Psilocybin Mushrooms: A History

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According to “Psilocybe Mushroom History” on Erowid, “Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been part of human culture as far back as the earliest recorded history.”

Today, the relationship between humans and magic mushrooms is somewhat strained. They are outlawed in pretty much every country, on every continent of this world. Instead of being enlightened by them, most people (but not everyone) wrongly fear magic mushrooms, and the unknown ‘threat’ they present. Yet it was not always like this. It is only within recent history that magic mushrooms have fallen under this global persecution. Before that, the relationship between human and mushroom was very different, sometimes turbulent, but beneficial to those who embraced them.

TAKING IT AS FAR BACK AS POSSIBLE

The earliest recordings of magic mushroom use date back to around 9,000 BC. However, many theorise that magic mushrooms have been used since the dawn of the human race. Some, such as the ‘stoned ape theory’ go as far to suggest they could have been an integral part of human evolution. There is currently no way to know for sure just how far back this relationship goes, but you can be assured it is pretty damned far.

THE EARLIEST RECORDS: CAVE PAINTINGS AND STATUES

The history of magic mushrooms is a long and rich one, dating back millennia. The first human representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms can be found depicted in the cave drawings found in the Sahara Desert. Although it is a vast wasteland now, some 7,000 – 9,000 years ago, when these drawings are thought to have been produced, the Sahara was a fertile land covered in vegetation.

Evidence from this region depicts giant mythological beings, usually in a humanoid or animal form, surrounded by dancing horned and feathered creatures. These depictions cover the ancients stone shelters found on the high plateaus of the Sahara. Most importantly, images found around the Tin-Tzarift rock art site depict a line of masked humans, either dressed hieratically or as dancers. All of them hold mushrooms in their right hand. It suggests that mushrooms were held with a religious reverence and it is largely hypothesised that it is the visions gained from magic mushrooms that led to the creativity and inspiration behind all of these paintings.

The next reference in history comes from both the Mayans and Aztecs. Statues found in ancient temples dating back to roughly 1,000-500 BC depict mushrooms, with figures often under their caps. It is generally believed that these were religious symbols of mushrooms gods, and that magic mushrooms were used regularly as part of ceremony.

A culture with multiple Gods, the Aztecs had one God in particular that is largely associated with psychoactive plants. This is Xochipilli, the Prince of Flowers, and the divine patron of “the flowery dream”. In an unearthed statue of Xochipilli engravings of mushrooms, tobacco, morning glory, sinichuichi, and more psychoactive „flowers“ were found. As proposed by Wasson, Schultes and Hofmann, Xochipilli represents entheogenic ecstasy.

NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION

Move forward a few years to the Spanish conquest and colonisation of Central America, and you begin to see further reports backing up the notion that the Aztecs considered magic mushrooms to be a central part of their culture. Stories began to trickle home to Spain of inebriating substances being used as part of religious ceremonies, specifically teonanácatl, a magic mushroom whose Aztec name translates into “flesh of the gods”. This was also the case with Spanish records of the Mixtec people, who during the thirteenth century, regularly used mushrooms. They even had a god of hallucination, who was depicted with a mushroom in each hand.

The Spanish priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, wrote about the use of magic mushrooms by the Aztecs in the Florentine Codex. He wrote:

"The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they called nanacatl and bring on drunkenness, hallucinations and even lechery; they ate these before the dawn, with honey; and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance, some sang and others wept... When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen."

It is now thought that the mushrooms being consumed were likely to have been Psilocybe caerulescens, or/and Psilocybe mexicana.

Unfortunately, the Spanish of the time were quite ruthless in the mandatory integration of Catholicism into the lives of the local peoples. As such, much of their history and culture was wiped out, including the use of magic mushrooms. Whilst the Spanish thought themselves to have won this “war” on the heretic mushroom practices, in reality they never did. The ceremonial use of magic mushrooms was just continuing in the hidden underground.

