Plant Spirit Shamanism: Sacred mushrooms

A few years ago, I was called as an expert witness in a criminal case involving trance and possession. The circumstances of the case are not important to this article but, not to leave you hanging, had to do with a man who had flown to the UK from Nigeria and was found to be carrying cocaine when he was stopped by Customs Officers. His defence was that he had been entranced, or possibly drugged, by a group of men who had planted the cocaine on him before he boarded the plane.

What was more interesting for me was that I got to have lunch with another expert witness, a toxicologist from one of the UK’s leading teaching hospitals, who had a keen interest in mycology and planned to publish a book on the sacred use of fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) in spiritual healing and ancient warriorship practices.

As a result of his studies, he had recently worked with a TV production company who had made a documentary with him to test one of his personal pet theories: that the Zulu War was fought by the indigenous people under intoxication from the sacred mushroom. This had given them, not only superhuman strength and imperviousness to pain, but a sense of fearlessness and their own divine purpose in battle. It was this that had helped them leave the field victorious, he claimed.

Obviously, the TV company could not stage another war to test this theory, but what they could do – and did – was to get two martial arts experts into a ring to fight it out for the cameras.

In the first part of this experiment, the combatants met equally and fought a few rounds together. Neither emerged as a clear winner in this carefully matched contest.

In the second part, however, one of the fighters was given five strips of fly-agaric to consume. He was allowed to rest while it took effect, and then both fighters met again.

Except they didn’t, exactly. According to the expert I was speaking to (interestingly, over a lunch of mushroom paella), the fighter who had taken fly-agaric simply flew across the ring as soon as the bell rang, hardly even touching the ground, and threw his opponent so hard that he ended up on the floor outside the ropes. The intoxicated fighter never even broke a sweat and was not breathing at anything above normal levels when his opponent was counted out.

USAGE AND EFFECTS OF FLY-AGARIC
In the modern West, we have lost most of our ancient ceremonial practices and no longer believe in a ‘spirit world’. Consequently, fly-agaric (if it is considered at all) is regarded only as a dangerous and potentially poisonous ‘drug’, rather than a route to the divine.

In his book, Ploughing The Clouds, however, Peter Lamborn Wilson argues convincingly that fly-agaric is not only the sacred Soma referred to in the Rg Veda, but that it was used in many European countries and was also central to the Irish Keltic tradition of shamanism, which still continues in its basic form, today.

The mushrooms themselves, bright red with white spots, are gathered for ritual use in these traditions during the hottest months of the year – July and August – when they are most infused with the element of fire and the breath of the sun/Sky Father. The most powerful mushrooms, in fact, are said to dry themselves, ready to be picked for their communion with man. These are considered far ‘stronger’ than those picked early and dried artificially. Smaller mushrooms are also said to have much greater power than larger ones, and it seems likely, from modern experimentation, that their narcotic effects are certainly more intense during the early growing phase.

For non-ritual usage, the mushrooms are used in much the same way as coca leaves in the Peruvian Andes, to create a gentle shift in consciousness, accompanied by mild euphoria and increased energy. In such usage, the mushrooms are simply rolled into a ball and swallowed whole, without chewing. One larger mushroom (3-4cm) or 2-3 small ones is enough.

For prescribed ritual usage, however, several mushrooms are normally consumed, usually in a set, or sets, of three. “The Rg Veda always speaks of Soma in sets of three cups and, in Siberia today, three Amanitas are still considered the proper ritual dose”, says Wilson.

An elaborate ceremony will often accompany the ritual consumption of ‘magic mushrooms’. This may take the form of a ‘hunt’ for the mushroom, followed by the ‘killing’ of its spirit by symbolically attacking it with spears, clubs, or arrows, so it is ‘made safe’ for human ingestion. It is then prepared in a time-honoured way which is designed at all stages to honour its power, avoid its wrath and, at the same time, gain control of its spiritual force. Only then is the mushroom eaten, under highly contained, sacred conditions, and in a Holy space defended by the shaman, who will lead the ritual throughout.

Once ingested, what we would call the ‘narcotic’ effects of fly-agaric begin after about 30 minutes.

Outwardly, the intoxication may appear as involuntary muscle spasms, followed by a sense of the fluidity of reality and sensory disorientation. Occasionally, there is vomiting, during which whole mushrooms may be regurgitated. Paradoxically, however, this often serves to intensify the otherworldly sensations of flight and entry to a ‘non-ordinary’ space.

Inwardly, the shaman, and those who partake of this sacrament, are now in communion with the gods.

According to one description at Erowid.org, which, perhaps, bridges the gap between outward effect and inward sensation, the impact of fly-agaric is that “the nerves are highly stimulated and the slightest effort of will produces very powerful effects. If one wishes to step over a small stick, he steps and jumps as if the obstacles were tree trunks. If a man is ordinarily talkative, his speech is now constant, and he involuntarily blurts out secrets, fully conscious of his actions and aware of his secret, but unable to hold himself in check. A man who is fond of dancing dances, and a music-lover sings incessantly. Others run or walk quite involuntarily, without any intention of moving”.

