Most of the main hallucinogenic species of fungi belong to the class Basidiomycetes, which includes Amanita muscaria, A. pantherina and the numerous Psilocybe species as well as the puffballs.
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)
The academic discipline called ethnomycology (the systematic study of the role of fungi in culture) was pioneered by R. Gordon Wasson (1896-1986). At first glance one could not conceive of a more unlikely figure to uncover to the world at large the profound role that hallucinogenic mushrooms and other fungi have played in the development of religion. Although starting his professional career as an academic, Wasson soon shifted his attention to journalism, contributing a daily financial column for the Herald Tribune. He entered the world of banking in 1928 and joined J. P. Morgan & Co. in 1934. He became vice-president in 1943 and remained with the company until his retirement in 1963. His interest in mushrooms was first stimulated by his wife Valentina who, as a White Russian, was, in the tradition of her people, a mycophile, or mushroom lover. The story of Wasson's enrapturement with mushrooms is something of a legend and is best told by the man himself:My wife and I embarked on this our intellectual foray late in August 1927. A little episode started us on our way. Valentina Pavlovna was Russian, a Muscovite by birth. I was of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. We had been married less than a year and we were now off on our first holiday, at Big Indian in the Catskills. On that first day, as the sun was declining in the West, we set out for a stroll, the forest on our left, a clearing on our right. Though we had known each other for years, it happened that we had never discussed mushrooms together. All of a sudden she darted from my side. With cries of ecstasy she flew to the forest glade, where she had discovered mushrooms of various kinds carpeting the ground. Since Russia she had seen nothing like it. Left planted on the mountain trail, I called to her to take care, to come back. They were toadstools she was gathering, poisonous, putrid, disgusting. She only laughed the more: I can hear her now. She knelt in poses of adoration. She spoke to them with endearing Russian diminutives. She gathered the toadstools in a kind of pinafore that she was wearing, and brought them to our lodge. Some she strung on threads to hang up and dry for winter use. Others she served that night, either with the soup or the meat, according to their kind. I refused to touch them.... This episode, a small thing in itself affecting only a peripheral aspect of our busy lives, led us to make inquiries, and we found that the northern Slavs know their mushrooms, having learned them at their mother's knee; theirs is no book knowledge. They love these fungal growths with a passion that, viewed with detachment, seemed to me a little exaggerated. But we Anglo-Saxons reject them viscerally, with revulsion, without deigning to make their acquaintance, and our attitude is even more exaggerated than the Slavs'. Little by little my wife and I built up extensive files concerning this modest corner of human behaviour.
In 1952 Robert Graves informed Wasson of the discovery by the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes (who was later to become both the Director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard and a life-long friend of Wasson) of the continuing use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by Mexican Indians. After contacting Schultes, Wasson organised an expedition to the Oaxaca region of Mexico the following year. In 1957 the Wassons published their first book, the monumental two-volume Mushrooms, Russia and History. Tragically, Valentina died soon after, on New Year's Eve 1958. Although an amateur scholar in the best sense of the word, Wasson became a research associate at Harvard and gained the respect of a number of eminent scholars in various fields, including Albert Hofmann, the chemist and discoverer of LSD, Roger Heim, the mycologist and Roman Jakobson, the great linguist. In 1963 Wasson began travelling in Asia, gathering information for what was to be his magnum opus, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968), published, like most of his books in a limited edition, highly sought after by bibliophiles and collectors. In Soma Wasson put forward the novel thesis that 'Soma', the mysterious hallucinogenic substance of the ancient Indians and Iranians, was the fly-agaric toadstool Amanita muscaria. As William Emboden, one of the world's leading experts on psychoactive plants, has put it, the mushroom was Wasson's muse.
