By Ina Woolcott
What is Fly Agaric?
Also known as Amanita Muscaria, this is a large, distinctive, commonly found ‘magic’ mushroom across the British Isles, Northern America, Europe, Siberia and Asia with strong psychedelic effects. The mushroom has been widely transported into the southern hemisphere, including New Zealand, Australia, South America and South Africa, generally to be found under introduced pine trees. Although un-related to other psychoactive fungi such as the Psilocybe species it has also been used in shamanic cultures to communicate with the spirit world. It’s cap is orange/red to scarlet in colour and between 8 to 20cm (3-8 in) in diameter. It is to be found naturally in birch, pine, spruce and fir woodlands. The volva is scattered across the cap in white or yellow flecks (or warts) and it has white gills. The stem is white and 5 to 20 cm high (approx 2-8 inches) It is worth noting that the red colour may fade in older mushrooms and after it has rained.
The mushroom is poisonous, but fatal reactions rarely occur, unless dozens are eaten raw. Most fatalities (90% or more) are from ingesting the greenish-yellowish-brownish mottled death cap (Amanita phalloides), or one of the destroying angels (Amanita virosa).
Fly Agaric contains a number of psychoactive compounds: ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscazone and muscarine. Muscimol (3hydroxy-5-aminomethy-1 isoxazole, an unsaturated cyclic hydroxamic acid) is the most significant. Muscarine was discovered in 1869 and for a long time believed to be THE active hallucinogenic agent, until the late 1960s, when the renowned scientists Dr. Albert Hofmann and Dr. Richard Schultes discovered, almost at the same time as Dr. Eugster in Switzerland and Dr. Takemoto in Japan that the active compounds were in fact ibotenic acid and muscimol. Muscarine binds with Muscarinic acetylcholine receptor exciting the neurons bearing these receptors.
Who uses Fly Agaric and for what purpose?
Ancient tribes and civilisations used hallucinogenic fungi to enter the spirit world. The fly agaricmay have been the earliest hallucinogenic substance used for religious or shamanic purposes, dating back possibly over 10,000 years. The shamanic preparation and use of the mushroom are meant to induce higher levels of consciousness, vivid visions, spiritual growth, elation and hyperactivity. They also alter the perception of sight, sounds etc (the senses) and change/enhance the feelings and thoughts of the user. The shamans were intermediaries between the common folk and the unseen worlds of spirit. The shamans, or medicine men, of East Asia and Siberia used the mushroom mentally ‘flying’ to other levels of reality.
Siberians have a story about the fly agaric, (wapaq), that it enabled Big Raven to carry a whale to its home. In the story, the deity Vahiyinin, meaning Existence, spat on to the earth, his spittle becoming the wapaq and his saliva the flecks, or warts. Once he had experienced the power of thewapaq, Raven was extremely exhilarated and told it to grow forever on earth so his children, the people, could learn from it.
Reindeer in northern Europe are drawn to the fly agaric’s euphoric effects. The Siberian people would note the intoxicated behaviour of such animals and slaughter them to get the same effects from eating the meat.
The active hallucinogenic ingredient is passed out in the urine of those ingesting the mushrooms. Sometimes the shaman/medicine man, takes the mushrooms, and then the rest of the tribe drink his urine. Though sounding highly unpleasant to modern ears, if the shaman had been fasting, the urine would have mainly been water containing the hallucinogenic compounds.
To minimise the toxic side effects the mushroom would be processed in some way e.g. dried out, made into a tea/broth/soup, smoked or made into ointments. When dried out the hallucinogenic chemicals are more concentrated (the ibotenic acid is changed into the more stable and less poisonous muscimol). Smaller doses may invoke nausea and a variety of other effects. These effects range from twitching to drowsiness, lowered blood pressure, increased sweat and saliva, visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, and hallucinations. In near-fatal doses it has been known to cause swollen features and delirium, together with periods of obvious agitation followed by intervals of quiet hallucination. Effects show after circa 60 minutes, generally peaking within three hours. Although some effects may continue for up to ten hours. Effect are extremely variable with individuals reacting quite differently to the same dose.
