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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Psychedelic Religions

Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher (Ecco) Is Santa Claus really a magic mushroom in disguise? Was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a thinly veiled psychedelic mushroom odyssey? Did mushroom tea kick-start ancient Greek philosophy?

Much stranger than the fictions it has inspired, the world of the magic mushroom is a place where shamans and hippies rub shoulders with psychiatrists, poets and international bankers. The magic mushroom was rediscovered only fifty years ago but has accumulated all sorts of folktales and urban legends along the way. In this timely and definitive study, Andy Letcher strips away the myths to get at the true story of how hallucinogenic mushrooms, once shunned in the West as the most pernicious of poisons, came to be the illicit drug of choice.

Chronicling the history of the magic mushroom, from its use by the Aztecs of Central America and the tribes of Siberia through to the present day, Letcher takes a critical and humorous look at the drug's more recent manifestations. Since the 1970s scientists and others in major Western nations, the United States and the United Kingdom in particular, have identified hundreds of hallucinogenic species, isolated their active ingredients, learned how to cultivate them on an industrial scale, and spread them around the world. More than any other civilization that has come before us, and despite all the myths we have built, we, by all rights, are the true magic mushroom enthusiasts.

Informative, lively and impeccably researched, Shroom presents a unique and engaging study of this most extraordinary of psychedelic drugs.

Shroom covers topics including refutation of the mushroom theory of the origin of religion, the recent U.K. psilocybin mushroom scene, a critical treatment of Wasson's research methodology and mushroom theory of Vedic religion, and Tim Leary as backdrop leading up to the later popular use of psilocybin mushrooms. This is a valuable book that contributes some new perspectives and new coverage of entheogens in Western culture; this book is a must-have for entheogen researchers. The present review focuses exclusively on his critique of the mushroom theory of religious origins, which he sometimes treats as though it is a critical refutation of the overall entheogen theory of religion.

Letcher has not disproved the entheogen theory of religion, or even fully engaged with that hypothesis. At most, he has made a partial effort to call into question the mushroom theory of the pre-historical origin of religion, in the form of a secret cult spreading from a single origin over time and across regions. Letcher often comes across triumphally as having disproved the entheogen theory of the origin of religion, but a careful reading of his treatment of that particular topic shows that he has actually only shown something far narrower ; he has only refuted a highly specific point.

At most, Letcher's treatment of the entheogen theory of religious origins shows that we have no compelling archaeological evidence for a prehistorical mushroom cult that was secret and unbroken. When his rhetorical verbiage and his general discussions of history are put aside, the substance of his argumentation that remains does not amount to a compelling argument against the frequent use of mushrooms (or other visionary plants) throughout religious history.

Letcher's writing style is rhetorical, so that he tells the story of recent mushroom scholarship and culture well, presenting much of interest to the audience, including valuable new material. He uses a biased rhetorical style; for example, "lunatic fringe", "conspiracy theories", "unfounded speculations", "the myth" of the entheogen origin of religion. This charged rhetorical style obscures that fact that his argument for his refutation of the entheogen theory of the origin of religion rests on only a few, fleetingly discussed points of argument.

Letcher does not engage the bulk of the literary and artistic evidence that provide sufficient grounds to support the general entheogen theory of religious origins. He merely puts forth brief and rather arbitrary arguments dismissing a couple of the many depictions of mushrooms in Christian art.

Letcher's inadequate selection of cases to refute, and his brief, perfunctory treatment of these cases, is not sufficient in breadth or depth to compel adherents of various variants of the entheogen theory of the origins of religion to change their position, no matter how many times or how confidently he rhetorically dubs the theory as a "myth". For example, he would need to engage the range of art that is presented in the first three issues of Entheos magazine, and the range of arguments such as those presented in Giorgio Samorini's articles about Christian mushroom trees.

It's admirable to see an independent critical thinker comment on selected aspects of Allegro and Wasson, but only a few of those comments actually amount to engaging with the evidence for the general entheogen theory of the origin of religion. Letcher makes the risky move of overextending his specific focus on psychoactive mushrooms, at the expense of being under-informed on the general entheogen theory and the full range of arguments, interpretive frameworks, systems of assumptions, and evidence of various types in support of that broad-ranging theory.

As a thought-experiment with the hypothesis that normalized religious cultic use of mushrooms is only a few decades old, this aspect of the book is a valuable contribution to the field; however, Letcher switches inconsistently between that bold but narrow hypothesis and a broader, firm conclusion that the entheogen theory of religion altogether is merely a recent fabrication of popular scholarship and merely wishful thinking.

