Amanita muscaria: the Magic Mushroom of the Ancients


Amanita muscaria is the current taxonomic name for the magic mushroom of antiquity. The identity of this extraordinary plant is one of the most venerable mysteries in the history of civilization. It is among the earliest psychotropic substances ingested by man, and as such occupies a central and seminal place in the formation and archaic evolution of human culture, which processes considerably antedate both the concept of history and the phenomenon of civilization. As the multi-dimensional tesserae of archaeological fragments and documentary evidence become more surely positioned within the matrix of time by our comprehension of archetypal content in myth and oral tradition, a mosaic vision of wholeness emerges in the form and substance of a mushroom: the magic mushroom, the Amanita.

Intimately associated with the macromyth of language and the essential lore of fire magic, the Amanita has functioned for millenia as the pulsating heart of poetics. It was quite probably the central sacrament in the aboriginal ritual tribal dance from whence may derive, as Gary Snyder has observed, most of the now fragmented activities of theology, philosophy,dance and song, as separated from the natural context of work, play, meditation, sex and education. Thus it is not very surprising that both scholarly and cre­ative minds (liberated and stimulated no doubt in part by a global upsurge, beginning in the middle years of this century, of a neo-Dionysiac spirit) should rediscover or reveal anew the mushroom as a heart symbol of enlightened ecstatic consciousness.

For the thoughtful student of the history of consciousness, culture and the humanities, there are two recent publications of importance, both of which fix upon the Amanita as their central subject matter:

John M. Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A study of the nature and origins of Christianity within the fertility cults of the ancient Near East. Doubleday & Co. New York, 1970.

R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Published as Ethno-Mycological Studies No. 1 by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

In addition, there is an earlier book having An un­certain significance of its own in dealing with the (hypothetical clairvoyance, telepathic and mediumistic) parapsychological aspects of the magic mushroom tradi­tion:

Andrei Puharich, The Sacred Mushroom

Some writings of the poet and scholar Robert Graves also deserve careful attention because of his early and extraordinary revelations about the mush­room Amanita muscaria. A convenient collection of several articles and reviews in which Graves refers to the mushroom, among other psychotropic agents, was published in 1960 as a book with the title Food for Centaurs (Doubleday & Co., New York). The centaurs ate mushrooms, as did the Caesars. One of the pieces, discusses the demise of the Emperor Claudius, "New Light on an Old Murder," Its writing was prompted by correspondence, in 1949, with Dr. Valentina Wasson, a New York physician, and her husband, R. Gordon Wasson, vice-president of J. P. Morgan and Company, who "were investigating the ancient event from a mycological angle." In a postscript Graves adds, "A limited edition of the Wassons' monumental work on mushrooms, "Mushrooms, Russia and History", was published in 1957 by Pantheon Books (New York), at $125 a copy. It contains a fascinating account of the Girard case early in 1918, which supplements their account of Claudius's death."

The murder had nothing to do with Amanita muscaria. The late Roman Emperor was fond of overindulging in wine and among other culinary items, mushrooms "of the wholesome and delicious variety now known, in Claudius's honor, as Amanita caesarea." Although another poisonous variety, Amanita phalloides may have been used in an unsuccessful assassination attempt, it was finally the virulent alkaloid poison from a wild gourd, colocynthos, in an emema administered by his personal physician Xenophon that finally caused the Chief of State of the Roman Empire to utter his last miserable words, as recorded by Seneca,

"Vae me, puto me concacavi!"
"Alas, I think I have messed myself badly!" or,
"My God, I guess I shit my pants pretty bad!"

The unfortunate associations of mushrooms with poison in what the Wassons have termed "mycophobic" fungus-fearing Western culture are expressions of a much more ancient religions taboo. In the essay "Centaur's Food," Robert Graves brilliantly establishes the identity of a secret ingredient in the Greek recipes for ambrosia, nectar and the sacred mixture called “kukeon” which was served to initiates at Eleusis. The device by which such a mystery was revealed is common knowledge at RAND Corporation, NASA, the FDA, CIA, FBI, UNESCO, etc. The Irish poets, before the advent of contemporary bureaucratic consciousness, developed the idea of an Ogham, or spelling out a hidden word by reading the initial letters of other ordinary words. Greek writers themselves tell us that ambrosia and nectar were food and drink of the gods, and that the words have the meaning of "that which confers immortality." Components of ambrosia are lis­ted as honey, water, fruit, olive oil, cheese and pearl barley--the six staple foods of the Eastern Mediterranean. Precisely what kind of fruit is not indicated, but Graves deduces that it must have been mushrooms by arranging the Greek words in a column and reading down the initial letters:

Meli     honey
Udor     water
Karpos   fruit
Elaios   olive oil
Turos    cheese
Alphita pearl barley

spelling out "muketa" for ambrosia, and by similar proceedures gaining "muka" for nectar (implying the final "a" standing for alphita, the barley sacred to Demeter and hence a manifestation of the goddess her­self, and so necessarily present in the recipe), and "muka" an earlier form of "mukes" or mushroom, from

Minthaion     mint
Udor          water
Kukomenon     that which is mixed. or curdled, curds
Alphitois     barley

the mint-water ritually imbibed as a sacrament of the Mysteries. These two words, both of them indicating the magic mushroom, answer two riddles, "What food do the gods eat?" and "What grants me the mystic vision?"

And the answer is the same as that for the important scholarly question, "By what name was the god Dionysos known to the Maenads?" The key is provided by the "K" in each case. The "fruit" intended by the generic word "karpos" in Greek must mean the first fruit of the harvest, the most sacred fruit and that which is sacrificed to the gods. For the identification of the Amanita asthis fruit, we may now turn to Allegro's book, published several years after the original appear­ance of the article. For the other term beginning with "K", "kukomenon”, Graves gave no translation. The one above I have supplied from the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon.

The double meaning of "mixture" or "potion" as the thing mixed, and "curds" come from the root Kuk-ao, stir, of one curdling milk," and so forth, inclu­ding "to be churned, seethe," and for the form Kukan, "potion, posset, containing barley groats, grated cheese and Pramnian wine; also honey and magical drugs." The "curds" could be the cheese, or as well a blind for the precise description of the magical drug--the same "curds" without doubt that appear in R. Gordon Wasson's book on Soma.

(Curator's note:) And then there's this rescued snippet below, a couple of paragraphs typed single-space on a yellowed sheet of onion-skin, found randomly floating amid a sheaf of papers:

You are what you eat, but what about what you smoke? Do we only get to pretend to be what we are when we smoke it? The Vogul shamans would eat three sun-dried Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, traditionally flying into a three-day trance. Smoking it is a different matter. Metabolized faster than through the digestive processes, the psychoactive chemicals, principally muscarin traces (two parts per ten thousand, according to the Swiss pharma­cology of Conrad Eugster) and Isotonic Acid (iso­lated by a Japanese mycologist).

The molecular structure of muscarineis so closely similar to that of the neurosynapse agent, called the "muscarinic bond," that it is what science terms an "agonist," a natural substance the structure of which effectively mimics that of a chemical syn­thesized by our own bodies. In this case the muscar­inic bond operates at a very high level of control: it is part of the complex chemical mode of transmitting information that controls our higher states of feeling and consciousness. Nicotine is also an agonist. whereas both muscarin and nicotine are virulent toxins at high dosages, microdoses have the effect of master keys, unlocking doors, bridging gaps, clos­ing circuits.