Andy Letcher and the Strange Case of the Deconstructed Mushroom
What better place for a discussion on the rarefied subject of magic mushrooms than the hippy-oriented Sunrise Festival in Somerset, England, just down the road from Stonehenge? On a hot Saturday afternoon in early June 2010, a group of us gathered in the Ancient Futures yurt to hear Andy Letcher’s talk on ‘Reading the Codex: Making Sense of Magic Mushrooms’.
Andy Letcher, a holder of two doctorates—the first ecology related, the second concerning Bardic performance in contemporary Paganism—is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, a comprehensive and informative overview of mushroom culture and its position in the larger psychedelic pantheon. Published in 2006, the book was generally well received and critically acclaimed, but due to its revisionist stance on many of the cherished theories concerning psychedelic use throughout history, it has also excited much controversy and opposition. On some internet message boards this has escalated to open hostility and outright abuse, and, perhaps worse still, the accusation that Andy has never even taken mushrooms.
In a nutshell, Shroom argues that hard evidence for much of the received wisdom concerning past psychedelic use—with a particular focus on mushrooms—simply isn’t there, and it is largely a wish-fulfilment back projection on the part of the modern psychedelic movement. So, how come such an issue has got many people’s back up? Perhaps it’s the sureness of Andy’s academic position: I must be right because the evidence (or lack of it) speaks for itself. Perhaps it’s because he takes material that is understood by many to serve as myth or half-truth rather than solid fact, and by insisting on holding it up to factual scrutiny rather tramples it into the ground. Or perhaps it’s because his literal evidence-based approach to the subject cuts right against the grain of the enchanted, mythopoeic, supra-rational radiance of mushroom gnosis itself.
As he began his lecture, no doubt aware of this undercurrent of feeling, Andy laid his cards on the table. He described himself as a ‘hippy’, an insider, who, though he’s an academic is still very much ‘one of us’. Indeed he does take mushrooms, though he prefers lower doses, and he has experienced that all-important gnosis first hand. With long flowing centrally parted hair, earrings and a neat distinguished-looking King Charles I-style moustache and goatee, he certainly looks the part of a hippy; and as the talk progressed, he used demotic, non-academic language, such as ‘tripping their tits off’ and liberal lashings of swear words.
Having softened up the audience to a degree, Andy introduced the flip side of his persona, so to speak, the academic with the fact-based arguments, which in the case of this particular lecture related specifically to psilocybin mushroom use in Britain. As an academic, he’s an aficionado of the structuralist and post-structuralist schools of thought, which formulate a method of analysis that puts great emphasis on meaning as part of the cultural context in which it’s expressed, as opposed to any intrinsic or absolute meaning residing in a word or other signifier. An obvious example of meaning shift can be found in the word ‘gay’, which has been so universally adopted as a synonym for homosexuality that its usual signification has all but disappeared.
In Shroom, applying the method to the cultural context of the psychedelic movement, Andy concludes that its members were all too ready to embrace any and every notion of historical psychedelic use, as it served to buttress and lend legitimacy to current psychedelic practices. Thus the past was viewed through the cultural lenses of the present and reinvented accordingly. One by one, those historical assumptions are set up for structuralist scrutiny and found wanting. Supposed Druidic mushroom use is shown to be a fantasy coddled together from the myths of many cultures; witches riding henbane-smeared broomsticks is proto-feminist propaganda; Santa Claus the shaman in fly-agaric coordinated clothing is a 19th century construction, further fostered by Coca Cola and Robert Graves. And so on, and so on.
On the basis of a show of hands, only a very few in the audience had read Shroom and so perhaps didn’t know what they were in for, namely more of this debunking-oriented rhetoric. Sure enough Andy informed us that the first recorded example of intentional psilocybin mushroom use in Britain occurred as late as the 1970s. He said that mushrooms didn’t show up in the archaeological record and that the only earlier recorded examples of mushroom consumption were medical accounts of (apparently psychedelic) mushroom poisonings, which he described with some relish. This then is the only hard evidence we have on the subject.
