A Complete History of Mushrooms
The term mushrooms refers to a group of fungi of which only several species are commonly consumed; eaten on or in salads, sandwiches, soups and pizza. However, there are other kinds, particularly psilocybin mushrooms, that have been ingested for thousands of years, and that leave those consuming it in an altogether different state of mind. Often referred to as “magic mushrooms” these can be found growing throughout the world, have a long, long history, and cause vivid hallucinations to those who eat them.
Mushrooms have likely been used since prehistoric times to provide shamanistic and religious visions, as well as to provide relaxation. There’s faint evidence for their use in North Africa, primarily from cave drawings, and statues have been found in Central America with mushrooms prominent—although they could be phalluses; with statues it’s sometimes hard to tell.
Either way, they appeared to be used routinely in rituals. The Aztecs described them as sacred mushrooms, and they also described them as teonanacatl, or being “the flesh of the gods.” It enabled a form of intercession with the gods. They might be served with honey or chocolate to make the flavor more palatable.
The Mixtecs of central Mexico also used mushrooms to communicate with their gods, in this case Piltzintecuhtli, meaning “seven flower”. Naturally he’s the god of magic mushrooms and other hallucinogens, including peyote.
When the Spanish and Portuguese were rampaging through the region in the 16th century, they realized that a lot of local customs involved these mushrooms, so they clamped down on them. Effectively, they viewed the convulsions, visions, and babbling the mushrooms caused as the natives communing with the devil. The continent was rapidly converted to Christianity, and the so-called pagan ways were lost for many practitioners.
Some mushrooms were known to be poisonous to people in Western literature—there’s a very good reason why the death cap is called this name—but the use of magic mushrooms appears to have escaped general notice. The first mention of a hallucinogenic experience was recorded in London in 1799, where a man had served psilocybin mushrooms to his family. The variety concerned was the liberty cap mushroom.
There are sporadic reports of mushroom use from around the world, from fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia to kava kava rituals involving mushrooms in Polynesia. It is the distinctive red cap with white spots of the fly agaric mushroom that really stands out, and it’s conceivable that Lewis Carroll experimented with it before writing Alice in Wonderland—the clue is in the story where the caterpillar tells Alice that the mushroom is the key to completing her journey.
It’s entirely possible, then, that the Victorians knew about the hallucinatory effects of mushrooms—there are enough examples of rituals around the world that they could hardly fail to be aware of the practices of various tribes.
Despite their potent nature and ready availability, mushrooms still didn’t make much of an impact compared to heroin and cocaine. It would be half a century before they really started to become well known.
Robert Gordon Wasson did much to publicize mushroom use in 1957, after he and his wife participated in a mushroom-fuelled ritual held by the Maztec tribe of south Mexico. Wasson was an ethnomycologist (basically meaning he studied mushrooms and how different people used them), and he published several items, including an article in Life Magazine, about mushroom use.
This resulted in a surge of interest in the Maztec community, and it resulted in a large number of people descending on it eager to experience the same effects. Naturally this made Wasson unpopular with the locals, who accused him of ruining their way of life.
Wasson identified a number of mushroom species that were similar to the psilocybin mushrooms used in the ritual and he also identified fly agaric as being another species that caused hallucinations. Various people carried the research further, with two people setting up the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960, which studied the use of mushrooms to reduce reoffending rates in prisoners. It also granted them free license to take a ton of shrooms. This didn’t go down well with Harvard, who shut down the project after three years.
The use of mushrooms exploded in the 1970s, particularly after LSD became available. Teens and adults quickly realized there was a free source of getting high just waiting to be picked. It was also, in many jurisdictions, much less risky than buying LSD on the street. While mushrooms were technically banned, most law enforcement agents couldn’t tell the difference between wild edible mushrooms and psychoactive mushrooms.
The legality of mushrooms is reasonably clear in the United States. Psilocybin is banned, so any plant that contains it is also banned. These mushrooms grow wild and are very hard to eradicate, but deliberately growing them counts as manufacture in most states. Possessing the spores, however, is not illegal except in three states: Idaho, California, and Georgia—although this may change. The reason is that the spores do not contain psilocybin. These were all classed as Schedule I drugs in 1971.
The research into psilocybin has been impressive. Since the 1990s, the drug has been reviewed for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches, and a number of other conditions. It looks as though mushrooms are starting to go the way of marijuana in terms of possible medical applications.
However, that doesn’t mean that we should underestimate the addictive potential of mushrooms. The effects can be addictive, and this causes an issue. That’s where rehab treatment can help, and it’s now easier than ever to find the right one for you. Call to speak to a helpline specialist toll-free at .