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The Hallucinogens Muscarine and Ibotenic Acid in the Middle Hindu Kush
A contribution on traditional medicinal mycology in Afghanistan

by Said Gholam Mochtar & Hartmut Geerken
Translated with additional notes by Peter G. Werner, 1997

Mochtar, S.G. & H. Geerken. (1979). Die Halluzinogene Muscarin und Ibotensšure im Mittleren Hindukusch: Ein Beitrag zur volkheilpraktischen Mykologie. Afghanistan Journal 6:62-65.

Several articles in AFGHANISTAN JOURNAL 1 have previously dealt with the mycology of Afghanistan. These articles were at the cutting-edge of a broad, yet poorly understood area – one that has fallen into obscurity, but may hold a great deal of valuable information for mycologists, above all for ethnomycologists. While Geerken's first article represents one of the first listings of fungi endemic to the region, the second article, an exchange between Bleibinhaus and Geerken, covered questions about specific details of Geerken's article. These marginal contributions to the vast field of mycology ignored a significant aspect of the mycology of Afghanistan: that of the traditional use of hallucinogenic fungi, of which we obtained knowledge some years ago (1963) in the Shutul Valley. In the course of a number of several-day excursions (1963, 1964, 1965, 1969, and 1974) in the Shutul Valley (where, at the upper reaches, Shutuli survives as the lingua franca),2 we were able to question several older male inhabitants of this secluded mountain valley in detail about this hallucinogenic mushroom complex.

Amanita muscaria without question plays a cultic role in the folk medicine of the Shutul Valley. Inquiring about its occurrence and use, we have received information that the so-called "Raven's Bread",3 i.e., Amanita muscaria, is gathered in the late spring of wet years from moist eroded rock crevices and undergoes spontaneous drying in the blazing sun. In this way, the mushroom is almost permanently preserved, provided that strict drying of this hygroscopic material is ensured. Reduced to granulated form (we are even told of mushroom-grinding mills that were used for this in the past), A. muscaria is used by the inhabitants of the Shutul Valley as a stimulant. They boil the Amanita granules with fresh mountain snapweed (Impatiens noli-tangere subsp. montana) and soured goat-cheese brine, in this way producing the well-known specialty, Extract of Shutul (bokar). By mixing the mushroom with other substances, twice the amount of fluid is obtained from half the amount of mushrooms. In the hamlet of Qaf-e-Changar, at the upper reaches of the Shutul, the calyx-tips of seed-bearing flowers of the malign henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) are added to the Extract; it is used for purposes of therapeutic massage, coming into effect by means of transcutaneous stimulation.

The compounds of Amanita muscaria have only become well understood in the last few years. Previously, it was assumed that the main active substance in this mushroom was the alkaloid muscarine, hence the name of the compound. However, A. muscaria only contains about 2 PPM muscarine; the lethal dose of this compound is 0.2 gm. for a healthy adult, in other words, it would take 110,000 kg. of fresh A. muscaria to deliver a dangerous dose to humans!4 Thus, there must therefore be other toxic substances found in this mushroom.

It was not until 1964/65 that these compounds, called muscimol, muscazone, muscasophine, and ibotenic acid, were finally analyzed.5 As it turned out, ibotenic acid is mainly responsible for the intoxicating properties of A. muscaria.. Muscimol, which is derived from ibotenic acid through dehydration and decarboxylation, is indeed psychoactive, though it is missing from the flesh of both the cap and stem.6 Whether muscazone, whose presence in young caps is, for the most part, negligible, forms from ibotenic acid has not yet been demonstrated with any certainty.7 Even less active is a compound that until now was all but unknown, muscasophine.

Muscarine and ibotenic acid are concentrated chiefly in the whitish universal veil remnants on top of the cap. The effects of these substances were known long ago to the Norwegian Berserks and were manifested in their infamous mania.8 Since ibotenic acid and muscimol pass through the body unchanged, in old times the urine of one who was intoxicated was reused.9

In the Shutul Valley, the preparation and use of Amanita muscaria now exist only in a rudimentary form that eludes precise scientific observation. During the aforementioned excursions, we were able to tape-record the reports of seven inhabitants of this valley. The following are some short excerpts:

Farid Ahmad (around 60): "[around 15 minutes] after I drink the extract, a feeling of weariness and a need for sleep overcomes me. I hear voices, although I am alone in my room....I laugh about the voices and about myself...."

