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Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
by Andy Letcher
Publisher:
Faber & Faber 
Year:
2006 
ISBN:
ISBN 0-571-22770-8 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Mike Jay, 12/12/2006

When I first heard about magic mushrooms as a teenager in the late seventies, the news that psychedelic drugs were sprouting freely across the nation’s playing fields and golf courses seemed like a plot device from some sci-fi fantasy that had somehow succeeded in obtruding into reality. How could this be? The answer came in the form of a thrilling secret history. According to the lore that spread by word of mouth, at festivals and in the photocopied and stapled sheets of the underground press, the mind-altering properties of the Liberty Cap mushroom had been known since time immemorial. They were referenced in the trippy spirals on ancient megaliths, and had formed the core of the Druids’ priestcraft. After they had been driven underground by uptight Christianity and its witch-burnings, their presence continued to be signalled in coded forms, from the gnomic hints in Alice in Wonderland and Victorian fairy lore to the figure of Santa Claus, whose iconography was a folk-memory of the red-and-white toadstool-eating shamans of Lapland. The sixties’ counterculture had amplified these subterranean rumblings in anthems like Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, and now I had become the latest in a lineage of mushroom initiates that stretched back to the dawn of humanity.

I can’t recall quite how much of this I believed at the time – my generation’s motto, after all, was ‘never trust a hippie’ – but it’s still quite a shock to realise not only that that this entire lineage is confabulated, but just how recently this took place. There are enough historical records of accidental mushroom intoxications to make it clear that Liberty Caps have indeed been popping their pixie-capped heads up across Britain for centuries, but no evidence whatsoever for an intentional magic mushroom trip before the 1970s. Although scientists had found Liberty Caps to be hallucinogenic as early as 1963, the hippie sixties came and went without any of its celebrants spotting the free drugs under their noses. At the time that I was being sagely informed that the inhabitants of our islands had been getting high on mushrooms for millennia, the practice was almost certainly in its very first few seasons.

In Shroom, Andy Letcher has cut through this dense tangle of pseudohistory and urban legend with bracing scepticism, clearing the space for an elegant and authoritative telling of the true story that it conceals. He establishes that although fungi have fascinated, inspired and revolted us throughout history, and one source of this fascination has certainly been their strange intoxicating properties, there are only two parts of the world – Mexico and Siberia – where there is clear evidence that these properties have been deliberately sought out and culturally sanctioned. All the rest of the story, he proposes, dates from the early 1950s: the truth that the myths and urban legends conceal is that we, not our prehistoric ancestors, are the true ‘mushroom people’. From full moon parties in Thailand to stalls in Camden Lock, neo-pagan festivals to internet spore-suppliers, there are far more ‘shroomers’ (the word is now in the OED) today than ever before.

The inciting incident for both this modern culture and its modern myths was an article in Life magazine of May 1957 by the international banker Robert Gordon Wasson that told how, in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, he had discovered and participated in a Mazatec Indian mushroom ceremony of the type thought to have been eradicated by Spanish clerics several centuries ago. From Wasson’s remarkable (if overspun) adventures flowed the scientific discovery of the magic mushroom and the presence of its hallucinogenic ingredient, psilocybin, in other related species around the world, including Britain. Yet at the same time Wasson’s enthusiastic but wayward amateur scholarship (egged on by the Golden Boughinspired mythomania of his friend Robert Graves) convinced him that he had discovered the vestigial remains of a universal religious cult of the mushroom – a hypothesis he elaborated in a series of lavish limitededition books, from where it diffused into the emerging drug counterculture.

