Tucked away in the La Latina neighborhood of Madrid, a small restaurant serves only mushrooms, served in a multiplicity of ways. Late one winter evening, my husband and I, married less than a year then, hovered outside the door, waiting for one of the few tables to empty, for our chance to dart inside and claim a spot. When the opportunity came, we stepped in, peeling off our coats, shivering lightly, and noticed that the floor was peeled away in several places, replaced with sheets of thick glass so that we could see the mushrooms growing on the old, wet wood beneath us. The deep orange walls, too, were festooned with mushrooms in honeycomb cases. We ordered and ordered, and the plates kept coming—mushrooms buttered, and salted, fried, bathed in sauce, chopped fine and served with capers.
There are numerous origin stories for the mushroom. In one, God walked through a field with Saint Peter. When Saint Peter picked a stalk of rye and began to chew it, God told Peter, “The rye is not for you,” so Peter spit it onto the ground. A mushroom would grow from the grain, God said, and commanded that Peter let it be for those in poverty. 1
In Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna posited that the fruit which Adam and Eve ate from, widely and incorrectly portrayed as an apple, was instead a symbol for a psychedelic mushroom, a thing from which one bite gave them knowledge.
If this seems absurd, consider that the Abbaye de Plaincourault, a twelfth-century chapel in France, houses a famous fresco which shows Adam and Eve in the Garden with the serpent, all entwined around a large red-and-white spotted mushroom, likely the Fly Agaric.
What, besides knowledge, can mushrooms give? In the Biblical tale, Adam and Eve’s bite caused their eventual deaths. In ancient Egypt, though, mushrooms were associated with immortality, and no one but royalty, the descendants of the Egyptian gods, could consume them.
It is unlikely that mushrooms can grant us immortality. For themselves, though, life is far less finite.
Approximately 500 years before the birth of Christ, the Persian King Xerxes tried and failed to invade Greece. After that, Xerxes is said to have dropped the title “King of Babylon,” but he’s still considered to be the inspiration for the fictional king in the Book of Esther.
Today, beneath a swath of woodland in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a honey mushroom grows unseen and voracious. This mushroom, the armillaria gallica, has been alive since King Xerxes’s failed invasion, since Esther is said to have approached the king and touched his golden scepter. Above ground, all we see of this mushroom are clusters of what look like small, gold-brown toadstools. Beneath the ground, though, the mushroom swallows everything in its path, a many-headed monster.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a propensity for belief. In every myth and fairy tale I find the crumb of the story, the thing that must have been true, the reason the story repeats across time and cultures.
As a child, I watched the intensity of the Pentecostal church services I attended, the way that people I knew to be quiet and controlled gave themselves over to song, dance, fits of worship. I both feared and envied the abandonment of the self. I knew I would one day experience it too.
“Worship is better than any drug,” I was often told. Later, older, I would wonder at the similarities.
In the 1970s, the British archaeologist John Marco Allegro wrote The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, in which he claimed that mushrooms were at the root of many early religions, Christianity included. Allegro believed that primitive religions were based on fertility rituals and aimed to produce reproduction both symbolically and literally. The mushroom, then, was a gateway to understanding God.
In Western culture, the mushroom that most often comes to mind is the Fly Agaric, the red and white-spotted mushroom that appears most often in fairy tales, the mushroom Alice took a nibble of on her trip to Wonderland.
It’s thought that this mushroom was used by shamans and religious leaders in northern Europe, and that the hallucinogenic effect could cause one to distort size and space, explaining Alice’s sudden spurts of growth and shrinking. Indeed, a friend once described the terror she felt upon, on a mushroom trip, suddenly realizing that her boyfriend’s torso had become extraordinarily, monstrously long.
Perhaps it was not Alice who changed size at all, but Alice’s perception of the shapes and objects in the world around her.
Recently, after a period of the heavy rain and high humidity that indicates late summer in Georgia, I was walking my dog—a miniscule, fawn-like chihuahua—and noticed an onslaught of mushrooms, peeking from under trees and out of sidewalk cracks, bursting in patches in my neighbor’s yard, clumping on piles of wet brush. They had appeared almost miraculously, suddenly appearing everywhere when there had been nothing there the day before. Within a week or two, they were gone as quickly as they had come, no sign of them except for a wrinkled mushroom cap here and there where they had been knocked from their stalks.
Out of sight, though, they wait, their mycelial network unspooled beneath the ground, ready to sprout again, to resurrect.
The broad term for a substance that causes altered states of mind, changes in perception or mood, consciousness or behavior, is entheogen. Entheogens, such as magic mushrooms, have been used as religious or magical aids across the world, spanning continents and civilizations, stretching back as far as we know how to go.
