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What About Pharmakeia?

 "Now, the effects of the corrupt nature are obvious: illicit sex, perversion, promiscuity, idolatry, drug use, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, angry outbursts, selfish ambition, conflict, factions, envy, drunkenness, wild partying, and similar things. I’ve told you in the past and I’m telling you again that people who do these kinds of things will not inherit God’s kingdom."
Galatians 5:20 (GWT)


Within Christian churches, drug use continues to be taboo. In particular, psychedelic drugs have a bad reputation. Some Christians think that psychedelic drugs are a “spiritual Russian roulette,” and taking them could cause “demonic activity” and symptoms of possession. This belief about psychedelic drugs often draws support from the condemnation of “plant sorcery” or pharmakeia in Galatians 5:20 and Revelation 18:23. This viewpoint argues that since the Bible condemns sorcery using plants, especially to seek out visions, it must also condemn the use of psychedelic plants and fungi. Some translations, such as the Good News Translation cited above, go so far as equating pharmakeia and drug use.

This conflation of psychedelic consumption and pharmakeia relies on a faulty understanding of both practices. In this article, we will explore what pharmakeia actually means. We will begin with its usage in relevant Jewish and Christian literature, then survey its original meaning in the Greco-Roman context. After the meaning of pharmakeia is established, we will contrast it with psychedelic substance use. Finally, we will finish with a short discussion of how scriptural concerns about pharmakeia could guide safe and wise psychedelic substance use today.


Pharmakeia in the Biblical World

The two previously noted scriptural references tell us very little about what pharmakeia was or how it was used. Galatians 5:20 only mentions it within a list of other sins, and Revelation 18:23 says it is a source of deception. A related word, pharmakos, is used three more times in Revelation 9:21, 21:8, and 22:15. The word is probably used to describe a practitioner of pharmakeia, but little useful information can be drawn from these passages either. All three verses simply place the word within a disparate list of people whom God condemns.

Without much material inside Galatians and Revelation to illuminate us, readers must turn to writings outside the New Testament. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, also renders passages about sorcery as pharmakeia or related words (Exodus 7:11, Deuteronomy 18:10, Isaiah 47:9). Hebrew Apocrypha contains a wider variety of meanings. It can refer to sorcery, but also to helpful medicines (Sirach 6:16, 38:4) or deadly poisons (Wisdom of Solomon 1:14). The Book of Enoch preserves a particularly tantalizing depiction of evil plant magic revealed by fallen angels to the human women they seduced (Enoch 7:1).

New Testament Apocrypha also reveals a diverse use of pharmakeia and related words. Epistle of Barnabas 20:1 and Didache 5:1-12 list pharmakeia within long sin lists like the New Testament, but there are three other interesting usages. The Epistles of Ignatius use pharmakeia in seemingly contradictory ways, to both describe the Eucharist as a medicine (Epistle to the Ephesians 20:2) and heresies as a deadly poison (Epistle to the Trallians 6:2). Shepherd of Hermas 3.9.7 says that “sorcerers” or pharmakois who carry their pharmaka around in boxes, perhaps like a talisman.

These uses of pharmakeia and lexically related words attest to a broad semantic range. It can be positive, referring to the Eucharist and medicine. It can also be naturally negative, referring to poison. Finally, it can be supernaturally negative, referring to magic charms, fallen angelic arts, and sorcery more generally. To get an even clearer picture of pharmakeia, we need to look outside of the immediate Biblical world and into other Greco-Roman sources.

Pharmakeia in the Greco-Roman World

Examining non-Christian sources, a clearer picture of what pharmakeia entailed appears. First, pharmakeia referred to specific ritual systems constructed around the power of magical plant use, whereas other words like pharmakon or pharmakois, referred to practitioners or substances in possession of that magical power. Distinctions between the magical or medicinal use of plants did not exist. Because there was no known mechanism by which plants could heal, it was attributed to magic.

There were different systems of pharmakeia devised around this magic. Some systems attributed the plants’ magic to different pagan deities, such as Apollo. According to Herophilus, plants were the “hands of the gods” to human beings. They were the means by which aid could be provided for illness or difficult circumstances. Other systems had darker overtones associated with frightening witches, graveyards, and devotion to powers outside of acceptable public religion.

Pharmakeia included a clear internal logic, both doctrinally and practically. Doctrinally, the “law of similarities” was important. Things that were similar in name, function, appearance, or narrative legend were thought to be linked. A plant that is considered “cold by nature” could treat feverish boils. Orchids could heal testicles because the plant resembled male genitalia. This logic is acted out in ritual. In one Apollos pharmakeia ritual, practitioners spit on the ground around a naked young woman, providing an example of how the ailment would flee from the body.