Letcher brings the same astute eye to his deconstruction of the modern mushroom cult, analysing how its early evangelists, notably Timothy Leary, persuaded a new generation to put a spiritual and life-changing interpretation on an experience that had typically been viewed as a toxic delirium. A retrofitted pedigree of ancient mushroom wisdom clearly served this sales pitch well but, Letcher argues, the mature and diverse culture that has now established itself around the magic mushroom does its credibility no favours by clinging to this litany of self-deception and wishful thinking. ‘If mushrooms really do deliver meaningful experiences’, he observes, ‘then the fact that the practice is a modern one is neither here nor there’. The profusion of mushroom enthusiasts today tells us much less about humanity’s past than it does about our future, and the stubbornness of our desire for adventures that re-enchant the world around us.

Mike Jay is the author of Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century (Dedalus Press)

Originally Published In : The Independent (UK), July 2006

6 Comments »

  1. Have to agree with this review entirely. Very astute piece of work by Andy Letcher.

    Comment by Barry Steven — 12/19/2006 @ 2:18 pm

  2. Andy Letcher has done a great service in applying his rigorous skepticism to the many loosely-fabricated theories for ancient mushroom use, and has done exhaustive research on actual documented occurences of mushroom intoxication, particularly in Britain. It is a good corrective. But in examining the history of hallucingenic fungi in the U.S., his research grows spotty, ignores the huge contributions of Paul Stamets and others to our knowledge of psilocybes, demonstrates significant gaps in West Coast entheogenic mushroom history, and makes short shrift of indigenous divinatory use of mushrooms on this continent. This is an important book, but not the cultural bible of hallucinogenic mushrooms.

    Comment by Art Goodtimes — 1/1/2007 @ 12:59 am

  3. I found this to be a great book. However, I was annoyed by one aspect of the book; the author seems to go out of his way to nit-pick a bit too much on various topics and it became somewhat boorish to me. When discussing R. Gordon Wasson, for example, Letcher rightly and astutely points out that rather than gathering facts and then making a conclusion concerning the role of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Vedic culture, Wasson formed a hypothesis and then looked for evidence to support it. So far, so good. However, Letcher then goes on to bring up many points that, although apparently factual, seemed to me to be trivial and amount to something of an attack on Wasson rather than a mere objective examination of the evidence at hand. This sort of nit-picking and an attitude of “I was disillusioned before you were, so I am not gullible, you are.” type of attitude permeates the entire book… or so it seems to me. That having been said, I still feel that this is a great book for anyone who wants to know the cultural role of hallucinogenic mushrooms in sober detail. I recommend it.

    Comment by Rendi Case — 7/14/2007 @ 11:26 pm

  4. I have only read the first few chapters, but already I feel this book’s attempt at myth-busting the ancient use of mushrooms is mistaken and misguided, and would like to challenge Andy Letcher’s methods of persuasion. First off, after he states that fossil evidence of pre-historic mushrooms is unlikely to have been preserved, he tries to convince us that there was probably no ritual mushroom use in pre-history by doubt alone. Then he cites Victorian Age British reports of people interpreting shrooming as poisoning (I’d prefer to think our ancestors were a bit more agriculturally savvy than these stodgy British accounts). Furthermore he states that pre-conquest american mushroom use is only probable rather than almost undeniable. By leveling doubt after doubt he is attempting to convince us, against common sense, that several hundred thousand years of humans produced nowhere else analogues to Mesoamerican and Siberian spiritual use of Mushrooms, and that hippies produced the mushroom craze out of their own spiritual vacuum. Personally I find the so-called pseudo-historical Pharmacratic Inquisition model much more convincing on why there is little or no evidence of ancient entheogenic usage, and disagree with him in stating that modern proponents of shrooms have a better case for legalization without citing our shamanic ancestors as precedent. In short, this is a fallacious attempt at injecting sobriety into entheogenic history, in that it falls short of common sense, and disrespects our ancestors and perhaps most importantly the mushrooms themselves.

