Folklore and the British Magic Mushroom
by Andy Letcher
This article by Dr Andy Letcher, author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, first appeared in Psychedelic Press XL: Folklore & Psychedelics - limited edition print copies are available here.
‘Folklore’ is a tricky term. It is not entirely clear where folklore ends and popular culture begins, if indeed they differ, nor to whom the ‘folk’ refers. We would certainly baulk at the nineteenth century, romantic and nationalist conceptions of the folk as organically tied to place, but, in any case, folklore can surely be found as much in urban environments as rural and is no respecter of our arbitrary social boundaries. The lingering notion that folk traditions and customs, such as wassailing or Morris dancing, are ancient survivals of a pre-Christian, pagan past has been roundly demolished by scholars in the latter part of the twentieth century: most of our so-called venerable traditions are of surprisingly recent and traceable origin.
So, the term might seem anachronistic, moribund even. Nonetheless I want to suggest here that ‘folklore’ remains a fruitful category, especially when it comes to the matter of psychedelics. As I hope to demonstrate, those ingrained connotations of the rural, the ancient past, of legends, boggarts, witches and elves, all seem especially apt when talking about British magic mushrooms, their harvesting and consumption, and the way in which the peculiar effects they occasion have come to be interpreted.
For my purposes here, I draw on the etymology of ‘lore’ (Old English lār) as instruction; something, if you will, handed on. Transmission of psychedelic lore may be oral, but these days is as likely to occur via printed media, websites, podcasts and social media. Nonetheless, what is handed on in a folkloristic sense emerges from the periphery, not the centre. So, the notion that psychedelics may have therapeutic value in the treatment of depression and other related mental illnesses would not constitute folklore, as, stemming from scientific research conducted at universities, this is mainstream knowledge disseminated outwards. The emergence, however, of unlicensed and underground contexts of self-medication, alone or in groups, replicated via emulation or word of mouth, would. Folklore tends to work outside, or better in tension with, existing structures of power. It may well involve rejected knowledge derived from alternative epistemologies and generating alternative ontologies.
In this article, then, I address three ways in which ‘folklore’ might be a helpful category with which to understand contemporary use of the British magic mushroom, the Liberty Cap or Psilocybe semilanceata. First, the knowledge of the Liberty Cap, where to find it, how to identify it and consume it safely tends to get disseminated horizontally as folklore. Second, while there is no evidence that the widespread, contemporary consumption of the Liberty Cap predates the post-war period, an abundance of ‘lore’ posits an ancient, secretive tradition of usage. That these origin stories persist suggests that they possess a folkloric function in legitimating an unlicensed practice. Finally, if psychedelics elicit a surfeit of meaning, many enthusiasts instinctively use folklore, and especially fairy lore, to interpret and make sense of their experiences.
‘Are these magic mushrooms?’
In Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World, the mycologist Paul Stamets describes a fungus foray he undertook in the vicinity of Stonehenge, in which he collected mushrooms he suspected of belonging to the genus Psilocybe. Taking them home he examined spore prints and a whole range of microscopic features to conclude, definitively, that they belonged to Psilocybe semilanceata or the Liberty Cap.
Though psychedelic mushroom enthusiasts across the country may, to a greater or lesser extent, possess this kind of sophisticated mycological knowledge, most would probably fail to identify mushrooms with such categorical precision. Rather they rely on folk typologies, handed down from person to person: the Liberty Cap has black lines radiating up from the edge of the cap; a leathery stem that may stain blue; and above all that famous nipple atop its olive brown cap. They may also rely on what could be termed a qualitative gestalt, in which they come to learn and appreciate the mushroom as a distinctive whole; or more animistic interpretations in which they say the mushrooms somehow call their attention.
Stamets is probably right to suggest people ought to acquaint themselves with better mycological knowledge for they can be wildly inaccurate (I tend to get approached a few times each autumn by novices sending me photos of anything but Liberty Caps). Nonetheless, folk typologies are mostly good enough, for mother nature is kind in these isles, such that you would have to work extremely hard to confuse a Liberty Cap with something pernicious.
When, every autumn, enthusiasts head to the upland areas of the British Isles to avail themselves of the magic mushroom harvest they must, in addition to being able correctly to distinguish Liberty Caps, gauge the correct weather conditions; know the right kind of pasture where Liberty Caps proliferate; have an idea of how to consume them, in what quantities and in what context; know how to preserve those set aside for later consumption; know what to call them; and avoid the prying eyes of locals, occasional Police patrols, and irate landowners. All of this knowledge must be acquired by the enthusiastic neophyte.
These days it can be readily obtained via the web and especially social media, but not so in the last decades of the twentieth century, which is perhaps when folk transmission was at its zenith. The earliest record we possess of an intentional psilocybin mushroom trip in Britain is from Oz magazine in 1970 (prior to that there are reports of accidental trips peppered throughout the medical records, going back as far as 1799, but nothing beyond). The practice only went viral during the autumn of 1977, following a well-publicized court case in Reading, in which a man was acquitted for possessing magic mushrooms. How then, was the knowledge discovered and disseminated?