According to the General History of the Things of New Spain by the sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún, the Aztecs used a sacred mushroom known to them as teonanacatl, which means 'flesh of the gods'. Despite the fact that he explicitly describes it as a mushroom, his identification was challenged in the early twentieth century on the grounds that no psychoactive fungus was known to be used by the contemporary Indians of Mexico. It was suggested that, rather than being a mushroom, teonanacatl was actually the peyote cactus. Early in his career the renowned ethnobotanist Richard Schultes believed Sahagún's original identification to be correct. On linguistic grounds the mushroom thesis was supported by, among other evidence, the fact that the modern Mexican word for mushrooms is nanacates. Whilst travelling in Oaxaca, Mexico Schultes discovered that the local Mazatec, Chinantec and Zapotec Indians used mushrooms of the genus Panaeolus for their psychoactive properties, leading him to conclude that the Aztec entheogen called teonanacatl was one or more of the species of Panaeolus, which all have similar hallucinogenic effects. He later realised that other genera of mushrooms were also subsumed under this Aztec term, including Psilocybe species. The Indians of Oaxaca collected and dried the mushrooms before consuming them for divinatory and prophetic purposes. The effects of this fungus are described by Schultes:The doses which the Mazatec Indians prescribe vary with the size and age of the individual. Usually fifteen mushrooms are considered sufficient to induce the desired effect, but larger doses are reported. Overdoses of fifty or sixty mushrooms result in severe poisonings, whilst continued use of excessive quantities is said to produce permanent insanity... According to a number of descriptions from the Indians, the intoxication lasts about three hours. Shortly after ingestion of the mushrooms, the subject experiences a general feeling of levity and well-being. This exhileration is followed within an hour by hilarity, incoherent talking, uncontrolled emotional outbursts and, in the later stages of intoxication, by fantastic visions in brilliant colours.
Panaeolus campanulatus, a small mushroom with a dark brown stripe and a yellowish-brown cap, was frequently employed by Mazatec diviners who made a living by using its powers to locate stolen property and give sundry advice to their clients. Diviners who habitually use this kind of mushroom in their work are reported to sometimes suffer from senility and premature ageing as a result of too frequently consulting the fungal oracle. These considerable occupational hazards were probably due to the accumulation of toxins from the mildly poisonous mushrooms. Nevertheless, the fungus was employed as a medicine and its use in the treatment of rheumatism shows a remarkable continuity in ethnomedical practice, as both the ancient Aztecs and the twentieth-century Mexican Indians used it as such. 'Mushroom drunks' among the native peoples of the Russian Far East are also reported to suffer debilitating symptoms because of their over-indulgence with the fly-agaric. From rather closer to home comes an isolated account of a fungus being implicated in a 'drunk driver' case. This rather bizarre and unusual story was reported in the 'Daily Telegraph' on 13 March 1937, in which it seems that a mushroom-intoxicated driver was prosecuted at the Clerkenwell police court in London.
Hallucinogenic species of Panaeolus or Pholiota have been identified as the fungi referred to in early Chinese accounts as hsiao chün or 'laughing mushroom'. An amusing incident of accidental mushroom intoxication is included in an eleventh-century collection of Japanese folk stories entitled Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Long Ago), translated by James Sanford:Long long ago, some woodcutters from Kyoto went into the Kitayama mountains and lost their way. Not knowing which way to go, four or five of them were lamenting their condition when they heard a group of people coming from the depths of the mountains. The woodcutters were wondering suspiciously what sort of people it might be when four or five Buddhist nuns came out dancing and singing. Seeing them, the woodcutters became fearful, thinking things like, 'Dancing, singing nuns are certainly not human beings but must be goblins or demons.' And when the nuns saw the men and started straight toward them, the woodcutters became very frightened and wondered, 'How is it that nuns come thus out of the very depths of the mountains dancing and singing?'Cases of both accidental intoxication by Panaeolus species and its recreational use have been reported from the eastern United States. It is not just hippies and others seeking psychedelic highs that deliberately used the mushrooms but also local farmers wanting to get 'drunk for nothing'!
The nuns then said, 'Our appearance dancing and singing has no doubt frightened you. But we are simply nuns who live nearby. We came to pick flowers as offering to Buddha, but after we had all entered the hills together we lost our way and couldn't remember how to get out. Then we came upon some mushrooms, and although we wondered whether we might not be poisoned if we ate them, we were hungry and decided it was better to pick them than to starve to death. But after we had picked and roasted them we found they were quite delicious, and thinking, "Aren't these fine!" we ate them. But then as we finished the mushrooms we found we couldn't keep from dancing …' the woodcutters were no end surprised at this unusual story.
Now the woodcutters were very hungry so they thought, 'Better than dying let's ask for some too.' And they ate some of the numerous mushrooms that the nuns had picked, whereupon they also were compelled to dance. In that condition the nuns and the woodcutters laughed and danced round together. After a while the intoxication seemed to wear off and somehow they all found their separate ways home.