‘Magic Mushrooms’ by Roger B. on Flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing
By now some in the audience were getting restless as they grasped the import of what Andy was implying—that because evidence of intentional, as opposed to misadventurous, mushroom use wasn’t there then maybe, even probably, it didn’t happen at all till the 1950s. A few people made challenges, their gist being that surely unrecorded instances of intentional mushroom use must be numerous. One guy told of an oral tradition of such use that he personally knew of, which stretched back at least three generations, to some point well before the dawn of the psychedelic era. It would have been interesting to have heard more from him.
Readers of Shroom will find Andy’s position familiar, for within its pages he declares that there is no evidence of pre-psychedelic era intentional mushroom use (outside of indigenous shamanistic communities) and therefore any assumptions of such use amount to ‘wishful thinking’. Wishful thinking…? What about other measures, you might ask, such as the balance of probability? Surely if past medical records of mushroom ‘poisonings’ exist, it shows that mushrooms were around and people were eating them; so how many dozens, scores or even hundred of events must have occurred over the centuries that didn’t require medical intervention, perhaps because the protagonists didn’t experience them as wholly unpleasant, or even, dare we say it, enjoyable?
Andy has an answer for that one, namely that within the British zeitgeist, non-edible mushrooms have been unequivocally regarded as poisonous and therefore avoided, experimented with only by the foolhardy and the nutritionally desperate. Added to that, because there was no cultural framework for construing a mushroom experience as ‘recreational’ or ‘psychonautic’ or whatever, then anyone undergoing ‘trippy effects’ would believe they were succumbing to a poisoning, and therefore, because of the law of set, have a bad experience. Moreover, mushroom taxonomy lagged behind that of plants, so when it came to identifying which mushrooms were safe or otherwise, things were most unreliable.
This argument certainly holds a lot of plausibility up until the19th century, when the climate began to change rapidly. Firstly taxonomy improved, so that mycologists could accurately identify which mushroom species were innocuous, which were poisonous and which were somewhere in between. Secondly drug experience began to be written about and enter public consciousness. The opium usage of Coleridge and his friend De Quincey was the most well-known example, and as Andy helpfully points out, there was also Humphry Davy’s use of nitrous oxide, Weir Mitchell’s use of peyote and the French hashish candy tradition. But according to Andy these ‘narcotic perspectives’ made no difference to the perception of mushrooms, which were still regarded as poisonous.
Only a few pages later, though, he discusses Mordecai Cooke’s The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860), which performs exactly that function—to put psychotropic mushrooms within a narcotic perspective, principally drawing on Siberian shamanic use of the fly-agaric. Cooke was well aware of the ‘recreational’ propensity of both the fly-agaric and psilocybin mushrooms, Andy admits; but then he says it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that Cooke took mushrooms himself, and that in later life Cooke went back on his more liberal stance, warning people to avoid Liberty Caps and indeed overindulgence in all its forms. This warning then, Andy argues, headed off a potential Victorian mushroom craze and kept the fear of mushrooms as agents of poisoning ‘firmly in place’.
Those statements are worthy of closer examination. Firstly, considering Cooke knew his drugs and knew his mushrooms, and wrote with perspicacity about both, it is indeed possible that he might have experimented with the latter in his adventurous youth—he was clearly something of an ur-Beat or hippy figure—but then again he didn’t exactly want to broadcast it from the rooftops. Even today writers of drug literature are sometimes coy about their own involvement; nowhere in Shroom does Andy own up to using mushrooms himself. This is totally understandable for a variety of reasons, not the least being publisher pressure to appear ‘respectable’ and to maintain authorial distance from controversial subject matter.
Secondly, within Seven Sisters, Cooke gives a Wasson-like discourse on why different cultures regard the same mushroom (the fly-agaric) as respectively poisonous and desirable; he then details the Siberian methods of neutralising the poisonous alkoloids—drying and boiling—and then goes on to describe the narcotic effects, making them sound reasonably alluring. This then is information putative Victorian myconauts might well have absorbed and perhaps acted upon. Cleary the cat is out of the bag! Moreover it is axiomatic that Cooke’s later warning is addressed to those who are savvy about mushrooms in that respect, for why warn against intentionally taking a believed poison? It corresponds to warnings about the evils of drink, tobacco or opium—a caution against moral decay, not perilous toxicity. In fact Cooke’s act of issuing a warning is, when you think about it, an indication of the likelihood of people using mushrooms and the desire to head it off and perhaps disclaim responsibility.
