Sunday, July 6, 2008

Magic Mushroom Redux (मैजिक मशरूम)

There are claims that Amanita muscaria played in important role in a number of ancient religious rites, though these claims tend to be speculative and highly controversial. The best known of these claims is R. Gordon Wasson's proposition that it was the Soma talked about in the Rig Veda of India. Moreover, though less often, Amanita muscaria is also thought to be the Amrita talked about in Buddhist scriptures [Hajicek-Dobberstein, S. (1995) "Soma siddhas and alchemical enlightenment: psychedelic mushrooms in Buddhist tradition," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 48:99–118. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(95)01292-L]. (For more details on this topic, see Botanical identity of Soma-Haoma).

Amanita muscaria, or "fly agaric," is a cosmopolitan mushroom, native to pine, birch, spruce, fir, and cedar woodlands throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including high elevations of warmer latitudes in regions like the Hindu Kush, the Mediterranean and Central America. Interestingly, a recent molecular study proposes an ancestral origin in the SiberianBeringian region in the Tertiary period before radiating outwards across Asia, Europe and North America. Though generally encountered in autumn, the season can vary in different climates: fruiting occurs in summer and autumn across most of North America, but later in autumn and early winter on the Pacific coast. It is often found in similar locations to Boletus edulis, and may appear in fairy rings. It has been widely transported into the southern hemisphere, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America, where it usually occurs under introduced pine trees.

Amanita muscaria contains a number of biologically active agents, at least two of which are known to be psychoactive. Muscimol (3hydroxy-5-aminomethy-1 isoxazole, an unsaturated cyclic hydroxamic acid) is the most significant. It is the product of the decarboxylation or drying of ibotenic acid, another important compound in the biochemistry of the fly agaric....Ibotenic acid and muscimol are structurally related to each other and to two major neurotransmitters of the central nervous system: glutamic acid and GABA respectively. Ibotenic acid and muscimol act like these neurotransmitters (muscimol is a potent GABA-A agonist, while ibotenic acid is an agonist of NMDA glutamate receptors and certain metabotropic glutamate receptors) which are involved in the control of neuronal activity.

Unlike the hallucinogenic mushrooms of the Psilocybe, Amanita muscaria has rarely been consumed recreationally. It is classified as an unscheduled drug in the United States. Any sales of A. muscaria for human ingestion are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Most other countries do not have laws against the use of A. muscaria, as it is currently legal and uncontrolled under United Nations international law. However, following the outlawing of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in the United Kingdom, an increased quantity of Amanita mushrooms began to be sold and consumed.

In eastern Siberia, the shaman would consume the mushrooms, and others would drink his urine. This urine, still containing active hallucinogens may actually be more potent than the A. muscaria mushrooms with fewer negative effects, such as sweating and twitching, suggesting that the initial user may act as a screening filter for other components in the mushroom. Among the Koryak, one report held the poor would consume the urine of the wealthy, who could afford to buy the mushrooms. If a fly agaric is eaten, it is usually not fresh, but in its dried or cooked form, where ibotenic acid is converted to the more stable and far less poisonous muscimol.

A. muscaria was widely used as a hallucinogenic drug by many of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Its use was known among almost all of the Uralic-speaking peoples of western Siberia and the Paleosiberian-speaking peoples of eastern Siberia. However, there are only isolated reports of A. muscaria use among the Tungusic and Turkic peoples of central Siberia, and it is believed that hallucinogenic use of A. muscaria was largely not a practice of these peoples. In western Siberia, the use of A. muscaria was restricted to shamans, who used it as an alternate method of achieving a trance state. (Normally, Siberian shamans achieve a trance state by prolonged drumming and dancing.) In eastern Siberia, A. muscaria was used by both shamans and laypeople alike, and was used recreationally as well as religiously.

John Marco Allegro argues in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that the Christian religion is derived from a sex and psychedelic mushroom cult, although his theory has found little support by scholars outside the field of ethnomycology. In Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy (formerly called Strange Fruit) Clark Heinrich interprets A. muscaria usage by Adam and Eve, Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Jesus, and his disciples, and John of Patmos[Heinrich, Clark. Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy. Park Street Press, pp 64 - 134. ISBN 089281997-9]. In the book Apples of Apollo the mushroom is identified in a wide range of mythological tales such as those involving Perseus, Prometheus, Heracles, Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus, and the Holy Grail.

Images dating back to 3500 B.C. painted in caves at Tassili, Algeria depict mushrooms, more than likely including A. muscaria mushrooms according to scholars, although a Psilocybe species has also been suggested. Fly agarics have been featured in paintings since the Renaissance, albeit in a subtle manner. In the Victorian era they became more visible, even becoming the main topic of some fairy paintings, usually inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The waning of Romanticism, and the advent of World War I reduced interest in fairies along with fly agarics, reducing them to the realm of childish fantasies and children's picture books depicting gnomes and fairies.

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