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Monday, 21 January 2013

Shamanic Plants: Amanita muscaria

Bold and undeniably conspicuous, the bright red cap with its white flaky speckles characterizes this infamous mushroom known as ‘Fly Agaric’. A familiar image in popular culture, it is known as the ‘Glückspilz’ (lucky mushroom) in Germany and represents one of the five quintessential symbols of good fortune, (along with pigs, 4-leaved clover, chimney sweeps, and horseshoes). Innumerable decorative replica trinkets, variously cast in chocolate, marzipan or plastic proliferate in the window displays, especially around New Year. Even the most conventional of suburban lawns proudly display the gaudy fungus as plaster cast dwellings of jolly old plaster cast gnomes, smoking their plaster cast pipes. Every child has made its acquaintance via countless illustrations in seemingly innocent fairy tale books. Fly Agaric continues to serve as a classic symbol of enchanted forests and magical groves - the kind of places where fairies, gnomes and witches dwell.
These ‘kitsch’ clichés are remnants of a once potent magical sacrament. Mythologies from around the world echo with the distant memory of Fly Agaric as a semi-divine being associated with mighty thunder gods and cosmic fire. In India for example, the mushroom was sacred to Agni, the god of fire. His devotees made sacrificial offerings of Fly Agaric, while partaking of the sacrament to commune with their god. In Mayan dialects Fly Agaric is known as ‘Kukulja’, which also means thunder, while the Lakandon Indians call it ‘Eh kib lu'um’, meaning ‘Light of the Earth‘ (Rätsch). In parts of northern and eastern Europe it is sometimes called ‘Raven Bread’ in allusion to Wodan's companions. The wise ravens travel on his shoulders and whisper secrets in his ears of things that are yet to come. Wodan /Thor too, is a thunder-god, a wild, shamanic god of nature who commands the elements. He gallops across the sky on his brave and loyal mount Sleipnir, the eight-legged stallion, who runs swift as the wind, and kicks up storm clouds in his trail. As the wild chase gathers speed the horse starts foaming from his mouth and where the foam drops onto the rain softened earth beneath, the Fly Agarics magically rise from the ground…
Familiar and conspicuous, yet mysterious and magical. The Fly Agaric represents THE archetypal mushroom per se - even to those who don't know it by name. Most people, conditioned by western culture, are possessed by an instinctual fear that frequently encompasses all mushrooms (a condition known as ’mycophobia‘), except perhaps those found on supermarket shelves. Some people may have been introduced to this species by means of one of the commonly available mushroom guides that mark it as 'highly poisonous and tag its picture with the deadly scull and bone symbol. Yet, despite this reputation, evidence from around the globe suggests that humans in the past (and, in certain places to the present day) have actually enjoyed a very intimate relationship with this 'very dangerous' mushroom. Apparently, this is no ordinary, poisonous toadstool, but rather a powerful psychotropic entheogen with a very rich and colorful history and folklore….
Amanita muscaria, better known as Fly Agaric, is a relatively small toadstool, growing to between 5 -12cm tall. It falls into the general category of ‘gill-baring’ mushrooms. When young it is covered by a white membranous veil, which tends to rip as the stem pushes up and the bright red cap expands. The remains of the veil skirt the stem and also leave white, wart-like flakes covering the cap, though these are sometimes washed away by heavy rain. As it matures the cap opens up like an umbrella, forming a depression around the center. Its red skin can easily be peeled off. The stem is bulbous at the base and discontinuous with the cap. The mushroom flesh is white and has no particular smell when fresh. Upon drying it develops an unpleasant musky-acrid smell, which erroneously has been claimed to ward off flies. In North America a closely related species, A. americana is often mistaken for the Fly Agaric. Its' cap tends to be more yellowy-orange. Less similar and more toxic in nature is A. pantherina, whose cap tends to be more yellow-brownish and its stem more slender. All these species are generally regarded as poisonous and even deadly.
Curiously though, while they undoubtedly are poisonous and can be deadly if ingested, very few fatal incidents of Fly Agaric ingestion have ever been recorded. The popular angst seems to be rather disproportionate to its actual toxic potential. So what is it about this mushroom that we fear so much? To answer this question we have to examine its chemistry and effects. Modern research has revealed that the chemical make-up of Amanita muscaria is actually quite complex. Early chemists had mistakenly assumed that the psychoactive principal of Fly Agaric was to be found in a tropane alkaloid known as muscarine. This substance, related to a group of alkaloids present in other 'Witches Herbs' such as Henbane and Belladonna, causes very unpleasant effects on the CNS, including profuse salivation, lachrymation, and perspiration. However, its concentration in the mushroom is actually very low (approx. 0.0003%). Furthermore, it does not cross the blood/brain barrier easily, and nor does it have any psychotropic action - thus it is hardly a likely candidate for the principle involved in producing the mushroom's reputed mind-altering effects.
