Psychoactives in Ancient Egypt: The mushroom myths

Amanita muscaria growing under birches in northern Europe. Image A. Sinclair.

One of the things that I have always found attractive about archaeology is the emphasis on physical evidence to recreate an understanding of the ancient past. However, I find this even better when research from fields like linguistics are combined with archaeology to back claims up.

Therefore, attempts to create interesting narratives about the past with the minimum of evidence really do my head in. Evidence that at a stretch would be described as circumstantial if it was a police investigation and a court was in a very generous mood.  In this case however, I doubt it would even get past the officer on the front desk, because this is about the myth of psychoactive mushroom use in ancient Egypt, that, if you did not know, is a bit of a thing in the fringe scene.  

The idea being that in Egypt the king or a few superdooper elite priests would consume psychoactive mushrooms during secret rites in order to attain an altered state and then pass through metaphorical magic portals and ascend to the realm of the gods.

 
Psilocybe cubensis. Image LordToran at Wikipedia.

These claims involve two well known psychoactive mushrooms - Amanita muscaria (‘fly agaric’) and Psilocybe cubensis (‘Cuban bare head’ above). The myths are not particularly new, and blame for this may be laid at the door of various books and papers by a handful of resourceful fringe authors over the past 60 years.

I will endeavour to keep it brief and only cite the main movers (you can find their groupies easily enough) before ending with the guy who started the ball rolling - Andrija Puharich. This will be followed by a few examples of the claims in contemporary culture. My aim is broad btw, I am not limiting my irritation to the fringes, but to anyone who casually cites these myths.

We begin with a paper by the individual who is at least partially responsible for my interest in this topic. Some responsibility also lies with an Egyptologist friend, with my partner and his arcane circle of mycophiles, and with the researchers at the Science in Ancient Egypt website who foolishly gave me something interesting to do over the last year.

The Entheomycological Origin of Egyptian Royal Crowns (2005)

Stephen Berlant is a psychologist who fancies himself a bit of an expert on psychoactive mushroom use in remote antiquity. His first publication on this topic was called ‘The Prehistoric Practice of Personifying Mushrooms’ (1999) and elaborates on the connection of magic mushrooms to prehistoric shamanism. If you are interested in studies of prehistoric psychoactives I heartily recommend you read someone more qualified, like Giorgio Samorini.

This paper was followed by the one that now serves as a foundation text for woo about magic mushies and ancient Egypt – ‘The Entheomycological Origin of Egyptian Royal Crowns’ - in which Berlant claimed that much ancient Egyptian cult symbolism and some symbols of kingship were based on the magic mushroom - Psilocybe cubensis (for a longer review by me see here).

L-R: Atef, hemhem, white, red & dual crown. Image A. Sinclair.

The basic premise of this paper is that the white crown of southern Egypt was originally based on the tiny pin (juvenile) form of the P. cubensis. But he argues that other Egyptian crowns were symbols of psychoactive mushrooms, like the red crown, double crown, hemhem, atef and khepresh. He also proposes mushroom symbols including the Eye of Horus, the scarab beetle (scarabs roll dung, P. cubensis grows in dung), the golden fly, Amentet (west) symbol, snakes and the Abydos standard.
 
L-R: Amentet standard, Eye of Horus & Abydos standard. Image A. Sinclair.

Highlights would be his assertion that Egyptian kings and elites partook in secret mystery rites involving eating P. cubensis as the Eye of Horus or as the symbol of the white crown bestowed on them by the god Horus. Members of this secret mystery rite were naturally called the Order of the Golden Fly.  But not limiting himself to P. cubensis, he also proposed that Osiris was an A. muscaria, because the god looks like the mushroom, having only one leg and being depicted in art as red and white... no really.
 
Osiris showing his various forms. Images © British Museum.
 
The Underworld god was the embodiment of death and regeneration, 
he was represented as a mummified corpse, embalmed, not one legged.

14 years later Berlant expanded his ideas out to two unpublished drafts that include such modern woo classics as claiming that the practice of celebrating Christmas with a fir tree is descended from an ancient Egyptian ritual of decorating a fir tree with A. muscaria... and of the practice of leaving presents around this tree... in this case muscaria caps.

He also argued that the ancient Egyptians force-fed mummies magic mushrooms as the Eye of Horus during the embalming rituals to guarantee their rebirth in the Afterlife, and this (drumroll) is why all Egyptian mummies have their front teeth missing... lol...  not all mummies are missing their front teeth... it mostly depends on how old they were when they died... Tutankhamen for example doesn’t need his front teeth for Christmas. 

 
Finally, he proposes that the perfumed cones that elite Egyptians wear on their wigs in festival and funerary scenes are magic mushrooms (see image of Roy below) …. cos who doesn’t wear mushroom caps for special occasions?
 
Berlant's Xmas tree in the tomb of Roy (19 Dyn). Image Cairoinfo4u at Flickr.
 
