Ceramic mushrooms (see above photo) have been excavated from a Jomon archaeological site in Akita prefecture, indicating that the Jomon people as with many cultures elsewhere, probably used “magic mushrooms” (i.e. psychoactive mushrooms) ritually. The mushrooms reproduced in clay were found in a ritual context along with other ritual implements such as ceramic human figurines and as such likely indicate their central function and symbolism attached to shamanic rituals possibly at solstice or other festivals where they may have been distributed to other members of the society. Similar pottery mushroom representations have been found in Native American digs.
Around 30 species of magic mushrooms inhabit Japan and the archipelago is among the category of countries with the richest finds of magic mushrooms (see below)
Apart from the graphic clay representation above, magic mushrooms are referred to in the Konjaku Monogatari Shuu (compiled in the Heian period 12th c.) which records the story of some nuns who climbed a mountain and ate some mushrooms that caused them to dance. Magic mushrooms references in Japan are often referred to as dance-inducing(Odoritake and Maitake) or laughter-inducing (Waraitake) mushrooms. These “laughing mushrooms” are the subject of a number of folktales as well as the names of ancient dance forms in Japan (source: Historical Overview of Psychoactive Mushrooms, Yoshihiro Matsushima, et al., Inflammation and Regeneration, Jan 1, 2009)
On the religious and ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, Giorgio Santorini wrote:
“The use of vegetable hallucinogens by humans for religious purposes is very ancient, probably even older than its use for healing, magic or teaching purposes. The profound alterations in one’s state of consciousness brought about by the use of a hallucinogen has served as a founding axis for religious systems, and in the development of established religions throughout the history of humanity.” — Giorgio Samorini, ethnobotanist and psychedelics researcher, Integration, 5: 105-114
The art and skill of using magic mushrooms, along with other herbal resources for healing would have conferred upon ancient shaman great prestige, see “Shamanism“:
“Shamanic knowledge usually enjoys great power and prestige in the community, but it may also be regarded suspiciously or fearfully as potentially harmful to others.
By engaging in their work, a shaman is exposed to significant personal risk, from the spirit world, from enemy shamans, or from the means employed to alter the shaman’s state of consciousness. Shamanic plant materials can be toxic or fatal if misused. Failure to return from an out-of-body journey can lead to death. Spells are commonly used to protect against these dangers, and the use of more dangerous plants is often very highly ritualized.”
Central Asian shamans served as sacred intermediaries between the human and spirit world. In this role they took on tasks such as healing, divination, appealing to ancestors, manipulating the elements, leading lost souls and officiating public religious rituals. The shamanic séance served as a public display of the shaman’s journey to the spirit world and usually involved intense trances, drumming, dancing, chanting, elaborate costumes, miraculous displays of physical strength, and audience involvement. …
Shamans perform in a “state of ecstasy” deliberately induced by an effort of will. Reaching this altered state of consciousness required great mental exertion, concentration and strict self-discipline. Mental and physical preparation included long periods of silent meditation, fasting, and smoking. In this state, skilled shamans employ capabilities that the human organism cannot accomplish in the ordinary state. Shamans in ecstasy displayed unusual physical strength, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, the bearing of stabbing and cutting without pain, and the heightened receptivity of the sense organs. Shamans made use of intoxicating substances and hallucinogens, especially mukhomor mushrooms and alcohol, as a means of hastening the attainment of ecstasy. [Balzer, Shamanism pp 12-21] — See The Siberian Shamanism Origins of Santa Claus: Reindeer, Pine Trees and Mushrooms“
In some cases, the mushrooms were not only regarded as sacred, but as deities in themselves, or flesh of deities, or mediators of gods (see Giorgio Samorini).
On the role of magic mushrooms in the development of religion, see also Mushrooms and Religion, lectures by George Wong:
“Gordon Wasson put forth his own hypothesis on the origin of religion from mushrooms containing entheogens, psychoactive compounds that is taken to bring on a spiritual experience. Usually, these are of plant origin, e.g. peyote, but may be of fungal origin, e.g. Amanita muscaria, as well. Wasson gave examples from several cultures that he had previously described, in details. In addition, Wasson, with respect to Soma, he believed that it was responsible for..
