The plant kingdom and hallucinogens (part I)


Main hallucinating constituents of psychotomimetic plants
VII Mushrooms and puffballs
The mushrooms of Mexico


Author: Richard Evans SCHULTES
Pages: 3 to 16
Creation Date: 1969/01/01

The plant kingdom and hallucinogens (part I)

Ph.D., F.L.S. Richard Evans SCHULTES
Curator of Economic Botany and Executive Director, Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

"These substances have formed a bond of union between men of opposite hemispheres, the uncivilized and the civilized; they have forced passages which, once open, proved of use for other purposes; they have produced in ancient races characteristics which have endured to the present day, evidencing the marvellous degree of intercourse that existed between different peoples just as certainly and exactly as a chemist can judge the relations of two substances by the reactions."



The use of hallucinogenic substances goes far back into human pre-history. There have been suggestions that even the idea of the deity might have arisen as a result of their weird and unearthly effects on the human body and mind. Narcotic and other drugs have been reported by many writers in many cultures, since the very invention of writing. A truly interdisciplinary scientific interest in narcotics, however, has developed only during the past century.

In 1855, Ernst Freiherr von Bibra published the first book of its kind, Die narkotischen Genussmittel und der Mensch, in which he considered some 17 plant narcotics and stimulants and urged chemists to study assiduously a field so promising for research and so fraught with enigmas.

A review of the scientific literature of the last half of the past century indicates that von Bibra's suggestions were followed, and an interdisciplinary interest in narcotics began to take hold and grow. It proved to be the spark that eventually engendered today's extraordinarily extensive and complex literature in many fields on narcotic substances.

Half a century later, in 1911, another outstanding book-in reality, a much expanded and modernized successor of von Bibra's work-appeared in C. Hartwich's Die menschlichen Genussmittel. This volume considered at great length and with interdisciplinary emphasis about 30 vegetal narcotics and stimulants and mentioned many others in passing. Hartwich pointed out that von Bibra's pioneer work was out of date, that research on the botanical aspects and chemical constituents of these curiously active plants had, in 1855, scarcely begun but that, by 1911, such studies were either progressing well or had already been completed.

Ernst von Bibra (1808-1878). Courtesy National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland (Negative No. 58-221).

Full size image: 74 kB, Ernst von Bibra (1808-1878). Courtesy National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland (Negative No. 58-221).

Then, 13 years later, a book of most extraordinary breadth of outlook appeared, written by the famous German toxicologist Louis Lewin: Phantastika - die betäubenden und erregenden Genussmittel. It was soon translated into several languages. The earliest English edition, Phantastica: narcotic and stimulating drugs - their use and abuse, appeared in 1931 and was soon unavailable; a second edition was published in 1964 in response to the growing need for the work in view of the wide-spread interest in narcotics that has developed in the last quarter century. A novel kind of book, basic to what we now call psychopharmacology, it presented the total picture of some 28 plants employed for their stimulating or intoxicating properties the world around, emphasizing their importance to research in botany, ethnobotany, chemistry, pharmacology, medicine, psychology, psychiatry as well as to ethnology, history and sociology. A very humble man, Lewin wrote that "the contents of this book will provide a starting point from which original research in the above-mentioned departments of science may be pursued". And the book has done exactly that - and admirably so. We may truly say that it was Lewin's Phantastika that sparked to-day's intensive and extensive interdisciplinary interest in narcotics, especially in those that we have come to refer to as the hallucinogens.

Carl Hartwich (1851-1917) From Berichte der Deutschen Pharmazeutischen Gesellschaft 27 (1917) facing p. 205. Louis Lewin (1850-1929). Picture taken in the 1880's. From B. Holmstedt in Ethnopharmacologic search for psychoactive drugs (Ed. D. Efron) Public Health Serv. Publ. No. 1645 (1967) 16. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Full size image: 48 kB, Carl Hartwich (1851-1917) From Berichte der Deutschen Pharmazeutischen Gesellschaft 27 (1917) facing p

In the years between the books by Hartwich and Lewin, an American economic botanist, William E. Safford, in a series of articles, began to focus the attention of the scientific world on the unusual wealth of narcotic plants employed in primitive societies in the Americas. He called attention to the numerous enigmas in the identification of some of the narcotics of ancient American cultures and, although several of his own attempts at identifying them were later shown to be erroneous, he should justly be credited with pioneering research into the rich field of New World narcotic plants.


In the course of his nearly one million years of existence, man must have experimented with most of the plants in his environment. We have no exact idea of how many species of plants there are in the world's flora. There may be as many as 800,000. Estimates for the angiosperms alone - the most conspicuous element in terrestrial vegetation - vary from the usually cited 200,000 to about half a million.

A comparison of the number of species that mankind has found valuable in nutrition with those which he values as hallucinogens may be interesting. Of the vast assemblage of angiosperms, only about 3,000 are known to have been consumed directly as human food. The number that actually feed the human race, however, is relatively very limited, for only about 150 angiosperm species are important enough as foods to enter the world's commerce. Of these, only 12 or 13 stand, in effect, between the world's population and starvation, and these dozen or so plants are all cultivated species.

William Edwin Safford (1859-1926). Courtesy Hung Botanical Library, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Full size image: 18 kB, William Edwin Safford (1859-1926). Courtesy Hung Botanical Library, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The number of plants providing the human race with narcotic agents is exceedingly small, even though there may be many hundreds of species with psychoactive organic constituents. Between 4,000 and 5,000 species are known to be alkaloidal, and constituents other than alkaloids may also be responsible for narcotic and similar effects. One would, consequently, expect that at least several hundred species might be involved. Yet only some 60 species - including cryptogams and phanerogams - are employed in primitive and advanced cultures as intoxicants. And of these 60 only about 20 may be considered to be of major importance. Furthermore, and perhaps significantly, only a very few-the coca, the opium poppy, cannabis and tobacco-are numbered amongst the world's commercially important plants; except for cannabis, they are cultigens unknown in the wild state, and have obviously long been associated with man and his agricultural practices.

