Author's Disclaimer: This article is about the Amanita Muscaria mushroom and its fascinating history. Although many modern researchers no longer consider this mushroom highly poisonous. Do not eat it! Read the following warning from an author of an early 20th century medical book and take it to heart.
It is customary for authors to describe the differential points between
the edible and the poisonous varieties of mushroom. The writer
is of the opinion that the selection of mushrooms for eating purposes
should be left to experts. Since he witnessed the autopsies on four
individuals who had died as a result of their inability to discriminate
between a mushroom and a toad-stool, he realizes the danger from eating
mushrooms, and since then he has not been able to eat this delicacy
with the same degree of relish as formerly.
So wrote Frederick Tice in 1921 in his book Practice of Medicine.
The mushroom pictured is the Amanita Muscaria, aka the Fly Agaric. It is also known by many other names: Toadstool, Bug Agaric, Death Cap, Death Angel. (THERE IS ANOTHER MUSHROOM KNOWN AS DEATH CAP AND DEATH ANGEL- IT IS HIGHLY POISONOUS- IT WILL KILL YOU. DO NOT PICK AND EAT MUSHROOMS UNLESS YOU ARE AN EXPERT!)
Fly Agaric is so called because it has been used throughout history as a pesticide to kill flies. Simply mix it with milk- let flies drink it- and voila- dead flies. Although- some researchers in modern times have tried to replicate the fly killing feats and mixed up their own batch of Amanita Muscaria with milk. The flies drank the milk and then flew drunkenly around, eventually crashing onto the table. The flies appeared dead. However, after a minute or so- they recovered and flew off. Perhaps folks in the olden days simply removed the flies without checking for a pulse. Or perhaps they had added more strips of the mushroom cap to the milk. (source)
It is also believed that Fly Agaric is so named because of its hallucinogenic properties. Some scholars believe that the legend of Santa Clause and his flying reindeer are directly related to this mushroom. Really. They believe that the story of Santa Claus springs from a Scandinavian tradition of mushroom gatherers who collected this mind altering mushroom. Consider the following from an article from the Joplin Independent regarding Santa's looks: One of the side effects of eating A. muscaria is that one's skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow. This is why Santa is always shown with glowing red cheeks and nose. Even Santa's jolly "Ho, ho, ho!" is the euphoric laugh of one who has indulged in the magic fungus. (source) And the legend of the flying reindeer? The article continues: The effects of the A. muscaria usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. The feeling of flying could account for the legends of flying reindeer and legends of shamanic journeys included stories of winged reindeer, transporting their riders up to the highest branches of the World Tree. (source) Other features of modern day Santa are also attributed to the Shamans that gathered this mushroom: decorating the tree, Santa's red suit with fur trim and big black boots, and even climbing down the chimney with a sack.
"Santa", or the mushroom Shaman, was delivering these mushrooms for a reason. It was consumed by the Ancient Lapps for its hallucinogenic properties. But first the mushrooms had to be dried to increase the potency. Amanita Muscaris is known to cause, among other things- liver and kidney damage. So the ingenious people developed the idea of drinking the urine of someone that had consumed the mushroom. Many of the toxins were filtered out and the person drinking the urine could still have the effects of the active ingredients- ibotenic acid and muscaline. In fact, the ibotenic acid is metabolized by the host's body into muscimol which is a more powerful form of the chemical. (source)
What are the symptoms of Amanita Muscaris consumption? The author David Arora in his book Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi listed the symptoms as the following:
- Effects appear 30 minutes -2 hours after ingestion and last for several hours
- Confusion, mild euphoria, loss of muscular coordination
- Profuse sweating, chills, visual issues, a feeling of greater strength
- Sometime hallucinations, delusions, or convulsions.
- Oddly, an inordinate number of "trippers" mistake themselves for Christ.
In the 1800's there was a widely reported death of someone that had consumed this mushroom. The Italian Count de Vecchi was reported to have consumed 24 of these mushrooms for breakfast. He died the next day in violent colvulsions. (source) Most newspapers of the time reported it as an accident- although the New York Times wasn't as kind- and reported that he had deliberately eaten the mushrooms. (source)
There's more to the history of this mushroom: such as how it is thought that the Vikings ate this mushroom to induce their "bezerker" rage. Or even more bizarre, in the book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, John Marco Allegro put forth the theory that the New Testament was simply a code designed to hide the knowledge of the Amanita Muscaria from the Romans.
Who knew that all of that history was living in the small little fungi growing by my sidewalk?
Click the following link to see a video of researchers debating the
scientific merits of Amanita Muscaria. The video is interesting as it films two
volunteers who have consumed a prescribed dose of the active ingredient from the
mushroom. Link to video.