2012-10-22

Coffee as Entheogen

Coffee is certainly an object of nigh-religious devotion from many, but is there anything actually religious about it?
The short answer is probably not really, but we can still stretch to consider how it might be.

Interestingly, one early recorded use of brewed coffee was in Sufi monasteries in Yemen, where monks drank it to stay up for nighttime devotions. Needless to say this use is familiar to us still, though now always in a secular context. Coffee might stand better chances of taking on its own inherent religious value were it employed not as a functional drug but as an entheogen.

A quick aside on entheogens, for any unfamiliar with the neologism: coined in the 20th century, the word refers to substances used to stimulate spiritual or mystical experiences by altering perception. More or less universally it's used of hallucinogenic substances like psilocybin mushrooms, a traditional entheogen par excellence. However, any substance, even a less psychoactive one, could fill an entheogenic role under the right conditions. The hypothetical absinthe cult we considered in a series of previous posts could revolve around entheogenic use of absinthe, and while perhaps not as readily associated with mysticism, coffee could be made a cult in a similar fashion.

Caffeine is certainly potent enough to serve an entheogenic function if administered in sufficient quantity and, more importantly, the right context. As we learned from Proudfoot, people tend to seek explanation for physiological arousal or disturbance, and will readily accept explanations provided by religious context. Accordingly, we could conceive a coffee cult of character comparable to the absinthe religion we've already imagined. Coffee too requires certain careful preparation easily ritualized into sacramental preparation, and the beverage's stimulating effect lends itself to religious explanation.

If anything, the problem here remains the secular and quotidian role coffee has assumed. Its stimulating effect is known, but regarded as merely pharmaceutical. It might take quite a bit of context for a regular coffee-drinker to feel differently about his sacred coffee than his everyday brew.

Coffee may not be as well positioned as absinthe to become a modern-day soma, but at least next time somebody says you drink too much coffee you can say you're partaking of a sacramental preparation to reinforce the balance between wakefulness and sleep, which mirrors the holy balance of life and death itself.

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