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."



Onanas' Review of Andy Letcher's book, Shrooms: A Cultural History
An Exercise in Character Assassination (June 21, 2008.

One star for the interesting tidbits of information not easily found elsewhere. Did his Oxford professors not teach Mr. Letcher the fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem? His personal attacks on Gordon Wasson and John Allegro bring this book down to the level of tabloid journalism.

First, he portrays Wasson as a con artist who became famous as a result of clever salesmanship rather than for "clarity or originality of his thinking." He criticizes Wasson for skewing his data to fit a preconceived idea, but this is exactly what Letcher does. Letcher's premise is that psychoactive substances played no part in Old World religious practices (funny that they should have played such an important role in the other hemisphere). He overlooks or discounts historical data which demonstrates such a link as being "plot devices" of ethnocentric researchers trapped in the mindset of the sixties. We have seen this approach many times before: old theories are about as useful as old pop songs and TV shows, it's time to move forward and take the opposite view. But Letcher once again commits the same error he accuses others of committing by using flawed and dated arguments. One example is his assertion that if Soma was a hallucinogenic mushroom, it would have been simply eaten. Why go through the elaborate process of crushing, mixing, and filtering it? Evidence suggests that Soma was used in a mixture of various psychoactive and non-psychoactive substances, and hallucinogenic mushrooms went through a similar mortar-and-pestle procedure in Central America.

He paints a picture of ancient people ignorant of the plants around them. When plants such as cannabis, poppy, and henbane show up in the archaeological record, he dismisses their possible psychoactive use in favor of such applications as food and medicine. But medicine is always closely linked to the removal of "harmful" spirits in religious practices worldwide (Letcher considers "shamanism" to be a dirty word in his semantic shell games). His view is that it's okay to acknowledge drug use in the rites of the heathen Native Americans, but to say the same thing might have happened in the Middle East is striking too close to our religious traditions. In the end, Letcher comes across as a bizarre "counterculture" version of Jerry Falwell complete with hippy hairdo and "acid folk group.

Letcher saves his most scathing criticism for John Allegro, who is described as a "troubled mind" from the Erich von Daniken school of academia. Citing John King's rebuttal to The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross is another blunder on Letcher's part. If "the fly-agaric and its host-tree species are entirely absent from the flora of the Middle East," then why did the Israeli postal service issue stamps with fly-agarics in 2002? Has he bothered to check his facts? Attacking the character of a person simply cheapens your argument, and playing fast and loose with the facts makes you no more of a scholar than von Daniken.

Terence McKenna is given better treatment by being portrayed as a misguided product of his time. Letcher crafts himself as an exemplar scholar in a world of conspiracists, but after discounting the time-wave theory, he strangely states, "the demolition of the time-wave does not preclude something interesting, unusual, or even of great magnitude from happening as predicted." Maybe Letcher thinks it will be the apocalypse. The bottom line is that he is more influenced by von Daniken than was Allegro, he is far less original than the "amateur" Wasson, and he is much more misguided than McKenna.

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