By Eugenia Bone
The Telluride Mushroom Festival, despite its happy looniness and general carnival atmosphere, is one of the few mycological gatherings that features talks on entheogens and ethnomycology. If you attend this year, you will undoubtedly hear about the spiritual use of psychoactive mushrooms in human culture.
Entheogen means “Creates God Within” (from the Greek en = within, theo = god or divine, gen = creates or generates). The word pertains to psychoactive substances used in religious or spiritual ritual for purposes of healing, revelation and transcendence. Ethnomycology is the study of how mushrooms are used in culture, and the lion’s share of research in this field is in the area of fungal entheogens.
Most discussion of fungal entheogens is comprised of highly speculative theories regarding the cultural significance of two types of mushrooms: psychoactive mushrooms in the Psilocybe genus, and Amanita muscaria, the iconic red mushroom with the white dots. But new research into the action of entheogens on the human brain suggests there is a physical locus of spiritual sensations. The cultural significance of such a finding is awesome to contemplate.
Non-Native Americans’ exposure to psychoactive mushrooms is only about fifty years old, but some believe the practice of using these substances to seek the divine may be very ancient. Indeed, ethnomycologists have had a heyday interpreting all kinds of archeological artifacts and assigning them with entheogenic purpose. Theories abound, all of which throw my bogus meter into the red: that a mushroom cult proliferated in prehistoric Sweden, Norway, and Denmark based on Bronze Age petroglyphs of what may or may not be mushrooms; or that the ax engravings at Stonehenge depict mushrooms – and the megalithic stone monument itself represents a mushroom fairy ring; that hallucinogenic mushrooms are depicted in the prehistoric rock art of the Tassill n’Ajjer mountain range in the Sahara Desert of southern Algeria; and so on.
Probably the most viable interpretation regards the Mayan mushroom stones of about 1000 BC. The carved figures wear distinctly mushroom-shaped caps. The images alone would not be so persuasive were it not for the fact that the use of psychoactive mushrooms in Central America has been reported on and off for centuries, notably in the Florentine Codex, a study on Aztec culture by Bernadino de Sahagun, a Spanish missionary who served in Mexico from 1529-1590. De Sahagun described the teonanactl ceremony (teo = God, nanactl = mushroom, or possibly flesh), where the people drank chocolate and ate the mushrooms with honey. “And when the effects of the mushrooms had left them, they consulted among themselves and told one another what they had seen in vision.”
Fifty years ago, R. Gordon and Valentina P. Wasson, amateur mycologists who participated in and wrote about Psilocybe ceremonies in a story called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” for Life magazine, introduced the “divinatory rite of the inebriating mushrooms of Mexico” to the American public. (Life coined the term Magic Mushroom.) In the article, R. Gordon described his encounters with a Mixtec shaman in Oaxaca state who used Psilocybe mushrooms as an augur. Wasson reported that the Indians described the effect of the mushrooms as “they carry you there where God is.”
Probably the most studied fungus from an ethnomycological perspective is Amanita muscaria. You’ll see it everywhere in the mountains around Telluride.
It used to be thought that A. muscaria caused muscarine poisoning (the poison is named for the mushroom, not the other way around), but it doesn’t: the mushroom contains only traces of muscarine. The active chemical in A. muscaria is ibotenic acid and its derivative, muscimol, a psychoactive alkaloid in a different class from psilocybin. Ibotenic acid is a neurotoxin which causes effects described in Gary Lincoff’s classic Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning as “inebriation, derangement of the senses, manic behavior, delirium, and a deathlike sleep, from which all but a very few persons recover rather quickly.” (I ate this mushroom once. I boiled it first, then sautéed it in butter. I fell into a coma-like sleep for two hours — just like the sleep they put you in when you get a colonoscopy, and woke up with one shoe on.) Its derivative, muscimol, which is many times more potent than ibotenic acid, is excreted in urine.
From the 18th century on, travelers in Siberia have reported descriptions of indigenous use of this mushroom, both for shamanistic and pleasure purposes. Beyond these well-documented observations, there is a plethora of speculative notions about the use of A. muscaria (and Psilocybe species) as a sort of ignition for human civilization. These suppositions range from Gordon Wasson’s proposition that Soma, the divine God/plant mentioned frequently in the Rig Veda, the 3,500 year old Indus scriptures, was A. muscaria (reported in his SOMA: the Divine Mushroom of Immortality), to more fringy theories, like biblical scholar John Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which used philology to prove that an ancient fertility cult inspired by A. muscaria evolved into the Judeo-Christian tradition, and “mushroom-worshipping Christians became the Church of later times.” The book ruined Allegro’s academic career. Sometimes called the Liberace of Biblical Studies, Allegro ended his life “dressed in white robes and having a mushroom cult up in Maine,” said American mycologist, author and advocate of bioremediation and medicinal mushrooms Paul Stamets at his Telluride Mushroom Festival lecture in 2010. (“But I am going to release new evidence that supports Allegro’s argument in one year,” added Stamets, who will be speaking at the festival this year, along with many other notable mycologists.)
