Reflections On The History And Scientific Study Of Magic Mushrooms

It is remarkable that cultures native to the American continent knew about a relatively large number of natural mind-altering substances compared to early cultures that evolved in Europe or Asia. Botanical evidence does not support the notion that Europe is home to fewer hallucinogenic plants than other regions. Furthermore, the growing number of recently discovered European mushroom species containing psilocybin indicate a flourishing psychotropic mycoflora in Europe similar to those found in other countries.

It is unlikely that early European cultures learned less about local plants and mushrooms through usage and experience than cultures elsewhere in the world. Most likely, early cultural knowledge of European psychoactive plants and mushrooms was lost or destroyed at some time in history, probably as early as several hundred years ago.

The discovery that the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) was known for its psychoactive properties in Siberia invited the conclusion that this mushroom was used as a psychotropic agent in medieval Europe as well. In fact, there is very little evidence from the Middle Ages to indicate widespread knowledge of the effects of specific mushrooms on human consciousness. However, I believe that past reports on psychoactive mushrooms were causally linked to Amanita muscaria simply because this was the only known psychotropic mushroom in Europe at that time.

While the usage of Amanita muscaria among Siberian tribes has generated reports of spectacular hallucinations, European accounts of fly agaric intoxications do not generally include descriptions of such intensely hallucinatory effects.

Accordingly, the potent hallucinogenic effects of specific Psilocybes and related species are likely to have had a much more significant influence on early European cultures than the delirium-like visions induced by Amanita muscaria, a species that is also known to induce unconsciousness and severe somatic side effects. This hypothesis is corroborated by data from comprehensive field studies conducted in Mexico. I believe that historic accounts including those described below - indicate a knowledge of and familiarity with psychotropic mushrooms in Europe that is most likely derived from usage of Psilocybes and related species, rather than experience with Amanita muscaria. However, it is extremely difficult to reject or confirm this hypothesis, due to the lack of conclusive data available for analysis today.

Bwyd Ellylon: A Feast of Fairies in Celebration of the Spirit World

Tales of ritualistic mushroom usage have found their way into the realm of myths and legends. For instance, one legend describes a peculiar poisonous mushroom in Wales (British Isles) with the strange name of Bwyd Ellylon, which was considered a delicacy by fairies feasting in celebration of the spirit world. Psilocybe semilanceata is the most important psilocybin-containing mushroom in Europe and it thrives in parts of Great Britain, where the mushroom grows abundantly all across the Welsh countryside during fall season.

I would like to thank G. Samorini for pointing out that the Inquisition was unusually cruel and vicious in the Alpine valleys of Valcamonica, Valtrompia and Valtellina (located in the provinces of Brescia and Sandrio in Northern Italy). Many books chronicle countless witch burnings in that region, with particular emphasis on the witches' meetings at the "Monte del Tonale", located at an altitude of 2000 m (ca. 6,000 ft). Field research has shown that plants of the nightshade family ("witching herbs") do not grow at this altitude; even the fly agaric mushroom is rarely found there. By contrast, pastures in the area abound with Psilocybe semilanceata during the fall. Given this historical context, it would seem likely that Psilocybe semilanceata played an important role as a psychotropic agent in the region (see Figure 58, Chapter 7.4).

In light of medieval accounts describing the practice of witchcraft, it is interesting to note that a subjective sensation of flying or levitation is among the commonly reported effects of psilocybin intoxication.

Berserk Rage of Nordic Warriors

In the course of the ideological power struggle between Christianity and the remnants of pagan religions that worshipped Nature, many sources of knowledge were lost. The aggressive repression and eradication of pre-Christian customs all but destroyed the continuity of Europe's original cultural heritage, along with much historic evidence documenting early cultural practices, including the usage of plants and mushrooms for the purpose of temporary alterations of consciousness.

Some authors went so far as to blame the fly agaric mushroom for proverbial fits of "berserk rage" attributed to Nordic warriors. Many accounts detailing this phenomenon allude to a "deception of the eyes" (i.e. visual hallucinations). After the Nordic legal system banished the practice of "going berserk", it disappeared quite suddenly during the 12th century. At about the same time, Saxo Grammaticus speculated that the Berserkers may have used magical potions.

It is just as plausible, however, to suggest that the hallucinogen of choice among early Nordic cultures was Psilocybe semilanceata, a mushroom species quite common in Norway. Neither Amanita muscaria nor Psilocybe semilanceata are generally known to cause states of intense rage. However, given the historic context, it is possible that, at the time, people had already begun to internalize negatively biased distortions and the demonization of psychoactive mushrooms and their effects, in order to justify the creation of new laws intended to destroy repulsive pagan customs such as the ritual use of mind-altering plants.

