The History of Magic Mushrooms
The history of magic mushrooms is a troubled one, yet we have maintained their use throughout it, allowing them to finally begin to be realised for their medical potential today.
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
Getting back to what we definitely know though, as mentioned, the earliest recorded reference to magic mushrooms were found in cave African cave paintings dating back to roughly 9,000 BC. They suggested that magic mushrooms were a possibly a cultural significance, or at least inspiration for the art.
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.
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 – driving it 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.
It wasn’t until the early 30’s that magic mushrooms were rediscovered by the West, when Robert Weitlaner, and amateur anthropologist, witnessed a Mazatec mushroom ceremony. It made scientists like Reko very excited, and samples were sent to both Stockholm and Harvard University for analysis. However, the samples were too decayed by the time they arrived to be of any scientific use. Unfortunately, once again, events were destined to get in the way of the sacred mushrooms, as the onset of World War II ground all scientific study into the matter to a halt.
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 use of magic mushrooms, and many other hallucinogens, was outlawed across the globe, spurred on by the United States. Although their recreational use has continued up until this day (illegally), scientific research, which was just coming into its own, was quashed.
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.