Mushrooms and Mankind by James Arthur
Originally published in 2000 ‘Mushrooms and Mankind: The Impact of Mushrooms on Human Consciousness and Religion’ is written by James Arthur. The author is a long-time researcher in the field of ethnomycology and this book is short and succinct introduction to the relationship between humans and psychoactive mushrooms. The author sadly passed away in 2005.
Ethnomycology was founded by the work of R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) during the 1950s. Wasson’s privately published work Mushrooms, Russia and History (1957) a subsequent article published in Life magazine entitled Seeking the Magic Mushroom (1957) ushered in a profound new understanding of the human-mushroom relationship. Not only did Wasson discover the existence of a mushroom using peoples in Mexico, he also became the first Westerner on record to intentionally consumer a Psilocybe mushroom, with the curandera Marìa Sabina. Moreover, Wasson went on to postulate that the Vedic Soma was actually a fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom and postulated that psychoactive substances might lay at the historical heart of many of the world’s major religions.
James Arthur stands in this tradition and, indeed, he writes in Mushroom and Mankind that Wasson referred to him as the world’s leading authority on the connection of the mushroom and Christianity. This was no doubt also a slight against John M. Allegro who published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) however, Arthur is far less dismissive of Allegro’s work than Wasson was. In fact, Allegro’s position that Jesus was actually a metaphorical mushroom is an important point in Arthur’s research and his approach in general; an approach that includes many metaphorical mushrooms and artistic interpretations. The book is, broadly speaking, concerned with four studies within the field.
“What is presented here is, to my thinking, as well as many others, the most significant discovery in the entire field of religious knowledge ever to happen in the history of mankind. And you are now a part of it! We should be jumping for joy and shouting from the housetops to the people of this planet to put their differences aside, and join in the commonality of the understanding of each and every one of us may now experience that which has been, until this time, hidden away in the recesses of our spiritual history” (Arthur 2000, 5).
The first ethnomycological of the book deals with Christianity. Working on the assumption of the mushroom being an initial central sacrament, Arthur investigates how these knowledge has been encoded into the art, written word and practice of Christians. This includes looking at Christmas, the Holy Grail, sacramental uses, the Last Supper and the fountain of youth. Although the author is essentially drawing the conclusions of Allegro, he does not employ the same etymological analysis but instead draws his conclusions through interpretations based on the mushroom myth. The second study concentrates on Egypt and, more specifically, the similarities between Christianity and this earlier civilisation – with Mithraism as a bridge. The mythological basis is indeed very similar and thus, the author concludes, this pushes the mushroom myth even further back in history.
The third and fourth studies deal with Eastern religions and the role of entheogens in society respectively. The former continues the interpretive techniques Arthur employed in the previous chapters, looking at Hinduism and Buddhism, and is primarily concerned with how the mushrooms is variously depicted, sometimes in multiple ways within the same artistic motifs. For instance, the distinctly pine-cone shaped architecture of Angkor, in Cambodia, which, for Arthur, is a reference to the place where fly agarics grow (symbiotically with pines, beeches, birches etc.). The later really underpins the important message of the whole book; the entheogens represent an important spiritual tool for individuals but that overtime this information has been suppressed or mal-managed by various power structures.
“Sometime in the future mankind will look back upon societies of the past as completely ridiculous in their attitudes and associated dogma, which were embraced (whether willingly or by force) in regards to plant entheogens and sexuality. But it will be understood that it was those who wished to exercise control and dominion over others that condemned these things (wrongly)” (Arthur 2000, 86).
While I find myself in broad agreement with the socio-political understanding that is treaded throughout the text, there are certain problems with the analytical content. Although the argument is presented very persuasively, it lacks both the context of broader interpretative arguments and thus reads polemically; as if in a research vacuum. Although, he notes, that he wished to give a short and precise account, this approach does much to make a dogma of his own conclusions. True or not, the research needs a more thorough grounding—fortunately, subsequent books by other ethnomycological researchers has begun to do this. Moreover, there is also the problem of the fly agaric. While it is certainly psychoactive, its potency is very changeable mushroom to mushroom, so would it really make the ideal sacrament that Arthur makes it appear to be?