While we do not know that there are species of plants possessing narcotic properties which have apparently never been employed as intoxicants, it is true that there have been few cultures - even in the most restricted and limited flora - that have not discovered or used at least one plant for its psychotropic activity. Lewin has appraised this interesting observation as follows: "The passionate desire which ... leads man to flee from the monotony of everyday life ... has made him instinctively discover strange substances. He has done so, even where nature has been most niggardly in producing them and where the products seem very far from possessing the properties which would enable him to satisfy this desire."

It may likewise be significant that, whether because of cultural differences or floristic peculiarities or for some other reason as yet unappreciated, the New World cultures are much richer in narcotic plants and apparently in their roles than the Old. The longer I consider the problem, the more I am convinced as a botanist that there may exist in the world's flora an appreciable number of such plants not yet uncovered by the experimenting native and still to be found by the enquiring phytochemist. It is only through the interdisciplinary approach that such discoveries can be made. In fact, the unprecedented strides achieved in the study of hallucinogens in the past 30 or 40 years owe their spectacular success to interdisciplinary studies and consequent integration of data gleaned from many seemingly unrelated fields of investigation: anthropology, botany, ethnobotany, chemistry, history, linguistics, medicine, pharmacognosy, pharmacology and psychology.


In our penetration into the study of known hallucinogens and in our search for new ones, we have much to do and little time in which to do it. Civilization is closing in on many, if not on most, parts of the world still sacred to the less advanced cultures. It has long been pressing in, but its pace is now greatly accelerated, with the consequent lessening of man's dependence upon his immediate environment. Our prime academic and practical interest must, therefore, continually ask: "How can we salvage some of the plant knowledge and lore of primitive cultures before it shall have been forever entombed with the culture that gave it birth?"

The twentieth century will surely be remembered as the period of growth in use, misuse, and abuse in sophisticated circles of hallucinogenic substances. As Hoffer and Osmond have written: "The use of hallucinogens has been described as one of the major advances of this century. There is little doubt that they have had a massive impact upon psychiatry, and may produce marked changes in our society. The violent reaction for and against the hallucinogens suggests that even if these compounds are not universally understood and approved of, they will neither be forgotten nor neglected."

The fast pace of research into hallucinogens and their roles in dying or disappearing primitive cultures, the success of studies of the plants and their active constituents, and the increasing confusion generated by casual or frivolous interests in hallucinogens in certain segments of our modern industrialized and urbanized society - all these considerations might justify an ethnobotanical summary of these strange plants, a summary based on the premise that, even though only an interdisciplinary consideration can adequately cope with such a fast moving field, the starting point must be the identification and aboriginal significance of the plants involved.

My own research since 1936 has been directed towards this botanical and ethnobotanical goal and has taken me into remote areas of the New World. I have studied narcotic plants amongst the North American Indians, made several expeditions into the Mazatec, Chinantec, and Zapotec Indian country in northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico, and lived almost without interruption from 1941 through 1953 in the northwest Amazon in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru and in the northern Andes. Since 1953, I have returned to the Andes and Amazon on many expeditions, usually with students, to pursue studies on toxic and narcotic plants. My research has convinced me that there is still much to be done, that there exist an appreciable number of hallucinogenic plants still unknown to science in the flora of tropical America, that we can no longer afford the erroneous luxury of ignoring reports of aboriginal uses of plants merely because they fall beyond the normal limits of our credence.


The action of these plants capable of inducing visual and other hallucinations is usually so complex that a clearcut definition and classification of them has not yet been found. Lewin grouped psychoactive plants in five categories: Excitantia; Inebriantia; Hypnotica; Euphorica; Phantastica. None has stirred deeper interest than the Phantastica: plants that "bring about evident cerebral excitation in the form of hallucinations, illusions and visions ... followed by unconsciousness or other symptoms of altered cerebral functioning".

As in every fast developing field of study, a burgeoning nomenclature has grown up around these hallucinating agents. They have variously been called phantasticants, psychotica, psychoticants, psychogens, psychotomimetics, psychodysleptics, eidetics, hallucinogens, schizogens and, most recently, psychedelics, a term neither biologically accurate nor etymologically correct and one which, through vernacular misuse, has acquired secondary and even tertiary meanings in certain sections of modern society. To be sure, none of these terms is wholly and always satisfactory. Even Lewin, when he coined the term phantastica, was not wholly satisfied with it, stating that it "does not cover all that I should wish it to convey". Rather than wallow in sterile semantics, I prefer to use the easily understood and now widely accepted word hallucinogen.

Differing from the other psychotropic drugs, which act normally only to calm or to stimulate, the hallucinogens act on the central nervous system to bring about a dream-like state marked, as Hofmann points out, by extreme alteration in the "sphere of experience, in the perception of reality, changes even of space and time and in consciousness of self. They invariably induce a series of visual hallucinations, often in kaleidoscopic movement, and usually in rather indescribably brilliant and rich colours, frequently accompanied by auditory and other hallucinations and a variety of synesthesias.

Although, for general purposes, probably no simpler nor more serviceable term than Lewin's phantastica is available, it has not been widely accepted, especially amongst English-speaking specialists. I prefer, if we do not use Lewin's terminology, the likewise simple hallucinogen or rather the specific psychotomimetic. Both may be rather exactly delimited by Hofmann's definition of psychotomimetic as a "... substance which produces changes in thought, perception and mood, occurring alone or in conjunction with each other, without causing major disturbances of the autonomic nervous system; i.e., clouding of consciousness or other serious disability. High doses generally elicit hallucinations. Disorientation, memory disturbance, hyper-excitation or stupour and even narcosis occur only when excess dosages are administered and are, therefore, not characteristic." Nearly all of these hallucinogenic substances are derived from the Plant Kingdom or else are chemically related to naturally occurring compounds.


