Did our European ancestors take magic mushrooms as part of spiritual rituals?
Since I made a YouTube video seven years ago explaining how to identify hallucinogenic mushrooms in England, I have been contacted by all manner of pseudo-spiritual dropouts convinced that their habitual use of hallucinogenic drugs somehow marks them out as spiritual crusaders of the 21st-century. I was even asked by the editor of a psychonautic magazine to write about the history of psilocybin mushroom use in Europe but I declined due to the fact that there is no conclusive evidence of Europeans using them before the end of the 18th century.
Having given the matter more thought, I’ve decided to reconsider the possibility of the deliberate use of psilocybin mushrooms by the pagan peoples of Northern Europe. Psilocybe semilanceata, known in England as the liberty cap, is the principal indigenous hallucinogenic mushroom of Europe. It contains several hallucinogenic substances, the most famous being psilocybin. There is a great deal of evidence to indicate psilocybin mushrooms were eaten in Central America by the Aztecs and Mayans. The tropical equivalent of our European liberty cap is psilocybe cubensis, and its prevalence in India as well as the Americas has provoked plausible theories about its use by the ancient Hindus.
It stands to reason that the ancient civilizations of Mexico and India would come in to contact with psilocybe cubensis because it grows directly on the droppings of livestock. Our liberty caps, however, are much smaller and feed on rotting grass roots. They are often hidden in long grass and don’t look particularly appetising, so they may have escaped the notice of our ancestors. The first confirmed use of magic mushrooms in Europe was by an unfortunate family who had picked them by accident in London's Green Park back in 1799. It wasn't until the 60s, when the hippies got their dirty paws on them, that deliberate use became popular.
It isn’t totally absurd to suggest that the Nordic or Anglo-Saxon peoples might have made use of such a powerful and widespread mushroom. They can be found all over northern Europe, even in inhospitable Viking retreats such as Iceland and the Faroe islands. They pop up on front lawns, golf courses and cattle fields across the continent each autumn. In mediaeval times people were very conscious of their natural surroundings and devised all kinds of folk remedies to cure common ailments using herbs, roots and fungi. Liberty caps are far more potent and common than the magic mushrooms used by the Aztecs, so it's perfectly conceivable that our ancestors were aware of their effects.
In the ancient cultures of the Persians and the Hindus we find references to an intoxicating drink bestowed on man by the gods. Known as Soma to the Hindus and Haoma to the Iranians, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the sacred mead described in Norse mythology.
“The link between Soma, Haoma and the Old Norse mjǫðr [mead] is powerful and cannot be doubted. Etymologically they are connected, as Soma is often called madhu [honey, mead], whereas the Avesta calls the intoxication of Haoma itself by the related word mada, from the same root as the Norse and Iranian words, originally meaning honey, an important ingredient in mead. Furthermore, all three cultures describe their sacred drinks as golden and bright, bringing illumination, wisdom, eloquence, and poetry - and as having to do with immortality. Reading the Indian Vedas and the Iranian Avesta, there can be no doubt that the drink was strongly associated with intense, personal mystical experiences, a state of trance and a passionate union with the divine.” Kvilhaug, ‘Seed of Yggdrasil’ (p.272).
The Old Norse for mead is mjoðr, and meodu in Anglo-Saxon, from the ancient Germanic medu which is in turn related to the Sanskrit medhu, which was used to describe Soma. But Soma was not the honey based alcoholic drink we call mead, or even if it was, what does that have to do with mushrooms?
There are countless theories concerning the real ingredients of Soma. Many speculate that it contained a hallucinogenic substance, perhaps a rye mould or even cannabis. Gordon Wasson (1971) thought that Soma was the red and white mushroom called fly agaric, while others believe that both Soma and Haoma were made from harmaline, a psychotropic substance which is found in wild rye. In her book ‘The Seed of Yggdrasil’ Maria Kvilhaug argues that Soma, Haoma and the ritual mead used by Norse pagans, all contained Amanita muscaria (fly agaric).
