Amanita muscaria and Santa

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Excerpted from James Bursenos at http://www.solsticestudios.net

The painting entitled "Resurrection of Santa Claus" (above left) is the result of an exploration into the mysterious relationship between Santa and the Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric mushroom. Through the course of making this painting, I discovered that much of the popular iconography surrounding Santa Claus can be linked to the fly agaric. His immortality, omniscience, powers of magical flight and prosperity can all be attributed to this particular mushroom and its entheogenic powers. (1) Unquestioned holiday symbols such as flying reindeer, chimney sliding, Christmas trees and magical elves at the north pole all begin to make sense in the context of Santa's relationship to the fly agaric.

As I am primarily a painter, this is to be taken as a loose presentation of some of my research and insight into a deep and murky subject. The fact that Santa is related to a psychedelic mushroom came to me spontaneously during a state of heightened awareness. And, after much research, I have found growing support for this hidden secret of Christmas. I see Santa Claus primarily as a symbol, an archetype. Ultimately he represents masculine spiritual power, like Buddha or Christ, yet we may need to look deep beneath the surface to see his potency. His current form is twisted and grotesque, a caricature of his potential self. I believe he got this way due to the abuse of masculine power over thousands of years. Santa Claus represents magic which, in western society, has been controlled, abused, ridiculed, outlawed, repressed and finally forgotten. Santa is often times mocked, diminished and misunderstood as he is portrayed as a slave to commerce, infantile, dysfunctional, a joke. On the other hand, as he is preached to our children, he is wise, benevolent and magically powerful.

How are we to make sense of this conundrum? The only answer, I submit, is through facing the bizarre fact that Santa Claus and Christmas have a hidden secret: namely the powerful entheogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria. Though perhaps challenging and difficult to accept, a close examination of this strange relationship offers deep insight into the nature of the human soul. This long forgotten key to the hidden meaning of Christmas helps to explain the very nature of the classic religious experience. And as we probe deeper into this mystery, it may even shed light on the widespread religious and political oppression that still dominates much of the world.

The most obvious connection between Santa and the fly agaric mushroom is their appearance; both are rather portly, bright and jolly looking. Moreover, both are red, white and black, three colors that resound throughout time with symbolic meaning. Santa, as we all know, wears a bright red suit with white trim and sports a long white beard. He is all covered in "ashes and soot" from sliding down the chimney to deliver his gifts on Christmas Eve, hence the black or dark color in the trio. Likewise, the fly agaric is bright red and white. The famous polka dots are actually the remainder of what is called the universal veil, a white shell-like membrane that protects the mushroom as it breaks through the ground. This fierce and sudden eruption through the earth also accounts for the additional black color, in this case bits of soil that cling to the mushroom as it emerges.

By 1823 the poem 'Twas the night before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore etched a lasting image of "jolly old St. Nick" firmly in the hearts and minds of early Americans. (2) Moore describes Santa Claus as "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf," who had "cheeks like roses" and a "nose like a cherry." (3) He also "had a broad face and a little round belly/that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly." (4) Here we already begin to see similarities between Santa and the fly agaric, both are the color of roses and cherries, both are chubby and plump. We know from illustrations that the fly agaric can appear to be quite jolly, and it is the fungus most likely to be associated with elves. It is "broad faced" when it's cap is fully open and all who have ever touched a living Amanita mushroom will know that they do, in fact, shiver and shake like a bowlful of jelly! We can begin to see that Moore's descriptions of Santa Claus are also quite easily applicable to our mushroom in question.

Moore was informed about Santa's style and behavior from popular Dutch and German-American Folklore, no doubt. Yet this still does not account for the presence of entheogenic mushrooms in our story. To do this we must go back to an earlier source, past the Christian prototype for Santa Claus - St. Nicholas - to prehistoric times where the roots of Santa's appearance are to be found in the practice of mushroom shamanism. The fly agaric has been used for its entheogenic powers since archaic times by shamans of the region that is now the Netherlands and Siberia. (5) Shamanism has recently reemerged in western culture after it had been all but forgotten for millennia. Much has been written on its role in indigenous societies, therefore, I will only state in general terms that shamanic techniques have been used across the globe since before recorded history to enter states of non-ordinary or transpersonal awareness in order to promote healing, balance and well being in the community. (6) Entheogenic mushrooms and plants have traditionally been included in the shaman's medicine bag along with many other techniques, such as breathing, chanting, dancing, fasting or meditating in order to attain heightened states of awareness.

