You Have to Die to Be Reborn (Excursus)

Written by Mircea Eliade, the entry for Shamanism in vol. 19 of Man, Myth and Magic bears this image and the following caption:

“A Lapp shaman with his drum and lying on the ground in trance: it is in ecstatic trance that the shaman makes his journeys to heaven and hell; he is the man who can die and return to life again, many times.” Each time the shaman makes this journey he is treading a path first broken during his psychic initiatory crisis. Eliade argues that the process of initiation occurs as a healing process to resolve a moment of madness in the individual resulting from the initial experience of being divinely called for his shamanic vocation.

The initiation is understood as a process of death and rebirth: “first, torture at the hands of demons or spirits, who play the role of masters of initiation; second, ritual death, experienced by the patient as a descent to hill or an ascent to heaven; third, resurrection to a new mode of being – the mode of ‘consecrated man,’ that is, a man who can personally communicate with gods, demons and spirits. For initiatory death is always followed by a resurrection; that is, in terms of psychopathological experience, the crisis is resolved and the sickness cured. The shaman’s integration of a new personality is in large part dependent on his being cured.”

The depiction on the right of the shaman in ecstatic trance should be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary drug culture: the prostrate shaman covered by his own drum resembles a passed-out druggie, his senses overwhelmed, the flickering flame of his ego temporarily snuffed. It is a reminder of one of the most recurrent tropes that emerged in psychedelic-spiritual culture of the late sixties and seventies: the process of death and rebirth. Since their incursion into twentieth-century America via the worlds of Harvard psychology, the Millbrook estate and the International Federation of Internal Freedom, the experiential effects of psychedelics have been understood in religious analog.


A fundamental component of man’s religious consciousness, the death-rebirth process can be found across a great deal of literature dealing with psychedelic experience. Published in 1968 by the League of Spiritual Discovery, Inc, Timothy Leary’s High Priest, “the first of a four-volume biblical account of the birth, structural growth, exile, return, persecution, redemption, and flowering of the LSD religious cult,” thoroughly intertwines drug and religious rhetoric until they are inseparable – part of an effort, as one of the side-column notes phrases it, to develop a vocabulary to describe “all the modalities of a divine inebriant.” High Priest does not discuss the death-rebirth process in a psychedelic context so much as literarily enact it in liturgy and exegesis. Chapter pages bear layouts that collage I Ching quotes and oracular imagery and titles like Death of the Mind: Abysmal Prelude, and You Have to Go Out of Your Mind to Use Your Head.

Timothy Leary - High Priest - Chapter 4


Marcia Moore opens Journeys into the Bright World, her 1978 account of ketamine experimentation, with the title You Have to Die to Be Reborn. Here the image of self-transfiguration becomes an imperative, and the stakes of this process, the death of the self, become absolute.

The details of her experience are colored in the hyperbolic tones of eroticized mysticism characteristic of Calfornian New Age philosophy. Moore describes the come-down process, by which the soul finds itself reborn into the material world by saying "at that point it didn’t seem remotely possible that I could ever return to the phenomenal world of things and doings in which I had formerly functioned…As I began to look out of my eyes once more I became aware that Jane was sitting silently beside me. It seemed terribly important that she should be there, and that we should be sharing this sacred interval together. I fancied that we were fellow priestesses in ancient Egypt, that she was my hierophant who would usher me back to the world of the living. Images of colonnaded temples, sphinxes, pyramids and winged figures floated behind her. I loved her enormously and felt that we had been through something like this before in one of the mystery schools of legendary eras. Surely we would remain soul sisters forever. “You are my initiator,” I whispered, certain that she would understand.”

Marcia Moore, 1968


In his 1980 book LSD Psychotherapy, the culmination of more than twenty-years of clinical research in therapeutic practice with psychedelics, Stanislav Grof promoted the notion that the death-rebirth process experienced by the analysand during a clinical LSD session and rendered in the eye of the mind through cosmic imagery was in fact a conduit to perinatal experience – the originary traumatic memories of human birth encoded within the individual. Grof subdivided the perinatal trajectory into four stages or Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPM). According to Grof, the image below reflects the experience of volcanic ecstasy during BPM III, which “is frequently associated with visions of purifying fire (pyrocatharsis). During this stage, while releasing enormous amounts of destructive energy, LSD subjects identify with erupting volcanoes, atomic explosions, thermonuclear reactions, and even cosmic catastrophes.”


The sole tattoo on my body is a Rosicrucian hourglass and scythe inked on the back of my left upper forearm. The image was chosen seven years ago at a time when I was reading Walter Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama, in a kind of metonymic homage to Benjamin and the theories of Baroque allegory and eschatology he explores in the text. The origin of Rosicrucianism in Germany roughly coincides with the time period of the Counter-Reformation addressed by Benjamin – late 16th and early 17th century. A traditional image for the fleetingness of time, which has always implied human mortality, the hourglass adopted new significance in eyes of the Rosicrucians, who saw in the hourglass’ ability to be turned over once more a sign of resurrection.


Recorded last summer in Berlin, Night Plane – You Have to Die to Be Reborn is a mix in homage to Moore’s book and to the death-rebirth allegory. The lyrics of the opening title track are: you have to die / if you want to be reborn / you have to turn into the fire / if you want to be transformed.

Night Plane on Soundcloud

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