It’s that time of the year again. According to that popular carol, it’s apparently the most wonderful time of the year. The festive season calls us to gather with loved ones and celebrate surviving another year — and what a wild one it’s been. While 2020 was a memorable moment in time, it might be a year we all would rather forget. Between a worldwide pandemic, environmental disasters, civil unrest and a growing mental health crisis, one thing is certain, change was a predominant theme for everyone this year.
Millions of people, all around the world, celebrate this bizarre tradition called Christmas. It turns out, it might be a little stranger than we thought. The image of Santa Claus has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, and can be traced back to pre-Christian times, with its origins deep in Paganism, and Nordic mythology. We all sing along to the carols, decorate our trees, give gifts to friends and enjoy hearty feasts with our families. However, how often do we reflect about the roots of these traditions.
Could there be a link between psychoactive compounds found in mushrooms and the festive season? Is there an uncanny connection to Christianity and psychedelic brews? Do we know why it’s Christmas time at all?
Since pre-Christian times, this time of year has always been a period of festivities and celebration, with banquets, music, dancing, drinking and gatherings. Germanic peoples celebrated the Yule, a midwinter festival, which took place around the Winter Solstice and the Romans during an ancient festival called Saturnalia, in honor of the god Saturn.
Yet, during the winter season, in the Siberian and Arctic regions, shamans were known to drop into homes with a specific type of gift — magic mushrooms. The shamans give the phrase ‘Christmas spirit’ a new type of meaning, as they offered healing and a connection with the spirit world to the people. The sole purpose of the ritual, was to align others with their soul’s purpose. It is entirely possible that the idea of Santa, with his iconic red and white outfit, derived from shamans that did in actuality reside in the North Pole.
Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita, is a mushroom native throughout the temperate and boreal regions of the Northern Hemisphere. This red and white-spotted fungi is arguably the most iconic toadstool species encountered in popular culture. Though poisonous if prepared incorrectly, the mushroom is noted for its hallucinogenic properties, with the main psychoactive compounds being the neurotoxins ibotenic acid and muscimol.
The indigenous arctic circle dwellers, specifically the Kamchadals and the Koryaks of Siberia, used the fly amanita as a part of their ancestral traditions to launch those who consumed into a spiritual journey. Legend has it that on the night of the winter solstice, the guides would harvest the hallucinogenic mushrooms and deliver them to the people of the region for healing rituals during solstice ceremonies. Often times entry through the door of the yurts are blocked with snow and access can only occur by going through the smoke hole at the top of homes.
This specific type of mushroom grows commonly under pine trees, because their spores travel exclusively on pine seeds, which could also explain why the pine tree is so closely related in Christmas festivities.
As previously mentioned, the Amanita muscaria is toxic, but becomes less lethal when dried out. To make them safe for consumption, the shaman would often hang the mushrooms on the branches of the pine trees or in a stocking over the fireplace.
Another way to remove the toxins was to collect the urine from reindeer, who actively seek out these mushrooms as a food source and to hallucinate. Their digestive systems filter out the toxins while the strongest psychoactive molecules pass through their bodies unmetabolised. The effects would give the reindeer and those who drank its urine psychedelic flights of fantasy. A common hallucination during a trip would also include visions of mystical realms, where one may encounter magical beings such as elves. Starting to sound a bit familiar?
Ethnomycologist, author and founding father of psychedelics — R. Gordon Wasson argues in his book, ‘Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality’, that the connections between Siberian shamanic traditions and the Western idea of Christmas aren’t merely coincidental. Why is it that these funny looking fungi were commonly illustrated on vintage Christmas cards or used as decorations? The red, white and green theme colours that have echoed through our culture may have unknowingly been inspired by psychoactive compounds that grew in the artic.
The mushroom species is thought to have had tremendous impact on many cultures for at least four thousand years. It is believed by some to be at the root of the origin of some of today’s religions, including Christianity. There is an undeniable connection between the festive season and Christianity, even though many who celebrate Christmas traditions don’t identify as a Christian. It is both a sacred religious holiday and a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon.
The English term “Christmas” comes from the combination of the word’s “mass” and “Christ,” however, December 25th is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible as the day Mary was said to have given birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. Historical evidence suggests that Jesus was actually born in the northern springtime. The reason these dates are associated is because in the fourth century church officials, specifically Pope Julius I, wanted to popularise Christianity and decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. Christian missionaries adopted Yule celebrations in order to convert and appease pagans who were deeply, spiritually attached to their own traditions. First called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt and to England by the end of the sixth century.
