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Mushrooms: the origins of our spiritual traditions?

ByKarolina Zieba

Dec 7, 2018

The holiday season is approaching, as it did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Whether you celebrate Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Bodhi day, or any other beautiful spiritual tradition, the odds are, it has some sort of supernatural backstory that requires faith above reason. May it be flying reindeer or a triumph of light, there is a mystical, heavenly element involved. Perhaps we will never understand the origins of these traditions and should leave it all to faith, but it is only scepticism and critical thought that might bring us closer to understanding the origins of something as powerful as religion.

Since the middle 19th century, the entheogen theory of religion has been a popular topic of discussion. First presented by Gordon Wasson and adapted by Terence Mckenna, the entheogen theory presents the idea that visionary plants and fungi are the wellsprings of religion. The term entheogen comes from Greek literally meaning “that which causes God to be within.” Wasson developed the theory through his work researching the Mazatec people in Mexico and the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in their ancient rituals. He argued that mushrooms allowed people to develop memory, language, and self-consciousness, which naturally lead to the formation of civilisation and religion.

Could it be that primitive religion is rooted in psychedelic substances? The earliest records of religious ceremonies involving fungi date back to 7,000 to 9,000 years. They are repeatedly represented in scenes of harvest, adoration, and offering. To this day, they are used to gain spiritual insight, elicit a deep emotional response, or get in contact with a heavenly being. Who is to say, then, that they didn’t produce the visions of a parting sea?

It was very common for ancient peoples to engage in the use of psychedelic substances as part of spiritual rituals. Among the Aztecs, magic mushrooms were known as teonanacatl, which translates to “flesh of gods” or “god mushroom.”  Blue lotus, which has psychoactive properties, was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. Mushroom stone effigies have been found in the Guatemalan highlands. Rock carvings have been discovered in northern Siberia near the Arctic Ocean representing mushrooms and people with mushrooms growing out of their heads. The list goes on.

Finding their way into religious works, mushrooms are depicted in the oldest religious texts known to man. scriptures, the Vedas, compiled in northern India around 1500 B.C. and a parallel development in ancient Persia both mention “soma” (or “haoma” in the Persian text). They describe it as a potion drank by god, giving them wonderful powers. It is common for mushrooms to grow in cow dung in certain climates, which may explain why the cow has sacred status in Hindu tradition. If you think that no one would eat something growing in cow poop, keep in mind, it became common for Siberian Shamans to consume the Amanita muscaria mushroom, allowing their kidneys to transform the often deadly mushroom into a psychoactive drug and feed their urine to their tribe. The Sami people would even drink the urine of Reindeer, that seek in out in autumn and winter. Yes, Santa’s reindeer. It is unknown if the mushrooms have any effect on the animals, but on humans, they heighten senses and create visions of flying.

As described in the bible, Adam and Even consumed a forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge and were therefore banished from the garden of Eden, gaining self-consciousness and freedom. Wasson spent much of his research focusing on what soma and the other depicted mushrooms were. What were the drugs used by the gods in the ancient Hindu Vedas? Could it be that the tree of knowledge was Amanita mascaria or Stropharia cubensis?

Mushrooms also have a significant presence in medieval Christian art throughout Europe and the Middle East. Fresco in the Abbaye de Plaincourault in France appears to depict Adam and Eve standing beside a human sizes Amanita muscaria mushroom with a serpent coiled around it. Keep in mind that a snake or worm-like formation is a common symptom induced by hallucinogenic drugs.

The Plaincourault fresco is the main piece of evidence that Marco Allegro bases the argument of his 1970 book “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.” Allegro contended that it was fertility cults that bred religion. He proposed that rain was some kind of heavenly sperm absorbed best by fungi, making them the godliest of foods. The cult was, of course, secretive, disguising the mushroom as “Jesus” in their holy texts. In this interpretation, Jesus, quite literally, is a phallic mushroom.

Perhaps it was too controversial to argue that Christianity was essentially the product of a sex and magic mushroom cult – Allegro’s career didn’t make it. It is not, however, too controversial to entertain the idea that religion could stem in entheogenic drugs, considering that people to this day describe their psychedelic experiences (known as “trips”) as spiritual. Roland Griffiths from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in his 2006 study showed that many people describe their trips as “mystical” and “spiritual.” His findings have been confirmed by many, like Dr. Carhart-Harris based at Imperial College London.

It is easy to imagine how hallucinogenic drugs could have influenced religious, but a challenge arises when the question becomes more specific. Scholars have established that mushrooms play a role in spiritual or religious art, which is often ignored by scholars in the main. It is a stretch, however, to say that the whole of religion comes from a psychedelic trip. While symbology cannot be taken out of its cultural context, there are realms of speculation and missing pieces of evidence. It appears that doubt and faith remain inescapable traits of this thing we call religion.


Illustration: Sophia Constantinou

By Karolina Zieba

Karolina is a former Science Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Student newspaper. She is also an editor for EuSci magazine and contributes to The National Student and the Oxford Scientist. She is interested in the relationship between science and society.

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