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Essential Substances

Essential Substances was the winner of the British Museum Prometheus Award and was hailed as a masterpiece by the Director of Harvard Botanical Museum.

It is still one of the few books to have explored the role of drugs in the religious, political, economic and sexual life of our species from prehistory to the present day, covering a range of cultures as diverse as the Amazonian Indians, the Scythians of the ancient world and the witches of Medieval Europe alongside inner city crack and drugs in the counterculture. It is a magical tour of the bizarre world of intoxicants peopled by tribesmen and mystics, statesmen and writers, housewives and yuppies.

Rudgley cogently shows how the significance of these substances extends beyond simple pleasure to the economic, political, and sexual life of a community. In the process, he challenges our assumptions that deem certain intoxicants socially and legally acceptable, while others remain taboo. Essential Substances remains a timely, much-needed reconsideration of the roles intoxicants play in our lives and society. Added for this edition is a new appendix, ‘A Psychoactive Bestiary’.


‘A splendid contribution to the new wave of scholarship that is forcing a different approach to our ages-old fascination with hallucinogenic plants and altered states. Richard Rudgley is to be congratulated’

Terence McKenna, author of Food of the Gods and True Hallucinations

‘Should be required reading for all legislators who think disliked substances can be made to vanish by means of criminal sanctions’

Andrew Weil MD, author of The Natural Mind

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