It wasn't until the mid-sixties that the true entheogenic compounds of Amanita muscaria were positively identified as ibotenic acid and muscimol, its decarboxylised derivative. Research concluded that the actual psychotropic effect is most likely produced by muscimol (Chilton, 1975) since 50-100 mg of ibotenic acid produces the same effects as 10-15 mg of muscimol. The symptoms of inebriation are characterized by muscle twitching, dizziness, visual distortions (macropsia and micropsia) and altered auditory perception. (Chilton, 1975).
The potency of individual mushrooms tends to vary widely, their power being modified by environmental factors, such as seasonal variation, the weather, the phase of the moon and the pH level of the soil. The Kamchacals, a peoples from northern Siberia, who have a long history of Fly Agaric use, maintain that those that dessicate while still in the earth and remain attached to the stalk tend to have a greater psychotropic effect than those that are picked fresh and strung up to dry. They also claim that the smaller ones, whose bright red caps are still covered with many white spots, are said to be stronger than the larger ones with paler caps and fewer spots. Those picked in August are said to be the strongest. It has been suggested that a dose of 9 - 10 caps could be considered potentially lethal, though no specific data supports this claim. Apart from environmental factors that affect the mushrooms relative potency, obviously the physical and mental condition of those who consume them also plays an important role. Case studies have shown that people who mistakenly ingested the mushroom, believing that it was highly dangerous and that their lives were thus in peril, reported much more severe symptoms of poisoning than those who had intentionally partaken of it, but misjudged the dose (Ott 1976a).

 Archaeological and linguistic evidence traces Fly-Agaric use back at least some 3000-6000 years ago. Some scholars believe that it may stretch even further into pre-history and that it may in fact be the most archaic entheogen known to mankind.. It appears that Fly-Agaric was known, but not universally used throughout Siberia. Some tribes apparently never used it, some only consumed it ritually, while others used it medicinally, ritually, or even simply for pure entertainment purposes. The custom is best documented for northeastern Siberia, where in some communities it persists to this day.
Mircea Eliade, the world foremost authority on Shamanism, described Fly Agaric ceremonies among various Siberian tribes, but considers such practices (and for that matter any ceremonial drug use) as a decadent trend. (Eliade 'Shamanism' 1951) Many modern scholars disagree with his point of view, which sharply contrasts with the actual historical evidence and seems to more closely reflect his personal ethics and the moral norm of his era. (Rutledge). However, casual use does seem to be a more modern development. Where this is practiced, Fly Agaric's status as a ritual substance is gradually declining and is increasingly replaced by a relatively recent introduction: Vodka.
Nevertheless, to Siberian shamans Fly Agaric represents the focal point of their mysteries and the means to the experience of divine ecstasy, a trance-like state that enables them to fly into the world of their gods, battle with demons and obtain fantastic visions - just as it always has. It is this magical flight that is alluded to by the common name 'Fly Agaric', not, as has often been suggested, its alleged power to ward off flies, for which it is quite useless.
The German ethnologist Enderli spent 2 years among the Chukchee and Koryaks of Eastern Siberia towards the latter part of the 19th century. During his stay he had an opportunity to witness first-hand one of these much fabled, mushroom induced trance sessions. According to his report the task of preparing the dried mushrooms fell to the women, who usually did not consume them themselves. After selecting a few suitable specimen they began to chew them thoroughly so as to make them pliable and moist. They then took them out of their mouths, rolled them into sausage shapes, and gave them to the two men who proceeded to place them deep down their throats and swallow them whole. After the fourth mushroom had been ingested in this manner the first effects began to show. The men started to tremble and twitch as though they had lost control of their muscles. Their eyes took on a wild glow, quite unlike the glazed look of alcohol inebriation, though the men apparently remained fully conscious throughout this phase. The agitation increased until they suddenly fell into a trance-state and began to sing monotonously in low voices. Gradually their chanting became louder and wilder till they had worked themselves into a frenzy, their eyes glaring wildly, shouting incomprehensible words and both of them going quite literally 'berserk'. They demanded their (ritual) drums, which the women brought immediately. At once they began a wild, unbelievably frenetic dance accompanied by equally wild and ear-shattering drumming, yelling and singing while both men ran about the yurt in a manic fury which left nothing untouched. Everything was thrown about, kicked over and turned upside down until the place was in a state of total chaos. Eventually, almost as if struck dead, both of them collapsed exhaustedly and fell into a deep sleep.
