Antiquity and Origins of the Mushroom Cult

It can of course be argued that the two great mushroom traditions, that of New World Indians and that of the peoples of Eurasia, are historically unconnected and autonomous, having arisen spontaneously in the two regions from similar requirements of the human psyche and similar environmental opportunities. But are they really unrelated?

A good though controversial case has been made by some prehistorians for sporadic early contacts across the Pacific between the budding civilizations of the New World and their contemporaries in eastern and southern Asia, perhaps as early as the second millennium BC The West, until very recently, consistently underrated the maritime capabilities of the early Chinese, whose ships more than 2,000 years ago were not only already considerably larger and more seaworthy than those of medieval Europe but were equipped with an effective rudder of a type adopted by the Europeans only shortly before Columbus embarked on his first voyage of discovery. Moreover, it was the Chinese who invented the compass. So we must at least grant them the potential of having crossed the Pacific, whether they ever did so or not. Now if as seems likely, the Chinese once worshiped an hallucinogenic mushroom and employed it in religious ritual and medicine,* and if some of their sages reached the New World, by accident or design, they could of course have introduced some of their own advanced pharmacological knowledge, or at least the idea of sacred mushrooms, to the ancient Mexicans. The same would apply to early India, whose calendrical system, like that of China, bears a perplexing resemblance to its pre-Hispanic Mexican counterpart. But these are very big ifs indeed.

Considering the proven antiquity of hallucinogens in the New World, it seems more reasonable to refer back to La Barre's argument and consider the problem in the context of the ecstatic-shamanistic phenomenon as a whole. The roots of the New World mushroom complex, as of the other ritual hallucinogens, would then have to be sought in a common pan-Eurasiatic-American Paleo-Mesolithic substratum, predating not just the evolution of advanced transoceanic sailing capabilities in ancient China or southern Asia, but even the first peopling of the New World. In that case, we could see the sacred mushroom of Paleo-Siberian tribes as prototype for all the ritual hallucinogens that proliferated so spectacularly among New World Indians, and the sacred mushrooms of Middle America as linear descendants of the fly-agaric.

This approach is the more plausible in that Wasson himself has traced some of the common names for the fly-agaric in Indo-European languages to Proto-Uralic, which ceased to be spoken around 6000 BC (the Proto-Uralic term was *panx, ancestral to the Ob-Vgricpango, the Gilyakpangkh, as well as OUT fungus or punk). The seventh millennium BC is obviously substantially later than the major movements of the proto-American hunters who carried their north Asian intellectual and material heritage from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering land connection, the thousand-mile-wide corridor of low-lying tundra that was submerged when the sea level rose by 200-300 feet with the melting of the Pleistocene glaciers about 12,000 years ago.

* Wasson (1968:80-92) makes a persuasive case that the celebrated Ling Chih, the supernatural fungus of immortality and spiritual potency, endlessly represented in Chinese art from early times, had its genesis in the Eurasiatic cult of the divine hallucinogenic mushroom—i.e. Soma = Amanita muscaria—even through its abundant artistic forms came to be based on Ganoderma lucidum, an inedible species of woody fungus.

But old though it is, we might imagine that Proto-Uralic was probably still a language of the distant future when the psychodynamic properties of the fly-agaric were first discovered by some venturesome shaman of an unknown Paleo-Eurasiatic hunting people exploring his environment not only for medicinal species but also for plants capable of transporting him to different, non-ordinary, planes of existence.

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