Priest burning incense before Roy, the tree is a bundle of onions for the festival of Sokar (5th Feb.).
Onions were associated with Underworld gods, regeneration and purity.   

Berlant’s various claims are extraordinary, yet they are supported by no evidence and mostly illustrate the pitfalls of looking at ancient art when you, a) can’t read or recognise hieroglyphs, b) have an agenda that you seek to confirm (this is called confirmation bias) and, c) know sweet FA about what you are viewing.  

 
However, for me the main problem is that the early papers were published in academic journals (Ethnopharmacy, not Egyptology) and that has given his argument undeserved credibility in the fringes and with a few academics who have no connection to Egyptology who simply dont know any better. To add insult to injury, the mushroom crowns paper has been made freely available to download everywhere on the net.
 
Images from Budge (L & R) that are used to argue magic mushroom symbolism.

The Amentet (west) symbol combines 2 hieroglyphs: the bread loaf ‘t’ and the fold of linen ‘s’. 

The sources Berlant uses however are underwhelming and typical of non-academic writing. For Egypt he predominantly cites texts and images from obsolete books written by E.A.W. Budge. For shamanic mushroom use he cites Gordon Wasson on Siberian and Hindu shamanism and John Allegro on Christianity having been founded on a secret mushroom cult, Jesus being an A. muscaria. 

Indirectly, he was also greatly influenced by a book by Andrija Puharich which, I assume to maintain credibility, he is careful not to cite. Rather, his main source appears to have been a paper by Mike Mabry, who himself used Puharich. Berlant basically adopts many of Mabry’s arguments, but changes the mushroom from A. muscaria to P. cubensis.

Osiris: Eine Reidentification (2000)

Mike Mabry, a professional photographer, published this puppy in a German volume dedicated to folklore about the A. muscaria, and he was not alone, as another paper by Hartmut Geerken also makes dubious claims about these and ancient Egypt. Actually, dubious is being polite, his citations for archaeological finds of mushrooms are dead ends.

Mabry on the other hand used the Mad Magazine fold-in approach to evidence creation and argued that a classical period lintel from an Egyptian shrine in the Louvre shows proof that the god Osiris was an A. muscaria (when you fold together a photo in a Larousse mythology book). Apparently, this revelation occurred from him trying to make a face with the wedjat eyes... and then things escalated.

Louvre lintel, with Mabry's proposal. Image Rama at Wikipedia.

On folding the paper together Mabry concluded that Osiris was actually a mushroom, then he went looking for one that looked like this doctored image, which I have to say it doesn’t, I’d opt for a Boletus myself... or a penis. 

He supported this by stating that Osiris is represented in Egyptian art with red upper body and white lower, just like the mushroom (see images above), and that the white crown the god wears is a pin A. muscaria citing the Cannibal Spell from the Pyramid and Coffin texts (Budge 1911, p. 121).

The text: 

 ‘he takes possession of the breasts (or, hearts) of the gods, 
he eats the Red Crown, he swallows the Green Crown.’

An updated translation:  

 ‘and he has acquired the gods’ hearts;

for he has eaten the red and swallowed the raw*’ 
Allen and Der Manuelian 2005. 
 
*wadj may be translated as green, raw or fresh, it is assumed by Berlant and Mabry to be a plant, 
plants are green = mushrooms are plants. Yes, I know green is not white.
 

Taperet offering to Re-Harakhty, 22-25 Dyn. Image © Louvre.

Mabry argues that the eyes and the sun disk on this stele are A. musc.

Mabry also then includes the red crown as a mushroom, citing the above text and Andrija Puharich who called that royal crown the ‘red plant of life’ in The Sacred Mushroom (p. 26). To cap this off he argued that the Osirian djed pillar represented the ladder with which one ascends to heaven, but specified that the model for the symbol was a cedar tree, because this was originally made of tree wood and A. muscaria grow under cedars. He doesn’t go full Christmas tree, but the potential is certainly there (pp. 24-5).

Eye of Horus with snakes cited in Mabry.

Taken from Andrews 1994, pl. 46.

He also considers the Eye of Horus to be an A. muscaria because ... wait for it ... that amulet looks like a snake head and the red crown combined ... if you are very selective about your image, and hold it upside down ... because snakes are symbols of mushrooms and their venom supplies a buzz.  Adding that this amulet was fed to Osiris by his son Horus in order to rejuvenate him after death. Wait, but I thought Osiris was the mushroom... (p. 29, citing Budge 1911, p. 89). 

 
The god Horus feeding Osiris his own eye neatly rounds off another rationalisation that is made by woosters and mushroom fans that the A. muscaria was the legendary Food of the Gods or Flesh of the Gods. Therefore, because of this it is also rationalised that Osiris bestowed mushrooms on humankind (facepalm ... he taught humans agriculture, food was his gift), and that the sacred Osirian mushroom was forbidden to the rest of the populace and exclusive to Egyptian royalty (p. 28).
 
