[Widely considered to be a highly poisonous mushroom it was a surprise in the early 1970s when John Allegro postulated that Christianity was originally an amanita mushroom cult. To a progressively secular post-Christian society it was an intriguing idea, but to others it was an absurdity. Was this the real Christianity and had our ancestors white-washed the truth yet again? Was this evidence of a buried history of entheogenic use among Western Europeans?

In short, probably not. As mentioned below, it was used as an entheogen in Siberia, but that doesn’t extend to Western Europe and we can’t generalise. Like the datura mentioned below, the harmful effects of amanitas are very well known.

We can’t imagine a congregation using amanita, but it’s possible, even likely, that an individual could consume it and be inspired by an entheogenic experience.

The problem arises that with the dissemination of experience reports, more and more people decide that they too, would like to see God. We suggest that those people spend an appropriate amount of time digesting the negative effects of mushroom poisoning. Neither amanitas not daturas are ideal poster-boys of entheogens in Western Europe.

That said, the prehistoric use of amanitas and psilocybin (and DMT-containing substances among other entheogens ) mentioned below seems highly likely and may well have prodded us in the direction of developing languages, making them highly significant entheogens – prehistorically.]

From Wikipedia on Amanita muscaria:

Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, is a mushroom and psychoactive basidiomycete fungus, one of many in the genus Amanita. Native throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere, Amanita muscaria has been unintentionally introduced to many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, generally as a symbiont with pine and birch plantations, and is now a true cosmopolitan species. It associates with various deciduous and coniferous trees.

This quintessential toadstool is a large white-gilled, white-spotted, usually red mushroom, and is one of the most recognisable and widely encountered in popular culture. Several subspecies with differing cap colour have been recognised, including the brown regalis (often considered a separate species), the yellow-orange flavivolvata, guessowii, formosa, and the pinkish persicina. Genetic studies published in 2006 and 2008 show several sharply delineated clades that may represent separate species.

Although classified as poisonous, reports of human deaths resulting from its ingestion are extremely rare. After parboiling—which weakens its toxicity and breaks down the mushroom’s psychoactive substances—it is eaten in parts of Europe, Asia, and North America. Amanita muscaria is noted for its hallucinogenic properties, with its main psychoactive constituent being the compound muscimol. The mushroom was used as an intoxicant and entheogen by the peoples of Siberia, and has a religious significance in these cultures. There has been much speculation on possible traditional use of this mushroom as an intoxicant in other places such as the Middle East, Eurasia, North America, and Scandinavia.”

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“Fly agarics are known for the unpredictability of their effects. Depending on habitat and the amount ingested per body weight, effects can range from nausea and twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic crisis-like effects (low blood pressure, sweating and salivation), auditory and visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, ataxia, and loss of equilibrium.

In cases of serious poisoning the mushroom causes delirium, somewhat similar in effect to anticholinergic poisoning (such as that caused by Datura stramonium), characterised by bouts of marked agitation with confusion, hallucinations, and irritability followed by periods of central nervous system depression. Seizures and coma may also occur in severe poisonings. Symptoms typically appear after around 30 to 90 minutes and peak within three hours, but certain effects can last for several days. In the majority of cases recovery is complete within 12 to 24 hours. The effect is highly variable between individuals, with similar doses potentially causing quite different reactions. Some people suffering intoxication have exhibited headaches up to ten hours afterwards. Retrograde amnesia and somnolence can result following recovery.”

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“The wide range of psychedelic effects can be variously described as depressant, sedative-hypnotic, dissociative, and deliriant; paradoxical effects may occur. Perceptual phenomena such as macropsia and micropsia may occur, which may have been the inspiration for the effect of mushroom-consumption in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, although “no evidence has ever been found that linked Carroll to recreational drug use”. Additionally, A. muscaria cannot be commercially cultivated, due to its mycorrhizal relationship with the roots of pine trees.”

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Philologist, archeologist, and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Marco Allegro postulated that early Christian theology was derived from a fertility cult revolving around the entheogenic consumption of A. muscaria in his 1970 book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, but his theory has found little support by scholars outside the field of ethnomycology. The book was roundly discredited by academics and theologians, including Sir Godfrey Driver, Emeritus Professor of Semitic Philology at Oxford University, and Henry Chadwick, the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Christian author John C. King wrote a detailed rebuttal of Allegro’s theory in the 1970 book A Christian View of the Mushroom Myth; he notes that neither fly agarics nor their host trees are found in the Middle East, even though cedars and pines are found there, and highlights the tenuous nature of the links between biblical and Sumerian names coined by Allegro. He concludes that if the theory was true, the use of the mushroom must have been “the best kept secret in the world” as it was so well concealed for two thousand years.

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…And this, from Wikipedia’s Ethnomycology:

Besides mycological determination in the field, ethnomycology depends to a large extent on anthropology and philology. One of the major debates among ethnomycologists is Wasson’s theory that the Soma mentioned in the Rigveda of the Indo-Aryans was the Amanita muscaria mushroom.

Following his example similar attempts have been made to identify psychoactive mushroom usage in many other (mostly) ancient cultures, with varying degrees of credibility. Another much written about topic is the content of the Kykeon, the sacrament used during the Eleusinian mysteries in ancient Greece between approximately 1500 BCE and 396 CE. Although not an ethnomycologist as such, philologist John Allegro has made an important contribution suggesting, in a book controversial enough to have his academic career destroyed, that Amanita muscaria was not only consumed as a sacrament but was the main focus of worship in the more esoteric sects of Sumerian religion, Judaism and early Christianity. Clark Heinrich claims that Amanita muscaria use in Europe was not completely wiped out by Orthodox Christianity but continued to be used (either consumed or merely symbolically) by individuals and small groups such as medieval Holy Grail myth makers, alchemists and Renaissance artists.

While Wasson views historical mushroom use primarily as a facilitator for the shamanic or spiritual experiences core to these rites and traditions, McKenna takes this further, positing that the ingestion of psilocybin was perhaps primary in the formation of language and culture and identifying psychedelic mushrooms as the original “Tree of Knowledge“. There is indeed some research supporting the theory that psilocybin ingestion temporarily increases neurochemical activity in the language centers of the brain, indicating a need for more research into the uses of psychoactive plants and fungi in human history.

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