May 2, 2011

Ploughing the Clouds

Ok, so this is part one of my blog post about mushrooms, because there’s too much stuff to cram into a single post. For a fair while now I have been becoming gradually more and more obsessed with a particular species of mushroom called the Amanita Muscaria. It’s the one everyone will recognise as the archetypal red-and-white spotted toadstool from children’s stories and cheesy goblin art, and up until the last few years I had no idea that they are in fact hallucinogenic.
Not only that, but an investigation into the history of their use reveals that they have been suggested by various scholars, academics and mushroom enthusiasts as the possible basis of many religious and shamanic traditions, up to and including Christianity.  As with most literature concerning the use of magic mushrooms, there is much to be gained from contemplating these ideas  (if only the willingness to think open mindedly) , but probably some to be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe.
1192adgermany painted ceiling in a German church, 1192 AD.
I’m currently in the midst of wading through countless websites and books on these mushrooms, which I simply cannot read fast enough. It all started a couple of years ago with a story that was relayed in Daniel Pinchbeck’s excellent book Breaking Open the Head in which a man named Robert who identifies as a ‘plant shaman’ eats three Amanitas that were growing in his garden. To abbreviate the story somewhat, he is greeted by three anthropomorphic Amanita mushrooms, ranging from three feet high to five feet high. They ask him why he ate them, and seemingly satisfied with his answer about following a dream he had they promptly vanish. When one of Robert’s friends ate Amanitas some years later, he experienced the exact same thing but when asked why he ate them he replied “I was trying to get high” to which the mushrooms said “well, if you ever do this again, we’re going to kill you.”
db_510b_amanita_mushroom5 handmade mushroom toy by cart before the horse.
The next thing to really pique my interest was the connection between these mushrooms and our modern Christmas celebrations. I’m not convinced as some mushroom fanatics seem to be that the entire story of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer can be explained by the historic use of Amanitas by shamans and reindeer in ancient Europe, but there’s definitely something to it. For a crash course in this theory, check out this article from a not-at-all questionable source. This book looks promising but I haven’t bought it yet:
More on the Christmas thing later.
I read this self-published book over Easter, and while I found it slightly disappointing in its inability to provide a solid explanation for the connection between toads and ‘toadstools’ (beyond them both being poisonous/hallucinogenic), it did have some excellent information about each, including historical accounts of their use in witchcraft and shamanism (same thing really), and personal accounts of toad venom trips. The Amanita is covered quite extensively.
I’ve only just read the opening few pages of Peter Lamborn Wilson’s book Ploughing The Clouds, which focuses on the Amanita’s possible cult use in ancient Ireland. Get a load of that cover! You don’t even need to open the book to know it’s gonna be good. Plus, it’s Peter Lamborn Wilson.
I’ve also started on this one by John M Allegro, but it’s dry and heavy going, and possibly a wee bit silly. Possibly.  As one Amazon reviewer says: “It is a work of sheer genius. It is also absolute nonsense.”  I’m yet to be persuaded either way, although some of the ideas presented in this book are discussed on this website in a remarkably convincing (if slightly batshit) manner. There are a number of books available now that build on Allegro’s controversial themes, which I shall investigate in time.
And of course, Dale Pendell, my favourite writer on all things poisonous,  includes a chapter about Amanita Muscaria in volume three of his Pharmako series, Pharmako/Gnosis in which he says “What is most remarkable about our Scarlet Woman is her power to bewitch from afar – you never have to touch her (much less eat her) to fall under her spell.”  Somehow this is ringing true to me right now. I may or may not have started collecting things that are red with white spots because they remind me of these mushrooms.
Next on my to read list: a classic text on this subject, of which I’ll be forced to buy an expensive second hand copy.
And a book that marries two of my favourite themes right now, shamanism and fairy-tales, with allegedly a fairly big emphasis on (bias towards?) mushroom use. This should follow on nicely from The Prose Edda which I also just finished…but that’s for another post.
Next up will be some photos from my trip to Adelaide where I got to draw some Amanitas from life in my friend’s garden.


nathanielstuart said...

Mushrooms are fascinating, as is the history of their usage. Have you read McKenna's Food of the Gods (and wider literature)? I read DMT: The Spirit Molecule recently, and it was dry but fascinating as well.

Amy Duncan said...

Indeed! I have read food of the gods, and own the spirit molecule but am yet to read it. same with the rest of mnkenna's work, I'll get to it all eventually... so many books, so little time!

Post a Comment