Wasson, in association with other scholars, published Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, a grab-bag of entheogenic mushroom theories, including the suggestion that the cow divinity in India may have arisen from the Psilocybe mushrooms that grew from its dung; that the Ancient Roman cult of Mithras and its ritual meals were actually a psychedelic mushroom-eating sect, the remnants of which persist in secret societies today, like the Freemasons; that the Maximon deity of the Maya in Guatemala receives his powers from A. muscaria (there are Maximon shrines in a handful of Guatemalan cities — I visited one in Santiago Atitlan and everyone praying to the wooden saint was completely wrecked on booze); that the Tree of Life, a widespread notion in many cultures, is actually any tree which has a mycorrhizal entheogenic partner, particularly A. muscaria, where the fruit of the tree is the mushroom; and more.
Wasson thought that the hallucinogenic mushroom might have been a “detonator of ideas” for primitive man. That concept was taken farther by Terrence McKenna, who wrote in Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge that plant hallucinogens are the source of the oldest human religions, that small amounts of psilocybin increased ancient man’s visual acuity which led to success as hunter/gatherers, that psilocybin was a catalyst for the human development of language, and that hallucinogenic compounds catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection. Examples of other authors in this vein are Andrija Puharich, a parapsychologist who brought the psychic Uri Geller to national attention and wrote about the links between Ancient Egyptian religion and A. muscaria (based in part on the claims of a clairvoyant), and James Arthur, author of Mushrooms and Mankind, which explored the “hidden meanings of Christmas” (the round, red and white clad Santa Claus as a proxy for A. muscaria, the Christmas tree with presents underneath representing the pine tree under which the mushroom grows, and Santa’s flying reindeer derived from the A. muscaria-eating reindeer herders of Siberia), an idea first bandied about by the poet Robert Graves.
All of this makes for a fascinating lecture, but to my mind, it is an unpersuasive argument that A. muscaria or Psilocybe mushrooms jump-started man’s religious feelings, much less humanity itself. However, a study conducted by Dr. Ronald Griffiths, Professor of Behavioral Biology at the Department of Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins University, on psilocybin and spirituality, suggests psilocybin is indeed a true entheogen able to elicit religious feelings in most anyone.
Psilocybin is an indole alkaloid related to bufotenin and serotonin. When ingested, psilocybin metabolizes to psilocin, which resembles the chemical structure of serotonin. Psilocin may simulate serotonin and stimulate serotonin receptors and sub receptors in the brain, or it may amp up the serotonin already present. Either way, the action is similar to psycopharmaceutical drugs that treat patients by altering serotonin levels.
In 2006 Dr. Roland Griffiths published a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology that showed psilocybin-induced experiences were similar to spontaneous mystical experiences. The researchers determined this using questionnaires and scales developed for use in the study, and in the field of the psychology of religion, among other established measures.
A follow-up report showed that 14 months later, 58 percent of the subjects rated the psilocybin-occasioned experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. Griffiths wrote that the results suggest that mystical or spiritual experiences “relate to the pharmacology of these agents rather than being based entirely on cultural suggestion.”
People pursue meditation and fasting to achieve a transcendent state, and maybe those disciplines alter the body’s chemistry in a way that allows the brain to meet the requisite conditions for a spiritual experience that is similarly accomplished with psilocybin. “The observation that psilocybin reliably elicits a transcendent mystical state tells us that investigations of these drugs may help us understand molecular alterations in the brain that underlie mystical religious experiences,” wrote Solomon Snyder of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a commentary on Griffith’s work. “Religious sensibilities are increasingly prominent throughout the world and often involve “born again” ineffable experiences analogous to psychedelic drug effects. Thus, seeking the ‘locus of religion’ in the brain is by no means fanciful.”
Griffith’s work suggests the ability to experience transcendental feelings may naturally reside in our brains. “It is conceivable,” wrote Dr. Solomon Snyder, “that as the boundaries of our sense of self, our ego, are determined by the integration of sensory perception, that changes in serotonin systems mediate the diffusion of ego boundaries that underlies the transcendent merger of ‘self with universe’ that is reported consistently by mystics of all religious persuasions and occurs often under the influence of psychedelic drugs.”
The ability to experience spiritual feelings is not as dialed in as our other senses. But what Griffith’s research suggests is that when a trigger (like psilocybin) is employed, it can activate a part of our brain that generates a religious experience.
Up until recently, the concept that “God is within” was metaphorical. But the new science is suggesting God is physically within as well.
Veteran food writer Eugenia Bone is the author of four books. Her first, At Mesa’s Edge, is about life in the North Fork Valley. Her forthcoming book, Mycophilia, is due out from Rodale in October 2011. Eugenia writes a blog about preserving for The Denver Post called “Well-Preserved Colorado.”