“A prodigious expansion in Man’s memory must have been the gift that differentiated mankind from his predecessors, and I surmise that this expansion in memory led to a simultaneous growth in the gift of language, these two powers generating in man that self-consciousness which is the third of the triune traits that alone make man unique. Those three gifts – memory, language and self-consciousness – so interlock that they seem inseparable, the aspects of a quality that permitted us to achieve all the wonders we now know.
R. Gordon Wasson, from pg. 80, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. Yale University Press, New Haven MA.
A modified version of this hypothesis was later developed by McKenna, in the late 1980’s. His hypothesis differed from Wasson in that Mckenna believed that mushrooms involved contained the entheogen psilocybin, and he specifically says Stropharia cubensis, was responsible for the origin of religion and development of memory, language and self-consciousness. According to Mckenna, both events occurred in Africa, and began during the prehistoric, nomadic, hunting/gathering period of man’s existence.”
The collection and distribution of the mushrooms were the traditional domain of the Siberian shaman:
The name of the mushroom is Amanita muscaria, also called Fly Agaric. Muscaria is a psychotropic, causing visions and altered states. It is also toxic, and must be handled in a particular manner so as to get the psychedelic effects without the toxic ones. You may have heard of the word “shaman”, which is a word from the Tungus-speaking people of Siberia, to connote a religious specialist.(1) The Tungusic are Russian indigenous people who live in the arctic circle (north pole) and they are reindeer herders. A shaman dealt with the mushrooms, as both a safety practice and as part of the spirituality of the people.
The shaman would collect the mushrooms in a bag and deliver them to families, who would then often hang them in socks around the fireplace to dry – the mushrooms would be ready to share their revelatory gifts in the morning of the solstice.
Amanita Muscaria grows only beneath a Christmas tree (coniferous/pine tree) in a symbiotic, non-parasitic relationship with the roots of the tree. (6) It used to be thought to be the fruit of the tree.
Coming in through the Chimney
And of course, the final touch is how the shaman would enter homes to distribute the “gifts”:
The tradition of the Shaman,[…], was to go into the forests and collect these shrooms that grow under pine trees or evergreen trees. The Shaman would collect enough for the entire tribe and then go to each of the houses, sometimes due to heavy snow the doors would be snowed in and the Shaman would have to enter through the smoke hole in the roof!
Ornaments and Santa’s Outfit
And what about Santa’s outfit and Christmas tree ornaments? Well… from JungleApocalypse:
To this day Siberian shamans dress in ceremonial red and white [also the most dominant Shinto ritual and sacred color] fur-trimmed jackets to gather the magic mushrooms. First they pick and place the mushrooms to partially dry on nearby pine boughs which prepares them for ingestion and makes the load lighter. “
See Mushrooms and Religion: Psilocybe, Conocybe, Stropharia, Panaeolus, Copelandia, etc for more on the use of mushrooms and religious experience.
The following articles may contain possible scientific explanations for the altered states of consciousness that shamanic figures have.
Magic mushrooms link unconnected brain regions (LiveScience, Oct 30, 2014)
Users of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, often report altered states of consciousness and a synesthesia-like melding of the senses. Now, scientists studying the drug may have found an explanation for these bizarre sensations: Psilocybin changes the brain’s wiring on a macroscopic scale, LiveScience reports. Researchers placed experienced magic mushroom users into an MRI machine after giving them either a placebo or a dose of psilocybin. They discovered that in addition to disrupting normal communication channels, the drug also created a hyperconnected brain that contained links between regions that don’t typically communicate with each other (see image from Wired). The new linkages might account for the blending of senses and may even explain why some users report profound shifts in perspective and worldview even after the drug has worn off.
