A Contemporary Mystery Religion: The Amsterdam Coffee Shop as a Pagan Praxis


According to Lewis Spence, “the term [mysteries] is usually used in connection with certain semi-religious ceremonies held by various cults in ancient Greece.”[1] To the degree that the ancient mysteries were secret or concealed and may have involved “the semi-dramatic representation or mystery-play of the life of a deity,”[2] they are not strictly applicable to the Amsterdam ‘coffeeshop’ phenomenon. But in this connection, Felicitas Goodman outlined the steady decline in the number of rites de passage as human society has moved successively from hunting-gathering to horticultural, agricultural, nomadic pastoralist and finally city dwelling stages.  Today, the essential passage rituals concern marriage and death only, but a complementary institution to the former coming of age ceremonies is to be recognised in adult initiation or what Mircea Eliade refers to as an existential change that temporarily suspends the individual from profane time. According to Sarah Johnston (106), “it was precisely in a culture from which rites of passage were missing that mysteries developed.” Consequently, an implicit relationship between mystery religion ritual and formal admission to adulthood is detectable. Whilst Christian confirmation, Jewish bar/bat mitzvah, incorporation into college fraternities/sororities or acceptance into a secret society such as the Freemasons survive as tribal, social and religious initiatory rituals in Western society of today, the absence of both bona fide mysteries and collective non-sectarian rites de passage concerning adult initiation may be factors behind contemporary angst and delinquency. My argument, therefore, is that the current Dutch coffeeshop phenomenon might be a surrogate substitute for the present-day lacuna in the legacy or loss of it we have inherited from humanity’s ancient past.

To link this contended phenomenon to paganism presupposes asking what is the purpose of pagan religion? A tentative answer would be ‘to experience enchantment’. One might ask whether the experience of enchantment might not be the purpose of all religion, but for the dharmics, the goal is to escape from māyā. For Abrahamists, the aim is to renounce enchantment or magic as the province of the devil. For the secularists, if the delight in fascination is to be found at all, it is to be located through nature and the arts alone.  The secular approach is well expressed by Robert de Ropp in his chapter on “The Mind and Marijuana” when, in referring to the effects of cannabis, he speaks about the mental and emotional motives “that lead men to seek ‘artificial paradise’ and to turn from the world of reality to that of drug-induced unreality.”[3] Only for the pagan is enchantment to be found in any way one can and, for today’s world in particular, to heed the call of Max Weber. The line between ‘reality’ and ‘unreality’ is greatly more nuanced. But in their shared concern with nature and beauty, the religious pagan and secular religionist are natural allies.

The possible ways that the pagan finds/re-finds enchantment are summed up by Patañjali, in verse 4.1 of his Yogasūtra. He enumerates for those not simply born already with super powers, that siddhi might be acquired through incantation, austerity, yogic concentration or even through sadhi – variously translated as ‘drugs’, ‘physic’, ‘potent herbs’, etc. The physic is comprised in the power-plants of nature, although, for the alchemists among us, it is also to be attained through the techne of synthetic pharmacopeia. We find a worldwide tradition in this domain from the peyote cult of Mexico – including San Pedro and psilocybin, the use of ayahuasca et al. in South America, the berserkjasveppur or beserker’s mushroom of Iceland, the iboga of Central Africa, the hashish of the Assassins, the bhang and ganja of the Shiva cult in India and Nepal, and probably others. In fact, the engineering of mood, psyche and stamina is already a basic alchemical pursuit that is vernacularly a part of Western society and beyond and to be witnessed in the use of caffeine, alcohol, prescribed tranquilizers and mood elevators and/or their abstention or avoidance.[4]

The mysteries “rested on the belief that, besides the general modes of honouring the gods, there was another, revealed only to the select few.”[5] “The whole system of mysteries endured to the very end of pagan times, for a deeper meaning of its symbolism offered a certain satisfaction …”[6] Foremost of the mysteries in ancient Greece are those of Eleusis dedicated to Demeter. Others included the Samothracian mysteries of the Cabiri, the Orphici, and those of Dionysus, Sabazius, Cybele, Isis and Mithras. Pindar claims that “Happy is he who, having seen [the phasmata or revealed ‘saving power’], goes beneath the earth; he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning.”[7] The mysteries appear to have involved only rites and not dogma “but only some simple ideas about life and death as symbolized in the springing up of the new crop from the old.”[8] For us today, the mysteries remain a well-kept secret that continues to engender much speculation. Foremost is the question concerning their transforming power and whether the strength was a form of collective hypnosis or individual experience.

