A few years ago, I was called as an expert witness in a criminal case involving trance and possession. The circumstances of the case are not important to this article but, not to leave you hanging, had to do with a man who had flown to the UK from Nigeria and was found to be carrying cocaine when he was stopped by Customs Officers. His defence was that he had been entranced, or possibly drugged, by a group of men who had planted the cocaine on him before he boarded the plane.
What was more interesting for me was that I got to have lunch with another expert witness, a toxicologist from one of the UK’s leading teaching hospitals, who had a keen interest in mycology and planned to publish a book on the sacred use of fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) in spiritual healing and ancient warriorship practices.
As a result of his studies, he had recently worked with a TV production company who had made a documentary with him to test one of his personal pet theories: that the Zulu War was fought by the indigenous people under intoxication from the sacred mushroom. This had given them, not only superhuman strength and imperviousness to pain, but a sense of fearlessness and their own divine purpose in battle. It was this that had helped them leave the field victorious, he claimed.
Obviously, the TV company could not stage another war to test this theory, but what they could do – and did – was The Lost Book of Herbal to get two martial arts experts into a ring to fight it out for the cameras.
In the first part of this experiment, the combatants met equally and fought a few rounds together. Neither emerged as a clear winner in this carefully matched contest.
In the second part, however, one of the fighters was given five strips of fly-agaric to consume. He was allowed to rest while it took effect, and then both fighters met again.
Except they didn’t, exactly. According to the expert I was speaking to (interestingly, over a lunch of mushroom paella), the fighter who had taken fly-agaric simply flew across the ring as soon as the bell rang, hardly even touching the ground, and threw his opponent so hard that he ended up on the floor outside the ropes. The intoxicated fighter never even broke a sweat and was not breathing at anything above normal levels when his opponent was counted out.
Usage and effects of fly-agaric
In the modern West, we have lost most of our ancient ceremonial practices and no longer believe in a ‘spirit world’. Consequently, fly-agaric (if it is considered at all) is regarded only as a dangerous and potentially poisonous ‘drug’, rather than a route to the divine.
In his book, Ploughing The Clouds, however, Peter Lamborn Wilson argues convincingly that fly-agaric is not only the sacred Soma referred to in the Rg Veda, but that it was used in many European countries and was also central to the Irish Keltic tradition of shamanism, which still continues in its basic form, today.
The mushrooms themselves, bright red with white spots, are gathered for ritual use in these traditions during the hottest months of the year – July and August – when they are most infused with the element of fire and the breath of the sun/Sky Father. The most powerful mushrooms, in fact, are said to dry themselves, ready to be picked for their communion with man. These are considered far ‘stronger’ than those picked early and dried artificially. Smaller mushrooms are also said to have much greater power than larger ones, and it seems likely, from modern experimentation, that their narcotic effects are certainly more intense during the early growing phase.
For non-ritual usage, the mushrooms are used in much the same way as coca leaves in the Peruvian Andes, to create a gentle shift in consciousness, accompanied by mild euphoria and increased energy. In such usage, the mushrooms are simply rolled into a ball and swallowed whole, without chewing. One larger mushroom (3-4cm) or 2-3 small ones is enough.
For prescribed ritual usage, however, several mushrooms are normally consumed, usually in a set, or sets, of three. “The Rg Veda always speaks of Soma in sets of three cups and, in Siberia today, three Amanitas are still considered the proper ritual dose”, says Wilson.
An elaborate ceremony will often accompany the ritual consumption of ‘magic mushrooms’. This may take the form of a ‘hunt’ for the mushroom, followed by the ‘killing’ of its spirit by symbolically attacking it with spears, clubs, or arrows, so it is ‘made safe’ for human ingestion. It is then prepared in a time-honoured way which is designed at all stages to honour its power, avoid its wrath and, at the same time, gain control of its spiritual force. Only then is the mushroom eaten, under highly contained, sacred conditions, and in a Holy space defended by the shaman, who will lead the ritual throughout.
Once ingested, what we would call the ‘narcotic’ effects of fly-agaric begin after about 30 minutes.
Outwardly, the intoxication may appear as involuntary muscle spasms, followed by a sense of the fluidity of reality and sensory disorientation. Occasionally, there is vomiting, during which whole mushrooms may be regurgitated. Paradoxically, however, this often serves to intensify the otherworldly sensations of flight and entry to a ‘non-ordinary’ space.