Mustafa (around 60): "First, I am very sleepy, then I feel good. I forget sentences....Once I thought that I was a tree...."

Ahmad Kargar (about 65): "I have drank it for many years, yet only once have I had a really bad time. I was anxious and afraid; I ran around in the woods and didn't know who or where I was...."

Malang Aziz (between 60 and 70): "We don't have much, but we have Raven's Bread. We grind it down to a gray powder and make a concoction of it....In Winter, when we can't leave the house, we drink it."

Several Shutulis asserted that Amanita-extract would be administered orally as a medicine for treatment of psychotic conditions, as well as externally as a therapy for localized frostbite.10 Against which psychotic states the extract was administered was not revealed, though it is to be assumed on the basis of the psychoactive qualities of ibotenic acid that it could be used to treat depression and similar apatheoses.

Unfortunately, without any cases of Amanita muscaria intoxication to observe, the descriptions of the intoxication symptoms of the Amanita-eaters of Shutul could not be compared with reports from Mexico, Siberia, and Greece, nor with several well-known contemporary experiments.11 In all of these reports, an inexorable urge to activity is emphasized time and again, together with feelings of dizziness, impairment of vision and speech, delusions, fits of ecstatic frenzy, prophetic vision, sexual energy,12 and remarkable strength. The pupils of those who are intoxicated are very strongly dilated,13 a property that is reflected in one of the many local names for A. muscaria: chashm baskon, that is, literally, "eye-opener", which could be thought of in another sense as supernatural vision.

The mushroom occupies an important position in the folk customs of the Shutul Valley. When they are collected, the first three mushrooms found were (are?) thrown backwards over the head or shoulder; this way, one has good luck in finding more. This odd custom is associated with ancient magical rituals. To this day in Lower Franconia there is a similar berry-gathering ritual. One lays the first found berries on a hollow tree-trunk or stump; the accompanying incantation goes: "I have found the berries/I have thrown the first behind me/I have swung through the forest14/I have found great berries."15

Amanita muscaria is not the only fungus that occurs in the Shutul Valley, though it may be the only hallucinogenic one. The following species were identified: Pleurotus ostreatus, P. ostreatus erengyi, Fomes fomentarius,16 Coprinus comatus, Choiromyces venosus, Morchella crassipes (= Morchella esculenta),17 and a wide variety of Fungi Imperfecti.


According to G. Bresadola, in Russia, Amanita muscaria in is cut up and consumed in salt water and vinegar,18 in order to put oneself into a kind of drunken state. .In Siberia, where the mushroom quite seldom occurs, it was traded at high prices due to these effects.19 The ban by Russian authorities on trading in A. muscaria was directed above all at this Siberian habit; the effect of this law, however, was to increase the consumption of vodka.20

R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of many old mushroom myths, is of the opinion that the German name for A. muscaria, "Fliegenpilz" (fly-mushroom), comes from the fact that after consuming it, "the mind buzzes like flies";21 the name is therefore in reference to the intoxicated state induced by the mushroom. Wasson also traced European ideas of heaven and hell back to similar mushroom mysteries, an idea which Robert Graves "wholeheartedly agree[s] with."22 Graves likewise traces all of the supernatural forces and events of ancient Greek mythology back to the consumption of A. muscaria and Panaeolus papilionaceus (with which he identified Ambrosia, "the food of the gods", Nectar, etc.).23 To what extent our views of central-Eurasian historical phenomena will be affected by these theories must be left to continuing scholarly research. This contribution can serve as no more than a hint. A comparison of these observations with observations from other cultures should present us with an all-embracing phenomenon. It should be of great interest to mycologists that rudiments of such a mushroom cult have survived until our day in one remote mountain valley in the Hindu Kush. (And in how many others as well?)