Love and sex magic were especially prominent in pharmakeia. Plants and their associated rituals could be used as aphrodisiacs, erectile dysfunction cures, a means to reclaim a lost lover, or a means to seduce a new one. In part, this relationship was so close because the Latin translation for pharmakeia and “love charm” shared an etymological root.

This is also reflected in Christian texts. In his Galatians commentary, Jerome particularly lamented that pharmakeia caused people to “fall in love” and be “loved in return” through “the aid of magical arts.” As previously mentioned, Enoch connects the copulation between women and angels with humans learning plant magic. The sin lists of Revelation and Galatians 5:20 also contain sexual sins. One may also wonder if the “charms” that Hermas condemns were used in the service of love magic, considering the works’ contextual emphasis on sexual sin and purity.

In summary, pharmakeia was a distinctly Greco-Roman phenomenon. It relied on their deities, their myths, their language, their philosophy, and their superstition. Paul and the heavily anti-Roman author of Revelation may have condemned pharmakeia and their practitioners for any number of reasons. Perhaps it was considered idolatry, seeking power from foreign deities. Perhaps it was particularly disdainful as sexual magic. Perhaps it was a “dark art” away from public scrutiny.

However, it is unlikely that these passages were condemning medicinal plant use as a whole, especially considering the use of plant medicine in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah heals King Hezekiah’s boils with figs in 2 Kings 20:7. In light of this, it seems unlikely that Paul or the author of Revelation would condemn all plant medicine. Instead, they condemned the idolatry of seeking power from something other than the one true God of Israel.


Psychedelics and Pharmakeia

Modern psychedelic medicines, such as the peyote cactus or Psilocybe mushroom, seem to be about as far from pharmakeia as one could get. In secular therapeutic settings, religion may not be mentioned at all. Apollo is not invoked. Sympathetic magic is not practiced. These substances are voided of any enchantment and reduced to chemicals that have a natural and well-known mechanism of impact on the brain’s serotonin receptors. Recreationally, it is certainly plausible that someone may try to follow ancient Greco-Roman magical texts to recreate pharmakeia with psychedelics, but no one in psychedelic subculture has suggested or discussed this publicly. 

Additionally, unlike pharmakeia, psychedelic substances are rarely taken with the intention of influencing the external world. They are not a love potion or other means of influencing others from afar. There is no inherent logic of magic that underlies them which could be leveraged to get what one wants from another person. Condemnation of pharmakeia is simply not a condemnation of psychedelics. There is very little overlap between the two.

Considering Christian teachings which attribute all powers in the natural world to God, one may even wonder if it is possible to actually engage in pharmakeia at all. In Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, some within the Church denied that sorcery or witchcraft existed at all. An early example is the Lombard Code, which states that witchcraft “is in no wise to be believed by Christian minds.”

In his Decretum (c. 1021), Burchard of Worms condemns the gathering of medicinal plants using “evil incantations,” suggesting instead that the creeds or Lord’s prayer should be used instead.  This should not be understood as a belief in herbal witchcraft. Burchard later says that those who believe in magic “are involved in the error of the pagans, who think there is any divinity or heavenly authority except the one God.”Any other claims to magical power are an “illusion.” This idea was further developed by Bishop Agobard of Lyon, who explicitly attributed all power within the natural world to God alone. Witches and magicians did not exist.

In light of this historical precedent and the gap between Greco-Roman pharmakeia and modern psychedelic use, a path opens for orthodox substance use. We can deny that power found within the natural bounty of the earth originates apart from the one, true God. Nothing in the natural world, neither mushroom nor cactus, has power derived from shadowy forces. One should wonder if they are demonic no more than penicillin. In the right contexts, they are a powerful tool for healing.

Application of the Pharmakeia 

This does not mean that the New Testament’s pharmakeia prohibitions are meaningless anachronisms. There are still lessons to be learned. Even if there are no literal fallen angels active within psychedelics, that does not mean that there are no risks. One should be very careful about the company they keep when consuming psychedelic substances, just as one should avoid getting their plant-based medical care from sorcerers. Because psychedelic drugs can open our minds to new ideas and patterns of life, Christians should also consider the ideological assumptions of trip sitters, clinical guides, or authors.

Stories of abusive “shamans” and guides abound in psychedelic subculture.  Even some guides within clinical studies have engaged in sexual abuse and misconduct. While the Manson Family cult and its psychedelic abuse continue to weigh heavily on the mind of psychedelic subculture, more recent psychedelic cults have arisen as well. After the 2017 Charlottesville Riot, several white supremacist militias were discovered to be routine users of potent psychedelics.

If Christians are to be informed, discerning users or supporters of those who use psychedelics, a skeptical attitude towards new theological ideas generated by these substances. Moreover, we need to be skeptical about our own internal logic about psychedelics, ensuring that we do not assign them undue quasi-magical power as a panacea or source of special theological knowledge.

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