    Comment by Samuel Michael — 4/30/2008 @ 6:58 pm

  5. New Book, The Holy Mushroom

    My name is Jan Irvin, I published Astrotheology & Shamanism in 2006, and The Pharmacratic Inquisition DVD, 2007, with Andrew Rutajit. I have a new book coming out this summer which completely refutes Letcher’s book:

    THE HOLY MUSHROOM: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity – A critical re-evaluation of the schism between John M. Allegro and R. Gordon Wasson over the theory on the entheogenic origins of Christianity presented in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by Jan Irvin

    Also coming out this summer are two other books which completely refute Letcher’s “research”:

    The Most High by Jack Herer

    False God by Prof. John Rush

    In 2009 Prof. Carl Ruck will also be publishing Entheogens in Christianity and further refutes Letcher.

    EVERY SINGLE PIECE of evidence, for example, that Letcher presented against Allegro alone has been 100% refuted. I have personally worked for nearly four years with Allegro’s daughter, Judith Anne Brown, and we were unable to verify ANY of Letcher’s claims (as well as previous attacks on Allegro).

    Prof. Carl Ruck and Prof. John Rush have both come out in complete support of Allegro’s research, due to all of the latest findings over the last 15 years – which of course Letcher completely ignored!

    In fact, Letcher focused the core of his research only on Wasson, Allegro and McKenna, and did a poor job at that, ignoring 40 years worth and about 40 other scholars research to make his case – as the reference to the Renegade Bishops and the Holy Mushroom, (posted above by another reviewer) shows. Unfortunately for Letcher, he was debunked way back in 1994, by Harvard University, 12 years before his tripe was ever written.

    Furthermore, Letcher attacks OLD research regarding ergot and the Eleusinian mysteries – he completely misses Peter Webster’s new research on Kykeon as well as Prof. Ruck’s research in Sacred Mushrooms of the Goddess, 2006. http://www.psychedelic-library.org/newmenu.htm

    Anyone who thinks Letcher’s work is anything of substance shows their OWN lack of study and ignorance in this field. Letcher’s book is DISINFORMATION, people! It’s garbage research. How the hell else would a book on entheogens make it in to the major American book sellers: Barns and Noble, Borders, etc? Here in California last year that book had front window status in these stores.

    The UK edition of Letcher’s book was targeted for release with the absurd Refer Madness-like propaganda film from England in 2006 called Shrooms – which was quite literally the worst movie I’ve seen in 10 years and two hours of my life I will never get back. http://www.shroomsthemovie.com/

    Comment by Jan Irvin — 4/30/2008 @ 7:06 pm

  6. Just to point this out:

    For critical analysis of the competing views about Entheogens in Religious History, see http://www.egodeath.com/ViewsOnEntheogensInReligiousHistory.htm

    For closer critical analysis of Letcher’s book in specific, see http://www.egodeath.com/ShroomLetcher.htm

    From http://www.egodeath.com/ScholarsNeedPutEntheogensInProperPlace.htm :

    The book Shroom by Andy Letcher is a mixed bag, contributing ample confusion as well as adding some findings.

    But at least his book has a couple of reverse benefits:
    o It demolishes the flimsy, flaky moderate entheogen theory of religion (using a suitably flimsy argumentation style and careless, even irresponsible, inattention to Theory and assumption-sets). It forces entheogen scholars to get their act together, get their story firmed-up, and get on with the maximal entheogen framework instead of their garbled and self-contradictory moderate theory.

    o It helps establish that the “psychoactive mushroom theory of the origins of religion” has now become accepted and entrenched as fact, at least in some quarters. It is questionable whether the mushroom theory of pre-historic religious origins is accepted and entrenched within establishment academia, which is, rather, committed to pointedly ignoring this whole large elephant in the room, ignoring the looming “Allegro” question, for fear of being crucified on Allegro’s cross. So by default, the public worldview regarding the role of drugs in religious history is set by popular books, outside of the academic establishment—at least within the subculture of pop entheogen studies.

    Copyright © 1985-2007 Michael Hoffman

    Comment by HG — 5/5/2008 @ 11:19 am

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