Mushrooms in Wonderland

Alice meets the caterpillar

by Mike Jay

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The first well-documented hallucinogenic mushroom experience in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on 3 October 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man subsequently identified only as ‘J.S.’ was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings, and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished eating, the world began to turn very strange. J.S. found black spots and odd flashes of colour bursting across his vision; he became disorientated, and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help. but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering about in a confused state.

By chance, a doctor named Everard Brande happened to be passing through this insalubrious part of town, and he was summoned to treat J.S. and his family. The scene that he discovered was so bizarre and unfamiliar that he would write it up at length and publish it in The Medical and Physical Journal later that year. The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses and breathing becoming fluttering and laboured, then returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. They were all fixated on the fear that they were dying, except for the youngest, the eight-year-old Edward S., whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was ‘attacked with fits of immoderate laughter’ which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: ‘when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked’.

Dr.Everard Brande would diagnose the family’s condition as the ‘deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous’. Today, we can be more specific: this was clearly intoxication by Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the ‘magic mushrooms’ which grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses and playing fields of Britain every autumn. But though Dr.Brande’s account of the J.S. family’s trip would not be forgotten, and would continue to be cited in Victorian drug literature for decades, the nineteenth century would come and go without any conclusive identification of the Liberty Cap as the species in question. In fact, it would not be until Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, turned his attention to hallucinogenic mushrooms in the 1950s that the botanical identity of these and other mushrooms containing psilocybin, LSD’s chemical cousin, would be confirmed.

But if they were obscure to Victorian science, there was another tradition which would appear to explore the ability of certain mushrooms to whisk humans off to another world: Victorian fairy lore. Over the nineteenth century, a vast body of art and literature would connect mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives and dimensions seething with elemental spirits. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, underneath its twee and bourgeois exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden world of homegrown psychedelia, parallel perhaps to the ancient shamanic and ritual uses of similar mushrooms in the New World? Were the authors of such otherworld narratives - Alice in Wonderland, for example - aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?

The J.S. family’s trip in 1799 is a useful jumping-off point for such enquiries, because it establishes several basic facts. First - and contrary to the opinion of some recent American scholars - British (and European) magic mushrooms are not a recent arrival from the New World, but were part of our indigenous flora at least two hundred years ago. Second, the species in question was unknown at the time, at least to science. Third, its hallucinogenic effects were unfamiliar, perhaps even unheard of - certainly unprecedented enough for a London doctor to feel the need to draw them to the attention of his medical colleagues.

In other scholarly contexts, though, the mind-altering effects of certain plants were already familiar. Through classical sources like The Golden Ass, the idea of witches’ potions which transformed their subjects was an inheritance from antiquity. The pharmacopeia and materia medica of doctors and herbalists had long included the drug effects of common plants like belladonna and opium poppies, though mushrooms had featured in them rarely. The eighteenth century had turned up several more exotic examples from distant cultures: Russian explorers describing the use of fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia, Captain Cook observing the kava-kava ritual in Polynesia. In 1762 Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist and father of modern botany, had compiled the first ever list of intoxicating plants: his monograph, entitled Inebriantia, had included opium, cannabis, datura, henbane and tobacco. Slowly, the study of such plants was emerging from the margins and tall tales of classical studies, ethnography, folklore and medicine and becoming a subject in its own right.

It was as part of this same interest that European fairy lore was also being assembled by a new generation of amateur folklore collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, who realised that the inexorable drift of peasant populations from country to city was beginning to dismantle centuries of folk stories, songs and oral histories. The Victorian fairy tradition, as it emerged, would be imbued with this new sensibility which rendered rustic traditions no longer coarse, backward and primitive but picturesque and semi-sacred, an escape from the austerity of industrial living into an ancient, often pagan otherworld. Under the guise of ‘innocence’, sensual and erotic themes could be explored with a boldness not permitted in more realistic genres, and the muddy and impoverished countryside could be re-enchanted with imagery drawn from the classical and arabesque. Within this process, the lore of plants and flowers was carefully curated and woven into supernatural tapestries of flower-fairies and enchanted woods; and within this imaginal world of plants, mushrooms and toadstools began popping up all over. Fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves were recycled through a pictorial culture of motif and decoration until they became emblematic of fairyland itself.

Fairy ring

This was a quiet but substantial image makeover for Britain’s fungi. Previously, in herbals and medical texts, they had been largely shunned, associated with dung-heaps and poison; in Romantic poetry the smell of death had still clung to them (‘fungous brood/coloured like a corpse’s cheek’, as Keats put it). Now, a new generation of folklorists began to ... Read More »

Does Smelling This Mushroom Cause Females to Orgasm?

