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Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
by Andy Lechter
Publisher:
HarperCollins 
Year:
2007 
ISBN:
0060828285 
Reviewed by Lux, 6/4/2008

In Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, Andy Letcher has given us a thorough and rigorous study of mushroom culture. Among books on psychoactive mushrooms, Shroom is unprecedented in the degree to which the author demands that arguments be supported by evidence. Anyone familiar with the voluminous literature on this topic will immediately recognize this as a revolutionary step; the genre is crowded with speculation ranging from cautious (The Road to Eleusis) to extravagant (Food of the Gods).

A scholar boasting PhDs in both ecology and religious studies, Letcher is also no stranger to the psychedelic underground. In this book he painstakingly reconstructs mushroom theories ranging from Eleusis to Santa Claus. Letcher is highly critical of most of these theories, which he sometimes characterizes in sardonic terms that border on contemptuous. Although his tone can be caustic, he pays mushroom enthusiasts the compliment of taking their arguments seriously and analyzing them as such.

Shroom opens with a serviceable overview of the biology and chemistry of psychoactive mushrooms. The book then moves into the cultural history of mushrooms, including a valuable review of pre-1950s reports of mushroom use. Letcher documents and analyzes nearly every major argument written about psychoactive mushrooms in the last century. He chronicles the channels by which a cloudy mix of science and speculation has flowed into the collective reservoir of the psychedelic underground.

The basic argument that Letcher critiques looks something like this: For thousands of years, humans have had an important relationship with psychoactive mushrooms. After stumbling upon them unawares, our ancestors grasped the power of the psychedelic experience they provide. It may be that the spiritual insights which inspired the major world religions were based on entheogenic mushroom sacraments. The druids of pre-Roman Europe, the ancient Greeks of Eleusis, and perhaps even our early ancestors on the African savanna knew that one could contact the spirit world or commune with the gods under the influence of psychoactive fungi.

This wisdom was tragically lost when conservative elements within the world’s religious institutions began to attack entheogens, driving their use underground. In some cases, the use of mushroom entheogens was secretly transmitted by various codes. Hidden references to mushroom use abound in scriptures and religious art, such as the Soma of the Hindu Rig Veda, which may refer to Amanita muscaria.

The urge to suppress entheogens comes from what Riane Eisler called a “dominator culture” – a patriarchal, hierarchical culture based on power and authority. Such a culture imposes itself on others by force. People living in dominator cultures are alienated from the natural and spiritual worlds, while members of communal egalitarian societies are deeply rooted in the cycles of nature and have an uncontrived, experience-based religious life. Some of these sharing cultures made open and uninhibited use of entheogens, until they were suppressed by dominator cultures, especially the Judeo-Christian culture of Europe.

Sound familiar?

Shroom documents the arguments by which this received wisdom took shape, tracing its origins to the works of figures such as Robert Graves and R. Gordon Wasson. Over time the story was elaborated and extended by Jonathan Ott, John Allegro, Terence McKenna, Clark Heinrich, and many others.

Letcher effectively dismantles nearly every aspect of this mushroom history. In some cases, as in the implausible theories of McKenna, little more is needed than asking “What is the basis for this claim?” In the words of curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens, “A claim that is put forth without evidence may be dismissed without evidence.”

Letcher maintains that the conventional wisdom of mushroom history is rooted in the beliefs and attitudes of members of an industrial society who themselves feel alienated from the spiritual world and from the cycles of nature. Such persons are liable to project an idealized portrait of their own longings onto cultures that are remote in time or in space, such as the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers of Africa or the shamans of Siberia. It is easy to project beliefs onto a druidic culture about which one knows nothing. Letcher demonstrates that the closer one looks at the druids of Europe and the curanderos of Mexico, the less plausible idealized stories become.

Quoting from a considerable number of pre-twentieth century accounts of accidental ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms and finding that the experience was invariably regarded as poisoning or illness, not as spiritual epiphany or gratuitous grace, Lechter contends that there is nothing intrinsic to the experience of eating psychoactive mushrooms such that people in other cultures would necessarily interpret it as valuable.