These shamans of the North typically lived in semi-nomadic communities that were in close relationship with reindeer. After studying the behavior of these reindeer for his book Soma, R.G. Wasson concluded that "Reindeer have a passion for mushrooms and especially for the fly agaric, on which they inebriate themselves." (7) His claim is supported by others stating that the reindeer prance around wildly after eating of the agaric. Not only the shaman, but the reindeer also eat the mushroom and apparently feel it's magic. Here we have a situation that very closely resembles that of Santa Claus, the old wise man who lives at the north pole among a heard of flying reindeer.

The names of Santa's Reindeer that most of us know by heart come to us from the same poem 'Twas the night before Christmas, yet they too seem to have associations with mushrooms, both their growth cycle as well as their role in the classic shamanic experience. For example, Donder and Blitzen, which come from the Germanic words for thunder and lightening, may have actually originated in the ancient belief that mushrooms appeared wherever lightening struck the earth. This was considered truth until relatively recently, with the advent of the microscope in modern times, when humans discovered that mushrooms propagate by releasing spores from their gills. In the case of the fly agaric, soaking rains are necessary for a mushroom to emerge out of the ground, hence the association with thunder and lightening. Furthermore, the fly agaric grows in a mycorrhizal relationship with certain trees like birch, fir and pine. The mushroom is actually the fruiting body of an underground network of threadlike fibers called mycelium which grow among the roots of "Christmas trees".

We have already seen how reindeer have an appetite for the fly agaric, and their names seem to corroborate this fact. For example, Dasher, Dancer and Prancer can be seen merely as slick nick names expressing the athleticism of Santa's showoff reindeer, or these names can be seen to refer to the effects that the fly agaric has upon not only the reindeer, but the shaman as well. Claims of running extremely fast or for very long distances, and trance-dancing for hours on end are not uncommon in reports made by people who have eaten of the agaric. (8)

The word comet refers to a heavenly body in flight. In my view, the flying reindeer named Comet becomes a kind of code word for astral travel under the influence of entheogenic mushrooms. One common sensation associated with the classic shamanic experience is that of leaving one's body and taking flight. A comet is also celestial, the heavens are it's domain, and as we will see time and again, entheogenic mushrooms like the fly agaric can be seen as keys which unlock the doors to heaven.

Cupid is the name of another reindeer on Santa's team. How should this ancient Roman god of love who is normally associated with Valentines Day (another red and white holiday) come to be the appellation of a flying Christmas reindeer? Again, I submit that the best way to make sense of it is through the experience of mushroom entheogens, particularly the fly agaric. Cupid is the messenger of Eros, god of love. Entheogenic mushrooms like the fly agaric have the potential to awaken feelings of love that range from the profoundly spiritual kind of boundless love, to rapture or ecstasy, to the very earthy sensual love that includes the erotic, which in this context also becomes sacred. Clark Heinrich describes the blissful sensuality inherent in the fly agaric experience, "It is as if every pore of the body were a sexual organ in orgasm, and I am not overstating things." (9) The notion of ecstasy is a repeated theme in mushroom shamanism and Christmas alike.

And finally we come to Vixen, the one distinctly feminine reindeer. Today the word vixen means a spiteful or quarrelsome woman, but earlier it meant simply fox-lady. The word sounds a lot like wiccan which of course is associated with witches and witchcraft. Wiccan originally means "to bend," referring to a witch as one who bends or shapes reality and perception. It is not unsafe to speculate on the meaning of vixen in this context as a shape shifter or witch. The "fox-lady" represents women's magic in the very same way Santa represents menŐs magic. Mushrooms like the fly agaric can allow one to attain shamanic powers such as magical flight and shape shifting. These reindeer names refer to the transpersonal states of mind accessed by witches and sorcerers, initiates and shamans throughout time immemorial.