Many of these effects are so unearthly, so unreal, that most, if not all, of the hallucinogenic plants early acquired in primitive societies an exalted place, often becoming sacred and the object of direct worship. In almost all primitive cultures, sickness and death are believed to be due to interference from supernatural spheres. For this reason, the psychic effects of drugs are often far more important in primitive medical practices than the purely physical ones. Consequently, hallucinogens above all other plants are found closely connected with magic and witchcraft in the treatment of disease and death and in related religious observances.

Main hallucinating constituents of psychotomimetic plants

Full size image: 67 kB

We now know that the "divinity" resident in these special plants is chemical in nature, but the ethnobotanist investigating the use of narcotics in primitive cultures must never lose sight of the native interpretation of his "magic" or "sacred" plants. To ignore or to neglect his views-or brusquely to deprecate them -may doom to failure the most meticulously planned scientific enquiry. In this connexion, one must recall the wisdom and foresight of John Harshberger, who first employed the term ethnobotany, when he wrote more than seventy years ago: "It is of importance, therefore, to seek out these primitive races and ascertain the plants which they have found available in their economic life, in order that perchance the valuable properties they have utilized in their wild life may fill some vacant niche in our own."


Hallucinogenic plants may be treated botanically, chemically or geographically. None of these treatments is wholly satisfactory. The third-geographical-is perhaps the least meaningful. Chemically, hallucinogenic plants may be separated into two groups: (1) those with active organic constituents containing nitrogen, most of which are alkaloids or related compounds; (2) those with active organic constituents devoid of nitrogen. Farnsworth has recently presented a summary of hallucinogenic plants based on this chemical grouping. Such a classification lacks adequacy when the active chemical constituent is not known or when there is some uncertainty as to which of several constituents may be responsible for all or a major part of the hallucinogenic effects.

I prefer, and in this paper will follow, the first of these three treatments in which hallucinogenic plants are grouped by the botanical families to which they belong. This treatment has one distinct interdisciplinary advantage-the chemotaxonomic: usually, although not always, genera of hallucinogenic plants in one family may have the same or closely related compounds as their active constituents. Furthermore, if a plant hallucinogen has been identified, it is always possible to assign it to its place in botanical classification: family, order, genus, species.

Hallucinogens occur widely separated in the Plant Kingdom, concentrated especially in two unrelated areas of the vegetal world. While most are spermatophytes, some of the biologically, chemically and sociologically most fascinating are found amongst the cryptogams, especially the fungi. We know of no bacteria, algae, lichens, bryophytes, ferns or gymnosperms that have been employed by man as hallucinogenic narcotics, although there is every possibility that psychotomimetic or medically valuable psychoactive principles may yet be discovered in some of these divisions of the Plant Kingdom. The presence-even abundance-of toxic species in some of these groups clearly indicates this possibility, which was recognized by the English botanist John Lindley one hundred and thirty years ago when, almost prophetically, he wrote: "With respect to poisons, it is to be remembered that the energy which renders them dangerous if taken in excess may also cause them to be ... most valuable remedial agents ... No one will be bold enough to assert that the physician already possesses the most powerful agents produced by the vegetable kingdom; for every year is bringing some new plant into notice for its energy ... In tropical countries, where a fervid sun, a humid air and a teeming soil give extraordinary energy to vegetable life, the natives of these regions often recognise the existence of potent herbs unknown to the European practitioner. No doubt such virtues are often as fabulous and imaginary as those indigenous plants long since rejected by the sagacity of European practice. But we are not altogether to despise the experience of nations less advanced in knowledge than ourselves, or to suppose, because they may ascribe imaginary virtues to some of their official substances... that therefore the remedial properties of their plants are not worth a serious investigation; or that their medical knowledge is beneath our notice because they are unacquainted with the terms of modern science".

VII Mushrooms and puffballs

Hundreds, if not thousands, of species of the Basidiomycetes or mushrooms and their relatives are toxic -and are feared and avoided by most of humankind because of the supposed prevalence of poisonous characteristics in the group. The presence of toxic constituents in so many mushrooms led to the early discovery, in both the Old and the New World, of hallucinogenic properties in certain species. It has been only recently, however, that phytochemists have succeeded in ascertaining what the toxic principles of the hallucinogenic mushrooms are. Furthermore, in the case of one of the hallucinogenic species longest known and identified, the elucidation of the whole chemical story has just begun.

The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is so ancient and so much an integral part of several far distant and unrelated cultures in both hemispheres that it has been postulated, with plausible arguments, that the very concept of deity may have arisen from their effects and that their present disjunct ritualistic use in primitive religio-magic systems is relict.

"From earliest times, writes Wasson, they have been worshipped by certain primitive peoples scattered from Mexico to Borneo and Siberia, and we think formerly in Europe, too. The visions ... are staggering in their subjective impact. They are no shadowy, uncertain sights .... you are spellbound by awe, by feelings of wonder and reverence, by an overflowing sense of empathy, of caritas towards those who are sharing the mushrooms and the experience with you. The primitive peoples who worship these mushrooms consider that they open the gates to another plane of existence, to the past and future, to Heaven and God, who then answers truly all grave questions put to him. If we are right in one conjecture that the secret of these mushrooms was discovered by early men, perhaps very early as he was emerging from his bestial past, think for a moment what their miraculous properties must have meant to him! Our hallucinogenic mushrooms opened to him conceptions and emotions theretofore beyond his reach ... yes, perhaps the very idea of a Superior Being. They may have served as a mighty detonation for early man's soul and mind and imagination. It is surprising, we think, that students of early cultures have paid so little attention to the subjective impact on them of hallucinatory agents like these."

