Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
by Andy Letcher, 2006
Shroom is an interesting theory against the "mushroom theory of religion." Letcher brings together many new insights and material previously overlooked by many researching the field of entheobotany, and especially entheomycology. This book is a must read and a welcome tome to any good library on this subject.
But there are many problems with Letcher's thesis. Firstly, he props up many of his arguments by ignoring most of the newer research, and especially archaeological iconography, that has come to light post Wasson/Allegro. His argument focuses heavily on Wasson, McKenna and Allegro. And in his case against Allegro, all but one of the items he presents as evidence are bogus rumors that have already been debunked by Judith Anne Brown, Michael Hoffman and I since 2005.
He's completely dismissive of the idea of mushrooms in Christianity but only by attacking the shallowest of evidence, such as the Plaincourault issue (He's unaware that Panofsky was also debunked), while simultaneously ignoring enormous amounts of evidence contradictory to his theory, i.e. The Canterbury Psalter c.e. 1147, art from Abbey of Montecassino, circa 1072, amongst many others such as those published by Giorgio Samorini in Entheos Magazine. In fact, on page 173 in his supposed debunking of Clark Heinrich, instead of attacking Heinrich's research directly, Letcher bases his dissent on a mushroom experience Heinrich speaks about in his book. Weak and lazy tactics like these may fool some, but it's not going to fool anyone who has any serious amount of study in these areas. He also misquotes Heinrich and states that Heinrich built his research into Christianity from Allegro. However, on pg. 25 of Heinrich's book, it clearly states that he used Wasson's research.
Letcher similarly avoids iconographic evidence in the same way toward mushrooms in Hinduism, completely ignoring carvings and statues that clearly depict the mushrooms. See Hari Hari holding a mushroom, Rama and Hanuman Holding Mushrooms, etc., 700-800 C.E.
Letcher also missed the fact that most of the arguments today are for an entheogen theory, not just a specific `mushroom cult theory of religion' per se. Letcher erroneously focuses his research on debunking a single mushroom cult theory. However, many of us in this field have long ago moved away from any such argument. In fact, I don't really know anyone who proposes such a singularly focused theory except for Allegro, and maybe Wasson - and both of their pioneering arguments are near four decades old. For those interested in more information on this specific area, read Michael Hoffman's article on the Maximal Entheogen Theory of Religion - www.egodeath.com.
Letcher is certainly guilty of trying to make his evidence fit his argument, and throughout this book he blames other researchers for doing the same. I feel that he has likely painted himself into a corner with his words on pg. 78:
"The Western rediscovery of Mexican mushrooming practices began, ironically, with a vigorous scholarly denial that they had ever existed."
He then goes into the story of William Safford: "...American botanist William Safford (1859-1926), oblivious of such shenanigans so close to home, published a paper on the identity of the supposed teonanácatl of the Aztecs in which he stated emphatically that Sahagún and his native informants had been wrong. They had mistakenly confused dried plant fragments for a fungus, and teonanácatl, revealed Safford, had been none other than the infamous peyote cactus [...]. ... Safford reported that `three centuries of investigation [had] failed to reveal an endemic fungus used as an intoxicant in Mexico'. He bolstered his argument by claiming that peyote `resembles a dried mushroom so remarkably that at first glance it will even deceive a trained mycologist'. He was wrong on both accounts."
Being that Letcher omitted so much of the archaeological evidence available to make his case, I couldn't avoid the obvious comparison that much of Letcher's theory will soon see a similar fate (if it hasn't already). His modern mushroom religion theory mirrors that of Safford.
Lastly, a contradictory and completely dangerous comparison is made in the book to something he admits is non-toxic, Psilocybe mushrooms, to something very dangerous as sniffing glue:
"In Mice the LD50, that is the dose at which 50 per cent of the experimental subjects die, is 280 mg/kg of body weight, but a high dose in humans in only 0.5 mg/kg. With such a low toxicity it has been estimated that you would have to eat your own body weight in mushrooms to take a lethal dose, and indeed the are no reported cases of fatalities from psilocybin mushrooms, though children may be more at risk of physical harm." Pg. 20-21
"... magic mushrooms were a convenient, illicit and exciting way of making life under Tory rule more tolerable, no better or worse than sniffing glue..."
Despite the books obvious problems, overall, I say buy it, read it, study it - but don't believe it.
4 out of 5 stars.
Update for Feb. 2008:
When I wrote this review last April, I was not aware of newer evidence that had already surfaced that disproves Letcher's book.
Found in the Ukraine was a widely dispersed Christian document from Greece in which discusses the mushroom - thereby debunking Letcher's book.
This leaves the remainder of this book as only valid for tidbits of research on mushrooms that Dr. Letcher has discovered. The overall thesis of this book had already been debunked before it was written - as the original discovery of the mushroom in these ancient texts was published in the academic journals in 1994.
I therefore must lower my previous rating of 4 stars down to 3 stars.