“In the Oseberg ship burial in Norway, which happened in 834 A.D., two priestesses belonging to a religious cult associated with the Vanir, seiðr and sacred marriage were buried with a pouch filled with cannabis seeds, which when part of a drink could produce hallucinations. Also, the burial revealed a tapestry with a sacrifice scene, where we see numerous serpents, as well as depictions of the fly agaric just around the image of the three Norns or priestesses.” Kvilhaug, ‘Seed of Yggdrasil’.
Cannabis was certainly present in ancient India too and may well have been an ingredient in Soma. Cannabis was also found in an Aryan burial in the Gobi desert with the oldest mummy ever discovered. Fly agaric is thought to be another ingredient because it grows all over Northern Europe and also in the Hindu Kush. There is evidence that the shamanic peoples of Northern Siberia drank the urine of people or animals that had eaten the horrible mushrooms. Their proximity to the Nordic peoples has led to speculation about whether the Norse also consumed the iconic red toadstool. As long ago as 1784, the Swedish professor Samuel Ödmann argued that Vikings used fly agaric to work themselves up into a berserker fury.
I don’t think the Norse ate fly agaric nor do I believe that the Vedic proto-Hindus put it in Soma, for the same reason that I wouldn’t touch the stuff. It’s bloody poisonous! It may be psychoactive, and deaths are quite rare, but the effects don’t match up with the descriptions of Haoma, Soma or Mjoðr found in ancient sources. You’re more likely to vomit or fall asleep than to enter a higher state of consciousness. Fly agaric looks pretty, but it won’t make you a better fighter nor invoke a mystic experience. In his book "The Food of Gods", Terrence McKenna argued that it was more likely that Psilocybe cubensis was used in the creation of Soma, because psilocybin invokes mystical and religious experiences in subjects. This also sounds much more like the kind of substance the Zoroastrians called Haoma.
"And the holy spirit... Took Zoroaster's hand and filled it with all-encompassing liquid knowledge and said "drink it". And Zara Westra drank it, and all-encompassing wisdom was blended within Zoroaster... And he was in the Holy Spirit’s wisdom for seven nights." – ZandWahmand Yasht III 6-12.
Consider also this excerpt from the Rig Veda (1500–1200 BC).
“I have tasted this sweet drink of life... All the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey mead (madhu). The glorious drops that I have drunk have set me free in wide space... The drop that we have drunk has entered our hearts; an immortal inside mortals...” Rig Veda 8.48.
It sounds far more like the spiritual experience of psilocybin than the disorientating inebriation of fly agaric. This same connection to the divine is present when we consider the sacred mead of Valhǫll which is served to the Einheriar (fallen heros) by Valkyries and which grants immortality and regeneration to them. Julius Evola identified the spiritual quality of divine intoxicants in ancient cultures.
“The Iranian term Haoma corresponds to the Sanskrit Soma, the so-called potion of immortality. In these two ancient Aryan ideas we have an association of different concepts, partly real and partly symbolic, partly material and partly translatable into terms describing spiritual experience. Hindu traditions, for instance, describe the Soma both as a god and as the juice of a plant that is capable of inducing feelings of exaltation. These feelings were highly regarded and were induced during rituals of inner transformation to provide a taste of immortality.” Evola, ‘Meditations on the Peaks’.
The Nordic pagans used mead in rituals and their mythology connects mead with the divine sphere. Divine mead is not just a literal substance; it is poetry itself and is sought after by men and gods in both this world and the next. Clearly we are dealing with something other than a mere alcoholic beverage. I suspect that the Norse pagans combined a kind of magic mushroom tea with honey mead for sweetening, and that this was the substance used in their sacred rituals, granting divine visions to the participants.