In an earlier report:
Mapping the Psychedelic Brain (Science Now, 23 Jan, 2012) by Greg Miller
Drugs like psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, play all sorts of tricks on the mind. They distort the perception of time, space, and self, and even untether the senses. Some researchers thought these strange effects might result from the drugs overexciting the brain. But the first study to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activity in people who’ve taken psilocybin finds that the drug reduces neural firing in key communication hubs, essentially disconnecting some brain regions from each other.
In Central America and elsewhere, hallucinogenic drugs have been used for centuries in healing and religious ceremonies. Recent years have seen renewed interest in exploiting them to explore the neural basis of spirituality and potentially to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Yet neuroscientists know little about how these compounds act on the brain to cause such intensely altered experiences. Hallucinogenic drugs are tightly regulated, and few previous studies have tried to gauge their effects on the human brain. One study, using positron emission tomography (PET), found that psilocybin increases brain metabolism, especially in the frontal cortex.
In the new work, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by psychopharmacologists Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt of Imperial College London used a different method, fMRI, to scan the brains of 30 people who were under the influence of psilocybin. The tight confines and loud noises of the scanner could be scary for someone on psilocybin, Nutt says. To minimize the chances of anyone having a bad trip, the researchers recruited people who’d taken hallucinogens previously, and they delivered the drug intravenously so that it would have a faster—and shorter—effect than, say, eating magic mushrooms.
The researchers performed two different types of MRI scans, one that measured blood flow throughout the brain and one that determined blood oxygenation, which neuroscientists generally assume is an indicator of neural activity. Contrary to the previous study, the scans showed that psilocybin reduces blood flow and neural activity in several brain regions, including the posterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. The researchers quizzed the volunteers after the psilocybin had worn off and found that people in which these regions were most inhibited tended to report the most intense hallucinatory experiences. Nutt says he’s not sure why the findings differ from those of the PET study, but he speculates that it could be due to the different time courses of the injectable drug his team used and the oral tablets used in the other research.
The posterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortices are hubs in the so-called default mode network, a web of interconnected brain regions that becomes active when people allow their minds to wander. Some researchers have proposed that the default mode network is crucial for introspective thought and even for generating the sense of consciousness, and Nutt thinks the finding that psilocybin inhibits this network could help explain the surreal experiences the drug causes. “What I think is going on is that this network in the brain that pulls together a sense of self becomes less active,” he says, “and you get this fragmented or dissipated sense of being.”
“It’s a very interesting study that raises lots of new questions,” says Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He says the possibility that the drugs work by interfering with the default mode network is an appealing hypothesis that deserves further investigation.
Nutt and Griffiths are interested in the therapeutic potential of hallucinogenic drugs. Griffiths is involved in a pilot study testing whether psilocybin and psychotherapy can ease end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. Nutt’s group is looking into using the drug to treat depression, and this week in The British Journal of Psychiatry, he and colleagues report that psilocybin can increase neural activity in brain regions related to memory when people recall events from their past. The drug also improved people’s ability to access personal memories and related emotions, which the researchers say could be helpful during psychotherapy.
Further readings and resources:
Tsujikawa K., et al., Morphological and chemical analysis of magic mushrooms in Japan, Forensic Sci Int. 2003 Dec 17;138(1-3):85-90.
Morphological and toxicological analyses were performed on hallucinogenic mushrooms that are currently circulated in Japan. Researchers found: The psilocin/psilocybin contents in Psilocybe cubensis were in the range of 0.14-0.42%/0.37-1.30% in the whole mushroom (0.17-0.78%/0.44-1.35% in the cap and 0.09-0.30%/0.05-1.27% in the stem), respectively. The hallucinogenic alkaloids in Copelandia were 0.43-0.76%/0.08-0.22% in the whole mushroom (0.64-0.74%/0.02-0.22% in the cap and 0.31-0.78%/0.01-0.39% in the stem). It thus appears that P. cubensis is psilocybin-rich, whereas Copelandia is psilocin-rich.