On top of that, how can we be sure that Cooke’s warning was taken at face value and wholeheartedly believed by all who read it—especially as it amounts to a recapitulation of what he’d said earlier? And as we know all too well, anti-drug edicts are self-defeating, as they encourage at least as many as they put off. What is beyond doubt is that after Seven Sisters literary references to narcotic mushroom states continued to generate. The most famous example is, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), where Alice partakes of a mushroom in order to make her bigger or smaller—a reference to the macropsia effect of fly-agaric—and overall her adventures take place in a notably hallucinatory dimension. Then there are more realistic accounts of mushroom ‘tripping’ in the works of Charles Kingsley and H. G. Wells. But the most striking example is American John Uri Lloyd’s Etidorhpa (1897), which, with its protracted references to mushroom intoxication, detailed authoritative descriptions of heavenly and hellish states, and also time dilation within the hallucinatory world, strongly hints that personal experience as much as imagination is at work in its creation.
The state of Victorian psychotropic mushroom knowledge and how it developed from 1860 onwards is then a grey area, worthy of further research. Armed with the information that their effects were intoxicating rather than poisonous and that other cultures, namely the Siberians, used them intentionally for that purpose, how many must have ventured to experiment between 1860 and 1960? Five, ten, twenty, fifty? Surely, on the balance of probability and plain common sense, it must be more than zero. But…and, as far as I know Andy is absolutely right in this respect, they left no unequivocal evidence of such experiments…
But what evidence might we expect to find? There is a striking circularity to this whole evidence argument, namely that the only cases likely to present to record makers are the negative ones, so naturally all the records are going to be negative. How exactly would one have gone about creating a record of intentional psychotropic mushroom use that would have disseminated itself into the cultural framework and remained visible to a 21st century researcher? Perhaps diaries and unpublished books were written and have now been lost to posterity. Or, more likely, if people were ‘doing mushrooms’ the activity would have been regarded by others not ‘in the know’ as suspicious, so instead it went on clandestinely, with record-making absolutely shunned. If people didn’t openly talk about it then, and because mushroom picking and consuming is an ostensibly innocent activity, usually rurally focussed, it would not have been associated with other types of drug taking by general observers or the authorities, and therefore would have remained under the radar of external record-making agencies, such as newspapers.
‘Fly-agarics’ by notacrime on Flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing
What about orally transmitted accounts? Well, a sceptic might argue that such accounts could easily be fabricated, but, as I said earlier, one guy in the audience talked of a tradition that encompassed a third-party, that party’s father and grandfather, and he sounded genuine to me—if you’re reading this, good sir, please tells us more! From my own experience of using fly-agaric in the New Forest area in the mid-’70s, I can say for sure that a sizeable network of such use existed there, where the mushroom is most plentiful, and though I only had one such trip myself, recorded in The Mad Artist, others had many. This is, of course, within the timescale of the psychedelic era; but old hippies who were middle-aged at the time implied it had been going on for donkey’s years, and that their fly-agaric knowledge came not from the likes of Wasson, of whom they’d never heard, but through a local oral tradition.
Well, back in the yurt the lecture went on, and the fact is that Andy is such a good talker, such a quick-witted and articulate guy, that he managed to fend off most of the challenges and retain the upper hand. Another audience member raised a question, but before he even voiced it, he said with a sense of defeat, ‘I already know what you’re going to say to this.’ He then put forward the idea that the church had perhaps destroyed evidence of earlier mushroom cults, sanitising the historical picture. Without any evidence to support such a claim, it didn’t seem worth speculating about. Andy’s point had indeed sunk in.