Does smelling this mushroom cause females to orgasm?

In October last year we linked to a story about a mycological mystery, titled "This mushroom that looks like a penis gives women spontaneous orgasms". It had taken a long time to hit the internet - it was based on a short mention of the alleged effect in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms in 2001 - but once it got here, it went viral.

But while plenty of websites were more than happy to reap the hits from the sensationally titled piece, without looking much deeper, one intrepid researcher decided to go in search of the fabled fungi. Christie Wilcox, on her 'Science Sushi' blog at Discover magazine, describes how she tracked the mushroom down, and answers the big question: what was her reaction when she smelt it?

For a moment, we both stood in silence, staring at the phallic fungus. Then he turned to me. “OK, so… I guess you should sniff it,” he said. I nodded. Slowly, I dropped to my knees. I closed my eyes and took a breath. I placed my hands in the soft mulch on either side of the fungus, and let the air out of my lungs. Then, I pushed my face next to its orange stalk and breathed in as deeply as I could.

My physiological reaction was immediate and strong. In less than a heartbeat I was on my feet, staggering backwards, gagging.

“Are you OK?” Jake asked, concerned, as he rushed to my side. The taste was in my mouth. It was in my throat. This disgusting, foul, rottenness—there are no words that adequately describe the vile stench. Tears formed in my eyes. I nearly vomited. Though I had read about how bad stinkhorns smell, I really wasn’t expecting something that… awful.

It was, hands down, the worst smell that’s ever violated my nostrils.

Beyond the quest to smell the mushroom, and her reaction, there's plenty else of interest in the article. Most notably, how the short mention ended up in the journal in 2001 in the first place, and the background of the researchers involved. One of those, John Holliday, responded to questions about the paper rather weirdly:

...Holliday wasn’t eager to talk. “I hear so much crap about this. I saw some stuff written online last year. ‘This was never meant to be believed, it’s just a big hoax.’… Somebody sent me a link yesterday, it’s some lady I don’t even know, I have never heard of her or talked to her, and she is claiming that she talked to me and I told her that it was not legitimate… I don’t want to get myself or the company involved in any discussions of this, because it is too important for a whole bunch of reasons. Commercial reasons, scientific reasons. Reputational reasons. I am a pretty much a world renowned scientist…. When things like that come out that says this is a hoax, a lot of people that believe that. I don’t need that. I spend a lot of years getting to the point where I am. That is why I don’t really want to see anything about this.”

According to Holliday, he also is under a strict confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot discuss the study conducted in any way. He also implied that the research has continued since 2001, and that the pharmaceutical company he was working for (which he wouldn’t name but said was one of “the big ones”) was near to marketing the discovery. “If I was to say something like ‘We are about to release a blockbuster drug,’ and you go buy stock in this company, then you and I are both guilty of insider trading.”

There's also some fascinating discussion about how mushrooms can mimic both the shape of a penis, and also the smell ("the compound spermine...was so named because it was first discovered in 1677 in human semen—and it has been detected in odorous fungi") - and therefore whether any excitement or even orgasms in women might be via association with those factors. But Wilcox finds it an unlikely hypothesis.

Nevertheless, science is all about sample size (pardon the pun), so while Christie Wilcox was not impressed with the mushroom, further testing on more subjects may be required to get to the bottom of this one.

Link: Expedition Ecstasy: Sniffing Out The Truth About Hawai‘i’s Orgasm-Inducing Mushroom

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Kickstarter: The Secret Drugs of Buddhism

I've long been fascinated with shamanism and the use of psychedelics throughout history, and am honoured to be the publisher of Paul Devereux's classic The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (Amazon US or Amazon UK). So a few years ago I was intrigued by a book, published on-line, titled Secret Drugs of Buddhism.

Written by long-time researcher Mike Crowley, the book offered some brilliant observations on the crossovers between certain aspects of Buddhism and the use of psychedelics. And now, after continued interest from many readers, Mike has created a Kickstarter in order to do a print run of an actual book version. With a foreword by Ann Shulgin, Secret Drugs of Buddhism...

...represents over four decades of research by Buddhist scholar Mike Crowley into the use of psychoactive sacraments in the religions of India.

Beginning with prehistoric cultures of central Asia, the book considers drug use from prehistoric central Asia, through the Indus Valley civilization and then Vedic ritual to medieval Indian Buddhism and, eventually Tibet.