The Germanic and Scandinavian Yuletide, was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January. That’s right, “Yuletide carols being sung by a choir.” The same period was celebrated by the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus or the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.” In the Julian calendar, December 25th marked the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, after which the days begin to lengthen. After solstice, the renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated.
Seems that the comprise for Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ may have been to attach it to a significant celebration of that time. Influenced by sun worship; a reminder to all life on Earth that we owe everything to the Sun. Sun worship is one of the main pillars of all religion, particularly ancient pagan rituals. Perhaps this is where the early religious institutions connected the birth of Jesus or the ‘Son of God’ and quite literally the ‘Sun’. This idea is not far-fetched, since many Christian scriptures have said to be influenced by the stars and cosmos.
The claim that psychedelic mushrooms played an integral part in early Christianity is controversial, but has been well discussed. Julie and Jerry Brown (Ph.D.), put forth this theory in their book ‘The Psychedelic Gospels’ and have a wealth of evidence to support it.
There is a surprising prevalence of mushrooms in early Christian art that contain multiple examples of both the Psilocybin cubensis and Amanita muscaria mushrooms. Including the one seen here at St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim, Germany, depicting the transfiguration of Jesus.
One of the most interesting and potentially revolutionary books that has been published regarding the connection between psychedelic drugs and the antecedents of European civilisation is again work from the mind of R. Gordon Wasson and a collaboration with Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck. ‘The Road to Eleusis — Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries’ was presented as a series of papers to the Second International Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms held in the state of Washington in 1977.
The book explores the secrets of the kykeon, which was a potion that inspired the great philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, artists, architects and poets of ancient Greece who we recognise as the progenitors of Western civilisation. The consciousness-altering sacrament contained a somewhat equivalent of LSD: A naturally-produced lysergic acid alkaloid. Kykeon which in Greek, simply means “medley” was a drink mixed with Ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and related plants, which in that time was generally Barley.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were transformative rituals that took place in ancient Greece, extending out of Mycenaean traditions (approximately 1500 BC) and the Greek Dark Ages. Men, women, slaves, and emperors all went to Eleusis to drink kykeon, to experience healing and spiritual insights. The only requirements to participate in the rituals were to speak fluent Greek and never to have committed a murder. With the advent of the Holy Roman Empire, the Mysteries were banned and the healing potential of kykeon, began to go underground in the Western world.
There was never one monolithic form of Christianity, from the beginning there were always competing versions of the faith. Psychedelic trips might not have happened at every church. However, evidence suggests that the Eucharistic ritual of spiked wine was performed by a significant number of the ancient Christian population from Rome to Corinth to Ephesus.
For centuries the Inquisition persistently went after the witches and consequently erased much of the Old World’s pharmacological knowledge. It is exactly these sacraments that could help explain the secret to Christianity’s success in the first three centuries after Jesus.
Ever since the stone age, these drugs served a vital role in the development of our species. Powerful psychedelics can make seers of the spiritually blind. So, why did mystical experiences have such an influence on civilisations? Its possible psychoactive substances help us to face our own mortality in a way to create a healing journey towards acceptance.
It is often asked if psychedelics have a place in the modern world and if these archeological studies should be left in peace. Perhaps we don’t need the secret ancient teachings of the divine mushroom any longer, or do we need them more than ever?
After the immense amount of restructuring that has occurred during 2020, maybe it is time to once again embrace the power of these healing medicines. With Christmas approaching, the rescheduling of psychedelics could be our metaphorical gift this year. The advanced studies of the healing properties of psilocybin and other psychedelics, can provide us with some hope for a happier new year. Just like the pagans celebrating the end of the extensive darkness during the winter solstice, dark times are a catalyst for change. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.
The coronavirus and its incessant media coverage left us ruminating on the fragility of life. The thoughts of death triggered by the pandemic amplified the mental health crisis. Knowing that we will all die, and it can happen at any time, can give rise to potentially paralysing terror. We don’t die well in the Western world; the subject of death is taboo. There’s many people who suffer enormously and there are simply not enough tools to address that end-of-life distress.
Research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed the results of administering psilocybin to terminally ill subjects could be done safely while reducing the subjects’ anxiety and depression about their impending deaths. In the study volunteers, 20 to 30 milligrams of psilocybin not only consistently stimulated “mystical insights” but also elicited “sustained positive changes in attitude, mood and behaviour.” Data shows the more robust that spiritual experience, the greater the magnitude of the clinical change.