For the shaman this phase is the most important aspect of his exhausting ritual. It is in this trance-like sleep that the gateway to the 'Other-World' is opened, and he experiences vivid, even lucid dreams and ecstatic visions, often of a strongly sexual and sensual nature. In this state he can diagnose the causes of diseases, determine the whereabouts of lost objects, retrieve lost souls, fight with demonic forces or gleam visions of things to come. This otherworldly state however, does not last long. After about half an hour of sleep the shaman briefly awakes to full consciousness but soon the inebriation sets in once more and continues in gradually weakening cycles of excitement, frenzy, exhaustion and sleep.
The most curious aspect of this ritual is the fact that the inebriating power of the mushroom is not destroyed by normal metabolic processes, but instead is passed into the urine with almost no loss of effect. This has given cause to a rather unsavory habit described by some of the early ethnologists recounting their field experiences in Siberia:
Those who had partaken of the mushroom would collect their own urine and without a moment's hesitation drink the liquid down, with the result of reinforcing the inebriation and starting the cycle all over once more. Sometimes the urine was saved in a special vessel for a later occasion or even shared with others who might not have been able to afford the mushrooms for themselves. (The rate of exchange in areas where it is not common is one reindeer per dried mushroom cap!) Even after passing through the body in this form substantial amounts of muscimol will again be passed into the urine unchanged. Thus it is said that the same mushroom can be 'recycled' 6-8 times.
During the phases of frenzy the inebriated person feels tremendously strong. They are also affected by what is known as 'macropsia', or micropsia, a visual distortion that lets objects appear much larger or much smaller than they really are. Thus a blade of grass might appear the size of a tree trunk or a small hole can turn into the entrance of a cave. Many unbelievable feats of strength and endurance have been accomplished under the influence of Fly Agaric. One man reportedly carried a 120-pound load for 10 miles without stopping, something he could never have done under normal circumstances. Some historians have proposed that the notorious raids of the Vikings/Norse men may have been carried out under the influence, turning them literally into 'Berserkers' with inhuman strength. However, there is no concrete evidence to support this theory.
(It is interesting to note that Lewis Caroll in his classic tale, Alice in Wonderland, lets his heroine encounter the magic mushroom at the gateway between solid and lucid realities: It is the abode of the stoned caterpillar, who explains some of the oddities of Wonderland to the confused Alice, who had already experienced the wondrous effects of 'macropsia', and micropsia, which happen to be a typical symptom of Fly Agaric inebriation. One wonders what those ‘Eat Me’ and ‘Drink Me’ bottles really contained and what kind of ‘Wonderland’ Lewis Caroll was really describing…)
Among the Koryak the mushroom was prepared by several different methods, the commonest of which was the one described above. On occasion though they boiled the fungi to cook a mushroom soup - though this is said to reduce its potency and thus more mushrooms were needed. Sometimes dried mushrooms were soaked in distilled Bilberry juice - obviously a fairly modern method since distillation only arrived in Siberia in the 1500. Occasionally they were mixed with the juice of Willow-Herb. No research is known to have investigated the possible synergistic action of this combination. Medicinally it was used for 'psychophysical fatigue' and for bites of venomous snakes. (Saar, 1991) It was also applied externally to treat joint ailments (Moskalenko, 1987). In Afghanistan a fly agaric smoking mixture known as tshashm baskon ('eye opener') is used for psychosis (Mochtar & Geerken, 1979). In Western medicine Fly Agaric serves as a well known homeopathic remedy, used for tics, epilepsy and depression, and in conjunction with homeopathic Mandrake tincture, is used to treat Parkinson disease. (Villers & Thümen 1893, Waldschmidt 1992).
The casual and experimental use of Fly Agaric in Western cultures has steadily increased since the 1960s. However, it is said that the effects of Amanita species found in North America and Central Europe are not equal to those found in Siberia. It is often claimed, though not proven, that the North American and European species tend to be more nauseating and not as lucid as their Siberian cousins. It is unlikely that Fly Agaric will ever become a popular candidate for drug abuse among casual thrill seekers, as the inebriation is often accompanied by intense nausea and vomiting (some people have reported no other effect from the ingestion). While shamen often regard vomiting as a way to cleanse the body of impurities thus preparing it for possession by gods or spiritual beings, casual users tend to regard vomiting as a rather unpleasant side-effect. Furthermore, Fly Agaric inebriation results in a severe hangover the following day, which makes it also less appealing to casual users.
