Chronicle Book Review: "Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom," by Andy Letcher (2007, Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 360 pp, $25.95 HB.)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor, Drug War Chronicle

British historian (and psychedelic folk band member) Andy Letcher has produced a charmingly written, carefully researched, revisionist history of psychedelic mushrooms. While his findings may disappoint the most severely committed mushroom spiritualists, the journey is an eye-opening pleasure for anyone with an interest in matters psychedelic.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/shroomcover.jpg
In the past half-century, thanks to intrepid psychedelic adventurers like banker-turned-mystic Gordon Wasson, anthropologist-turned-shaman Michael Harner, and myco-promoter Terence McKenna, a wonderful and powerful mythology has grown up around the fantastic fungus.

It goes something like this: Through sacred use of the magic mushrooms, shamans from Siberia to Mexico were able to see visions, heal the sick, and talk with the gods. Santa Claus himself, with his gnomic appearance and red and white attire, is a symbolic representation of the amanita muscaria, or fly-agaric, mushroom. The mushroom was the mystery in ancient Greece's Eleusinian Mysteries, it was the soma of the Riga Veda, it -- not bread and wine -- is what Jesus ate at the last supper. The Druids used it at Stonehenge. The magic mushroom is the basis of religion, and evidence of its hidden cult can be found on everything from medieval Catholic church doors to ancient rock-paintings in the African desert.

There's more: Mushrooms are actually a "machine consciousness" representing a different dimension… or something like that. I get a little fuzzy on the finer arcana of myco-mythology.

Letcher, historian that he is, takes these claims on one by one, examines them, and, sadly for the myco-cultists, finds them lacking in historical substance. "There is not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved in the archaeological record anywhere," he writes. "We really do not know, one way or the other, whether the ancients worshipped the holy spores of God. If they did, they left not a single piece of evidence of having done so."

There is little evidence of sacramental, shamanic mushroom yet except for isolated tribes in Siberia, and even there, the evidence suggests that mushrooms were as much to be partied with as to be worshiped. Also in Mexico, where Gordon Wasson famously met Mazatec curandera (shaman) Maria Sabina and ate the "flesh of the gods" in 1956. As Letcher notes, Maria Sabina was hardly the primitive priestess of myth, but mythic she became, especially after Wasson ushered in the beginning of the psychedelic age with his publication of an article in Life magazine about his experiences.

That was certainly a seismic shift in Western attitudes toward the magic mushroom. Up until the mid-20th Century, magic mushroom intoxication was rare, almost always accidental, and almost always considered as poisoning. Man, how things have changed! While interest in psychedelic mushrooms, particularly the psilocybes, took a back seat to LSD in the tripped-out 1960s, the relatively milder mushrooms have remained popular among the psychedelic set ever since.

Although they are illegal in the US, aficionados here can legally purchase "idiot proof" spore kits (which contain no psilocybin, the prescribed ingredient), and the shrooms themselves remain fuzzily legal in some European countries. England banned the sale of and possession of mushrooms in 2005, as did Japan, but there is little evidence Bobbies are out chasing down mushroom-pickers.

Still, while it appears the magic mushroom is here to stay, it is decidedly an acquired taste. Most people who try them try them only once or twice; only a relative handful become serious shroom-heads. And while Letcher tries resolutely to stay clear of politics, the relative rareness of mushroom use and the lack of demonstrated harms leads him to criticize the British prohibition as "heavy-handed, motivated more by political concerns than any sensible evaluation of the evidence." Indeed, Letcher writes, "prohibition may prove to be a retrograde step in terms of harm reduction," as hapless users pick the wrong mushrooms, are sold substitutes, or are afflicted by a criminal justice system more harmful than the shrooms themselves.

Shrooms is a cultural history worth reading, rigorous in its analysis, incisive in its reporting, and enticing with its descriptions of bemushroomed reality. It makes me want to go out and order one of those "idiot proof" kits myself.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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the truth about ancient mushroom use, McKenna has pictures of cave paintings. That would pass as proof to me of ancient shroom use. I once had a cartoon character based on a cave painting of a shroom-covered shaman I saw in a McKenna book. This author has his head up his ass and should go back to playing his boring "folk music."

