The Social Myth of Mushroom-Shamanism

Psychoactive, or “magic,” mushrooms are the most ubiquitous of the known entheogenic plant hallucinogens.  They can be found on six out of seven continents, and require no pieces of complicated paraphernalia or preparation to be ingested.  Building on these assumptions, the conventional wisdom of the psychedelic movement in the 1960’s held that ritualistic mushroom use must have been a common practice in the shamanic traditions of many, if not most, of the prehistoric and ancient cultures ranging from Siberia and Northern Europe to the Americas and even Australia.  Self-described prophets such as Timothy Leary along with popular writers like Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner, and Terrence McKenna helped perpetuate the cultural myth of a lost golden age of shamanic communion with the spirit realm via the use of hallucinogenic fungi, followed by a decline in use commonly ascribed to the oppressive spread of Christianity and growing disenchantment after the development of agriculture.  The mythologies generated by these individuals remain influential to this day in many circles of dedicated mushroom aficionados, or myconauts.

Andy Lechter addresses the often dogmatic adherence to this ideology among mushroom users in his book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.

With great certainty [mushroom users] will detail how mushrooms were used in prehistoric religious ceremonies, inspiring the building of the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge and the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan.  They will tell you how Plato, amongst others, drank mushroom tea at the ancient Greek rites of Eleusis; how mushrooms were eaten by the shadowy Celts and their Druidic priests, by the Vikings to access their jingoistic rages, and then later by the medieval witches in their secretive moonlit sabbats.  They will happily explain that folk memories of Siberian mushroom-shamanism gave us the figure of Father Christmas, who is, in fact, a magic mushroom in disguise.  They will blame a blinkered patriarchal and nature-hating Christianity, or perhaps the scientific machinations of the industrial revolution, for the severance of this unbroken tradition and the willful oppression of this throwback to the stoned age.  And they will claim that by reviving mushroom use they are reinstating an ancient shamanic heritage, a heritage that is their natural birthright (4-5).

In order to corroborate his claim, I interviewed eight individuals in a close circle of psychedelic mushroom users at Rutgers, and found their opinions on the history of mushroom use to be closely accordant with this narrative.  Due to ideological concerns, all of these individuals have asked to remain anonymous—though among them references to the mushroom’s prehistoric origin, Plato, and Siberian shamanism were unanimous, and every piece of Lechter’s chronicle was reproduced by at least two individuals.  The singular exception was the Avebury and Stonehenge myths, which were mentioned by only one interviewee, although this can easily be ascribed to a more general lack of cultural knowledge in America pertaining to ancient British history.

If nothing else, we can take the cohesiveness of this cultural mythology as evidence that psychedelic mushroom aficionados can be thought of as constituting their own mnemonic community.  Aside from mode of dress, political views, and cultural tastes, members of the community can be said to share a distinctive set of memories pertaining to the origins and history of the mushrooms they hold to be sacred.  They are an especially interesting subject for analysis because their remembered historical system is predicated on a distinct lack of citable evidence.  Lechter notes that because “mushrooms are delicate, evanescent and highly putrescible, often rotting away within hours of appearance . . . fungi of all kinds appear extremely rarely in the archaeological record” (32).  The few mushrooms that have been preserved have been of the more practicable Fomes fomentarius variety, more commonly referred to as tinder fungus because the plant’s dry, brittle constitution makes it an effective fire starting tool.  Lechter prominently declares that “there is not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved in the archaeological record anywhere” (33).

In comparison to some of the other mnemonic communities we have discussed in class, there is a distinct lack of solid “history” for mushroom enthusiasts to point to in support of their mythology.  Whereas Zionists may correctly or incorrectly recall narratives such as the Bar Kokhba revolt or the death of Trumpledor, they are nevertheless referring back to accessible and agreed upon past events.  But in my interviews, I found that proponents of the mushroom mythology rely almost exclusively on their own personal experiences with the drug, colloquially called “trips,” to which they have assigned a high degree of ontological significance.  One particular subject nicely summarized the general opinion pertaining to the importance of the mushroom trip itself: “It’s like going to another world.  The mushroom takes you there and blows your mind.  It shows you things about the past and gives you insight into it, your own life, and even the future.  When it’s over, wherever you come back from, you come back knowing.”  Though individual descriptions of the ineffable trip experience differ radically, not one of my subjects doubted that it constitutes a distinctly spiritual, even Gnostic, event.