The Taoists of ancient China seem to have made use of the fly-agaric mushroom, and often make reference to the 'Divine Mushroom of Immortality', an epithet used by Wasson in his book. The writings of ancient China are replete with many other references to psychoactive fungi and there is even a work called On the Planting and Cultivation of Magic Mushrooms. According to the account of Thao Hung-Ching, writing in AD 515, a respected young Taoist of the time named Chou Tzu-Liang died at the age of only twenty, apparently as the result of ingesting toxic fungi. There are frescoes decorating the Koguryo tombs of Korea (sixth and seventh centuries AD) that depict Taoist Immortals and their female consorts, known as Jade Girls, picking 'magic mushrooms'. Fu-ling, a parasitic fungus that grows on the roots of the pine tree – Polyporus cocos or Poria (Pachyma) cocos is also considered to be an 'immortal medicine' in Chinese tradition. The Chinese Buddhist text called the Tripitaka (Ta Tsang) contains an account of a sage taking refuge in the mountains in order to meditate and consume mushroom elixirs. Yet, it would be simplistic to think that the Chinese attitude to psychoactive mushrooms was universally favourable. Wasson cites a twelfth-century Chinese official who berated the followers of the Manichaean religion (founded by the Iranian Mani, but once of some influence in parts of China largely through the efforts of Iranian and Central Asian travelling merchants) for consuming mushrooms as part of their religious observances. Wasson interprets this as an attack on the use of the fly-agaric as the same official states that the Manichaeans also ritually washed with urine.
Among both the Indians and Eskimos of Alaska and the Yukon chewing tobacco is mixed with fungus ash. The Eskimos of the Bering Strait would chop their tobacco finely on a wooden cutting board, then mix it with the ashes of a burnt fungus. The mixture was then kneaded like dough and shaped into pellets. If the ashes were still not mixed in thoroughly enough one of the women would chew it until, with the help of her saliva, the quid was ready. As with many other 'chewing' preparations it was not really chewed at all but held in the cheek. An Eskimo man would often take the quid out of his mouth and put it behind his right ear. Interestingly enough, the Aborigines of Australia do exactly the same with their pituri quids. It has been suggested that the Aborigines do this because the 'drug' permeates the skin behind the ear (which is much thinner than most other parts of the body). At least in the Eskimo case, it may simply be done to store the quid temporarily when required, very much as a cigarette is put behind the ear until required. The fungi in question were important items in the traditional trading networks of this region.
Nor has this tradition died out. The use of 'chew-ash', as it is called in the Yukon, is still a popular habit. According to the Canadian mycologist Paul Kroeger, a community school teacher in the region, reported that children that used chew-ash in school were generally more sedate than other children in the class. Chew-ash is made by reducing a birch polypore fungus (Phellinus igniarius = Fomes igniarius) to ash and then mixing it with chewing tobacco and sometimes commercial tea leaves. Although both tobacco and tea are stimulants, the resulting mixture is aid to act as a sedative, which seems to indicate some mildly psychoactive input from the fungus (although this species is not known to have such effects). Other variations on the chew-ash theme include the addition of alcohol to fortify the mixture. An old Indian trapper named Joe Henry (belonging to the Gwich'in people of the Dene Nation) was reported to heat tree fungi in old coffee cans over a fire and then mix the resulting ash with tobacco soaked in rum (whisky is also reported as an additive).
Known among the Yupik Eskimo of Nelson Island as iqemik, the bracket fungus Fomes pinicola was burnt and the ashes were then mixed with snuff, said to give it a real 'kick'. On the other side of the Bering Strait the Kamchadal people used a fungus to make a snuff. The Khanty (Ostyak) people of western Siberia made a snuff out of a birch fungus, and they still use the ashes of the poly-pore fungus, Phellinus nigricans, in the making of a chewing tobacco mixture that is used by both men and women. Both the North American Indians and the Siberians use a number of different kinds of fungi as sacred incenses to drive away evil spirits and to ritually purify themselves.
There are also reports of the use of psychoactive mushrooms by some of the native cultures of Melanesia. In 1936 Father William A. Ross described an outbreak of 'mushroom madness' among the people of the Mount Hagen region of the New Guinea Highlands in the following terms: 'the wild mushroom called nonda makes the user temporarily insane. He flies into a fit of frenzy. Death is even known to have resulted from its use. It is used before going out to kill another native, or in times of great excitement, anger or sorrow.' Other cases of the 'mushroom madness' are known, such as the bacchanalia of the Sina-Sina people which is called 'kirin'. Wasson and Heim concluded that the 'mushroom madness' was not in fact caused by psychoactive fungi at all and that the answer to this strange social phenomenon lay in 'mythology not mycology'. Heim and Wasson were only in New Guinea for a short period and, as William Emboden has pointed out, one cannot expect that native people will talk openly to strangers about sacred plants and fungi. This opinion is supported by the account of Fitz Poole, an anthropologist who spent considerable time among the Bimin-Kuskusmin, a small New Guinea community that had a full-blown mushroom cult and, despite his exemplary skill as a field worker, was unable to discover which species of mushroom were used by the elders in their esoteric and therefore private rituals.