Stories about the antiquity of psychoactive mushroom sacraments probably owe more to R. Gordon Wasson than any other figure. By Wasson’s own account, he successfully rediscovered secret mushroom cults in central Mexico which had survived the Spanish Inquisition. Wasson argues throughout several books that these mushroom cults are analogous to ancient mushroom cults that inspired the great spiritual traditions of the East (Vedic Hinduism in India) and the West (the Minervic mystery rites in Greece).

Letcher cogently argues that the character of mushroom use in Mexico was distorted by R. Gordon Wasson’s amateurish and biased ethnographies. Wasson arrived in Mexico already convinced that the use of psychoactive mushrooms was related the origin of the world’s religions, and he was eager to find evidence to support his theory. According to Shroom, Wasson turned down opportunities to participate in mushroom rituals with curanderos who did not fit the profile of the sacred mushroom shaman he was looking for. He was overjoyed to find Maria Sabina, whom he could depict as a shaman who used mushrooms in sacred ceremonies. In Sabina’s own account, however, she used mushrooms to heal, not for spiritual enlightenment. A devout Catholic, Sabina found her spiritual needs amply met every Sunday in church.

Letcher builds a strong case that Wasson extruded his observations through the filter of his convictions. The structure of Wasson’s mistakes is common to most of the stories that depict ancient or remote cultures as sacred mushroom eaters. These stories typically begin with a zealous hypothesis, cherry-pick for supporting evidence, and disregard counter-evidence.

Letcher makes an important moral argument that inaccurate and fantastical depictions of other cultures, such as those that abound in mushroom literature, are not merely inaccurate – they constitute a form of intellectual colonialism. Edward Said gave us the term “Orientalism” to describe the process by which remote peoples are exoticized and made into symbols by inaccurate ethnography and fanciful storytelling. Orientalist anthropologies deprive the people they study of their right to their actual history. In Letcher’s reading, Orientalism runs riot through psychedelic mushroom culture, and his sharply-honed arguments are fueled by abundant evidence drawn from anthropology, history, and religious studies.

This review focuses on the broad outlines of Letcher’s argument because the overarching theory warrants analysis. No brief review can do justice to the rich detail and close analysis that Letcher offers. This is an essential book on the subject of psychoactive mushrooms, and an important step forward in the evolution of how we talk about the history of entheogens.

6 Comments »

  1. I enjoyed this review. This book sounds right up my alley, or anyone who has grown overly comfortable with the thoughts of McKenna and Wasson.

    Comment by Brendan — 6/5/2008 @ 3:33 pm

  2. I found this book a year ago at the library. What a find! As an avid “undergrounder”, it was worthwhile reading. Describing its history and displaying its current status, this book went deeper in detail regarding the magic mushroom than I could have imagined. A must read for those who have been intrigued by the mushroom’s unique qualities;)

    Comment by Stocky — 6/6/2008 @ 8:07 pm

  3. While I have a 13-page debunking article on Letcher’s book, “Shrooms” being prepared for publication in a European journal I cannot submit it to Erowid to be published here until it appears in the European journal.

    However, i want to make a brief comment that he has erred on dozens of pages regarding his interpretation on the history of magic mushrooms, especially about Wasson and the importance of the PNW’s history of the spread of mushrooms which originated here. He even posted false information about Koh Samui and comments which he referenced in his footnotes from my paper on Thailand mushrooms by writing false information which never appeared in my paper.

    He leads one to believe that their cultural contemporary history had its beginnings in the UK and not in the USA.

    His omission of ‘Magic Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest” from his book, along with almost a dozen other field guides, shows that he was not fully aware of the history in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest of the United States of America, and of their contributions to the spread of psilocybian consciousness throughout the world. His blatant attempt to lure readers into his viewpoint that England and the rest of the UK were responsible for the spread of Psilocybian Consciousness throughout the world is portrayed by Letcher as fact when in reality it is a false presumption.

