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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

FUNGAL FOLKLORE

No account of the fungi would be complete without reference to the hallucinogenic or intoxicating properties of many species. The best known of these are the mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe and its relatives, the 'magic mushrooms' made famous in the West during the 1960s by—among others—Timothy Leary, a professor at Harvard University. Leary and his students experimented with sacred Mexican mushrooms and other mind-altering substances derived from fungi. Accounts of his intense 'mystical' experiences helped fuel a growing cult use among hippies around the world. It had started when people became aware that these mushrooms are not confined to Central America. Some mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe produce the hallucinogens psilocybin and psilocin. They are common and widespread, but are among the "little brown mushrooms" that are extremely difficult to identify. As some of these are poisonous, it's best to avoid them all. The hippie culture had merely rediscovered fungal properties that were known to many ancient civilizations, where mushrooms were used in religious and healing ceremonies. Fly Agaric, another mushroom with hallucinogenic properties, was used in parts of Eurasia as long as 6000 years ago. Its active ingredients are muscimole and ibotenic acid. Some scholars believe that it is the mysterious Soma, a God plant worshiped in ancient Hindu culture. Fly Agaric was well known to the Koryak tribesmen of Kamchatka in Siberia. They would drink an infusion made from the fungus and become intoxicated. So potent was this concoction that poorer folk would collect the urine passed by revelers. When recycled, its effects were said to be as powerful as they were first time around. For some reason, reindeer seem to be attracted to urine with the scent of the fungus. More than one intoxicated tribesmen relieving himself was reported trampled to death by a crazed ruminant! Both poisonous and hallucinogenic, Fly Agaric seems to impart a feeling of great strength and stamina—a fact that may provide a clue to the ferocious reputation of the Berserkers, ancient Norse warriors who are said to have consumed the fungus before going into battle. The Mayan and pre-Mayan civilizations of Central America left behind many rock carvings called "mushroom stones," which scholars believe show that hallucinogenic mushrooms were an important part of their culture. The Aztecs also used mushrooms in religious ceremonies and for recreation from the 12th-13th centuries on. One current (but controversial) theory suggests that the 17,000-year-old Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, France represent hallucinogenic visions. Hallucinogenic mushrooms were probably also used in ancient Greece.