Did Santa Claus & His Reindeers Begin with a Mushroom Trip?: Discover the Psychedelic, Shamanistic Side of Christmas

Just when you thought you had Christmas all figured out, Matthew Salton comes along with this new animated short, "Santa Is a Psychedelic Mushroom." It makes the case that maybe, just maybe, "the story of our modern Santa Claus, the omnipotent man who travels the globe in one night, bearing gifts, and who’s camped out in shopping malls across the United States, is linked to a hallucinogenic mushroom-eating shaman from the Arctic." Specifically a historic Shaman from Lapland, in northern Finland, who tripped out on Amanita muscaria, the toxic, red-and-white toadstool mushroom you've seen in fairy tales so many times before. Elaborating, Salton talks with Carl Ruck, a Boston University professor who studies mythology, religion and the sacred role of psychoactive plants. And also Lawrence Millman. Writing at The New York Times, Salton adds:

According to the writer and mycologist Lawrence Millman, the shaman would make use of Amanita muscaria’s psychoactive effects in order to perform healing rituals. The use of Amanita muscaria as an entheogen (that is, a drug used to bring about a spiritual experience) would enable the shamans to act as intermediaries between the spirit and human world, bringing gifts of healing and problem-solving. (Although these mushrooms are poisonous, the Sami reduced their toxicity by drying them..) Various accounts describe the shaman and the rituals performed in ways that are fascinatingly similar to the narrative of Santa. An all-knowing man who defies space and time? Flying reindeer? Reindeer-drawn sleds? Climbing down the chimney? The giving of gifts? The tales of the Sami shamans have it all.

To learn more about the psychedelic origins of Santa, you can read this 2010 article published at NPR, "Did 'Shrooms Send Santa And His Reindeer Flying?"

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

When Michel Foucault Tripped on Acid in Death Valley and Called It “The Greatest Experience of My Life” (1975)

Artist Draws Nine Portraits on LSD During 1950s Research Experiment

Aldous Huxley, Dying of Cancer, Left This World Tripping on LSD (1963)

How Scientology Works: A Primer Based on a Reading of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film, The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master focuses, with almost unbearable intensity, on two characters: Joaquin Phoenix's impulsive ex-sailor Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, "the founder and magnetic core of the Cause — a cluster of folk who believe, among other things, that our souls, which predate the foundation of the Earth, are no more than temporary residents of our frail bodily housing," writes The New Yorker's Anthony Lane in his review of the film. "Any relation to persons living, dead, or Scientological is, of course, entirely coincidental."

Before The Master came out, rumor built up that the film mounted a scathing critique of the Church of Scientology; now, we know that it accomplishes something, par for the course for Anderson, much more fascinating and artistically idiosyncratic.

Few of its gloriously 65-millimeter-shot scenes seem to have much to say, at least directly, about Scientology or any other system of thought. But perhaps the most memorable, in which Dodd, having discovered Freddie stown away aboard his chartered yacht, offers him a session of "informal processing," does indeed have much to do with the faith founded by L. Ron Hubbard — at least if you believe the analysis of Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, who argues that the scene "bears an unmistakable reference to a vital activity within Scientology called auditing."

Just as Dodd does to Freddie, "the auditor in Scientology asks questions of the 'preclear' with the goal of ridding him of 'engrams,' the term for traumatic memory stored in what's called the 'reactive mind.'" By thus "helping the preclear relive the experience that caused the trauma," the auditor accomplishes a goal that, in a clip Puschak includes in the essay, Hubbard lays out himself: to "show a fellow that he's mocking up his own mind, therefore his own difficulties; that he is not completely adrift in, and swamped by, a body." Scientological or not, such notions do intrigue the desperate, drifting Freddie, and although the story of his and Dodd's entwinement, as told by Anderson, still divides critical opinion, we can say this for sure: it beats Battlefield Earth.

Related Content:

When William S. Burroughs Joined Scientology (and His 1971 Book Denouncing It)

The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson: A 5-Part Video Essay on the Auteur of Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, The Master, and More

Space Jazz, a Sonic Sci-Fi Opera by L. Ron Hubbard, Featuring Chick Corea (1983)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”

So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)

And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.

Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."

It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.

Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.

Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.

In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.

Related Content:

Biology That Makes Us Tick: Free Stanford Course by Robert Sapolsky

Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky Demystifies Depression, Which, Like Diabetes, Is Rooted in Biology

Robert Sapolsky Explains the Biological Basis of Religiosity, and What It Shares in Common with OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy

How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright

Buddhist thought and culture has long found a comfortable home among hippies, beatniks, New Age believers, artists, occultists and mystics. Recently, many of its tenets and practices have become widely popular among very different demographics of scientists, skeptics, and atheist communities. It may seem odd that an increasingly secularizing West would widely embrace an ancient Eastern religion. But even the Dalai Lama has pointed out that Buddhism’s essential doctrines align uncannily with the findings of modern science

The Pali Canon, the earliest collection of Buddhist texts, contains much that agrees with the scientific method. In the Kalama Sutta, for example, we find instructions for how to shape views and beliefs that accord with the methods espoused by the Royal Society many hundreds of years later.

