Mushroom Lore

The shamanic use of fly agaric mushrooms by primitive Siberians seemed to date far back into history as there were various legends that spoke of its mythical origins. For instance, a Koryak legend tells of a hero named Big Raven who was able to attain immense strength by eating spirits given to him by the god Vahiyinin - the god of existence. By spitting upon the earth, Vahiyinin caused the necessary spirits to grow, these being fly agaric mushrooms with their ability to provide supernatural strength and wisdom.

The Wassons theorised that it was this archaic shamanic practice of fly agaric ingestion, so well reflected in legend and mythology, that had eventually lead to the mycophobic pre-Christian taboos against eating mushrooms which were still evidently shared by most of the peoples living around the shores of the North Sea. In other words, since the mushroom was used mainly by shamans in a ritual context, cultural injunctions and taboos would conceivably have begun to evolve in order to stop others wantonly utilising it's strange power. Or, it is just as likely that through migrations and invasions misinformation spread regarding the true nature of the mushroom's effects. Through such typical cultural mechanisms as these, the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom gradually came to attain a mythical status, guaranteeing it cultural immortality as it progressed as the stuff of legend from generation to generation.

As it's shamanic use diffused out from Russia, whilst some peoples gradually came to eschew the mushroom, others embraced it's effects. Not only did the Aryan people who migrated down into the Indus Valley 3500 years ago bring with them their religious cult of Soma, later still, some 1000 years BC., we find artistic representations of mushrooms on Swedish, Norwegian and Danish Bronze Age objects. On bronze artefacts like razors have been found mushroom motifs (generally stylised cross-sectional views of a mushroom) which depict the mushroom in a way that suggests that it was an object of worship. Since the fly agaric mushroom abounds in Scandinavia, these motifs are thought to represent a similar fly agaric-worshipping cult to those of Siberia.

Apart from Siberian folklore many European folktales also testify to the enigma of the fly agaric mushroom, providing an echo of the distant cultural interconnections of the past. Yugoslav peasants take the mushroom's supernatural origin back to the time of pre-Christian Nature gods. The legend relates that Votan, chief of all the gods and a potent magician and healer, was riding his magical horse through the countryside when suddenly demons appeared and started chasing him. As he fled, his horse galloped so fast that flecks of bloodied foam flew from its mouth. Wherever this bloody foam fell, fly agarics sprang up.

Hungarians call the fly agaric 'boland gamba' or the 'mad mushroom'. Austrians and Germans used to speak of the 'fool's mushroom' and were wont to paraphrase British comedian Tony Hancock's "have you gone raving mad?" with "have you eaten crazy mushrooms?"

The Wassons also analysed the vast array of words used to describe mushrooms in different cultures and the latent metaphors that such words conveyed; words like 'toadstool' for instance which links the toad to the mushroom, the toad being a creature much maligned in myth and folklore. The Wassons also conjectured that the 'fly' in fly agaric was not due to its supposed insecticidal effect but because the fly used to be associated with demonic power (Beelzebub is 'Lord of the Flies'), and was thus fearfully associated with the mysterious mushroom.

In short, the Wassons uncovered a vast cultural diffusion of homogeneous mushroom lore indicative of a common origin, the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom most likely being the instigator. Wasson later summed up his views in the following way:

"Death will come if the layman presumes to eat this forbidden fruit, the Fruit of Knowledge, the Divine

Mushroom of Immortality that the poets of the Rig Veda celebrated. The fear of this 'death' has lived on as an emotional residue long after the shaman and his religion have faded from memory, and here is the explanation for the mycophobia that has prevailed throughout Northern Europe, in the Germanic and Celtic worlds."

At this point the Wassons might well have ended their mycological investigations, an interesting enough climax since they had left the fungal world and ventured into the domain of primitive religion. The plot however, was going to thicken as the fly agaric became overshadowed by the far more powerful figure of the psilocybin mushroom, a mushroom whose living mystery Gordon Wasson would eventually confront within the inner sanctums of his soul.

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