Fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), Germany. Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)

by Karsten Fatur

Many of us have heard stories of Siberian shamans drinking the urine of their peers during sacred rituals. Whether this causes us to turn our noses in disgust or to open our eyes with curiosity is a matter of personal taste. Whatever our reaction, this unusual practice is not an everyday event. It is carried out not for its own sake, but rather as a means of consuming and sharing the effects of the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria.

Commonly known in English as fly agaric (for its traditional use as a fly lure across its original Eurasian range), this famed fungus is the topic of an entire section in the first volume of this collection, featuring papers from R. G. Wasson, I. I. Breckham and Y. A. Sam, C. H. Eugster, and P. G. Wasser, as well as a transcript of a group discussion on the topic chaired by D. H. Efron.

Although today Amanita muscaria graces the pages of children's books and fairy tales, this mushroom's use as a psychoactive agent did not become widely known until the 1700s. This particular use was restricted to the extreme west and northeast of Siberia, where the peoples who used them traditionally believed that these mushrooms contained the spirits of little men who would speak with the user during the altered state of consciousness that resulted from their consumption.

The authors of the section report that the effects begin to emerge within 15-20 minutes of consumption and are initially soporific, causing a deep sleep that usually lasts a couple of hours. This is generally followed by 3-4 hours of visions and elation as well as increased physical strength. However, the results can be highly variable and are often accompanied by unpleasant physical side effects. To avoid this, traditional methods of use favoured mushrooms harvested in spring and summer rather than in autumn, and involved drying the mushrooms or making an infusion with them. This manner of preparation and preferred time of harvest is due to the compounds found in A. muscaria. For years researchers believed that bufotenine, atropine, hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and other substances were the cause of A. muscaria's psychoactivity. Eventually, however, it was shown that ibotenic acid and muscimol (which is formed from the decarboxylation of ibotenic acid) are the true active agents. Muscarine, which is found in A. muscaria and was also suggested, was shown to cause the cholinergic effects on the smooth muscles of the body rather than the psychoactive effects. As such, the time of harvesting and the methods of preparation are likely intended to maximize the levels of psychoactive components, while decreasing the level of muscarine, thus avoiding many unpleasant physical side effects.

It is here that the process of urine drinking comes into play. The human body works as a filter, removing muscarine and allowing the psychoactive compounds to pass through unmetabolized and be excreted with our bodies' waste liquids. As such, urine from an individual who has consumed A. muscaria is a refined form of the psychoactive agent. This process can be repeated as many as 4 times without losing any strength in the psychoactive effect. Though both ibotenic acid and muscimol have psychoactive properties, muscimol is much stronger, and is thought to be the central cause of the psychoactivity of Amanita muscaria.

Beyond reviewing the traditional knowledge, this section is also where Wasson first presented his theory that fly agaric was the famous Soma of the ancient Indian Rig Veda, a theory published in full soon after the conference whose proceedings are recorded here. This theory has now come to be widely accepted in academia, making this volume an important historical landmark in ethnomycological research. Wasser also describes his own self-experimentation with Amanita muscaria, providing an intimate and detailed view into the experience resulting from the consumption of this mystical mushroom.

Although sometimes convoluted to read due to the overlap between authors' subject matter, the resulting knowledge presented in this section forms a very complete picture of what was known of Amanita muscaria at the time. Today, in fact, it seems we know precious little more than we did then, making this chapter an excellent introduction to the topic. Though much of this information has come to be common knowledge, there is a charm to reading it in its original form rather than finding a spattering of points put together on Wikipedia. It also presents us with the thoughts of some of the intellectual greats of this field from an era past.

This being said, the section is very much a reflection of its time, with some comments made in it being unacceptable in the modern academic world. It is important to note these inappropriate moments, but to remember that they come from a time when such manners of speaking were commonplace, and to recall that they do not detract from the value of the studies that were undertaken (a point, in fact, made by the editors of the volume).

Ultimately, this section will be of great interest to readers seeking to learn about this magical mushroom, as it serves as an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with its use and chemistry. For those familiar with the subject, it provides a window into the past, which brings forward the voices of important academics who have shaped the field of ethnobiology and whose research was of central importance to our modern understanding of Amanita muscaria.