But if the mood got occasionally sombre what with all this cold water sloshing around, Andy strove to lighten things up a little. In a reassuring tone, he said that it’s okay to believe that the Druids took magic mushrooms if you want to. Nobody had voiced such a belief, and it seemed to me an oddish thing to say, like telling a child it’s okay to believe in fairies. A few in the audience murmured back, ‘But what do you believe?’—perhaps the sixty-four thousand dollar question of the day. Having drafted a distinctly surreal version of the past, where nothing is granted any ontological relevance unless it has a published or similarly evidential source, Andy had certainly left people wondering.
‘Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis’ by Genrich Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1889)
As a comprehensive overview of mushroom culture, or ‘shroomology’, Shroom is indeed a most worthy addition to the canon of psychedelic literature. Personally I really enjoyed it when I first read it, thinking it well written, an engaging page turner of a book, which is packed with a host of useful information, very expertly marshalled together. When Andy isn’t riding the debunking hobbyhorse, he has some very illuminating and uplifting things to say about the world of psychedelia, and his true insider status, his hippy consciousness is indeed manifest. But the debunking agenda is very extensive, as Andy, playing devil’s advocate to the psychedelic enthusiast who will see a mushroom in every story, examines a wide range of aspects of psychedelic use, past and present, his pail of cold water always at the ready.
For example, even where there is rock solid evidence of a long-standing tradition, such as that of South American ayahuasca use, Andy will still argue that many tribes avoid the substance because of negative associations. He also tells us that according to statistics most people in Holland who have taken mushrooms only do so once or twice in their lives. Unlike mushrooms, cannabis does show up in the archaeological record, but Andy says that is no guarantee it was used psychoactively. Moreover, if we interpret mushroom-like objects in historical and pre-historical art as mushrooms, we may be guilty of Rorschach-style projection, Andy cautions. And to top it all, in Andy’s reckoning Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ was only ‘supposedly’ opium inspired—even though Coleridge’s own Preface states the poem came out of an opium dream.
Nowhere in Shroom is this doubting tendency more apparent than when Andy considers the two cornerstones of presumed psychedelic usage in the ancient world: Soma and Eleusis. In both cases exactly the right cultural contexts and quite extensive evidence does exist, but naturally Andy is going to do battle with it, and every tool in the structuralist’s armoury is employed in the attempt to knock down or at least weaken the various theories.
In the case of Soma, he warms up by spending a whole chapter casting doubt on the credibility of the major figure in shroomology: R. Gordon Wasson. Andy’s dismantling of Wasson reminds me uncannily of the exercise performed by Richard De Mille on Carlos Castaneda in Castaneda’s Journey (1976). A reasonable portion of faint praise is backed up a many-pronged attack, a steady trawl through life and work in order to find shortcomings and thereby deliver a death of a thousand cuts. It would take too long to detail the myriad ways in which Andy undermines Wasson, but they include highlighting his amateur, ‘armchair’ status as an anthropologist, his massive ego as a banker, his perception of a profit motivation in his mushroom work, and his affair with a fly-agaric shamaness, which perhaps rendered her testimony suspect. All of this supports Andy’s central accusation against Wasson, which is that he had a preconceived theory that world religions started as mushroom cults, and he manipulated his research to make it fit this theory—a ‘myth’ which Andy uses all his powers to deconstruct.
So when it comes to Soma itself, Andy subjects Wasson’s fly-agaric hypothesis to the utmost scrutiny, and indeed creates room for doubt, using the earlier characterisation of Wasson to back up his case. But he doesn’t just stop there. Surely, we say to ourselves, the identity of Soma may be in doubt, but from the detailed descriptions in the Vedic Hymns, there is no doubt that it must have been a psychoactive of some sort…? After considering the various alternative candidates, Andy does indeed voice the very possibility that it wasn’t, using a rapturous description of tea drinking to make the point that folk will wax lyrical about anything.
Then we come to the rites of Eleusis in ancient Greece, a sacred ceremony, enduring for nearly two thousand years, which also involved the consumption of a potion, the kykeon, prior to entering an initiation hall and experiencing the profound and ecstatic mystery. We know this much, and even though it was punishable on pain of death to reveal the content of the mystery, we also know that a certain Aristides contributed a description, talking of a ‘rivalry between seeing and hearing’—a reference to synaesthesia perhaps? And in The Road to Eleusis, by Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck (1978), there are numerous other pointers to the kykeon’s status as an ergot-based psychoactive.