The unanimous belief in the intrinsic spirituality of the mushroom experience, coupled with a near unanimous recollection of the golden age/decline narrative suggests the best evidence for the normative aspect of memory in regards to this particular mnemonic community.  And though past events are plotted without much regard to chronological continuity (stories of the Aztec mushroom ceremonies and Indo-European Soma ceremonies were mentioned by one interviewed subject in the same breath as if they happened in sequential order), chronicles of mushroom lore are painstakingly separated into three distinct time periods: the prehistoric golden age, the decline brought on by Christianity, and the resurgence of the shamanic tradition in the second half of the 20th Century.  Events before the spread of Christianity are remembered in an idealized light (one subject longingly mused that “life must have been simpler then.”), whereas events pertaining to possible instances of mushroom prohibition in the Christian era—the medieval witch hunts being the most commonly mis-remembered—are demonized, evidence of humanity’s decline since organized monotheism resulted in a disenchanted break with the natural, shamanistic state.  Members of the mushroom community also tend to idealize the 1960’s as being akin to a psychedelic Renaissance, or a time of reconnection with humanity’s indigenous, spiritual roots.

But ask any modern myconaut to cite specific textual evidence in support of their claims, and, to the extent that you are given any worthwhile response at all, you will be directed claims derived from the theories of Carlos Castaneda, Terrence McKenna, and most prominently, Aldous Huxley, who has acceded to the position of unofficial godfather of the modern psychedelic movement.  None of these figures could be classically defined as historians or anthropologists—Castaneda was studying anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles, but abandoned the science after the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge—they are purveyors of fiction and metaphysics, and must be regarded as such for the purpose of this assignment.  Huxley’s 1954 publication of The Doors of Perception, and subsequent Heaven and Hell have become the standard against which all psychedelic literature are measured.   His claim toward the middle of Doors of Perception, that “the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots—all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings since time immemorial” (24-5), is one of the first documented allegations of a prehistoric entheogenic shamanism, from the cultural movement that would eventually give rise to the age of the magic mushroom (Lechter, 26).

Huxley’s further insistence that “the urge to transcend self-consciousness is … a principle appetite of the soul” (Perception, 67), prompted writers to look for historical proof of this phenomenon in ancient cultures, and it was not long before an abundance of theories began cropping up about the supposed psychedelic origins of many of the world’s ancient religions and systems of spirituality.  The Hindu Rig Veda hymns frequently reference a liquid intoxicant called Soma.  Though the exact composition of the beverage remains an enigma, the amateur anthropologist and avid mushroom enthusiast Gordon Wasson, inspired by Huxley’s text, believed the active ingredient must have been a hallucinogenic fungus (Lechter, 143-4).  His 1968 publication of SOMA: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, spread his theory throughout the psychedelic underground, and the tenets of his book are still indisputably accepted by myconauts in the modern era.  Though none of the subjects I interviewed had heard of Gordon Wasson, the consensus that magic mushrooms were being consumed by the ancient Indo-Europeans has not faded.  Of the eight subjects interviewed, five identified Soma as being a mushroom derivative without being prompted, and the remaining three recalled the pseudo-scientific myth after being asked about it specifically.

There is one key difference between the remembered myth of Soma’s composition and Gordon Wasson’s original theory that only one interviewed subject was able to identify.  In the fungal kingdom, there are two known types of hallucinogenic mushroom.  The Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has a characteristic red cap with white specks, and the more common species belonging to the genusPsylocibe, which produces less distinctive looking brown or golden capped fruit (Lechter, 12-13).  The Amanita muscaria is almost never used in the modern era, as it is composed of a multiplicity of active alkaloids, the contents of which vary greatly between mushrooms growing under different conditions.  Because of this, theAmanita muscaria has never been widely used spiritually or medicinally outside two regions in Siberia, where soil conditions favor a consistent degree of potency.  The great majority of mushrooms cultivated and sold in the United States belong to thePsylocibe genus, of which the active alkaloids, psilocybin and psilocin, are found in more stable quantities, making for a more predictable experience once ingested (Lechter, 118-130).

