Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras

Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras

Veering away from the topic of Buddhism again, this post is a review of the scholarly book, Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras by Ruck, Hoffman, and Celdran, published this year by City Lights Books of San Francisco. No less a person than Huston Smith says, “An important book – by far the most comprehensive account of this thunderingly neglected topic that I have seen.”

For me, there is a link to Buddhism here, but it is a personal one, and not obvious to many. I grew up in an American cultural wasteland with few spiritual signposts along the way.  I craved depth, but found none. The 60’s and early 70’s brought a liberating cultural shift, opening the door to new information and the permission to explore new spiritual paths.  Buddhism was the ticket for me, as were psychedelics. Tibetan Buddhism drew me in, which seemed to promise endless otherworldly vistas coupled with empathic serenity. Along with the sumptuous visual display, it presented itself as a wisdom tradition with cosmic answers for everything.  I was hooked.

Fast-forward to 2011; Buddhism and psychedelics still rock my world.  Entheogen has replaced the word psychedelic with its emphasis on healing and wisdom, while Buddhism is finally beginning to go through a healthy deconstruction, for me personally, and in the wider sphere of western empirical review. Both Buddhism and entheogens present a path of spirituality for me.  They inform each other in my worldview, and I am committed to both.

Rather than a story of present day deconstruction of an established religious and cultural tradition, Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras is a recovery of a forgotten chapter in our western history. It is a little known story of the role of entheogens woven through our western cultural foundations. I am shocked how much ignorance surrounds this topic.  I see it as one more example of the shallowness of our modern day awareness, almost a cult of ignorance – an inability or refusal to encounter the depths of our psyches.

This mass delusion, this living on the surface of things is what infects us most these days, and leads to a type of despair that cuts us off from emotional and spiritual satisfaction.  This is the basis of the sickness of our current society, locked out by our linear, materialistic thinking patterns.  We have forgotten how to experience and feel the depths of our souls, to allow ourselves to hook into archetypal relationships that can give us a healing sense of being and place. Somehow we have lost the connection with this divinity.  We have Buddhist practice and other spiritual practice, but for many of us, we are still missing a more profound sense of involvement with our experience.

Enter entheogens, that botanical sacrament that has been at the root of most spiritual traditions. It was not the only vehicle available to gain spiritual understanding, but it was the original one, a psychic pathway that exists via nature’s plant compounds. For the ancients, it was most potently the mushroom, Amanita muscaria, but it eventually included an entire class of psychoactive plants from grain fungi called ergot (similar to LSD), Psilocybin mushrooms, Datura, Ephedra, Cannabis, alcohol and others. These plant-based medicines were all commonly called haoma. Soma is also a word likely to have been used in the same broader context.

Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras casts a wide net in laying out the evidence for the use of entheogens in all Greek, Roman, Persian, and Egyptian Mystery Religions.  It was the lubricant used to help the initiate open up to the experience, which was the performance and telling of the “hero’s journey”.  The entheogen brought a visceral sense of this journey to the individual while participating in the enactment.

Each culture had its own mythic storyline, but at its heart all Mysteries tell of the same journey – the challenging descent into the underworld as a voyage of self-discovery or ego death, and the return or re-birth of the individual or hero – a re-made person that is both wiser and more fulfilled.  This was the universal initiation of its day, a maturing of the individual psyche through being taught archetypal truths, bringing stability and cohesion to society. This is what is profoundly missing in our modern cultures that have forgotten what true initiation is.

Mithras is the Bull-Mushroom-Godhead, the basis of a religion that had its final flowering as the main Roman Mystery Religion, lasting 300 years until its violent suppression by the Christians.  There is a long chronology of this faith prior to the Roman adoption. It existed most strongly in Persia and has antecedents in many of the cultures rimming the Mediterranean.

A most interesting discussion reveals the use of the mythraeum, the underground chamber where the Mysteries were enacted, and where the sacred entheogen was ingested.  These mythraeum were located throughout the Roman Empire, in far-flung places like Britain, Germany, North Africa and Persia.  The reconstruction of these ceremonial chambers evidences that no more than a group of 30 could have assembled. The room was laid out as a long rectangle with benches on either side with a main aisle in-between for the performances to be enacted. The participants were often the select, empowered political and military members of the society, quite a different audience than the entire city of Athens that would annually hike to the caves at Eleusis in the autumn time to participate in the famous Eleusynian mysteries of Persephone and Demeter.

