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It is said that there was once a cult of Amanita muscaria, otherwise known as Fly Agaric. No one can quite say how or when, we can take a good guess as to the why, but there are definitely clues out there. Coming across this tallish (by mushroom standards) bright red mushroom with speckled spots has always evoked a little magic for me. Once while planting trees in the Highlands of Scotland I can across a little grove of a great granny pine and there at her base was a antlered deer skull with several Amanita muscaria growing beside it. That little scene marked a sacred threshold to an ancient past, another realm, I was unaware at the time that it was stirrings of a calling, the callings of the Ancient Mothers of Loch Lomond which i you wish you can read about here.
That other realm to is a pre-celtic era, an ancient past in the realm of the Deer Goddess, a figure far older than the antlered figure of Elen of the Ways who I see as possibly a priestess of this most ancient creatrix. But for now lets delve into the Celtic realm – of Druids and their sacred foods and of Brighid, patron goddess of the filidh, the Druid poets and diviners.
The use of Amanita muscaria is widely documented in numerous cultures throughout Europe and Asia yet obscurely mentioned in Celtic Culture. Laurie & White point out that Celtic legends are full of sleep-inducing berries, magical apples, illuminating hazelnuts and knowledge bestowing salmon. Although these were selected by the filidh as magical foods, there is nothing whatsoever psychotropic about these foods as no matter how much of a feast you indulged in would lead you to inspiring and prophetic visions. The Roman Historian Laertius recorded that the Celtic Druids and bards spoke in ‘obscure and coded ways’ obviously they weren’t going to divulge their most sacred rituals and insights to the Romans and Laurie and White suggest that referencing these foods as magical was actually a metaphoric reference to Amanita muscaria.
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The Goddess Brighid and Aminita Muscaria
The Druids who would be using these sacred foods were the filidh, the poets and diviners. Their work involved answering questions of the tribe leader advising battle strategies and foretelling the future. In order to do this they undertook shamanic practices, particular rituals that took them to the otherworld to engage with the spirits and then bring that knowledge back to this reality. Hazelnuts and salmon wouldn’t help in entering into a deep trance but Amanita muscaria would facilitate that journey. The filidh would also petition their goddess in their work and as poets their goddess was Brighid. The great Goddess Brighid has offered different meaning to people over the ages. As a triple goddess she is made up of three sisters and together they are the triad who are patrons of smithcraft, poetry and healing.
Celtic poetry wasn’t rhyming verses of daffodils and fluffy clouds it was a poetry that recorded brave deeds in battle – that held the history of the tribe. It was woven to build up a great tribe leader but was as sharp as a sword and in an instant could bloodlessly cut someone down to size. Poetry was the realm of the filidh and so they must have turned to her in honoring and or helping in their work to inspire ecstatic poetry and induce prophetic visions. Brighid as we know is a fire goddess, and throughout her life in many instances was associated with pillars of flames flickering around her head, a fire which never burns, which in instances could have been an ancient coding for Amanita muscaria, which produces a pronounced heating of the head. We need to remember within the stories of Brighid that as Mary Condren (the feminist theologian and to me the greatest scholar of Brighid) advises it is an impossible task to say what stories are related to Goddess and which to saint as they are woven so tightly together they have felted together over the ages forming such a dense fabric is it no longer possible to tease out a single threads.
The Essence of Aminita
While possible Amanita muscaria references were coded, so too were Brighid’s associations with the speckled cow and speckled snake, these appear many times within her legends and both have otherworldly origins. Her association with the snake is well known, and in Scottish and Irish folk references refer to Amanita muscaria as the speckled snake. The legend of Saint Patrick in banning snakes from Ireland, although the it was the last ice age that had actually killed of any snakes in Ireland, is thought of as attempting to wipe out the pagan practice of the speckled snake cult claim Laurie and White.
Greg Marley author of ‘Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms‘ explains that fly agaric has been a symbol of yuletide happiness in Central Europe, Russia and Scandinavia for centuries, calling it “a red light shining bright in the winter darkness.”
This isn’t a straight forward story as it weaves over eons of time and we can only look for clues and try and piece the parts together, obviously there is so much that we can’t reclaim but we can try!
Reindeer and Amanita Muscaria
We’ve all heard of the connection of Santa and fly agaric but really this connection could be a very old remnant to the Aminita Muscaria cult. Terence McKenna notes the relationship between Santa and a fly agaric shaman concluding:
- Santa’s colors are red and white
- He takes flight – as shaman do when they go into trance and travel to the otherworld
- He uses reindeer in his work (it is said that in collecting the urine of reindeer who eat Aminita Muscaria gives you the effect of the mushroom
- the christmas tree – spruce / pine is the tree that has a mycorrhizal relationship with Aminita Muscaria. And we gather around a tree at mid winter our hearts and soul warmed by the twinkling lights!
The Dark Months: Reindeer and Amanita Muscaria
One festival of this cult was the darkest of winter as that is the time of stories and sharing, of living together. This is a time of trance work and dreaming. By the time we reach Imbolc – which in northern climates is still the dead of winter things can get desperate, food might be running out and questions of surving into spring are looming!
Brighid is a far older goddess than Celtic culture Alistair McIntosh, a Scottish Scholar notes that Professor Seamas O’Cathain (Author of the now out of print Festival of Brigid) suggests that the folklore evidence associating the bear with the Goddess Brigit in Ireland is so strong that it may demonstrate a continuous link with religious practice of four thousand years previously when the bear still roamed Ireland and psychoactive fly agaric mushrooms were likely used in religious ritual.
The Partnership Culture Mushroom?
For someone fascinated in the demise of a partnership culture (a society where women and men hold equal status), a goddess culture which honored the great mother in all things and it’s destruction and overthrowal to a monotheistic male god cult – Terrance McKenna offers an interesting insight on human development and mushrooms. McKenna’s opinion is that psilocybin, a mushroom that he states was the catalyst that triggered self reflecting consciousness in humans. It’s constant availability and inclusion in the human diet for over 50,000 years is a key to what he explains was the suppressed the male urge of dominance and then due to climate change and the scarcity of psilocybin it’s withdrawal from the human diet started us on the track to the patriarchal culture we live in today.
Lally, Jude. 2013. The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brighid to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc. Contained in: Monaghan, P and McDermott, M, (Eds), Brighid: Sun of Womanhood. Goddess Ink, USA. Pgs 10-16.
McIntosh, A. United Nations Biodiversity Proceedings: Cultural and spiritual values of biodiversity, Cambridge University Press,1998. Access online here: http://www.aislingmagazine.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM23/Deep.html
McKenna, Terrance. Part of a speech: Mushrooms in ancient and modern cultures. Access online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzFnxfIxT-c