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Monday, January 15, 2018

Opium, Euphoria, and the Magic of Faeries

A few years ago I saw an info graphic displaying brain scans which were intended to demonstrate the similarity between the brain's response to opium and the brain's response to orgasm. It was pretty cool and made a lot of sense on multiple levels. It was an easy way to describe several experiences and behaviors that crop up with people. But it wasn't something that seemed to have particular relevance in regards to magic. Until a few days ago.

I'm not a chemist or a biologist so I'm going to quote from a few websites to establish more about the connection between the two. Then I'll explain the magical relevance and give some quotes for that, followed by an explanation of the recent experience which caused this relationship between opium experiences and faery experiences to pop up in my head.

Significant more for character than for science:

Another user, the English gentleman quoted in Jim Hogshire's Opium for the Masses (1994), enthused that opium felt akin to a gentle and constant orgasm.” - opiates.net

I think this quote generally implies the driving elements of what I want to get at with this. Euphoria occurs as part of sexual experience, as part of orgasm, because of the brain's release of various neurochemicals including endorphins and dopamine. Both opiates and orgasm can create an experience of detachment, like floating along a rolling sea of clouds, experience is elevated and extended but in a way in which the pain and attachment of stress and discomfort are temporarily mitigated. Curiously opiates impact how our lungs work, they can make our breathing more relaxed, or they can make it more shallow...less control over our breath in regular circumstances would usually create stress of fear, but again opiate experiences are characterized by an awareness which reduces that stress and fear.

So they feel kind of the same, but that might not make for a meaningful link...so...the science of their sameness..

the human brain's neurons had specific receptor sites for opiate drugs: opium, heroin, codeine and morphine. But then there was the obvious question. Why would nature put in our brains a receptor for a plant? After all, humans beings didn't evolve over millions of years eating opium or shooting heroin.

...the active ingredient in all these opiates - morphine - had a chemical structure similar to endorphins, a class of chemicals present in the brain. Endorphins are feel-good chemicals naturally-manufactured in the brain when the body experiences pain or stress. They are called the natural opiates of the body.

...The rush is often described as a heightened sexual orgasm, and a great relief of tension, which pervades the abdomen. After the rush, the high lasts for four or five hours and is caused by the morphine diffusing from the bloodstream into the brain. It is described as a warm, drowsy, cozy state. Addicts report a profound sense of satisfaction, as though all needs were fulfilled. ” - Frontline, PBS

One well-known opiate commonly used today for the treatment of severe pain, is morphine (after Morpheus the Greek god of dreams).

Distributed throughout the nervous system, the opioid receptors, OP1-OP4, are involved in all of the calming effects we might expect, such as pain relief and reduction in anxiety - but are taken to extremes by illegal drugs, such as heroin. The natural partners to the opioid receptors are the endorphins, released during certain activities, such as running (thought responsible for the 'runner's high'), pain and orgasm.” - Drugs and The Brain

The second quote even hints at the magical associations of opium. The use of opium can be traced back to 4000 BCE in Sumeria and in what is now Switzerland, some suggest it might go further back to the Neanderthals. It was prevalent throughout the classical world in Greece, the Near East, India, and Asia. It was almost always considered not simply medicinal but holy or magical, a gift from or a symbol of the Gods. The gods of sleep in Greece were shown with poppies in depictions, and Pharaohs were entombed with artifacts of opium use. It was significant in the ancient world as medicine and as a magical substance, as is evidenced by its names:

Physicians commonly believed that the poppy plant was of divine origin; opium was variously called the Sacred Anchor Of Life, Milk Of Paradise, the Hand Of God, and Destroyer Of Grief.” - opiates.net

There are lots of drugs which help with pain, or which create altered experiences, and many of them have been associated with magic and with religious experience, but opium has a pervasiveness beyond many. Further it has had a strange position in history. While some intoxicants were made illegal in Islam, opium notably was not and remained popular in Arab countries. China made opium illegal and so the British Empire went to war, twice, to make sure they could still get it. Globally international legal provisions against opium have been made, but it is still prevalent in medicine internationally. According to Christian Rastch, who makes reference to opium several times in the book Witchcraft Medicine, it was the only reliable narcotic in the ancient world.

Ratsch also notes that the opium poppy is amongst the candidates for plants which may have been moly, the mythological plant referenced by the gods as the greatest. He links the plant to Demeter, the goddess at the center of the Mysteries of Eleusis. He includes it as a traditional common element in witches' flying ointments. This last association is probably the most interesting for our purposes.