Amanita muscaria

Probably the oldest and once most widespread in use of the hallucinogenic mushrooms is Amanita muscaria. It grows throughout the north-temperate parts of both hemispheres. It has long been recognized as a toxic plant, and the specific epithet given to it by Linnaeus refers to the old European custom of employing the caps of the mushroom to poison flies.

In recent times, the use of the fly agaric as an inebriant has been known in only two centres: extreme western Siberia, amongst Finno-Ugrian peoples,- the Ostyaks and Voguls; and extreme northeastern Siberia, amongst the Chukchis, Koryaks and Kamchadals. The Ostyaks and Voguls are linguistically nearest akin to the Hungarians, but there is no recollection amongst modern Hungarians of the employment of the mushroom. Nor do any of the Finnic peoples today utilize it as an intoxicant, although tradition does establish the use of the fly agaric by witch-doctors of the Inari Lapps in Europe. The Yukagirs, peoples surviving in tiny communities and speaking an isolated language in northeastern Siberia, remember that their forbears made use of the mushroom. There seems to be every probability that the fly agaric might once have been employed all the way across Siberia and into Europe and that the now spotty distribution of its use has resulted from the splitting apart of the early inhabitants of this vast region-the paleo-Siberian tribes-by successive waves of invasion by peoples of a somewhat superior culture from the steppes to the south who did not adopt the practices of the tribesmen whom they conquered and displaced. The arguments that seem to support this theory are intricate and are found mainly in studies in comparative linguistics of the devious relationships and meanings in mushroom terminology.

The " fly agaric ", used as an hallucinogenic agent in Siberia. (Drawn from Heim: Champignons toxiques et hallucinogénes ).

Full size image: 20 kB, The

It has even recently been suggested that the ancient giant berserkers of Norway induced their occasional fits of savage madness by ingesting Amanita muscaria.

Only since the middle of the 18th Century have reports concerning the utilization of fly agaric amongst Siberian tribesmen come to the attention of Europeans, and these earliest reports are characterized by an appreciable diversity of opinion concerning the use of the mushroom, although all agree on its ritualistic importance and, in general, on its biological effects. Europe first learned of this curious Siberian inebriant in 1730, when a Swedish army officer, von Strahlenberg, published a book on his twelve years as a Russian prisoner in Siberia, noting its use amongst the Koryaks. A Polish prisoner in Siberia had earlier, in 1658, observed the consumption of Amanita muscaria, but his report was not published until 1874. Krasheninnikov appears to have been the first Russian to record this custom when, in his description of Kamchatka, published in 1755, he noted it amongst the Koryaks. More than a score of anthropologists, linguists, geographers and travellers have since mentioned-often very superficially-the fly agaric as an intoxicant in Siberia. Too little of a definitive and extensive nature, however, is known about this custom which seems to be rapidly on the wane, if not now already extinct.

Most, if not all, of the Siberian users of fly agaric had no other intoxicant before the Russians introduced alcohol. The employment of Amanita muscaria, to all appearances, was more common amongst the Koryaks than amongst the Chukchis and Kamchadals, probably because, since they inhabited the most heavily forested areas of Kamchathka, the mushroom grew more abundantly in their area. It is thought, furthermore, that the Koryaks supplied much of the mushrooms consumed by their neighbours.

Amanita muscaria was usually not taken fresh, at least by the Koryaks, but dried, either in the sun or over a light fire. The explorer, von Langsdorff, wrote that "they are collected in the hottest seasons and hung up by a string in the air to dry; some dry of themselves on the ground and are said to be far more narcotic than those artificially preserved. Small deepcoloured specimens, thickly covered with warts, are also said to be more powerful than those of a larger size and paler colour."

Apparently only men ate fly agaric amongst all of these tribesmen, excepting in rare cases when a woman held the position of shaman. The method of using the mushroom varied significantly amongst the sundry tribes. The Koryak women moistened and softened the agarics in the mouth, then rolled them by hand into small sausage shapes and gave them to the men to swallow. The hot, burning taste often induced vomiting, so they were usually swallowed whole. An average dose was three mushrooms-often one large one and two smaller specimens-but up to ten or twelve were frequently ingested, when a strong and persistent effect were specifically desired. These tribesmen often chewed the plant and held it in the mouth for a long time before swallowing. Other means of using the agaric, however, involved adding it to soups, sauces, cold or warm reindeer milk or steeping it in juice of the bog wortle berry, Vaccinium uliginosum, or the willow-herb, Epilobium angustifolium. The mushroom was even, in more recent times, added to alcoholic liquors to enhance their intoxicating properties. The Kamchadals apparently fermented the Amanita-Vaccinium mixture and were reputed to "scarcely give it time to clarify, ere they invite their friends to partake of it."

There is much diversity of opinion concerning the length of the intoxication thus induced, but it would seem perhaps that the effects of three or four dried or smoked mushrooms might last from four hours to a full day. Undoubtedly, the condition of the mushrooms when gathered, their treatment after collection and the way in which they are ingested all would influence significantly the length and strength of the intoxication.

In many regions where the fly agaric was consumed, it was a very expensive article of trade-so expensive that frequently a tribesman traded a reindeer for one or two mushrooms. At certain times and in some areas, the mushrooms were naturally rare and hard to find. During the long Siberian winters, the more affluent tribesmen were able to store up supplies of the dried mushrooms in large quantities for winter consumption. The poorer individuals, none the less anxious to use the agaric, were often frustrated by the cost and limited supply of the plants.

Whether as a result of this scarcity or not, these people discovered that the urine of an intoxicated person was capable, when drunk, of inducing a similar intoxication in another individual. The effects from the urine are said to be only slightly less inebriating than of the dose of the mushroom itself. An early account of this curious practice states of the Koryaks that "when they make a feast, they pour water on some of these mushrooms and boil them. They then drink the liquor, which intoxicates them; the poorer sort, who cannot afford to lay in a store of these mushrooms, post themselves on these occasions round the huts of the rich and watch the opportunity of the guests coming down to make water and then hold a wooden bowl to receive the urine, which they drink off greedily, as having still some virtue of the mushroom in it; and by this way they also get drunk."

