Amanita muscaria, AKA the fly agaric mushroom, has made a couple of appearances on this blog to date, in large part because it’s one of the most recognizable mushrooms in the world and has a loyal following among mushroom fanatics who like to snap photographs of these exceptionally beautiful fungi. Furthermore, it is the focus of several ethnomycological studies, and some authors have opined that it was used spiritually by the Aryans in ancient India, as well as possibly the Greeks and pre-Christian fertility cults.
Much of the scholarship related to ancient mushroom use (magic and otherwise) has escaped the attention of mainstream historians and anthropologists, but that may be changing. The fact that the Red Lady of el Miron, an upper Paleolithic woman who lived nearly 19,000 years ago in the northern reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, ate mushrooms has drawn out questions about mushrooms’ importance in ancient times, and Mesoamerican use of psychoactive mushrooms in the Psilocybe genus is well-documented fact.
Although some theories about magic mushroom use in the ancient world have never been substantiated, one thing is clear: Koryak tribesmen in Siberia had a special relationship with the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria, and this discovery shocked scholars and explorers who traveled to Siberia in the 18th century. Read onward for a tale of mushroom-munching reindeer, wry and witty caterpillars, and Koryak shamans that (hopefully) will amuse you.
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
The Koryak and Amanita muscaria
Before the advent of vodka, the steppes of ancient Siberia rang with the riotous laughter of mushroom-addled tribesmen who ate the intoxicating fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) to alleviate the boredom of endless cold nights and to foretell the future. The fly agaric is probably the most common mushroom image shared in the human imagination.
Amanita muscaria is an inebriating mushroom that was consumed spiritually and recreationally in Siberia since ancient times. The best documentation of its use regards the Koryak, a tribal group from the Kamchatka Peninsula on the coast of the Bering Sea. Koryak folklore venerates Amanita muscaria as a sacred gift from Big Raven, the first shaman and the progenitor of the human race.
Big Raven first discovered the magic of Amanita muscaria when he captured a whale and wished to put it back in the sea. Sadly, even a culture hero as powerful as Big Raven was unable to lift the animal, and he plead for help from the omnipotent deity Vihiyinin (Existence). Vihiynin created the fly agaric by spitting on the land, and the flecks of his spit formed into white plants with little red hats. Big Raven consumed the mushrooms, whereupon he found the strength to return the captive whale to the sea. Big Raven was so impressed by the fly agaric’s ability to enhance his might that he commanded the mushroom, which the tribesmen called wapaq, to grow in perpetuity for the benefit and use of humans.
Amanita muscaria, A Snapshot of a Trippy and Dangerous Species
Amanita muscaria’s fruit has a bright red cap adorned with white patches of fuzzy fungal tissue. Snowy white gills and a creamy skirt on the stalk complete the package, making it the well-dressed, leggy redhead of the mushroom world. It’s the Alice in Wonderland mushroom, the Super Mario Brothers mushroom.
Its likeness shows up on multitudinous posters, mugs, and assorted kitsch from the 1950s and 60s, and ceramic reproductions of this mushroom provide shade to countless lawn gnomes. Unbeknownst to housewives and video gamers, the real fly agaric is packed with psychoactive chemicals, specifically ibotenic acid and muscimol, two compounds that perform bizarre feats of neurological contortionism on the human brain.
Unlike mushrooms that contain psilocybin and psilocin—the two compounds that make classic “magic mushrooms” psychoactive—the fly agaric is not illegal in the United States, perhaps because it’s not exactly known for being pleasant, Koryak folktales notwithstanding. Eating Amanita muscaria (as well as several related species, including Amanita Gemmata—the gemmed amanita, and Amanita Pantherina—the panther amanita) causes one to collapse into a deep sleep for a brief time, and then arise a different person.
Mycophiles and thrill-seekers that sample Amanita muscaria or one of its psychoactive cousins experience it differently, and in some cases these experiments have turned dangerous or fatal. There have been few deaths associated with Amanita muscaria, Amanita pantherina, and Amanita gemmata in the United States, but physicians have observed that some people exposed to the compounds in these mushrooms sometimes have seizures and other profoundly negative effects, especially when the mushroom poisoning victim is a child.