MUSHROOMS AND THE 20TH CENTURY

Jump forward to the 20th century, and the use of magic mushrooms has been driven so far underground, that Western academics debate whether they even actually exist. Despite the evidence of from the Spanish conquest, many began to believe that the records were mistaken, and it was likely dried peyote that was used. This of course, was highly debated. There were botanists, such as Dr. Blas Pablo Reko who not only believed they existed, but that they were still being used by certain modern Mexican cultures.

The mystery surrounding magic mushrooms began to unravel in the early 1930's. Robert Weitlaner, an amateur anthropologist was fortunate enough to witness a Mazatec mushroom ceremony. Knowing that Dr. Reko and Safford can come to intellectual blows over the subject, he obtained a sample and sent it to Reko with the information that the Otomi tribe were using it in spiritual ceremonies. Reko forwarded samples on to both Harvard university and Stockholm for botanical and chemical analysis, but unfortunately the samples had decayed beyond use by the time they arrived at each destination.

Though the sending of samples could not yield any hard scientific fact, it did gain Reko the support of the Harvard based ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes thought the presence of a mushroom being used in the ceremonies of the Otomi was a substantial enough amount of evidence to question Safford's theory, urging more research to be conducted into the matter. Both Reko and Schultes went out to Mexico to obtain samples in 1938 after hearing that the Mazatecs were collecting Panaeolus sphinctrinus – the main mushroom used in their rituals. Whilst Panaeolus sphinctrinus has been identified as psychoactive, only two separate analysis out of hundreds successfully identified any indole alkaloids. It has been suggested that the collected sample may have in fact been many species of mushrooms, mis-labeled as one.

THE DISCOVERY OF PSILOCYBIN

It wasn’t until the early 50’s that interest into magic mushrooms picked up again. This was done by R. Gordon Wasson, and amateur mycologist. He and his wife travelled to Mexico to see the mushroom ceremonies for themselves. Once again interest arose within the scientific community, and Roger Heim got involved, gaining the help of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in isolating the psychoactive compound of a sample of magic mushrooms. Quite interestingly, it was actually the famous Albert Hoffman, who was currently employed by the company, who first isolated psilocybin, giving Heim everything he need to go public. Heim wrote the first widely distributed article on magic mushrooms, published in LIFE magazine, spreading its knowledge to the masses. As you can probably imagine, this led to an incredible surge in demand for mushrooms in the West, and true recreational and scientific experimentation began.

Throughout the 60’s this popularity continued to surge, and the recreational and therapeutic uses of the fungi became an integral part of the mainstream psychedelic movement of the time. Unfortunately, once again, it was not to last. The rapidly growing popularity and recreational use of magic mushrooms quickly caught the attention of the US government. The use of psilocybin and psilocin were banned in 1968 and became illegal under the "Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970" – with many other countries following suit.

Although magic mushrooms have continued to be used for spiritual enlightenment and recreational use as part of the psychedelic movement, clinical research was all but halted. It is only recently that scientists have been allowed to start studying the effects of psilocybin and psilocin again. Recent research suggests that magic mushrooms are of little noteworthy harm to the health of society. It may not be long before scientists find a medical application for this drug – more and more research is being conducted every day.

THE RISE OF MAGIC TRUFFLES

Once the mushrooms were listed as a drug worldwide, over the time, a completely new trend has emerged and it originated in Holland. Because some types of fungi, like Psilocybe Mexicana, develop subterranean sclerotia. According to the dutch law, those don't count as mushrooms in the real sense and are, therefore, legal. Since sclerotia, the "truffle", also contains those psychoactive ingredients, they are superbly suited for psychonautic purposes.

MAGIC MUSHROOMS TODAY

It is only now, in the last five years or so, that real scientist research has been able to start again. Although it is still an uphill struggle, the research that has been done is finding very positive and encouraging results. The amount of research that has been done is too much to be supressed, and it is unlikely our history will see another period where magic mushrooms are driven completely underground again – or so we hope.

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