The Fly Agaric and the Intoxicating Urine

There was one aspect of Siberian mushroom intoxication, reported even in the earliest sources, that must have seemed singularly shocking to one who encountered it for the first time—the drinking of the urine of a bemushroomed person, and also the urine of reindeer that had browsed—as reindeer apparently like to do—on the fly-agaric.

By no means all the tribes that used Amanita muscaria also drank fly-agaric urine, but the custom was sufficiently well-developed and widespread to have drawn the attention of almost every observer—from Count Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish colonel who spent a dozen years in Siberia as a prisoner of war and reported on his observations in the early eighteenth century, to the trained ethnographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Europeanization of Siberia, which had begun in the seventeenth century, was well underway, but before traditional tribal life began to be radically transformed even in the remoter hinterlands in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

As one might expect, not all the Europeans who saw the urine-drinking rite were able to report on it with detachment; and there are amusing instances in which the writer tries hard to hint at what he saw, or heard described, without being too specific, lest he offend the delicate sensibilities of his Victorian readers. As mentioned, a notably early exception was Langsdorf, who in 1809 published an extensive description of the fly-agaric among the Koryak, including the urine-drinking rite and at least its pharmacological, if not its ideological, foundation. He was also the only one of the early observers to inquire into the specific nature of the hallucinogenic drug contained in the mushroom—a question that was not to be definitively settled until the late 1960's, a full century after an alkaloid called muscarine, long credited as the main hallucinogenic agent in fly-agaric intoxication but now known to play only a minor role, was first isolated from Amanita muscaria.

After describing the psychic effects of the mushroom, which the Koryak took mainly in dried form or soaked in berry juices, Langsdorf turned to the phenomenon of urine-drinking:

The strangest and most remarkable feature of the fly-agaric is its effect on the urine. The Koryaks have known since time immemorial that the urine of a person who has consumed fly-agaric has a stronger narcotic and intoxicating power than the fly-agaric itself and that this effect persists for a long time after consumption. For example, a man may become moderately drunk on fly-agarics today and by tomorrow may have completely slept off this moderate intoxication and be completely sober; but if he now drinks a cup of his own urine, he will become far more intoxicated than he was from the mushrooms the day before... . (Langsdorf, quoted in Wasson, 1968:249).

The intoxicating effect on the urine, he continues, is found not only in those who actually eat the mushroom but in anyone who drinks the urine. Because of this peculiar effect the Koryaks could prolong their ecstasy for several days with a relatively small number of flyagarics:

Suppose, for example, that two mushrooms were needed on the first day for an ordinary intoxication; then the urine alone is enough to maintain the intoxication on the following day. On the third day the urine still has narcotic properties, and therefore one drinks some of this and at the same time swallows some fly-agaric, even if only half a mushroom; this enables him not only to maintain his intoxication but also to tap off a strong liquor on the fourth day. By continuing this method it is possible, as can easily be seen, to maintain the intoxication for a week or longer with five or six fly-agarics. Equally remarkable and strange is the extremely subtle and elusive narcotic substance in the fly-agarics, which retains its effectiveness permanently and can be transmitted to other persons: the effect of the urine from the eating of one and the same mushroom can be transmitted to a second person, the urine of this second person affects a third, and similarly, unchanged by the organs of this animal secretion, the effect appears in a fourth and fifth person. (Langsdorf, quoted in Wasson, 1968:249-250)

Langsdorf, who seems to have been the only one of his time to whom such advanced questions occurred, wondered not only about the psychopharmacology of the fly-agaric drug, but also whether there was something about the mushroom that might impart a special, "possibly quite pleasant," smell and taste to urine, qualities that were known to adhere, for example, to asparagus and turpentine. By analogy, he writes—again considerably ahead of his time—it might be worth investigating whether other psychoactive substances, such as opium, digitalis, cantharides, and the like might also retain their properties in urine. In any event, he concludes, the nature of the fly-agaric

... offers the scientist, physician, and naturalist a great deal of food for thought: our materia medica might perhaps be enriched with one of the most efficacious remedies.

Not, one would assume, in combination with urine, the very idea of which would have horrified the Europeans—as, indeed, it would shock many of us today. We have to remember, however, that (as Wasson, for whom the urine-drinking aspect of the Siberian fly-agaric rite was to prove of great significance to his identification of Soma, has pointed out) in the non-Occidentalized East the attitude toward urine was very different from that prevailing in the West. In Asia, for example, urine was widely employed as a medicine and a sterile disinfectant and in certain areas served also in religious devotions. Likewise in Aztec Mexico—I have found several references to the therapeutic use of urine in Sahagun's Florentine Codex. Not only did Aztec physicians use urine externally to cleanse infections, but it was administered internally as a medicinal drink, particularly for disorders of the stomach and intestines. I hasten to add, however, that there is no hint that urine ever figured in ritual intoxication.

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