Telephone game bullshit that should not occur. None of this is correct.
 
The myth may be sourced to articles in a US food industry journal in the 70s.
Stop it now. 

This sort of dubious analogy is core stuff for this topic, cannibalistic eating of the Flesh of Gods combined with secret rituals involving kings consuming magic mushrooms. So before moving on, let’s just be clear the ancient Egyptians had no religious tradition of eating their gods or ritual cannibalism... this is out of date bullshit... even Budge struggled with it.

 
‘Finally it is said that Unas eats men and feeds upon the gods. We have already 
referred to the passage in Juvenal’s Fifteenth Satire in which he declares that the  
Egyptians ate human flesh.’  

‘the fact remains that there is not a particle of evidence in the Egyptian inscriptions.’ 

Budge 1904, pp. 28 & 36.
 
They were also not into secret messages involving magazine fold-ins. It is really not that easy to fold up a solid wooden shrine with plaster facings ...
 
Mabry citing Puharich for mushroom symbols.

Original image from Puharich (p. 158) arguing this scene shows 4 sacred mushrooms.

Mabry’s inspirations for his ideas, apart from Mad Magazine, were a book by Martin Larson (1977) that claimed the Christian Eucharist was derived from an ancient Egyptian practice of cannibalism, this argument itself derived from the old meta-narratives that toy with this idea. Also, he dabbles in Robert Graves (White Goddess) and selected Pyramid Texts as translated by Budge. 

 
Overall much credit must be laid with the book by Andrija Puharich which supplied most of the ground theory for this paper. But before going there, brief mention must be made of a whacky little book that came out in the same year as Mabry’s paper.

Mushrooms and Mankind: The Impact of Mushrooms on Human Consciousness and Religion (2000) 

James Arthur is a complete blank, as there is no biography available anywhere to flesh out who he is, or was. What I do know is he published this monstrosity with the US based fringe publisher The Book Tree, if you want to read up to date tosh about nephilim giants or aliens building the first civilisations using modified DNA this is the perfect publisher for you.

Arthur’s book is therefore an indulgent exercise in smoodging fringe theory from various sources and making it all about the longevity of secret shamanic rituals involving the consumption of magic mushrooms in every religious sect from ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia, then onward to Rome and the cult of Mithras, culminating in the Freemasons and western governments who are an elite society secretly running the world and imposing fascism on its sheeple.

How many mushrooms? Pectoral of Tutankhamen. Image A. Sinclair.

 Arthur - ‘Ankh, djed, disc, snakes and wings’ (p. 55).

For Egypt it is a wild ride that I can only summarise here – basically, the Egyptian Underworld god Osiris was the original dying and reborn Santa Claus, as well as Krishna, Jesus and Mithras, who rode a chariot through the sky, his birthday being the 25th of December (and that of his son Horus). At his death a fir tree grew over his corpse and people put presents around this tree to celebrate... wait... why? I thought Osiris’ birthday was in August. 

Again, like for Mabry (and Berlant), Arthur claimed the A. muscaria was the Food/Flesh of the Gods, the plant of life and consumed in secret rituals of transcendance, but he also added original touches, like these initiatory rites were performed in the ‘multidimensional’ pyramid of Giza with the sarcophagus in the main chamber as decompression unit...  ouch.

 

The ankh, djed pillar and Eye of Horus are again included as symbols of these mushrooms and their secret rituals, but he also includes the was sceptre (Seth ears look like gills), the Aten disk (round and red), scarab beetle, sacred cobra, wings on just about anything (gills), and the tops of pillars in ‘all’ Egyptian temples (Polypores, Pleurotus spec, A. muscaria, P. cubensis). 

 
Also, like Berlant (2019), he suggested that the word Amanita is eerily similar to the name of the god Amen (more correctly Imen) and the underworld Amenta (Imentet), coincidence, they think not (p. 46) ... uh, yeh... no... sounds-a-bit-like is characteristic of fringe ‘linguistics’, and not to be pedantic, but Amanita describes a big family of variously edible, deadly, and inedible fungi, not just the cool red one.
 
Scarab from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
 
Highlights of Arthur’s claims would be the inference that the Eye of Horus, called by him a djed-eye’, is somehow spookily connected to George Lucas’ Jedi (p. 19), or that young Egyptian women would use the djed amulet in fertility rituals as a practice phallus... seriously, do not try this at home (p. 53). 

His sources for this book were naturally Budge, Gordon Wasson (Siberian shamanism) and John Allegro (Jesus was a muscaria), but for Mesopotamia he used that good ol’ shonky purveyor of Anunnaki woo, Zecharia Sitchin, and then he added magic mushrooms ... did you know Enki was a mushroom? ... I certainly didn’t (pp. 35-8).   