Not only is the urine of another person drunk but an individual may utilize his own urine, frequently still warm, thus prolonging the action of the original mushrooms or renewing their effect several times. A drunken Koryak may even carry his own urine with him on a reindeer trek to continue his intoxication as long as possible.

The Siberian tribesmen did not always drink urine because of economy or poverty. The Yukaghir witchdoctors imbibe agaric urine before consuming the actual mushrooms in shamanistic rituals.

These tribesmen attribute spiritual forces to the fly agaric, one reason for presuming for this mushroom a very great age in the culture development of these peoples. Of the Chukchi ideas of spirits connected with Amanita muscaria, Bogoras has written the following: "The intoxicating mushrooms...are a separate tribe... They are very strong and when growing up they lift upon their soft heads the heavy trunks of trees and split them in two. A mushroom of this species grows through the heart of a stone and breaks it into minute fragments. Mushrooms appear to intoxicate men in strange forms somewhat related to their real shapes.

One, for example, will be a man with one hand and one foot; another will have a shapeless body. These are not spirits, but the mushrooms themselves. The number of them seen depends on the number of mushrooms consumed. If a man has eaten one mushroom, he will see one mushroom-man; if he has eaten two or three, he will see a corresponding number of mushroommen. They will grasp him under his arms and lead him through the entire world, showing him some real things and deluding him with many unreal apparitions. The paths they follow are very intricate. They delight in visiting the places where the dead live." The spirits of the mushroom often play practical jokes on a person under their influence, but they also guide him to other realms or guard him from harm in this world.

The Koryak tale of the discovery of fly agaric relates that "Big-Raven had caught a whale and could not send it to its home in the sea. He was unable to lift the grass bag containing travelling-provisions for the whale. Big-Raven applied to Existence (Vahiyñin) to help him. The deity said to him: 'Go to a level place near the sea; there thou wilt find soft white stalks with spotted hats. These are the spirits Wapaq. Eat some ... and they will help thee.' Big-Raven went. Then the Supreme Being spat upon the earth, and out of his saliva the agaric appeared. Big-Raven found the fungus, ate of it and began to feel gay.... The Fly-agaric said to him: ' How is it that thou...canst not lift the bag' ? ' That is right,' said Big-Raven, 'I am a strong man. I shall go and lift the travelling-bag.'He went, lifted the bag at once and sent the whale home. Then the Agaric showed him how the whale was going out to sea and how he would return to his comrades. Then Big-Raven said: 'Let the Agaric remain on earth and let my children see what it will show them.'"

As with all drugs, the physical and mental condition of the individual greatly influences the intoxicating effects of Amanita muscaria. The intoxication sets in usually about an hour after ingestion of the mushrooms. Twitching, trembling and slight convulsive motions of the limbs are soon evident. The feet begin to feel numb. A euphoria characterized by good humour and happiness, together with lightness on the feet and often a desire to dance, precede the visual hallucinations. The subject speaks with persons not present but seen in visions, and tells them extravagant stories of his wealth and prowess. Macroscopia is common. The eyes are glassy and he stares oblivious of his surroundings. Religious overtones-such as an urge to confess sins-frequently occur. Occasionally, the partaker becomes violent, dashing madly about until, exhausted, he drops into a deep sleep.

Since 1869, a century ago, when muscarine was isolated, most workers have assumed that the toxicity and hallucinogenic properties of Amanita muscaria could be attributed to this compound. Later studies, however, have demonstrated that muscarine is a very minor constituent of the mushroom which could not alone be responsible for such potent effects. Furthermore, sundry other compounds were detected in the same species: acetylcholinc, choline, ibotenic acid, muscimole, agarine, muscazone, muscaridine and bufotenine; and even atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine were reported, probably erroneously, from chromatographic studies. There is evidence, too, that the report of bufotenine in Amanita muscaria is in error because of confused identification of the botanical material with another species, A. citrina or A. porphyrina, in which bufotenine is undoubtedly present in the carpophores. The recent investigations carried out by Eugster and Waser indicate that the central nervous activity of Amanita muscaria is due primarily to muscimole, an unsaturated hydroxamic acid which is formed by decarboxylation and loss of water from ibotenic acid, the zwitterion of α-amino-α[3 - hydroxy - isoazoylyl- (5)]- acetic acid monohydrate. Muscazone, also an amino acid, is a pharmacologically less active principle in Amanita muscaria. Inasmuch as ibotenic acid appears to be a precursor of muscazone as well as of muscimole, it is probable that the often reported variation in intoxication potential of the fly agaric may be due to fluctuations in the ratio between ibotenic acid and muscazone. There is evidence that still other as yet uncharacterized principles may take part in the toxicity of this species of fungus.

The " soma" of the Aryans

Recent studies by Wasson suggest that Amanita muscaria may have played a vital religio-magic role in India, far to the south of its modern area of use in Siberia, and in very remote times.

About 3,500 years ago, Aryan peoples swept from the north into the Indus Valley of India, bringing with them the cult of a plant called soma. Undoubtedly the greatest enigma in the field of plant hallucinogens has revolved about the identity of this soma. The Aryans deified the plant as an holy inebriant and worshipped it, extracting its juice and drinking it in religious rites. They composed more than 1,000 hymns to soma, and these have come down to us intact in the Rig Veda.

What was soma? No one knows at the present time. For more than 2,000 years, its identity has been clouded in mystery. For some unexplained reason, the Aryans abandoned the original plant soon after their arrival in the new homeland and they forgot it. Other plants took its place as substitutes - plants chosen for reasons other than the psychic effects which, in the case of the substitutes, seem to have been non-existent.

