He stood at the centre of the gathering, eyes closed, arms held up, his torso swaying from side to side. If you perk your ears up you could pick the faint chant that escapes his trembling lips. "Oh, great blue sky, come to me."
Will the shaman's prayer be answered?
Shamans are priests who played a big role in ancient societies as mediators between human world and the spirit world. Their services were sought whenever the tribe, a family or an individual runs unto rough weather. Now only the shaman can deliver.
Throughout Mongolia, Siberia, North America, North and Central Asia, shamans held their sway among believers with their charismatic rituals all intended to summon the powers to serve mankind.
Or sometimes to punish people.
They were the old world physicians, poets, singers, fortune tellers, actors, storytellers, and whatnot. Without proper temples or other religious edifices to set definite guidelines for people, the whims and fancies of individual shamans were seen as the last word in many societies. A grieving family would know that a soul that leaves the body would not reach the ideal realm without the guidance of these sorcerers.
In short, a Shaman was a multipurpose spiritual leader, a mix of healer and sorcerer, the human and the divine.
But the shamanic state can never be easily achieved. The priests always needed some boost to leave the world, the world that we the common, earthly beings are familiar with and tied down to. Come alcohol and other hallucinogens. Along with the boom boom of the ritualistic drums that grew into a frenetic pace and volume during seances. they took the shamans to a stage of ecstasy from where, people believed, they could commune directly with gods and other spirits.
Viewers gawked as shamans tripped through the fire, pierced their bodies, shed blood, and showed many other superhuman feats one could never do without divine intervention. Thanks to the substances - entheogen - they imbibed to alter their consciousness, they soon got to the threshold of losing their selves to assimilate the spirit of something beyond. See how fluently they now transform themselves to bears, deer, spirits, monsters, the Enkidu. People fell prostrate before them in awe.
An entheogen is a substance used in seances to launch the priest to a spiritual dimension that otherwise lies beyond his orbit. In short, the drink was transformative.
Ever since the discovery of ancient drinking sites and breweries, scholars were keen in studying the substances that the shamans used to achieve the trance-like state.
Archeologists who were knee-deep in the materials found at an ancient brewery site in Skara Brae picked traces of ancient beer made with hemlock, meadowsweet, henbane, and nightshade.
What were they doing in beer you might wonder. Well they are hallucinogens notorious for taking users for heady trips they wouldn't forget for a lifetime.
Here is the split up. Henbane is mildly narcotic assuring feelings of flight, hemlock you know by the poison that Socrates took, and Nightshade plays havoc with your nervous system providing delirious hallucinations. Meadowsweet is also a mild hallucinogen. Dare to sip the beer!
Some shamans, still so, preferred a parasitic fungus named ergot that grew on rotted barley and rye for the spiritual kick they sought. Ergot shares some of the same chemical compounds with LSD. You can imagine the rest.
Or you take a trip to South America to find Ayahuasca, a generic term for drinks made with a mildly psychoactive vine, used by many indigenous groups. You have to rally all your imaginative prowess to conjure the scenes of seances where people abandoned themselves to beer made with interesting substances.
So the next time you hold your beer mug, know that it has come a long way, and can relate you with interesting tales culled from its checkered and murky history.
(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog — A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalis. The views expressed here are personal.)