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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds

Hudler, George W. (1998).
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

ISBN: 0-691-02873-7

Description: Hardcover, xvi + 248 pages.

Contents: Preface and acknowledgments, introduction, 14 chapters, epilogue, notes, index.

Note: Chapter 5 "Ergot of Grain Crops" and Chapter 11 "Hallucinogenic Mushrooms" will be of most interest to readers of this chrestomathy.

Excerpt(s): About twenty seconds ago, you opened this book. The chances are that before you did, you thought that the fungi were some of the most disgusting organisms ever to grace your presence. But now you have started reading, and before you are done you will learn about fungi as decayers and recyclers of organic matter, as sources of beneficial medicines and treacherous toxins, as causes of disease in plants and animals, and as sources of food. You will also find out how the fungi changed the history of the biblical nation of Israel and the countries of Ireland and Mexico. They played key roles in weakening opposing armies in two world wars and were part of the arsenal developed to secure victory in an anticipated third. You will learn that some of the most respected Greek philosophers may have formulated their great thoughts while inspired by fungus-induced hallucinations. And you will meet a few of the many fascinating people who have strengthened our knowledge of the fungus world through their dedicated exploration.

Who knows? By the time you are done you may have learned something that will forever change the course of human history. Stranger things have happened. Welcome aboard. (page xvi)

The cause for the terror that gripped the residents of this otherwise quiet little town in southern France in 1951 [Pont-St. Espirit] is still open to question. Some argue that the poisoning was due to contamination of the local grain supply with an insecticide. But there is compelling evidence to suggest that this was the most recent chapter in a long list of bizarre and tragic events associated with a peculiar fungus, .

C. purpurea is an ascomycete, one of the sac fungi. It spends the winter on or slightly below the soil surface in the form of cylindrical, compact masses of mycelium, with each mass surrounded by a black rind. Many species of fungi produce such resting structures, called sclerotia (sing. = sclerotium). Those of C. purpurea range in size from one-fourth to one inch long and one-eighth to one-fourth inch wide.

In the spring and early summer, the sclerotia germinate to produce as many as a dozen stalks. Each stalk is swollen at the tip, making it vaguely resemble the end of a drum major's baton. Ascospores produced in flasklike structures embedded in the swollen tips are shot from the ground into the air, to be whisked away by a passing breeze. A few of the spores will be lucky enough to land on the only place where they can continue to grow-in the flowers of grasses or cereal grains. There they behave somewhat like normal pollen in that they germinate and send germ tubes into the ovaries of the host. But that's where the similarities with anything healthy end, because where the plant had intended a seed to develop, the fungus takes a different course. It quickly colonizes the host tissue, and within two weeks of infection more spores-conidia-are produced at each of the infection sites.

Unlike the wind-blown primary spores, the secondary ones are contained in droplets of nectar-just the kind of thing pollinating insects like to find. They visit the nectar, pick up some of the spores, and then move on to real flowers where they inadvertently inoculate them with the fungus. C. purpurea infects host tissue with both primary and secondary inoculum, eventually producing a sclerotium at each one. In autumn, the sclerotia fall to the ground, there to wait for winter's end and a new crop of host plants the following spring.

Sclerotia protruding from infected plants look vaguely like the spur on a rooster's leg. Because of this similarity, the French word for spur, ergot, has also been adopted to refer to the sclerotia and the plant disease caused by the fungus. Host plants include such important staples as wheat, barley, oats, and rye, and the disease occurs worldwide, wherever susceptible hosts grow.

Because of the way that sclerotia are lodged in the seed head, it is easy for them to get mixed in with good grain during the harvest. In fact, records from medieval times indicate that in years when weather conditions for ergot were especially favorable, up to 30 percent of harvested grain was not really grain at all but rather fungus sclerotia. If they weren't culled in the field or in storage, the sclerotia would be ground into flour and eventually find their way into foods eaten by people and livestock. And that's where the problems began. (pages 69-71)

Ergot decoctions with alkaloids causing constriction of blood vessels were also used in childbirth after the baby was born to lessen the chances for postdelivery hemorrhaging in mothers. Apparently this prescription met with good success.

Obviously, some by-products in ergot sclerotia were of enough reputed value in human medicine to have caught the attention of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practitioners. Astute chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers suspected there were more where those came from, and so it was that in the early 1930s, the chemistry of ergot derivatives attracted a young chemist named Albert Hofmann. Hofmann worked for a Swiss firm, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, and his assignment at the time was to learn what he could about isolation and purification of ergot alkaloids. In the course of his work, Hofmann found himself focusing attention on derivatives of just one compound-lysergic acid. He assigned a number to each of the derivatives: LSD-1, LSD-2, etc. Eventually he got to LSD-25, and it was while working with that material one April day in 1943 that he began to feel unusually lightheaded and dizzy and became careless in his laboratory. He managed to get home on his bicycle, and after a deep night's sleep, awoke rejuvenated yet perplexed. Hofmann suspected that his bizarre experience was caused by the LSD-25, probably absorbed through the skin, and he began a series of self-experiments with regulated dosages under medical supervision. It wasn't long before he realized that he had stumbled onto a psychoactive drug of immense power at very low dosages. As Hofmann's colleagues at Sandoz learned of his work, they, too, shared in his excitement for the promise of the new drug, and they enthusiastically joined in the "research" by taking the LSD themselves. A business trip at Sandoz took on a whole new meaning. (pages 77-78)