Flying ointments don't actually make witches fly, they create a state in which the witch is altered both in terms of awareness and in terms of physical condition. The exposure to poisons, things which adjust how the witch breathes, and which create stimulation and a shift in awareness, put the witch in a state where the body no longer impedes awareness of the magical forces and spirits with which the witch comes into contact, or allows the body to relinquish the spirit temporarily for a spirit flight. Much of the lore of opium describes these same sort of elements, The strange parallel of something which detaches and relaxes but which also leaves the ability for mental clarity despite sensations being adjusted.

Some people historically have even linked opiates to mild visionary experiences.

While I was sitting at tea, I felt a strange sensation, totally unlike any thing I had ever felt before; a gradual creeping thrill, which in a few minutes occupied every part of my body, lulling to sleep the before-mentioned racking pain, producing a pleasing glow from head to foot, and inducing a sensation of dreamy exhilaration (if the phrase be intelligible to others as it is to me) similar in nature but not in degree to the drowsiness caused by wine, though not inclining me to sleep; in fact far from it, that I longed to engage in some active exercise; to sing, dance, or leap...so vividly did I feel my vitality - for in this state of delicious exhilaration even mere excitement seemed absolute elysium - that I could not resist the tendency to break out in the strangest vagaries, until my companions thought me deranged...After I had been seated [at the play I was attending] a few minutes, the nature of the excitement changed, and a 'waking sleep' succeeded. The actors on the stage vanished; the stage itself lost its reality; and before my entranced sight magnificent halls stretched out in endless succession with galley above gallery, while the roof was blazing with gems, like stars whose rays alone illumined the whole building, which was tinged with strange, gigantic figures, like the wild possessors of lost globe...I will not attempt farther to describe the magnificent vision which a little pill of 'brown gum' had conjured up from the realm of ideal being. No words that I can command would do justice to its Titanian splendour and immensity...” - William Blair 1842 (opiates.net)

This kind of visionary experience, the use of opium in flying ointments, these things connect us back to magic and to the faery folk. The witches' sabbat is based largely in the experience of ecstasy. The body writhes in pleasure at the touch of the Black Man of the Forest and the spirits he brings. Freedom from the stresses of common life is experienced. The witch is elevated while brought into a visionary state amid spirits.

In the explanations given by witch hunters the witch slept with the devil and his demons but even in those accounts the witches were also said to enter the faery world to dine with the Queen of the Faeries. At times she featured as the contact from whom witches derive their powers. Faeries familiars were also tied to the learning and experience of witchcraft. Even the demons given by the Devil sound more like faeries than like demons. Whether they were faeries or demons though there was a clear sexual component involved in this interaction.

According to Walter Stephens in his book Demon Lovers the Devil would first encounter potential witches when they were alone and discouraged and therefore susceptible to being seduced. Sexual congress with the devil and with demons was often believed to be the source of a witch's power. Curses and malefica were performed by way of the demon who was the witch's lover. When the witch flew to the Sabbat or from the Sabbat through the night across long distances the witch was being carried by a demon. The Church theories on the witch couldn't give them such an amazing power and so the power had to be facilitated by demons who were paid in sex.

Some have suggested that this fixation on sex with demons was a form of misogyny, but it occurs in all the accounts of male witches as well. Some have suggested it was another way to simply accuse witches of perversion and debase the idea of sex. But what if the sex was actually a part of the magic?

We have many accounts in faery tales of faeries who seek human spouses or lovers. Sometimes it's an ongoing arrangement, others it is a more sinister and deadly encounter, but in either case, we frequently see faeries desiring sex with humans. We also know faeries have a history of desiring to kidnap human women and to have children with humans, or to kidnap human children and raise them as faeries.

When we look at medieval magic we see accounts of magic specifically designed to have sex with faeries. Regarding this as a trend Fredericka Bain in her presentation of the “Four Spells to Bind the Faery Sisters” which appeared in Preternature says: “It is well understood that the traditions
out of which early modern fairy lore arises are complex: sexual binding or forced sexual congress in particular, of or by fairies or demons, is referenced in romances, ballads, and witchcraft trials, as well as throughout medieval demonology.”

Even the power of transvection, by which witches fly by the aid of demons, is something we see in demonologies, either spells in which demons convey someone across distances or grant instant travel, or even obtaining faery horses that allow the magician to fly on them from place to place or travel long distances. Some accounts of witches include them attributing their power to curse to elf shot, or arrows given to them by the faeries when they feast with them.

