On the 10th
of June 1957 the International edition of Life magazine carried a groundbreaking
article that was to profoundly alter the West's attitude towards the wilder
side of the natural world. For here was the first ever personal account
written by a European of the extraordinary psychological effects induced
by a species of mushroom deified and ritually worshipped by native Mexicans.
Consumption of the sacred Mexican mushroom allowed one to contact the Gods,
experience profound visions, and gain mystical knowledge.... or at least
these were the most extravagant of the native Mexican beliefs about the
mushroom being reported by anthropologists during the first half of the
20th century. Indeed, in pre-Columbian times the mysterious mushroom had
been known by the Aztecs as 'God's flesh' testifying to it's divine potency.
Such veneration ensured the mushroom a cult status amongst native Mexicans
despite the violent cultural upheavals wrought by the Spanish Conquest
in the 16th century. Thus, although the once mighty Aztec culture was eventually
destroyed, the sacred mushroom continued to be used in and around Mexico
throughout the Spanish occupation. Yet despite the legendary effects of
this particular fungal species, it remained right up until the middle of
the 20th century for an outside investigator to finally acquire and eat
of the mushroom and hence verify the native's fantastical claims.
solely by word of mouth since the time of the Spanish Conquest, detailed
knowledge of the revered fungus had lain principally in the hands of jealously
guarding shamans or native healers who were loath to disclose their botanical
secrets to outsiders. For they feared, perhaps justifiably, that the sacred
mushroom's supernatural power would be diminished or be used profanely
should the untrustworthy White man gain full admittance into it's living
mystery. Therefore the 1957 Life article in which the secret of the mushroom
was openly exposed, dramatically symbolised the West's bypassing of this
long-standing cultural security system. The sacred mushroom had finally
been forcibly plucked from it's localised shamanic niche and thence presented
to the Western world in the form of mass-circulated print with colour photographs
and specimen drawings to boot.
its exposure to the prying eyes of the West, the status of the Mexican
mushroom remained as lofty and as tantalisingly ethereal as ever, more
so even since the Western psyche was just as stunned and awed by it's transcendental
visionary effects as were the Mexican natives. In the following decades
a psychedelic mushroom cloud of fascination would slowly expand and loom
beyond Mexico, eventually extending it's magical influence as far away
as the British Isles.... but at this initial stage in it's sudden growth,
the strange mushroom remained a purely Mexican phenomenon.
On the front
cover, Life's simple headline read 'The Discovery of Mushrooms that cause
Strange Visions', a rather unusual claim from such a traditionally conservative
magazine. The article was included as part of Life magazine's series of
'Great Adventures', and was written by Robert Gordon Wasson, vice-president
of a Wall Street banking firm who, with the aid of his wife, had spent
some 30 years of part-time study creating a new scientific discipline -
ethnomycology - the study of the cultural and historical use of fungi.
such a science is clearly specialised and seemingly remote from the affairs
of modern culture, it was only due to their dedicated ethnomycological
investigations that the Wassons learned of sacred Mexican mushrooms, sought
to find them, experienced them first-hand, and thence gave psilocybin (the
as yet unnamed active constituent of the mushroom, pronounced either 'silla-sigh-bin'
or 'sigh-le-sigh-bin') to the West. Once discovered, ethnomycological science
suddenly acquired a distinctly mystical edge allowing it to breach the
domains of religion and psychology. It also provided a new impetus to mankind's
enduring quest to access transcendental knowledge and there can be no doubt
that Wasson's discovery and vivid description of the effects of the Mexican
mushroom were crucial in generating the subsequent cultural wave of psychedelic
experimentation that soon followed in the 60's. And as we shall eventually
see, the mushroom also reveals itself as a key to unlocking the nature
of both consciousness and reality as well as the nature of the mystical
experience. God, mind, and reality, these three most profound of topics
are all met in some way by the psilocybin mushroom. But, before we jump
into the deep end who, pray, was this Wasson fellow, this financier-cum-adventurer,
and how had he come to penetrate the Earth's secret psychedelic dimension?
Who was he to bring news of sacred fungi into the Western world?