Western civilization discovered the enigma of soma about a century and a half ago, when it began to learn about the cultural wealth that India had to offer to the world. Since then more than 100 species have been suggested as the source of the original soma, but none of the suggestions has won acceptance. Amongst these, the principal contenders were sundry species of Ephedra, Periploca and Sarcostemma: the first a genus of gymnosperm; the last two asclepiadaceous genera; but all similar in being vinelike, fleshy, leafless or almost leafless desert plants. Some botanists have felt that soma might have been cannabis, others that it was wholly mythical and never was derived from a plant.

For some years now, Wasson has studied the historical, literary and ethnobotanical records concerning soma. His avenues of approach, all deeply scholarly, have been ingeniously devious and complex. "When I first approached the problem in 1963," he wrote, "I could hardly believe what I found ... a clear-cut botanical question - a psychotropic plant that calls for identification. The clews should be in the Vedic hymns ... True, the poems contain no botanical description ... for those remote singers were not modern botanists ... They were writing for contemporaries ... and their imagery and terms often elude our understanding .... But the hymns are all shot through with soma, and about 120 of them are entirely devoted to the plantgod. Was it possible that so much could have been written about a plant, over centuries ... and its identity not revealed? It was no secret for the poet-priests. How extraordinary it would have been if all of them... had withheld from their verses the revealing descriptive terms, the tell-tale metaphors, that the trained reader to-day needs to spot the plant! But this did not happen. All that has happened is that no ethnobotanist with an interest in psychotropic plants has applied himself to an examination of the texts."

To this age-old enigma, Wasson has suggested a solution: that the true soma was a mushroom, the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. This identification appears to be the first that satisfies all of the many intricately interlocking pieces of indirect evidence - including a reference to urine-drinking - gleaned from the Vedic hymns, and none seems to contradict it. If correct, it represents a meaningful contribution to ethnobotany in view of the extraordinary religious and social role of soma as emphasized in one of the earlier texts of the Indo-European world.

The mushrooms of Mexico

Conocybe, Panaeolus, Psilocybe, Stropharia spp.

One of the several important native religious cults that the Spanish conquerors found in Mexico was one in which intoxicating mushrooms were consumed much as a sacrament. These mushrooms were so revered that the Aztecs called them teonanacatl or "flesh of the gods".

Most of the early chroniclers were clerics, and they put special emphasis on the needs for stamping out loath some pagan customs like the worship of poisonous fungi. Peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus, and ololiuqui, the vision-inducing morning-glories - both employed in sacred rituals - also felt the wrath of these priests. Criticism of the mushrooms was particularly vehement, however, perhaps because, as mycophobes, their religious fanaticism could easily be directed in disgust towards a despised form of plant life which, through the vision-giving properties, held the awe of the Indian by permitting him to commune directly and very colourfully with the spirit world. To the Indian mind, nothing that Christianity had offered was comparable. These mushrooms most certainly represented a great obstacle to the spread of the new religion.

Furthermore, the mushroom cult appears to have deep roots in centuries of native tradition. Certain frescoes from central Mexico, dating back to 300 A.D., have designs which seem to put mushroom worship back that far. Even more remarkable are the archaeological artifacts now called "mushroom stones" excavated in great numbers from highland Mayan sites in Guatemala, going back to 1000 B.C. Consisting of an upright stem with a man-like figure crowned with an umbrella-shaped top, these stone carvings have long baffled archaeologists who supposed them to be phallic symbols but which are now quite widely held to represent a kind of icon connected with mushroom worship.

Sahagún, a Spanish friar, was one of the first Europeans to refer to teonanacatl. Writing between 1529 and 1590, he referred several times to mushrooms "... which are harmful and intoxicate like wine" so that those who partake of them "... see visions, feel a faintness of heart and are provoked to lust". In one reference, he detailed the effects, saying that the natives ate them with honey and "... when they begin to be excited by them start dancing, singing, weeping. Some do not want to eat but sit down ... and see themselves dying in a vision; others see themselves being eaten by a wild beast, others imagine that they are capturing prisoners of war, that they arc rich, that they possess many slaves, that they had committed adultery and were to have their heads crushed for the offense ... and when the drunken state has passed, they talk over amongst themselves the visions which they have seen". In addition to these reports, several editions of Sahagún's writings give crude illustrations of the mushrooms.

An old illustration of nanacatl (a), the intoxicating mushroom of the Aztecs. After Paso y Troncoso's edition of Sahagun's "Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España" (Florentine Codex), published in 1819.

Full size image: 16 kB, An old illustration of nanacatl (a), the intoxicating mushroom of the Aztecs

There are a number of other references to the sacred fungi in these early writings. One, for example, recorded that inebriating mushrooms were part of the coronation feast of Montezuma in 1502. Friar Motolinia, who died in 1569, mentioned the psychotropic mushrooms in his work on pagan rites and idolatries. Francisco Hernández, personal physician to the King of Spain, who studied the medicinal lore of Mexican Indians for a number of years in the field, wrote of three kinds of mushrooms used as intoxicants and worshipped. Of some, called teyhuintli, he explained that they "cause not death but madness that on occasion is lasting, of which the symptom is a kind of uncontrolled laughter... these are deep yellow, acrid and of a not displeasing freshness. There are others again which, without inducing laughter, bring before the eyes all sorts of things, such as wars and the likeness of demons. Yet others there are not less desired by princes for their festivals and banquets, and these fetch a high price. With nightlong vigils are they sought, awesome and terrifying. This kind is tawny and somewhat acrid".

