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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

Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles

Kavaler, Lucy. (1999)
NY: The John Day Company.

ISBN: None

Description: Hardcover, 318 pages, 22 cm. x 15.2 cm. x 3.4 cm.

Contents: 17 chapters in 6 parts. Part 1: Fungi and Mankind, Part 2: Fungi as Food, Part 3: Fungi and Your Health, Part 4: Fungi and Our Crops, Part 5: Fungi and the Things You Use, Part 6: Fungi and the Conquest of Space, bibliography, index.

Excerpt(s): Chapter 1: Introduction: Fungi and Your Life

The extreme swing between good and evil is nowhere more evident than in the hotly disputed mind drugs, LSD-25 and psilocybin, both of fungal origin. These vision-producing drugs remove the taker from the confining world of reality. Unschooled Indians have long considered the mushrooms containing psilocybin as sacred; more sophisticated individuals take a less starry-eyed approach. Harvard University has dismissed a professor for testing these drugs on students (with their full cooperation - the undergraduates were most enthusiastic about their surrealistic experiences). The American Medical Association warns that LSD-25 and psilocybin could cause permanent damage to the mind. And yet, other experts believe that these drugs can aid in the treatment and understanding of mental illness. (page 16)

Chapter 2: A Third Kingdom?

An equally important partnership, that of fungi and algae (the most primitive plants on earth), forms lichen. This combination is so thoroughly entwined that it is usually described as a single plant, although its dualism was explained by De Bary in the last century. Found in barren or rocky ground, this combination spells the difference between life and death to many peoples and animals. Its lifesaving tradition is a long one, dating back to Biblical days when the Israelites left Egypt and were starving in the wilderness, and the Lord told Moses that He would cause bread to rain from the heavens upon them.

"And it came to pass… in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. And when the layer of dew was gone up, behold upon the face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar frost upon the ground."

As every Bible reader will recall, the children of Israel did not know what it was, and Moses explained that it was the bread sent by God and that they should gather it and eat. Every morning, except on the Sabbath, they took up this "scale-like thing" and baked it into bread, which they called "manna." And it is said to have sustained them for the forty years of their journey through the wilderness.

Over the centuries, first Biblical scholars and then botanists have tried to determine what kind of plant this "manna" really was. The one that fits the Biblical description best is lichen, which can indeed cover the ground with a "fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar frost." The fungi, able to absorb moisture from the air when there is none in the soil, can flourish even in a desert. The fact that a layer of dew appeared would indicate a fair amount of water in the atmosphere above the wilderness. Lichen can be ground into a flour and baked, producing a bread that is extremely high in protein. The one area of disagreement between the Biblical records and modern scholars is in flavor. Lichen in nature is extremely bitter, but according to the description in the Bible: "and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey." This discrepancy can be explained away in terms of a miracle; then, too, anything tastes good to starving people. (pages 26 - 27)

Chapter 3: Mushrooms: Mystery, Miracle, Pleasure and Pain

European folklore explains the strangeness of mushrooms in religious terms. In northern Europe, the Germanic gods are said to play a role in bringing mushrooms into the world. On one winter's night every year, the chief God Wotan, rides through the forest on horseback, accompanied by his followers and dogs. Pursued by devils, they ride faster and faster until bloodspecked foam falls from the mouths of their horses. The following spring, a beautiful poisonous mushroom whose red cap is flecked with white is to be found wherever the foam has dropped. The Christians, too, have added to the store of legends. According to one account, Christ and Peter walked over the countryside begging for bread whenever they were hungry. Some of the peasants gave them brown bread, but others gave offered delicious white biscuits. The two walked on through the forests, eating. Wherever a brown crumb fell, poisonous mushrooms sprang up. While wherever a white crumb fell, wholesome mushrooms grew. (pages 34 - 35)

… Legends are still current about prohibition days in the United States when, it is said, a particular species of mushroom was eaten to produce the effects of a mild alcoholic binge. The mushrooms that inebriate are classified as poisonous, regardless of how delightful their users consider them to be. (page 43)

The practice of cultivating mushrooms like a crop is surprisingly recent, considering how long these fungi have been prized. The Pharaohs of Egypt viewed them as much too good for the common man, and the Romans described them as "food for the gods" and as stimulants to virility. (page 44)

Chapter 10: Something Old, Something New

When not aiding patients, ergot, exhibiting again the contradictory nature of fungi, can make people desperately and horribly ill. A disease, ergotism, is caused by eating bread made of infected rye. In its most common form, ergotism results in gangrene, loss of limbs and sometimes death. A second type, also often fatal, affects the mind and causes psychotic behavior. Peasants, therefore, gave ergoty bread the falsely gay name of "inebriating bread."

During the Middle Ages, ergotism was very common, particularly among the poor. It was customary then for millers to clean the grain and separate it into two piles - one good and one ergoty. The infection-free grain was ground into flour and baked into bread for the nobility and the clergy; the rest was left for the peasants. The result was graphically described in 857 by a writer whose name has been lost: "A great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot." In one epidemic in the year 994, more than 40,000 people died. … (pages 149 - 150)

Chapter 11: The Mind Drug Madness

"I felt like a flower that had just started to bloom."
"I became an angel floating deliciously through space... every cell in my body a frenzy of joyous vibration."
"I realized I am the universe, I am all men.
"I am only six inches tall."
"I have no boundaries - scoop me up off the floor and tie me up in a sack to give me some limits."