Entheogen, as a word, is created from the Ancient Greek éntheos and genésthai, meaning, in English, full of god, inspired, possessed, rooting our word “enthusiasm,” and to come into being.
From this, we can gather that an entheogen causes one to enter the state of being enthused, inspired, euphoric. From this, we can see how a magic mushroom sprouts religions and divinity and inspires its users to transcendence.
Several years ago, a study found that a single dose of psilocybin can 2 cause a person to become more open to new experiences for over a year, to unlock creativity, art, novelty, deeper emotion. The mushroom trip is said to profoundly affect sensation and passion, to accelerate joy and connection to the self and the world. When the thalamus is slowed, and the brain’s connectivity speeds up, lighting up area after area of the brain, the person is suddenly transcendent, and these feelings linger.
Early on in grad school, I took a class on medieval rhetoric. At some point, during a lecture on the Malleus Maleficarum which lapsed into a more broad discussion of witchcraft, my professor posed the theory that the infamous girls’ contortions, fits of screaming, and delusions that sparked the Salem Witch Trials were caused by self-induced hysteria, a working of oneself into mania. “Like the Pentecostals and their speaking in tongues,” she suggested.
Glossolalia 3, also known as speaking in tongues, is taken from the Greek, and indicates utterances akin to language, noises that approximate speech. As the granddaughter of a Pentecostal pastor, I was as familiar with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues as I was with that of passing the offering plate. I knew it only as prayer. That this might be seen as hysteria, as witchcraft, as something abnormal never crossed my mind then.
There are endless theories for why the Salem Witch Trials began, for what prompted two average young girls to behave manically, beginning one of the most incomprehensible periods of American history. One of them considers that the girls had inhaled fungal spores. Another considers the idea of ergot poisoning, caused by ingesting rye that had been contaminated with the fungal disease. Almost all of them consider mass hysteria; once the accusations of witchcraft began, they could not be contained.
In his essay “The Mushrooms of Language,” Henry Munn writes that those who eat magic mushrooms develop “an inspired capacity to speak.” They are, he says, “the ones possessed by the voice.” To Munn, and those he writes of, “Language is an ecstatic activity” and the effects of the mushrooms serve that ecstasy, allowing them to speak with ease, to become poets and prophets, to speak with perfect eloquence and power. It is as if the words are appearing miraculously, leaping forth without the speaker’s effort, “as if existence were uttering itself” through the speaker.
When I read this, I think of the gift of tongues and interpretation, a phenomenon explained in the New Testament and practiced by the church I grew up in. Inspired by the divine, a believer will begin to speak, ignorant of their own words, allowing spontaneous and free discourse to spill forth and deliver a message from God. Often, this message is delivered in the midst of euphoria through glossolalia. At times, another believer will be compelled to translate the message for the congregation, making use of, as Munn says, “heightened perceptivity.” There are no mushrooms here though, just intense communication and surrender to a deep trance. 4
An infamous experiment with mushrooms is known as the Marsh Chapel Experiment. On Good Friday, in 1962, volunteers were given either a dose of psilocybin or a placebo before attending a religious service in Boston University’s chapel. Those who ingested the psilocybin reported a deeper, more mystical and profound spiritual experience.
In the Pentecostal religion, speaking in tongues is an outward sign of salvation, a manifestation of God entering the human.
While we commonly think of psychedelics as recreational, there is a theory that hallucinogenic experiences significantly influenced the development of religion. This theory is known as the entheogen theory, with entheogen meaning, quite literally, “that which causes God to be within an individual.”
Allegro posited that ancient peoples may have considered rain to be a supernatural semen, fertilizing the earth and causing the harvest to grow. Allegro continued this line of theory, suggesting that plants, especially mushrooms, would have absorbed this heavenly semen and so, when consumed, would allow a person closeness to God, or the gods. 5
In ancient Greece, secret ceremonies were held yearly for Demeter and Persephone. These ceremonies, the Eleusinian Mysteries, called for a special drink. In the Illiad, Homer portrayed this drink as being made of barley, water, herbs, and goat cheese. The barley is thought to have been parasitized by a fungus whose psychoactive properties triggered the intense experiences of those at Eleusis.
While camping in the Ozarks as a child, it was not uncommon for me to find rings of wild mushrooms growing in the damp of the forests. I thought little of it then, but for a long time, in many areas of the world, the appearance of these things was not to be taken lightly.