The answer has much to do with the influence of the poet Robert Graves (1895–1985). In 1952 he prompted his friend, the American banker Robert Gordon Wasson (1898–1986), to undertake a series of expeditions to Mexico, expeditions that led to Wasson’s well-known extraction of the magic mushroom from indigenous contexts. Later, Wasson turned-on Graves in two psychedelic soirées held in Wasson’s New York apartment.
If Graves’ rapturous account of these experiences in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1962) remains a classic, yet little known, contribution to British psychedelic literature, then his enthusiasm may nonetheless have inoculated the idea of a local, British, magic mushroom into popular consciousness. He included references to psilocybin mushrooms growing in the UK in the prefaces of the paperback editions of The Greek Myths and The Golden Bough, both published in 1961, and both widely read by the kinds of people who might act on that information. It’s likely that it was these, together with Graves’ authority and standing as a Classicist, that encouraged bold experimenters to try Liberty Caps for themselves, as was doubtless his intention.
It remains unknown who was the first to do so, but the news clearly spread in appropriately mycelial fashion through the British hippie underground until that first record appears in Oz article of 1970. In 1974 Richard Cooper published his much-photocopied Guide to British Psilocybin Mushrooms, which provided reasonably accurate mycological information about Liberty Caps and their identification (though not up to Stamets’ standards), but even so George Andrews would bemoan in his 1975 anthology Drugs and Magic that barely anyone knew about or was using them.
That changed after the 1976 Reading trial. The news was widely reported—not least in the popular British science journal New Scientist, together with a helpful drawing of a Liberty Cap and a guide to dosage—and subsequently went viral. The following autumn a new phenomenon appears in the medical records, with people turning up at hospital in difficulties after consuming Liberty Caps. Mushroom lore was especially transmitted at British free festivals, with a dedicated mushroom festival, The Psilly Fair, occurring in Wales from 1976–82. Festival goers from that time will fondly remember The Magic Mushroom Band, and Boris and His Bolshy Balalaika with his didactic ditty, Toadstool Soup.
Boris was part of the Sheffield University Pagan Society, which is where I learned about magic mushrooms circa 1988. Another Pagan friend took me to a known mushroom field, identified for me the distinctive features of Liberty Caps, and patiently removed unwelcome pickings. In other words, I was ‘initiated’ in what I suspect had become a classic fashion. For example, elsewhere an informant who was at school in Glasgow in the early 80s confirms that having tried Liberty Caps for himself, amidst the media hullaballoo, he proceeded to turn-on all his friends, and theirs, by providing a similar service.
Thus, the dissemination of the knowledge of the Liberty Cap spread horizontally, inoculated from the centre via the media, science journals, and the enthusiasm of Robert Graves, but passed on as folklore by bold experimentation and transmission of the results from person to person. If today social media undoubtedly makes this an easier task, I would suggest that direct transmission remains important, for it is one thing to be shown a Liberty Cap online, quite another to commit to eating a freshly picked mushroom. Nothing reassures like the quiet assent of an expert.
Stoned Apes and Stone Circles
A mushroom trip is never less than astonishing and often revelatory. That oft-reported sense of timelessness can easily bleed into a feeling of ancientness, the sense that this is an ontological ‘space’ that humans have been frequenting for a very long time. Consequently, perhaps, it is not surprising that many stories proliferate about the supposed antiquity of mushroom use, in Britain and beyond. The Druids used mushrooms in their Samhain rituals, as did the builders of Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill. Santa Claus is secretly a fly-agaric mushroom, or a fly-agaric mushroom eating shaman. The knot-work designs much favoured by Celtic artisans were inspired by psilocybin visions, as were the banshees, boggarts, and brownies of folk tales and legends. The great-grandfather of ‘someone I know’ used Liberty Caps as a teenager growing up in Wales. Apes, stoned on psilocybin, uttered the first words and so gave birth to human language and culture. Plato obtained his philosophy in visions at the mushroom-fueled rites of Eleusis. These kinds of urban legends proliferate with ever increasing frequency.
It is with a certain chagrin, therefore, that one discovers the great absence of evidence for historic but also prehistoric mushroom use in Britain and Europe (not so in Mesoamerica, but that is another story). Our ancestors did use psychoactive plants, especially opium, henbane and mugwort (though for what reason and in what contexts we cannot often say), but as yet no psilocybin mushrooms have been found preserved, say, in the stomach contents of a bog body, nor have we any conclusive pictorial or archaeological remains. Absence of evidence is, as the saying goes, not evidence of absence, but some of these stories can easily be dismissed (for example, the Santa Claus story was the invention of Robert Graves’ fevered imagination).
As so little can be said, one way or the other, I prefer to ask why it is that these stories continue to be told and would suggest that they serve a particular folkloric function, justifying illicit practices and identities. To confess to using psilocybin mushrooms still risks legal or other sanctions, and all too often derision or mockery. Even now, when science is utilizing the medical and therapeutic potential of psychedelics, there remains a discomfiture around the kinds of experiences they occasion. What for many counts as a powerful, Jamesian noesis can be dismissed as so much woo. Adherence to the idea, therefore, that you are part of a tradition of mushroom usage that is ancient and unbroken, that has existed in secret despite mainstream ignorance and oppression provides a powerful and almost intoxicating sense of alterity and identity.
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