The names of Santa's reindeer, like many of the symbols of Christmas, come to us from mushroom shamanism through the filters of ancient paganism, religion, secret societies, underground cults, and folklore. For example, the Norse god Thor also flew through the sky in a magical chariot pulled by horses or reindeer in some versions of the story. And many people are probably still under the impression that the Christian St. Nicholas who resembles Santa Claus in his benevolent wisdom and powers of immortality is in fact the beginning of the story. But when we dig just a little bit deeper we find an older blueprint that is actually much more accessible than one could ever possibly imagine.

The classic shamanic experience is global and timeless. It has analogues in states of consciousness referred to as mystical, visionary, numinous, transpersonal or peak. Inherent in the shaman's journey we find symbols and themes that are similar and relevant to Santa Claus and Christmas, especially the themes of immortality and shape shifting. On his journey, the shaman typically undergoes a transformation that involves the very real experience of his own death. Subsequently, he has access to transpersonal states of being and realms beyond the living. For example this Koryak shaman from northern Siberia speaking about the effects of the fly agaric shows the inherent theme of death and resurrection in the experience:

".... if the agaric should say to a man 'You will melt away soon' then the man would see his legs, arms, and body melt away, and he would say, "Oh! Why have I eaten of the agaric? Now I am gone!" Or should the agaric say 'Go to The One-on-High,' the man would go to The-One-on-High. The latter would put him on the palm of his hand, and twist him like a thread, so that his bones would crack, and the entire world would twirl around.'Oh I am dead!' that man would say. 'Why have I eaten the agaric?' But when he came to, he would eat it again, because sometimes it is pleasant and cheerful. Besides, the agaric would tell everyman, even if he were not a shaman, what ailed him when he was sick, or explain a dream to him, or show him the upper world or the underground world, or foretell what would happen to him." (10)

This candid report tells of the veracity of the death experience under the influence of the Amanita muscaria and helps to define some of the contents of a shamanic or mystical experience, particularly death and rebirth, healing, knowledge and access to the upper and lower worlds.

On his or her journey, the shaman may visit ancestors, deities or totem animals who either help her to heal herself or somebody else, or benefit her community in some way. During the experience, the shaman may even merge with one of these deities or power animals, thus acquiring their powers of locomotion, perception and cognition. The experience is one of actually becoming the power animal or deity and is sometimes referred to as shape shifting. Carlos Castaneda vividly describes the sensation of becoming a crow after ingesting a powerful mixture containing entheogenic mushrooms in his book Teachings of Don Juan. (11)

"I had the perception of growing bird's legs, which were weak and wobbly at first. I felt a tail coming out of the back of my neck and wings out of my cheekbones. The wings were folded deeply. I felt them coming out by degrees. The process was hard but not painful. Then I winked my head down to the size of a crow. But the most astonishing effect was accomplished with my eyes. My birdŐs sight!....Don Juan...'tossed me into the air'....[and} I 'extended my wings and flew." (12)

The power of shape shifting along with the experience of one's own death and resurrection are two key aspects of the classic shamanic experience. These two themes are essential to understanding the iconography of Christmas and will help to reveal a deep connection between Santa Claus and mushrooms. The question arises, if in fact Santa is connected to mushroom shamanism as it appears, then where and how has this knowledge remained hidden for so long? This is a simple question with a rather complex answer that involves the demonization and criminalization of mushroom shamanism over time. The story of how this practice has become outlawed in the west is ironically intertwined with how Santa Claus and our entire Christmas tradition came to be. A closer look at the iconography of this holiday will help to reveal this connection.

Bears are usually included in images of Christmastime. They are among the earliest symbols of death and resurrection. Bear skins were worn by shamans to connote the transformation by man into totem animal. Bear skulls have been found among early human burial remains, suggesting a strong belief in the bearŐs power of rebirth, or immortality. The bear disappears in winter into a subterranean trance like existence called hibernation until springtime, when he reemerges from the earth. This perennial custom has a powerful analogue to the sun in winter who all but disappears by the solstice in the most northerly latitudes only to return again for another year. The bear has persisted as a powerful symbol of strength, renewal, protection and healing all over the world and his relationship to the winter solstice has secured it a place of prominence in Shamanism as well as in Christmas lore.