Robert Wright—bestselling author and visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton and Penn—goes even further, showing in his book Why Buddhism is True how Buddhist insights into impermanence, delusion, ignorance, and unhappiness align with contemporary findings of neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Wright is now making his argument for the compatibility of Buddhism and science in a new MOOC from Coursera called “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.” You can watch the trailer for the course, which starts this week, just above.

The core of Buddhism is generally contained in the so-called “Four Noble Truths,” and Wright explains in his lecture above how these teachings sum up the problem we all face, beginning with the first truth of dukkha. Often translated as “suffering,” the word might better be thought of as meaning “unsatisfactoriness,” as Wright illustrates with a reference to the Rolling Stones. Jagger's “can't get no satisfaction,” he says, captures “a lot of the spirit of what is called the First Noble Truth,” which, along with the Second, constitutes “the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human predicament.” Not only can we not get what we want, but even when we do, it hardly ever makes us happy for very long.

Rather than impute our misery to the displeasure of the gods, the Buddha, Wright tells Lion’s Roar, “says the reason we suffer, the reason we’re not enduringly satisfied, is that we don’t see the world clearly. That’s also the reason we sometimes fall short of moral goodness and treat other human beings badly.” Desperate to hold on to what we think will satisfy us, we become consumed by craving, as the Second Noble Truth explains, constantly clinging to pleasure and fleeing from pain. Just above, Wright explains how these two claims compare with the theories of evolutionary psychology. His course also explores how meditation releases us from craving and breaks the vicious cycle of desire and aversion.

Overall, the issues Wright addresses are laid out in his course description:

Are neuroscientists starting to understand how meditation “works”? Would such an understanding validate meditation—or might physical explanations of meditation undermine the spiritual significance attributed to it? And how are some of the basic Buddhist claims about the human mind holding up? We’ll pay special attention to some highly counterintuitive doctrines: that the self doesn’t exist, and that much of perceived reality is in some sense illusory. Do these claims, radical as they sound, make a certain kind of sense in light of modern psychology? And what are the implications of all this for how we should live our lives? Can meditation make us not just happier, but better people?

As to the last question, Wright is not alone among scientifically-minded people in answering with a resounding yes. Rather than relying on the beneficence of a supernatural savior, Buddhism offers a course of treatment—the “Noble Eightfold Path”—to combat our disposition toward illusory thinking. We are shaped by evolution, Wright says, to deceive ourselves. The Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness, and the ethics of compassion and nonharming, are “in some sense, a rebellion against natural selection.”

You can see more of Wright’s lectures on YouTube. Wright's free course, Buddhism and Modern Psychology, is getting started this week. You can sign up now.

Related Content:

How Mindfulness Makes Us Happier & Better Able to Meet Life’s Challenges: Two Animated Primers Explain

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

Philosopher Sam Harris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guided Meditation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

2,000-Year-Old Manuscript of the Ten Commandments Gets Digitized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Resolution

How old is the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible? As with most such questions about disputed religious texts, it depends on whom you ask. Many conservative Jewish and Christian scholars—or “maximalists”—have long accepted the text as containing genuine historical records, and dated them as early as possible. Modern critical scholars, the “minimalists,” informed by archeology, have made strong empirical cases against historicity, and date the texts much later.

These debates can become highly speculative the further back scholars attempt to push the Biblical origins. One has to take certain claims on faith. As far as the textual evidence goes, the earliest complete manuscripts we have are the so-called “Masoretic Text,” copied, edited, and disseminated between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. But we have fragments that date back over two thousand years, discovered in the Qumran Caves among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century. Prior to their discovery, the oldest known fragment was known as the “Nash Papyrus,” which dates from the second century, BCE.

Purchased from an Egyptian antiquities dealer in 1902 by Egyptologist Dr. Walter Llewllyn Nash and donated to the Cambridge University Library the following year, the papyrus contains a composite of the two different versions of the Ten Commandments, from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and the Shema, a prayer from Deuteronomy 6. In 2012, the Nash Papyrus was digitized, “one of the latest treasures of humanity,” reported Reuters, “to join Isaac Newton’s notebooks, the Nuremberg Chronicle and other rare texts as part of the Cambridge Digital Library.”

