Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras by Carl A. P. Ruck, Mark A. Hoffman and Jose Alfredo González Celdrán

Originally published in 2011 ‘Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras – The drug cult that civilized Europe’ was written by Carl A. P. Ruck, Mark A. Hoffman and Jose Alfredo González Celdrán. The book continues the tradition of re-reading the history of religion in Eurasia in light of the entheogenic experience, which began in the late 1960s with Robert Gordon Wasson’s theory that the botanical identity of ‘soma’ in the Rig Veda was in fact the fly agaric mushroom. The case in point, for this book, is the development of Roman Mithraism.

A new historical perspective has been constructed over the last fifty years or so; an approach we will name here as entheogenic historicism. The essential premise of this method is the re-reading of the history of religion in light of the entheogenic experience. An entheogen is “something that causes the divine to reside within one” (Ruck 10), which is typically, though not exclusively, identified with a psychoactive plant or fungus. Though the word entheogen was only coined by, among others, Carl Ruck, Richard Evans Schultes and Jonathan Ott, in response to other definitions like hallucinogen and psychedelic, its territory as a historical discipline goes back slightly further.

Entheogenic historicism can be dated to Robert Gordon Wasson’s literature (who also contributed to the coining of the word in 1979), either to his book Mushrooms, Russia and History (1957), which disclosed the religious use of Psilocybe (magic) mushrooms existing in Mexico; or, more precisely for the discipline, his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968) that posited that the botanical identification of soma, the plant-God of the ancient Vedic text, the Rig Veda, was Amanita muscaria (the fly agaric mushroom.) In The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) John M. Allegro claimed Christianity to have its roots in a pagan, fertility cult, and that the symbolism of Jesus Christ and the Bible revolved around a religious rite also involving the fly agaric. The question of whether these two theories are connected is at the heart of Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras:

“The significance of Mithraism as the first historical, pan-Eurasian religion has never been fully appreciated by European scholarship, which persistently has tried to draw an iron curtain between the East and West” (Ruck et al. 197).

The topic under discussion in this book is firstly Mithraism and secondly its connection to Christianity. There is, we are told, a scholarly argument over whether there was an independent genesis of the Roman Mithraic cult. Is the Roman Mithras related to the Vedic Mitra and the Persian Mithra in anything other than name? While we have extant documentation of the two latter, there is very little for Roman Mithraism. Ruck et al. argue, however, that there is a connection and it concerns the identity of the central sacrament in the Mysteries, which in Vedic is soma and in Persian/Zoroastrianism haoma.

“We argue that the visionary state induced by haoma is the essential and indispensible element to the Mithraic religion, whatever the particulars of its outward forms or cultural content, and that identifying the specific sacrament also informs the mythology and unanswered questions relating to the complex of metaphors expressed in the mythic narrative” (Ruck et al.  50).

Having posited that the central sacrament was indeed the fly agaric through an analysis of symbology across the Mithraic cults, the book also tries to establish the nature of the relationship between Roman Mithraism and early Christianity. Roman Mithraism was very much bound up in the empire’s army and as such held sway over various emperors who’s power relied on the army being on their side. Eventually, history tells us, Emperor Constantine I changed the official religion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, but to what extent were the mysteries – the Eucharist especially – derived from the Mithraic influence? Some of the connections are more obvious. Mithras was supposedly born on the 25 December, a date appropriated by Pope Liberius for the birth of Christ, and he was also born of a virgin, but it is the symbolism surrounding the sacrament that remains the authors’ greatest clue.

“The religion kept its secrets well. The teachings were never codified in official scriptures and thus were free to adapt and assimilate traditions of the many diverse regions where it was spread, especially among the peoples conquered by the Empire’s [Rome] army and administered by its coterie of bureaucrats” (Ruck 174).

The authors argue that through the persistence of the empire in the East, after the fall of Rome,  and the knowledge subsequently being brought back West by the Crusades, along with the later Renaissance interest in antiquity, that Mithraism continued; or at least the knowledge of the mushroom persisted. However, the “profound impact of Europe’s discovery of the roots of its own spiritual tradition” (Ruck 204) raises a question about the symbology for today’s scholars. Assuming the basic entheogenic premise of the book, does the evidence that it deals with, through art and symbology, scripture and metaphor, evidence more than just a contextualised, aesthetic similarity? Does it demonstrate a continuous lineage of the religious use of entheogens?

As far as entheogenic literature is concerned Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras is an excellent addition to the library; a scholarly, well-referenced work that is clear in its postulations. The text adds further weight to the burgeoning field of entheogenic historicism and does so in reference to the wider field of Mithraic studies, the upshot of which is to further legitimise the discipline in wider academia. Highly recommended for all those interested in entheogens.

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1 Response

  1. August 2, 2012

    […] Wasson’s well-received analysis of Soma, the Vedic Hindu deity, or Dr. Carl Ruck’s recent analysis of Mithra, the Roman deity, the existence of initiatory traditions surrounding these mythological figures was […]

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