However, people who have subjected themselves to self-experimentation often report visions of gnomes, not unlike those found in the suburban gardens mentioned above. These reports parallel mushroom lore from Siberia, which tells of ‘mushroom-men’, small stocky, sometimes neckless beings, who move swiftly and lead the shaman on his journey to the 'Other-World'. This curious lore is substantiated by a number of Siberian cliff drawings that strongly resemble descriptions of these Fly-Agaric men. The number of these little men is said to correspond with the number of mushrooms consumed, which is why the Yurak always take 2 ½ mushrooms. They say, that the 2 ½ mushroom men run ahead along convoluted paths, and the shaman can only keep up with them because the half man runs more slowly.
It would be neglectful not to mention Gordon Wasson in any discussion of ethnomycology, as he probably has done more to stimulate research in this field than anyone else. In the course of their extensive research into the folklore and folk-uses of fungi, him and his wife came upon some very interesting findings, which let them to believe that many of the mycophobic attitudes present today can be attributed to remnants of an ancient mushroom cult. According to their theory, subsequent layers of political and religious successions had long since demonized the once 'tabooed' sacraments and holy icons of this cult (the mushrooms).
Needless to say, most of the academic establishment of the day did not welcome his suggestions and point blank rejected many of his findings. Nevertheless, he persisted and eventually met some scholars who were more receptive to his revolutionary ideas. It is in no small part due to Wasson's pioneering work that the idea of psychotropic substance use (and in particular psychotropic mushroom use) as an integral part of magico-religious practices among 'primitive' cultures has gained much more widespread acceptance.
In particular, Wasson conducted extensive research into the 'Rig Veda', a collection of sacred hymns composed by the Indo-Aryan peoples who swept down into the Indus valley of India some 3500 years ago. The ‘Rig Veda’ is one of the most ancient sacred texts known to mankind and it is full of references to sacred and medicinal plants. One substance, known as ‘Soma’, is mentioned with particular reverence- its praise is sung in more than one hundred verses, describing its potent powers and referring to its divine origin. It is generally accepted that Soma is some kind of psychotropic plant, though scholars have long argued over its precise botanical identity. Unfortunately, the authors of the ‘Rig Veda’ omit to mention any details regarding its leaves, flowers or fruit. Like most religious texts the hymns are written in a rather poetic language, which does not tend to elaborate on botanical details. Instead, it allusively refers to Soma as ‘the one-legged’, ‘thunderborn’ and similar terms. Wasson concluded that this was an indication of the fungal nature of this mysterious plant, and proposed that Soma was in fact Fly Agaric. He argued that surely, if the Soma plant did display ‘mighty roots’ or ‘sweetly smelling flowers’ or any other such noteworthy features, no doubt the authors of the ‘Rig Veda’ would have given them a poetic line or two. However, since none of these structures apply to mushrooms the absence of their mention in itself provides a strong hint.
Wasson studied the 'Rig Veda' in great detail and came up with a number of other supporting factors for his theory, which he published in his book 'Soma' in 1968. However, most of the scientific community at the time never quite accepted his proposals. Today scholars are split into two camps, those who support Wasson's findings, and those who are still doubtful and continue to search for the true identity of Soma.
Certainly it is hard to interpret such ancient texts beyond reasonable doubt. However, one has to ask the question of how and why such an obviously important substance could have been 'lost'. The only plausible answer lends support to the Wasson camp: the Aryan people, who came from the north, brought with them only the cultural memory of this magical substance, but not the actual plant. It is impossible to cultivate Fly Agaric and since it does not occur naturally in the Indus valley, it is likely that it gradually passed into the mythical realm. If one accepts the fungal nature of Soma then Fly Agaric really emerges as the most logical choice, even though other psychotropic mushrooms are native to the homelands of the Indo-Aryan people, their use is not as widespread and common, and to this day hardly anything is known about them. Still, who really knows what these people once might have known? Their knowledge has passed into oblivion. For all we know today, their sacred soma plant, fungus or not, may even have long since become extinct.
The quest for soma continues to present a fascinating enigma - in keeping with the mysterious nature of the archetypal magical mushroom known as Fly Agaric.

WARNING:

Fly Agaric is a powerful fungus, whose effects can be extremely variable and dangerous in the hands of fools. Self-experimentation is not recommended. In particular all amanita species with a white or greenish cap should be avoided, as these are definitely very deadly.