Wasson's Life article was timed to coincide with the release of his magnum
opus 2-volumed book 'Mushrooms, Russia, and History', co-written with his
wife Valentina. It is this work which fully reveals the extent of Wasson's
long-standing interest in the cultural use of fungi and how he finally
came to be at the door of perception marked 'psilocybin'.
512 handcrafted copies luxuriously bound and printed, 'Mushrooms, Russia,
and History' stands as a rare piece of art. Indeed, by the late 70's its
value had reached some $2500 making it the most valuable book in existence
at that time whose author was still alive. It is a highly polished book,
written in a lively style that reflects the love of ethnomycology borne
by the Wasson's. It represents the distilled wisdom drawn from their extensive
studies into the role that various species of mushroom had played in different
cultures and culminates in their discovery of the sacred mushroom ceremonies
still being conducted in Mexico, a discovery important enough to warrant
the further account in the more accessible pages of Life magazine.
that originally launched the Wassons on their mushroom crusade was simple,
almost trivial, yet it was enough to provoke them into a three-decade-long
bout of invaluable research. The Wassons had married in 1927 and one day
during their honeymoon went out for a casual stroll in the Catskill mountains
of New York. At some stage Valentina, who was Russian by birth, had stopped
to pick some wild mushrooms, delighting in such a fortuitous find. Her
husband on the other hand, being true to his Anglo-Saxon heritage, was
appalled at his new wife's interest in lethal fungal abominations, especially
since she planned to cook and eat them later. After all, were not all fungal
growths in actuality poisonous toadstools to be avoided like the plague?
With growing dismay, Robert Wasson imagined himself waking up the next
morning with a corpse instead of a wife.
and deep-rooted difference in attitude between the two of them over the
culinary virtues of fungi led them to suspect a cultural rift, that there
were mycophobic peoples (sensible mushroom haters like the Anglo-Saxons)
and mycophilic peoples (reckless mushroom aficionados like the Russians).
Furthermore, the Wassons reasoned that there must be some historical reason
for these diametrically opposed traditions not related to mere food availability
but dependent instead upon cultural and psychological factors. So began
the Wasson's academic quest to uncover this cultural anomaly and from the
start both figured that religion somehow played a causal role.
proved correct. Research soon unearthed the Siberian cultural history of
the Amanita muscaria or fly agaric mushroom, that extraordinary bright
red and white-spotted autumnal fungus found throughout the Northern hemisphere
and often charmingly depicted in the illustrations adorning the pages of
children's books. Indeed, it has been suggested that Lewis Carrol was influenced
by knowledge of the Siberian use of the fly agaric and used the information
to great effect in his 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' in which, you
might recall, Alice nibbles on a mushroom which dramatically alters her
As we shall
see, compared to the psilocybin mushroom, the fly agaric's psychoactivity
rates a poor second though it is potentially entheogenic due to the presence
of an alkaloid named muscimole. Despite muscimole's entheogenic inferiority
to psilocybin, the cultural role and use of the fly agaric mushroom amongst
Siberian shamans is beyond dispute and the Wassons uncovered a wealth of
literature testifying to this fact. The historical data concerning the
shamanic use of the fly agaric mushroom proved to be a link to primitive
religion just as the Wassons had originally forseen, and it soon became
clear to them that psychoactive fungi were no small feature of cultural
of a Shamanic Beat
time of Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), the Kamchitka Peninsula, the
most Eastern part of Russian Siberia, had been visited by travellers, political
exiles, explorers, fur traders, and anthropologists. All were to bear witness
to the nomadic reindeer herders who ritually ingested fly agaric mushrooms
(their only intoxicant) in order to obtain contact with the 'spiritual'
dimension. The word 'shaman' itself derives from the Siberian Tungus 'saman'
which means diviner, magician, doctor, creator of ecstasy, the mediator
between the human world and the supernatural.
fly agaric user would sun-dry the mushrooms and later ingest them either
alone or mixed with milk or water. If taken alone, the mushroom would first
be moistened in the mouths of women who would produce a kind of pellet
for the men to swallow.
of consuming this mushroom included convulsions, delirium, visual hallucinations,
perceptual distortions of size, feelings of superhuman strength, and a
perceived contact with a spiritual dimension, this last effect being the
most important for the practising shaman whose predominant function is
to access the spiritual realm in order to attain supra-mundane knowledge
for the good health of his or her tribe.
bizarre aspect of this shamanic tradition however, was the habit of....(readers
of a frail disposition should skip the next few sentences)....urine-drinking.