Bears are directly connected to the Amanita muscaria through the Germanic word Berserk. The term Berserker is commonly known to refer to a class of Viking warrior who reportedly ate the fly agaric for added strength, courage and ferocity before going into battle. The term today still carries connotations of rage or craziness. Berserk translates literally as Ňbear shirt,Ó however, which would have originally meant something like wild man or shaman, who was either literally hairy like a bear, or figuratively donned the skins of a bear in ceremony. The shaman resembles the bear in ceremony because he is in communication with the bear in the natural world as well as in the spirit realm. He looks like the bear because he has become the bear and attained its powers of rebirth. Here we see two common themes of shamanism clearly represented; shape shifting on the one hand, and death and resurrection on the other.

These two themes are played out in the otherworldly dimensions of the shaman's journey which include the lower and upper worlds. The lower world is underground and commonly accessed by a tunnel or a hole in the earth. It is populated by guardian animals who protect and heal. The upper world is associated with the sky and is accessed by such means as a sacred tree, or ladder that reaches into heaven. The upper world is celestial in nature and is associated with knowledge, ancestral wisdom, immortality and eternity. It is often times populated by spirit beings who guide and teach and going there is sometimes accompanied by feelings of ecstasy or religious rapture.

The image of the sacred tree whose roots lead underground, to the lower world, and whose branches stretch to heaven, is the likely origin of the tradition of the Christmas tree. For the shaman, the Sacred Tree forms an axis from the perspective of everyday experience in the center, surrounded by the four sacred directions, the upper world above, and the lower world below. As we have seen, entheogenic mushrooms like the Amanita muscaria - who literally grow under the "sacred tree" - provide initiation into the otherworldly dimensions of the shaman.

Throughout ancient times we see the apotheosis of the shaman and a mythologizing of the shamanic experience in the proliferation of mystery religions. The two themes of immortality and shape shifting were central to these religions. Often times we see an immortalized hero in human form along with a half-animal/half-human deity to represent these two distinct themes. For example, Osiris was the Egyptian god-man who was dismembered by his brother, Set, and then collected, reassembled and made immortal by the goddess Isis. Osiris is also associated with a jackal-headed deity called Anubus. In ancient Greece, Dionysus underwent a violent death by dismemberment and subsequent resurrection to the heavens. Dionysus was usually attended by the goat-headed earth god, Pan. We can see echoes of the classic shamanic experience in the symbolism of ancient mystery schools. Initiates were meant to identify with a particular deity in order to experience either death and ascension, or shape shifting, or both. Often times powerful entheogens were used to provide a direct and personal experience of the divine. (13)

It is clear that both the upper and the lower worlds are realms of healing for the shaman, an experience of the eternal can be as valuable as merging with an animal ancestor. Perhaps it is simplistic to assert that these two realms, the upper and the lower worlds are responsible for the division of reality into heaven and hell in our collective mind and later enforced by religion. However it seems that is basically what happened. As paganism was replaced by monotheistic religions in the west like Judaism and Christianity, inter-species communication, shape shifting and psychedelic mushrooms were relegated to the hell realm, while religious ecstasy, ascension, and eternity were deemed righteous. The horned gods, like Pan, were demonized and made into the devil, Satan, while the divine hero whose seed form we find in Osiris and Dionysus is the kind we in the west chose to officially worship instead, as in the case of Jesus. Understanding this split in human consciousness - the division between heaven and hell - is essential to the story of Santa and the mushroom. This subtle division also includes the inherent sexism that has plagued human history as the western conceptualization of nature as Mother Earth is clearly of the lower world and God or Father Sky (time) is king of the heavens. We in the west have come to generally favor all things associated with the upper world which tend to be expressions of the masculine principle and mistrust, fear and thus demonize the feminine aspects of our identity. Our great challenge collectively as well as individually, is to balance these two aspects within ourselves.

