This paper was first given as the Annual Lecture of the Mycological Society of America, Stillwater, Oklahoma, 1960, and later published in the Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 1961, 19(7).
WHEN I RECEIVED in Mexico your President's invitation to speak
here today, I knew that your Committee had made an unorthodox
choice, for I am not a professional mycologist. As the appointed
hour approached my trepidation kept mounting, for I saw myself
an amateur about to be thrown to a pack of professionals. But
your President's gracious introductory remarks, however unmerited,
have put me at my ease and lead me to hope that we shall all enjoy
together a mushroom foray of a rather unusual nature.
Those of you who do not know the story will be interested in learning how it came about that my wife, who was a pediatrician, and I, who am a banker, took up the study of mushrooms. She was a Great Russian and, like all of her fellow-countrymen, learned at her mother's knee a solid body of empirical knowledge about the common species and a love of them that are astonishing to us Americans. Like us, the Russians are fond of naturethe forests and birds and wild flowers. But their love of mushrooms is of a different order, a visceral urge, a passion that passeth understanding. The worthless kinds, the poisonous mushroomsthe Russians are fond, in a way, even of them. They call these "worthless ones" paganki, the "little pagans," and my wife would make of them colorful centerpieces for the dining-room table, against a background of moss and stones and wood picked up in the woods. On the other hand, I, of Anglo-Saxon origin, had known nothing of mushrooms. By inheritance, I ignored them all; I rejected those repugnant fungal growths, expressions of parasitism and decay. Before my marriage, I had not once fixed my gaze on a mushroom; not once looked at a mushroom with a discriminating eye. Indeed, each of us, she and I, regarded the other as abnormal, or rather subnormal, in our contrasting responses to mushrooms.
A little thing, some of you will say, this difference in emotional attitude toward wild mushrooms. Yet my wife and I did not think so, and we devoted a part of our leisure hours for more than thirty years to dissecting it, defining it, and tracing it to its origin. Such discoveries as we have made, including the rediscovery of the religious role of the hallucinogenic mushrooms of Mexico, can be laid to our preoccupation with that cultural rift between my wife and me, between our respective peoples, between the mycophilia and mycophobia (words that we devised for the two attitudes) that divide the Indo-European peoples into two camps. If this hypothesis of ours be wrong, then it must have been a singular false hypothesis to have produced the results that it has. But I think it is not wrong. Thanks to the immense strides made in the study of the human psyche in this century, we are now all aware that deep-seated emotional attitudes acquired in early life are of profound importance. I suggest that when such traits betoken the attitudes of whole tribes or peoples, and when those traits have remained unaltered throughout recorded history, and especially when they differ from one people to another neighboring people, then you are face to face with a phenomenon of profound cultural importance, whose primal cause is to be discovered only in the well-springs of cultural history.
Many have observed the difference in attitude toward mushrooms of the European peoples. Some mycologists in the English-speaking world have inveighed against this universal prejudice of our race, hoping thereby to weaken its grip. What a vain hope! One does not treat a constitutional disorder by applying a Band-Aid. We ourselves have had no desire to change the Anglo-Saxon's attitude toward mushrooms. We view this anthropological trait with amused detachment, confident that it will long remain unchanged for future students to examine at their leisure.
Our method of approach was to look everywhere for references to mushrooms. We gathered the words for "mushroom" and the various species in every accessible language. We studied their etymologies. Sometimes we rejected the accepted derivations and worked out new ones, as in the case of "mushroom" itself and also of 'chanterelle." We were quick to discern the latent metaphors in such words, metaphors that had lain dead in some cases for thousands of years. We searched for the meaning of those figures of speech. We sought for mushrooms in the proverbs of Europe, in myths and mythology, in legends and fairy tales, in epics and ballads, in historical episodes, in the obscene and scabrous vocabularies that usually escape the lexicographer; in the writings of poets and novelists. We were alert to the positive or negative value that the mushroom vocabularies carried, their mycophilic and mycophobic content. Mushrooms are widely linked with the fly, the toad, the cock, and the thunderbolt; and so we studied these to see what associations they conveyed to our remote forebears. Wherever we traveled we tried to enter into contact with untutored peasants and arrive at their knowledge of the fungithe kinds of mushrooms that they distinguished, their names, the uses to which they put them, and their emotional attitude toward them. We made trips to the Basque country, to Lapland, to Friesland, to the Provence, to Japan. We scoured the picture galleries and museums of the world for mushrooms and we pored over books on archeology and anthropology.