Somehow, the Siberians discovered that the active ingredient of the mushroom,
muscimole, passed through the body without being metabolised so that by
drinking fly agaric-spiked urine one could prolong the intoxication. Possibly
the Siberians learned of this odd fact by observing reindeer who not only
eat the fly agaric themselves with much gusto, but also have an equal passion
for human urine, so much so that the Siberians reindeer herders considered
it dangerous to pee out in the open!
disturbing and unpalatable practice of drinking psychoactive urine attained
great significance in Wasson's later work in the 60's since urine-drinking
is mentioned in the Rig Veda, the ancient religious scripture of India.
Written in Sanskrit and derived from the oral traditions of the Indo-Europeans
who migrated down into the Indus Valley some three and a half thousand
years ago, the Rig Veda eventually went on to influence the development
of Hinduism. Of the 1000 holy hymns in the Rig Veda, over 100 are dedicated
solely to the divine plant Soma and it's spectacularly numinous effects.
Because urine-drinking is clearly alluded to in these hymns deifying Soma
and from analysing the poetic descriptions of the plant, Wasson came to
the conclusion that the fly agaric mushroom was the sacred Soma worshipped
by the ancient Indo-Europeans. Indeed, in some parts of India, followers
of the Vedic tradition still perform a religious ceremony in which soma
is ingested only they now utilise an inactive surrogate species of plant.
Wasson's identification of Soma was, at the time he made the claim, one
of only a handful of serious attempts to explore and name the legendary
Soma plant, and his identification has generally come to be accepted by
Vedic scholars to this day.
use of fly agaric mushrooms by primitive Siberians seemed to date far back
into history as there were various legends that spoke of its mythical origins.
For instance, a Koryak legend tells of a hero named Big Raven who was able
to attain immense strength by eating spirits given to him by the god Vahiyinin
- the god of existence. By spitting upon the earth, Vahiyinin caused the
necessary spirits to grow, these being fly agaric mushrooms with their
ability to provide supernatural strength and wisdom.
theorised that it was this archaic shamanic practice of fly agaric ingestion,
so well reflected in legend and mythology, that had eventually lead to
the mycophobic pre-Christian taboos against eating mushrooms which were
still evidently shared by most of the peoples living around the shores
of the North Sea. In other words, since the mushroom was used mainly by
shamans in a ritual context, cultural injunctions and taboos would conceivably
have begun to evolve in order to stop others wantonly utilising it's strange
power. Or, it is just as likely that through migrations and invasions misinformation
spread regarding the true nature of the mushroom's effects. Through such
typical cultural mechanisms as these, the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom
gradually came to attain a mythical status, guaranteeing it cultural immortality
as it progressed as the stuff of legend from generation to generation.
shamanic use diffused out from Russia, whilst some peoples gradually came
to eschew the mushroom, others embraced it's effects. Not only did the
Aryan people who migrated down into the Indus Valley 3500 years ago bring
with them their religious cult of Soma, later still, some 1000 years BC.,
we find artistic representations of mushrooms on Swedish, Norwegian, and
Danish Bronze Age objects. On bronze artifacts like razors have been found
mushroom motifs (generally stylised cross-sectional views of a mushroom)
which depict the mushroom in a way that suggests that it was an object
of worship. Since the fly agaric mushroom abounds in Scandinavia, these
motifs are thought to represent a similar fly agaric-worshipping cult to
those of Siberia.