One way to approach an understanding of this duality is through the very names we bestow to symbols such as the Devil and Santa Claus. There is an obvious anagram between Satan and Santa, providing a clue that perhaps they are two aspects of the same being, alter egos, twins, as it were. When we consider the "nick" names of each archetype, an even more intimate relationship is revealed. For example, Satan is often referred to as Old Nick, whereas Santa Claus is called Saint Nick. Both "Nicks" account for the two extremes of the archetypal shamanic experience. Over time we have subconsciously assigned the parts of our hero's journey that we dislike and cannot accept to the underworld. The wild side of shamanism includes animal transformations, herbalism and earthy sexuality. These are attributes we ascribe to the devil and witches. The parts of the story that we can accept or identify with, such as immortality, religious rapture, wisdom, and prosperity we associate with heaven, Jesus, saints and Santa Claus. Old Nick represents the dark side whereas Saint Nick defines the light. This split in consciousness runs concurrently with trends toward materialism, colonialism and the rise of dominator style societies.

In 601 AD, Gregory I issued a papal edict concerning pagan practices. This law is responsible for converting many of the pagan holy days, or Sabbaths, into Christian Holidays, as is the case with Samhain, Hallowmas or Halloween which is celebrated by the church as "All Saint's Day." It is apparent that a similar thing happened with the pagan solstice traditions along with the elements of the classic shamanic experience. In his edict, Pope Gregory attributed Satan with the physical features of the pagan horned god Pan - cloven hooves and a goat's head - thus literally creating a scapegoat. A scapegoat is defined as a person bearing the blame for the sins and shortcomings of others; which is exactly what we have done to the horned god and the fly agaric mushroom. We have sacrificed the symbols of the dark side in favor of the light and glorious immortal hero that exists in human form. It seems that Jesus bore the suffering for our sins while Satan continues to take the blame for them.

These pagan elements of death and resurrection, a horned god and an immortal hero are obviously central to Christianity. Many researchers of mushrooms and religion have suggested that the early Christians were an evolved mystery cult that practiced psychedelic initiation using the fly agaric. John Allegro was on the original team of scholars that had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and his renegade book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross posited that Jesus was actually only a metaphor for the fly agaric and the powers it bestowed upon the initiate. (14) The book was widely rejected early on, but is continually being read and referenced as a wave of new scholarship puts this question to the test. A new wave of research from writers like Jim Arthur provide even more support for a long history of psychedelic initiation in western religion. (15) Clark Heinrich's Magic Mushrooms in Alchemy and Religion also carefully argues that the early Christians were indeed employing the fly agaric to achieve direct experience with God, and that the tradition was kept alive in the west through secret societies that formed during the middle ages around ancient vocations like stone masonry and metallurgy. (16) According to scholars like Heinrich and Arthur, these groups evolved the practice of Alchemy to protect the secret of entheogenic mushroom initiation from the authority of the church and their genocidal inquisitions.

It appears to me that chimney sweeps may represent one such vocation that evolved with ancient secrets like mushroom initiation. Gordon Wasson birthed the field of ethnomycology with his research on the Amanita muscaria mushroom. His 1968 book Soma attempted to identify the Vedic god of intoxication as the fly agaric. (17) While Wasson discusses mushrooms and reindeer extensively, (18) he does not approach the subject of Santa Claus or Christmas directly, except for very briefly in the following point about chimney sweeps: "The red mushroom with white spots appears frequently on greeting cards to convey good wishes and a seasonal message of happy augury,.... A noteworthy thing: this attribute of happy augury belonging to the [fly agaric mushroom] is regarded by chimney-sweeps as peculiarly theirs." (19) It seems that something much more than a friendly association of good luck charms is going on here. Santa Claus is a chimney slider, which is to say, the chimney sweeps know his secrets and vice versa. Perhaps the chimney sweep profession represents a secret society that held on to the shaman's ancient secret of the fly agaric mushroom in fear of persecution from the church.

To make further sense of the connection of chimney sweeps to the fly agaric I offer this poem by the 17th century visionary, William Blake. Through it we can get a deeper look into the mystery of the top hat wearing chimney-sweeps and their hidden knowledge.

