An entheogen is a drug which enhances the user's connection to the spirit world. Usually recognised as psychotropic substances even by those who do not use them for spiritual purposes these substances are often used in shamanistic rituals to facilitate contact with spirits, or for other purposes such as astral projection.
The actual effects of any given entheogen will vary - some merely increase sensitivity to spiritual contact, some make the user and the inhabitants of the nearby areas of the spirit world mutually visible and some will actively aid the user to merge the two worlds together. A few will also provide a significant boost to the user's magical abilities, their charisma as viewed by spirits or some other useful property. A natural medium does not require drug assistance in most cases - and even where they do, this may simply be in the form of more mundane substances that assist the entry to a mediative trance.
This, of course, can make the use of entheogens significantly dangerous - besides the potential problems caused by having one world superimposed on the other (and thus, for example, not noticing that in the material world, you have reached the edge of a cliff), seeing things that are better off not seen (and what have you) or having your perceptions permanently de-tuned from both worlds, and those problems caused by laws prohibiting the use of psychotropic drugs, there is also the problem of being visible and accessible to all sorts of spirits which would otherwise be quite oblivious to you and powerless against you. Unless you know how to defend yourself and/or have allies or companions who can protect you, you may simply be making yourself prey1. Also, mind altering drugs are well known to reduce a person's natural resistance to possession (mainly by undermining the sense of self) - this is not a good combination with something that also makes you easier for spirits to spot and which encourages you to mess about with them. Quite a bit of a shaman's training will revolve around overcoming these issues and operating safely in the spirit world, even when under the influence of powerful drugs. Where entheogens are part of group religious practice, these rites will typically be conducted in a properly protected sanctum and be preceded by ritual purification to remove dangerous presences. Also, in many cases a shaman and/or allied spirits (up to and including gods) may be present at the ritual to help guard against external threats.
Settings, and traditions, will vary on which entheogens - and how much - if any, are required for specific workings and rituals and what the side effects are.
- Liao "The Plutonian Drug" from the Cthulhu Mythos actually allows the user to perceive other times, but is otherwise similar.
- Three-Eye from The Dresden Files fits the category nicely, permitting users to see into the "NeverNever" and to see other supernatural aspects of the universe.
Game and Story Use
- In a shamanistic setting, these may be a very big deal indeed.
- Most commercial RPGs are liable to shy away from any "promotion of drug use" … however, more mature systems could well make use of this (or re-skin the drugs as "potions") with the appropriate substances allowing characters to see and/or communicate with spirits, astrally project and suchlike.
- Dosing an opponent with an entheogen may have its uses…
- These are prime candidates for "substance taken unawares during local religious ceremony" …