It was only this year that scientists finally learned how psilocybin effects the human brain. Scientists analysed brain imaging data of people under the influence of psilocybin and discovered pronounced activity in the more primitive brain, with other parts such as the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex also active at the same time. This is the same sort of brain pattern which is observed in those who are dreaming. The researchers also noticed uncoordinated activity in the brain network that is associated with self-consciousness. While under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms or other alkaloid based hallucinogens such as LSD, mescaline or ayahuasca, you revert to a primal dream like state. This is the same state that ancient cultures achieved through chanting, meditation or sweat lodges (sauna), but which modern Westerners can arrive at through a chemical shortcut.
The chief god of the Nordic pantheon was Óðinn whose name is related to ōðr, meaning "fury” or “frenzy". Followers of his cult would attempt to reach a state of divine frenzy and psilocybin was the only intoxicant available in their environment that could help them to achieve this, except perhaps for cannabis. Like many cannabis users today, Vikings used to buy it from Muslims with whom they traded in the East. One Islamic source, Ibn Fadlan, wrote that Vikings preferred to make cannabis into an alcoholic drink rather than smoke it in the Arabic fashion.
The recent History Channel drama ‘Vikings’ depicts the ritual use of hallucinogens at a pagan religious ceremony in Uppsala, Sweden. So the idea that hallucinogens were used by ancient Germanic peoples has entered popular consciousness and is supported by a fair bit of evidence. But just because the followers of Óðinn went into a divine frenzy, doesn’t mean they always needed drugs to do so. Indeed, such substances are not always conducive to positive spiritual experiences. It depends a great deal on one’s temperament, as the philosopher Colin Wilson discovered.
"I hated mescaline. It opened me up so much — gave me this wonderful feeling of oneness with the universe — but at the same time made me feel completely helpless. I'm at my best when I'm concentrating so hard that my mind narrows to a laser — that's when I get the real mystical experiences — while mescaline diffused me all over the place." Wilson in an interview with Abraxas unbound.
Although Wilson admitted that the altered perspectives attained through hallucinogens were a means of shaking oneself free from the complacency of humdrum modern existence, he thought it was wrong for him to take them. While on mescaline, he would revert to a childlike state of innocence which he had deliberately abandoned on his path to knowledge. He asked himself “What right do I have to be in this state when I have a wife and child to care for?” He was able to attain what he called a “peak experience” simply through intense concentration, so drugs were not necessary for him although he saw that they might be for others.
"The effects of mescaline or LSD can be, in some respects, far more satisfying than those of alcohol. To begin with, they last longer; they also leave behind no hangover, and leave the mental faculties clear and unimpaired. They stimulate the faculties and produce the ideal ground for a peak experience.” Wilson, ‘Introduction to the New Existentialism’.
Hallucinogenic drugs pose a problem for the differentiated type in the modern world. They can be a means to transcend the material realm and achieve a higher state of consciousness, following in the footsteps of our pagan ancestors. In this sense they are a means of addressing the existential crisis by which so many of our generation are grievously afflicted. A drug which illuminates the natural world, imbuing all of creation with a sacred significance is deeply consoling for those condemned to exist in an era when existence itself has been stripped of all higher meaning. It is this retreat which poses the problem. For an undisciplined spirit drugs are merely an escape, a coward’s retreat from the challenge of existence. Even those in pursuit of heightened consciousness are unlikely to take anything useful from a chemically induced experience unless they are spiritually prepared for it.
There are myriad paths to spiritual discipline, but only a minority in any culture will pursue them. Despite Western preconceptions, few Buddhists or Hindus actually practice meditation; instead they are content in the knowledge that somewhere a monk or an aesthete has taken this path. Those who do practice meditative techniques constitute a spiritual elite of sorts. The Buddhist pursuit of nirvana is different from the Hindu’s desire to be free from karma, yet the outward manifestations of their respective spiritual disciplines are similar. I am sure that Buddhist enlightenment through meditation is akin to the peak experiences achieved through Hindu dhyana or by the Catholic monks and anchorites of medieval Europe who removed themselves to the wild fringes of the land to fast and prayer in solitude and receive divine visions from God.
