The Reindeer and the Sacred Mushroom

Now, it happens that not only Siberian shamans but their reindeer as well were involved with the sacred mushrooms. Several early writers on Siberian customs reported that reindeer shared with man a passion for the inebriating mushroom, and further, that at times the animals urgently sought out human urine, a peculiarity that greatly facilitated the work of the herders in rounding them up—and that might just possibly have assisted their reindeer-hunting ancestors in early efforts at domestication:

... these animals (reindeer) have frequently eaten that mushroom, which they like very much. Whereupon they have behaved like drunken animals, and then have fallen into a deep slumber. When the Koryak encounter an intoxicated reindeer, they tie his legs until the mushroom has lost its strength and effect. Then they kill the reindeer. If they kill the animal while it is drunk or asleep and eat of its flesh, then everybody who has tasted it becomes intoxicated as if he had eaten the actual fly agaric. (Georg Wilhelm Steller, 1774, in Wasson, 1968: 239-240)

... in one of those open places in the woods we gathered twenty mushrooms, to the immense joy of the older of my companions who, as an enthusiastic devotee of this intoxicant, again praised its powers and its benefits. He affirmed, from his own experience, the most varied effects of this mushroom on herbivorous animals: wild reindeer that have eaten some of them are often found so stupefied that they can be tied with ropes and taken away alive; their meat then intoxicates everyone who eats it, but only if the reindeer is killed soon after being caught; and from this it appears that the communicability of the narcotic substance lasts about as long as it would have affected the animals' own nerves. (Adolph Erman, 1833:304-306, in Wasson, 1968:235)

As for the reindeer's longing for human urine, we are told by the distinguished Russian anthropologist Waldemar Jochelson (1905) that the Koryak had special sealskin containers, called "the reindeer's night-chamber," in which every herdsman collected his urine. This was used to attract refractory animals, who apparently required urine whenever they fed exclusively on certain lichens. So strong was this passion, he reports, that men urinating in the open ran a real risk of being run down by reindeer, who have a keen sense of smell, coming at him at full gallop from all sides!

From a strictly psychopharmacological point of view, Steller's and Erman's accounts are in one respect impossible, in that the tribesmen could not have become inebriated by eating only the meat of an intoxicated reindeer. But it is possible that the early writers missed something, and that the contents of the bladder were consumed for that purpose—perhaps in a hunting rite akin to the walrus-bladder ritual of Alaskan Eskimos. The urine of reindeer "drunk" with fly-agaric would of course be as hallucinogenic as that of humans.

On the other hand, what if to the Siberians the reindeer itself was fly-agaric, as to the Huichols deer and peyote are one? Then the killing and sacrificial eating of the inebriated deer would take on a very different and much more profound meaning, akin to the eucharistic implications of the Huichol Deer-Peyote sacrifice.

Whether or not such an interpretation has substance, the intimate relationship between the reindeer and the sacred mushroom is beyond question, as is the fact that this animal, which before the melting of the Pleistocene glaciers ranged much farther south than it does today, was one of the principal animals not only in the physical but also the spiritual universe of the Paleolithic ancestors of the first Americans. To some degree China is involved here as well, in light of the fact that according to Chinese mythology it is the deer that leads man to the legendary Ling Chih, the divine mushroom of immortality. Such a concept might, as Wasson (1968) has suggested, have diffused to China in the third century BC from India, but it could conceivably have come to the Chinese from western or southern Siberia, at an earlier time for which we have no written records, out of the same shamanistic stratum to which the Indian Soma rite ultimately owes its origin. The analogy between the Chinese tradition of the deer as a near-immortal precisely because of its association with a mushroom to which it points the way for man and the reindeer-mushroom identification in Siberia is strong enough to suggest something more direct than secondary diffusion northward across the Himalayas from a region in which all memory of Soma as mushroom had by then long disappeared.

All this brings us back to La Barre and the origins of the great hallucinogenic complex of Indian America. It is certainly tempting, on the basis of the above, to suggest that beyond the phenomenon of deer shamanism, the specific identification of the deer with plant hallucinogens also has its roots in an ecstatic Eurasian shamanism in which the reindeer's physical and metaphysical relationship to the sacred inebriating mushroom was an integral element. If so, the shamanistic deer-hallucinogen association that we now recognize in the Americas could have been already present in the ideational universe which the earliest Americans carried with them into the New World from the northeast Asian homeland, 15,000-25,000 or more years ago.

Proposing that possibility, of course, is assuming a great deal. But whether or not one is justified in postulating cultural survivals over such an enormous time span—and I, for one, would not reject this out of hand as at least a possibility—it is also conceivable that a deer-mushroom complex arose quite independently in the New World, out of the peculiar ecology of one of the principal species of psychoactive fungi employed in Mesoamerican ritual.

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