The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A. Rush
Originally published in 2011 ‘The Mushroom in Christian Art – The Identity of Jesus in the Development of Christianity’ by John A. Rush is a well needed addition to a burgeoning research area in psychedelic studies; namely the possible role hallucinogenic mushrooms took in the Christian religion. Rush has previously published works like ‘Spiritual Tattoo’ and ‘Failed God’ and although some of his other works have brushed against the mushroom-Christianity question, this is his first concentrated effort in the area.
Before discussing how Rush has approached the mushroom-Christianity question methodologically through art, it is necessary to first elucidate the point-of-view that he assumes. In this, Rush owes a lot to work done previously by John M. Allegro, author of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) and Jan Irvin, author of The Holy Mushroom (2008). Firstly, the argument goes, religions all grew out of a form of shamanism, or ‘fertility cults’, that venerated plants and the natural world and, as part of which, hallucinogenic mushrooms and other ‘entheogenic’ plants were divined as gods incarnate. Soma, of the ancient Vedic text the Rigveda, would be an obvious other textual example of this. Secondly, these early fertility cults became increasingly ‘corrupted’ and the central hallucinogenic rite became the secret of a priest caste, and thus a tool of control. Also very close to some of the arguments that have been developed about the use of Soma.
In Christianity however, these secrets became symbolically encoded in art and writing from around 200 A.D., which is too say that the Bible is an encoded space with the identity of Jesus Christ lying at its core: “The secret in the Christian tradition is to look beyond any suggested history, and it is here at the esoteric levels that we will discover the keepers of the keys and the true mystery” (Rush 16). Broadly speaking, this leads Rush to the two major starting points in his analysis of Christian art and that consequentially frame his analytical path throughout the text. Firstly, Jesus Christ represents an hallucinogenic mushroom, following Allegro he plums for the Amanita Muscaria (common name Fly Agaric.) Secondly, that the narrative motifs found in the Bible, which are encoded into art, are in fact certain rites and knowledge(s) concerning the identity of Jesus as a mushroom. The result is a stratification of the code according to a narrative; the rites are represented through signs and/or symbols: “Secrets and mysteries do not vanish; they are always coded in myth in various presentations (oral, written, visual)” (Rush 28). Rather an over-arching comment but it does serve to facilitate Rush’s project.
Rush underlines what he believes to have been the misleading fallacy in Christian studies to date, by marking a divide between his own approach and the traditional approach. The hitherto more popular method was in treating Jesus as a historical figure, which it has to be said there is little or no contemporary evidence for, in the main only the Bible, and which necessarily restricts the reading of Christian art to conventional narrative depictions. However, by proposing that the figure of Jesus and other associated symbols like bread and fish are actually nothing to do with a simple story narrative, Rush is moving the symbolism a step beyond, obscuring it a level further before its purportedly true meaning is then elucidated here in the book. A good example of this would be the ‘Stations of the Cross’. For instance, the ‘stations’ have hitherto been read as the procession of Jesus toward his crucifixion, used as a method of re-enactment and ritual, whereas Rush believes their meaning to be much older. Station one, for example, is not the search, betrayal and condemnation of Jesus but rather, from a botanical perspective, is the “locating, acknowledging, and condemning the mushroom to death” (Rush 42). Rush rereads all fourteen stations in this manner.
In discussing the rise of the Inquisition and witch-hunts, around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe, Rush sees this as the Church attempting to stamp out rival religious cults and sects. He poses the question: “So why didn’t the mushroom go totally underground during this time? The major reason is that Catholic religious clerics saw their behaviors of contacting God via the mushroom as an ordained, spiritual act, while others (pagans) were contacting the devil” (Rush 270). The assumption here is that knowledge of the magic mushroom was widespread across most of Europe; not necessarily specifically knowledge of the Catholic relationship, but knowledge of its efficacy and, moreover, that it repeatedly led to cult activity. Whether this is through a long, unbroken lineage as is purported in Christianity by Rush, or whether in fact it is a repeated action when humans discover the properties of the mushroom remains to be seen. Interestingly, this is not necessarily restricted to mushroom worship as Rush does also explore other motifs of Henbane, Belladonna, Datura, opium and alike.
Let us now turn to the methodological approach to the art, as part of which the book comes with a disc full of images to view. These images cross different media and geographical areas in order to demonstrate continuity. Rush describes three levels of Christian art depiction, which tunes in with the further layer of symbology he has identified. Firstly, that which personifies the infinite (God); secondly, that which represents God, or a gateway to God, like Jesus/mushroom; and thirdly, when Jesus stops being the reference to the infinite, but subsumes the role of that which is referenced. Chapter two deals with art between 200-1000 A.D., then from 1000-1550 A.D. and Rush believes these to be most interesting as they represent a time of “open expression and experimentation” and, lastly, the period 1550-2000 A.D., which includes art from both the Old and New world: “Hiding the mushroom within clothing is the most common representation over a period of 1,500 years. But different artists and patrons had specific ways of rendering the mushroom” (Rush 64). While some of the art is perhaps read to heavily in regard to the new symbolic formula, needing a leap of faith perhaps, there are also unquestionably some mushrooms involved. The disc alone makes the book worth having, as it really does lay the evidence on the line for one to make a decision.
In the end, Rush’s opinion appears to be rather against the established church and his tone toward them can be disquieting at times and distracting of any objectivity, however, this in itself has become something of a traditional position in the field, established originally by Allegro himself. As with any art interpretation, it can be extremely difficult to take symbology out of its cultural context and this is perhaps the most challenging point of this project. Has Rush succeeded? Typically, yes and no. Yes, because Rush has demonstrated that the mushroom does play a particular role in Christian art, something hitherto ignored by religious scholars in the main. But no, because the groundwork for the reinterpretation of the symbology is based on an, as yet, still scantily evidenced theory, and the idea that knowledge of the mushroom has remained in secret with an elite priest class within the Church all this time, really needs more evidence than the art itself. It is perhaps to easy to pick a new back story and reinterpret signs and symbols in regard to it and in many respects this is a creative project. However, The Mushroom in Christian Art is a valuable addition to the growing corpus on the question of whether hallucinogens played a central role in Christianity and, as such, is well worth the read.