Created January 29, 2009. Revised May 27, 2012; April 30, 2013; and May 27, 2013.
Copyright 1998-2013 by John W. Allen.

A Review of Andy Letcher's book
"Shrooms: A Cultural History."

Billy Bardo


Billy Bardo's Review of Andy Letcher's book, Shrooms: A Cultural History
"Well Researched, Articulate, Lacking Depth."
August 1, 2008 (

First, let me comment that this obsession with the entheogen theory of religion reminds me of the story of the guy who is searching for his car keys under the street lamp, because there he can see clearly, even if he lost them someplace else. This obsession strikes me as almost on a par with attempts to prove the 'existence' of a Divine Reality. There are some aspects of history and human experience that are beyond the scope of absolute knowledge--and frankly irrelevant. As Huxley remarked, "I am on the side of the mystery." Leave it alone. Guard it. Don't rip its cloak off!

Andy provides a cogent history of the emergence of 'magic' mushrooms into general public consciousness. It is thoroughly researched and fairly complete--as far as it goes. He does hold some rather strong opinions on certain topics, such as the situation that developed in Huautla de Jimenez post Wasson, for instance, and it is not entirely clear to me that he quite understands the particular aptitudes of Maria Sabina, but no matter. These waters have been poisoned for decades by the well-intentioned pavers of the Road to Hell--which has led, of course to the current state of almost universal prohibition. Ah well, forbidden fruit are meant to be tasted. I do agree with Brian Akers, below, that he includes occasional red herrings and jousts against his own straw men constructs. He goes too far on more than one occasion.

Because of his age cohort, he missed out on direct contact during the earlier chapters in the unfolding saga of psychedelia, and that is unfortunate, because some very dramatic, radical and profound instances of spiritual transformation occurred among some of the participants in the early waves. Without an understanding of the depth of these spiritual transformations--the actual significance of psychedelics as a socio-cultural phenomena slips through the net. And to be sure, much that was special about that period of American history was transmitted from one individual to the next--sort of like the old lineage of Zen Buddhists. Or Alchemists, whose holy recipes concealed the truth of the matter from the uninitiated, thus, protecting the mystery within layers of veiled abstraction.

The situation with the class of psychedelics, including Psilocybe mushrooms, is actually quite simple. They are non-specific amplifiers of mental processes. The confusing and wide ranging spectrum of reported effects has more to do with the circumstances of the encounter than with the nature of the actual 'medicine' itself. The 'medicine' simply provides an extreme opportunity. But if the individual has no knowledge of how to take advantage of the unique opportunity, they tend to react with surprise and wonderment as they are blown by the wind, pounded by the surf, burnt to a crisp by the fire, and buried alive by the earth.

That is why culture, and knowledge, and artful skill, hold the key to leveraging any value from the experience--and that is why persons such as Maria Sabina, for instance are so instructive. It isn't simply that Maria used magic mushrooms all her life. It's that she developed as a person in a culture with spiritual traditions that were intertwined with ancient mythologies, Christianity, and mysticism. This provided training for the role of Psycho pomp. People talk about the Velada in the context of a healing ceremony without mentioning the fact that the context of Christianity itself is healing and liberation--the very manifestation of salvation.

The only author I have read who seems to grasp the rest of the story, the big picture, and understand the meta-message of psychedelics, is Stanislav Grof, the Czech psychiatrist. And here is a message at least as old as the Acid Graduation itself--and actually as old as the Buddha. Psychedelic encounters may open ones eyes to the human predicament, and to the existence of the Divine Reality--but, beyond that, each of us is qualified by the Spirit to minister the new Covenant. That is an old fashioned way of saying that your spiritual predicament or the possibility of your spiritual evolution does not rest upon and is not dependent upon psychedelic experience. These tools are for waking you from your slumber. They are like a love letter sent straight to your heart from the Old Ones. It's up to you to get up out of bed and remember your mission and get on with it. The Pearl is waiting for you to reclaim it. You DO have an original nature, and there IS a treasure buried in the field.

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