Mushroom groupies believe that Alice’s “one side larger, one side smaller” conversation with the Caterpillar is a reference to the subjective experience of tripping on Amanita muscaria. Further, the fact that Mario doubles in size when he captures a red and white polka-dotted mushroom is similarly suspicious to the mycocentric mind.
I have spoken with several people who have either intentionally or accidentally consumed psychoactive Amanita muscaria, and each one had a different story to tell me. Some say it’s like being mildly drunk, others describe complete obliteration of the self and terrifying out-of-body experiences, others report seizure-like muscle contractions, and still others say it doesn’t do anything but give rise to a headache. Some say it’s scrumptious boiled in saltwater then fried. The fact of the matter is that Amanita muscaria’s potency varies tremendously from specimen to specimen, and even the most mycologically inclined advise against giving them a go.
The Koryak Crash Into Western Consciousness
As for the Koryak, they thought of Amanita muscaria as both a recreational and spiritual substance and would consume it in order to experience euphoric and psychoactive effects. After eating the mushrooms, a tribesman would fall asleep for a time and then awaken filled with awe. For a number of hours afterwards, the Koryak mushroom-celebrant enjoyed boundless energy for physical activity, was filled with a sense of hilarity and well being, and felt as though he had grown to the size of a giant. The perceptive change this mushroom induces essentially makes the user feel like Paul Bunyon on his day off—gigantic, powerful, and mighty ready for a long hike.
In 1730, a Swedish colonel named Filip Johann von Strahlenberg debuted a book that detailed the shroom-munching habits of the Koryak. The Koryak tribesmen stunned Strahlenberg with a few facts about the mushroom that earlier writers had hitherto omitted. The mushroom doesn’t just go into the belly and fritter away its psychoactive punch in one go, oh no. Some of the mad-making properties of the mushroom remain after the user has finished feeling ‘shroom-inspired puissance and end up in his or her urine.
This fact was important for a of couple reasons; the Koryak discovered eons ago that reindeer also love the flavor of fly agaric. Mushroom hunters were cautious when collecting these special fungi, because maddened reindeer had a tendency to charge into the midst of the Amanita muscaria patch, eager for their share. Even greater cause for concern, reindeer were so fond of Amanita muscaria that if one smelled the residual whiff of them in a man’s urine, the critter was bound to come crashing through whatever barriers to get a taste.
A second revelation was not cautionary, but nonetheless disturbed Strahlenberg and his readers. During the summer months, Siberia’s peaks and slopes were covered in fly agarics, and Koryak who could afford it collected and dried as many mushrooms as possible for the coming winter. Poor men without a good supply of the mushrooms resorted to dire measures to get an Amanita muscaria high—by drinking tumblers full of muscaria-infused urine. Pee drinking was a relatively common practice amongst impoverished Koryak, much to the dismay and confusion of scholars who studied them. When it became known that imbibing urine was one way to get a secondary high off the fly agaric it cleared up some of the bafflement, and simultaneously illustrated how the Koryak loved the mushroom enough to overcome a significant ick factor.
Later Revelations About the Koryak Relationship With Amanita muscaria
As with so many topics in mycology, especially those related to psychoactive mushrooms, the relationship between Amanita muscaria and the Koryak has not been studied terribly extensively, and it is often addressed fleetingly in books that are available and accessible to those who are just getting started with mushroom hunting and identification. However, in 2005, Gary Lincoff published an article and gave a talk about his experience traveling to Siberia to explore this ethnomycological connection with a group of other mushroom-appreciators from the United States. The interesting thing about the presentation notes, from my perspective, is the fact that it draws bright lines around what makes the Koryak special when measured up against the Russian people who live in this remote part of the world.
For the Russians, mushrooms are special, and the pursuit of hunting for edible mushrooms is one of the cornerstones of Russian society. However, in general, the Russians do not have an interest in Amanita muscaria, and their texts and folk wisdom strongly advises against collecting and consuming the mushroom due to its reputation for being toxic. The Koryak, by contrast, seem to have incorporated this mushroom into their folk traditions and mythical pursuits in a way that stands in stark contrast to the Russian mindset vis a vis Amanita muscaria. Although it’s not entirely clear to me when and, more importantly, why the Koryak initially started to experiment with this psychoactive fungus, one thing is obvious: its use is one of the things that makes the Koryak culture distinct and special in relation to its neighbors’ mycological traditions.