Two of the most interesting aspects of fly-agaric are that it retains its effectiveness almost permanently, and that its effects are easily transmitted to others, notably through ingestion of urine from the first person to eat the mushrooms. The same effect can be transmitted to a third, fourth or fifth person in exactly the same way.

In fact, the ability of the mushroom to act in this way may be partly at the root of the ‘Father Christmas’ myths that are observed in the Winter rituals of the West.

In the shamanic traditions of Siberia, the shaman would ingest fly-agaric in order to journey to the Sky Father and bring back gifts of knowledge and power for his community. Dressed in a warm, fur-lined, ritual costume, with a thick belt hung with bells, the shaman would make his journey at nightfall to consult with these otherworldly spirits. In the hours that followed, the shaman would need to urinate and might walk into the woods to do so. Reindeers would then eat the urine-covered snow as part of their normal grazing and also become intoxicated.

‘Flying’ (intoxicated) reindeers with one sky-borne human (the shaman) who controls them… the similarities in costume… the bells and the belt… the red and white of the mushroom… the journey through the sky to deliver gifts… all the elements of the modern day Father Christmas are there, creating a rather idyllic view of fly-agaric.

We must remember, though, that the Amanita has not always had such a ‘peaceful’ reputation. The Vikings, for example, are said to have ritually ingested it in order to enter the ‘berserker’ state, ready for battle (indeed, the Icelandic name for fly-agaric contains the word, ‘berserk’), just as the Zulus did, according to my toxicologist lunch mate.

PROPERTIES AND CHEMISTRY
One of the first studies of fly-agaric was made in 1863, by two German chemists who published a book on the properties of muscarine, a toxic alkaloid that they had isolated from the Amanita. For almost a century, their study (which turned out to be wrong) was taken as gospel and muscarine was erroneously believed to be the main active ingredient of fly-agaric mushrooms. Various confusions followed and it was not until 1964 that its true constituents were isolated – and then almost simultaneously by three different laboratories, in Japan, England and Switzerland. Finally, the correct compounds were identified as ibotenic acid and muscimol.

Muscimol is the psychoactive constituent. A tiny part of the ibotenic acid is changed to muscimol within the human system, following ingestion of the mushroom, and this produces the effects for which fly-agaric is known.
Research shows that ibotenic acid will create an hallucinogenic effect in humans, at doses as small as 50mg. The onset of these effects may be rapid or quite slow, ranging from 30 minutes to 2-3 hours, depending on body type, susceptibility, habituation, and the circumstances of ingestion.
In any case, three hours is usually enough for the full effects to be felt, which will then last for 4-8 hours, depending on dose, and will normally include muscle spasms (as if one is actually taking a ‘journey’ of sorts), visual distortions (‘visions’), altered auditory perception (‘hearing voices’), and loss of equilibrium (changed perspective on ‘normal reality’).

A considerable amount of ibotenic acid is excreted quickly after fly-agaric is consumed, and remains unaltered in the urine. This adds credibility to the Siberian experience (along with the residual Father Christmas myth) since, after eating the mushroom, the shaman would excrete ibotenic acid in his urine and reindeers could ingest this and reprocess its ibotenic acid content as muscimol, producing a similar hallucinogenic effect. The animal would then excrete ibotenic acid in its own urine, and the process would continue.
In this way, a 50-100mg dose of ibotenic acid could produce 10-15mg doses of muscimol for up to 10 users, so that one intake of mushrooms would certainly be effective across four or five generations of animal or human ingestion.

TREES AND MUSHROOMS, MUSHROOMS AND TREES
It seems that there is also a symbiotic relationship between the fly-agaric mushroom and the birch tree – the mushrooms grow in the shade of the tree – which would account for the ‘sacred birch’ tradition in European shamanism.

Indeed, within shamanism, trees, per se, are held as sacred, as homes of the elementals or gateways to spirit, and connections between different life forms (such as the mushroom and the tree) are revered since the shamanic belief is that we are all – every life form – connected, one to another. This animistic principle of connection would certainly have been reinforced for the shaman experiencing the magical effects of fly-agaric, so that the birch tree would become sacred by association.

The fly-agaric mushroom is still found wherever the birch is common, including the UK and the Americas. Distinguishable by its bright red colouring and white spots, it is best prepared for ceremonial use (according to some shamanic traditions, as well as the advice of my toxicologist lunch mate) by cutting it into thin strips which are then boiled in milk for 30 minutes or so. The liquor is then drunk and the mushroom strips eaten. An alternative is to dry the mushrooms and add them to vodka, drinking the alcohol-Amanita mixture when the liquid turns orangey-red.

Naturally, in ritual usage, fly-agaric must always be taken in a sacred way with the intention of revealing true spiritual knowledge, and with full reverence for its power. To do otherwise is simply to engage in ‘drug-taking’, with all the inherent dangers of misuse and the consequences of superhuman, Zulu-like, strength which we mere mortals and Western suburbanites may then have to deal with.