I would not have you think that we ventured into all these learned paths without guidance. We drew heavily on our betters in the special fields that we were exploring. When we were delving into questions of vocabulary, when we worked out an original etymology for a mushroomic word, we were always within reach of a philologist who had made of that tongue his province. And so in all branches of knowledge. Sometimes it seems to me that our entire work has been composed by others, with us merely serving as rapporteur. Since we began to publish in 1956, persons in all walks of life have come to us in increasing numbers to contribute information and oft-times the contributions of even the lowliest informants are of highest value, filling a lacuna in our argument. We were amateurs unencumbered by academic inhibitions, and therefore we felt free to range far and wide, disregarding the frontiers that ordinarily segregate the learned disciplines. What we produced was a pioneering work. We know, we have always known better than the critics, the flaws in ours, but our main theme, which we adumbrated rather diffidently in Mushrooms Russia and History in 1957, seems to have stood up under criticism. If I live and retain my vitality, you may see published over the coming years a series of volumes, to be called perhaps Ethnomycological Papers, and, at the end of the road there may be a new edition of our original work, reshaped, simplified with new evidence added and the argument strengthened.
It would give me pleasure to enumerate the names of those to whom we are indebted, but how tedious the roll call would be for you who are obliged to listen! There is one name, however, that in this audience I must cite. For more than ten years, we have been collaborating closely with Professor Roger Heim, Membre de l'Institut, and on all matters mycological he has been our guide and teacher. For these many years, he has been the director in Paris of the Laboratoire de Cryptogamie and, even longer, editor of the Revue de Mycologie. More recently, he has also borne the burden of directing the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, that renowned center for advanced teaching and research in the biological studies, one of the glories of French culture. But these titles to academic distinction, though themselves of the highest order, do not tell you the story. Vast as is his learning and his experience in field and laboratory, sound as is his judgment in the vexed problems that you mycologists face every day, formidable as he is in polemic, it is as a rare human being that I commend him to you. Patient with the beginner, inspiring as a teacher, model of generosity toward others, prodigious worker in field and laboratory, and classical stylist in the French language, who could be more delightful whether in his published writings, or as correspondent, or as companion in the field? In the presence of Roger Heim, the time-worn conflict between science and the humanities fades away. One senses that the field of science for him is merely the New World that civilized man, the exponent of the humanities, is exploring and assimilating. What guardian angel had me in his keeping when, after the Second World War, I ascended the steps of his laboratory in Paris to meet him for the first time, a stranger, an American, an ignoramus in the complex, the vast, the exacting discipline that you and he share together? At once he made me feel at home and it was not long before he was developing enthusiasm for our ethnomycological inquiries. Later he became our indispensable and beloved partner in our Middle American forays.
I do not recall which of us, my wife or I, first dared to put into words, back in the '40's, the surmise that our own remote ancestors, perhaps 4,000 years ago, worshipped a divine mushroom. It seemed to us that this might explain the phenomenon of mycophilia vs. mycophobia, for which we found an abundance of supporting evidence in philology and folklore. Nor am I sure whether our conjecture was before or after we had learned of the role of Amanita muscaria in the religion of several remote tribes of Siberia. Our bold surmise seems less bold now than it did then. I remember distinctly how it came about that we embarked on our Middle American explorations. In the fall of 1952 we learned that the 16th century writers, describing the Indian cultures of Mexico, had recorded that certain mushrooms played a divinatory role in the religion of the natives. Simultaneously we learned that certain pre-Columbian stone artifacts resembling mushrooms, most of them roughly a foot high, had been turning up, usually in the highlands of Guatemala, in increasing numbers. For want of a better name, the archeologists called them "mushroom stones," but not one archeologist had linked them with mushrooms or with the rites described by the 16th century writers in neighboring Mexico. They were an enigma, and "mushroom stone" was merely a term of convenience. Some of these stone carvings carried an effigy on the stipe, either a human face or an animal, and all of them were very like mushrooms. Like the child in the Emperor's New Clothes, we spoke up, declaring that the so-called "mushroom stones" really represented mushrooms, and that they were the symbol of a religion, like the Cross in the Christian religion, or the Star of Judea, or the Crescent of the Moslems. If we are rightand little by little the accumulating evidence seems to be in our favorthen this Middle American cult of a divine mushroom, this cult of "God's flesh" as the Indians in pre-Columbian times called it, can be traced back to about B.C. 1500, in what we call the Early Pre-classic period, the earliest period in which man was in sufficient command of his technique to be able to carve stone. Thus we find a mushroom in the center of the cult with perhaps the oldest continuous history in the world. These oldest mushroom stones are technically and stylistically among the finest that we have, evidence of a flourishing rite at the time they were made. Earlier still, it is tempting to imagine countless generations of wooden effigies, mushroomic symbols of the cult, that have long since turned to dust. Is not mycology, which someone has called the step-child of the sciences, acquiring a wholly new and unexpected dimension? Religion has always been at the core of man's highest faculties and cultural achievements, and therefore I ask you now to contemplate our lowly mushroomwhat patents of ancient lineage and nobility are coming its way!
