Amanita muscaria is the most iconic mushroom in the world, with an ancient prehistory that can only be glimpsed in the remnants of myth and folklore. This fame of A. muscaria transcends time, with its iconic image still displayed in contemporary movies, video games, children’s books, and holiday art, yet most people are unaware of its true significance. Its reputation ranges from the foundation of an original Ur religion to an insignificant and misunderstood hallucinogenic toxin.
Fly Agaric is the most comprehensive compendium of articles on A. muscaria available.
It consists of an Introduction and 29 chapters, half authored or co-authored by Feeney. He is joined by more than a dozen researchers, explorers and academics who assemble a multilayered understanding of this exceptional fungus. Fly Agaric covers a range of topics organized into five sections: (I) Mushroom Hunting & Identification; (II) Religion, Culture, & Folklore; (III) Archaeological Evidence; (IV) Diet & Cuisine; and (V) Pharmacology & Physiological Effects.
A useful feature of the book involves the basics of mushroom identification, learning common and distinguishing features of various Amanita species. Fly Agaric provides a photo illustrated guide with practical details necessary for identifying many Amanita varieties and distinguishing them from their relatives, including potentially harmful look-alikes.
Beginning with the informed strategies of mushroom hunting, Feeney shows us the basics with advice regarding safety orientations, security strategies and needed equipment. Descriptions of all aspects of the mushrooms provide technical guidelines for correct species identifications, enhanced with color photographs. Mycological identification of the various species, phases of growth, psychoactive concentrations and doses provide technical details for more than a dozen species and varieties of psychoactive Amanitas. It includes important details about how to distinguish look-alike species and crucial location and general range distribution and habitat and seasonal features regarding the species that are important for finding and identifying the mushrooms. One chapter describes the pharmacological effects of the primary psychoactive ingredients, muscimol and ibotenic acid and their interrelationship via the body’s metabolic processes, issues that play an important role in interpreting evidence for A. muscaria in the past.
Part II of this book delves into culture and folklore, ranging from historical and contemporary Siberian uses to the deep history of Amanita in mythology and religion. Several chapters continue Wasson’s comparative approach to understanding the prehistory of this fungi, combining ethnographic, linguistic and historical information with ecological, pharmacological, and biological data to reveal the circumstantial and substantial evidence that help one thread together the diverse forms of knowledge revealing prehistorical and historical cultural traditions of fly agaric use.
Feeney and Austin update Gordon Wasson’s famous theory of the identity of Soma in “Soma’s Third Filter: New Findings Supporting the Identification of A. muscaria as the Ancient Sacrament of the Vedas”. Wasson proposed that the Vedas indicated three different filters used in the preparation of Soma, which correspond to different steps in its preparation. The first two filters are relatively uncontroversial, a filter provided by sunlight or sun-drying and a second using a filter of wool to separate the residual solids from aqueous preparations.
This drying in the sun is a significant mechanism for enhancing A. muscaria effects. Drying results in decarboxylatation of ibotenic acid into muscimol, dramatically reducing the former’s concentrations and unpleasant side effects while simultaneously enhancing the concentrations of the more psychoactive muscimol. This physiological transformation process supports the identification of Soma as A. muscaria proposed by Wasson as sun drying is not widely known to enhance psychoactive effects of plants.
The function of the second filter proposed by Wasson-- a woolen cloth or strainer-- is not simply the elimination of pulp and fiber, but rather an indication of another transformative process involving heat, the making of a tea to rehydrate and extract the active ingredients from the dried mushrooms. Feeney reports a study in which variation in contemporary use patterns of A. muscaria and their different effects provides supporting evidence that Soma is A. muscaria. The findings that making a tea with A. muscaria results in an experience less likely to involve nausea and vomiting than beverages made with fresh mushrooms suggests that the tea preparations reduce these unpleasant symptoms.
Wasson’s controversial third filter was the human body, which by ingestion and then excreting the Soma as urine, acts as a filter to some of A. muscaria’s more toxic effects and produces a more psychoactive formula. As the body metabolizes the ibotenic acid, reducing toxic gastrointestinal effects, it converts it into muscimol, a far more potent psychoactive. One who drinks A. muscaria’s still has significant amounts of unmetabolized ibotenic acid and muscimol in the urine, which can be “recycled,” ingested again for the psychoactive effects.
While this drinking of urine is a reported in Siberia, where people drink the urine of reindeer and persons under A. muscaria intoxication, Feeney and Austin point to the weakness of the supporting evidence in the Vedas and suggests another possible filter in milk products frequently mentioned in the Vedas in conjunction with Soma.
They propose that the mixing of unpasteurized milk with the aqueous A. muscaria extractions would produce important pharmacological reactions potentiating the beverage and reducing its unpleasant side effects. The third filter involves sour milk and curds, which are referred in various parts of the Rig Veda that refer to the comingling of these milk products with the Soma preparation. This mrj is believed ‘to cleanse’ the Soma, a purification that indicates it plays an important part of the preparation. Feeney proposes that the milk products used in Vedic ceremonies, particularly the naturally fermented curdled milk, would have contained Lactobacillus bacteria that produce an enzyme called glutamate decarboxylase which catalyzes decarboxylation of glutamate to GABA. This process parallels the decarboxylation of ibotenic acid which should result in a significant increase in the more psychoactive muscimol. This is evidence for the role of fermented milk products as a source glutamate decarboxylase for processing both ibotenic acid and muscimol of A. muscaria and supports its identity as Soma.