Siberian folklore many European folktales also testify to the enigma of
the fly agaric mushroom, providing an echo of the distant cultural interconnections
of the past. Yugoslav peasants take the mushroom's supernatural origin
back to the time of pre-Christian Nature gods. The legend relates that
Votan, chief of all the gods and a potent magician and healer, was riding
his magical horse through the countryside when suddenly demons appeared
and started chasing him. As he fled, his horse galloped so fast that flecks
of bloodied foam flew from its mouth, and wherever this bloody foam fell,
fly agarics sprang up.
call the fly agaric 'boland gamba' or the 'mad mushroom'. Austrians and
Germans used to speak of the 'fool's mushroom' and were wont to paraphrase
British comedian Tony Hancock's 'have you gone raving mad?', with 'have
you eaten crazy mushrooms?'.
also analysed the vast array of words used to describe mushrooms in different
cultures and the latent metaphors that such words conveyed; words like
'toadstool' for instance which links the toad to the mushroom, the toad
being a creature much maligned in myth and folklore. The Wassons also conjectured
that the 'fly' in fly agaric was not due to its supposed insecticidal effect
but because the fly used to be associated with demonic power (Beelzebub
is 'Lord of the Flies'), and was thus fearfully associated with the mysterious
the Wassons uncovered a vast cultural diffusion of homogeneous mushroom
lore that strongly indicated a common origin and the psychoactive fly agaric
mushroom seemed to fit the historical picture. Wasson later summed up his
views in the following way:
will come if the layman presumes to eat this forbidden fruit, the Fruit
of Knowledge, the Divine Mushroom of Immortality that the .....poets of
the Rig Veda celebrated. The fear of this 'death' has lived on as an emotional
residue long after the shaman and his religion have faded from memory,
and here is the explanation for the mycophobia that has prevailed throughout
Northern Europe, in the Germanic and Celtic worlds."
At this point
the Wassons might well have ended their mycological investigations, an
interesting enough climax since they had left the fungal world and ventured
into the domain of primitive religion. The plot however, was going to thicken
and the fly agaric was to become overshadowed by the far more powerful
figure of the psilocybin mushroom, a mushroom whose living mystery Gordon
Wasson would eventually confront within the depths of his soul.
of a Sacred Mexican Mushroom
an acquaintance of the Wassons, the noted poet and historical writer Robert
Graves, wrote a crucial letter informing them of a supposed secret mushroom
cult still in existence in Mexico. Graves included in his letter a clipping
from a Canadian pharmaceutical journal which discussed finds made by Richard
Evans Schultes years earlier. It transpired that Schultes, one of the world's
leading ethnobotanists attached to Harvard had, in 1938, identified a species
of Panaeoleus mushroom as being the sacred sacrament reputedly employed
by Mexican Indians. At that time, only this one entheogenic species had
been identified by Schultes and although a few European people had observed
a native Mexican mushroom ceremony, no outsiders had been permitted to
partake of the mushroom itself. This is significant, for without actually
personally experiencing the psilocybin mushroom, one can only guess at
it's effects and therefore the early anthropological observations passed
by without much interest. Now that the Wassons learned of these facts,
armed as they were with an already detailed knowledge of fly agaric mushroom
history, it was only natural for them to heed Graves' investigational indications
and focus their attention upon Mexico. If mushroom ceremonies were still
being practised there then it would represent testimony for the shamanic
use of fungi not limited to the pages of history.
associates, the Wassons were soon in avid correspondence with one Eunice
Pike, an American linguistic student and bible translator (which is short
for missionary) who had been living amongst Mazatec Indians in Huautla,
Mexico for over 15 years. Having become familiar with the native customs
and beliefs about certain sacred mushrooms, she was only too willing to
share her knowledge with the Wassons.
informed them by letter that one Indian boy had referred to the mushroom
as a gift from Jesus, no less than the blood of Christ. The Indians also
said that it helped 'good people', killing 'bad people' or making them
crazy. Furthermore, the Indians were sure that Jesus spoke to them whilst
in the 'bemushroomed' state. Everyone whom Pike asked agreed that they
were seeing into Heaven itself through the mushroom.
as highlighting the on-going integration of the Christian faith into native
Indian culture, the Indians' claims indicated that the mushroom was highly
powerful in its psychological effect, able to induce a radical alteration
of consciousness still relatively new to Western science. It was also clear
that the normal procedure was for a 'wiseman' or shaman to eat the mushroom
on behalf of another usually in order to heal, this being the classic social
function of the shaman found in most of the world's native cultures.