It remained for us to find out what kinds of mushrooms had been worshipped in Middle America, and why. Fortunately, we could build on the experience of a few predecessors in the field: Blas Pablo Reko, Robert J. Weitlaner, Jean Bassett Johnson, Richard Evans Schultes, and Eunice V. Pike. They all reported that the cult still existed in the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca. And so we went there, in 1953. In books and articles we have described time and time again our later adventures, and some of you, surely, are familiar with them. So far as we know, we were the first outsiders to eat the mushrooms, the first to be invited to partake in the agape of the sacred mushroom. [This was on the night of June 29-30, 1955.] I propose here this evening a new approach, and will give you the distinctive traits of this cult of a divine mushroom, which we have found a revelation, in the true meaning of that abused word, but which for the Indians is an every-day feature, albeit a Holy Mystery, of their lives.
Here let me say a word parenthetically about the nature of the psychic disturbance that the eating of the mushroom causes. This disturbance is wholly different from the effects of alcohol, as different as night from day. We are entering upon a discussion where the vocabulary of the English language, of any European language, is seriously deficient. There are no apt words in them to characterize your state when you are, shall we say, "bemushroomed." For hundreds, even thousands, of years we have thought about these things in terms of alcohol, and we now have to break the bonds imposed on us by the alcoholic association. We are all, willy nilly, confined within the prison walls of our every-day vocabulary. With skill in our choice of words we may stretch accepted meanings to cover slightly new feelings and thoughts, but when a state of mind is utterly distinct, wholly novel, then all our old words fail. How do you tell a man born blind what seeing is like? In the present case, this is especially true because superficially the bemushroomed man shows a few of the objective symptoms of one intoxicated, drunk. Now virtually all the words describing the state of drunkenness, from "intoxicated" (which, as you know, means "poisoned") through the scores of current vulgarisms, are contemptuous, belittling, pejorative. How curious it is that modern civilized man finds surcease from care in a drug for which he seems to have no respect! If we use by analogy the terms suitable for alcohol, we prejudice the mushroom, and since there are few among us who have been bemushroomed, there is danger that the experience will not be fairly judged. What we need is a vocabulary to describe all the modalities of a Divine Inebriant.
These difficulties in communicating have played their part in \ certain amusing situations. Two psychiatrists who have taken the mushroom and known the experience in its full dimensions have been criticised in professional circles as being no longer "objective." Thus it comes about that we are all divided into two classes: those who have taken the mushroom and are disqualified by our subjective experience, and those who have not taken the mushroom and are disqualified by their total ignorance of the subject ! As for me, a simple layman, I am profoundly grateful to my Indian friends for having initiated me into the tremendous Mystery of the mushroom. In describing what happens, I shall be using familiar phrases that may seem to give you some idea of the bemushroomed state. Let me hasten to warn you that I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of my words, any words, to conjure up for you an image of that state.
I shall take you now to the monolingual villages in the uplands of southern Mexico. Only a handful of the inhabitants have learned Spanish. The men are appallingly given to the abuse of alcohol, but in their minds the mushrooms are utterly different, not in degree, but in kind. Of alcohol they speak with the same jocular vulgarity that we do. But about mushrooms they prefer not to speak at all, at least when they are in company and especially when strangers, white strangers, are present. If you are wise, you will talk about something, anything, else. Then, when evening and darkness come and you are alone with a wise old man or woman whose confidence you have won, by the light of a candle held in the hand and talking in a whisper, you may bring up the subject. Now you will learn how the mushrooms are gathered, perhaps before sunrise, when the mountain side is caressed by the pre-dawn breeze, at the time of the New Moon, in certain regions only by a virgin. The mushrooms are wrapped in a leaf, perhaps a banana leaf, sheltered thus from irreverent eyes, and in some villages they are taken first to the church, where they remain for some time on the altar, in a jicara or gourd bowl. They are never exposed in the market-place but pass from hand to hand by prearrangement. I could talk to you a long time about the words used to designate these sacred mushrooms in the languages of the various peoples that know them. The Aztecs before the Spaniards arrived called them teo-nanácatl, God's flesh. I need hardly remind you of a disquieting parallel, the designation of the Elements in our Eucharist: "Take, eat, this is my Body...."; and again, "Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son...." But there is one difference. The orthodox Christian must accept by faith the miracle of the conversion of the bread into God's flesh: that is what is meant by the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. By contrast the mushroom of the Aztecs carries its own conviction; every communicant will testify to the miracle that he has experienced. In the language of the Mazatecs, the sacred mushrooms are called 'nti1 si3tho3. The first word, 'nti1, is a particle expressing reverence and endearment. [The superscript digits indicate the pitch of the syllable, 1 being the highest of four. The initial apostrophe indicates a glottal stop.] The second element means "that which springs forth." In 1953 our muleteer had traveled the mountain trails all his life and knew Spanish, though he could neither read nor write, nor even tell time by a clock's face. We asked him why the mushrooms were called "that which springs forth." His answer, breathtaking in its sincerity and feeling, was filled with the poetry of religion, and I quote it word for word as he gave it:
El honguillo viene por si mismo, no se sabe de donde,
como el viento que viene sin saber de d6nde ni porque.
