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."

By
R "Rob" Hardy



CLICK ON EACH IMAGE TO ENLARGE







R. "Rob" Hardy's Review of Andy Letcher's book, Shrooms: A Cultural History
What a Trip (June 5, 2007, amazon.com).


 
We have healing drugs and then we have drugs that are taken just for fun. We recognize that drugs have a legitimate function of providing fun by making some such drugs legal, but some drugs for fun are left illegal. Hallucinogenic mushrooms, for instance, are generally illegal, although this changes from time to time and from society to society. You'd expect that a history of "shrooms" written by a fellow who has played in various psychedelic bands (currently in his own "acid folk group") would come down strongly in favor of legal mushrooms, but Andy Letcher is no ordinary shroomer. He has a couple of doctorates, one in ecology and one in religious and cultural studies, for instance. His _Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom_ (Ecco) is not a manifesto, although Letcher does explain the possible advantages of the experiences mushrooms might offer if they were more legally accessible. More importantly, Letcher cuts the legs out from under the legends that have grown up about mushrooms, the ancientness of their use, and their connections with religion and power (a "fantastical history... dreamed up on the basis of wishful thinking and overworked evidence.") A sizeable book resulting from a great deal of research, _Shroom_ is the sort of one-subject history that takes in a lot of general history and presents it all with an accessible and witty style. I don't know if shrooms help produce _Shroom_, but if so, it might be good to have more of them.



 
Mushrooms do, perhaps more than other recreational drugs, promote mystical experiences that are highly valued by practitioners. Advocates have insisted that mushroom experiences will lead users in a spiritual direction; Letcher disagrees, and also disagrees with the New Age stories of mushroom "history." A great deal of the fun of his book has to do with debunking of such stories, which come from many varied sources. Witches, druids, and even Santa Claus have been said to spring from mushroom use, or mushrooms were the magical Soma that is cited in the ancient Hindu text the Rig Veda. Perhaps Jesus was dining on not bread and wine with his disciples, but fly-agaric, and perhaps Christianity was an invented religion based on a fertility cult with one true sacrament, fly-agaric. Perhaps the ancient mushroom cult is the one ur-religion from which all others are based. It is fun to read about these wide-ranging ideas, and it is fun to read Letcher taking the air out of each one. "The history of the magic mushroom," he writes, "is at once less fanciful and far more interesting."; In fact, the West has no real shroom tradition. Psilocybin mushrooms were known six hundred years ago, but they were treated as poisons. People in Europe and America did not start gobbling them for their psychedelic effects until the middle of the twentieth century, when the astonishing (and then legal) effects of LSD and mescaline were under scientific investigation.



 
Some of the users mentioned here are famous, like Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves, or Timothy Leary. One more obscure but actually more influential figure was the fascinating Gordon Wasson, who was a vice president at J. P. Morgan & Company and had mushrooms as a hobby. He was introduced to psychedelic mushrooms by a shaman in Mexico, and wrote the 1957 article "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" for _Life_ magazine. It was Wasson who proposed that Soma was fly-agaric, and that there had been a mushroom cult in Europe as well as Siberia. His flawed ideas about ancient mushroom religions caused countless hippies to turn into academics and vice versa. Shrooms were briefly legal in Britain due to a loophole recently closed, but the data from Holland where they are still available indicate that usage is up, although very few take mushroom trips more than once or twice in their lives. Letcher, a Britton, is in favor of decriminalization, but it seems to be true in Britain as well as in the US: "In the current climate, where any call for decriminalization is met with a barrage of invective from the tabloid press, and an unseemly political tussle to occupy the moral high ground, such a move would seem a long way off." Instead, readers can enjoy some thrilling and colorful accounts of trips given here, most of them quite colorful and fascinating, but also there is the possibly apocryphal tale of the young woman who called an emergency number because she was convinced, after eating an extremely potent mushroom variety, that she had turned into a banana and was scared someone was about to peel her. For sharp and funny writing, and debunking of mythology, _Shroom_ is a trip worth taking.



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