Letcher leaps from what he narrowly demonstrates, to a stance and a claim to have shown convincingly that the entheogen theory of religious origins (and fairly frequent entheogen use throughout religious history) is nothing but recent wishful thinking, a fabrication by a group that is a historical novelty: late 20th Century psychedelics enthusiasts, including mushroom enthusiasts in the U.K. from 1976-2006.

All theories involve a framework of assumptions. The fact that a scholarly theory uses a set of unproved assumptions does not instantly do away with (or "demolish") the theory. Letcher handles the evidence by the common strategy of dividing, isolating, and diminishing each piece of evidence in isolation, operating under the arbitrary silent assumption that entheogen use was rare, secretive ("conspiracy"), and deviant. But such a methodology is problematic and is controverted by the maximal entheogen theory of religion, which holds that Western history and Western culture have always been inspired to some extent by the ongoing practice of using visionary plants. The unavoidable question remains, "How are we to judge what is plausible and what was normal for that culture?"

Should we assume that the use of visionary plants was normal and significantly present throughout mainstream religion and culture, or that it was rare, a secretive conspiracy, and deviant (exceptional)? Selecting our assumptions about the backdrop, of what was normal in a culture, affects the validity of completely isolating each piece of potential evidence and then attempting to judge the plausibility of reading that piece of evidence as supporting the entheogen theory of religion. What seems plausible to a critical scholar depends on the backdrop of what we assume was normal in the culture.

For example, Letcher affirms that the cathedral door at Hildesheim, Germany depicts the tree of knowledge in the shape that "looks extremely like a giant Liberty Cap", but he argues that it cannot have meant a Liberty Cap, because the doors were carefully designed and the depiction cannot have been secret in that case, so the image cannot represent anything other than, or in addition to, a "stylized fig tree".

It doesn't occur to Letcher to imagine and address the obvious critical arguments and questions against his hasty discussion, such as: why assume that a mushroom allusion had to be secret? why is an officially designed depiction of a mushroom automatically ruled out as unthinkable? why was the fig tree stylized in the specific form of a Liberty Cap mushroom? what about the hundreds of other specifically psilocybin mushroom-shaped trees in Christian art?

Letcher has much homework to do if he wants to try to retain his hypothesis that psychoactive mushrooms were absent from Western religious history until the late 20th Century, and if he intends to convince critical entheogen scholars of that hypothesis -- a hypothesis that will be hard to maintain after seriously addressing, with responses to at least the most obvious counter-criticisms, the current full range of artistic evidence (post-Wasson and post-Allegro), which Letcher has barely engaged.


There are further problems with Letcher's views. Firstly, he props up many of his arguments by ignoring most of the newer research, and especially archaeological iconography, that has come to light post Wasson/Allegro. His argument focuses heavily on Wasson, McKenna and Allegro.

He's completely dismissive of the idea of mushrooms in Christianity but only by attacking the shallowest of evidence, such as the Plaincourault issue, while simultaneously ignoring enormous amounts of evidence contradictory to his theory, i.e. The Canterbury Psalter c.e. 1147, art from Abbey of Montecassino, circa 1072, amongst many others such as those published by Giorgio Samorini in Entheos Magazine. In fact, on page 173 in his supposed debunking of Clark Heinrich, instead of attacking Heinrich's research directly, Letcher bases his dissent on a mushroom experience Heinrich speaks about in his book. Weak and lazy tactics like these may fool some, but it's not going to fool anyone who has any serious amount of study in these areas. He also misquotes Heinrich and states that Heinrich built his research into Christianity from Allegro. However, on pg. 25 of Heinrich's book, it clearly states that he used Wasson's research.

Letcher similarly avoids iconographic evidence in the same way toward mushrooms in Hinduism, completely ignoring carvings and statues that clearly depict the mushrooms. See Hari Hari holding a mushroom, Rama and Hanuman Holding Mushrooms, etc., 700-800 C.E.

Letcher also missed the fact that most of the arguments today are for an entheogen theory, not just a specific `mushroom cult theory of religion' per se. Letcher erroneously focuses his research on debunking a single mushroom cult theory. However, many of us in this field have long ago moved away from any such argument. In fact, I don't really know anyone who proposes such a singularly focused theory except for Allegro, and maybe Wasson - and both of their pioneering arguments are near four decades old. For those interested in more information on this specific area, read Michael Hoffman's article on the Maximal Entheogen Theory of Religion - www.egodeath.com.