The author points out that some mythic elements (e.g. Shiva's blue throat) rely on simple (Sanskrit) word-play to conceal allusions to psychoactive plants. Some of this research has already been aired in learned journals (e.g. Time & Mind) but the book treats the subject in far more detail.

If you're at all interested in the shamanism and the secret traditions of ancient cultures, I highly recommend chipping in to this Kickstarter as the book is wonderful.

Link: Secret Drugs of Buddhism, a book

Does Homer's Odyssey Include a Story About Poisoning By Plant-Based Hallucinogens?

Are some of the fantastical elements in Homer's Odyssey actually based on hallucinations caused by plant-based psychedelics?

Homer's "Odyssey" recounts the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus during his journey home from the Trojan War. Though some parts may be based on real events, the encounters with monsters, giants and magicians are considered to be complete fiction. But might there be more to these myths than meets the eye? Matt Kaplan explains why there might be more reality behind the "Odyssey" than many realize.

To learn more about the use of shamanic plants in ancient cultures around the world, grab a copy of Paul Devereux's wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK).

Hunting Dogs on Hallucinogens: Why Do People Around The World Get Their Dogs High Before Hunting?

Ancient hunting dogs in a cave painting

Humans and canines have a long history of working together, with the use of hunting dogs stretching back to perhaps 20,000 years ago. And in some cultures, it seems ancient shamanic practices related to hunting success have extended to their four-legged partners: according to a new paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, at least 43 difference species of psychedelic plants have been used in cultures around the world to allegedly improve the performance of hunting dogs.

The researchers focused on the Ecuadorian Shuar and Quichua people - who use at least 22 species "for ethnoveterinary purposes" - trying to determine the possible pharmacological basis for the use of these plants with hunting dogs:

The use of psychoactive substances to improve a dog׳s hunting ability seems counterintuitive, yet its prevalence suggests that it is both adaptive and that it has an underlying pharmacological explanation. We hypothesize that hallucinogenic plants alter perception in hunting dogs by diminishing extraneous signals and by enhancing sensory perception (most likely olfaction) that is directly involved in the detection and capture of game. If this is true, plant substances also might enhance the ability of dogs to detect explosives, drugs, human remains, or other targets for which they are valued.

For more on the topic of animals and psychedelics, see the links below.

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Is it Time for a New Enlightenment on Drug Policy?

Last month the 2015 Breaking Convention - a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness - was held at the University of Greenwich in the U.K. Quite a few of our good friends were in attendance (some speaking/performing), and I'm thrilled to see that quite a few of the talks are now available on the Breaking Convention Vimeo Channel.

Above I've embedded Professor David Nutt's excellent talk about the need for changes in drug policy, not least to assist in medical research. Others available include Daniel Pinchbeck chatting about DMT entities, Dr Rick Strassman on Neurotheology and Kat Harrison discussing 'The Perception of Feminine Personas in Psychoactive Species'. If you're interested in the topics of shamanism and psychedelics, but couldn't make it to the conference, dig in!

Breaking Convention 2015

Breaking Convention 2015

The 2015 Breaking Convention is on this weekend in London, so if you're in the area and interested in all things shamanistic and psychedelic you should definitely make the effort to get on down to the University of Greenwich and attend.

Speakers at the conference include a bunch of absolute legends in the field: Jonathan Ott, Kat Harrison, Rick Doblin, Amanda Feilding, Dale Pendell, Rick Strassman, Carl Ruck, Martina Hoffman and David Nutt. Also there will be a bunch of people Grailers might be well familiar with, including Daniel Pinchbeck, Anthony Peake, Jack Hunter and David Luke.

Fantastic line-up, sad that I'm on the other side of the globe from this one. Note though, if you're in the same boat as me, that the Breaking Convention website posts plenty of online videos of talks from previous years that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own home.

Link: Breaking Convention 2015

9 Portraits on LSD, For Science!

Here's an interesting remnant from back in the days when it was still kosher to conduct scientific studies with LSD. An artist --whose identity has been lost-- was administered two 50-microgram doses of LSD, each separated by a lapse of one hour, and was then asked to draw portraits while under its influence, using the doctor who administered the drugs as model. The gradual progression into a freer and more abstract style, is a tell-tale indication of how the psychedelic is influencing not only the perceptions of the test subject, but also its creative processes.

It is believed these artworks are part of a study conducted by Oscar Janiger, a University of California-Irvine psychiatrist known for his work on LSD, which started in 1954 and continued on for the next seven years.

Einstein once said "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Given the incapacity of our world leaders against not only the age-old problems plaguing humanity since the Dawn of Time --e.g. War, Hunger and Poverty-- but also new threats like Climate Change, I'd say the answer to their stagnation is pretty obvious...