Although mystical experiences are not fully understood in the science community, there is an explanation as to why psychedelics can produce these states. It has to do with ego dissolution or ‘ego-death’, specifically, a reduction in the self-referential awareness that defines normal waking consciousness. In other words, they cause the boundaries between self and nature to crumble. A human brain imaging study published in JNeurosci finds that LSD alters the activity of brain regions involved in differentiating between oneself and another person. Psychedelic drugs provide a fruitful avenue of research into the neuronal correlates of normal and abnormal self-awareness or ego-consciousness.
A significant amount of the research and success of these trials can be accredited to the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, known for being the first person to synthesise both LSD and the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin. The following quote is from Hoffman, during ‘The Worlds of Consciousness Conference’ — “It turns out it was very important, that the substances LSD, psilocybin and ololiuqui are closely related to substances we actually have in our brains. Psylocibin differs very little from serotonin, which controls our thoughts and emotions, they are so closely related that you need only re-position one oxygen atom to get it.”
If you read through any publications from the John Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and compare the testimonies of psilocybin volunteers to what has survived the ancient initiates, the similarities are obvious. Today, people are still experiencing the same heavenly visions. The results from clinical trials show people who have had a single psychedelic experience have overall reduction in anxiety, depression, and a host of existential measures.
It is no secret that loneliness and isolation negatively affect a person. During the psychedelic experience, when ego dissolution occurs, the individual can not only see themselves in a new perspective, but can understand the connectivity of the world around them. Quite literally, the patient has to lose themselves to find themselves.
These trials explore what indigenous communities such as the Mazatec shamans of southern Mexico, have proposed all along. Referring to magic mushrooms as flowers of the earth, holy children or flesh of the gods, the shamans used them to communicate with the natural world. The first people’s connection to their environment was a symbiotic relationship. Nature would provide what they needed to survive. Maybe to solve the many issues we face as a species, such as the pending doom of climate change, we need to cycle back to our exchange relationship with nature and the divine.
After the age of COVID, the disturbing statistics around the state of the world’s mental health have undeniably increased. Where are we headed? Within five to seven years, pharmacologists and clinical psychiatrists at places like Hopkins and NYU are hopeful that psilocybin will be the first psychedelic prescription medicine for restricted clinical applications: addiction, PTSD, anxiety, depression and end-of-life distress.
Brian C. Muraresku, explores in his recently published book ‘The Immortality Key’ the psychedelic theory of religion and points the way to a revolution in consciousness. He states “People of reason may have to concede that modern science has its limits. Not everything of value can be weighed and measured. People of faith may have to admit that we can no longer afford legend over history, or obedience over curiosity. In a rapidly accelerating world Big Religion has failed to keep up with a younger generation that prefers fact over fiction. But Big Science and Big Technology may be going too fast, distracting us from the ancient search for meaning that defined the original religion of the Western civilization. How do we bridge the gap?”
If we all died before we died, maybe we too would discover the secret of these ancient teachings. We are all a part of God, a part of nature. As the Gospel of Mary Magdalene said “The son of Man is within you.” This is the key of immortality. Heaven is not what happens when the physical body wastes away, there is no afterlife, because there is simply no after. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, there is only the infinite present. Every moment is an eternity of its own. This is best summed up in the words of Graham Hancock. “I’ve seen much to convince me that although consciousness manifests in the body during life it is neither made by the body, nor confined to the body, nor inevitably extinct on the death of the body.”
In today’s society this prevalent state of mind which is merely an attitude for survival produces much suffering and unfulfilled lives. The intellectual horizon of humankind is, or should be, far more universal than mere survival and reproduction. Just as light allows your eye to see, perhaps psychedelics allows your brain to experience things that are always there, but cannot be perceived with our normal senses.
It is no secret that these potent substances give us a knowledge about the sacred or divine, opening the individual up to the spiritual realm. Call it God, Buddha, Spirit, Muhammad, Lord, Universe, whatever ‘it’ is, it does not reside in a holy book. Whether the Bible, Qur’an or Vedas, the mystics don’t find God by reading about God. It has nothing to do with belief or faith, the only way to know God is to experience God. These psychedelics act as that catalyst, allowing us to access deeper dimensions of the psyche. This is something that many scholars, researchers, visionaries, saints and shamans knew. It appears that magic mushrooms certainly are food for thought.
So, Merry Trip-mas to all, here’s to a transformative 2021.
Wishing everyone happy and healing hallucinations.