The male initiation cult of the Bimin-Kuskusmin is the vehicle for both storing and transmitting the essence of their cultural lore. It is a hierarchical organisation comprising twelve successive stages of initiation, a deeper level of esoteric knowledge being imparted at each one. The elders of the highest degrees have themselves passed through each of the initiatory ordeals of the lower ranks. Although a considerable number of psychoactive plants are used in Bimin-Kuskusmin ritual life, three types of substance are central to the workings of the cult: ginger, tobacco and hallucinogenic mushrooms. All three are sacred and are ritually tended to by sacrificing marsupials and rodents at the place of their growth. Both women and children are forbidden to approach these sacred substances. The first ten degrees represent the complete cycle of male initiation, whilst the eleventh and twelfth are the junior and senior grades of a ritual elder. Novices belonging to the first three grades are given ginger which, although it is not normally considered to be a psychoactive plant, does cause visual and auditory hallucinogens when taken (as it is among the Bimin-Kuskusmin) after fasting and whilst in a state of great expectation and fear. Initiates of the next six stages smoke sacred tobacco whilst the mushrooms are only used by those in the highest three grades. Thus, each successive stage involves taking a more potent psychoactive substance. Whilst an individual is allowed to use the sacred substance appropriate to his grade (or that of any lower grade) on no account is he permitted to try those of higher levels. During the states of trance induced by each of the substances the initiate is said to travel out of his body and, with the help of a guardian ancestor spirit, visit the ancestral world. If he makes this difficult journey successfully then he will gain the sacred knowledge appropriate to one of his station.
Each of these twelve journeys is seen as an ordeal, not only offering the reward of spiritual revelations but also demonstrating the initiate's growing ability to control his consciousness. As is so often the case with the ritualistic use of hallucinogens the ecstatic experience of the journey must first be prepared for by under-going privations. Abstinence from sleep, food and water are increasingly enforced as an individual climbs the rungs of the initiation cult. The most extreme preparations are therefore those of the final grade of senior elder. He must go three nights without food or sleep and two days without water before taking the secret type of mushroom alone in the mountains at night. This mushroom is said to be so potent that it would poison even the senior ritual elders if it were taken outside the context of the final rite.
In Bali the native people are reported to cultivate the hallucinogenic fungus Copelandia cyanescens both for their own use and to sell to tourists and hippies. It contains the psychoactive psilocin and psilocybin and is far more potent than species of Psilocybe mushrooms. There are numerous other intriguing references to fungi in the works of early travellers, anthropologists, herbalists and botanists which strongly hint that many more mushroom cults await discovery. Leona Stukey Tucker wrote that the Ovimbundu people of Angola call a certain tree fungus ova wuti which means 'dream'; perhaps a reference to psychoactive properties. Despite its great diversity and rich fungal wildlife no mushroom cult has been found in the entire continent of Africa. Despite the fact that there have been quite a few finds of species of tinder fungus (punk) and puffballs and other fungi having medicinal properties at prehistoric sites (and on the body of the famous Ice Man discovered a few years ago in the Alps) in various parts of Europe, no comparable use of hallucinogenic or narcotic mushrooms has come to light. There are vague reports, such as Robert Graves' assertion that Portuguese witches in the twentieth century used the hallucinogenic Panaeolus papilionaceus, and accounts of the Basque witches collecting puffballs and other fungi, but hard historical and ethnographic data has not yet been forthcoming. An early eighteenth-century English source describes an unidentified species as being: 'about half an inch broad, spiring a little at the top; of a whitish colour, with a long stalk, and of the bigness of one's little Fingger [sic]. This is also called the Foolls Mushroom.' A Fool's Mushroom would seem to point to a hallucinogenic species. The vast amount of European folklore compiled by Wasson and his wife on the fly-agaric and other mushrooms indicates that in many areas of the Continent there were taboos in place against the use of certain fungi, suggesting an ancient ritual role for them. Despite the great efforts of the Wassons, neither archaeological sites nor archival materials have yielded up sufficient proof of such a cult.
Research into the traditional use of psychoactive fungi is still very much an ongoing project and many more discoveries will doubtless be made.
The Good Drug Guide
The Hedonistic Imperative