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Did Francis Crick Really Make His DNA Breakthrough While on LSD?

DNA Coding

Remember that time it was revealed that Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, used LSD and couldn't have made his discovery without it? The anecdote is often mentioned by those extolling the virtues of psychedelics as a way of 'opening the mind' to new ideas. Which would be great, except - according to Andy Roberts, well-known author on psychedelic topics - "the fact is that the story simply isn’t true. It’s an urban legend. The product of churnalism".

Prior to Crick’s death in 2004 there had been no mention anywhere of him using LSD as part of the process of discovering the double helix. Until, just ten days after his death, that literary bastion of truth and moral fortitude the Daily Mail, published an article on 8 August 2004, headed ‘Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life!’

Written by journalist Alun Rees, using information based on an interview conducted with a friend of the chemist Richard Kemp (one of the two chemists who manufactured LSD for the 1970s British LSD manufacturing and distribution conspiracy known as Operation Julie), the article is a mishmash of wishful thinking and idle speculation. It implies that Crick used LSD as part of his quest to discover the double helix structure of DNA and, furthermore, that Crick was involved in the genesis of Operation Julie.

If this story held even the slightest grain of truth, one would have thought the story would have been at least rumoured while Crick was still alive. But it wasn’t. Rees had obtained the post-mortem journalistic ‘scoop’ from one Garrod Harker, allegedly a friend of Richard Kemp.

...Presumably Daily Mail readers were expected to believe that the story couldn’t be published before Crick’s death because of his threat of legal action, and that threat is used in the article to strongly imply the story was genuine. It’s a great journalistic technique; allege that a ‘celebrity’ has told you a secret but that this secret is so special that if you reveal it during their lifetime, they will take punitive legal action. It then makes sense to reveal the bombshell after their death, and use the alleged threat of legal action to explain why you kept quiet about it until now. It’s a wonderful piece of circular logic and almost guarantees your scoop will be published because, whether true or not, no legal action can be taken against journalist or newspaper because the subject is dead.

Whatever the case, once printed after Crick’s death, the story immediately leapt from the printed page onto the internet where it has spread and grown uncritically, becoming a kind of fact-currency for those wishing to justify their ‘scientific’ use of LSD.

(We here at the Grail are mentioned specifically, due to an interview we did with Graham Hancock in which he mentioned this anecdote).

Roberts points out that it is certainly a fact that Crick experimented with LSD later in his life. However, the chances of him using it as a tool to make his great discovery are slim, given the timeline of LSD first appearing in Britain.

Does it really matter either way? Andy Roberts thinks it does. "The present psychedelic renaissance is afoot and going well", he notes. "LSD tests with humans are now taking place again, and scientists are beginning to re-discover the enormous potential psychedelics have for creating and sustaining real change in individuals and thus societies. But the psychedelic renaissance has its critics and its enemies too, and if claims such as those made about Crick can be easily shot down in flames, what does that say about the credulity levels of those within the psychedelic community who would believe and promote them?"

Full story: Francis Crick, DNA & LSD


In Search of the Blue Stag: My First Entheogenic Experience

Saturday, December 20th. On the last weekend before the Christmas holidays, many people in Mexico are celebrating the traditional posadas: Festivities still clinging to some religious overtones, which for the most part have devolved into an excuse to eat a lot, drink a lot, and watch the kiddies beat the crap out of a star-shaped piñata, so they can afterward wrestle for all the candy and fruit inside of it once it finally breaks.

My own family is also gathered in one of those parties, but I'm not with them. I'm standing instead on a small circle with other people I've just met today, just a stone-throw away from the ancient city of Teotihuacán, whose massive ruins are now being shrouded by the darkness; on the circle's center there is a timid fire straining to illuminate the congregation, who is attentively listening to the voice of a short, elderly man, dressed in a white-cloth suit brightly adorned with colored patterns on the sleeves and the of bottom of his trousers. The words are an almost unintelligible mix of Spanish and indigenous dialect, spoken in a soft yet commanding tone. Standing next to him is his wife, his 18-year-old son, a teenage girl -- the son's girlfriend-- and a cheerful boy who couldn't be more than 7 years old, who is also the child of the elderly man.

The name of the man is Don Clemente, and he is a Marakame --a shaman or medicine man among his people, the Wixárika indians who are also known as Huicholes. His words, which were later translated by his oldest son --also with the same name-- are a salutation to all of us who have gathered around the circle on this fateful evening.

We are gathered here to celebrate a Winter Solstice ceremony ministered by the Marakame, and I am about to ... Read More »