Notwithstanding the great age of this cult and the sundry forceful Spanish reports of it, our knowledge of the sacred fungi of Mexico, their identification, use and chemistry is all very recent. The earliest attempt at identifying teonanacatl botanically was apparently that of the American ethnobotanist Safford, who, in 1915, asserted that the "sacred mushroom" was, in reality, only the peyote cactus. The Spanish chroniclers had been in error or misled by the natives. The dried, brown, discoidal head or "button" of the cactus Lophophora Williamsii, he wrote, resembled "a dried mushroom so remarkably that, at first glance, it will even deceive a mycologist". Safford fell into this serious blunder first by his oft-stated belief that the Mexican Indians were deficient in botanical knowledge and secondly by the similarity of the described effects of peyote and teonanacatl. His outstanding reputation as an ethnobotanist stamped his conclusions with authority and they were quite generally accepted. Furthermore, although botanists knew of toxic mushrooms in the Mexican flora, anthropologists had not, in four centuries, found any cult or magical practice utilizing intoxicating mushrooms.

Blas P. Reko, a physician whose botanical collections in Mexico are widely appreciated, raised a lone voice in protest, and, although he did not produce specimens, wrote as early as 1919 and 1923 that teonanacatl in reality was a dung-fungus and was still employed in religious rites in Oaxaca. The first actual specimens of such mushrooms were gathered in 1936 by an engineer and amateur anthropologist, Robert Weitlaner, who found them used in ceremonial divination in northeastern Oaxaca. They were sent to Harvard University where, because of their poor preservation, l was able to assign them only to the genus Panaeolus. During the course of ethnobotanical work amongst the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca which I pursued in the company of Reko, we collected a few specimens of mushrooms which these Indians employed ceremonially. One of the mushrooms was Panaeolus sphinctrinus. The other was Stropharia cubensis. In the time available, I was unable to witness a ceremony, and so few mushrooms were gathered, because of the unusually dry season, that it was not possible for me to ingest them experimentally: all were needed as voucher herbarium specimens. In 1939, I published a paper on the use of Panaeolus sphinctrinus (= P. campanulatus var. sphinctrinus), suggesting that this mushroom was the teonanacatl of the ancient Aztecs. Although I indicated that more than one species of fungus was used in Oaxaca, I failed to identify Stropharia cubensis, which was discovered in the herbarium archives by later investigations and published.

Perhaps it was providential that my botanical activities in 1941 took me to the Amazon and that I never returned to Mexico to follow up many unfinished ethnobotanical problems. In 1953, R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, outstandingly competent amateur ethnomycologists, having read my papers, decided to visit Oaxaca to pursue this fascinating phase of their life-long study of mushrooms. Sensing the need for interdisciplinary and intensive study of all aspects of the use of sacred mushrooms, they enlisted the collaboration of various specialists - anthropologists, linguists, chemists, mycologists and others. The research that has resulted from a number of their successive trips to northern Mexico has been integrated into an intricately integrated whole and will long hold a high place as an outstanding model of what well planned and carefully executed ethnobotanical investigation can accomplish.

Amongst the collaborators whom the Wassons took into the field are the mycologist Roger Heim and the phytochemist Albert Hofmann, both of whom have been vitally instrumental in advancing our understanding of the role of mushrooms in aboriginal Mexican religious life.

Wasson and his associates, especially Heim, have discovered a number of different species of mushrooms valued as sacred, psychotomimetic agents in Mexico, and more recently, Guzman and Singer have added a few additional species to the total. The result is now that at least twenty-four species in four genera are known to be used currently amongst tribes in Mexico.

Several mushrooms reported as hallucinogenic agents in Mexico. (Drawn from Heim: Champignons toxiques et hallucinogènes).

Full size image: 30 kB, Several mushrooms reported as hallucinogenic agents in Mexico. (Drawn from Heim: Champignons toxiques et hallucinogènes).

Undoubtedly there were many tribes in ancient Mexico who employed teonanacatl, but we know with certainty only of the Chichimilcas, who spoke Nahuatl. To-day we know that the sacred mushrooms are consumed by Mazatecs, Chinantecs, Chatinos, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and Mijes - all of Oaxaca; and by the Nahoas of Mexico; and possibly by the Tarascanas of Michoacan; and the Otomis of Puebla.

A relatively large number of mushrooms are employed as divinatory and ceremonial agents in modern Mexico, and probably as many were known to the ancient inhabitants of the Aztec empire. The species involved includes, amongst others: Psilocybe mexicana, P. caerulescens var. mazatecorum; P. caerulescens var. nigripes; P. yungensis; P. mixaeensis; P. Hoogshagenii; P. aztecorum; P. muriercula; Stropharia cubensis; Conocybe siligineoides; Panaeolus sphinctrinus.

It appears that Psilocybe mexicana may be the most important of the psychotropic Mexican mushrooms. This species - a small, tawny inhabitant of wet pastures, is apparently most highly prized by the users: P. aztecorum is known as "children of the waters" by the Aztecs.

Psilocybe zapotecorum of marshy ground, is called "crown of thorns mushroom" by the Zapotecs; P. caerulescens var. nigripes has a native name which means "mushroom of superior reason". Stropharia cubensis is one of the strongest hallucinogenic species.

There are a number of species with psychotropic properties that are presumably not used ritually - possibly because of extreme toxicity - and some authors have listed species confused with truly active mushrooms or which are biodynamically active but which the natives seem not to employ. Several investigators, for example, insist that the Indians do not take Panaeolus sphinctrinus. It must be remembered, however, that this and related species are highly hallucinogenic - one representative being employed for inebriation as far north as Maine in the United States - and that the simple reason why so many species of mushrooms are used in Mexico as narcotics is that different witch doctors may use different mushrooms for different purposes and that, in various seasons and in accord with seasonal variation, any given mushroom may not be abundantly available. Since Weitlaner, Reko and Schultes found Panaeolus employed, and it is known to be psychotomimetic, while other investigators, often after one visit to the field, deny that this genus is utilized, one must be extraordinarily conservative in evaluating data. There is all indication that probably many more species and genera of mushrooms are used hallucinogenically amongst the aborigines of Mexico. Here there is great need for even more field work in ethnobotany and for more critical phytochemical studies.

