Shamans, neurochemistry, and the metabolic byproducts of wonder.
By Maria Popova
It took humanity 200,000 years to “discover” mushrooms. Although they have accompanied us since the dawn of our species, although they far predate us and will far outlast every other living thing on Earth, we are only just beginning to understand their layered mysteries — from their properties as portals into “the Beyond” to their status as nature’s instruments for listening.
But while mushrooms have been part of ancient spiritual traditions the world over, they might also have inspired the most materialist mainstream holiday of Western civilization: Christmas. One species in particular: Amanita muscaria — a mushroom whose strong toxins have psychedelic properties considered the world’s oldest known intoxicant, predating alcohol by 10,000 years.
According to the BBC, the shamans of the indigenous Sámi people of Lapland consumed small amounts of Amanita muscaria in their visionary rituals and drank urine from their reindeer, who eat the iconic red-and-white mushroom as part of their diet and metabolize its toxins without harm, excreting a fluid still full of psychoactive compounds but free from toxins. One of the known psychedelic effects of Amanita muscaria on humans is the sensation of flying, which might explain the origin of the myth about the man clad in red and white soaring through the sky on his reindeer-drawn sled, dispensing tokens of love to the world.
A decade after the BBC first brought this speculative theory to the popular imagination, filmmaker Matthew Salton set out to reenvision Christmas as a celebration not of capitalism but of shamanism in a wonderful op-doc for the New York Times, lensing the theory through the work of two scholars — Boston university classicist Carl Ruck, who studies ancient shamanistic traditions and ecstatic rituals, and mycologist Lawrence Millman.
Maybe we should be asking Santa for something different this year, something more in the tradition of our shaman forefathers — like time for reflection and looking inward.
For more on Amanita muscaria and its chemistry, its cultural myths, and its scientific promise, ethnobotanist Rob Nelson of Untamed Science has an excellent (and beautifully cinematic) primer:
Complement with Sylvia Plath’s haunting poem “Mushrooms,” then revisit Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s little-known mycological studies.