Fairy rings, increased fertility, doom, the presence of the devil—cultures across the world have associated mushroom rings with the supernatural. Even for the non-superstitious, there are dangers. Not all mushrooms are safe to eat; some bring about psychedelic side effects, some death.
Some mushrooms are said to decelerate brain activity, to cause the thalamus to respond like an insect caught in honey, still moving but slow, viscous. The thalamus can be thought of like a gatekeeper, the Horae of your brain, limiting connections from passing through. With the thalamus sedated, information can travel freely throughout the brain.
This could be why the psilocybin in a magic mushroom can produce a brain state similar to synesthesia, causing letters to taste, numbers to appear in vivid color. The brain is hyperconnected, synchronous.
Like many religious traditions, Christianity emphasizes gathering to worship, the rush of increased connection of human beings in a mass, a tent revival, a prayer circle. When the members of a congregation move to the front of a church, lift their hands all at once and begin to speak, they unify, become interconnected, coexisting in one physical and mental space.
This is where many find miracles, holy experiences, unexplainable occurrences. This is what I pictured when my professor described the hysteria of tongues.
Invisible to us, mushrooms have vast systems of communication—a latticework of underground strands that allow them to freely share information, to feel the vibration of our movements and alert each other that we come, to prepare for what’s to come. This community allows them to thrive for centuries, appearing and disappearing above ground, but always present beneath.
Like the mushroom’s fungal network, our brains create connections, or synapses, to allow the various regions and parts to communicate, to send information across these pathways so instantaneously that we aren’t even aware it’s happening.
When I type this, my fingers move before I am fully conscious of the desire to move them. To experience tongues, the frontal lobe, the language part of the brain, stills and the mouth speaks.
While many studies have shown that religious practice, such as prayer, has beneficial effects on the psyche, there are others that indicate something much different. For believers who report a life-altering religious experience or extreme religious activity (for instance, being “born again” or speaking in tongues), one study showed that there was quite literally a shrinking of the brain. 6 Of course, the theory could also be flipped—perhaps those with smaller hippocampal areas are more likely to pursue extremism; perhaps they are born with religious and/or spiritual proclivities. Do I, someone raised in the throes of religious extremism but no longer practicing it, have a shrunken brain or an enlarged one? One thing science is sure of is that religion affects the brain, not only chemically but physically. Neurotheology, the scientific study of the neural correlates of religious or spiritual beliefs, experiences, and practices, is devoted to finding out how.
In another origin story, a Christianized version of the Aztec legend of Quetzalcoatl, Christ walked across the earth and where droplets of his blood spilled, mushrooms grew. The mushrooms, fleshy, contained the essence of life. When Henry Munn tells of this legend, he lingers on the flesh of the mushroom: “Flesh of the world. Flesh of language. In the beginning was the word and the word became flesh. In the beginning there was flesh and the flesh became linguistic. Food of intuition. Food of wisdom. She ate them, munched them up, swallowed them . . . and all at once, out of the silence, the woman began to speak, to chant, to pray, to sing, to utter her existence.” That is, I think, what we all want: to speak our existence.
When I bite into the meatiness of a mushroom, I am not seeking fertility or God, yet I am following a desire for bliss, a moment of taste on the tongue, a decadence.
I followed this desire when I was young, seeking divinity in worship, tongues, baptism, connection.
It is not new to seek.
Like everyone before me, I look for answers. The origin of the mushroom, the worship, the glossolalia. The explanation for the miracle, the transcendence, the way the world becomes unrecognizable and more recognizable when we drink, or eat, or pray. So powerful is our desire to recognize story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there—the joining of bodies to create more bodies, the first bite of a psychedelic mushroom, the hysteria of witch trials or the theories of their beginnings in a fungus, the joining of hands and language in a church, the drink and dance and dissolution, the spit of rye on the ground.
- This clearly-Christian myth bears striking similarity to a Lithuanian story in which mushrooms are the fingers of Velnias, god of the dead, reaching out from beyond our world to feed the poor.
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, the bit that is best known for bringing about vivid hallucinations, oversaturating colors and dissolving the boundaries between objects. The psilocybin also contains two toxins that reduce the body’s response to fear stimuli, effectively giving them a temporary state of fearlessness.
- This is often confused with xenoglossia, the sudden ability to speak in an actual, unfamiliar language, which is more true to the definition of occurrences in the Christian bible but much more rare in practice.
- This has been referred to as a state of dissociative hyper-arousal.
- Some ancient cultures believed that eating the mushroom was to consume the flesh of the gods, reminiscent of the Eucharist, which Catholicism believes to be the transformed body of Christ.
- Or, hippocampal atrophy.