For ancient Egypt Arthur (like everybody else) freely elaborated on ideas that he lifted directly from the following book by Andrija Puharich…  

If you think it was weird before, it is about to get weirder.

The Sacred Mushroom: Key to the Door of Eternity (1959)

 

This entire shroomy fiasco began within the 1950s occult scene in New York high society, and in the mind of American parapsychologist and ESP researcher, Henry (Andrija) Puharich. Therefore many, if not most, claims raised in the previous publications are derived from his book. 

And it is a fascinating backstory which began when a sculptor named Harry Stone (his surname was actually Stump), for reasons probably only clear to himself (opportunity?), entertained people at a dinner in New York in June 1954 by handling an ancient Egyptian pendant naming queen Tiye that was owned by the hostess (p. 8).  

On doing this Stone fell into a trance in which he regressed to a past life as an ancient Egyptian priest called RA HO TEP, whom he sort-of claimed was the adopted son of the famous Imhotep of the Old Kingdom. I say ‘sort-of’, because Stone actually just said he was an orphan brought up by a man who made buildings (p. 15) ... later in the transcripts he claimed to be a king... 

 
Puharich joined the rest of these and many other dots afterwards, like deciding that the priest could not be a son of Imhotep, architect of Djoser, and must be prince Rahotep (of the famous statue), high priest of Heliopolis, and a son of Seneferu. According to him this Rahotep was later cruelly murdered by Khufu, who wickedly suppressed the mushroom cult (pp. 121-3, 219) ... yeh, whatever... why is no-one ever a peasant in these things?
 
This is bollocks, basically just a stream of poorly drawn signs (p. 47).
 
Past life regression via hypnosis was all the rage in the mid 1950s due to a magazine serialisation and later popular book by Morey Bernstein called The Search for Bridey Murphy. I can vouch for its popularity, as my mum, in an entirely different country and decade, had a copy, I read it as a teen, seemed legit at the time... but unsurprisingly, turns out it isnt. 

The hostess of the aforementioned dinner party was an insanely wealthy philanthropist named Alice Muriel Astor Bouverie (yes, those Astors), who just happened to be a generous sponsor of Puharich and his research foundation, the Round Table, that was dedicated to ESP research, and had recently dabbled in the notion of an overarching divine authority called The Nine, which they believed were the Egyptian Ennead gods .... seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up 

 
Astor had a reputation for eccentricity, heaps of cash and a soft spot for ancient Egypt. In the 1920s she claimed to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess during the reign of Akhenaten, according to her 1st husband, a Russian prince. She also claimed to have been at the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb and to have secretly acquired a gold necklace with ram’s heads from this (Obolensky 1958, 271-2)... emphasis on ‘claimed’.
 
I don't think you really need to be an Egyptologist to see this is bollocks (p. 16).

Therefore she was probably very excited to find another ancient Egyptian medium that evening in New York, and forthwith sent a written copy of Stone’s trance to Puharich, and then continued recording these on further occasions, presumably after the sherry, but before the gentlemen retired to the library.

During these entertaining episodes that were inclusive of automatic writing and speaking in tongues, Stone claimed that a yellow plant with white spots was used by priests to make a cream that was rubbed on the crown of the head.  The plant could also be placed on the tongue and was for relieving pain and stimulating psychic abilities. 

He also quite conveniently drew this plant for the audience… Yes, that is correct, this guy was an artist.


Stone's drawing of the golden plant, p. 16.

On receiving the copy of Stone’s trance from Astor, Puharich got quite excited and bustled off to his research foundation ... where he (like everybody else in woo-town) grabbed the nearest copies of Budge and somehow translated Harry’s drawings according to his own expectations, because seriously, the hieros are gibberish, some signs are complete fiction. 

Later in the summer of 1955 they tramped out into the foundation’s 65 acre garden estate looking for yellow mushrooms that supply a buzz, conveniently guided by instructions from Astor while she was under hypnosis one evening (p. 78), and on finding some, then experimented with rubbing these on their heads and chewing them (pp. 96-7). The results were unsurprisingly variable, with no significant paranormal activity.

 
Nonetheless, Puharich continued to document more interviews with Stone, until the latter ceased to produce coherent hieroglyphs (say what?) or go into trances ... perhaps the novelty wore off. As a solution he also experimented with other receptive people cold-handling Stone’s drawings and then documented their visions (see celebrity psychic Peter Hurkos), after which he wrote a book about it, the rest is pseudo-history.  
 
This book is the source of the claim that an Egyptian crown was a mushroom. As well, Puharich is responsible for the idea that the ankh, was sceptre and Eye of Horus were A. muscaria, that this fungus was the AAKHUT, AAK KHUT or ‘plant of life’, and the ‘Food/Flesh of the Gods’.
 
Portal of the Otherworld, a pair of AAKHUT, p. 171.
  
