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Mushrooms, Civilization and History

An excerpt from the 1993 edition of Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms by Paul Stamets.

An excerpt from the 1993 edition of GROWING GOURMET & MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS by Paul Stamets.

Humanity's use of mushrooms extends back to Paleolithic times. Few people-even anthropologists-comprehend how influential mushrooms have been in affecting the course of human evolution. Mushrooms have played pivotal roles in ancient Greece, India and Mesoamerica. Try to their beguiling nature, fungi have always elicited deep emotional responses: from adulation by those who understand them to outright fear by those who do not.

The historical record reveals that mushrooms have been used for less than benign purposes. Claudius II and Pope Clement VII war both killed by enemies who poisoned them with deadly Amanitas. Buddha died, according to legend, from a mushroom that grew underground. Buddha was given the mushroom by a peasant who believed it to be a delicacy. In ancient verse, that mushroom was linked to the phrase "pig's foot" but has never been identified. (Although truffles grow underground and pigs are used to find them, no deadly poisonous species are known.)

The oldest archaeological of mushroom use discovered so far is probably a Tassili image from a cave which dates back 3,500 years before the birth of Christ. The artist's intent is clear. Mushrooms with electrified auras are depicted outlining a dancing shaman. The spiritual interpretation of the image transcends time and is obvious. No wonder that word "bemushroomed" has evolved to reflect the devout mushroom lover's state of mind.

In the winter of 1991, hikers in the Italian Alps came across the well preserved remains of a man who died over 5,300 years ago, approximately 200 years later than the Tassili cave artist. Dubbed the "Iceman" by the news media, he was well equipped with a knapsack, flint axe, a string of dried Birch Polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and another yet unidentified mushroom. The polypores can be used as tinder for starting fires and as medicine for treating wounds. Further, a rich tea with immuno-enhancing properties can be prepared by boiling these mushrooms. Equipped for traversing the wilderness, this intrepid adventurer had discovered the value of the noble polypores. Even today, this knowledge can be life-saving for anyone astray in the wilderness.

Fear of mushroom poisoning pervades every culture, sometimes reaching phobic extremes. The term mycophobic describes those individuals and cultures where fungi are looked upon with fear and loathing. Mycophobic cultures are epitomized by the English and Irish. In contrast, mycophilic societies can be found throughout Asia and eastern Europe, especially amongst Polish, Russian and Italian peoples. These societies have enjoyed a long history of mushroom use, with as many as a hundred common names to describe the mushroom varieties they loved.

The use of mushrooms by diverse cultures was intensively studied by an investment banker named R. Gordon Wasson. His studies concentrated on the use of mushrooms by Mesoamerican, Russian, English, and Indian cultures. With the French mycologist, Dr. Roger Heim, Wasson published research on Psilocybe mushrooms in Mesoamerica, and on Amanita mushrooms in Euro-Asia/Siberia. Wasson's studies spanned a lifetime marked by a passionate love for fungi. His publications include: Mushrooms, Russia, & History;The Wondrous Mushroom;Mycolatry in Mesoamerica;Maria Sabina and her Mazatec Mushroom Velada;and Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. More than any other individual of the 20th century, Wasson kindled interest in ethnomycology to its present state of intense study. Wasson died on Christmas Day in 1986.

One of Wasson's most provocative findings can be found in Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1976) where he postulated that the mysterious SOMA in the Vedic literature, a red fruit leading to spontaneous enlightenment for those who ingested it, was actually a mushroom. The Vedic symbolism carefully disguised its true identity: Amanita muscaria, the hallucinogenic Fly Agaric. Many cultures portray Amanita muscaria as the archetypal mushroom. Although some Vedic scholars disagree with his interpretation, Wasson's exhaustive research still stands. (See Brough (1971) and Wasson (1972)).

Aristotle, Plato, and Sophocles all participated in religious ceremonies at Eleusis where an unusual temple honored Demeter, the Goddess of Earth. For over two milennia, thousands of pilgrims journeyed fourteen miles from Athens to Eleusis, paying the equivalent of a month's wage for the privilege of attending the annual ceremony. The pilgrims were ritually harassed on their journey to the temple, apparently in good humor.

Upon arriving at the temple, the gathered in the initiation hall, a great telestrion. Inside the temple, pilgrims sat in rows that descended step=wise to a hidden, central chamber from which fungal concoction was served. An odd feature was an array of columns, beyond any apparent structural need, whose designed purpose escaped archaeologists. The pilgrims spend the night together and reportedly came away forever changed. In this pavilion crowded with pillars, ceremonies occurred, known by historians as the Eleusian Mysteris. No revelation of the ceremony's secrets could be mentioned under the punishment of imprisonment or death. These ceremonies continued until repressed in the early centuries of the Christian era.

In 1977, at a mushroom conference on the Olympic Peninsula, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl Ruck first postulated, that the Eleusinian mysteries centered on the use of psychoactive fungi. Their papers were later published in a book entitled The Road the Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978). That Aristotle and other founders of western philosophy undertook such intellectual adventures, and that this secret ceremony persisted for nearly 2,000 years, underscores the profound impact that fungal rites have had on the evolution of western consciousness.

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