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.
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.