So the powers given by demons, the sex with spirits, both are things we see associated with faeries in sources on magic. Along with these when we look at tales of the faeries we see feasting, dancing, and music. We see fantastical creatures and magical places. The faeries exist in a magical other space which is like our own but somehow different.

Even in modern depictions of the faery world we see this same sort of imagery. Surreal magical landscapes like our own but slightly stranger, heightened colors, things just beyond the ordinary enough to draw us in to their glamor. A mild hallucination that could be real or maybe not. A place which creates euphoria to draw people in and allow them to forget whatever else was there before they were brought there. Most recently the faery world has been depicted in this manner in popular media in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in which the kingdom of Lost Hope is an on going ball, similar to one in a human castle but with various slightly bizarre elements and in which the object of the faery's affection is caused to forget the human world. We also see faeries in The Mortal Instruments depicted in the television adaptation Shadow Hunters in which faeries can't lie but they can manipulate the truth to entrap people, and they have a separate world whose glamor can trap people by keeping them lost, and in which one could believe they are in the natural world, but only made more magical, surreal, and brilliant.

This is in part where the connection to opium comes in. To me, the ability to create a feeling that is related to orgasm, and to take away worldly cares, to numb pain, to give us an otherworldly euphoria, these are traits which seem to be shared both by opiates and by faeries. It's a similarity I probably wouldn't have connected if it hadn't been for an experience that happened a few nights ago.

I had received a couple signs that suggested I needed to connect with some spirits on their turf rather than ritually doing so here. When I was younger magic that involved spirit flight was a big part of what I did, but I'm not generally as keen on it anymore. In this instance I also didn't have the time to fully invest into that kind of work. So I figured it was best to approach it as dream work. To that end I called upon a faery and asked that he take me in my dreams where I needed to go. I was fairly clear that I did not want to do trance-work, I just wanted to hitch a ride in my dreams.

The faery arrived, and as sometimes happens when you work with spirits, the magic did not go as planned.

I told him what I wanted, and he responded "your body still needs to be ready if your spirit is going to leave" and he reached out towards me and I felt euphoria, then my breathing dropped very low, I felt like I was floating as if rocking on a soft wave. As I was drifting away from normal awareness I thought "this feels like the euphoria opiates cause." As my breathing became more and more shallow, and my body heavier and heavier until I no longer felt most of it I realized he had put me into a super heavy meditation in like a matter of seconds. It was impressive. I had not really done trance-work for awhile so it was no longer a feeling I felt often so it was pretty curious. I continued my protest that this wasn't what I'd wanted but he insisted that it was necessary and that I should just go with him. He explained that if I wanted an experience that wasn't just within my mental space my body needed to be pushed to a point where it could let go of me. It felt really wonderful, and I had a flash of shimmering visionary experiences showing the way from myself to a wholly other place. Unfortunately I didn't get where I was going...partially because he took me by surprise.

So in the end, I had a cool experience for like a half hour. More than that I had an interesting conceptual connection. Was there a reason that a faery's touch should feel like taking opiates? In stories of faery and human interactions one of the most common elements is humans being “faery led.” This capability to force a trance state filled with euphoria and visionary awareness would explain some of the experience of being faery led. It would also explain some of the sexual elements of faery encounters. The author of the Four Spells to Bind the Faery Sisters describes the faery with whom he sleeps as having beauty to rival a queen or empress and implies that she has immense sexual prowess. Faeries often are described as being ugly and stealing human babies and seeking human lovers because humans are more beautiful. These could simply be conflicting elements of stories or they could be different types of faeries. Alternatively it could be part of their magic, the glamor of faeries could be the same potency which lets them manipulate the minds, bodies, and sensory experiences of humans. Perhaps the beauty and sexual prowess of the faery lover is driven by the euphoric otherworldly awareness created by her touch.

Magic occurs outside of our minds, but we still experience it through the lens of our mental faculties, just as is true of all other phenomena. I am not one for explaining magic through science or trying to make magic scientific. I don't believe faeries secrete some kind of other worldly spirit opium. I don't think we need this sort of mechanism for trying to create a way of viewing faery interactions scientifically. Magic is magic it isn't science, it doesn't need to be science. But recognizing that faeries may have the ability to impact our sensory experience, regardless of the mechanism, gives us insight to their powers and how we can interact with them. It lets us consider folklore and how we engage it. To me its a jumping off point as to how and why some things may relate and how some things may have been real that we thought weren't.

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