The narcotic and hallucinogenic properties of certain mushrooms
have been known since ancient times. Some mushrooms
were even regarded as sacred, and in some cultures their use
was prohibited to ordinary people. In what is now Mexico and
the southwestern United States a primary psychedelic source
was peyote, a small, spineless, carrot-shaped cactus. Dried, the
peyote button was consumed in various ceremonial settings. In
the late nineteenth century, the use of peyote began to spread
among various tribes, and early in the twentieth century strong
opposition developed both among Native Americans who rejected
it and whites who sought to control Native American behavior
and religion.
The Native American Church was founded in 1906 at the
Union Church by peyote users in Oklahoma and Nebraska. It
adopted its present name in 1918 in response to a campaign
by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to outlaw peyote. The fight to
legalize the practices of the church has continued into the
1990s, though major rulings in the 1960s largely established
the place of the church and its major sacrament.
Serious medical and scientific interest in hallucinogenic
mushrooms dates from the pioneer work Phantastica Narcotic
and Stimulating Drugs by Louis Lewin (London, 1931). In this
important book, Lewin discusses the use of fly agaric and identifies
the peyote plant (which he named anhalonium Lewinii) and
the active substance, mescaline, obtained from it.
More than two decades later New York banker R. Gordon
Wasson and his wife Valentina Wasson published their classic
study Mushrooms, Russia, and History (Pantheon, 1957). This important
work launched a new science of ethnomycology (i.e.,
the study of the role played by wild mushrooms in various
human cultures throughout history). The Wassons took field
trips to Mexico during 1955 to study firsthand the sacred
mushroom ceremonies of the Indian people. Their record
album Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico (Folkways
Records, New York, 1957) was the first documented recording
of its kind. The studies of the Wassons—along with the
popular volume by Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception
(1954)—spread interest in psychedelic drugs and their hallucinogenic
properties and stand at the fountainhead of the psychedelic
revolution of the 1960s.
The Wassons also gave special attention to fly agaric (A. muscaria)
in history. In his book Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality
(1968, 1971) Wasson speculates that it was the source of the
nectar named soma in the ancient Vedic literature of India. Although
a few modern writers on psychedelics support the Wassons,
this particular suggestion has not found support in the
scholarly community.
In 1960 Timothy Leary, then an instructor at Harvard University,
was introduced to the psychedelic mushroom trianactyle
by a Mexican anthropologist. The experience totally disturbed
his rather settled view of the universe and led directly to his
launching research on psychedelic drugs at Harvard. In the
process, he was introduced to LSD and very soon he left Harvard
to become the advocate of a new worldview based on the
mind-altering properties of hallucinogens.
Emerging as a major prophet of the mushroom was Carlos
Castaneda, a South American anthropologist who seems to
have worked one of the great hoaxes in history with his claims
to have been taught by a mushroom-using Yaqui Indian whom
he called Don Juan. His writings, using his research in the University
of California library, not only influenced hundreds of
thousands of readers already seeking justification for their use
of psychedelics, but deceived the teachers at UCLA and many
in the anthropological community who saw him as the advocate
of a new methodology for the study of tribal cultures. In spite
of the revelations of his deceit, Castaneda retains a loyal following.
What began as an intellectual exercise to understand tribal
cultures led in the 1960s to the development of a new subculture
based on the consumption of drugs, and the emergence
of prophets like Richard Alpert, who found a new vision in
Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan. New York
Ballentine Books, 1969.
De Mille, Richard. Castaneda’s Journey The Power and the Allegory.
Santa Barbara, Calif. Capra Press, 1976.
———. The Don Juan Papers. Santa Barbara, Calif. RossErikson,
La Barre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. New York Schocken
Books, 1969.
Leary, Timothy. Flashbacks. Los Angeles Jeremy Tarcher,
Masters, R. E. L., and Jean Houston. The Varieties of Psychedelic
Experience. New York Delta, 1967.
Roseman, Bernard. The Peyote Story. North Hollywood,