Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

by Andy Letcher


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Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

Did mushroom tea kick-start ancient Greek philosophy?
Was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a thinly veiled psychedelic mushroom odyssey?
Is Santa Claus really a magic mushroom in disguise?

The world of the magic mushroom is a place where shamans and hippies rub shoulders with psychiatrists, poets, and international bankers. Since its rediscovery only fifty years ago, this hallucinogenic fungus, once shunned in the West as the most pernicious of poisons, has inspired a plethora of folktales and urban legends. In this timely and definitive study, Andy Letcher chronicles the history of the magic mushroom—from its use by the Aztecs of Central America and the tribes of Siberia through to the present day—stripping away the myths and taking a critical and humorous look at the drug's more recent manifestations.

Informative, lively, and impeccably researched, Shroom is a unique and engaging exploration of this most extraordinary of psychedelics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060828295
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/19/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 645,674
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Andy Letcher is a freelance writer, lecturer, and musician with a doctorate in ecology from Oxford University, and a second in religious/cultural studies from King Alfred's College, Winchester. He lives in Oxford, England, and sings and plays the mandolin and English bagpipes in his own acid folk group, Telling the Bees.

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A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom

Chapter One

The Mushroom People

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot's in the door.
Sylvia Plath, 'Mushrooms'

Magic mushrooms are becoming hard to avoid. Once they were the preserve of the psychedelic underground—of hippies, freaks and travellers—the dedicated few who may still be seen in Britain and America every autumn searching diligently for the little goblin-capped mushroom, the Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata. Now, however, an underground army of net-head hobbyists grows more exotic species and strains away from the public eye, in jars and terrariums secreted in basement cupboards. Young Western travellers to Indonesia, Thailand and Bali, lured by the pull of the paradisiacal full-moon beach party, buy mushroom omelettes or cola-mushroom shakes from the surreptitious locals, illicit fuel for their all-night dancing. In Holland, where liberal attitudes to such matters prevail, magic mushrooms have become big business. 'Paddos', as they are called, can be sold quite openly from market stalls, in 'head shops' and in specialist 'smart shops', and inundations of tourists flock to Amsterdam to sample these unusual wares.

For a few short years, until the legal loophole was forcibly slammed shut in July 2005, mushrooms could be bought in Britain too, provided they were fresh and unprepared. Almost overnight, it seems, they erupted onto the marketplace to become the fashionable illicit drug of choice for young and old alike. For example, at 2004's Stonehenge summer solstice gathering—that great barometer ofalternative tastes, lifestyles and ideas—the principal psychoactive being peddled was not cannabis, LSD or Ecstasy, as recent trends might lead us to expect, but cultivated Mexican mushrooms. That year's Glastonbury festival—now an established mainstream cultural event, in spite of the countercultural hype—saw one wholesaler alone shifting an excessive 70 kg of fresh mushrooms, a turnover that factors out at somewhere in the region of 3,500 individual trips. You could buy DIY kits with which to grow your own or, if that was too demanding, you could find flyers advertising websites from which to order mushrooms direct, delivered to your doorstep by return of post.

The surge in mushroom consumption has not been restricted to festival-goers, hippies, clubbers, artists, musicians and the other usual bohemian suspects. I have heard of businessmen, academics, geneticists, photographers, architects, doctors, farmers, council workers and journalists who all make regular mushroom excursions. To reflect this trend, the Oxford English Dictionary, that great bastion of language and meaning, has been forced to add 'shroomer' to its ever-expanding lexicon.1 From Scandinavia to Spain, from the Americas to Australia, from Ireland to Indonesia, shrooms are gathered and eaten with apparent relish, and with a total disregard for their prohibited status. Mushrooming is, well, mushrooming—and, it seems, pretty much everywhere.

From a historical point of view, interesting questions remain over how this curious state of affairs came to be, questions that this book attempts to answer: have people always consumed mushrooms, but secretly and away from the public gaze, or is this a modern phenomenon, and if so, why? Ask these questions of mushroom enthusiasts and many—at least those who are aware that mushrooms have a history at all—will tell you that psychoactive fungi have been used since ancient times.2 With great certainty they will detail how mushrooms were used in prehistoric religious ceremonies, inspiring the building of the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge and the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán. They will tell you how Plato, amongst others, drank mushroom tea at the ancient Greek rites of Eleusis; how mushrooms were eaten by the shadowy Celts and their Druidic priests, by the Vikings to access their jingoistic rages, and then later by the medieval witches in their secretive moonlit sabbats. They will happily explain that folk memories of Siberian mushroom-shamanism gave us the figure of Father Christmas, who is, in fact, a magic mushroom in disguise. They will blame a blinkered, patriarchal and nature-hating Christianity, or perhaps the scientific machinations of the industrial revolution, for the severance of this unbroken tradition and the wilful oppression of this throwback to the stoned age. And they will claim that by reviving mushroom use they are reinstating an ancient shamanic heritage, a heritage that is their natural birthright.

This book differs from all others that have come before by breaking with this received orthodoxy, for the real and as yet untold history of the magic mushroom is at once less fanciful and far more interesting. The history of the magic mushroom is much more than a good old tripper's tale. It is intertwined with and inseparable from the social, cultural, scientific and technological changes that have occurred since the industrial revolution, the forces that have wrought the modern Western world. Because of this entanglement, the story of the magic mushroom says something rather revealing about ourselves, about the ideas, hopes, fears, aspirations and desires that shape our time: not least about our yearning for enchantment in a barren scientific world stripped of magic and meaning. That we in the West have found value in those remarkable mushroom experiences, where almost all others before us have regarded them as worthless, means that in a very real sense we could claim to be living in the Mushroom Age. We are the Mushroom People. The story of the magic mushroom therefore provides us with a window, albeit from a quite unexpected viewpoint, upon the modern condition itself.

Mushrooms may not yet have inherited the earth, as Sylvia Plath ominously predicted, but what little fossil evidence there is suggests that fungi per se have inhabited it for at least 400 million years, since the Devonian period.3 It has been estimated that there may be as many as 1.5 million species of fungi currently in the world, of which only about 100,000 have been identified and formally described, with most of the new species being discovered in the tropics.4 Though people often label them as plants . . .

A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
. Copyright © by Andy Letcher. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements     xi
Prologue     xiii
The Mushroom People     3
Science and Magic     12
The Archaeology of Ecstasy     25
Much Disordered     49
Feasts and Revelations     69
Wasson     88
The Fly-Agaric     117
Soma     141
Chemistry and Conspiracy     155
Academic Exercise     179
High Priests     197
Ripples and Waves     210
Underground, Overground     226
The Elf-Clowns of Hyperspace     250
Muck and Brass     275
Epilogue: Love on a Puffball     290
Appendix     301
Notes     303
References     325
Index     349

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