William Blake from Songs of Innocence:

"And so he was quiet, and that very night/As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight! That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,/Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,/And he'd open the coffins and set them all free; Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,/And wash in the river, and shine in the sun.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,/They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind; And the Angel told Tom, if he'd been a good boy,/He'd have God for his father, and he'd never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,/And got with our bags and our brushes to work. Tho' the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;/So if all do their duty they need not fear harm." (20)

This poem offers another clue to the hidden meaning of mushrooms, chimney sweeps and Christmas in its underlying theme of death, resurrection and enlightenment. One can also detect a possible hidden reference to the fly agaric mushroom as well. Blake begins this poem with the line "and so he was quiet" which describes a prerequisite condition for a visionary state - inner silence. Then Tom, as the chimney-sweep is called, has not a dream but a vision ("such a sight!") while he was sleeping. Sleeping in this case could actually refer to a meditative state either naturally or chemically induced, especially after the initial proclamation that he was quiet first and foremost. Also, the fly agaric sometimes induces a temporary unconscious sleep like state in those who ingest it. (21)

In his vision Tom sees "thousands" of chimney-sweeps, himself included, sealed in black coffins which is clearly symbolic of death. Then an Angel appears to Tom with a "bright key" to set them free, clearly an allegory of resurrection. This can also be read, in my opinion, as a reference to the fly agaric with its bright red color and its potential for unlocking the doors to eternity. Which is exactly what happens next in our poem when Tom and the other chimney-sweeps frolic and play in an Edenic garden before they miraculously ascend to the heavens, "rise upon clouds and sport in the wind." Then the angel told Tom, if he was a good boy he'd have God as a father which sounds strikingly similar to Christ, the son of God. Finally, when Tom has to get back to the daily grind of his earthly existence, and although they "arose in the dark" and the "morning was cold" we are assured that the wisdom of the experience is still with him as he was "happy and warm" and without fear.

Here we have an allegorical descriptive of a classic psychedelic journey: first silence, then death followed by a visitation from an angel, or celestial "other" with the "bright key" to paradise culminating in an out of body ascension. These are universal ingredients found in reports of shamanic voyages and psychedelic experiences throughout time and across the globe. This visionary poem suggests that the chimney sweep craft is a vital link from the middle ages to modernity that perhaps carries with it the knowledge of mushroom shamanism during the dark ages of theocratic rule.

The three ominous colors, red, white and black resonate throughout time with Santa's magic. And while many writers have noted the mysterious power these colors have on the Western mind, few have connected them with the fly agaric. For example, In his book The Winter Solstice: the Sacred Traditions of Christmas by John Matthew's, the author suggests that fire and snow account for the power that red and white hold over us: "...The symbolism of red fire in the white desert of Winter is a vital image. Is it stretching the point too far to see an echo of this in the red and white costume and white beard of [Santa Claus]? Certainly the importance of these colors throughout the northern world is beyond question." (22) Matthews talks of the shaman's flying reindeer and his journey through the heavens in search of the gifts of fire and prophecy, but never attempts to explain how the shaman might come to accomplish this supernatural feat. The fly agaric mushroom and it's powerful medicine are not mentioned.

Robert Bly writes about the symbolic significance of the colors red, white and black in his book about men, Iron John. (23) "The fairy tale hero or heroine, whether in Russian, German, or Finnish tales, who chances to see a drop of red blood fall from a black raven into the white snow, sinks immediately into a yogic trance. That suggests the vast power red, black, and white have or have had over human consciousness up through the middle Ages." (24) Bly uses the story Iron John to explore men's issues and finds a thread of truth and hope in recovering men's power by getting in touch with the archetypal wild man through reclaiming male initiation. He offers a vast array of potential interpretations for the symbolism of red, white and black. Among them are sexual symbols; white for semen and red for menstrual blood. Alternatively, birth, maturity and death are offered for the meaning of white, red and black, respectively. But ultimately Bly settles on the idea that the three colors represent a developmental sequence, a spiritual maturation process, phases of initiation. Red for youth, white for adulthood and black for old age, for example. Yet the red and white mushroom is never considered. As we have seen, entheogenic mushrooms have been a vital component in spiritual initiation for humans throughout time.

