Amanita muscaria's history goes back millennia, although written records only stretch back a few hundred years. Often known as fly agaric, this mushroom is one of the world’s most iconic, with its red cap and white spots ensuring it stands out like a beacon within the forest canopies it resides in.
It has become popular in recent times, with a growing number of people trying it out of curiosity. Yet, such individuals only follow in the footsteps of countless ancient cultures before them.
This article outlines the journey of Amanita muscaria, from ancient shamanic rituals to modern-day usage and everything in between. It outlines the mushroom’s usage for religious, ceremonial, and medical reasons and discusses some of the huge volume of folklore attached to it.
It All Starts with Siberian Tribes and Russian People
Since history based on written records only goes back approximately 5,000 years, it is difficult to say when humans first used Amanita muscaria. According to phylogenetic analysis, the mushroom’s evolutionary origins are in Beringia. This is a landform that once connected North America and Asia.
When the Bering Strait opened, separating Alaska’s Seward Peninsula from the Chukchi Peninsula in the Russian Far East, the mushroom’s ancestral population was fragmented. Expansion of the species continued, and now fly agaric is found on every continent, barring Antarctica.
According to R. Gordon Wasson, an American writer who specialized in ethnomycology, the documented history of fly agaric only goes back to the 1600s. However, he said “that its unwritten history begins earlier is certain,” while admitting he wasn’t sure how much earlier or how widespread its use was.
The consensus is that Amanita muscaria was used for centuries, if not longer, by Siberian, Russian, and Scandinavian tribes, along with other Eastern European peoples. It is even suggested that usage of the mushroom began in the pre-Christian era.
Koryaks, Shamans, and Urine, How the Siberians Used Fly Agaric
In Eastern Siberia, the mushroom was used recreationally and for religious rites. It is said that people drank the urine of shamans who consumed fly agaric. That’s because the urine contained the mushroom’s psychoactive elements, mainly muscimol and ibotenic acid.
In essence, they were drinking the “filtered” version, which meant they didn’t experience many adverse effects. What happened to the shamans is another matter entirely, and they were the only ones allowed to eat the mushrooms.
The Koryak tribe of the Kamchatka Peninsula would consume the mushroom and have a hallucinatory experience. The individual would become intoxicated and experience various visual and auditory hallucinations, including changes in color vision. Reindeer would follow them, and when the person urinated in the snow, the reindeer would consume it and also become intoxicated, making it easy to hunt and kill.
In places where fly agaric was rare, Koryaks would barter by exchanging it for reindeer! In the mid-1800s, one Koryak man explained that when harvesting hay, he could “do the work of three men from morning to nightfall without any trouble, if I have eaten a mushroom.”
Meanwhile, a Chukchi (another Siberian tribe) woman said that they “could progress quickly with their work if they ate [fly agaric] before or while they were tanning reindeer hides.”
Amanita’s Medical Uses According to Siberians
The fly agaric is linked with numerous medical benefits, with various Siberian tribes using it over the centuries. Across the region, the mushroom was often used to help combat insomnia.
The Khanty (a Ugric indigenous people) are known for using dried Amanita muscaria to treat psychological fatigue.
The Koryak and Evensk (Tungusic people) use fly agaric as a poultice to help with pain and inflammation. Meanwhile, the Chukchi women eat dried mushrooms to relieve pain and muscular soreness, symptoms of spending long hours tanning reindeer hides.
The Khanty and Koryak use Amanita muscaria to give them courage and reduce anxiety. Siberian tribes have many other uses of the mushroom, too many to include within this article.
Although it is widely believed that the usage of Amanita muscaria began with Siberian tribes, this isn’t necessarily the case. Certainly, the use of the mushroom in Siberian shamanic rituals may date back to between 4000 BC and 6000 BC.
Yet, there is a possibility that prehistoric peoples in Northern Europe used the mushroom. A bowl found in Gotaland, Sweden, contained fly agaric residue. The bowl is from the late Stone Age, which means it could be up to 6,000 years old!
