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Andy Letcher and the Strange Case of the Deconstructed Mushroom

August 6, 2010 8 comments

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. Read more…

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