Letcher is certainly guilty of trying to make his evidence fit his argument, and throughout this book he blames other researchers for doing the same. I feel that he has likely painted himself into a corner with his words on pg. 78:

"The Western rediscovery of Mexican mushrooming practices began, ironically, with a vigorous scholarly denial that they had ever existed."

He then goes into the story of William Safford:

"...American botanist William Safford (1859-1926), oblivious of such shenanigans so close to home, published a paper on the identity of the supposed teonanacatl of the Aztecs in which he stated emphatically that Sahagun and his native informants had been wrong. They had mistakenly confused dried plant fragments for a fungus, and teonanacatl, revealed Safford, had been none other than the infamous peyote cactus [...]. ... Safford reported that `three centuries of investigation [had] failed to reveal an endemic fungus used as an intoxicant in Mexico'. He bolstered his argument by claiming that peyote `resembles a dried mushroom so remarkably that at first glance it will even deceive a trained mycologist'. He was wrong on both accounts."

Being that Letcher omitted so much of the archaeological evidence available to make his case, I couldn't avoid the obvious comparison that much of Letcher's theory will soon see a similar fate (if it hasn't already). His modern mushroom religion theory mirrors that of Safford.

Lastly, a contradictory and completely dangerous comparison is made in the book to something he admits is non-toxic, psilocybe mushrooms, to something very dangerous as sniffing glue:

"In Mice the LD50, that is the dose at which 50 per cent of the experimental subjects die, is 280 mg/kg of body weight, but a high dose in humans in only 0.5 mg/kg. With such a low toxicity it has been estimated that you would have to eat your own body weight in mushrooms to take a lethal dose, and indeed the are no reported cases of fatalities from psilocybin mushrooms, though children may be more at risk of physical harm." Pg. 20-21

"... magic mushrooms were a convenient, illicit and exciting way of making life under Tory rule more tolerable, no better or worse than sniffing glue..."

The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization by Dan Merkur (State University of New York Press, SUNY) offers a fresh review of the effectiveness of psychedelics in psychoanalytic and transpersonal therapies. The work is theoretical providing psychoanalytically informed accounts of common clusters of experience reported by people taking mescaline, psilocybin and LSD.

The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization provides the first general theory of psychedelic experiences. Merkur refutes several theories that have been used to explain single categories of psychedelic experience, and offers instead a unitary theory that is applicable to all varieties. The book treats self-reports of psychedelic experiences as a wealth of neglected data that forms the basis to expand the psychoanalytic model of human imagination. An exhaustive phenomenology of the varieties of LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin experiences in Western and Native American cultures is joined together with psychoanalytic theories drawn from the classical, ego psychological, and object relations schools. Where existing theories prove inadequate to the discussion of data, original formulations are offered. The result is a rigorously psychoanalytic approach to the process of self-actualization.

1. The Pseudohallucinogens or Psychedelics
2. The Apperceptual Phenomena
3. The Neurotic Phenomena
4. The Psychotomimetic Phenomena
5. The Narrative Fantasy Phenomena
6. The Creative Phenomena
7. The Unitive Phenomena
8. Communion in Native American Peyotism
9. Spiritual Transformation and Psychoanalytic Theory
Works Cited

 The Ecstatic Imagination: Psychedelic Experiences and the Psychoanalysis of Self-Actualization is in many ways a prolegomena to Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking by Dan Merkur (State University of New York Press, SUNY) that attempts an alternative to the traditional psychoanalytic explanation of mystical experiences as regression to the solipsism of earliest infancy.

He does this by viewing unitive thinking as a line of cognitive development, and mystical moments as creative inspirations on unitive topics. Utilizing classical self-reports by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystics, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and modern Western peak experiences, Merkur argues that experiences of mystical union are manifestations of a broader category of psychological processes that manifest in scientific and moral thought, as well as in mysticism. Unconscious as well as conscious, unitive thinking is sometimes realistic and sometimes fantastic, in patterns that are consistent with cognitive development in general. Mystical moments of unitive thinking may be considered moments of creative inspiration that happen to make use of unitive ideas. Building on the psychoanalytic object-relations theory that the self is always in relationship with an object, Merkur argues that the solipsism of some varieties of mystical union always implies unconscious ideas of a love object who is transcendent.