For the revelatory mind-state of the mysteries themselves and specifically of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the kykeon sacrament has been proposed as a psychedelic agent.[9] One possibility might be that the substance was a derivative of ergot-contaminated barley. More likely, the kykeon could have been a psilocybin mushroom, the Amanita muscaria or a poppy opioid. The most likely candidates, however, would be either Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala) or Phalaris grasses and Acacia shrubs (dimethyltriptamine [DMT]) which are relatively common in the Mediterranean area. We know, however, that with the mysteries, “actions and rites in themselves quite commonplace may bear to the eye of faith the most sacred and impressive character.”[10] This ‘eye of faith’ could itself be the enhanced vision brought about through the ingesting of an entheogenic substance.[11]

Patañjali, refers to enchantment or siddhi as a substantial occult power. But somewhere between the magician/shaman and the folk – deliberate, conscious ritual for the one; automatic and often non-reflective for the other – are the mysteries and initiatory rites of passage. For Sopater, initiation linked the soul with divine nature.[12] Theon Smyrnaeus refers to the final stage of initiation as bliss and the divine favour that develops from it.[13] My contention, therefore, is that the appeal of psychotropics and entheogens to Western youth – not uniquely but at least significantly – is part of this middle ground quest – if not social need – for initiatory enchantment. As Goodman put it, “In the long run, ... humans cannot tolerate ecstasy deprivation.”[14] Consequently, my question has become whether the coffeeshop phenomenon serves as a modern quasi-mystery religion or adult initiation for the youth of Europe.

My methodology for gaining answers to this question has been challenging. To know the coffeeshop experience involves an emic approach to the study over an etic one. With a premise that psychonautic alchemy today represents the transformation of an ancient tradition that has become detached from a necessarily animistic world of magic or religious explanation to provide a methodology compatible with rational, this-worldly utilitarian secularism

"for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness, including those induced by meditation or mind altering substances,"[15]

it is also in itself

"a research paradigm in which the researcher voluntarily immerses him/herself into an altered state by means of such techniques, as a means to explore human experience and existence."[16]

With currently over two hundred coffeeshops in Amsterdam, the venue for research is ample.[17] For the Netherlands alone, the term coffeeshop signifies a place where hashish and marijuana are available. The Amsterdam Coffeeshop Directory [ACD], accordingly, promotes itself as

"your comprehensive guide to cannabis cafes and drugs in Amsterdam and the Netherlands. It lists shops selling weed, psychedelics, growing kit and everything hemp and will help you find out where the best buds are and some cool places to smoke them. Above all, the ACD is about unashamed cannabis tourism. It's for planning a coffee shop crawl around Amsterdam".[18]

Nevertheless, with such exceptions of a place like the Dampkring that functions more like a friendly pub filled with loquacious bar-clusters of people, the typical Amsterdam coffeeshop is more awesome and intimidating and, with the exception of background music whose loudness could frequently hinder basic observation, generally quiet. To walk into one with questionnaires in hand appeared to me as inappropriate, but fortified with an emic perspective, I learned that conversation was often much easier than what otherwise might have seemed the case. My approach would be to ask first what language people at a nearby table were speaking – if I could hear them talking. If not, I would simple ask from what country they came. Almost inevitably, everyone I would speak to would turn out to be friendly even if a bit mystified. Without exception, they were eager to identify their nationalities and places of residence. All in all, my respondents came from Italy (Naples, Rome), Spain (Madrid), France (Marseilles, Paris, Alsace, Provence), Germany (Dusseldorf), Finland (Helsinki), Denmark, Switzerland, Malta, Turkey (Istanbul), Israel (Tel Aviv) and the United States (Ohio, Sacramento, etc.)

My findings, however, did not fully support my original expectations. Rather than a person’s presence in a coffeeshop being necessarily an indication of an initial initiatory experience, at least half my respondents were on their third or fourth visit to Amsterdam. Consequently, along with those experiencing a first-time quasi-mystery religion encounter, there were an equal number of what I could term ‘shaman-questers’ or ‘quasi-shaman priests’. In other words, the first-timers were usually and frequently accompanied by the repeaters. This allows that the repeaters are functioning for the newbie as shamanic psychopomps (curanderos, medicine men, etc.) in the gaining of an otherworldly experience. The sacrament involved is specifically the cannabis power-plant of nature. The psychopomp, however, is not only assisting and leading the initiate but is also himself/herself undergoing a re-charging.

