C) The Holders of the Sacred Knowledge

Texts and archaeology tend to prove that sacred intoxication was generally reserved to the elite, which is to say the kings, hero-warriors, and more particularly the priests, on account of being the ‘divine’ representatives of the gods on earth or the intermediary between human beings and supernatural forces. It is all the more probable since it was quite necessary to perfectly know the properties of the various visionary plants, how to prepare, use and control them after consumption.

Indeed, every plant possessing such mysterious virtues could on the one hand be a remedy and on the other hand be a poison; such is reflected in Latin by the word medicamen, meaning ‘remedy, drug, medicine’ and ‘poison’ at the same time. Many a plant, such as datura, rye grass, hemlock, drosera and hename, were used in medicinal remedies or in sacred beverages, but they could also kill or drive people insane if not carefully and correctly handled.2252 As a matter of fact, their use and absorption could turn out to be very dangerous if the consumer did not have a precise and high-level knowledge of the composition and powers of the plant itself as well as of the elaborate fabrication of the ‘visionary sacred preparation’, which generally combined several ingredients of different nature and virtues. It was also necessary to have a perfect knowledge and a wide experience of the effects incurred by the absorption of such powerful ‘potions’ so as to be able to control them and use them in order to reach the divine world and spirituality. For instance, Ernesta Cerulli underlines that the knowledge of the location, effects and dosage of the hallucinogenic plants, which were used in large amounts in the context of various rites in Amazonia, was only held by the Shamans.2253 Therefore, it would appear likely that, in Celtic times, the gathering of the plants, as well as the making of ‘potions’, were in the hands of the druids.

In ancient times, the plants, on account of being ‘magical’, ultimately pertained to the divine world, which explains why the plant was believed to be the embodiment of some deity. Thus, it seems quite natural that the picking of the plants was filled with sacredness and surrounded by complex religious rituals reserved to the representatives of the gods, as the famous description by Pliny of the gathering of mistletoe by the druids illustrates.2254 Pliny gives three other examples of magical plants, the gathering of which was ritualized, prone to various mysterious taboos* (geasa in Irish) and performed by the druids: vervain, samolus and selago.2255 Vervain, for instance, had to be gathered with the left hand at the rise of the Dog-star, so as not to be seen by the sun or the moon, after offering honey-combs to the earth and tracing a circle around the plant with iron.2256


This explains why most of these toxic plants were demonized after Christianization, e. g. the rye grass and the hemlock were called ‘plants of the demon’, the datura, ‘herb of the Devil’, etc.


Lenoir & Tardan-Masquelier, 2000, p. 1291 say that the Amazonian Shamans made use of intoxicating plants and beverages in medical treatments, pubertal initiatory rites, war and hunting, funerary rites, rites for the maturation of the most important vegetal species, etc.


See Appendix 1. Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book 16, 95, 1-2.


See Appendix 1. Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book 24, 43 and 42.


See Appendix 1. Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book 25, 49, 2.