Care in its preparation and ritual were of utmost importance and part of the ritual. For instance Celtic Druids would often times purify themselves by fasting and meditating for three days, drinking only water.
The Taoists of ancient China seem to have made use of the fly-agaric mushroom, and often make reference to the ‘Divine Mushroom of Immortality’. It has also possibly been used in ancient India and Scandinavia.
Fly Agaric is widely thought to be the mysterious Soma talked about in around 150 hymns of the Hindu Rig Veda of India. These Hymns were written between 1500-500 BC by Aryans residing in the Indus Valley. Soma was a moon god, as well as a holy brew and a connected plant, also worshipped. In spite of the many suggestions as to the identity of the plant, fly agaric fits many of the Vedic references as an aid to contact the gods. It is also, but less often, thought to be the amrita talked about in Buddhist scriptures.
The red Fly agaric with its white dots, has been a much used image for the Midwinter and Christmas festivities in central Europe for a long time and is to be found on Christmas cards and as replica decorations for trees and wreaths. The modern image of Santa can be traced back as a fusion of several characters of popular European lore. For instance a more pagan Scandinavian house goblin who offered protection from malicious spirits in return for a banquet at midwinter, then there is the 4th century Byzantine archbishop who became St Nicolas and was famous for his kindness to children. More recently suggestions have been made implying that the Siberian use offly agaric may have played a part in the development of the legend of Santa Claus too. At midwinter festivals the shaman would come into the yurt through the smoke hole and down the central supporting birch pole, bringing with him a bag of fly agaric to be placed in stockings over the fireplace where they could be dried for celebratory use. Once his ceremonies had been fulfilled he would exit the same way he entered. Ordinary people would have believed the shaman himself was able to fly, or with the aid of ‘flying’ reindeer whom they knew had a taste for the fly agaric due to the euphoric results, and therefore prance around in a hallucinogenic after effect. Modern Santa is now dressed in the same colours as the fly agaric toting a sack overflowing with presents, entering and exiting the home through the chimney, can fly with reindeer and resides in the ‘Far North’.
Suggestions have been made that there is a symbiotic relationship between flies, toads and fly agaric (TOADSTOOLS). Flies become intoxicated and frenzied when licking these toadstools and become easy prey for toads with appetite who may have become privy to this, thus spending time near toadstools. This may give valuable insights into the ancient mystery of toads, flies and mushrooms appearing together in fairy lore and popular mythology.
The red-and-white spotted toadstool is a common image to be found world wide today. Picture any fairy tale illustration of elves, fairies, leprechauns, dwarves or goblins sitting on or under a toadstool, and most likely the cap will be bright red with white spots. There are countless garden ornaments available that feature these toadstools and gnomes. Even computer games such as the Mario series involve Mario ingesting a mushroom, then growing. Most young girls, and even adults are naturally drawn to the ‘little people’ and love fairies. How the artistic use of toadstools arose is unknown.
Fly agaric , years ago was used as an insecticide in some parts of Europe such as England and Germany. It used to be sprinkled in milk to kill flies, thereby earning the name Fly Agaric. The use as an insecticide was first recorded by Albertus Magnus in his work De vegetabilibus sometime before 1256. This fly killer is now known as Ibotenic Acid.
Fly agaric is still used for this purpose in some parts of eastern Europe such as Romania and Poland. In Sweden England and Sweden it was used for getting rid of bugs too and was sometimes known as ‘Bug Agaric’
Is Amanita Muscaria legal?
It is un-scheduled in the United States. The sale of Amanita muscaria for human ingestion is regulated by the FDA.
On July 18 2005 in the UK a law came into force meaning mushrooms or any fungus containing psilocin or an ester of psilocin are under the Misuse of Drugs Act and are now class A.