In preparation for the Greater Mysteries [at Eleusis], initiates would fast and rest and make additional unspecified sacrifices. They also pledged never to reveal the nature of the experiences they had during the Greater Mysteries. Then they would break the fast by drinking kykeon, a sacred potion colored purple and made of meal, water, and mint, and they would begin their journey into the unknown. Most honored their pledge of secrecy, and there are few reliable accounts of what happened once initiates left the larger crowd. Most stories recount great terrors that caused shuddering, sweating, and fear. One poet claimed that he had seen the beginning and ending of life. He learned that the whole process was in the form of a circle starting and ending in the same place and given by God.

What happened during the Greater Mysteries that caused such profound revelations to attract the likes of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer? We'll never know for sure, but R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and others have suggested that ergot alkaloids were likely to have been important contributors to the terrors, hallucinations, tremors, and sweats that continually reappear in descriptions from Eleusis. The fact that kykeon was purple and that water with ergot sclerotia immersed in it turns purple was the first clue. In addition, kykeon apparently had intoxicating properties that far exceeded traditional wine. Distilled wine might have enough alcohol to evoke some of the reported sensations, but there is nothing in the historical record to indicate that the ancient Greeks knew anything about distillation. Thus the case for kykeon being something else is strengthened.

Wasson and colleagues also studied artwork recovered from the ruins of Eleusis and concluded that they not only implicated some potent drink as a major factor in the Mysteries but that a grain of some sort was included in the drink. Rye was not a common crop in that region of the world, but barley was, and it could have been the source of enough ergot to enable people to become aware of its effect on the psyche. Also, the wild grass Papasalum distichum could have been identified as another host and provided greater quantities of the alkaloids.

The Mysteries of Eleusis will likely remain just that-mysteries. And scholars will continue to debate their nature and cause for a long time to come. For those of us who champion the place of the fungi in the world, the mere thought that a fungal by-product-even if it was a crude form of LSD-might have played such an important role in shaping the visions of some of the civilized world's greatest philosophers is particularly intriguing. (pages 82-83)

Subsequent chemical analyses of the mushrooms indicated that there were at least two active ingredients, psilocybin and psilocin. Of the two, psilocin was the more potent, and the best evidence indicated that psilocybin was converted to psilocin in the human body. Both compounds were closely related to the brain hormone, serotonin, and presumably blocked or replaced its function. However, the fundamental chemistry responsible for the vivid hallucinations was a mystery then, and remains so today.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the Wassons' work was to focus public attention on mushrooms as sources of hallucinogenic drugs and on Mexico as the source of those mushrooms. When Gordon Wasson published his first account of his quest, it was in the May 13, 1957, issue of Life magazine. His article, titled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom," and another by his wife ("I Ate the Magic Mushroom") the following weekend in a Sunday newspaper supplement, undoubtedly spurred many adventuresome souls to open their atlases to Mexico and plan the ultimate trip. Quiet rural villages now became magnets for a generation of young people who were long on hair, short on patience, and sporting "Question Authority" stickers, among others, on their backpacks and guitar cases. (page 177)

The hallucinogenic properties of this mushroom [Amanita muscaria] were first brought to the attention of the Western world in the mid-eighteenth century. It was then that a Swedish traveler, Philip Johann von Strahlenberg, wrote about his journeys in Russia and Siberia. From his pages, we learned for the first time of the Korjak tribesmen of Kamchatka and how they consumed the fly agaric for its intoxicating effect. He wrote:

Those who are rich among them lay up large provisions of these mushrooms for the winter. When they make a feast, they pour water upon some of the mushrooms and boil them. They then drink the liquor which intoxicates them. The poorer sort, who cannot afford to lay in a store of these mushrooms, post themselves on these occasions round the huts of the rich and [wait for an] opportunity when the guests come down to make water. Then, they hold a wooden bowl to receive the urine which they drink off greedily.

Even reindeer were reported to be attracted to the fungus or to urine that smelled of it. On more than one occasion, a person intoxicated with A. muscaria would step outside to relieve himself and be tramped to death by reindeer trying to get at his urine. (pages 181-182)

Today, human use of Amanita muscaria for religious purposes, even among cultures still deemed "primitive," seems to have diminished to almost nothing. Recreational use, at least in the civilized world, is equally unpopular. That's probably just as well, because the few reliable contemporary accounts of A. muscaria intoxication describe a most unpleasant journey. While one does apparently experience unusual visions and the senses do reach new limits, most of one's trip is spent being nauseated, in a drunken stupor, or unconscious, and one is always faced with the threat of attack by horrifying creatures. No wonder that those trying to keep drugs out of our veins and minds have not bothered with the issue of the fly agaric: its poison far outweighs any imagined short-term benefits. (pages 184-185)

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