Magic mushrooms are also known as sacred mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms, and, more generally, hallucinogenic mushrooms. This last term is misleading. Though hallucinations can occur when under the influence of magic mushrooms (as with many other drugs, such as alcohol, cocaine, etc.), they are of secondary importance and do not account for the significance that these fungi have had in human history.
Magic mushrooms are fungi, found mainly in the genus Psilocybe (although there are also species that belong to the genera Conocybe, Stropharia, Panaeolus, and Copelandia). These belong to the Agaricaceae family and grow in a variety of substrates, among them cow dung and wood chips and bruise with a bluish color, often still visible on dried stems.
The major psychoactive compounds are the tryptamines psilocybin and the closely-related psilocin, although several species also contain baeocystin and norbaeocystin.
Examples of magic mushrooms are Psilocybe cubensis, Psilocybe cyanescens and (Psilocybe semilanceata) Liberty cap.
Rock paintings in the Sahara of mushroom effigies date back to 7000 BC. Some scholars believe that Soma, the drink mentioned in Vedic literature, was derived from magic mushrooms. Albert Hofmann and Carl Ruck contend that the Eleusinian Mysteries made use of magic mushrooms.
S. Odman, in 1784, first suggested that Nordic Vikings used fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) to produce their berserk rages. Supposedly, the Norse took these mushrooms so that the effect came on during the heat of battle or while at work. During the berserk rage they performed deeds which otherwise were impossible. The rage started with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and a chill. Their faces became swollen and changed color. A great rage developed in which they howled like wild animals and cut down anyone in their way, friend or foe alike. Afterward their mind became dulled and feeble for several days.
Psilocybe mushrooms were a revered tradition in native Central American cultures at the time of the European invasion, and have been in continuous use up to the present time . Named teonanacatl in Nahuatl, "flesh of the gods," they have been employed for healing, divination, and for intercession with the spirits. Since the beginning of colonial times their use has been hidden due to persecution by the Christian church, which branded all native religious practices and especially those employing entheogenic sacraments as "devil worship."
Around the middle of the 20th century two amateur western mycologists, R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna, were admitted to these secrets rites and became the first westerners to experience the agape of this sacrament. The ceremony, known as a velada, Spanish for "vigil," took place in a Mazatec mountain village named Huautla de Jimenez, and the shamaness who introduced the Wassons and a few of their friends to the secret rites was named Maria Sabina. Later, as the village was overrun with westerners seeking either god or kicks, she was to rue her action, declaring "From the moment the foreigners arrived the 'holy children' [Mazatec euphemism for the mushrooms, which are otherwise not named directly] lost their purity. They lost their force, they ruined them. Henceforth they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it."
Subsequently the Wassons wrote about their experiences, first in an article in Life magazine, followed by various books. Their accounts triggered a wave of experimentation with these mushrooms which resulted in their eventual classification in the USA and international treaties as a Schedule I drug.
In most western countries possession and use of the mushrooms were declared illegal shortly after their appearance, and therefore their use has been driven underground and is uncontrolled. An exception to that rule is Holland and some other countries in the European Union, where fresh mushrooms can be obtained in smart shops which cater to the needs of psychonauts and others. Dried mushrooms however are considered a "preparation" and thus remain illegal there. Nonetheless there is an active international trade both in mushrooms and in spores, which can be easily grown in sterile medium. (See Drug policy of the Netherlands.) Another exception is the United Kingdom, where fresh magic mushrooms are legal, and only become illegal when 'prepared' (i.e. dried, or made into a tea). Magic mushrooms are widely available for sale throughout the UK, but their legal status is currently under review.
Magic mushrooms can elicit a range of bodily and mental effects, such as:
- Visual imagery
- Auditory effects
- Panic states
- Erotic arousal
- Beatific states
- Confused thinking
- Introspective thinking
- Mental clarity
- Transcendent insight
As with many psychoactive substances, the effects of the mushrooms are both unpredictable and related to set and setting. Generally speaking the experience can last up to six hours or more, is inward oriented, and there can be strong visual and auditory components. Visions and revelations may be experienced, and the effect can range from exhilarating to terrifying. There can be also a total absence of effects, even when under the influence of large doses.
Native practice suggests that the effects are also affected by one's preparation. The Mazatecs purify themselves before a velada, abstaining from meat, eggs, alcohol and sex for four days previous to a velada. The veladas are always done in the dark in a protected and sealed space which no one may enter or leave until all have returned to ordinary reality.
- LSD, mescaline, and DMT are related psychoactive compounds; the former two produce effects very similar to those of psilocybin.
- Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is another psychoactive mushroom, used sacramentally by Siberian shamans, whose alkaloids however are both chemically and symptomatically unrelated to psilocybin. The potency of North-American fly agarics has been confirmed by Siberian shamans, but the methodology of effective use has eluded modern experimenters.
- Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is suspected of being one of the ingredients in the presumably psychoactive drink kykeon taken by the participants to the Eleusinian Mysteries.
A list of slang terms for psychedelic mushrooms is given below:
- God's flesh
- Laughing Jims
- Liberty caps
- Magic mushrooms
- Mexican mushrooms
- Mush (especially in Quebec)
- R. Gordon Wasson, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica
- Alvaro Estrada, Maria Sabina: Her Life and Chants
- The Shroomery (http://www.shroomery.org/)
- The Vaults of Erowid - Psilocybin Mushrooms (http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/)
- Drugs-plaza about magic mushrooms (http://www.drugs-plaza.com/mushrooms.htm)
- The Psychonautical Society (http://www.psychonautical.org) "Dedicated to bringing together people interested in empirical psychology and chemically aided self-exploration." - forum and links for psychonauts
- PsychedelicJones (http://www.psychedelicjones.com/) One man's experiences exploring consiousness with magic mushrooms and other substances
- Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World (1996) ISBN 0898158397
- Psilocybin Mushroom Handbook: Easy Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation (2004) ISBN 0932551645