He also proposed that the hieroglyph for a sunshade was the symbol of this cult and of the ‘portal to the Otherworld’, and that the solar falcon perched on the Amentet symbol from the Book of the Dead showed a mushroom (pp. 147-53). Finally, he also dabbled with the kheper scarab being symbolic of this ascension rebirth rite (p. 130).
 
Every publication claiming magic mushrooms were used in ancient Egypt owes their argument to Andrija Puharich, and to a much lesser degree to Gordon Wasson (1969) who wrote the textbook on magic mushroom use in Siberian shamanism (which is not crap, although some claims are disputed), but credit must also go to John Allegro (1970) who argued that Jesus was a magic mushroom (this one however is crap).
 
From the autobiography of Alice Astor's 1st husband.

After the funds fizzled out on the sudden and unexpected death of Alice Astor in 1956 Puharich went on in his parapsychology career by later collaborating with Uri Geller, you know - bendy spoony Saturday afternoon talk show guy - however he never went further with the psychoactive mushroom research.
 
Biography of Gore Vidal, a close friend of Alice.

These swashbuckling tales of mystics, mushrooms and New York high society all sound like firm foundations for a legitimate argument about psychoactive mushroom use in rituals in far antiquity, no?  Well, to be honest Wasson was the highlight, because once this topic hit Egypt it was downhill all the way.

A few brief explanations of the symbols often used to argue these points on woo sites.

Symbols, signs, royal rituals

So here’s the thing with the ancient Egyptians. They were quite good at visual communication. The following images are examples of this and of the importance of understanding context, because your average fringe dweller only looks at the images and ignores the other quite useful information.

These scenes are not isolated snapshots that are free to interpret, because Egyptian hieroglyphs were translated nearly 200 years ago. And if someone is prepared to accept the translation of the name Cleopatra, or Tutankhamen, or Budge’s clunky and antiquated translations of the Pyramid Texts then they probably have to accept translation works at a basic level, or they need to start over from scratch and prove academics wrong... 

 
Anyway, my point is that these images come with captions... or like the next image, they are text.
 
Forti at Trinfinity blog.

Signs for sunshades

The relief shown above from Trinfinity is often used to argue that the sunshade and its hieroglyph are symbols of the secret mushroom ascension ritual. This is because the uninformed viewer is choosing to see 2 similar ‘mushroom-like’ signs. 

Puharich called this sign a sunshade or fan, which is correct, as it represents a feather fan. The name gives this away, because the word shut (šw.t) is most likely derived from shut ‘feather’.  Some of the problem here may be attributed to interpreting the English word ‘sunshade’ as a parasol, or umbrella, when a large fan can give shade too. 

 
I might also add that elsewhere on the woo-net this same sign is claimed to be a UFO landing on a pyramid (see my critique of that here).
 
Left, hieros tomb of Rekhmire. Right, a royal fan from Medinat Habu.
Image (L) Boulanger 1965 (R) Bruce Allardice at Flickr.

Nonetheless, the image from Trinfinity does not show 2 mushrooms, it is 3 signs making one word – ‘fan’ or ‘shadow’ (one of the human souls) that was written with the fan sign and the letter ‘t’. The vertical stroke under the ‘t’ has no sound value, it indicates you are looking at a sign group – a word. In Trinfinity's photo these signs are clearly painted different colours. 

  • It is 3 signs not 2.   
  • A feather fan is not a mushroom.

 

Trinfinity again. Image from Pinterest.

The Water of life ritual

This ritual is fairly common from royal monuments after around 2000 BCE. Because of this it is relatively clear to Egyptologists what it involved – it was a symbolic purification libation poured over the king by the gods responsible for granting life and kingship, usually Horus and Set/Thoth. A variant on this symbolism later also gets adopted by (cashed up) normal people in New Kingdom funerary symbolism.

Pseudos interpret this image as a shamanistic ritual involving magic mushrooms or mushroom liquid, because Puharich, and later Arthur, argued that the ankh is a symbol for A. muscaria – the idea being that the loop is the cap and the crossbars the frill. 
 
Hatshepsut being anointed by the gods, Karnak. Image A. Sinclair.

The ankh was the symbol of life and of regeneration after death, so at a basic level the image of a king having these poured over him is easy to interpret – the king is granted eternal life.  However, the material that was poured over the king is not difficult to fathom, because sometimes they did not use ankhs in these scenes, they used a blue zigzag line, the Egyptian sign for water.  

  • Water was a symbol of life.

Which makes perfect sense from a culture who were dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile river for their water.

 
 
Trinfinity blog.

Senetjer offered to a god or king

Again, nothing like being ignorant of ancient symbolism and then claiming on the internet that you have discovered a secret that nobody else on the planet has noticed. This is btw original, as none of the authors cited above have suggested this... 1 point for originality... Forti claims that this scene shows an upside-down mushroom being fed to a god or king.