ANDY LETCHER_SHROOM

You are one of the rare individuals that saw through the authors ignorant piece of shit! Shroom is a rip off piece of shit and I read every word in it. He's a back stabbing chicken shit jealous little weasel who gets his kicks insulting the dead!
I don't even know if an ass kicking would do him any good at this point. Thanks for sharing your opinion!

the truth: sorry....

o.k., it sounds to me like Mr. Smith hasn't done his psychoactive-history homework; it also appears that "anonymous" hasn't even read "Shroom."
for the record, Mr. Smith, Andy Letcher (who, by the way, i have a meeting with in two weeks) has already expressed to me (via personal email) that "shroom" was "not intended to draw any conclusions." the wasson ur-religion thing is a highly specific point, that most myco-mythologists have already proven untrue in previous years. also, the whole druid thing and jesus thing make even myco-mythologists laugh. as far as Letcher taking "these claims on one by one, examine[ing] them, and, sadly for the myco-cultists, find[ing] them lacking in historical substance," the truth is Letcher only takes a VERY SMALL amount of the evidence and "demystifies" it. the only evidence that Letcher engages, are those pieces of evidence that most historians already agree does not wholly resemble a mushroom-let alone a "magical" one. i urge you, mushroom scholar as you apparently are, to seek out Fulvio Gosso and Gilberto Camilla's "Allucinogeni e Crisianesimo: Evidenze nell' arte Sacra," --that is, of course, if you can read Italian. even if you cant, its still worth your trouble, as you will see that perhaps not every piece of evidence is as thoroughly examined as you might think. there is more on this, but i feel i've already made my point. good luck with the book...now on to "anonymous."

mr. anonymous, it would first be wise of you to not characterize people as "having their heads up their asses." Prof. Letcher is a brilliant scholar and a terrific writer, and i assure you, knows more about mushrooms than you or mckenna ever did. what Letcher wanted to do was disprove certain aspects of shroom enthusiasts, of which mckenna was one of the most high profile ones. the cave drawing that you are referring to was actually a copy from the original piece drawn by mckenna's wife. it was she who overly illuminated the "mushrooms" on the shaman. as Letcher points out, they could just as easily have been arrows, not shrooms. this is all in the book and i suggest you read it before you start calling names; it just looks bad. thank you both for letting me engage you. now iv given you both a little bit of homework to stay busy with. although there is a lesson you can both learn right now: some of us actually know what we are talking about and don't necessarily care for those of you who sound off as if you do know what you are talking about, but are actually clueless.
thank you.

Shroom

Proffessor Letcher is a gutless envious backstabber and if you had the decency to read his insulting rippoff piece of crap you would not be praising any of his lying, twisted writing!!!
Read pages 109-110 where he puts Gordon Wasson on trial and then goes paragraph after paragraph crying like a spoiled baby about why Mr. Wasson is an ego maniac who could never measure up to Letchers superior academic approach which "I suspect involves a lot of ass kissing and brown nosing! When Andy baby calls Mr. Wasson a liar on page 110
I couldn't gut his chickenshit writing style and personal attacks anymore nor his cheap shots at Terence Mckenna. Be honest, read this piece of trash before you shoot your mouth off about it other wise you come across like a lying asshole!!! Letcher is a pisspoor author who probably gets his rocks off wacking off on religious icons,,I'll bet my dog could get a 'degree' from the same "University" he went to ...so wake up and quit being a paper ass! God bless America you bloody wanker.

wow...

pathetic...

The evidence exists, but only if you're prepared to look for it.

How can you expect someone who is purposely wearing blinkers to view the existing evidence and draw the right conclusions?

Just one example:

"There are other miraculous actions which occurred to honor and celebrate the memory of the forty martyrs of Sebaste, to which the Xiropotamou Monastery on Athos was dedicated in the early 13th Century. ...When the names of the forty martyrs were pronounced by the archpriest, there began to grow from the foot of the holy table a HOLY MUSHROOM with its cap in the shape of forty apples which ascended over the holy table and overshadowed the entire sanctuary. And for this most glorious miracle all present gave glory to God and to the forty martyrs. And then all the infirm found in the cloister were healed through the possibility of TASTING THE HOLY MUSHROOM. And this miracle was pronounced throughout the entire ecumene and great multitudes were healed."

from a 16th C. document, published in the article "Notes on the Text of IvanVysensTcyj's Epistle to the Renegade Bishops " by Harvey Goldblatt in the book "Harvard Ukrainian Studies" pp 56-57 (emphasis added)

which can be downloaded here:
http://www.huri.harvard.edu/pdf/hus_volumes/vXVIII_n1_2_june1994.pdf

New Book, The Holy Mushroom

My name is Jan Irvin, I published Astrotheology & Shamanism in 2006, and The Pharmacratic Inquisition DVD, 2007, with Andrew Rutajit. I have a new book coming out this summer which completely refutes Letcher's book:

THE HOLY MUSHROOM: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity - A critical re-evaluation of the schism between John M. Allegro and R. Gordon Wasson over the theory on the entheogenic origins of Christianity presented in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by Jan Irvin

Also coming out this summer are two other books which completely refute Letcher's "research":

The Most High by Jack Herer

False God by Prof. John Rush

In 2009 Prof. Carl Ruck will also be publishing Entheogens in Christianity and further refutes Letcher.