  1. Hartmut Geerken, "Zur Mykologie Afghanistans", Afghanistan Journal 5:6-8 (1978); Hans Bleibinhaus, [Reply to article by Geerken], Afghanistan Journal 5:114 (1978); Hartmut Geerken, [Reply to letter of Bleibinhaus], Afghanistan Journal 5:114-115 (1978).

  2. [The Shutuli are a branch of the tiny Parachi ethnolinguistic group who inhabit two side valleys of the Panjshir Valley. For more information, see Mohammed Nabi Kohzad, "The distribution of the Parachi language", Afghanistan 12(2):39-41 (1957). - PGW]

  3. Nan-e-saghta; peculiarly enough, the Egyptian-Arabic word for mushroom ('aysh-al-ghorab) also translates to "raven's bread". [In the Afdari (Semnani) language of Iran, the name kalagh-nun (crow's bread) is given to an unidentified species of mushroom. (Georg Morgenstierne, "'Mushroom' and 'toadstool' in Indo-Iranian", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 20:451-457 (1957), pg. 453.) - PGW] Bread is universally regarded as powerfully enchanted. Also odd is the expression from the northern Hindu Kush, "Bread cooks and tea bakes," although the preparation of neither bread nor tea there fundamentally deviates from the way they are normally prepared elsewhere. The South Slavs have similar expressions, such as: "Kruh kuvaju a kafu peku" ("One cooks bread and one roasts coffee").

  4. Franz Hosp, "Die Rauschdroge des Nordens", Kosmos 71:*346-*351 (1975), .pg. *346. [The actual average lethal dose of the mushroom is about 15 caps, although this can vary considerably. (Denis R. Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas (W.H. Freeman, New York, 1995), pg. 309) - PGW]

  5. Isac Reeti, "Amanita muscaria analysed", Mycoreview 13:69-96 (1967). [For an excellent overview of the chemistry and pharmacology of A. muscaria toxins, see Denis R. Benjamin, Mushrooms: poisons and panaceas (W.H. Freeman, New York, 1995), "Inebriation or Pantherine Syndrome", pp. 295-317. - PGW]

  6. [Actually, both ibotenic acid and muscimol, and perhaps other compounds as well, are responsible for the psychoactive properties of A. muscaria. Muscimol is largely absent from A. muscaria, however, when the mushroom is consumed, the body metabolizes much of the ibotenic acid into muscimol. The alternately excitatory and depressant qualities of A. muscaria intoxication may result from this combination. (Denis Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas, pp. 307-308.) - PGW]

  7. Franz Hosp, "Die Rauschdroge des Nordens", pg. *346. [It has been demonstrated that muscazone forms from ibotenic acid by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (Denis Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas, pg. 307), hence its absence from newly emerged mushrooms, which have had minimal solar UV exposure. - PGW]

  8. [The idea that the Amanita muscaria was used to achieve a berserk state is debatable at best. This idea is based not on any direct observation, but on a hypothesis by Ödman in 1784 based on written reports of A. muscaria use in Siberia. Wasson points out that the mushroom also has depressant, even stupefying effects, which would clearly mitigate against its use for warfare (R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968), pp. 176-178). On the other hand, there are reports of hypermanic symptoms under the influence of these mushrooms, particularly in children. Amanita pantherina is reported as having more pronounced hypermanic effects than A. muscaria (Denis Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas, pg. 301). - PGW]

  9. R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.

  10. [An external application of A. muscaria is also used by the Khanty of Siberia for treatment of snakebite. (Maret Saar, "Fungi in Khanty folk medicine", Journal of Ethnopharmacology 31:175-179 (1991).) - PGW]

  11. Franz Hosp, "Die Rauschdroge des Nordens" and John Cage, Stories. The hallucinogenic mushrooms of Mexico do not belong to the Amanita group, but rather the genus Psilocybe. [The author fails to mention Wasson's hypothesis that A. muscaria is the haoma/soma of the Indo-Iranian peoples, certainly an important comparison, since the Parachi are an Indo-Iranian people. See R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Wasson's hypothesis remains controversial, however. For good examples of such criticism, see David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989), pp. 4-7, and Harri Nyberg, "The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: the botanical evidence." In: George Erdosy (ed.), The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia, (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin,1995), pp. 382-406. - PGW]

  12. "Because love and its sensual, as well as social, gestures, rites, and moral laws are of immense variety among the Afghans, only a narrow-minded petit-bourgeois mindset could see narrowly defined limits, here where nature unfolds her finest domain." (Lubja T. Danicic, "Erotik und Skatologie in der orientalischen Küche", Anthropophyteia 21:209 (1924).).