Gordon Wasson’s book proposed that it was the Amanita muscaria that must have been the active ingredient in Soma, brought down from the Caucus Mountains by Aryan invaders (Lechter, 147).  From the modern standpoint, this conclusion seems unlikely, as the Amanita muscaria, which grows most commonly in symbiosis with fir trees, is not common in India.  Psylocibe species, in contrast, are found in many of the world’s tropical regions, including India, where they flourish in the warm, moist environment of dung fields and other regions of decay (150).  But this point proved purely academic—I was surprised to discover in the course of my interviews that modern mushroom enthusiasts are for the most part ignorant of the difference between Amanita muscaria and species of the Psylocibe genus (only one individual successfully identified the distinction).  Far from simply conflating the two types of mushroom—which would be a convenient way of revising Wasson’s assumption—Rutgers’ community of myconauts has essentially remembered the Amanita muscaria out of existence in their conventionalized history of psychoactive fungal use.

Another interesting conflation made by modern mushroom enthusiasts occurs in the recollection of history of Psylocibe cubensis use in South and Central America.  There is a great amount of documented evidence to suggest that mushroom use was common among the Aztecs and certain other inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula (Lechter, 88-113), and while all of the interviewed subjects correctly asserted that the indigenous people of what is now Mexico knew about the substance, they also unanimously subscribed to the theory that the mushroom was widely used throughout South America as a whole.  But though Psylocibe cubensisgrow prominently in many South American countries, they were not widely used outside of the Aztec and Mayan empires.  The indigenous tribes populating modern day Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia were no strangers to psychoactive shamanism, but they were largely ignorant or even wary of Psylocibe cubensis (Lechter, 193).Anthropologists now believe that Ayahuasca, or Yage, a psychoactive brew prepared from the admixture of certain plants and seeds, was the hallucinogen of choice for indigenous peoples south of the Yucatan, though this belief has only recently begun to gather popular support within the lay psychedelic community.

In the Rutgers’ psychedelic community, only the more experienced members have a proper working understanding of Ayahuasca—which is surprising, as it boasts a prominent Wikipedia entry to its name—but even those who do know about it, often subscribe to the belief that it was used interchangeably with the Psylocibe cubensis by the people of South America.  This conflation is almost certainly due to the influence of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda’s fictional shaman from A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, who allegedly used a preparation of Psylocibe cubensis to rock Castaneda’s empirical world-view.  After its publication in 1968,  the book caused many psychedelic travelers to journey to Mexico and other South American destinations in search of deeper metaphysical understanding  (Lechter, 214-16).  And though Castaneda’s Don Juan books are universally regarded as fiction among serious intellectuals, members of the Rutgers psychedelic community still perpetuate the myth of Don Juan.

The interviewed subjects recognized Don Juan as a famous Mexican (in some cases Peruvian) shaman—as an archetypal Indian teacher to outsiders, similar to the popular perception of Squanto, the Native American who helped the first European settlers.  His name was not connected to Carlos Castaneda, however, nor was it easily recognized as being connected with a book.  Psychedelic culture has apparently assimilated the fictional figure of Don Juan Mathus into its mythology as a modern day relic of an assumed ancient history of shamanic practice.  He has paradoxically become living proof of the prehistoric beginnings of humanity’s relationship with entheogenic substances in general, and magic mushrooms in particular.

As Lechter points out, “one of the reasons that invented histories, supposed lineages of mushroom use stretching back to the dawn of time, are so readily believed and so trenchantly defended by aficionados is that they serve to legitimate this illicit hobby” (23).  It supports the implication that the recreational and spiritual use of hallucinogens is not morally wrong, as it has been deemed by straight society in reaction to the permissive atmosphere of the 1960’s psychedelic revolution, but part of our own mystical ancestry, and therefore natural.  The figure of Don Juan fulfills the important function of bridging the gap between the lost golden age of psychedelic acceptance and its resurgence in the 20th Century.  If the hippies of the acid movement wanted to claim solidarity with a chain of hallucinogenic spirituality with prehistoric roots, they needed to grasp onto some piece of evidence in the non-Western world to corroborate it.  The case is similar with modern mushroom enthusiasts, who want to claim solidarity with past traditions as a way of justifying their life choices.  They undoubtedly cling to the Soma myth, among others for the same reason.