Evidence of the ancient religious roles of A. muscaria is found across Eurasia, including in the behavior of the famous Viking warriors, the berserkers. A translation of an 18th century essay is where it was first argued that A. muscaria’s observed physiological effects reported in certain settings indicate it could account for the behavioral and physiological characteristics of the Viking’s berserker-rages. Mark Hoffman and Carl Ruck expand on this hypothesis in historical, mythical and etymological evidence illustrating connections of A. muscaria with Odin’s warriors, who have assimilated the fierceness and power of a bear or wolf. The descriptions of the berserker and the features of the onset of their conditions such as sweating and notable increases in physical strength parallel the well-documented effects of fly agaric, as does the following state of exhaustion.
Erynn Rowan Laurie and Timothy White open the discussion of the relevance of A. muscaria to Celtic magical brews and legends. Celtic legends recount stories about crimson-colored foods which are believed to induce mystical experiences and inspire abilities of extraordinary knowledge and prophecy. These and other features suggest this involved ritual use of A. muscaria. Old Celtic legends convey accounts of sleep-inducing apples, berries that provide immortality, and hazelnuts that impart wisdom. Although Celtic scholars have mostly ignored evidence for ritual use of entheogens, the conspicuous legends about crimson foods which inspire otherworldly journeys, mystical experiences, extraordinary knowledge, and gifts of prophecy are strongly suggestive of the role of entheogenic mushrooms. They propose that these motifs of magical foods are metaphoric references to the red-capped mushroom A. muscaria, as is the theme of one eyed, one arm, and one leg entities that appears prominently in Celtic myths.
Evidence of common origins for Celtic and Vedic cultures should lead us to ask if the Irish also had a “soma cult,’’ with evidence of such practices encoded in early Irish literature and folklore. Thomas Riedlinger explores such evidence in the tales of Celtic hero Cu Chulaind who has characteristics, behavior and experiences that correspond to known effects of A. muscaria. Analyses of ancient Irish myths show allusions to A. muscaria and their parallels with the accounts provided in the Rig Veda indicate their ancient common sources in the pre-Indo-European past. This also shows how Celtic myths and folklore maybe useful in interpretations of Vedic texts on the identity of the entheogenic source of Soma.
Peter McCoy examines myth to reveal the association of A. muscaria with the redheaded Celtic Goddess Brigid, known as a Goddess of prophecy and healing and the inspiration for poets and spiritual leaders. Even with the Romanization of Celtic culture, many key amanita features of Brigid remained in descriptions that reveal the appearance, growth patterns and other characteristics of the mushroom. Mythic and folklore beliefs about her activities also tie her to ancient beliefs about A. muscaria that survived Christianization and carried on with the ancient entheogenic mystery cults with beliefs about spiritual death and magical resurrection.
Part III provides research methods for exploration of the use of A. muscaria as indicated in archaeological evidence. Giorgio Samorini delineates methods for identifying A. muscaria and A. pantherine depictions in petroglyphs, pictographs, and other types of archaeological evidence in outlining key details for identification of the various species in artifacts. Features such as rings on the stems or features of the caps, particularly the protuberances characteristic of A. muscaria, provide key diagnostic criteria, while a variety of recognized characteristics distinguish Psylocybe species (bluing, cap shape, association with bovines). The entheogenic intent of the representations and the associated ritual activities are also illustrated in features such as reclining or flying persons and the presence of mushrooms on the head and dancing.
The global significance of the Ur-entheogenic paradigm of A. muscaria is supported by artifacts not just from Eurasian, but also Africa and the Americas. Evidence for ritualistic use of A. muscaria in the Americas is provided by Carl de Borhegyi who extends the work of his father on the Mesoamerican mushrooms stones. He links these motifs to the famous ball court practices that are associated with trophy heads and human sacrifices involving ritual decapitation. He examines these practices in relation to regional arts and mythology to expand our understanding of the relationships of A. muscaria mushrooms to ritual and cult practices of the ancient Maya and the Jaguar-Bird-Serpent God Quetzalcoatl.
Part V provides 8 chapters that review diverse aspects of A. muscaria’s unique pharmacology and therapeutic applications. Ewa Maciejczky’s review of the chemical effects shared by the diverse species of Amanitas provide a basis for understanding their specific inebriating effects as well as diverse therapeutic properties. A review of the history of pharmacological investigations into the properties of A. muscaria is complemented with a review of contemporary research reporting the isolation of component compounds, their structural elucidation, and their biological activity. However, Maciejczky notes that not all of the observed pharmacological effects of A. muscaria can be explained by known pharmacological mechanisms of muscimol and ibotenic acid, requiring further investigation into other substances or their synergistic effects. Potential therapeutic uses include not only it’s well-known antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and immune regulation properties but also the numerous secondary metabolites which may be relevant to treatment of cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline.