Beyond the association with the religion of Mithras, this subject of entheogenic influence in religious rites is ripe for greater exposure.  There are a number of reasons this information has only recently come to light. Partly it has been hidden by symbolism that scholars have misinterpreted, because these secret societies held this information close.  Secondly, much of this body of knowledge was eradicated by the Church Triumphant. Thirdly, due to our myopic modern views there has been general denial that such pervasive drug use could have been at the center of religious expression.

It has also been naturally suppressed by many individual’s incredulity that people would want to resort to such cathartic and possibly mentally destabilizing “other-worldly” experiences in order to understand our human natures better.  It is part of our Dionysian nature to desire this experience, but many of us have squashed this part of ourselves, either fearing this outpouring or just neglecting it in favor of keeping a safe distance.

I say it’s time to wake-up from our amnesia.  We’re not going to create an enlightened society as a bunch of sober, linear, left-brain intellectuals!  We need to learn to loosen up, to learn about our hidden deeper natures, and celebrate our divinity. This visceral experience is our birthright.  We need intensity of experience to know that it is real, to feel it in our bones.  Otherwise we are lost in a realm of ideas and surface materiality.

Have you taken your medicine today?

4 Comments to Mushrooms, Myth and Mithras

  1. “bunch of sober, linear, left-brain intellectuals!”

    If only. Where are all these sober, linear, left-brained intellectuals? I seem to live in a nation of drunken, circular thinking, half-witted, anti-intellectuals – with only a few notable exceptions. From what I can gather my country is not atypical. Most people seemed confused enough as it is without adding psychedelics to their mix.

    Most people would be better off with a regular meditation practice and a few weeks a year on retreat.

  2. Craig Vivas

    Hi. I’m a friend of your brother, Jeff. As a mushroom enthusiast and mushroom hunter, I enjoyed your post.

    The reason for this comment is that you characterized the Amanita Muscaia as an entheogenic mushroom. This species, with its characteristic red cap with white scales has become an icon representing “magic mushrooms” but it contains no psilocybin and does contain toxins that can potentially get you sick or even possibly kill you. The toxin in the Muscaria can have psychoactive properties at lower dosages that, I’m told are more along the lines of a stimulant rather than a psychedelic. The potency of the toxin varies from mushroom to mushroom depending on region and season and there is controversy about potential liver toxicity even at lower dosages. Some people eat them as a culinary mushroom after they have been parboiled twice and the water discarded to remove the toxins. I tried them this way once but found the flavor rather unpleasant in a medicinal way.

    I find the Amanita Muscaria frequently on my mushroom hunts and leave them behind. There are about 5 species of culinary mushroom in my area that I feel comfortable picking and eating.

    My advice is to stick with coffee or black tea as a stimulant and get your psilocybin mushrooms from a trusted source. There are 116 species within the Psilocybe genus of varying potency. Do not eat any mushroom or wild plant unless you are 100% certain that it is safe.

  3. Andrew

    …love the perspective, Jayarava! Perhaps the sober, linear, left-brained folks are a dying breed, or already dead. Do we need to invite them back to the party? Maybe the new straw man is your drunken circular reference chap.

    Excessively sober or excessively drunk seems to be the problem. Either way, it comes from being locked away in one’s myopic worldview. Better to throw open the gates and invite the mystery in. This may not put food on the table or solve economic problems, but it does create humility and halts the habitual storyline. A solid meditation practice can do this too. There are many tools in the toolbox…

  4. Hi Craig,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    I agree that the focus on Amanita Muscaria is perplexing, since its psychoactive properties are nowhere near as accessible as psilocybin mushrooms. Maybe the ancients were more rugged people and were willing to put up with the side effects of the Amanita. If there’s no psilocybin around, what are you going to do if you want to get high? I think there are still many mysteries concerning how the various entheogens were prepared. The most fascinating query is how the hierophants at Eleusis managed to work with grain ergot (probably barley), isolating the psychoactive compounds and avoiding the severe poisoning that killed many people over the centuries.

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