Ironically, this blind devotion to a shaky history blinds most from realizing that the issue behind the use psychedelic substances is not inherently a moral one.  All of the subjects interviewed rated psychedelic substances, and mushrooms in particular, as intrinsically positive agents of spiritual discovery.[1] The extent the Christian Era is used to symbolize the decline of the first psychedelic golden age is most likely based upon the lack of any hard evidence of hallucinogen use after the proliferation Latin made historical records more uniform and accessible.  To the skeptic, a lack of available evidence during a time of growing literacy and written documentation only strengthen the claims as to the mythological nature of humanity’s ancient shamanic tradition.  Attempts at locating evidence of the establishment’s oppression of mushroom use in the Old World, particularly within this period have proven fruitless, the best example being Michael Harner’s publication of Hallucinogens and Shamanism in the 1970’s.  In the book, Harner posited that the victims of the Medieval witch hunts were not devil worshippers, but secretive users of psychoactive substances which they ingested via the application of magic flying ointments.  From this unsubstantiated claim, it was not long before hallucinogenic mushrooms were proposed as a possible agent in these mysterious ointments  (Lechter, 47).  Lechter repeatedly argues in his book that most cultures feared mushrooms because of their relationship with decay and because some were known to be poisonous, stressing that psychedelic experiences were commonly viewed as evidence of the body’s rejection of the ingested substance and therefore something to be explicitly avoided.

But if die-hard myconauts rely on this narrative of Christian oppression to explain why no indisputable documented instances of ritualistic mushroom use existed until the 20th Century, they force the question of morality to the forefront.  This distinction is commonly drawn by the emphasis given to the autonomous agency of the mushroom as a spiritual tool.  In regards to the impersonal rites and places in which shared memories of mnemonic communities are stored, one need look no further than the mushroom itself, which is colloquially referred to by myconauts as the golden teacher or occasionally, philosopher’s stone.  To those who take the idea of shamanism seriously, the mushroom is a kind of conscious being.  This theory was proliferated by Terrence McKenna throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  During his rhapsodical lectures, he occasionally related stories of the mushrooms speaking to him, and said they claimed to be of alien descent (Lechter, 263), and many myconauts in the modern era make similar contentions about having actually communed with the mushrooms during the psychedelic experience.

The degree of personal insight that one can acquire during a mushroom experience is astounding, so it is not difficult to understand why some groups of people choose to subscribe in the mushroom consciousness theory.  However, to an enthusiast with a critical eye, it becomes clear that the entirety of the experience is internally generated, the product of specific brain functions.  It is interesting then that so many individuals should subscribe to a point of view that is inherently normalized in the scope of its world view, though I believe this says a great deal less about the function of the mushroom than it does about the individuals themselves.  Though they generally mistrust Christianity, they are by no means atheists.  They regard themselves as seekers, psychedelic pioneers ushering in a new era of spirituality, and as such, one can’t help but wonder if their argument would not be more convincing coming from a professed atheist who had never heard any of the urban legends and pseudo-histories proliferated by psychedelic culture.

But in this case, that the normative memories of a shamanic past are directly influencing the mushroom community’s views about the future.  Judging from the anger generated by the publication of Lechter’s book on psychedelic internet message boards, it seems unlikely that these entrenched mythologies will change quickly, and die-hard adherents to the conventional wisdom are already at work trying to disprove his claims.  Their prejudices ring through in their unsung motto: from whence we come, we shall again return.


Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.

Lechter, Andy.  Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. New York: Harper

Perennial, 2007.

Below is a reproduction of the interview questionnaire I used in this paper.  Interviewees were asked to type in their answers and examples to the following nine questions:

1)   What do you believe are the origins of magic mushroom use?

2) What does the experience, or trip, mean to you?

3) Describe an average trip or experience.  In your opinion, is there an innately spiritual quality to it?

4) Do you believe organized religion was influenced by mushroom use?  Provide examples of specific areas if you can think of any.

5) What do you think of Christianity’s relationship with psychedelic mushrooms?  Provide examples if you can.

6) Can you name any prominent figures associated with shamanism in general or magic mushroom use in particular?

7) What is Ayahuasca?

8 ) What is the importance of the mushroom itself?

9) What is the modern consensus about magic mushrooms as opposed to other classified “drugs?”

[1] To be fair, I am also aware of several “fringe” mushroom enthusiasts who do not subscribe to this ideology, though they are generally not accepted as being true members of the close-knit psychedelic community.

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