The festive magic of fly agaric

The most magical of “magic” mushrooms has many mythical associations but it’s not just the fairyfolk — or the gods — that are linked to this poster boy of fungi, it has also influenced the modern symbolism of Christmas

The fly agaric a truly magical mushroom and beautiful to behold
The fly agaric a truly magical mushroom and beautiful to behold

When most people think of a “toadstool”, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is usually the first image they conjure: striking, otherworldly and with its red colouring and white warts, a clear warning from nature of toxicity.


Not only is its appearance enticing and mystical, but its toxins — ibotenic acid, muscarine and muscimol — have psychoactive properties, casting it as a magical gateway to other realms. It was fly agaric that inspired the fictional mushroom Alice ate, encouraged by the hookah-smoking caterpillar, in Lewis Caroll’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice is directed that “one side will make you grow smaller, and one side will make you grow taller”, a notion Caroll is thought to have gleaned from English mycologist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s 1860 book The Seven Sisters of Sleep. It describes “erroneous impressions of size and distance” becoming “common occurrences” after consuming the mushroom, with “a straw lying on the road” turning into “a formidable obstacle” (Millman, 2019).


Fly agaric is a mycorrhizal (symbiotic) fungus
Fly agaric is a mycorrhizal (symbiotic) fungus

Fly agaric’s history as a hallucinogen is ancient. Several scholars have suggested it as the likely component of soma, a ritual drink consumed in Indo-Aryan cultures for more than 4,000 years. In the Vedic religion, soma is associated with immortality and the moon, and was viewed as both the embodiment of a god and as a divine potion. A fragment of the Rigveda, a collection of ancient Sanskrit hymns and one of the oldest surviving Indo-European texts, translates as: “We have drunk the soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods” (Jamison, 2015). Meanwhile, in European classical civilisations, both the Greeks and Romans utilised fly agaric in the ceremonies of their mystical cults — the Dionysian Mysteries and Mithraic Mysteries. Here, it was drunk in the urine of those who had previously consumed it, as a means of retaining the psychoactive properties while eliminating some of the more unpleasant side effects (Ruck, Hoffman & González Celdrán, 2011).


Fly agaric has permeated into several cultures
A nisse and fly agaric on a German Christmas card

In fact, fly agaric’s broad spread and psychoactive properties have made it an emblematic mushroom, permeating cultures everywhere from the Arctic to Iran. It is native throughout much of the temperate northern hemisphere, where it is ectomycorrhizal in both coniferous and deciduous woodlands, typically forming mutually beneficial relationships with pine and birch. While magic mushrooms such as the liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin, which activates seratonin receptors, fly agaric’s psychoactive compounds mimic the brain’s neurotransmitters to create a feeling of intoxication. While there have been no recent fatal poisonings from fly agaric, its effects can still be unpleasant — along with hallucinations, symptoms within 30 minutes of ingestion can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, cramps, tremors, ataxia and incoordination, which are often followed by lethargy and deep sleep (Carboué & Lopez, 2021).


Despite its potential side effects, for one civilisation in particular — the Siberians, who retained an isolated, stone-aged culture into the 19th century — the fly agaric presented the only available inebriant. As a result, it was consumed for religious and recreational purposes across millennia (Carboué, Q., & Lopez, 2021). Explorers who encountered the tribes found it was deeply embedded in their culture, with Shamans using the mushroom to enter a trance state and commune with the gods (Lee, Dukan & Milne, 2018). They typically consumed it, like the Romans, through urine — but for the Siberians, it was usually urine from reindeer who had grazed on the fungi (Michelot & Melendez-Howell, 2003).


Interestingly, Andy Letcher debunked tales of the drinking of fly agaric intoxicated reindeer urine in his 2007 book Shroom: A cultural history of the magic mushroom only to debunk his own debunking a few years later while spending time with the Saami people. During his time with them, he witnessed the feeding of fly agaric to reindeer in order to collect the kidney filtered urine.