Nonetheless, the Egyptian caption says otherwise, as this type of ritual scene has a text directly below the object in the king or officiant’s hands stating exactly what this is, and what is going on, often there is also a longer description above the scene as well.  These captions read – ‘making or producing senetjer for – god or dead king’s name’.
 
Abydos temple of Seti I. Image A. Sinclair.

Now we know that the text and image go together because the sign that identifies the word senetjer is the same symbol as the one that is offered (see cup in top text). In addition, the word group has 3 signs that look like small balls, which also hints at what it was – little lumps of aromatic resin – like frankincense and myrrh. If you look close you can see the iwnmutef priest is actually throwing little balls into the cup.

The hieroglyph for incense. A. Sinclair.

Therefore, senetjer is incense – burning in a cup. The Egyptians burned lumps of incense in small cups with straight sides and thick bases, or on long censors with a hand holding a cup on the end.  These images show the cup with flames rising from the burning resin, which incidentally always points towards the god or dead king who is breathing the sacred smoke.

Also A. muscaria does not have a red stem, but surprisingly fire can be orange-red.

  • It is an incense burner.


A. Vase with lotus leaves. B. Temple capital. C. Hieroglyph for chisel.

Temple columns

This little theory is again the result of seeing mushrooms where there are none. But this time the source is James Arthur who on visiting Egypt noticed the capitals of temple columns had elaborate plant forms.  They do btw... but I am going to emphasise the words ‘plant forms’.  This is a long-standing Egyptian tradition and these designs became quite elaborate in the 1st millenium.

Before this the capitals of columns were often decorated with less ornate tops. However, in all periods these decorations were mostly the symbols of a unified Upper and Lower Egypt, the south flower, blue and white lotus, papyrus, or even the heads of the goddess Hathor. None were based on edible or psychoactive fungi varieties, this is subjective thinking. 

Papyrus capitals from the temple of Horus and Sobek, at Kom Ombo.

Image by Bruce Allardice at Flickr

 

# Mushrooms are not plants, and incidentally -

#All mushrooms are not evidence for magic mushrooms.

 

Misinformation in media

The image below brings me back to an earlier observation about the unfortunate influence of these publications on media and academia beyond Egyptology, as this quote is not sourced from a pseudoscience website, but rather from the website and papers of a mycologist who has adopted the claims of Arthur and Berlant as though they were legitimate scholarship, presumably with the intention of giving his contemporary research into food production an interesting backstory. 

Abdel Azeem et al 2016.

He is not alone and other academics in mycology, food industry journals and psychoactive research have also made this error, by repeating the various modern falsehoods about mushrooms in ancient Egypt, particularly the myths of the Food of the Gods, the plant of immortality, gift of Osiris and that consumption of these fungi was the exclusive right of royalty.  

This oversight illustrates the problems associated with sourcing out of date literature when researching a paper, combined with decades long down-the-line citation (telephone game academia), and the pitfalls of combining very specialised knowledge with not consulting experts in other disciplines, because these authors are citing earlier authors in their own fields and not consulting Egyptologists.  


Conclusion

I’ll put it as concisely as possible, if you consult an Egyptologist who dabbles in pharmacology they will tell you:

  • There is no evidence from pharaonic Egypt for a cultural value for any kind of fungus, except yeast – because bread, wine and beer were really important.
  • There is no word in their writing system for a fungus, again except possibly yeast, ergot and mould.
  • There is no mushroom hieroglyph, not one. The proposals by woosters are all misidentifications of existing signs – like chisel, drill, incense, fan and papyrus.
  • Nor are there any confirmed images of mushrooms – the misidentifications include lotus leaves, lotus flowers, papyrus, sundry cult symbols, offering stands and incense vessels.
  • There have been no findings of archaeological residues of any mushroom from Egyptian burials or food preparation areas... nada.
  • Neither P. cubensis nor A. muscaria are known from Egypt, so the choice of these by pseudos is a good example of ethnocentrism, or the ‘our drugs must be their drugs’ way of thinking.  A. muscaria is a cool climate mushroom that grows in oak and fir forests, the yellow variety (var. guessowii) is specific to North America. P. cubensis is a tropical fungus that grows naturally in dung in warm wet climates, it is the most well-known western psychoactive mushroom outside of European folklore about A. muscaria (see Guzman et al 1998). If the Egyptians did have a local growing psychoactive mushroom it is unlikely to be one of these.
These are cool things, but they are not mushrooms. Image A. Sinclair.
 
A few points to consider:

Symbolism - The visual symbolism of ancient Egypt was not photographic, rather they showed what they considered was the important information, which means they depicted objects from various angles in one image. Therefore, it is quite important to know their symbolic vocabulary before jumping to conclusions from a blurry photo on the internet. Being able to read their texts does not hurt either. The images used by pseudos to support their arguments illustrate their lack of insight, they are subjective, ignore the study of hieroglyphs, they ignore colour (unless it suits their argument, oh look, it’s red).