ended her initial informative and tantalising letter by wishing that the
natives would consult the bible instead of resorting to consumption of
the strange mushroom, a remark natural enough to anyone concerned with
preaching the bible and unfamiliar with the psychological territory accessed
through psilocybin. But still, is it not odd that someone so obviously
religiously inclined, as this woman was, should not have detected something
of spiritual importance in the Indians' claims? If so many of them readily
attested to the virtues of the sacred mushroom why did she not try them
for herself? After all, she mentions no harmful effects apart from the
dangers of possessing a 'bad heart'.
the nature of this fear which would prevent a single open-minded experiment
with such fungi? How can one claim to be fully religious and not take the
testimonies of shamans seriously? This was an anomaly which was to continually
crop up in the relations between the Western psyche and the mushroom. Psilocybin
would come to generate absolute awe or absolute rejection in those who
confronted it, which is evidence that something significant is at work
in the actual experience. If there was nothing of real interest to be gained
from such visionary plants, if the experiences were purely limited personal
fantasies, then there would be no stimulational force with which to generate
debate. However, as I will show, many have claimed that psilocybin does
offer some great knowledge about our existence, that it can yield soulful
insights about reality. This is why the psilocybin mushroom experience
has remained such an abstruse phenomenon and why opinions are so divided.
in the letter of Miss Pike's that there was indeed some great revelational
discovery to be made, the Wassons decided to travel as soon as possible
to Huautla, and in 1953 they did so. There could be no mistaking the aroma
of the ethnomycological Holy Grail as they neared its living presence.
As an aside, they also realised that to judge from Miss Pike's description,
the mushroom being used by these Indians was not the Panaeoleus species
previously identified by Schultes, and this was a further reason for scholarly
1953 the Wassons had managed to enlist the help of a Mexican curandero
or shaman and this was an achievement in itself since the Indians were
reluctant to discuss the mushroom with European outsiders. However, under
the pretence of wanting supernaturally inspired news of their son, the
Wassons were permitted to take part in a mushroom rite in which the shaman
would ingest sacred mushrooms in order to gain the requested information.
Unfortunately the shaman was the only person allowed to consume the fungi
and the Wassons were forced to remain uninitiated.
under the effects of psilocybin, made 3 specific predictions concerning
Wasson's son which, at the time, he (Wasson) politely humoured as he had
no real inkling into psilocybin's latent ability to produce feats of clairvoyance.
His interest was, after all, still predominately academic and any kind
of supernatural utterances were to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
As it later transpired, all 3 of the shaman's predictions were borne out
and Gordon Wasson was at a loss to explain this. Was it coincidence? Or
was it a genuine case of the paranormal? Whatever it was, the mysterious
mushrooms demanded closer scrutiny for they seemed to promise much more
of interest. Wasson was being drawn ever nearer, as his lifelong adventure
drew to an epic climax.
detailed witness account of the above mushroom ceremony was to be the culminating
chapter of 'Mushrooms, Russia, and History', though just as the book was
going to press in June of 1955 a new breakthrough was made. In fact, it
was the ultimate breakthrough and became the highlight of Gordon Wasson's
scholarly career. It also generated another chapter in the book and the
seminal piece for Life magazine. The middle-aged New York banker-turned-ethnomycologist
became the first white man on record to deliberately consume sacred Mexican
mushrooms and thus taste the entheogenic glory of natural psilocybin. He
had sought and finally accessed one of the most remarkable experiences
to be had upon this Earth, and thanks to his lifelong persistent efforts
our enduring quest to uncover the true nature of reality and the true bounds
of conscious experience became suddenly enhanced as psilocybin made it's
extraordinary psychedelic presence felt. Indeed, for our purposes, it is
rather apt that our man Wasson be provided with such an informative and
illuminating meal at this time - almost a vegetal calling-card in fact
- as only a few months earlier Nature had consumed the great Einstein.
At least it was apt in a relative kind of way for anyone deeply interested
in the subtle-yet-never-maliscious force of such a wily killer/creator
Mystery Explodes into Life