So whilst Andy admits to the possibility that the kykeon may have been hallucinogenic, he also says that the history of religion contains similar examples of epiphanies where no potion was involved; and yes he also makes the inevitable suggestion that the potion wasn’t psychoactive and that close to two thousand years of mass transcendental experience may all be attributable to placebo effect.
But if the kykeon and indeed Soma were the entheogenic equivalents of non-alcoholic lager, then why bother with them at all? Why are they important and why do they figure so significantly in the literature in both cases? If their effects were of the placebo variety, are we to assume that the large majority of participants were effectively fooled by a sham? One might think that to postulate both Soma and Eleusis could be put down to placebo effect is to clutch at straws, but each of us can make up our own minds about that.
However, back in the Ancient Futures yurt, an enterprising audience member challenged Andy about the by now rather vexed issue of record making. He said that at what point might anyone expect records to be made of the use of any vegetable, and is the absence of such records a firm indication of lack of use? Helpfully he gave an example—watercress. At this Andy laughed heartily, long and deep. He then countered by saying he would hardly expect any religion to be founded on the use of watercress! So…perhaps even Andy himself finds the ‘placebo theory’ a little hard to swallow.
Taking another line of attack, Andy also discussed the famous pre-historic image of a bemushroomed shaman from the Tassili Plateau, which has been embraced by psychedelic enthusiasts as iconic evidence of the long psychedelic tradition. Holding up the image, Andy then played his structuralist trump card, telling us this wasn’t the original but a copy by Kat Harrison, former wife of Terence McKenna, in which she’d doctored the mushroom-like protuberances in order to make them more convincing. Like Wasson, she’d been tampering with the evidence, enabling the Rorschach projection of the psychedelic enthusiast to take over and put the matter beyond doubt when in fact it wasn’t.
What anyone can believe, based on reproductions of all kinds and a Neolithic Era original is an open question; but what is interesting about this whole Rorschach argument is that it clearly cuts both ways. Whilst the psychedelic enthusiast will see mushrooms, the sceptic will see anything but, and the sceptical agenda can therefore easily become a flip side, negative version of the enthusiast’s, excising the mushroom from every story and practising a campaign of floccinaucinihilipilification towards historical psychedelic use.
As for the structuralist technique of criticism, it clearly works well against some of the more fuzzy areas of psychedelic belief, but far less well against others, where, whichever way you look at it, the evidence is very compelling. And the bottom line here is that though Wasson, Harrison and others may well have loaded the dice, they may still have been right about the significance of psychedelics in the history of philosophy and religions, and proof of their suspect cultural perspectives is not proof that the whole thing is whitewash.
And as for Andy’s own ‘theory’, expressed near the beginning of Shroom—that Western mushroom use dates back only to the 1950s—one might well think it’s a case of treating absence of evidence as evidence of absence, moving away from a neutral position. For its credibility, it relies on the preponderance of published sources that talk negatively about mushroom effects, and the idea that they were believed by all who read them. Interestingly, buried within the scores of pages in Shroom that make this argument, there is a little disclaimer, where Andy admits we have no first-hand accounts from the ‘victims’ of mushroom ‘poisonings’, so it’s impossible prove they were never knowingly consumed—one sentence that says so very much. Yes, absolutely, there were no Middle Ages, Renaissance or Victorian equivalents of Erowid!
If intentional mushroom tripping were taking place before the 1950s then there were simply no parameters by which it could have been publicly aired. What was different about the psychedelic era was that for the first time a climate evolved where the alternative view, the positive side of the forbidden fruit equation, could at last be voiced and go on record; and of course the practices then spread exponentially. No such paradigm existed before, so whatever took place did so underground and was therefore invisible; and it’s easy to regard invisibility as non-existence. The next step should be to attempt to discover holders of knowledge of long-standing mushroom oral traditions and get them to present what they know for scrutiny. If there was one in that Ancient Futures yurt that day, there must be many others worldwide.