  13. The name "pilzetropine" was first applied to the toxic agent of A. muscaria, due to its similarity with the pupil-dilating property of atropine. [It was once thought that muscarine was responsible for the excitatory properties of A. muscaria, while “pilzetropine" was the undiscovered compound responsible for its sedating properties. (Franz Hosp, "Die Rauschdroge des Nordens", pg. *346.) - PGW]

  14. "Swing through the forest" is a apparently a colloquialism that implies being anxious.

  15. "Hab Beerle g'sammelt/Hab de erschte hinter mi g'worfa/Hab em demmer Wald gebammelt/Hab dann große aufgefunda."

  16. Fomes fomentarius was made into tinder. The inner mass is separated from the cortex and spore layers and cooked for two hours or more in a potash lye solution. It is then allowed to dry in the shade of mulberry trees and then beaten into thin sheets with a wooden mallet. It is still in use today as a styptic. It is likewise still used, as it was in early Europe, as a tinder-fungus. It is added to the burning embers of the evening's fire; this makes the fire easily start up again. Also, tinder-caps and vests were well known in the northern Shutul Valley. [This is very similar to Jochelson's description of the preparation of this fungus by the Koryak of Siberia (Waldemar Jochelson, The Koryak (G.E. Stechart, New York, 1908), pt. II, pg. 565 (cit. In: R. Gordon Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, pp. 269-270). - PGW]

  17. Morels are enjoyed as a delicacy, though not by everyone. In morel-rich years, the Shutuli sell the dried caps and stems to Pakistanis, who export them, mainly to Europe.

  18. The combination with vinegar corresponds to some degree with the soured goat-cheese brine in which the Amanita granules are boiled when preparing the Shutuli extract.

  19. Giacomo Bresadola, Funghi mangerecci e velanosi (Societa Botanica Italiana, Trent, 1932) [cit. In: Severino Viola, Die Pilze (Hirmer, Munich, 1972) (German transl. of I Funghi Come Sono), pt. 5.]

  20. Franz Hosp, "Die Rauschdroge des Nordens", pg. *348. V. Nizhelsky of the Russian embassy in Kabul, in response to questions about these reports, admitted that he could not confirm this information, but thought that this course of events would not be beyond the realm of possibility.

  21. "Im Kopf summt wie von Fliegen"

  22. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1960), vol. 1, pg. 10. [Robert Graves speculates on this topic in greater depth in the following essays: "Centaurs' Food", In: Food for Centaurs (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1960), pp. 257-282; "The Poet's Paradise", In: On Poetry (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1969), pp. 367-382.; "Mushrooms and Religion", In: Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1972) - PGW]

  23. [Robert Graves, "Centaurs Food", pp. 263-267. - PGW]


Fig 1: Fomes fomentaria on a heavily rotted stump of Quercus sessiliflora (?); fruiting body diameter ca. 33.5 cm.

Fig. 2: Coprinus comatus with a flowing inky spore mass. 26 cm. tall.

Fig. 3: The dissected cap of the Coprinus comatus from fig. 2. Note how the lamellae have started to deliquesce, even in this young stage.

Fig. 4: Choiromyces venosus, the harvest of about 100 m2.

Fig. 5: An abnormally large specimen of Choiromyces venosus from Autumn, 1974.

Fig. 6: View of the Shutul Valley, seen SE from the ridge between Panjshir and Shutul.

Fig. 7: Amanita muscaria of suitable collection age. ca. actual size [probably, somewhat smaller - PGW].