The little mushroom comes of itself, no one knows whence,
like the wind that comes we know not whence nor why.
Eleusis is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous, At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?
The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men, whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs, the Apostles the same-the clearer the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing eye can see, does not imagine at all. [Italics mine. From The Writings of William Blake, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes, vol. III, p. 108]
2. Giambattista della Porta: Villa, 1592, Frankfort, p. 764. (back)
3. Holger Pedersen in an early paper contended that the basic fungal words of Europe were identical: Old High German swamb, Slavic gomba, Lithuanian gumbas, Latin fungus, Greek sp(h)óngos, sp(h)óngê, and Armenian sung, sunk. (Published in Polish: 'Przyczynki do gramatyki porównawczej jezyków slowianskich,' in Materyaly i Prace Komisyi Jesytowe; Akademii Umieietnosci w Krakozvie, Cracow, 1(1): 167-176.) Since then some philologists have declined to accept this thesis as more than a possibility, especially as to the Slavic term, but Professor Roman Jakobson in a recent personal communication to me says: 'The etymology of Holger Pedersen, the great Danish specialist in the comparative study of Indo-European languages, seems to me and to many other linguists, e.g., the distinguished Czech etymologist V. Machek, as the only convincing attempt to interpret the fungal name of the European languages. Not one single serious argument has been brought against Pedersen's "attractive" explanation, as Berneker defines it, and not one single defensible hypothesis has been brought to replace this one.' (back)
4. The Chemistry of Natural Products, paper read by Dr. Hofmann, Aug. 18, 1960, in the I.U.P.A.C. Symposium, Melbourne. (back)
5. The best summary of the ololiuqui literature and problem is Richard Evans Schultes' A Contribution to Our Knowledge of Rivea corymbosa, the Narcotic Ololiuqui of the Aztecs, Botanical Museum, Harvard University, 1941. Also see Humphrey Osmond's Ololiuqui: The Ancient Aztec Narcotic, Journal of Mental Science, July 1955, 101(424): 526-537. Dr. Osmond reports on the effects of the seeds on himself. (back)
6. Ipomoea violacea Linnaeus Pl. Sp. (1953) 161. Convolvulus indicsus Miller Gard. Dict. (1768) No. 5. Ipomoea tricolor Cavanilles Icon. Pl. Rar. 3 (1794) 5. Convolvulus violaceus Sprengel Syst. 1 (1825) 399. Convolznalus venustus Sprengel Syst. 1 (1825) 399. Ipomoea rubrocoerulea Hooker Bot. Mag. (1834) t. 3297. Pharbitis violacea (L.) Bojer Hort. Maurit. (1837) 227. Tereietra violacea (L.) Rafinesque Fl. Tellur. 4 (1839) 124. Ipomoca Hookeri G. Don Gen. Syst. 4 (1838) 274. Pharbitis rubrocoeruleus (Hook.) Planchon Fl. des Serres 9 (1854) 281. Convolvulus rubrocoeruleus (Hook.) D. Dietrich Syn. Pl. 1 (1839) 670. Ipomoea puncticulata 8entham Bot. Voy. Sulph. (1945) 136. (back)
7. Credit for the discovery of the ceremonial use of Ipomoea violacea seeds goes to Thomas MacDougall and Francisco Ortega ("Chico"), famous Zapotec guide and itinerant trader. They have not yet delimited the area of diffusion, but they have found badoh negro seeds in use in the following Zapotec towns and villages in the uplands of southern Oaxaca: San Bartolo Yautepec, San Carlos Yautepec and Santa Catarina Quieri, all in the district of Yautepec; Santa Cruz Ozolotepec and San Andres Lovene, District of Miahuatlan; and finally a settlement called Roalo, between Zaachila and Zimatlan, just south of the city of Oaxaca. In San Bartolo I. violacea is used to the exclusion of Rivea corymbosa, but in the other towns both are used. These data are based on personal correspondence and also Thomas MacDougall: Ipomoea tricolor: A Hallucinogenic Plant of the Zapotecs, in Boletín of the Centro de Investigaciones Antropol6gicas de Mexico, No. 6, March 1, 1960. Reports from Juquila, to the west of the Zapotec towns mentioned above, indicate that I. violacea seeds may also be used among the Chatino Indians. (back)
8. A. Hofmann with R. Brunner, H. Kokel, and A. Brack, Helv. Chem. Acta, 1957, 40:1358. (back)