Values - The Egyptians lived in another time and place, they therefore placed magical value on things in their home environment that we might consider mundane, if we ignore this we are in danger of imposing our values on them, like believing that a bunch of wild onions or bread or water must be another more spiritual entity, like a psychoactive mushroom, rather than something of local significance. However, the Egyptians did value certain psychoactive substances, we know they did, like alcohol, lettuce, the lotuses, mandrake, these all had spiritual, medicinal and possibly recreational value. 

Sources - These are not always made clear by the author, particularly with someone trying to give their claims a veneer of credibility, like Berlant, who is careful to avoid citing Puharich, yet who is indebted to The Sacred Mushroom through his citation of Mabry.  I would say the same for the academic publications that cite mycology and ethnopharmacological texts going back 50 years in their papers. Like the myth of mushrooms being exclusive to kings or the Food of the Gods in ancient Egypt, but now this nonsense is on every perky website devoted to edible mushrooms on the planet. 

 
To describe this as sloppy is overwhelmingly inadequate. 
 
In addition, these authors cherry pick information from scholarship that is ludicrously out of date... pls stop citing Budge... Equally, citation of Roman era botanical texts is nice, but apart from the flights of fantasy these sometimes involve, this tells us nothing about the pharaonic period.  Naturally because of the use of older literature these works are biased towards the thinking of earlier periods and on the inclination to create universal narratives (usually based on religious texts), plus the translations of Egyptian in them are now obsolete.
 
Crazy About Mushrooms blog 2015, a dizzying mix of complete fiction.
 Citation please.

Close

As you may have noticed the claims about magic mushrooms in ancient Egypt are a veritable trip down the burrow of that anxious white rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with obligatory hookah pipe, giant mushroom, add a judicious dash of paranoia, then a teaspoon of past life regression and a pinch of automatic writing for lols. To be honest the amount of artistic licence in this myth is actually mind boggling.

To summarise, the argumentation of the writers cited here is a dog’s breakfast of brain farts and confirmation bias loosely connected together by carefully cherry picked ancient texts and misunderstood images. But I honestly must thank them all, because in going down this rabbit hole I discovered a plot that is worthy of Agatha Christie, the queen of crime herself, containing gullible heiresses, foreign princes, seances, mystics, Egyptian amulets, even down to rumours about foul play on the sudden death of Alice Astor in 1956... it was a wild ride. 

That being said, while entertaining at many levels, this narrative does not provide any evidence that the pharaonic Egyptians knew mushrooms, ate them, or even valued them in any spiritual way.  

It is all poorly argued speculation.

Andrea Sinclair 


Drawing by Harry Stone, dont laugh, they were serious, Puharich p. 111.

Further reading and sources  

Allen, J.P. and P. Der Manuelian 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Society of Biblical Literature. 

Andrews, C. 1994. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press.

Boulanger, R. 1965. Egyptian and Near Eastern Painting. Heron.

Huxley, A. 1977. Moksha: Aldous Huxley's Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience (1931-1963). M. Horrowitz and C. Palmer eds. Stonehill, (pp. 72-3).

Jacobsen, A. 2017. Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception. Back Bay Books. 

Kaplan, F. 2000. Gore Vidal: A Biography. Bloomsbury.

Obolensky, S. 1958. One Man in His Time. McDowell.

Poller J. 2019. Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality. Brill.

Samorini, G. 2019. ‘The Oldest Archaeological Data Evidencing the Relationship of Homo Sapiens with Psychoactive Plants: A Worldwide Overview’. Journal of Psychedelic Studies 3(2): 63–8.

Wasson, R.G. 1968. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt. 

Wise, E. 2009. ‘An “Odor of Sanctity”: The Iconography, Magic and Ritual of Egyptian Incense’. Studia Antiqua 7(1): 67–80.

Don’t do it, it’s a trick (out of date)

Budge, E.A.W. 1895. The Book of the Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum. Oxford University Press.

Budge, E.A.W. 1904. The Gods of the Egyptians: Or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Methuen.

Budge, E.A.W. 1911. Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection. Putnam’s Sons.

Larson, M.A. 1977. The Story of Christian Origins or: the Sources and Establishment of Western Religion. New Republic Books. 

Drawing by Peter Hurkos after handling Stone's drawing above, Puh. p. 112.

Mushrooms

Arora, D. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi. Ten Speed Press…. Fyi, Arora is innocent, he never said mushrooms were the gift of Osiris. 

Guzman, G., J.W. Allen, and J. Gartz, 1998. ‘A Worldwide Geographical Distribution of the Neurotropic Fungi, an Analysis and Discussion’. Annali del Museo Civico di Rovereto 14: 189–280. 

Jay, M. 2020. ‘Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland’. The Public Domain Review. https://publicdomainreview.org/essay/fungi-folklore-and-fairyland

Laessoe, T. and J.H. Petersen 2019. Fungi of Temperate Europe. Princeton University Press. 