Siberian Folklore – The Legend of Big Raven
The Koryak still reside in Eastern Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula today. According to their folklore, Amanita muscaria was a “sacred gift” from someone called Big Raven, believed to be the first ever shaman and the beginning of the human race.
According to this legend, Big Raven discovered amanita’s power after catching a whale. He wanted to return the gigantic catch to the sea, but it was too heavy even for him. Thus, he requested help from Vahiyinin (Existence), who created the mushroom known as wapaq by spitting on the land. Amanita muscaria’s white spots are a representation of the spit.
Once Big Raven ate this mushroom, he developed the power to toss the whale into the sea. Then he told his people that the fly agaric could help and educate them. Thus, the mushroom remained a significant part of the Koryaks’ folklore for hundreds of years.
Alas, once alcohol was introduced in the 1500s or 1600s, it usurped Amanita muscaria as the intoxicant of choice while never truly replacing it.
Amanita Muscaria Could Be Involved with Ancient Aryans of India
In ancient India, there was a drug known as Soma, which the Aryan people used. The Aryans were an Indo-European people that conquered the Indus Valley around 3,500 years ago.
According to Wasson, Soma might have been Amanita muscaria. One of the Aryan gods, Soma, was a plant with hallucinogenic effects.
One of the issues with deciphering the Aryan culture is the lack of physical evidence. Much of what we know about them comes from a collection of texts known as the Vedas, which are very much open to interpretation. Indeed, their precise meaning remains unknown.
The Rigveda is the oldest of these texts and consists of over 1,000 hymns. It states that priests consumed Soma during worship after mixing it with water and then beating it with stones. At this point, they added more water to it, along with barley or honey. The priests would consume the mixture and become intoxicated.
Soma, or Something Else?
Wasson believed Soma was fly agaric because the Aryans’ hymns did not mention blossoms, roots, or seeds of the Soma. He pointed out that there isn’t a plant that has none of those things. Also, the hymns state that Soma is found on mountains, and Amanita muscaria also grows there. Even so, this is nothing more than an educated guess on his part.
According to Wasson, the Vedas indicated three different filters to prepare Soma:
- #1 was provided by sun-drying or sunlight
- #2 involved wool to separate residual solids from liquid
- #3 the human body
The first filter makes a lot of sense since drying the mushroom in the sun leads to decarbing, which means turning the ibotenic acid into muscimol. It is necessary to remove many of the negative effects associated with raw Amanita muscaria.
The second filter helps remove fiber and pulp but also indicates another heat-based transformative process. In this case, it may relate to the creation of amanita tea. According to anecdotal reports, making tea with the mushroom helps decrease adverse effects such as vomiting and nausea.
A Spirited Debate
The third filter proposed by Wasson is one that’s widely debated. He claimed that ingesting and excreting the Soma as urine reduced some of the drink’s toxic effects while also boosting the psychoactive impact. The body metabolizes the ibotenic acid and converts it into muscimol.
But, if you drink a beverage featuring the mushroom, you’ll have plenty of unmetabolized compounds in the urine, which can be ingested again for more psychoactive effects. This helps explain why people drank the urine of shamans. Also, in Siberia, members of tribes drank the urine of reindeer that had consumed Amanita muscaria.
However, in “Fly Agaric: A Compendium of History, Pharmacology, Mythology, and Exploration,” Kevin Feeney (who created this book with the aid of numerous researchers) asserts that the supporting evidence in the Vedas isn’t strong enough to make this leap.
Instead, it’s possible that a mixture of Amanita muscaria extractions and unpasteurized milk could cause noteworthy results with reduced adverse effects. Thus, the third filter is actually curds and sour milk, which are mentioned in parts of the Rigveda that discuss mixing the milk products with Soma.