Pharmacologically and clinically A. muscaria has an intriguing profile illustrated in a long history of clinical case applications that reveal a broad therapeutic potential for a wide range of modern applications, ranging from pain and inflammation, to symptoms of fear and anxiety, and addressing cognitive decline, cancer and even addictions. Chapter 27 provides some broad guidelines for therapeutic applications A. muscaria, including dosing and various preparations of A. muscaria as a medicinal, providing specific instructions for preparations of teas, decoctions, tinctures and topical applications and blends with other substances.
A significant contribution is provided in Chapter 28 with a detailed characterization of the distinctive differences between the effects of isoxazole-containing mushrooms of the Amanita genus and psilocybin-containing mushrooms. The reputation of A. muscaria as a hallucinogenic mushroom is problematic in spite of some similarities of its effects with those of serotonergic psychedelics, like LSD. While there are superficial similarities with psylocybin effects in altered mood and perception, and experiences of ego-loss and death-rebirth, A. muscaria and other isoxazole-containing mushrooms have a profile of effects that clearly distinguish them from psilocybin-containing mushrooms and other classic psychedelics. The many striking differences may leave even an experienced psychonaut unprepared because in contrast to the relatively consistent and predictable effects of the classic psychedelics, the effects of A. muscaria are much more variable. “It was as if everything were exactly the same but totally unfamiliar.”
These differences in effects of these two genera of mushrooms (Amanita and Psylocybe) reflect distinct neurotransmitter systems stimulated by their respective compounds. In contrast to the action of typical psychedelics (i.e., ergolines and tryptamines) on the serotonergic neurotransmitter system, the primary psychoactive agent of A. muscaria is muscimol; it resembles the neurotransmitter GABA and has effects on GABA receptors, while ibotenic acid, binds with the glutamate receptors in the brain.
Feeney summarizes trip reports to characterize a profile of A. muscaria effects. He summarizes these as a lack of brightly colored kaleidoscopic visions and color patterns typical of psilocybin; experiences of ordinary objects can be unfamiliar, a surreal quality as if in a dream; and experiences of ego loss that can seem as a completely sober state, but with the mind’s eye not fixed within one’s head.
Feeney proposes that a unique constellation of associated effects provide defining features of Amanita use:
Looping, stuck in a repetitive pattern of behavior or thought;
Echopictures/Frame reduction, a slowing of processing of visual frames by the brain, with the result that visual frames remain for prolonged periods in the mind’s eye before being updated;
Size distortion of images;
Vacillations between vigor and lassitude, periods of drowsiness and sleep alternated with high levels of vigor and stimulation;
Feelings of strength resulting from an intense stimulation of the nervous system that enable people to exert muscular efforts of which they are normally completely incapable;
Visionary dreams, experienced as an entry into a hallucinatory dream-like reality separate from the physical world;
Dissociation, delirium, loss of consciousness and amnesia with a lack of post-episode memory of the experiences for some people;
Imperviousness and insensitivity to pain, resulting in dangerous behavior and significant injuries;
Muscle twitching and loss of coordination;
Muscarinic symptoms of “excessive perspiration and salivation, increased urination, blurry vision, and gastrointestinal distress, which may include nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea” (p. 442).
This diversity of features is why A. muscaria defies existing drug classifications, and while exhibiting effects similar to 5HT2 psychedelics, has other features as varied as deliriant, dissociative, stimulant and depressant.
Perhaps the most useful aspects of Feeney’s book are found in specific instructions regarding how to use these enigmatic fungi. In a final chapter entitled ‘The Formula’ Feeney provides us with procedures for preparing A. muscaria for consumption, based on ethnographic knowledge from Siberia and other places, and procedures for preparation as described in the Rig Veda. These orientations begin with dehydration and homogenization and conclude with personal preparation and security and safety considerations. Several different drink recipes derived from diverse A. muscaria folklore and tradition provide methods for preparing the beverage to reduce toxic and unpleasant effects and enhance psychoactive effects, as do urine recycling and smoking mixtures. Traditional practices of adding berries to fly Agaric beverages may provide a pharmacological effect that enhances conversion of ibotenic acid to the more potent muscimol.
Feeney’s volume provides a comprehensive and extensive overview of this iconic mushroom, spanning its hidden prehistory to its current potentials, a diverse body of material that will please many readers. One of the sections of the book is dedicated to coverage of the culinary uses, including procedures for removal of unpleasant toxins. Several other chapters beyond the purview of this review engage topics such as: speculations on relationship of Santa Claus to A. muscaria derived from beliefs of the Saami reindeer herders; the Germany mythology of A. muscaria as a symbol of luck; the hidden prehistory of A. muscaria represented in the Russian word Mukhomor, used to refer to witches and the fly agaric; recent trips to Siberia to learn about the contemporary beliefs and practices regarding A. muscaria use in Russian Kamchatka peninsula; reports of experiments in self-administration, including the enhanced urine drink; the homeopathic use of Amanita muscaria; and the history of an Amanita mushroom business in the US.
Fly Agaric has a something for anyone interested in the enigmatic A. muscaria and is the go-to reference for now.