“It has been suggested,” notes the Cambridge description of the ancient manuscript, “that it is, in fact, from a phylactery (tefillin, used in daily prayer).” But the papyrus’ actual origins are uncertain, though it “was said to have come from the Fayyum,” a city near Cairo. And while the Nash Papyrus may not resolve any debates about the Torah’s origins, its open accessibility is a boon for scholars grappling with the questions. As university librarian Anne Jarvis said upon its digital release, the “age and delicacy” of the manuscript make it “seldom able to be viewed” in person. The leaf papyrus is, as the Cambridge Digital Library notes, full of holes, “barely legible” and composed of “four separate pieces fixed together.”

At the library site, users can see it in high resolution, zooming in very closely to any area they choose. You can also download the image, embed it, or share it on social media. And if that gets your ancient Biblical engines running, you can then see digital Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts of the Ten Commandments here and get an up close look at many other texts from that ancient treasure trove—as well as learn about them in a free online Rutgers course—here.

Related Content:

Google Digitizes Ancient Copies of the Ten Commandments and Genesis

Google Puts The Dead Sea Scrolls Online (in Super High Resolution)

Harvard Presents Two Free Online Courses on the Old Testament

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Dan Rather Introduces Rastafarianism to the U.S. in a 60 Minutes Segment Featuring Bob Marley (1979)

Like many people, I learned the basic tenets of Rastafarianism from Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, Steel Pulse, and later adopters Bad Brains. Marley’s worldwide fame not only spread the religion from Kingston to London to New York, but it also inspired no small number of non-Rastafarians to wear the Pan-African colors of red, green, and gold, grow dreadlocks, and sing about “Babylon” and “I and I." The irony of suburban Americans in college dorms adopting the trappings of a postcolonial religion with an unabashedly anti-Western, Afrocentric core predates most recent controversies over “cultural appropriation,” but one rarely sees a better example of the phenomenon.

Consumers of Jamaican Rastafarian culture in the past few decades, however, have rarely had to go very far to find it, and to find it appealing. Since the 1960s, the struggling island nation has relied on “Brand Jamaica,” writes Lucy McKeon at The New York Review of Books, “a global brand often associated with protest music, laid-back, ‘One Love’ positivity, and a pot-smoking counterculture.” The themes most non-Rasta fans of Bob Marley derive from his music also drive a lucrative tourism industry. Both tourists and casual listeners tend to ignore the music's esoteric theology. But reggae as party and protest music is only part of the story.

Those who dig deeper into the music's belief system usually find it quite odd—by the standards of older religious cultures whose own oddness has long been naturalized. Rastafarians revere a recent historical figure, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (born Ras Tafari), as the messiah, based on a supposed prophecy made by influential Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (who also inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam). Rastafarianism is also integral not only to reggae, but to what began in the 1930s as “a fight for justice by disenfranchised Jamaicans, peasant laborers and the urban underemployed alike, in what was then a British colony.”

You will gather a little bit of this history from the video above, “The Rastafarians,” a 15-minute 60 Minutes segment from 1979 with Dan Rather. But you get it through a condescendingly prejudicial network news filter, a sensibility appalled by the movement’s blackness and poverty. Rather describes Rastafarianism's origins among the “black masses” in "the ghetto, the slums of Kingston." In the “squalor of these slums," he tells his audience, poor residents found solace in the words of Garvey, “a Jamaican slumdweller.” Rather represents a view deeply concerned with the movement's "criminal element" among "true believers" and "ghetto hustlers" alike. This rather compulsively one-note presentation hardly captures the rich history of Rastafarianism, which began not in the "slums," but in a mountain settlement called Pinnacle in the 1930s.

In 1940---a decade into the settlement’s founding and growth into a colony of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people---a reporter named John Carradine observed, "The Rastafarians are not essentially a religious sect.... They are rather an economic community.” Founder of the Pinnacle community Leonard Percival Howell promoted what he “reportedly called ‘a socialistic life’ based on principles of communalism and economic independence from the colonial system.” Under Garvey's tutelage, Howell had absorbed Marxist and socialist doctrine, but the religion was his own peculiar invention. Garvey dismissed it as a "cult," and amidst its nationalism, it harbors several anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic teachings.

Like all zealous nationalist-religious movements, Rastafarians have defined themselves as much by the perceived Babylon they stand against as by the promised land they hope to inherit. Rastafarianism may have been transformed into a nationalist product, both by its most successful musicians and the tourist industry, but its association with Garvey's ideas also links it with a Pan-Africanism that called for people of the African diaspora in Europe, the U.S., and the Caribbean to secede from oppressive colonial systems and either emigrate or form alternative, self-sufficient economies. The first Rastafarians did just that by growing ganja, and their community thrived into the mid-fifties, when government crackdowns and pressure from Winston Churchill drove them from their land and into the capital city.