1. Some Varieties of Mystical Union
2. Unitive Experiences and Unitive Thinking
3. A Theory of Unitive Experiences
4. Unity, the Transcendent, and Death
5. Unity as Metaphor
6. Euphoria and Desolation
7. The Integration of Spirituality
8. The Meaning of Miracles
9. A Theory of Revelation
Books Cited

Along with his earlier work that explores the major thematic aspects of esoteric traditions and literature like Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions, and his resurrection of John Allego’s old assumption of the use of psychedelics by Biblical prophets, marshaling some fascinating new evidence, by the way, in The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible (Inner Traditions) Merkur works represent a major reconceptualizing of the core of extraordinary religious experience, especially in its ecstatic modes.

In The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible Merkur cites biblical material, as well as later Jewish and Christian writings, Merkur reveals the existence of an unbroken tradition of Western psychedelic sacraments, from Moses and manna to Jesus and the Eucharist. Most important, Merkur shows that this was not a heretical tradition, but instead part of a normal, Bible-based spirituality, a continuation of the ancient tradition of visionary mysticism. Even when this practice became unacceptable to the religious orthodoxy, it was perpetuated in secret by gnostics, masons, and kabbalists, as well as through the legends of the Holy Grail. Merkur traces a long line of historical figures that knew of manna's secret but dared only make cryptic references to it for fear of persecution. The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible is the strongest contribution yet to our growing realization that, contrary to popular belief and powerful institutional opprobrium, psychedelics and religion have always gone hand in hand according to Merkur.

1. Manna and the Showbread
2. Knowledge of Good and Evil
3. Philo of Alexandria
4. Manna and the Eucharist
5. Rabbinic Midrash
6. Pseudo-Hierotheos
7. Medieval Rabbinic Authorities
8. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
9. The Holy Grail
10. The Kabbalah
Appendix: The Belief-Legend
Index of Biblical Citations
General Index 

About the Author:
Dan Merkur, Ph.D., has taught at Syracuse University and Auburn Theological Seminary. His research focuses on the varieties of religious experience in historical, cross-cultural, and psychoanalytical perspectives.

DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences by Rick Strassman MD (Inner Traditions), clinical psychiatrist explores the effects of DMT, one of the most powerful psychedelics known. This is a popular account of the behind-the-scenes, cutting edge of psychedelic research that provides a unique scientific explanation for the phenomenon of alien abduction experiences as well general religious experiences.

From 1990 to 1995 Dr. Rick Strassman conducted U.S. Government-approved and funded clinical research at the University of New Mexico in which he injected sixty volunteers with DMT, one of the most powerful psychedelics known. His detailed account of those sessions is an extraordinarily riveting inquiry into the nature of the human mind and the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. The human brain also manufactures DMT, a plant-derived chemical found in the psychedelic Amazon brew, ayahuasca. In Strassman's volunteers, it consistently produced near-death and mystical experiences. Many reported convincing encounters with intelligent nonhuman presences, aliens, angels, and spirits. Nearly all felt that the sessions were among the most profound experiences of their lives.

Strassman's research connects DMT with the pineal gland, considered by Hindus to be the site of the seventh chakra and by Rene Descartes to be the seat of the soul. DMT: The Spirit Molecule makes the bold case that DMT, naturally released by the pineal gland, facilitates the soul's movement in and out of the body and is an integral part of the birth and death experiences, as well as the highest states of meditation and even sexual transcendence. Strassman also believes that "alien abduction experiences" are brought on by accidental releases of DMT. If used wisely, DMT could trigger a period of remarkable progress in the scientific exploration of the most mystical regions of the human mind and soul.
About the Author:
Rick Strassman, M.D., lives in Taos, New Mexico, and is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

For a more general reference to well attested psychogens The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances by Richard Rudgley (St. Martin’s Press) provides the first reliable, comprehensive exploration of this fascinating and controversial topic. With over one hundred entries, acclaimed author Richard Rudgley covers not only the chemical and botanical background of each substance, but its physiological and psychological effect on the user. Of particular value is Rudgley's emphasis on the historical and cultural role of these mind-altering substances. Impeccably researched and hugely entertaining, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances will appeal to anyone interested in one of the most misunderstood and yet also most widespread of human activities--the chemical quest for altered states of consciousness. Because the author has restricted himself to bare description and offers little that is not well known to people who are interested in the subject the work is a bit thin a far a substance is concerned.

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