It seems that many Santa Claus scholars are either frustratingly overlooking the fly agaric, for one reason or another, or they are choosing to omit it. In her book Santa, The Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker connects Santa Claus back to a 50,000 year old tradition of shamanism through the persistence of wild-man plays into the 20th century in Europe intended to celebrate the Winter Solstice. The consistent theme found in these plays is the sacrificial death and resurrection of the village wild-man for the well being of the community. In the play, the horned wild-man is hunted and killed for his affiliation with the young maiden of the village, only to be miraculously reborn again. Siefker notes the similarity in the themes of these plays and those found in the classic shamanic experience, as we have seen time and again, "there are similarities too striking to ignore or chalk up to coincidence. . . We are asking questions to which no firm answers exist, yet the overwhelming similarities of these rituals, and the astonishing pervasiveness of their spread throughout Europe, imply an origin so ancient and so deeply rooted, it may have predated any Europe an civilization, indigenous or imported." (25) That this scholar may have missed a vital component in the answer to her question is evidence of how big of a secret the fly agaric really is. There is still such a legacy of fear and misunderstanding about hallucinogenic mushrooms that many of us simply refuse to consider the role they have played in forming the human mind.

It is clear to me that plant and mushroom entheogens were once the birth rite of every human being. Gradually, they became controlled and substituted with cheaper and more addictive substances. Terence McKenna discusses this process thoroughly in his revolutionary book, Food of the Gods. He writes, "Hierarchically imposed religion and, later, hierarchically dispensed scientific knowledge were substituted for any sort of direct experience of the mind behind nature." (26) McKenna concedes that the original sacraments in any religion were no doubt entheogenic in nature whether cannabis, cactus, mushroom or some other rare flower. Sadly, humans have replaced the nectar of the gods with cheap substitutes. McKenna names alcohol, tobacco, sugar, coffee, tea, heroin, cocaine and television all as substitutes for the psychedelic experience, calling them drugs of a dominator style society. He reminds us that the slave trade and colonialism were developed and sustained by these goods which offer only temporary stimulation and frustrating addictions. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco have been culturally supported whereas the sacramental use of entheogenic mushrooms are still demonized and outlawed.

I personally see Coca-Cola as a substitute for the Amanita muscaria. This popular beverage contains sugar, caffeine and at one time cocaine. What other single brand name drink is celebrated all over the world and has influenced modern culture more than Coca-Cola? It is drunk at anytime of any day in any situation by the very young as well as the very old. It is allowed in our work places and schools. One can say that Coca-Cola is deified, like the once great Soma, Vedic god of intoxication. Coke is our present-day, devolved elixir of life, and yet it stills bears an uncanny resemblance to the very thing it replaced - one of the world's oldest entheogens - the fly agaric mushroom. Like Santa Claus, both the fly agaric and this popular soft drink can be instantly recognized by the ominous color trio red, white and black. After all, it was Coca-Cola that helped create the contemporary image of Santa Claus when in 1931 illustrator Haddon Sundblom turned to Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem for inspiration and associated the "jolly old elf" forever more with advertising and commercialism. Even Coca-Cola's current look still relies on its relationship with Santa Claus. Images of the north pole, polar bears and seals playing with brightly colored red balls dotted with white stars can be seen anywhere, any time of the year. Coca-Cola seems to constantly be reminding us of the fly agaric mushroom. Large red circles carefully airbrushed in light and shadow with glistening white drops of water mimic big open mushroom caps with white spots. It can be seen on the interstates painted brightly on Coca Cola's delivery trucks and proudly advertised on billboards across America.

Again, this brings up the question of whether Coca-ColaŐs CEO's, marketing teams, advertisers or illustrators are at all in the know about the relationship between Santa Claus and the fly agaric. My personal feeling is that they are not. I do not detect a conspiracy to deliberately keep the fly agaric hidden. Instead, I feel that we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have overindulged in materialism and neglected the spirit realm. This is a message from our own collective higher self communicated to us through our semiconscious language of archetypes and icons, through the colors red, white and black and our most popular drinks. If Coca-Cola, the fly agaric and Santa Claus are trying to tell us something what could it be? Is it something as simple as 'eat more mushrooms and drink less soda' ? Probably so. At a time when our holiday rituals seem anything but sacred, entheogenic mushrooms offer a viable alternative. They are only effective, however if we can somehow integrate this esoteric initiation process into a culturally supported framework of values, laws and customs.