It is important to note the existence of ancient Northern European rock drawings that depict various mushroom themes, along with the discovery of bronze-age vessels decorated with mushroom-related artwork. The drawings often include renditions of zoomorphic entities as well as mushrooms. Significantly, they predate any reports and speculations about the Berserkers by over 2,000 years.

These ancient images suggest the evolution of early European mushroom cults - a cultural practice that most likely vanished during the early Iron Age, as did many other customs and social practices from that era. Still, the discovery of ancient Northern European mushroom cults is a powerful piece of evidence supporting the notion that psychoactive mushroom usage has been continuous throughout history.

In addition, a traditional Swedish custom has survived to the present day, revealing an early knowledge of a certain mushroom believed to evoke "visions of spirit entities". As part of summer solstice celebrations, a poisonous mushroom species ("Baran") was cast into the bonfires. Even though nothing is known about this fungus today, the ritual burning of a poisonous mushroom was intended to weaken the powers of goblins and other evil spirits. The mushrooms were viewed as symbolic incarnations of noxious spirits. The mushrooms' ritualistic destruction by fire thus destroyed the powers of evil and mischievous spirits. The assumption that some mushrooms are physical links to the intangible powers of the spirit world may have evolved from ancient fragments of knowledge about the psychoactivity of specific types of mushrooms.

There are a number of written reports about psychotropic mushrooms that date back to the late Middle Ages. While this collection of documents includes a variety of different sources from several countries, they provide remarkably similar descriptions of psychoactive mushrooms and the general nature of their effects.

Love Potions Brewed from Bolond Gomba

Clusius (1525-1609), for example, the great physician and botanist, discovered "bolond gomba" in Hungary. This mushroom was known under the German name "Narrenschwamm" ("fool's mushrooms"). It was used in rural areas, where it was processed into love potions by wise men or "javas asszony". At about the same time, this "fool's mushroom" was documented in Slovakia as well. In addition, the mushroom found its way into the verses of Polish poet Vaclav Potocki (1625-1699), who refers to its potential of "causing foolishness much like opium does ".

Similarly, in England, John Parkinson's "Theatricum Botanicum" (1640) includes details about a 'foolish mushroom ".

The Austrian colloquial expression "He ate those madness-inducing mushrooms" refers to states of mental confusion.

Historic source materials such as these are scarce and widely scattered. Undoubtedly, they refer to psychotropic mushrooms, but lack sufficient information to permit clear identification of a specific species. However, considering the habitats and occurrence of Psilocybe semilanceata and Psilocybe bohemica, these two species are among the most likely candidates (see page 16 ff.). It is remarkable that these historic portrayals revolve around just one aspect of the mushrooms' overall effects: the occasional semi-schizophrenic reaction which can at times be quite dramatic. None of these accounts reflect a distinct appreciation of mushrooms in the tradition of the Mexican Indians ("teonanacatl" = flesh of the Gods).

Between Reverence and Fear

By contrast, in Europe we find that the symptoms of mushroom intoxication have always been compared to symptoms of mental illness. Such cross-cultural differences in value judgments can be explained in terms of two concepts introduced by R.G. Wasson and his wife: mycophilia and mycophobia. This distinction subdivides cultures with different traditional attitudes towards mushrooms into two groups. For instance, an entrenched dislike for mushrooms (mycophobia) in Britain indicates traditional beliefs vastly different from those found in Slavic countries, where mushrooms are generally cherished (mycophilia). The origins and evolution of such diverging attitudes remain lost in the shadows of history.

The development of early cultural taboos and prohibitions against psychotropic mushrooms may be the root cause of enduring mycophobic behavior. On the other hand, it is possible that, thousands of years ago, the process of harvesting mushrooms as a food source caused alarming clusters of regionally isolated cases of fatal mushroom poisonings. Such experiences may well have seeded a potent and lasting aversion towards an entire country's mycoflora.

Similarly, the mycophilia typical of ancient Mexican cultures goes hand in hand with a general social acceptance of the effects of Psilocybe mushrooms and their established ritual usages. Among Mexican Indian tribes, the effects of psilocybin have never been causally linked to any type of known mental illness. It is interesting to note that the Indians of Mexico were the only Indians in the Americas who also harvested a large number of mushroom species for food.