The milk cleanses the Soma and contains Lactobacillus bacteria that produce glutamate decarboxylase. This enzyme catalyzes the decarbing of glutamate to GABA. It is a process akin to decarbing mushrooms to reduce ibotenic acid and increase muscimol.
Did Berserkers Go Berserk for Fly Agaric?
In Old Norse texts, there are tales of warriors known as berserkers, who fought in a trance-like fury known as berserkergang. They would bite their shields, howl like wild animals, and even struggle to distinguish between enemies and comrades during a battle!
There’s an intriguing tale surrounding berserkers and their use of Amanita muscaria. According to legend, the Norse fighters would consume the substance before battle. By doing so, they would enter the aforementioned state of rage that made them far more effective soldiers.
An Iceland historian and poet named Snorri Sturluson wrote about the berserkers in the 1200s. He said they became as strong as bears or wild oxen and were capable of killing opponents with one blow. Other claims suggest they couldn’t be hurt with fire or edged weapons, but bizarrely, they could be killed with clubs.
Those who experienced berserkergang began with shivering, body chills, and chattering teeth, followed by reddening of the face and swelling. After the rage had subsided (assuming the warrior lived through the battle), the berserker felt tired for several days and would also become emotionally numb during this timeframe.
This notion of extra strength ties in neatly with the Big Raven tale associated with Siberian folklore. While it is a fun story, research suggests it’s more probable that a plant called henbane was inside these pre-battle beverages.
Amanita Muscaria in European Folklore
The usage of Amanita muscaria goes back several thousand years if you believe Celtic folklore. The suggestion is that Celtic druids used it in religious rituals before Christianity existed. The druids knew the mushroom was toxic and prepared it for consumption. They ate fly agaric because they wanted to experience the hallucinations it provided.
The druids believed the mushroom was ancient and that the hallucinations it caused would lead to them gaining some of the fungi’s ancient wisdom and perhaps directly contacting the universe.
Anyone familiar with Irish folklore knows all about leprechauns and faeries. Celtic druids thought that eating Amanita muscaria would enable them to see visions of these spiritual creatures.
There’s a suggestion that Soma was also part of ancient Greek culture. Each year in October, the god of fertility and mysticism, Dionysius, held the Ambrosia (which means “immortality”) festival. The name is also taken from the “food of the gods” in ancient Greek culture.
The cult of Dionysius reportedly consumed Soma and enjoyed its inebriating effects. This drink contained six ingredients, written down so that the first letter of each spelled out “myketa,” which means mushroom in Greek. Also, October is very much the right time of year to gather Amanita muscaria.
Also, there are reports that in remote parts of Lithuania, fly agaric was soaked in vodka and consumed during wedding feasts. It was also used in shamanic rituals by the Sami people who lived in the northern part of the nation.
The Santa Claus Mushroom?
Last but not least comes the claim of a link between Santa Claus and Amanita muscaria. If you look into the history of Santa, one finds a cavalcade of different real and imagined characters. They famously include Saint Nicholas from the third and fourth centuries AD, who became known for his great generosity.
What’s interesting is that during the annual midwinter festival of Siberian tribes, the region’s shaman would go into special yurts that had a smoke hole and bring in a bag of mushrooms, which were distributed as gifts. After performing the necessary ceremonies inside, the shaman would leave.
Doesn’t this sound a little bit like going down a chimney and leaving presents? Also, the shaman would wear a red and white outfit when gathering the mushrooms because it is the color of Amanita muscaria.
Wait, there’s more! Villagers believed that the shaman could fly or else he would distribute the mushrooms with the help of reindeer. Also, these tribes resided in Siberia’s Arctic Region. Santa, of course, lives at the North Pole. The festival took place each year on the Winter Solstice, which is days away from Christmas Day.
Furthermore, since it is necessary to decarb Amanita muscaria for safety reasons, the shaman would dry the mushrooms and hang them in a sock over a fireplace.
