From the Bodies of the Gods by Earl Lee
Originally published in 2012 ‘From the Bodies of the Gods: Psychoactive Plants and the Cults of the Dead’ by Earl Lee uses pagan, Hebrew, Minoan and Christian traditions to reveal the connections between death rites and the use of psychoactive plants and fungi. Lee is a professor at Pittsburgh State University and has previously authored ‘Raptured’, ‘Drakulya’ and ‘Libraries in the Age of Mediocrity’.
From the Bodies of the Gods: Psychoactive Plants and the Cults of the Dead is the result of Earl Lee’s research on ancient religious rites and ritual cannibalism. In the course of his research, he began to notice parallels with the Christian ideals about death and divine revelation and,“Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that human flesh has been made into sacred foods” (Lee 2012, 1). The necromantic practices of ritual cannibalism, stemming from Semitic, Egyptian and Greek forms, the author argues, contributed to the beginnings of Christianity. Lee concedes, however, that this is a complex subject. He writes that he wishes to “lay a trail of crumbs” for future scholars and, as such, the reader is presented with a great many historical ideas to engage with.
Of course, taking an entheogenic historicism as his perspective, the Fly agaric mushroom plays an prominent role in the text. In order to introduce the three-way connection between cannibalism, funeral rites and mushrooms, Lee tells the strange story of Father François Bérenger Sauniére who, having had his Extreme Unction refused by a fellow priest following his final confession, was given a rather odd ceremony after his death. In the rite, the Father was placed sitting up in a chair, clad in a robe with red tassels, and as the local mourners filed passed they would each take a red tassel off the corpse. Purportedly, while he lived, the Father had discovered documents pertaining to the Cathar cult (which had been officially wiped out by the Catholic church in the thirteenth century,) and these included a set of funeral rites. Furthermore, the Cathar rites, we are told, represent a “purer” form of Christianity, one supposedly closer to the original, and it is here, as ever, deep into the mystery of ‘purity,’ one finds the mushroom.
The act of removing red tassels from Father Sauniére’s corpse in 1917 reflects a rite that is at least seven thousand years old and perhaps more than twenty thousand years old. There is, however, a significant difference in the rites. As part of Father Sauniére’s funeral the mourners walked past [sic] the body, and each one removed a red tassel or pom-pom from the corpse, but in the ancient ceremonies there were no red tassels. Instead, worshippers removed reddish-colored mushrooms from the corpse, and the corpse was not nearly as fresh as Father Sauniére’s (Lee 2012, 13).
The funeral rites in question originally pertain to those being used in Bronze-age Palestine and although there were influences from Egyptian rites, it is to the localised versions that Lee turns. These early rites became suppressed by those in charge in Jerusalem, for they were seen as degraded forms and a powerful opposition to the ruling priestly caste. However, some Jews did, apparently, remain loyal to the older rites and it is these people, Lee contends, who became the first Christians. Essentially, this links Christianity with these more ancient practices and, also, relinquishes some of the omnipotence ascribed to the Egyptian influence. Eventually, Roman influence would similarly make the use of sacred oils and foods heretical, just as Jerusalem had. However, certain knowledges persisted, as was argued with the existence of the Cathar cult and their knowledge of the funeral rites. More concrete evidence about this long lineage is certainly required.
The colour red has a long tradition of being associated with death. For instance, the last pope’s funeral showed him dressed in the colour, and Lee also finds the practice of painting corpses red to have been prevalent between 7000 and 3000 BCE, which is supposedly indicative of the dissemination of funeral rites, if only in symbols and iconography. However, the colour is also important in terms of mushroom theory, the Fly agaric’s red flecks for example. There is, we are told, a history of growing mushrooms from corpses, though one wonders if someone has tried to cultivate a Psilocybe or Amanita to test this. However, “It would be reasonable to expect that by eating mushrooms grown on corpses the mourners at a funeral service likely expected to see visions of the afterlife, and they might have believed that they were communicating with the dead. The mourners might also have believed that some part of the dead’s life force continued on within them as a result of eating the mushrooms” (Lee 2012, 58).
This is, in essence, the background speculation that converges entheogenic theory with Lee’s proposition about the lineage of funeral rites, which bolsters the belief that a mushroom lies at the ground of Christian thought. Indeed, the mushroom and other psychoactives look increasingly likely to be embroiled in some manner with most ancient beliefs.
It’s probably not an accident that the Greek word sarcophagus means, literally, “flesh devouring.” In this case the tholos tomb was a place where human flesh was quite literally consumed by the sacred mushrooms. As we have seen, these mushrooms in turn were used in the sacred foods and oils prepared for a public feast (Lee 2012, 153)
From the Bodies of the Gods draws many parallels between the cults of the dead and, as such, it is an insightful analysis on early funeral rites and ethnomycology, which deepens our body of learning about the origins of the Christian faith and humanity’s entheogenic history. However, it raises many more questions than it answers. While the book gifts us intriguing facts it does, at times, play them to quickly into entheogenic history and are often not critically applied. It might have perhaps been better to split the two trajectories of the text more clearly, in order to delve a little deeper into both, and then raise the psychoactive, ritual cannibalism question in light of them. For those who wish to test these theories though, the book is a trove to delve into and it’ll be interesting to see what further scholarship it gives rise to.