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

So that's why Santa Claus looks so happy

Mike Jay
Sunday 04 June 2006 00:00 BST

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.

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