The fact that mushrooms are neither plants nor animals, but simply mushrooms, has tasked us with creating a new category in our thinking. This is not so easy, as we are used to classifying things according to patterns familiar and comprehensible to us. Mushrooms are just different. We do not understand them fully yet. Especially difficult is a specific subcategory of mushrooms. Our perspective of this kind of mushroom is determined by constants that transpire on completely different levels, so much so that the discussion surrounding them is almost entirely subjective. I’m talking about magic mushrooms. Your take on them will stem from political attitudes, personal experience, spiritual narratives and mythological, mycological and medical knowledge. This can lead to confusion, especially if the various positions are reported upon in an entirely contradictory manner. This article will in no way contribute to offsetting the confusion, but I would nonetheless like to bring together some exciting points about this wondrous mushroom and tell their story once more.
1. Legal Status
As with everything that is mind-expanding rather than mind-numbing, such as alcohol and sugar, magic mushrooms are illegal. For a time their prohibition could be circumvented. In the 2006 version of German law, only the possession of “plants and parts of plants” was illegal. Mushrooms, however, were not sold as plants but in fact as mushrooms. Thus, you could not be prosecuted for the sale of mushrooms until “mushrooms” were added to the law in 2009.
Nomenclature for these mushrooms is abundant, and the variety is very telling. In parts of the Americas, they are called “flesh of the gods” and in Austria, “närrische Schwammerl,” or foolish fungi. In certain religious ceremonies in Latin America the belief was that God spoke directly to you via the mushroom. In Europe people believed that consuming them made you mad.
Psilocybin is the active substance in magic mushrooms that makes them so special. Once consumed it splits into various substances, one of which is psilocin, which induces a state of rapture. Psilocybin is found in 116 species of mushrooms. Because testimonials are so highly individual and various, it is hard to say what really happens. Yet there is a consensus that psilocybin is not a hallucinogenic but rather an entheogenic substance, meaning it conjures a feeling of all-encompassing unity. Similar to the active agents in ecstasy, mescaline and LSD, it has a high affinity for serotonin receptors in the brain, but unlike LSD it does not affect dopamine receptors. Since the 1960s medical experiments have been conducted with psilocybin. For the first time in 2017, results demonstrated sustained improvement among patients diagnosed with chronic depression. Here the capacity of the substance to create emotional breakthroughs and new perspectives is decisive. A positive long-term effect on brain waves was demonstrated. Further, psilocybin is neither poisonous nor addictive. An overdose resulting in death is virtually impossible because people cannot consume the quantity of fungal material required to do so. Cases of death do occur from time to time due to mushroom pickers mistaking magic mushrooms for poisonous species.
The first evidence of the use of psilocybin mushrooms, in cave paintings in Algeria, can be dated to 5000 B.C. In Central and South America, engraved stones with mushroom motifs were found between 1000 and 500 B.C. We also know that Germanic peoples used toadstools and other mushrooms in divination. Mushrooms would arouse the western world’s attention again during the colonization of the Americas, where colonialists and missionaries tried to suppress what they perceived as a heathen custom, to the extent that scientists even denied mushrooms’ existence. Their irreversible spread in the west first occurred when R. Gordon Wasson and Valentina Wasson met the shaman, Maria Sabina, in 1953. As an eight-year-old child, Maria Sabina had found and eaten mushrooms in the forest, calling them “holy children” from then on. Shortly thereafter she healed her uncle and eventually became the village shaman. Her mushroom ceremonies had the sole purpose of healing. In an act of generosity, she let New York banker and hobby mycologist Wasson and his wife into her hut as witnesses. With Maria’s permission Wasson published an article about it in Life Magazine, after which white men from the west with their long blond hair and beards wouldn’t leave her alone. They were all searching for God. Maria Sabina became world-famous. Even the CIA was interested in her mushroom magic, yet for other reasons. Toward the end of her life, Maria Sabina felt that the power of the “holy children” had left her, for they had been eaten too arbitrarily too often outside of ceremonies.
5. Timothy Leary
In 1961, Timothy Leary was the first psychologist, along with Richard Alpert, to conduct experiments with psilocybin, LSD and mescaline on Harvard students. Because of this both of them were dismissed from their positions at the university. A short while later Leary was sentenced to 30 years of prison because large quantities of marijuana were found with his daughter. He was able to escape from jail in California, find refuge with the Black Panthers until fleeing to Switzerland. He became famous with his S.M.I.2L.E. concept and “Set and Setting,” rising to a kind of guru status in the hippie movement. The Moody Blues extolled him in their phantastic song, “Legend of a Mind” from 1968. As the lyrics go, “Timothy Leary is dead, No, no, no, he’s outside, looking in,” which likely refers to out-of-body experiences. Leary was not dead at the time. He died in 1996.
There are many ways to render magic mushrooms edible. They are usually brewed in tea or eaten with honey. You can also put them on pizza. Erowid has an excellent compilation of recipes.