Every one of these extravagant statements is an exact quotation from a man or woman undergoing "The Experience", as it is known, of LSD-25, a drug that induces hallucinations.

This visionary state brings a mystical sense of religion to many if not most drug users. "I didn't have to run anymore, because what I was running to was God, and I found Him."

On a Good Friday in 1963, twenty young people, most of them ministry students, entered Boston University's Marsh Chapel for what was perhaps the first deliberate scientific attempt to produce a religious experience artificially. Half of them were given LSD, [sic. psilocybin - TBR] while the others received a placebo. All but one of the drug-takers experienced a "deep union with God," while only one of the control group reached this level. Though most clerics decried drugs as a road to faith, one minister was so struck by the reports of the experiment that he preached to his congregation that LSD could bring them closer to God.

"The fact that the experience was induced by drugs has no bearing on its validity" was the considered opinion of Dr. W. T. Stace of Princeton University.

Other LSD converts have found that it changed their attitude toward those around them. "My mommie has gone to take the drug that makes her terribly nice for a whole month," remarked the nine-year-old daughter of a writer who gave a graphic description of her LSD experience under the pseudonym "Jane Dunlap."

"Now I can give a woman love for the first time in my life, because I can understand her," said Cary Grant after LSD-25. (pages 159 - 160)

But the story of the mind drugs is much older than this, and fungi are at the root of it. In Europe the history has been traced back more than one thousand years. From the ninth to the twelfth centuries, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries were terrorized by gangs of fighters and murderers. They were called the "Berserks" after a legendary hero who went into battle dressed only in a bearskin. The Berserks were normal, though disagreeable, most of the time. But every so often they would be seized by a fury and would act "like wild animals," according to accounts of the period. The onset of these attacks was accompanied by fits of shivering and chills in which their faces would swell and change color. At the height of their rage, they howled, bit their shields and cut down their opponents mercilessly. Once the fit ended, they were left weak and stupid for several days. One might think that they were mad were it not for one fact: In 1123 a law was passed exiling for three years anyone who went berserk and from then on these mass fits of madness were no longer seen. As legislation against insanity has never produced a cure, historians have had to look for other explanations. The theory that has gained general acceptance is that on the day of a massacre or battle, the men would eat the mushroom Amanita muscaria. Related to the deadly Amanitas described in Chapter Three, the Amanita muscaria has intoxicating properties. (pages 161 - 162)

In New Guinea the "mushroom madness" to this day periodically seizes some members of the Kuma tribe of the South Wahgi Valley in the Western Highlands when they eat the native mushroom they call "nonda." The men put on feather bustles, grab their spears and run about, threatening anyone who gets in their way. They are not really violent, though. The children hide behind the huts and call out to the men, urging the excited grownups to come out and catch them. The women become giddy and tell one another stories about sexual adventures, both real and imaginary. … (pages 162 - 163)

All this is history. Coming to modern times, in the 1950's a most unlikely pair of adventurers, imaginations fired by these accounts, set off in quest of the sacred mushrooms. They were a dignified, middle-aged American banker, R. Gordon Wasson, and his Russian-born pediatrician wife, Valentina. To find out for themselves if the cult was still being practiced, they journeyed deep into the interior of Mexico. … (page 164)

The taking of the mushrooms is accompanied by a religious ritual. So deep is the absorption of wiseman and followers that during one ceremony, observed by the Wassons, a shot was fired and cries of "murder" were heard outside the hut; not one Indian looked up or paid the slightest attention. The ritual lasts until cockcrow, and once it has started, no participant may leave the room for any reason - which does not trouble the uninhibited and unfastidious Indians a whit.

Further travels in Mexico revealed to the Wassons that many different Indian tribes still observe the sacred mushroom cult. In some tribes, however, anyone can consult the mushroom; it is not the exclusive province of the wisemen. The Christian influence is felt most strongly by the Mije Indians, who take the sacred mushrooms to church and ask God's permission to use them. During the ceremony, if the mushrooms are slow to speak the leftover stems are spilled on the floor before a rudimentary cross and a candle is lit. (page 165)

Primitive people believe that the mushrooms produce visions because they are divine, but we do not need to accept a supernatural explanation. Seven kinds of hallucinogenic mushrooms have been gathered to be studied by botanists and chemists. The botanists succeeded in identifying several of the mushrooms as members of the Psilocybe species. (After they had completed their work, another scientist popped up and said that he had seen and identified a sacred mushroom accurately 20 years earlier. Asked for proof, he pointed to two references in an 800-page volume he had written. Apparently no one else had read it all the way through.) … (page 166)

By this time the Eastern mysticism that had always been attractive to Huxley and other visionaries using mescaline began to infiltrate the LSD-psilocybin cult. Scholars might note the fitness of this: Buddha ate mushrooms (though no one suggests that they belonged to the Psilocybe) at his last supper on earth before being carried to Nirvana. At Harvard it became the custom to call those in charge of the mind drugs "gurus", the Hindu word for "teachers." The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which explains the secrets of reincarnation, was adopted as a manual, because LSD brings psychic death and rebirth. The effect of the drug is such as to give the taker an awareness of the beauty of spiritual contemplation leading to a rejection of materialistic goals. Still, author Arthur Koestler dismissed the whole thing after one experience as "instant Zen." (pages 171 - 172)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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