Unfortunately, our current socio-political climate is - strongly biased against newly discovered hallucinogens, which are often defined in terms of negatively loaded labels. Even worse, such prejudicial thinking distorts an objective, scientifically neutral approach to the study of these substances. The label "fool's mushroom" first appeared during the 1930s, along with "Mexican mushroom of insanity". In the 1950s, the Central American mushroom cults were discovered and the mushrooms themselves were renamed "Mexican magic mushrooms", in recognition of their psychotropic effects and to emphasize the significance of the mushrooms' early integration into the social fabric of the cultures that cherished them.

Later on, the relatively neutral label "hallucinogenic mushroom" came into use in the mycological literature. Other designations that gained and lost popularity over time include the somewhat derogatory term "intoxicating mushrooms" and the essentially meaningless "drug mushrooms".

Scientifically Unbiased Hallucinations?

Following his experiments with magic mushrooms in Mexico during the summer of 1960, T. Leary returned to Harvard University and began to study psilocybin as a variable in the administration of standard psychological test batteries. His initial focus was diluted when he continued to expand his experiments to include increasingly broader settings and applications. In reaction to Leary's markedly unorthodox approach, the American press began to portray psilocybin mushrooms in terms of slanderous terminology that far exceeded the negative connotations of labels such as "fool's mushrooms". Descriptions of the mushrooms' effects included claims that users experienced "death-like states".

Proponents of psilocybin research were accused of denying that the alkaloid caused "semipermanent brain damage". This pseudo-scientific jumble of meaningless jargon was symptomatic of the sharply escalating controversy surrounding hallucinogenic substances. Increasingly, news reports on psilocybin were eclipsed by massive amounts of publicity about LSD - the most potent hallucinogen ever discovered. The subsequent frenzy of legislative attempts to control LSD resulted in ever tighter restrictions on the scientific study of not only LSD, but psilocybin as well. Mind-altering substances were no longer thought of in terms of their specific effects and properties, but rather were lumped together into a single group of dangerous chemicals. As antidrug hysteria continued to intensify, scientific and pharmacological distinctions became all but irrelevant: hallucinogens were no longer viewed as different from other classes of dangerous and physically addictive drugs, such as heroin or the opiates. This demonization of hallucinogens was successful in spite of massive research efforts that began when Sandoz Pharmaceuticals decided to distribute psilocybin to qualified scientists for experimental and psychotherapeutic purposes. By employing the method for synthesis of psilocybin developed by A. Hofmann, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals manufactured about 2 kg (ca. 4.4lbs) of pure psilocybin for scientific research purposes.

The results of pharmacological testing soon revealed psilocybin as an alkaloid that was perfectly safe for human subjects under controlled experimental conditions. Despite this evidence, the anti-drug legislative framework of the mid 1960s firmly established an "official mycophobia", a misguided, yet entrenched policy that still prevails today and effectively prevents the scientific investigation of promising potential applications for psilocybin and other alkaloids. At the same time, mycological and biochemical research studies have shown that psilocybin-containing mushrooms thrive all over the world and can be found on all continents. These mushrooms are no different from any other mycoflora and must not be excluded from scientific investigation because of their alkaloid content.

In addition to overall variations in value systems across cultures, individuals tend to develop their own personal attitudes towards mushrooms in general. Oftentimes, the evolution of specific opinions about mushrooms can be traced back to childhood events, even though such early experiences seldom account for the development of prevailing biases and value systems later in life.

I recall an incident from my own childhood, which occurred when I was about five years old. I was playing in a grassy meadow, when a girl pointed to a brown mushroom and earnestly explained that it was inedible and poisonous. While I have never forgotten this encounter, I did grow up to become a devoted mushroom enthusiast. On the other hand, a different childhood event has left me with the vivid memory of discovering a landfill virtually covered with vast numbers of gilled bluing mushrooms and the sense of awe I experienced contemplating this sight. In general, the unusual characteristics of these mushrooms are most likely responsible for strong impressions formed early in life, which then may develop into various attitudes or beliefs later on.

An enduring personal interest in psychotropic mushroom species can serve to amplify or diminish mycophobic as well as mycophilic dispositions, depending on the influence of other factors. After all, judgments about the benefit or folly of deliberately altering one's state of consciousness are also colored by individual preferences, biases and opinions.

The following chapters are meant to illustrate this diversity of attitudes towards psychotropic mushrooms. Descriptions of planned and involuntary experiments with specific mushroom species offer convincing evidence that the effects of psychoactive mushrooms are open to many possible interpretations.

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