Fungi: A fundamental aspect of human culture

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Overview | Visionary Fungi | Wine & Beer

     The relationship between fungi and humans has been interconnected since time immemorial. Our associations with these organisms go deep into our genetic history. Perhaps the most fundamental of all mushroom uses is the use of them as mediators to the Gods. It is this very aspect that trumps all other mushroom potential in human culture. It is the essence of the spiritual link of man to nature and the Mother Earth Goddess.

     How can a mushroom become intregral part of humanity's existance? What new perspectives can be gained when one firmly puts their belief in the hands of a small growing organism emerging from the fertile soil of the Earth?

Figure 1. Tassili rock painting 5000 B.C.E.
     Deep in the Sahara Desert of southern Algeria is a plateau known as Tassili-n-Ajjer. It is a rocky badlands filled with boulders, cliffs, and caves. On one of these rock faces in a painting of a shaman with a head of a bee, holding mushrooms in his hand, all the while mushrooms sprout out of his body (Figure 1).

     Dating back at least five thousand years before the rise of Christianity and long before the rise of the modern monotheistic cult on Earth, this painting represents perhaps the spiritual lifestyle of our archaic ancestors. Elsewhere in these badlands is a rock painting of mushroom men running in ecstasy amidst geometric shapes (Figure 2).

     In the Siberian northlands, shamans have long used the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) in their magic/divination practices. The use of fly agarics predate the crossing of the Bering Straight, and it is those Paleo-Siberians who brought with them the use of mushrooms in shamanism (La Barre). They spread into the Americas with a culturally programmed interest in seeking out hallucinogenic and psychotropic plants and fungi (La Barre). It is possibly this reason why there are so many more known psychoactive plants and fungi in the new world than all of the old.

Figure 2. Mushroom men of Tassili
     Elsewhere, in the lands of ancient Greece rose a ritual cult that lasted for 2,000 years until suppression by Christianity. This cult, known as the Eleusian Mysteries (Figure 3), consisted of initiates who, once a year in September or early October, came to the Eleusian plains for worship of the Gods (Wasson). September through October is the season of the mushroom in Europe and it has been proposed by some scholars that this Mystery cult was associated with some manner of hallucinogen. Aristides, a second century A.D. writer wrote this description of the Eleusian Mystery:

"Eleusis is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous. At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?"

Figure 3. Demeter (left) and Persephone (right), Goddesses of which the Mystery was concerned
     Agents of the cult that have been proposed include Psilocybe, Amanita, and Ergot (Claviceps purpurea). Of considerable interest is the possibility that Ergot was used. Although the Mysteries themselves held a secret that was never broken, it is known that the initiates drank a beverage called Kykeon which consisted of water, barley, and mint. None of these properties are inherently psychoactive (although psychotropic species of mint do exist, ie. Salvia divinorum, Nepeta cataria). Barley can however, be infected by the fungus Ergot. Ergot itself contains the ergot alkaloids of which there are lysergic acid amides and toxic ergolines capable of causing gangrene, convulsions, and death. It has been suggested that because the makers of the beverage were in charge of secretly preparing the water for the drink, they may have been performing water extractions of ergot (Wasson). The hallucinogenic lysergic acid amides are water soluble, whereas the the toxic ergolines are fat soluble. Whether or not this occurred is up to debate.

     The Psilocybe mushooms have often been discussed as factors of hominid evolution, in that the consumption of these mushrooms as a daily diet triggered the break away of consciousness of man from nature (McKenna). While evidence for these claims are more speculation and ideas than anything else, historical use of Psilocybe has strong evidence in Central America. Mushroom use was prevelant in Mexico prior the Spanish conquest and an important aspect of Mexican religion and life. The fungi were sacred and used in divination and healing. Mushroom stones (figure 4) have been unearthed from as far back as 1000 B.C.E (de Borhegyi). The mushroom using peoples of the Americas held on to their traditions from antiquity and through the violent persecution of the Spanish, until it was rediscovered in the early 1950's.

Figure 4. Mushroom stones unearthed in Guatemala

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