Magic Mushrooms: A History

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Magic Mushrooms: A History

For thousands of years, humans have had an important relationship with psychoactive mushrooms. One way or another, our ancestors stumbled upon the fungus in the wild, and consumed them.


Imagery has been found in prehistoric murals around the globe that suggest the use of psychedelic mushrooms thousands of years in the past. Ancient cave paintings in the Tassili plateau of Northern Algeria show striking imagery of humanoid figures with mushrooms growing out of their bodies. These have been dated as far back as 5,000 B.C. Later, as early as 1000 B.C., we can find evidence of native cultures in South America building temples to fungal gods. They also produced stone carvings in the shape of mushrooms, which are believed to have been used in ceremony as religious artifacts. The Mixtec and Aztec cultures of Mexico used a number of sacred plant medicines, including peyote, salvia divinorum, and of course the mushrooms, which they called Teonanácatl, the flesh of the gods.

As the Spanish began their conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th Century, the first written usage of psilocybin was documented. Alcohol was already widely used, often symbolically in religious service. Stories began to come back from settlers extolling the use of inebriant cacti & fungi in tribal cults. The conquistadors described traditional ceremonies of a spiritual and divinatory nature. This was unheard of in Europe - conservative attitudes rose within the Catholic church, the mushrooms were declared to be heresy, and their use was driven underground. By 1521, the Aztecs were almost completely conquered, and their population very much diminished. Catholicism was introduced to the culture, and knowledge of the mushrooms was almost forgotten.


However, some cults survived the inquisition, and in 1938, Richard Evans Schultes, known as the "father of ethnobotany", observed a traditional sacred mushroom ceremony in Oaxaca, Mexico. The following year he published a leaflet about his experiences for the Harvard University Botanical Museum. The first recorded outsiders to actually eat the mushrooms were R. Gordon Wasson, a mycologist, and his photographer Allan Richardson. Wasson heard of Schultes' adventures and travelled to Central Mexico in 1955 to meet with a shaman, Maria Sabina. He successfully rediscovered and was introduced to a secret mushroom cult. Wasson wrote a number of books, and argued that these surviving rites were the descendants of the same ancient mushroom cults that inspired spiritual traditions worldwide. Throughout religious iconography we can observe hidden references to the use of mushrooms - encoding multiple layers of ancient gnosis within imagery and metaphor. In the East, Vedic Hinduism describes a divine visionary sacrament known as Soma. In the West, in Ancient Greece, participants in the Minervic Mysteries at Eleusius imbibed a holy sacrament that they called the Kykeon. Could it be that all major world religions were inspired by the spiritual insights contained within visionary plants?


Wasson's findings were published in "Life" magazine in 1957. He had worked closely with Sabina and wrote a paper enthusiastically praising the virtues of the mushrooms. The term "magic mushroom" was coined, and this had something of a ripple effect in the psychedelically oriented community, prompting Albert Hoffman (The creator of LSD) to isolate the psilocybin compound for distribution in 1958. Following Wasson's report, Timothy Leary also travelled to Mexico to begin investigating the mushroom phenomenon. By 1960, he was conducting experiments on both himself and on Harvard grad students, as well as state prisoners who had volunteered for the cause. Using both LSD and magic mushrooms, they claimed a 90% success rate preventing repeat offenses - creating a media shitstorm. Psychedelics entered the public eye, and became a symbol of counterculture throughout the 60s and 70s.


Today, with the birth of the internet, information about mushrooms is widespread. We have established with science that psilocin is safe to ingest, and that it can have a number of health benefits. The rise of smartshops combined with modern mycology techniques has led to something of a resurgence of the mushroom - recent Danish study reported that about 7% of all students have ingested magic mushrooms. Synthetic psilocybin analogues have been developed in laboratories, and new organic entheogenic technologies are even being developed for neo-shamans.

Could it be that the mushrooms have always accompanied humans as a catalyst for the evolution of our consciousness? Is it possible that the visionary state that psilocybin provides might be have been the inspiration for modern world religion?

Whatever you believe, there's no disputing that mushrooms are powerful tools for exploring altered states. Together, we can take the study and cultivation of mushrooms to a whole new level and lead the cause in the next global psychedelic renaissance.