Amanita Muscaria in Art and Literature
There are a huge number of Victorian paintings that display the Amanita muscaria mushroom.
The fly agaric is also abundant in literature. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice eats a mushroom that results in her changing in size, although admittedly, the writer doesn’t describe it.
Amanita muscaria is all over the wonderful world of Super Mario and is widely seen in the mushroom kingdom. Also, when Mario or one of the other franchise heroes eats a red mushroom with white spots, they become larger and more powerful. Even in the Smurfs, the house is a giant red mushroom.
One of the more famous pieces of art that apparently depicts the mushroom is a fresco at Abbaye de Plaincourault Merigny in France. This work of art shows the moment when Adam and Eve made the terrible mistake of consuming the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
The suggestion is that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is shown to produce Amanita muscaria in the fresco. The art was created in the 1200s, and controversial archaeologist John Allegro claims it is further proof that the mushroom was widely known and used many centuries ago.
However, various art historians have since dismissed the idea that the fresco is an homage to fly agaric. They insist that it’s nothing more than a coincidence since artists of that era routinely experimented with different ways to represent trees.
Amanita Muscaria Spreads Throughout the World
For the record, the mushroom’s name in many European languages probably comes from its use as an insecticide when sprinkled in milk. This practice was probably first recorded in the mid-1200s by Albertus Magnus in “De vegetabilibus.” The author states that “it is called the fly mushroom because it is powdered in milk to kill flies.”
The mushroom probably began to spread as explorers visited strange new lands during the Age of Exploration from the 1400s onward. European travelers possibly brought fly agaric with them to territories such as the Americas. The use of Amanita muscaria is said to be seen in several indigenous traditions.
The thing is, psychedelic mushrooms were used in the Americas for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. For example, there are Mayan mushroom stones in Guatemala that are at least 2,500 years old. So, while Spanish chroniclers recorded the use of psychoactive mushrooms on their travels (such as in Aztec religious ceremonies), these mushrooms may have been of the “magic” variety.
Wasson wrote that early recorded mentions of the mushroom are confined to Northern Siberia. However, it became known as an inebriant in Europe in the 1730s, thanks to the efforts of a Swedish army officer named Philip John von Strahlenberg. In Stockholm, he published a book outlining the 12 years he spent in a Siberian prison. There, he came across fly agaric.
However, Wasson asserts that a Polish prisoner in Siberia had observed the use of the mushroom for its inebriating effects in 1658. He witnessed the Khanty people in the Irtysh valley using it. Yet, this man’s diary was left unpublished until 1874.
Amanita Becomes Interesting to Scientists
There was greater interest in the mushroom from the 1800s onward, which helped researchers understand it slowly but surely. In 1821, Elias Magnus Fries wrote about Agaricus muscarius, but 17 years later, Francois Fulgais Chevallier, a French botanist, changed the name to Amanita muscaria.
In 1869, Oswald Schmiedeberg discovered muscarine. It was long believed to be the main active hallucinogenic agent in the mushroom. In the 1960s, however, researchers discovered ibotenic acid and muscimol, and it was soon found that these were the main psychoactive compounds in fly agaric.
It is hard to determine precisely when or why Amanita muscaria became a mainstream product. However, it has now become one of the most famous mushrooms on the planet, with people finally seeing the links between it and various fairytales.
Many people who have used the mushroom say it has changed their lives. Proponents of fly agaric say that when it’s properly prepared, it can generally make the user feel relaxed.
The Last Word on the History of Amanita Muscaria
No one is quite sure when humankind first came across fly agaric and understood its effects. However, it has likely been used for several thousand years at the very least. When properly decarboxylated, Amanita muscaria could have a host of beneficial effects.
Yet, despite its long history, this mushroom is still poorly understood by the general public. The scientific community is seeking to put this right with more research, but it will take some time before we’re in a position to get the very best out of this remarkable mushroom.
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