The spread of the religion in Kingston coincided with an anti-colonial movement that eventually won independence in 1962, and with the blending of rural and urban musical styles happening in the midst of social and political change. All of these threads are inseparable from the burgeoning reggae scene that eventually conquered every beach town and resort across the word. As for the theology, we might say that Ethiopia’s Emperor encouraged his elevation to the role of Jah on Earth with his own creative revisionism. At his lavish and widely-publicized coronation, Rather reports, the new monarch was “crowned King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” Quite a bid for god-on-earthhood. And for a struggling Jamaican underclass, quite an inspiration for visions of a glorious future in a renewed African kingdom.

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

Watch a Young Bob Marley and The Wailers Perform Live in England (1973): For His 70th Birthday Today

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg & More

Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer Sing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (2002)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Mindfulness Makes Us Happier & Better Able to Meet Life’s Challenges: Two Animated Primers Explain

The West has very rich contemplative tradition. Monastics of the early Christian church practiced forms of meditation that have been adopted by many people seeking a deeper, more serene experience of life. Given the wealth of contemplative literature and practice in European history, why have so many Western people turned to the East, and toward Buddhist contemplative forms in particular?

The answer is complicated and involves many strains of philosophical and countercultural history. Some of the greatest influence in the U.S. has come from Tibetan monks like the Dalai Lama and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, onetime teacher of Allen Ginsberg, and founder of Naropa University and the ecumenical Shambhala school of Buddhism. Trungpa Rinpoche contrasted theistic forms of meditation, both Hindu and Christian, with the mindfulness and concentration practices of Buddhism, writing that the first one, focused on a "higher being" or beings, is “inward or introverted" and dualistic.

Buddhist mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, is “what one might call ‘working meditation’ or extroverted meditation. This is not a question of trying to retreat from the world.” Mindfulness  “is concerned with trying to see what is,” he writes, and to do so without prejudice: “there is no belief in higher and lower; the idea of different levels, or of being in an underdeveloped state, does not arise.” In other words, all of the imported concepts that push us one way or another, drive our rigid opinions about ourselves and others, and make us feel superior or inferior, become irrelevant. We take ownership of the contents of our own minds.

How is this relevant for the modern person? Consider the videos here. These explainers,  like many other contemporary uses of the word “mindfulness," peel the concept away from its Buddhist origins. But secular and Buddhist ideas of mindfulness are not as different as some might think. “Mindfulness,” says Dan Harris in the video at the top, “is the ability to know what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it.” (Some might prefer the more succinct Vipassana definition “nonjudgmental awareness.”) Without mindfulness, “there’s no buffer between the stimulus and your reaction.” With it, however, we "learn to respond wisely" to what happens to us instead of being pushed and pulled around by habitual reactivity.

As the video above has it—using the Cherokee parable of the two wolves—mindfulness provides us with the space we need to observe our sensations, emotions, and ideas. From a critical distance, we can see causes and effects, and create different conditions. We can learn, in short, to be happy, even in difficult circumstances, without denying or fighting with reality. The Dalai Lama refers to this as observing “the principle of causality… a natural law." "In dealing with reality,” he says, “you have to take that law into account…. If you desire happiness, you should seek the causes that give rise to it.” Likewise, we must understand the mental causes of our suffering if we want to prevent it.

How do we do that? Is there an app for it? Well, yes, and no. One app is Happify---who produced these videos with animator Katy Davis, meditation instructor Sharon Salzberg, and Harris, creator of the mindfulness course (and app) 10% Happier. Happify offers “Science-based Activities and Games, and "a highly secularized, some might say decontextualized, form of mindfulness training—including the “Meditation 101” primer video above. For those who reject everything that smacks of religion, secular mindfulness practices have been rigorously put to many a peer-reviewed test. They are widely accepted as evidence-based ways to reduce anxiety and depression, improve focus and concentration, and manage pain. These practices have been used in hospitals, medical schools, and even public elementary schools for many years.

But whether we are Buddhists or other religious people practicing mindfulness meditation, or secular humanists and atheists using modified, “science-based”---or app-based---techniques, the fact remains that we have to build the discipline into our daily life in order for it to work. No app will do that for us, any more than a fitness app will make us toned and healthy. Nor will reading books or articles about meditation make us meditators. (To paraphrase Augustine, we might say that endless reading or staring at screens amounts to an attitude of “give me mindfulness, but not yet.”)

Harris, in character as a mouse in a V-neck sweater, says in the video above that meditation is “exercise for your brain.” And like exercise, Trungpa Rinpoche writes, meditation can be “painful in the beginning." We may not always like what we find knocking around in our heads. And yet without acknowledging, and even befriending, the feelings and thoughts that make us feel terrible, we can't learn to nurture and “feed” those that make us feel good. If you're inspired to get started, you'll find several free online guided meditations at the links below.

Related Content:

Philosopher Sam Harris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guided Meditation

Free Guided Meditations From UCLA: Boost Your Awareness & Ease Your Stress

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guided Meditations

Daily Meditation Boosts & Revitalizes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Harvard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

« Go BackMore in this category... »