No doubt Northern European pagans had a similar means of achieving peak experience without the use of psilocybin or any other chemical. The medieval Icelandic text Íslendingabók reveals the story of a pagan priest and chieftain named Þorgeir who spent a whole night and a day sat in silent meditation beneath a fur blanket so that he could decide whether his people should convert to Christianity. This reminds me of the story of the Norse god Óðinn / Anglo-Saxon god Woden, who hung from a sacred tree for nine nights in order to learn the secret of the runes. Óðinn is a god of wisdom and he pursues knowledge through a kind of sacrificial meditation. Archaeological evidence also indicates that Nordic pagans practiced meditation. A statue of Buddha was found at Helgo, Sweden and a bucket from the Norwegian Oseberg ship burial is mounted with a meditating figure in the full lotus position with four swastikas on his chest. There are even bronze figurines from Iceland and Sweden which are thought to be depictions of the gods, depicted sitting cross legged or on thrones, clutching their beards in contemplation. Even if psilocybin was used in some pagan ceremonies, there were also non-chemical routes to heightened consciousness available.
"Let us look each other in the face. We are Hyperboreans – we know well enough how remote our place is…Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death – our life, our happiness." Nietzsche, ‘The Antichrist’.
We are indeed Hyperboreans, and as such we must consider a spiritual path that is suited to our temperaments. I am reluctant to endorse the use of any kind of hallucinogens, simply because drug use is already far too prevalent in our culture and has wrought little but misery and degeneracy. If you are able to achieve the peak experience through concentration, meditation, art or prayer then you really have no need for hallucinogens. At a lecture at Berkeley 1988, Colin Wilson said that no matter what peyote does, none of that matters as much as having control of the “poetic experience”. The poetic experience is the frenzied state in which all of the world’s beauty becomes absolutely apparent, and the mind intensely lucid. The poetic experience is an Odinic state which can be achieved more effectively without chemical intoxication because it can then be controlled and harnessed for a creative purpose.
According to Nietzsche; in this world without (the Christian) God, it is the free spirits, unrestrained by herd morality, who will shape a new approach to spirituality. These “free spirits” are those who can say yes to eternal recurrence, who would willingly relive their entire lives over and over again. Those for whom the world is good and who can therefore easily say yes to all of life. Likewise, it is those for whom the world is good, and who feel as though everything that they do is good because it is their will, that are incapable of having a bad experience on hallucinogenic drugs. The bad trip is the effect of the man at odds with himself. Tripping turns thine eyes into oneself which can be an unbearable experience that tears apart the sense of self. The free spirit has less to fear from a hallucinogenic experience, but he also has less to gain since self-discipline should enable him to achieve the poetic or peak experience without chemicals.
Even reading about and thinking about peak experiences can inspire them in others. All that is required is a meditative discipline which might involve remembering previous poetic experiences or the contemplation of symbols which evoke the experience. Those who enter such a state can immediately recollect memories of previous peak experiences which they cannot normally recall. This makes it sound very easy, but in fact, due to the vacuous, meaningless nature of modern existence, many will never achieve the poetic experience. I call the materialistic way of looking at the universe “the dead world”. It is the dominant world view of all Western people today, all would-be Hyperboreans. Young people are especially desperate to escape from the dead world and, as Julius Evola identified, try to do so with drugs.
“…young people who have more or less distinctly perceived the emptiness and boredom of modern existence, and are seeking an escape from it. The impulse can be contagious: drug use extends to individuals who did not have this original impetus as a point of departure, and in such people it can only be regarded as an avoidable bad habit. Once starting on drugs to fit in or be in vogue, they succumb to the seduction of the states caused by the drug, which often wrecks their already weak personality.With drugs we have a situation similar to that of syncopated music. Both were often transpositions onto the profane and "physical" plane of means that were originally used to open one up to the suprasensible in initiation rites or similar experiences. Just as dances to modern syncopated music derive from ecstatic [African] dance, the various drugs used today and created in laboratories correspond to drugs that were often used for "sacred" ends in primitive populations, according to ancient traditions.” Evola, ‘Ride the Tiger’.
