Think of any fairy tale illustration of elves or goblins sitting on or under a toadstool, and most likely the cap of such a fungus will be bright red with white spots.
The autumnal abundance and vibrant colours of the fly agaric mushroom make it probably the most widely recognised of our fungi. As the name suggests it was formerly used as an insecticide, with pieces often floated in milk, to intoxicate and kill flies attracted by its aroma. Similarly most people will be wary of its poisonous reputation (though fatal reactions are rare), and appreciation of this mushroom will mostly be limited to the aesthetic. It has been suggested that northern Europeans’ wariness of mushrooms may stem from long-established taboos relating to the use of mushrooms containing mind expanding substances. These would originally have been reserved for those shamans or priests who served as intermediaries between the common folk and the unseen worlds of spirit.
The fly agaric may have been the earliest source of entheogens, that is hallucinogenic substances used for religious or shamanic purposes, the use of which date back possibly over 10,000 years. Fly agaric has been put forward as the most likely candidate for the mysterious Soma, mentioned in around 150 hymns of the Hindu Rig-Veda, which was written between 1500 – 500 BC by Aryans in the Indus valley. Soma was a moon god, as well as a related plant and a holy brew which were also worshipped. Though there have been many suggestions as to the identity of the plant, fly agaric fits many of the Vedic references as a substance with which to contact the gods.
Fly agaric contains two toxins, ibotenic acid and muscimol, which are responsible for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects. To minimise its toxic side effects fly agaric would be processed in some way eg. dried, made into a drink, smoked or made into ointments. Care in its preparation and ritual were paramount. The Celtic Druids, for example, purified themselves by fasting and meditating for three days, drinking only water. Amongst the Koryak people of north-eastern Siberia the ceremonial use of fly agaric involved the shaman ingesting the mushroom, after which others would drink his urine to partake of its entheogenic effects. Though this sounds distinctly unpleasant to modern ears, if the shaman had been fasting, the urine would have been mainly water containing the hallucinogenic compounds. The body absorbs the fly agaric’s hallucinogens first, and then expels the toxins from the stomach. The hallucinogenic chemicals then exert their influence on the body and are expelled unaltered in the urine. Reindeer in northern Europe are also attracted to the fly agaric’s euphoric effects and Siberian people would notice the drunken behaviour of such animals and slaughter them to get the same effects from eating the meat.
Modern research has also shown that the two active ingredients’ effect on the brain can inhibit fear and the startle reflex. This would corroborate theories that the ferocious Viking Berserker warriors used fly agaric prior to going into battle, bringing on the uncontrolled rage and fearlessness for which they were renowned.
Fly agaric has been a popular icon for the Midwinter and Christmas festivities in central Europe for a long time and is found on Christmas cards and as replica decorations for tree and wreath. Our current concept of Santa Claus can be traced back as an amalgamation of several characters of popular European folklore, such as a more pagan Scandinavian house goblin who offered protection from malevolent spirits in return for a feast at midwinter, and the fourth century Byzantine archbishop who became St Nicolas and was renowned for his kindness to children. More recently it has been suggested that the Siberian use of fly agaric may have played a part in the development of the legend of Santa Claus too. At midwinter festivals the shaman would enter the yurt through the smoke hole and down the central supporting birch pole, bringing with him a bag of dried fly agaric. After conducting his ceremonies he would leave the same way he had come. Ordinary people would have believed the shaman could fly himself, or with the aid of reindeer which they also knew to have a taste for fly agaric. Santa is now dressed in the same colours as the fly agaric, carries a sack with special gifts, comes and goes via the chimney, can fly with reindeer and lives in the ‘Far North’.