EVERY SINGLE PIECE of evidence, for example, that Letcher presented against Allegro alone has been 100% refuted. I have personally worked for nearly four years with Allegro's daughter, Judith Anne Brown, and we were unable to verify ANY of Letcher's claims (as well as previous attacks on Allegro).

Prof. Carl Ruck and Prof. John Rush have both come out in complete support of Allegro's research, due to all of the latest findings over the last 15 years - which of course Letcher completely ignored!

In fact, Letcher focused the core of his research only on Wasson, Allegro and McKenna, and did a poor job at that, ignoring 40 years worth and about 40 other scholars research to make his case - as the reference to the Renegade Bishops and the Holy Mushroom, (posted above by another reviewer) shows. Unfortunately for Letcher, he was debunked way back in 1994, by Harvard University, 12 years before his tripe was ever written.

Furthermore, Letcher attacks OLD research regarding ergot and the Eleusinian mysteries - he completely misses Peter Webster's new research on Kykeon as well as Prof. Ruck's research in Sacred Mushrooms of the Goddess, 2006. http://www.psychedelic-library.org/newmenu.htm

Anyone who thinks Letcher's work is anything of substance shows their OWN lack of study and ignorance in this field. Letcher's book is DISINFORMATION, people! It's garbage research. How the hell else would a book on entheogens make it in to the major American book sellers: Barns and Noble, Borders, etc? Here in California last year that book had front window status in these stores.

The UK edition of Letcher's book was targeted for release with the absurd Refer Madness-like propaganda film from England in 2006 called Shrooms - which was quite literally the worst movie I've seen in 10 years and two hours of my life I will never get back. http://www.shroomsthemovie.com/

PS

To quote Wasson: "Some scholars are meant to be remembered for their follies, not their achievements." Letcher is one of them.

Hmm

Although they are illegal in the US, aficionados here can legally purchase "idiot proof" spore kits (which contain no psilocybin, the prescribed ingredient), and the shrooms themselves remain fuzzily legal in some European countries. England banned the sale of and possession of mushrooms in 2005, as did Japan, but there is little evidence Bobbies are out chasing down mushroom-pickers.

While you can buy spore kits, the active ingredient of Amanita Muscaria is ibotenic acid and Muscimol, not psilocybin. See the chemistry section of this fly agaric basics article. :)

Monarchists make me sick.

Looks like Andy Letcher has been bought and paid for by the Drug Companies and Fascist Theocrats. Well, what do your expect. He's British.

Why did he write it?

After trudging through "Shroom", which I fortunately bought at cut-out price in a used book store, I have a hard time imagining what Andy Letcher's motivation for writing it was. I was waiting for some kind of new insight which would justify the time spent, but all I got was a lot of humorless nit-picking about "history". As the evidence above makes clear, history can be shaped to appear to prove or disprove anything anyway, by anyone with the will and patience to do so. Why title a book "Shroom" and then proceed to suck every ounce of wonder, mystery and fun out of the topic? It seems as if Letcher is trying in some way to reassert cold science's dominion over early 21st century life, refuting all ideas that fail to live up to the challenge of scientifically verifiable data.

But this is totally missing the point anyway. Whether or not the ideas of McKenna, Wasson, Allegro or Heinrich can be proved or disproved by some dry little toad calling himself a "historian", they are mythology anyway, and a useful, vital mythology is what any culture needs to thrive. Our society is desperately in search of a new myth to help it negotiate the current state of disgrace it finds itself in. Just read a little Joseph Campbell for starters. You won't be able to "prove" any of it but you might come away with some inspiration, and that's more than I got from this book.

The book jacket photo of the author says it all: hand blocking the lit side of his face, the other side in deep shadow, as if he didn't want anyone (especially magic mushroom enthusiasts!) to recognize him on the street. I don't blame him. One wonders if his little bubble was burst at that hippy rock festival at which Acid House music first appeared, thus setting the stage for Rave culture and the marginalization of his mandolin and bagpipe folkiness. Maybe he should actually try the magic mushrooms himselfand see if they say anything to him. But no, that's not his calling and besides, they would probably tell him "Your music sucks".

They are wise...

will read

I like books that put a different slant on the views of the majority. Everyone thinks that Magic Mushrooms are really bad, and ruin lives, but in reality can be a enjoyable pastime if enjoyed correctly.

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