I have seen the commercialisation of such primitive ceremonies during my travels in South America. I came across Ayahuasca retreats where lost souls of the West pay to be administered large quantities of an hallucinogenic concoction, said to induce spiritual visions. The transactional nature of these so called “spiritual” retreats reveals them as a vulgar and mercantile perversion, a reduction of the divine to commodity. Shrewd Amazonian peoples have recognised the spiritual destitution of the white man and have sought to exploit this lack by selling him their own ancestral heritage. No amount of vomiting and hallucinating in the jungle will ever deliver the wretched from the dead world. I hope that some bored young people may find a path to differentiation by being made aware, through the use of psilocybin or something similar, of a world beyond the dead world. But they then risk falling into the trap of habitual drug use, being acted upon by the substance rather than imposing their own will on the drug and harnessing its effects for spiritual purposes.
“The blocked existential situation of the great majority of our contemporaries considerably restricts the possible range of reactions to drugs.However, the "personal equation" and the specific zone on which drugs, here including alcohol, act, lead the individual toward alienation and a passive opening to states give him the illusion of a higher freedom, an intoxication and an unfamiliar intensity of sensation, but that in reality have a character of dissolution that by no means "takes him beyond". In order to expect a different result from these experiences, he would have to have at his command an exceptional degree of spiritual activity, and his attitude would be the opposite of those who seek and need drugs to escape from tensions, traumatic events, neuroses, and feelings of emptiness and absurdity.” Evola, ‘Ride the Tiger’.
Psilocybin mushrooms are a part of the Hyperborean spiritual landscape; they were important in our ancestors’ religious rituals and can have positive effects when used correctly. A differentiated individual, free spirit or Hyperborean in pursuit of the poetic experience of Odinic frenzy need not necessarily denounce the use of such substances, although they pose a great risk in the hedonistic climate of the 21st century. One must first prepare spiritually through meditation and physically through fasting, in order to effectively exert the power of the will so that the substance works as an extension of it rather than an obstacle to profound realisation and heightened consciousness.
“An effective use of these drugs would presuppose a preliminary "catharsis", that is, the proper neutralization of the individual unconscious substratum that is activated; then the images and senses could refer to a spiritual reality of a higher order, rather than being reduced to a subjective, visionary orgy. One should emphasize that the instances of this higher use of drugs were preceded not only by periods of preparation and purification of the subject, but also that the process was properly guided through the contemplation of certain symbols.” Evola, ‘Ride the Tiger’.
Doniger O' Flaherty, Wendy, ‘The Rig Veda: An Anthology’, (1981)
Evola, Julius, ‘Meditations on the Peaks’, (1974).
Evola, Julius, ‘Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for the Aristocrats of the Soul’, (1961).
Grønlie, Siân, (trans), Íslendingabók. Kristni saga. The Book of the Icelanders. The Story of the Conversion, Anthony Faulkes and Alison Finlay (eds), (Viking Society for Northern Research: University College London, 2006).
Ibn Faḍlān, Aḥmad, Ibn Fadlan's journey to Russia: a tenth-century traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River, Richard N. Frye (trans), (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005).
Orchard, Andy, (trans), The Elder Edda, (Penguin Classics: 2011).
Kvilhaug, Maria Christine, ‘The Seed of Yggdrasil: Deciphering the Hidden Messages in Old Norse Myths’, (2013).
McKenna, Terrence, ‘The Food of Gods’, (1993).
Nietzsche, Friedrich, ‘The Antichrist’, 1895).
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Wilson, Colin, Lecture on the Occult at Berkeley University, USA.