FABER £12.99 11.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Shroom: A cultural history of the magic mushroom by Andy Letcher

So that's why Santa Claus looks so happy

It's still quite a shock to realise not only that this entire lineage is confabulated, but just how recently this took place. There are enough 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 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 there are only two parts of the world, Mexico and Siberia, where there is clear evidence that mushroom's intoxicating properties have been deliberately sought out and culturally sanctioned. All the rest of the story, he proposes, dates from the early 1950s. We, and 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 in May 1957 by the international banker Robert Gordon Wasson. It told how, in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, he had participated in a Mazatec Indian mushroom ceremony of the type thought to have been eradicated by Spanish clerics 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 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 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 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. The profusion of mushroom enthusiasts today tells us 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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering