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Literary Reviews, Literary Reviews: 1971-2000

Literary Review: ‘The Sacred Mushroom Seeker’ by Thomas J. Riedlinger [Ed.]

The Sacred MushroomOriginally published in 1990 by Timber Press ‘The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Tributes to R. Gordon Wasson’ is a collection edited by Thomas J. Riedlinger. This review is written from the later Park Street Press edition. The short tributes to ethnomycologist Robert Gordon Wasson come from the likes of Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann and the classicist Carl P. Ruck, and also from many of his friends, colleagues and family.

A former vice president of J. P. Morgan & Company, Robert Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) has been described by many as the father of ethnomycology; the study of the human use of mushrooms. Along with his wife Valentina (1901-1958), he published Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957. The book was the result of over a decade of spiralling research into human mushroom use, which happened as a result of the Wasson’s honeymoon together, in which they found they had totally opposite reactions to fungi (his wife adoring them.) Also, in 1957, Wasson published the article Seeking the Magic Mushroom in Life magazine. This article has been cited as a major influence on the hippie movement the following decade, but Wasson always distanced himself from this.

Wasson was the first Westerner on record to intentionally consume one of the hallucinogenic sacred mushrooms of Mexico. This began a life of research into the role of mushroom entheogens (a word coined by Wasson and others meaning ‘to generate God within.) His research propounded a number of theories about the role of these mushrooms in our cultural history, specifically within religious contexts. For example, he proposed that Amanita muscaria (Fly agaric) as the identity of the Vedic soma. From the publication of Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968) onward, he began the Ethnomycological Study series, and this collection of tributes is designated the eleventh in the series.

Wasson’s books were often published in lavish editions. For instance, his 1957 work, co-authored with his wife, was designed by an ‘Italian master’, and printed in limited copies on hand-made paper in Verona, Italy. Indeed, one tribute by Michael Horowitz entitled Collecting Wasson looks at the great prices his works now receive. The relationship between Wasson and literature in general is a remarkable thread in the collection. According to Robert Demarest’s tribute, A Bibliophile’s View of Gordon Wasson’s Books and Bookplates, “His bookshelves were a gold mine, reflecting both the man’s intellectual capacity and love of books” (Riedlinger 48). Of course, the aesthetic reverence came alongside the ideas contained within both his own, and in his library’s, books.

In Wasson’s Literary Precursors, Terence McKenna examines both early (pre-Wasson) ethnomycological examples in literature, including possible ones cited in Mushrooms, Russia and History like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and possible examples they overlooked. One example of this, was Wasson’s overlooking (at the time of writing in 1957) of Mordecai Cooke’s Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860). Tributes like this foster the idea that there was a deep awareness of literary history in Wasson. For the most part, and quite rightly as tributes, Wasson’s theories are dealt with reverently. However, disagreement did exist between he and his friends, and this helps round the collection nicely, giving context to his theories.

In reference to Wasson’s theory that a psychedelic mushroom could be the forbidden fruit of Eden, Claudio Naranjo writes: “My view is that the “forbidden fruit” idea is one of such rich and multi-faceted mythic significance that the suggestion it alludes to a real event or events in historical time—such as psychoactive plant use—is unlikely” (Riedlinger 179). If Naranjo is correct then Wasson’s interpretation is another culturally significant reading, one that implies a wish to give his psychedelic mushroom epistemological, as well as religious, significance. That the mushroom is a communication device of some sort is deeply rooted in later theories concerning them, and much of this can surely be down to Wasson’s efforts.

Most importantly, Wasson’s character is well described in The Sacred Mushroom Seeker. This has been helped, no doubt, by the huge amount of correspondences he maintained with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Nearly every tribute warmly describes his willingness to quickly respond to questions, findings and debates, and also his pedantic approach to grammar and language. This collection is a fitting to tribute to him, well written and neatly presented.

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About PsypressUK

Robert Dickins is a writer, and currently the editor of PsypressUK: Anthology of Pharmacography.

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