Fly agaric has influenced the modern Christmas myth
Fly agaric has influenced the modern Christmas myth

It is from the remote, snowy northern landscape that some of the more modern elements of the Christmas myth emerged. It is accepted that the modern representation of Santa is a hybrid of Christian and northern forest-dwelling pagan traditions, particularly those from Finland and Scandinavia — countries with a history of consuming fly agaric. It is possible that Father Christmas is an evolution of the Siberian Shaman and it is not a huge leap to suggest that his flying reindeer tie in with the cultural use of fly agaric — an idea first suggested in Gordon Wasson’s 1971 book about the fungus, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Wasson notes that reindeer will eat fly agaric in preference to other mushrooms, and that the normally docile animals can then be observed “leaping and cavorting” across the tundra. Reindeer undoubtedly display a strong attraction to the mushrooms, and have also been observed eating the urine of other reindeer, or humans, that have consumed them. Reindeer herdsmen were historically observed using containers of fly-agaric-tainted urine to lure the animals back to the herd and reindeer have also been known to bowl over humans as they left celebrations where the intoxicating fungus had been consumed (Marley, 2010).


It’s a common belief that the modern, commercial rendering of Santa Claus, in a red and white suit, was introduced by Coca-Cola in the 1930s, but the use of red for his clothing dates back to at least the Victorian era (Marley, 2010). For the British, the idealised image of Christmas will always be heavily influenced by the Victorians, who introduced so many of our enduring traditions, such as the Christmas tree — which was brought from Germany by Prince Albert, who first erected one at Windsor. Both Victorian Christmas cards and tree decorations reflected Germanic forest-dwelling imagery, with red and white fly agarics being a common theme along with a festive palate of green pines and red apples (Bouchard, 2017). Fly agaric, as well as being mycorrhizal with pines and growing at their roots, were also traditionally dried out by being placed on their branches — reflected symbolically in both Christmas tree decorations and the presents stored at their base.


Fly agaric has long been used in pagan worship
Fly agaric has long been used in pagan worship

The Christian festival of Christmas appropriated a number of older festivals and feasts which celebrated the winter solstice and rebirth of the sun — from the Pagan Yule to the birth of the sun god Mithra, as celebrated by the Roman fly-agaric-drinking cult. Cultures and traditions merge and blur, and the prevalence of fly agaric on Victorian Christmas cards, particularly those from Germany, hark back to a time when the phallic-shaped Amanita muscaria, along with mistletoe, were pagan symbols of luck and fertility. Often depicted on greetings cards alongside the fly agarics are closely-associated gnomes, or Nisse — lucky gift-bearing figures not dissimilar to Santa’s elves (Bouchard, 2017).


While fly agaric-laced reindeer urine may be off most modern menus this Christmas, the history of this mushroom links ancient traditions with the new, spanning continents and millennia. It’s unmissable red and white colouring, standing out against the forest greens, remains a beacon in the dark as the days shorten, and it continues to be a source of wonder for those who enter the woods.


References


Bouchard, M. (2017). Unknowingly Celebrating a Mushroom: The Influence of the Fly Agaric on Modern Yuletide Celebration. BIOL421 @UNBC—Insects, Fungi and Society.


Carboué, Q., & Lopez, M. (2021). Amanita muscaria: Ecology, Chemistry, Myths. Encyclopedia, 1(3), 905–914.


Jamison, S. (2015). The Rigveda –– Earliest Religious Poetry of India. Oxford University Press. p. 1129. ISBN .


Lee, M.; Dukan, E.& Milne, I. (2018) Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric): From a Shamanistic Hallucinogen to the Search for Acetylcholine. J. R. Coll. Physicians Edinb. 48, 85–91.


Ruck, C.A.P.; Hoffman, M.A.& González Celdrán, J.A. (2011) Mushrooms, Myth, & Mithras: The Drug Cult That Civilized Europe; City Lights Books: San Francisco, CA, USA; ISBN 978-0-87286-470-2.


Marley, G.A. (2010). Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms; Chelsea Green Pub: White River Junction, VT, USA. ISBN 978-1-60358-214-8.


Michelot, D., & Melendez-Howell, L. M. (2003). Amanita muscaria: chemistry, biology, toxicology, and ethnomycology. Mycological Research, 107(2), 131–146.


Millman, L. (2019, October 29). The Cultural Encyclopedia of Mushrooms That We Need Right Now.