In 1970, a book called The Scared Mushroom and the Cross, written by renown scholar and self-proclaimed “free thinker” John Marco Allegro, hit the book shelves and quickly became a hip-pocket feature of Hippies all across America. In it, Allegro argued that when spirituality first began to arise in human culture, it was enamored with what is essentially the creativityof nature, with “god” the force that allowed the seasons to change, crops to grow and die, and the cycle of life to continue.
According to Allegro, fertility was central to this concept and commonly represented in phallic symbology, with psychedelic mushrooms the prime focus of humankind’s ancient rites. Thus, the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms became a sacrament attuned with their cosmological view, related to survival, health, and spiritual communion.
For many “truth seekers” of the 60s counterculture searching for new ways to expand their minds, attain higher levels of consciousness, and simply escape the mundane existence, Allegro’s perspective was quite alluring, with many deciding to explore the “magic” of the sacred mushroom for themselves (a choice that continues even today, for some). But what was not commonly known at the time was that the revelations of Allegro’s beliefs had actually begun some 15 years earlier with a prominent businessman named Gordon Wasson.
On a June night in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1955, Wasson, a vice president of the J. P. Morgan Mutual Finds Corporation, became the first known outsider to eat what the Aztecs called teonanacatl, the “flesh of the gods.”
During several years of attempting to gain the trust of a group of Native Americans who had continued the religious traditions of their pre-Columbian ancestors, Wasson, and a number of scientists who’d accompanied him on numerous expeditions to Mexico to explore the ethnobotanical and ethno pharmacological properties of the co-called “magic mushroom,” had discovered that this highly-prized fungus had been consumed by ancient Aztecs for centuries in religious ceremonies; used for healing, divination, and communion with the spirit world (a fact confirmed by journal entries of many Spanish priests). And although Wasson and the members of his team were eventually allowed to partake of the psilocybe mushroom under the guidance of the renown spiritual healer and curandera, Maria Sabina, their studies were cut short just two years later when an article Wasson had written for Life magazine brought a flood of spiritual seekers to Sabina’s little village. It did, however, result in opening the door for scientists to take a serious look at the fascination this fungus has long held.
As evidenced by findings at the numerous Maya sites in Guatemala in subsequent years where numerous mushroom-shaped stones were discovered dating to 1000 BCE, archaeologists now know that aptly-named “mushroom cults” of Mesoamerica had indeed held the psilocybe mushroom in highest esteem for centuries.
In fact, the archaeological record shows that early Mesoamerica people not only regularly partook of psilocybe, but a variety of other hallucinogenic fungi as well for ritual divining and healing, a practice continued today by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. But, what are these so-called sacred, magic mushrooms all about?
Chemically speaking, four indole alkaloids (a class of alkaloid containing over 4100 different compounds), the neurotransmitter serotonin (which already exists in the human brain and is commonly known as the “happiness hormone”), as well as high levels of psilocybin, psilocin, baeocystin, and nor-baeocystin are found in psilocybe.
Psilocybin, the most active as well as interactive chemical found in psilocybe, is believed to be 900-1000 times less potent than the popular drug LSD, but nearly 100 times more potent than the hallucinogenic alkaloid mescalin, found in peyote (an hallucinogen commonly used by several Native American groups of the US West).
Technically speaking, psilocybin affects the human sympathetic nervous system, especially the sympathetic structures of the brain, and can physically manifest in erection of the hair, rapid heartbeat, and the tell-tale dilation of the pupils. But it’s what goes on internally that is of prime interest.
With the highest concentration of the active components occurring in the liver and kidneys after just 20-30 minutes, the most potent elements travel directly to the brain, centralizing in the neocortex and hippocampus, affecting memory, as well as perceptions of space and time. It is this chemical action scientists believe produces the ultra-euphoric, religious-like states of mind most subjects report experiencing.
Yet despite its effect on the liver and kidneys, remarkably, psilocybin appears to have virtually no toxic or long-term side-effects.
Traditionally (as both Wasson and Allegro noted), the Aztecs and other native groups of Mexico and America who regularly used psilocybe did not use it for pleasure, but considered its hallucinogenic effects to provide spiritual insight.
In that most indigenous groups both past and present day (virtually all around the world) view human health from an holistic body, mind, and spirit perspective, users of this potent fungi ingest it either for divination ritual, (during which the gods or spirits are asked health questions about individuals or sometimes entire tribes, as with epidemics), or during night-long vigils involving chanting or praying. Thus, the result is that shaman and curanderas are provided with cures and answers to health and spiritual issues beyond their reach while part of the mundane world.
Since 2006, several ongoing studies are being conducted to consider the potential medicinal value of psilocybe, including those conducted by Dr. Roland Griffins of John Hopkins University.
In that this fungus predictably induces a mental state akin to religious experiences, scientists are considering its use for patients suffering various forms of depression, experiencing prolonged states of agitation, or as a substitute for more unstable, mind-altering drugs used in psychotherapy. It’s considered that the euphoric effects of psilocybe may have beneficial long-term value whereby states of calm and relaxation can be induced without the catatonic conditions many synthetic drugs produce.
(Note: This article is written for educational purposes only and is not intended to endorse the casual use of this potentially dangerous plant.)
The Scared Mushroom and the Cross, John Marco Allegro
Medicinal Mushrooms, by Christopher Hobbs
Mushroom cult images via Schules and Hofmann
Others via Wikipedia.org
Visit JAMES R. COFFEY WRITING SERVICES & RESOURCE CENTER for more information