But important in this initiatory and shamanic endeavour is that the coffeeshop venue is designed to suggest a shrine-like quality. This is most obviously to be witnessed in the religious symbols and icons to be found almost ubiquitously. By far, the most prominent image is that of Gautama Buddha – not because the coffeeshop is necessarily Buddhist but because the meditating Buddha has emerged in the West as a pre-eminent secular figure that suggests spirituality in general more than religion specifically. Other icons and idols include those for Kali, Durga, Gaia, Shiva, Ganesha, the Green Man, etc. In my neighbouring coffeeshop, Barney’s Lounge, as well as in the rest of the Barney’s chain, the trademark image is that of the personified sun. But even the bar-like Dampkring, otherwise absent of religious imagery apart for its exterior, appears to be what could be termed a secular humanist place for spiritual gathering. It also has a residential cat.

My twenty-year old son visited at one point and during our coffeeshop round referred to the welcomed “ceremony of spliff” as the central act of the venue. The coffeeshop ritual is casual and low-key. There is little to no presence of doctrine, and ostensibly the venues are hedonistic locations. But while religious/spiritual paraphernalia is subtle, it is nevertheless present. The expression, “ceremony of spliff,” amply describes the ritualistic undercurrent. The appeal of the coffeeshop is primarily to youth, though not exclusively. With the political shift in the Netherlands at present to the conservative right, the very future of the Dutch coffeeshop is now in question, even though the institution has thrived since the late 1960s. The suggested wietpas to be issued to Dutch users or Dutch residents would presumably preclude admission and sale to foreigners. If this becomes the case, the Free City of Copenhagen and the increasingly liberal laws of Spain and Portugal will allow the coffeeshop phenomenon to continue, but until this comes to pass, the Amsterdam venues remain as perhaps the most popular for the initiation and shamanic re-charging desires of an international segment wishing for the trance and enchantment that secularism and the utilitarian world of today do not provide

A final concern here relates to the Contemporary Pagan Studies’ original call for papers and the question whether there is really such a thing as pagan theology. I had asked for elucidation concerning a proposed substitute term, namely, pagan praxology, but this was not forthcoming. So I am still curious what theories of pagan praxis there are or what someone had in mind with his/her suggestion. As important and useful as I find theological discussion to be in differentiating the broad types of religious or spiritual orientation, the Dutch coffeeshop phenomenon is not theological but an observable practice. Nominally this practice is secular, and its pursuit differs essentially from Abrahamic endeavour apart perhaps from such instances as the Native American Church and the Santo Daime and Unaio de Vegetale sects of Brazil. We do, by contrast, find the chillum employed religiously among Indian sannyasins and in some temple worship, but the entheogenic praxis to be found with dharmic religion I would argue to be a further instance of a pagan legacy. If and when we look carefully enough, the pagan inheritance is to be located within most religions. Ostensibly, the coffeeshop ceremony and institution could be described as secular practices, but to the degree that the goal behind them is the mental state of enchantment, the praxology is implicitly pagan. This pagan praxis is non-doctrinaire and only theological by an etically-derived analysis. It is instead more akin to the generic undercurrent of human aspiration that is less recognised as religion per se and more as a pragmatic expression of a human desire.

[1] Louis Spence, An Encyclopaedia of Occultism (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960:281)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Robert. S. de Ropp, Drugs and the Mind (New York: Grove Press, 1961:66).
[4] Vide ibid. pp 247-59 (“Brews Strange and Brews Familiar). For alcohol, see pages 117-35.
[5] Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities: Mythology, Religion, Literature and Art, third edition, eds. Henry Nettleship & J.E. Sandys (London: William Glaisher, 1894:409).
[6] Ibid. p. 410.
[7] Pindar, Frag. 137 in T. Bergk, Poetae lyrici Graeci, 4th ed. (Leipzig, 1872-82) – cited in Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Folk Religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972:59).
[8] Ibid. Nilsson p. 63.
[9] Ralph Metzner, “The Reunification of the Sacred and the natural,” Eleusis 8 (1997:3-13). See also R. Gordon Wasson, Carl Ruck & Albert Hoffman, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978).
[10] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Thomas Spencer Baynes & W. Robertson Smith, eds. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884:17:124).
[11] Vide Derek Collins, Magic in the Ancient Greek World (New York: Wiley, 2008).
[12] Sopater (Diareses Zetemata) apud Christian Walz, Rhetores Graeci (London: Black, Young & Young, 1832:120).
[13] Theon Smyrnaeus, De Mathematicis apud Platonem (Paris: Ismael Bullialdi, 1644:1:18).
[14] Felicitas D. Goodman, Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternative Reality: Religion in a Pluralistic World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988:171).
[15] http://www.answers.com/topic/psychonaut#cite_note-addiction_research-1 (accessed 6 July 2012).
[16] Ibid.
[17] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2061730/Dutch-cannabis-coffee-shops-ban-tourists-January-1-new-ruling.html (accessed 16 July 2012).
[18] http://www.coffeeshop.freeuk.com/ (accessed 16 July 2012).