beings erratically make contact are so many elements in the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large…Temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate “spiritual exercises,”…or by means of drugs.
Essentially, what Huxley and McKenna are arguing is that the scope of reality is so broad, rich, and crowded, that without consciousness and our brain as filters, we would be hopelessly overwhelmed. As a survival mechanism, we’ve developed these filters which only show us the information that is essential to survival on this particular planet, in the particular environment we are in. By no means is this the entire spectrum of reality.
Key Takeaway #7: Distilled alcohol and other synthetic drugs are a scourge on humanity
This takeaway is one that I was initially very skeptical of (though as a disclaimer, I should say that I work in the alcohol industry as CEO of Unlimited Brewing). I’ve read enough alcohol history to know how deeply ingrained alcohol use is for humans, and even some animals. McKenna makes note of this:
Alcohol has its roots in the deepest stratum of Archaic cultural activities. Ancient civilizations of the Near East were preoccupied with beer making; very early in the development of human culture, if not long before, the intoxicating effects of fermented honey and fruit juices must have been noticed.
McKenna invokes the Lindy Effect (though doesn’t refer to it as such) in a later passage, where he fingers distilled spirits as being a far greater scourge than beer and wine:
Alcohol is the first example of a disturbing phenomenon that we will meet again and again in our discussion of differences in ancient and modern approaches to drug use and drug technology. Human use of alcohol in the form of fermented grains, juices, and mead is extremely ancient. Distilled spirits, in contrast, were not known to the ancients (though Pliny mentions one Roman wine so powerful that it burned when poured onto a fire). And today it is distilled alcohol that is the chief culprit among the drugs labeled “legal” and “recreational”.
Indeed, McKenna makes a massive distinction (which again, aligns perfectly with the Lindy Effect) between natural and synthetic drugs:
Discussion of alcohol gives us our first opportunity to examine the distinction between natural and synthetic drugs, for though distilled alcohol waited for hundreds of years to be joined by a second example of a chemically refined intoxicant, it was the first highly concentrated and purified drug, the first synthetic drug. This distinction is very important for the argument to be made here. Alcoholism as a social and community problem appears to have been rare before the discovery of distillation. just as heroin addiction was the malignant flower that sprang from the relatively benign habit of opium use, so distilled alcohol changed the sacred art of the brewer and the vinter into a profane economic engine for the consumption of human hopes.
Synthetic drugs seem to be much more likely candidates for abuse than drugs with an ancient history.
McKenna also ties the effects of alcohol to the dominator culture he described earlier in the book:
I have implied that alcohol is the dominator drug par excellence. Alcohol has the effect of being libidinally stimulating at moderate doses at the same time that the ego feels empowered and social boundaries are felt to lose some of their restraining power. Often these feelings are accompanied by a sense of verbal facility ordinarily out of reach. The difficulty with all of this is that research findings suggest these fleeting effects are usually followed by a narrowing of awareness, a diminishing of ability to respond to social cues, and an infantile regression into loss of sexual performance, loss of general motor control, and consequent loss of self-esteem.
Key Takeaway #8: Sugar abuse is the world’s least discussed and most widespread addiction
Calling sugar a drug is not a stretch. It has many elements in common with some of the most destructive addictions, as McKenna elaborates on:
Sugar abuse is the world’s least discussed and most widespread addiction. And it is one of the hardest of all habits to kick. Sugar addicts may be maintenance users or they may be binge eaters. The depths of serious sugar addiction are exemplified by bulimics who may binge on sugar-saturated food and then induce vomiting or use a laxative purge to enable them to eat more sugar. Imagine if a similar practice were associated with heroin addiction – how much more odious and insidious the use of heroin would then seem! As with all stimulants, ingestion of sugar is followed by a brief euphoric “rush,” which is itself followed by depression and guilt. Sugar addiction rarely occurs alone as a syndrome; mixed addictions – for example, sugar and caffeine – are more common.