Aside from the all-important hallucinogenic effects of mushrooms employed ritualistically in Mexico, the most outstanding symptoms are: muscular relaxation, flaccidity and mydriasis early in the intoxication, followed by a period of emotional disturbances such as extreme hilarity and difficulty in concentration. It is at this point that the visual and auditory hallucinations

appear, eventually to be followed by lassitude and mental and physical depression, with serious alteration of time and space perception. One peculiarity of the narcosis which promises to be of interest in experimental psychiatry is the isolation of the subject from the world around him - that is, without a loss of consciousness, he is rendered completely indifferent to his environment, which becomes unreal to him as his dreamlike state becomes real.

Crystals of psilocybine and psilocine, found in a number of species of Psilocybe employed in Mexico as sacred hallucinating mushrooms. Courtesy A. Hofmann, Sandoz Ltd., Basle, Switzerland.

Full size image: 23 kB, Crystals of psilocybine and psilocine, found in a number of species of Psilocybe employed in Mexico as sacred hallucinating mushrooms. Courtesy A. Hofmann, Sandoz Ltd., Basle, Switzerland.

Heim and his colleagues succeeded in growing cultures of Psilocybe mexicana and other species. This opened the way for chemical studies of these fungi by Hofmann and his group. They isolated white crystals soluble in water and methanol but almost insoluble in usual organic solvents, which they called psilocybine. They found that this substance had an unusual chemical structure, later found to represent an acidic phosphoric acid ester of 4-hydroxydimethyltryptamine. This compound is allied to other naturally occurring compounds such as bufotenine and serotonine. Psilocybine, an indole derivative with a phosphylated side chain, is the first known naturally-occurring compound of this kind. The discovery of such a substance has implications of great import, for example, for the study of biogenesis of the ergot alkaloids and for other aspects of chemical investigation of the psychotropic indole alkaloids such as harmine and reserpine.

Some species of Psilocybe - especially P. mexicana - contain another indolic compound in minute amounts which, while closely allied to psilocybine, is apparently not stable. It has been called psilocine.

The psychotomimetic effects following the ingestion of 32 dried specimens of Psilocybe mexicana, as described by Hofmann, are significant: "As I was perfectly well aware that my knowledge of the Mexican origin of the mushroom would lead me to imagine only Mexican scenery, I tried deliberately to look on my environment as I knew it normally. But all voluntary efforts to look at things in their customary forms and colours proved ineffective. Whether my eyes were closed or open, I saw only Mexican motifs and colours. When the doctor supervising the experiment bent over me to check my blood pressure, he was transformed into an Aztec priest, and I would not have been astonished if he had drawn an obsidian knife. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, it amused me to see how the Germanic face of my colleague had acquired a purely Indian expression. At the peak of the intoxication, about 1½ hours after ingestion of the mushrooms, the rush of interior pictures, mostly abstract motifs rapidly changing in shape and colour, reached such an alarming degree that I feared that I would be torn into this whirlpool of form and colour and would dissolve. After about six hours, the dream came to an end. Subjectively, I had no idea how long this condition had lasted. I felt my return to everyday reality to be a happy return from a strange, fan- tastic but quite really experienced world into an old and familiar home".

Certainly none of us could have been ready to accept some of the fantastic reports of the early writers on the unearthly effects produced by the sacred mushrooms. Now we know that they are true. "The history of the solution of the teonanacatl mystery, according to Hofmann, is a very good example of how modern scientific research, in its effort to obtain novel compounds which are valuable in medicine, can revert to ancient knowledge of the miraculous powers hidden in the Plant Kingdom."

The Yurimaguas Indians of the westernmost Amazon basin in Peru were reported by Jesuit missionaries in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries to be drinking a strongly intoxicating beverage prepared from a "tree fungus". Psilocybe yungensis has been suggested as the identification of this "tree fungus". Field work in this region has, up to the present, not disclosed any practice of this kind, but it represents a culture trait little likely to disappear spontaneously without leaving a trace at least, and the region is still inhabited by many tribes in relatively primitive conditions of culture. The report states that "...the Yurimaguas mix mushrooms that grow on fallen trees with a kind of reddish film that is found usually attached to rotting trunks. This film is very hot to the taste. No person who drinks this brew fails to fall under its effects after three draughts of it, since it is so strong or, more correctly, so toxic." If the fungus be truly Psilocybe, what, then, might this "reddish film" be?

Lycoperdon marginatum, L. mixtecorum

Amongst the Mixtecs of southern Oaxaca in Mexico, the use of several puffballs as hallucinogens has recently been reported. This fascinating new development in the study of narcotics has resulted from the interdisciplinary research of Heim, Wasson and Raviez amongst an interesting people living in the mountainous regions at an altitude of about 6,600 feet.

One of the species, Lycoperdon marginatum, is characterized in the dry state by a strong odour of excrement. The Mixtecs of the town of San Miguel, south of Tlaxiaco, all recognize the narcotic use of this puffball, but it does not appear to occupy the place as a divinatory agent that the mushrooms hold amongst the Mazatecs. This species of Lycoperdon is known in the Mixtec language as gi' i sawa or hongo de medio, "mushroom of second quality ".

The other and more active species - Lycoperdon mixtecorum - has the Mixtec name gi' i wa or hongo de primera, "mushroom of first quality". The ingestion of one or two specimens is said to induce a state of half-sleep one-half hour after ingestion. One hears voices and echoes, and the voices respond to questions posed to them. The effects of the puffballs are quite different from those of the hallucinogenic mushrooms, and they may not induce visions, even though there seems to be no doubt that definite auditory hallucinations accompany the intoxication.

There is apparently no phytochemical foundation on which to base an evaluation of the intoxication of these two species of Lycoperdon. No psychoactive organic constituent has as yet been isolated from the puffballs.

[Parts II and III of this article will appear in the two succeeding numbers of the Bulletin, i.e. Vol. XXI, No. 4 and Vol. XXII, No. 1, to be published in October 1969 and January 1970, respectively.]