Fly Agaric in History and Culture
Recognizable by sight if not by name, the red and white fly agaric mushroom ( Amanita muscaria ) has a long association with elves, fairies, and the Otherworld. It was the entheogen used by Siberian shamans and, until recently, was thought to be how berserker rage was inspired. Compared to poppy, the use of fly agaric was spread over a relatively small geography although its imagery is still used in folk art today. In modern-day Europe , it is still associated with luck and good fortune; one can't help but wonder at the power this mushroom has had over the minds of so many people.
Around 10,000 BCE, birch and pine forests appeared as glaciers melted to reveal what is now Canada and Siberia . The people living there were not long in discovering the power of fly agaric, which appeared in brilliant red at the base of its symbiotic partner, the birch tree. In the New World, the only firm evidence of fly agaric use is found in the Ojibway tribe who lived in the Great Lakes region of North America, though its presence stretched throughout the Rocky Mountain region and beyond. Although some people have linked artifacts found as far south as Mexico with fly agaric, little has come to light to scholastically suggest that it had nearly the hold on New World cultures that it did elsewhere. The bulk of traditional information comes to us from Siberia and sub-arctic and continental Europe .
The eastern Siberian Koryak people credited the deity Vahiyinin with creating the wa'paq spirits who appeared as the fly agaric mushroom; the trickster Big Raven found the wa'paq so useful that he allowed them to remain on earth to teach the people what they needed to know. Many images connected to the fly agaric come from Siberia , depicting human figures crowned by and surrounded by mushrooms. Though each tribe had different ideas about who used fly agaric, and how, and why, everyone agreed that the mushrooms brought gifts of divination, healing, vitality, and communication with the Otherworld to those who used them. There is the consistent, almost universal, understanding that the shaman and the mushroom were partners in spirit-work. It should be noted that in some tribes fly agaric use was recreational as well as religious and there was no stigma against it; fly agaric was the intoxicant of choice until Russian culture introduced alcohol. Even into the 20 th century, fly agaric was still used religiously in Siberia and northern Finland .
It is generally supposed that Europe was introduced to fly agaric by the Laplanders, who originally came from northern Asia . There is some evidence that the Sami shared culture with those people who would later be known as Vikings; the Sami were famed for their "sorcerers" and children from other Scandinavia cultures were sometimes sent to them to gain power that could then be brought back home.
Long after Christianity took hold in Europe , the mystique of the fly agaric mushroom persisted. In Yugoslavia , the peasants said that the god Votan was out riding one day when demons appeared and began chasing him. Votan's horse galloped faster and faster until bloody foam fell from his mouth to scatter in all directions; from the foam grew the red and white mushrooms. Modern German nursery rhymes name him Glückspilz , the "happiness mushroom." Mushroom imagery, sometimes suspiciously reminiscent of fly agaric, is found in French and German churches. In 1784, Swedish professor and doctor of theology Samual Ödman put forth the idea that fly agaric was the source of the berserker warrior's inspired fury; this idea was accepted until R. Gordon Wasson, the man who coined the word "entheogen," challenged the idea with his work in the 1950's and 1970's. It is now believed that fly agaric was not used by berserkers; a number of other substances, including alcohol, are currently believed to have influenced them. If those writing the accounts had tried the mushroom themselves, they would have found that it often induces a stupor rather than motivation towards legendary feats of strength. Gaiety and increased activity levels are mentioned in many traditional accounts, but these hardly approach the described strength of the berserkers.
Some researchers have spent their entire career chasing the fly agaric spirit across the globe; Wasson believed it to be the legendary soma of the Vedic scriptures and wrote extensively about his ideas. The Little Red Man's footsteps have been traced through India and Afghanistan , and to secret Buddhist sects. Fly agaric has even been connected to secular Christmas symbolism; the red mushroom cap trimmed by white gills is the red and white hat of Santa Claus, and the reindeer that ate the mushrooms on the Siberian steppes are his flying reindeer (it is interesting to note that the Latin root of muscaria is musca , "to fly"). Fly agaric grows at the base of pine trees, giving us a Christmas tree where German-made ornaments in the shape of mushrooms can then be hung; wax shaped like mushrooms were sometimes used to decorate the traditional Yule log. Some scholars and European folk tales even connect fly agaric to the Christian tradition. Did a single mushroom really shape so much of our present Western culture? How can a single half-remembered spirit lead respected scholars across the globe in pursuit of his secrets? As usual, the most important voice has been mysteriously silent.
Fly Agaric in Spirit-Work
I first became aware of the fly agaric spirit, the Little Red Man who I call Father Redcap, in a vision I had of my plant allies; they were all shown to me, the tall ones and small ones, the ones who were green or brown or rainbow colored, and the ones who sang, smiled, or beckoned with addictive seduction. He was there too, distinctive in his red cap, his eyes very bright even when screwed up in a grin. He was diminutive, but I knew better than to let apparent size fool me. Later he flitted in and out of my attention, nudging at the edge of awareness when I read something I needed to remember and slowly guiding me towards being ready to eat the mushroom itself. The experience was extraordinary. While the first time was far less "altering" than marijuana or alcohol, the power of the spirit made the experience one to remember.
