Pharmako Dynamis, Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft

Dale Pendell

History, Botany
Dale Pendell


Dale Pendell’s Pharmako books are beautiful, and organized in such a way as to be read wherever you open them. This is the sequel to Pharmako/Poeia, published in 1996, which began the exploration of psychoactive plants, and is continued in richly illustrated detail here. Pharmacodynamis is the study of the effects and actions of drugs on living organisms, used by the Ancient Greeks to refer to the intrinsic power of plants; their healing and harming properties – the Pharmako books are therefore an investigation into the nature of poisons. A summary of the publication and my reasoning for introducing it to the Lawson Park library is probably best outlined by a quote from the introduction to the book itself:

‘Psychoactive plants were selected as prototypical poisons, and their history and use bear all the marks of the ambiguity we would expect from the pharmakon – the drug – that which is both noxious and healing, medicine and bewitching charm, chemical reagent and the artist’s colours. Books themselves are poisons: revealing, teaching: the letter of orthodoxy or the seed of subversion. One might find interesting parallels between book burners and anti-drug warriors: certainly they came together in the Inquisition –and in Pre-Conquest Mexico.  The promiscuous mixing of “hard” science with poetry, and, even worse, the “occult” is sufficiently repellant to true believers of both camps to keep them at a safe distance.’

Pharmako Dynamis provides a richly detailed history of the taxonomy, application, affects and motivations of domesticated stimulants: tea, coffee, cola, chocolate (as well as cocaine, depending on what the ‘domestic’ means to you), along with those born from the drive to activate or stimulate empathy, such as the substances included in ‘Empathogenica’ (e.g nutmeg, source of the common early-teenage homemade acid trip). The book is an acknowledgement of the complexities of the poison/cure, not a celebration of intoxication – and subsequently charts the implicated histories of colonialisation, temperance movements and prohibition, government interception / control and pharmako substances as currency, as well as the broader social histories and consequences of cultivating poisonous substances – from ancient civilizations to the contemporary condition, all in precise (and often strange, poetic) detail. I’ve recently been pleased to learn that in Greek ‘pharmakon’ also means colour - i.e one original conception of colour is as that of a drug, a luxury substance, a poison, an intoxicant.