Stamets, P. 1999. Psilocybinpilze der Welt: Ein praktischer Führer zur sicheren Bestimmung. AT Verlag. 

Academic citations of the myths (sample)

Abdel-Azeem, A.M. 2010. ‘The History, Fungal Biodiversity, Conservation, and Future Perspectives for Mycology in Egypt.’ IMA Fungus 1(2): 123–42.

Abdel-Azeem, A.M. et al. 2016. Conservation of Mushroom in Ancient Egypt through the Present. Poster presented at the ASFC conference, Ismailia, Egypt, Oct. 18-20, 2016.

Kotowski, M.A. 2019. ‘History of Mushroom Consumption and its Impact on Traditional View on Mycobiota – An Example from Poland’. Microbial Biosystems Journal 4(3) (p. 4).

Mattos-Shipley et al. 2016. The Good, The Bad and the Tasty: The Many Roles of Mushrooms’. Studies in Mycology 85, (p. 130).

McHugh, A.M. 2015. Mushrooms in History: Ancient Greece and Egypt. Crazyaboutmushrooms.com. https://www.crazyaboutmushrooms.com/2015/05/27/mushrooms-history-greeks-egyptians/

Niksic, M., A. Klaus, and D. Agyropoulos 2016. ‘Safety of Foods Based on Mushrooms’. In Regulating Safety of Traditional and Ethnic Foods, V. Prakash, O. Martin-Belloso, L. Keener, S.B. Astley, S. Braun, H. McMahon, H. Lelieveld (eds). Academic Press, (p. 422).

Nonneke, IB.L. 1989. Mushrooms’ in Vegetable Production, (p. 439).

Sackett, C. 1975. ‘Mushrooms’. Fruit and Vegetable Facts and Pointers. United Fruit and Vegetable Association, Washington DC.

Shamtsyan, M. 2010. ‘Bioactive Compounds in Mushrooms’. In Encyclopedia of Biotechnology in Agriculture and Food 1(1): (p. 76).

Smith, J.E., R. Sullivan, and N. Rowan, 2005. ‘Mushrooms and Cancer Therapy’. Biologist 52(6), (p. 328). 

Winkelman, M. 2019. ‘Evidence of Entheogen Use in Prehistory and World Religions’. Journal of Psychedelic Studies 3(2): 43–62.

Pseudo - sources

 

Allegro, J.M. 1970. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Sphere Books.

 

Arthur, J. 2000. Mushrooms and Mankind: The Impact of Mushrooms on Human Consciousness. California: The Book Tree.

 

Berlant, S.R. 1999. ‘The Prehistoric Practice of Personifying Mushrooms.’ Journal of Prehistoric Religion 13: 22-30.

 

Berlant, S.R. 2005. ‘Entheomycological Origins of the Egyptian Royal Crowns and the Esoteric Underpinings of Egyptian Religion.’ Journal of Ethnopharmacology 102: 275-88.

 

Berlant, S.R. 2019. ‘Introduction to the Mycolatrical Origin of Egyptian Religion: Why Identifying the many Mushroom-like Objects in Egyptian Art as Mushrooms can Explain those Objects and Ancient Egyptian Religion far better than Egyptologists have. Draft – Academia.edu/Researchgate.

 

Berlant, S.R. 2019. ‘An Egyptian Christmas Tree in the Tomb of Roy. Draft – Academia.edu & Researchgate.

 

Bernstein, M. 1956. The Search for Bridey Murphy. Doubleday. (First published in 1954 in the Denver Post).

 

Forti K.J. 2018. ‘Sacred Mushroom Rites and the Hidden Meaning of the Egyptian Ankh.’ Trinfinity blog. https://trinfinity8.com/tag/amanita-muscaria/

 

Geerken, H. 2000. ‘Paramykologie.’ In Der Fliegenpilz: Traumkult, Märchenzauber, Mythenrausch, W. Bauer (ed), 23-30. AT Verlag.

 

Lloyd, E. 2016. ‘Mysterious Ancient Mushrooms in Myths and Legends: Sacred, Feared and Worshiped among Ancient Civilizations.’ Ancient Pages.

https://www.ancientpages.com/2016/09/14/mysterious-ancient-mushrooms-in-myths-and-legends-sacred-feared-and-worshiped-among-ancient-civilizations-2/

 

Mabry, M. 2000. ‘Osiris: Eine Reidentifikation.’ In Der Fliegenpilz: Traumkult, Märchenzauber, Mythenrausch, W. Bauer (ed), 23-30. AT Verlag, 23-30.

 

Puharich, A. 1959. The Sacred Mushroom: Key to the Door of Eternity. Doubleday.

 


 

Sitchin’s rocket in the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy

Painting of the west wall in the tomb of Huy by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s), Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. If yo...