The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John M. Allegro
Originally published in 1970 ‘The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross’ by John M. Allegro was recently republished in 2009, by the Allegro Estate and Gnostic Media. This edition contains all notes and indices and it is from this latest, 40th anniversary edition that this review has been written, with thanks to Gnostic Media for providing a review copy.
In 1970, sections of the The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross were serialised in the British newspaper The Sunday Mirror. A paper that leant to the left politically and had a wide, popular circulation. Subsequently, and no doubt caused by this marketing coup, the text came under intense and vitriolic attack. However, whilst the controversy, or rather the questions, perhaps lingered on, the furore quickly died away, alongside any attempt at scholarly scrutiny of the theory the text contained. But why the controversy?
At the heart of Allegro’s argument is a scholarly conundrum. The Bible has been retranslated through different languages many times and academics have struggled to explain why certain terms have been translated as they were: “Try as they will, the commentators cannot see how the “translations” fit the “names”” (xxviii). Study emphasis has tended to concentrate on the morality of the teachings, and thereby bypass the relevance of names. However, Allegro proposes that in fact the “mistranslations” of names were a deliberate attempt to cover up an original truth. Jesus, the historical person, is a cover story. Christ, Allegro argues, is a sacred fungus; more specifically the Fly Agaric.
In the same stroke, Allegro’s theory proposes not only a radical academic and historical revision (which always scares the establishment) but it also challenged the majority faith of the people he reached through utilising the popular press in the marketing. Though the book may be radical in its findings, it was certainly marketed as such, so in many respects the drawing of criticism must have been expected, if not intentioned. One of the major criticisms was the technicality of Allegro’s philological argument, meaning only a hand full of scholars could critically engage the text, leaving the popular readership isolated. Though he does write that he tried to form the content for the everyman, the technicality precludes their critical engagement, leaving only the narrative conclusions.
Allegro notes that the historical Christ is evidentially flawed, as attested by “the sparse references to one “Christus” or “Chrestus” in the works of contemporary non-Christian historians” (xxvii). In order then to understand what “the Israelite believed about his God” we have only the Bible as evidence of Jesus Christ, hence the applicability of a philological enquiry: “The Question we have to ask is, does Christianity as now revealed for the first time fit adequately into what went before the first century, not what came after in its name?” (xxx). His position asserts that all the ancient mystery cults – Eleusinian, Orphic etc. – are interconnected, and that an interdisciplinary reading can demonstrate “overall patterns of religious thought” (ibid.), which all correspond to his fertility and mushroom cult theory. The evidence for this lies in a common linguistic ancestor; Sumerian.
Stating Sumerian was a root language for both Indo-European and Semitic languages is in itself controversial and is as yet unproven. However, by taking the reader on a journey through the evolution of language, Allegro builds up a picture of how certain key words developed and how their original meaning became diffused over time. The main strands of language that he explores are botanical and religious, and that the two, according to Allegro, are inseparable. The alliance with one another form the bedrock/model on which Allegro rests his investigation, along with Sumerian being a root language.
The following is an example of how the linguistic de/reconstruction takes place, and also describes the philological methodology of employing the asterisk when one attempts to bridge a linguistic gap in the record: “Sometimes two or more radical elements can be combined to form a new word-brick like SILA, “road-junction”, abbreviated sometimes to SIL. Clearly this word is a combination of SI, “finger”, and LA, “join together”, the overall picture being that of Winston Churchill’s “victory-V” sign. We should express that supposed original form of two separate but, as yet, uncombined elements as *SI-LA, with a preposited asterisk” (Allegro 16). The Sumerian bridge acts as a root conjunctive between Hebrew and the early Greek writings of the Bible that are extant. Allegro was one academic who worked on the early translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls and thus had ideal experience for this study.
Without going into the philological detail (I have neither the training nor the time necessary for such an engagement) the basic premise is thus: When spirituality first began to arise in culture, it was enamoured with what is essentially the ‘creativity’ of nature, God was the force that allowed the seasons to change, crops to grow and die, the cycle of life to continue. Fertility was central to this, and phallic symbology is a recurrent theme (there appears to be a touch of Freudian psychology attached to the ancients.) Mushrooms became central components of these rites, for the symbolism of their nature and the ability to occasion the psychedelic experience. Interestingly, this consequentially describes the occasion of the mushroom experience as ‘creative’; as sacrament in tune with their cosmological view.
Over time, and with the onset of dogmatic religious structures and the diffusion of religious ideas across Europe and Asia, these elements were pushed to the fringes. Allegro cites the sacking of Jerusalem in 70AD by the Romans as a key turning point in the loss of the fertility cult history, wherein those individuals who knew the knowledge were driven out into the desert. The New Testament is an account of these ancients rites, written in metaphor and that, over time, have become an increasingly complex code – only to be unravelled by philology. The mystery cults were some of the last vestiges of this tradition before mainstream Christianity took it upon itself to rid the world of these ‘heresies’ for the “Word of God” was with them, not a mushroom.
Among the academics who have warmed to Allegro’s thesis is Carl A.P. Ruck – he contributes the final chapter as an addition to the original text, titled Fungus Redivivus: New Light on the Mushroom Controversy. In it he succinctly addresses some of the criticisms of Allegro’s work and some 20th century mushroom history (Gordon Wasson in particular). He also notes that “the criticism of Allegro’s linguistics is based upon outmoded and simplistic assumptions about a still evolving discipline” (Allegro 366). Even now then, there is a recognition that we are not yet fully equipped to deal with this philological approach, which ultimately begs the question, why should it be disregarded out-of-hand? It seems that the field has been opened for investigation but academia’s refusal to deal with it, at best, demonstrates short-sightedness, at worst, bloody-minded conservatism. For even if the theory is false, it needs to be, by convention, proved so.
One argument against the book says that, due to the unfortunate division between Allegro, the only non-Christian scholar working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the other movers and shakers involved, he devised this sordid attack to undermine the Christian tradition. But why would a highly respected and accomplished scholar suddenly do something unscholarly, even if he was bitter? There must surely be some professional pride involved.
Although the idea of a hidden code within the bible is “improbably complex”, the approach does open new avenues and investigations into the root ideas behind the teachings. At the end of the day, the “Word of God” has been translated many times over between languages not necessarily suited to exchanging complex ideas. Simplicity has very little to with the history of such a text. Which does bring to mind a comment a friend recently made to me: Is the fruit of this search a Unified Theory Religion? For if it is the complexity leads us full circle, back to simplicity. To buy a copy of this book please visit Gnostic Media.