Few symbols are more indicative of the modern Christmas season than a jolly Santa Claus, clad in red and white furs, ascending up a chimney with a finger to his nose. But where did that imagery come from? Was it the vivid imagination of Clement Clark Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”? Or, as recounted by Andy Letcher in his book “Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom,” was it a distorted folk memory of Siberian shamanism? After all, the hallucinogenic fly-agaric mushroom shares the red and white coloring of St. Nick, shamans were said to climb out the smoke-holes of their yurts while entranced, and reindeer that had eaten the mushroom were occasionally killed and eaten for a secondhand intoxication.
The theory of a bemushroomed Santa is most likely false; the idea was first tossed out in modern times and taken up by enthusiastic members of the counterculture. But the truth behind the history of magic mushrooms is just as interesting as the wildest fiction. Letcher uses countless anecdotes like the Santa tale to illustrate that the current view of hallucinogenic fungi as (mostly) harmless “trippy” or “spiritual” drugs is almost entirely a product of the 20th century. The prevailing attitudes towards the fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) and psilocybe mushrooms are as much the result of the cultures in which they are consumed as of the mushrooms’ own mind-altering effects.
And the attitude of most cultures towards all mushrooms for the majority of history was one of fear. Letcher draws on ancient sources such as the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder to show the confusion and mistrust that surrounded fungi; these organisms that were not quite animals and not quite plants were regarded as “mysterious and problematic.” When hallucinogenic species were consumed by accident, the effects were considered far from desirable, and doctors employed emetics and stomach pumps to counter what they viewed as serious cases of poisoning.
Yet a small number of societies have historically used mushrooms in a mystical context, including the aforementioned Siberians and several Mexican shamanic groups. Letcher animatedly explains how this latter tradition was “discovered” by an unlikely Western visitor: Gordon Wasson, a respectable American banker, whose books and articles sharing the mushroom experience caused the practice to explode from the 1960s onward. He then provides a thorough overview of the scientists and misfits who popularized mushrooming, from the growers who learned to cultivate the caps to the visionaries whose accounts gave new trippers a framework of “timewaves” and “self-transforming machine elves.”
Letcher’s wide-ranging narrative handily dispels many of the myths surrounding the magic mushroom, grounding its usage in a solidly contemporary context. Although his writing can at times veer to the overly academic, making critiques of structuralist and Freudian philosophies that are beyond the depth of a popular science work, it is always imbued with a delightful blend of authority and irreverence (Letcher both holds two doctorates and plays the bagpipes in a self-described “acid folk” band). Reading “Shroom” is itself a trip, and one well worth taking.