The classic shamanic journey accessed through powerful entheogens like the fly agaric represents a direct personal relationship with god, a freedom that we, as humans have not yet fully won. As federally sanctioned research into the nature of psychedelics resumes in the United States and the criminalization of powerful plants like cannabis and mushrooms is being questioned in the worlds courts, I feel moved to speak my truth on this subject. (27) I would like to see entheogens accepted as a valid way to experience oneŐs self. I believe they offer a window into the dying process, an understanding of which is lacking among humans today. I see the subject of Santa Claus and the Amanita muscaria as an opportunity to gently provoke thoughts and questions about these deep and murky subjects. Perhaps, ultimately what will come out of this awareness is the greatest promise made by Christmas; peace on earth and good will toward men..... which, from my experience is the promise of the mushroom, too.


End Notes

(1) In this essay, I use the term entheogen to mean generating, or awakening the inherently divine. I use the term entheogen along with psychedelic and hallucinogen to refer to any sacramental mushroom or fungus, plant, flower, vine, or derivative thereof which leads to an experience of the inherently divine nature of reality. The Amanita muscaria is one such psychoactive sacrament which must be dried completely before ingestion to avoid unsafe levels of toxicity.

(2) Clement Clarke Moore 'Twas the Night Before Christmas The Sentinel 1823 NY Newspaper

(3) ibid.

(4) ibid.

(5) The use of Amanita muscaria by Siberian and Netherlandish shamans to enter non-ordinary states of awareness was documented extensively in the19th and 20th centuries by explorers and scientists on governmental mission, anthropologists and linguists. A lot of this documentation is included in the book Soma by RG Wasson. Also, Mircea Elide was a pioneer of research into shamanism, particularly Siberian and Northern European traditions. While Eliade does acknowledge the use of the amanita muscaria by these people, he judges it negatively as a degenerate form of shamanism compared to non-chemically induced techniques. Mircea Eliade Techniques of Ecstasy.

(6) Mircea Eliade, Michael Harner, Carlos Castaneda, Alberto Villoldo, Joan Halifax and Terence McKenna have made invaluable contributions to the study of Shamanism in the 20th century.

(7) R.G. Wasson, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich NY 1968)p.161

(8) In the documentation of the shamanic use of fly agaric provided by Wasson in Soma, there are several accounts of the mushrooms ability to give extra strength and endurance in work, travel and dance.

(9) Clark Heinrich, Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy (Park Street Press VT 2002) p.17

(10) ibid. pp. 120-121

(11) In the structural analysis of the book, Castaneda identifies the hallucinogenic mushroom that allowed him to become a crow as Psilocybe mexicana. Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge (Simon & Schuster, NY 1968)p161

(12) ibid. pp129, 131

(13) Road to Eleusis by Wasson, Ruck & Hofmann makes a strong case for the presence of an LSD like ergot based entheogen at the mystery rites performed each fall outside of Athens Greece during early antiquity.

(14) John Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: a study of the nature and origins of Christianity within the fertility cults of the ancient near east. (Doubleday NY 1970)

(15) James Arthur, Mushrooms and Mankind, at jamesarthur.net

(17) Clark Heinrich, Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy (Park Street Press VT 2002)

(18) There is still a scholarly debate about the identity of Soma with possible solutions ranging from the Amanita muscaria, Stropharia cubensis, and Cannabis sativa.

(19) He uses his extensive documentation to make a point about the Indian practice of drinking urine, connecting it with that particular method of ingesting the essence of the fly agaric mushroom, which is said to be among the most reliable and potent.

(20) R. G. Wasson Soma p.20.

(21) William Blake from Songs of Innocence from The Climbing Boys by K.H. Strange (Allison and Busby Limited, London 1982)

(22) Clarke Heinrich tells us "This unconscious state can mimic death.....this dying without dying motif is present throughout the hidden mythology of the fly agaric.Ó Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy p.16.

(23) John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: the Sacred Traditions of Christmas (Quest Books IL 1998)p.117

(24) Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men (Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley 1990)

(25) ibid. p199-200

(27) Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: the Origins and Evolution of St. Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (McFarland, NC 1997)

(28) Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: the Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (Bantam Books 1992) p223

(29) Rick Strassman directed federally funded research on the powerful entheogen dimethyltryptamine. DMT: the Spirit Molecule (Park Street Press VT 2001) And Canada is leading the west in decriminalizing the use and possession of cannabis, especially for medical purposes.


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