    He wrote in Chapter 13 –
    Page 239 paragraph 3

    [quote]Andy writes on this page in the 3rd paragraph about an author named Darnton who wrote a shroom article for the English mag ‘Oz.’[/quote]

    His quote is:

    [Quote] Darnton’s article was eventually followed, four-years later, by the first guidebook to the British Mycoflora, Richard Cooper’s, “A Guide to British Psilocybin Mushrooms (1974).50[/quote]

    Here is note 50 from the footnotes:

    [Quote]”The only other widely spread booklet on magic mushroom identification was published in 1979 by the drugs charity RELEASE. This was several years after the mushrooms had gone over ground, and so it was responsible for bringing the mushroom to widespread attention,. SEE Release, 1979[/quote]

    [quote]This is also not true, Between 1970 and 1978 almost one dozen field guides were published and sold in the United States and Homestead Book Company which published some of them, as well as distributed them, became their main distributor and additionally did so for High Times in which was first published in 1974. Between 1974 and 1978, most of the mushroom identification field guides were for sale to the public and in stores throughout America. And additionally, 7 magic mushroom cultivation guides were also published during that same period. And as noted, my book, “Magic Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest” is the oldest and longest selling field guide on psilocybian mushrooms in the world, published in July 1976 and it is still in print, having sold over 100,000 copies since 1976. Furthermore, by 1980, High Times was sold in England at that time and it brought about the English drug magazine known as, “Home Grown.”[/quote]. Some of those same field guides were also available in Great Britain in the late 1970s. I have a new article from England which even shows a High Times ad for Homestead Book Company’s Shroom Kit in the United Kingdom newspaper article.

    Letcher also referred to High Times as the American “dope’ mag.

    Hopefully my debunking article will appear soon and I can send a copy to erowid.

    have a shroomy day,

    john

    Sorry I cannot post more about this at the moment.

    Comment by John W. Allen — 6/25/2008 @ 12:33 pm

  4. I met Andy Lechter a little less than a year ago and since then have had a few conversations with him. Nothing in his book was “cleverly omitted,” as has been posited by some. Actually, a lot of his ideas were edited out of the book by the publisher. Not surprisingly, these are the points that the less-weary choose to attack him on. My main gripe is that a lot of critisism that the book recieved has come from those who have a vested interest in the ideas that Lechter rips to shreds. “Shroom” is the best researched book in the mushroom field.

    Comment by tom hatsis — 10/28/2008 @ 12:54 pm

  5. If I were to take Lux’s commentary at face value I would foolishly have wasted money on this devious rip off piece of crap! Hasn’t there ever been a book about drugs Erowid wouldn’t endorse? Sure you don’t want to practice censorship and I can get behind that, however I can’t support a misleading, disrespectful ignoramus like Letcher. If that’s all it takes to get a book published is to paraphrase legitimate authors the likes of which he couldn’t hold a candle to and throw in superficial, commonly available, (biased) research, then grab your ass and hold on because there will be a real deluge of these fundamentalist-just-say-no Nancy Reganite inspired books! Talk about your character assasins, Andy was compelled to toss in one backstab after another and I snapped when he started on the late Terence Mckenna and I threw the book across the room. He tries to belittle the psilocybin experience and accuses those who are experienced, past and present, of manufacturing and living in a make-believe fantasy land. It’s quite easy to see that Andy has a bizzare axe to grind regarding psychedelics and a superiority complex when judging the motives of others to use them. Letcher writes from the view of a propagandist with a fanatic denial of any possible worthwhile reason for taking drugs while hiding behind his spiteful (mystery) motive as a pretend historian! Let the buyer beware on this one.

    Comment by Frank Zukiewicz — 12/13/2008 @ 5:04 pm

  6. i think it was a pretty good book. while it may be fun to believe in all these speculatory ideas about mushrooms and religion and that sort of thing, for the main part these ideas remain exactly that, speculation. i don’t personally know a lot in this field but letcher presents some of the most compelling arguments i have ever read,he presents a strong case in favour of being skeptical rather than gullible. and while he doesn’t do much for the arguments presented by psychoactive historians, his own unformation is very captivating, and at times very witty. i recommend it.

    and to frank above; i don’t know what your problem is. i didn’t find the book to attack anyone, merely to question their theories (and it would seem rightly so in some cases) in a scientific and respectful manner. he certainly doesn’t discredit the use of mushrooms altogether, i think he came across as endorsing them if anything. your comment doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Comment by callan — 1/18/2009 @ 6:34 am

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