It’s interesting to note how candy brands, like Snickers, have used the addictive nature of sugar as part of its advertising appeal. While these ads are hilarious, widespread sugar addiction is not as there are tons of major health problems associated with it, like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Key Takeaway #9: Illicit drugs and government are in a symbiotic relationship
This point was briefly discussed on Made You Think when we discussed Smoke Signals by Martin Lee. It’s a complicated problem and situation but in brief, drugs are a great way for governments to fund themselves “off the books”. As Mckenna himself says:
Government involvement in and direct responsibility for the drug trade would diminish, wiht protection rackets replacing direct earnings, while retail prices would rise astronomically. The new price structure made the drug money pie large enough for all parties to profit handsomely – governments and criminal syndicates alike.
In effect, the modern solution has been for the drug cartels to operate as proxies for national governments in the matter of supplying addictive narcotics. Governments can no longer participate openly in the world narcotic trade and claim legitimacy. Only pariah governments operate without fronts. Legitimate governments prefer to have their intelligence agencies cut secret deals with the drug mafiosi while the visible machinery of diplomacy seems all aflutter over the “drug problem” – a problem always presented in such terms as to convince any reasonable person of its utter insolubility. It is significant that the major production areas of hard narcotics are “tribal zones.” Modern imperialists would have us believe that, try as they might, they have never been able to overrun and control these areas, in Pakistan and Burma for example, where major production of opium occurs. Consequently, faceless tribal leaders, ever changing and with unpronounceable names, can be held responsible for it all.
McKenna makes sure to distinguish that the current addictive drug epidemics are not the intention of government. Rather, it is more like a monster which was created and then took a different course than its creator desired. The current epidemic is more of an unintended consequence. From the book:
Yet it is unlikely that the virulence or social cost of the cocaine epidemic was ever anticipated. Perhaps no one ever asked the question “What are the consequences of hooking American public on cocaine?” Perhaps the development of smokable, more efficient, and more addictive crack cocaine was unexpected. It is highly likely that the phenomenon of crack is an instance of technology having escaped from the control of its creators.
Key Takeaway #10: We are experiencing a global awakening which may lead to an Archaic attitude revival
One of McKenna’s central ideas in this book is that we are closer now than any point in the past few millennia to experiencing an Archaic revival. McKenna’s belief in the power of psychedelics to radically transform our thought process and societal structure is best exemplified in the following (admittedly long) passage about the feeling psychoactive drugs engender in users:
The existence of this dimension of knowable meaning that appears to be without connection to one’s personal past or aspirations seems to argue that we are facing either a thinking Other or the deep structures of the psyche made suddenly visible. Perhaps both. The profundity of this state and its potential for a positive feedback into the process of reorganizing the personality should have long ago made psychedelics and indispensable tool for psychotherapy. After all, dreams have made a major claim on the attention of the theoreticians of psychic process, as have free association and hypnotic regression; yet these are but peepholes into the hidden world of psychic dynamics compared with the expansive view that psychedelics provide.
The situation that we now must deal with is not one of seeking the answer, but of facing hte answer. The answer has been found; it just happens to lie on the wrong side of the fence of social toleration and legality. We are thus forced into a strangle little dance. Those professionally involved know that psychedelics are the most powerful instruments for the study of the mind that are possible to conceive. And yet these people often work in academia and must frantically try to ignore the fact that the answer has been placed in our hands. Our situation is not unlike that of the sixteenth century when the telescope was invented and shattered the established paradigm of the heavens. The 1960s proved that we are not wise enough to take the psychedelic tools into our hands without a social and intellectual transformation. This transformation must begin now with each of us.
Let’s hope McKenna’s optimistic prophecy is fulfilled in its entirety.
My Food of the Gods Key Takeaways only scratch the surface of the many insights shared in this book. I highly recommend reading this detailed and penetrating book for yourself. You won’t regret it.
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