My dear Red Man has never left. He teases sometimes, wanting me to leave my home and run through the Colorado Rocky Mountains with him in pursuit of his earthly counterparts; he may race on ahead to entice me, dizzy, further into his trance. I think this one of his great mysteries: he never leaves. If he gets into you, whether you eat the mushrooms or are intoxicated by the spirit, you just may up and chase him. You may run together, not even knowing it, surrounded by images that remind you of him. If he gets in you, you may see him everywhere---in the Coca-cola sign, in polka-dot fabric, in the Santa Claus at the mall. Sometimes you don't even consciously recognize his touch, but something odd in a peculiar shape or color combination rings a very distant bell. I have looked at the sky and, seeing only clear blue, known it to be the inside of an eggshell that was actually speckled red and white. He gets into your mind and changes it forever, leaving his footprints on your soul. He never leaves.
Mushrooms occupy a slightly different place in sacred plant cosmology than do vascular plants. Mushrooms are very connected to the power of the World Tree. Growing on or at the base of trees gives this clear association (attested to in various Siberian traditions) although something about the energetic dynamic of fly agaric ties in with the sensation of architecture and of solid support; the energies of plants are often more "in-between" and will disregard the barriers they flow through. Fly agaric also goes through barriers but in the way that a supporting wall passes through each floor of a tall building. The power of the mushroom can be thought of as the parts of Yggdrasil that support the Nine Worlds, and the power of vascular plants is the space that surrounds the Tree and Worlds.
While vascular plants are, to my mind, most clearly connected to the powers found in the part of the lifecycle that moves from emergence to rot---from birth to death---mushrooms are the part of the cycle concerned with the movement from death to rebirth. Things are turned on their head, mirrored, or presented inside out relative to this familiar cycle. Whether things are really mirrored depends largely on perspective and where an individual draws their power from; slight semantic differences can present a person with the understanding that life comes from death or that death itself contains a life cycle. Seeing the life cycle from Death's point of view gives an interesting counterpoint to more traditional interpretations. As those who work closely with Hela and Her dead folk can tell you, death is not a frozen state and a lot may happen to a person, or a soul, while in that state. Death has its own pattern to follow before cycling towards life again.
Depending on the specific tradition you refer to, fly agaric was used by only shamans and magicians, or by everyone; sometimes the use was restricted to special occasions, sometimes not. For someone working on the path of sacred plants, a personal choice about use must be made; some people feel that the traditional recreational use of a substance is enough to justify recreational use nowadays. This choice must be left up to you and the spirit. Fly agaric sometimes has toxic effects on a person, including vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and convulsions; no deaths have been irrefutably linked to fly agaric. It is my feeling that these unpleasant side effects have as much to do with the revenge of the spirit as with any misidentification by amateur mycologists. Father Redcap is often a grouchy curmudgeon but can be very easy going and generous with his gifts; it is only polite to ask him before attempting any work, even when a working relationship has been established. Fly agaric doesn't occupy the same place in modern Western culture that it did in some historical cultures, so using tradition to justify current choices may be misguided. Instead, I feel that working to know the spirit on his terms is the best way to learn how to use this mushroom in a modern context.
I have found Father Redcap working closely with Odin. Both have similar personalities, beneficent or terrifying as the situation warrants; knowing one may be a good way to begin an acquaintance with the other, and they may be willing to arrange introductions. Red Man is tricky, and his apparently warm, funny nature hides a calculating mind that is well acquainted with humanity and our quirks. He charms a person away from their comfort zone and into the deeper architecture of the Nine Worlds. Like other plant spirits who work closely with a deity, Redcap and Odin are allies and partners and consider themselves to be equal in their relationship.
Working with Father Redcap has been a wonderful thing. He has been key in helping me compose spirit songs for the sacred plants I work with and has given me healing and feelings of wholeness when I work for him. He is certainly one of the oldest plant spirits to associate with humans, and he may even be fond of us in a distant, plant-like way; there are certainly those who he is individually fond of although, as with any plant ally, that fondness holds no guarantee of safety or affection in the way we might think of it. It is my feeling that the Little Red Man belongs in the Northern Tradition pantheon along with the other wights who, while not strictly divine, play an important spiritual role. It is certain that he is asserting himself in the tradition as more and more spirit-workers are being moved to work with him. After all, he never left.
-A.J. Ahlber-Venezia; "Raven's Bread" (appeared in Idunna volume 58)
-Lars Levi Laestadius; Fragments of Lappish Mythology (2002)
-Dale Pendell; Pharmako Gnosis (2006)
-Solomon H. Snyder, M.D.; The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Drugs: Mushrooms---Psychedelic Fungi (1986)
-Private correspondence (2006)