Review of ‘The Entheomycological Origin of Egyptian Crowns’

High times?  Egyptian Princesses picking poppies and mandrakes among blue lotuses, from the lid of a chest, tomb of Tutankhamen.  Drawing © Andrea Sinclair.

As someone who lurks on internet pages devoted to Egyptian archaeology it is possible to brush against the less attractive side of the fan club … repeatedly …  It is equally possible to find another academic in a discussion with a member of this club. This is basically how I came across the magic mushroom theory about ancient Egyptian crowns.

On this occasion a friend of mine wanted back up in a ‘lively discussion’ about mushrooms and they were aware that we are keen mycologists in our recreational time.  The outcome of that inauspicious experience was my deciding to read this paper.  And then, after the trauma counselling, to wonder why no-one who was qualified to do so had shot this shoddy piece right out of the water … in writing.

Which brings me to the ‘Entheomycological Origin of Egyptian Crowns’ by Stephen Berlant, ‘independent researcher’.

This paper was published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2005, but this in a way should come as no surprise.  As no self respecting Egyptology journal would touch it with a 10 foot barge pole.  One quite effective way to get around the awkward obstacle of producing credible research is to publish with a journal that has reviewers who have no clue about the topic.

The mushroom Psilcybe cubensis at varying growth stages. Photos Wikipedia; Pso304.jpg and DrBrainfish.

In the paper Stephen Berlant has argued that two of the ancient Egyptian royal crowns, the white crown and the triple, or hemhem crown, were originally designed to resemble the hallucinogenic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis (formerly called Stropharia cubensis).  That is his theory in a nutshell, although I should warn you, he also throws in Amanita muscaria as well.

However, his method of arguing this is almost seamless in its application of faulty reasoning, cherry picking of evidence and ignorance of the topics he is discussing.  To be honest, I was initially overwhelmed by how to deal with the ceaseless jumble of rambling down unrelated sidetracks and giant leaps of faith … where do you even start?

I decided to stick with the glaringly obvious and follow the flow.

Amanita muscaria in a northern European birch forest. Photo Andrea Sinclair.

I. Psychoactive use in ancient Egypt
The introduction to this paper is relatively tame, as he cites a loose translation of the journal name (more accurately; pharmakon + logos = ‘discussion of a drug/medicine’), while skirting deftly around the fact that ‘Ethnopharmacy’ is basically a slick way of writing ‘Journal of folk remedies’.  Then he throws in a quote from a long dead Egyptologist (Budge) and states for the sake of clarity that palaeobotanical evidence is very rare from the ancient Near East...  Well yes, this is quite accurate.

When you add to this gem that evidence from written and visual culture is even rarer, warning signals ought to already be going off.  But that has discouraged this gentleman in no way whatsoever.  Instead he justifies his task by citing evidence for the use of other types of psychoactive substances in ancient cultures as somehow supporting an argument for ubiquitous drug use in the Near East.

Let’s begin there; the claim that the ancient Egyptians used psychoactive plants is neither original nor new.  They did.  No Egyptologist is arguing against that.  Only the Egyptian attitude to these will most certainly bear no relationship to ours.  In their view they will have been festival, cult and medicinal plants.  We have the botanical evidence for specific psychotropic plants and there are recipes in medical papyri.

In confirming the use of ‘drugs’ in ancient Egypt Berlant lists the main suspects from scholarship, but he overlooks the psychoactive that the contemporary west considers socially acceptable; alcohol.  Many have been widely studied and while he appears to believe academia’s failure to recognise psychoactive plants is due to ‘bias’, this does not prevent him citing old research for his argument where it suits.

Egyptian 18th Dynasty ladies holding Nymphaea caerulea and mandragora to their noses.  Image tomb of Nakht, Davies 1917, pl. 17.

The water lilies, Nymphaea lotus and caerulea, have been the subject of many studies.  He cites the European Nymphaea alba when lotus is the Egyptian flower.  These were a common element of drinking and feasting scenes and had a great deal of symbolic value in ancient Egypt, being associated with the sun and creation.  However, there is no scientific confirmation that nymphaea are psychoactive enough to have provided a decent hit when inhaled.  Beer might well have been more efficient … maybe not inhaled.

Poppies, Papaver rhoeas, were significant plants in ancient Egyptian funerary and festival iconography, and Papaver somniferum, the source of opium and laudanum may have been used in medicine.  Somniferum was probably introduced to Egypt in the early New Kingdom (ca. 1500 BCE), as there is no record of it in Egypt before this time and opium's identification in medical texts is disputed.  It is a significantly stronger psychoactive than lotuses or alcohol.

I would have mentioned the mandrake, mandragora, as a social psychoactive as well, but the paper does not cite it.  In fact, it does not refer to any studies of Egyptian flora.  This plant is also late to Egypt, again in the New Kingdom, and in visual culture it was highly valued.  All three of these potentially narcotic plants have been found archaeologically in Egypt, particularly in funerary contexts.

Mandrakes, blue cornflowers and red poppies from the tomb of Sennedjem.  Painting by C.K. Wilkinson.  Image © Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Instead of an archaeologically attested psychotropic plant from Egypt, Berlant throws in a plant that is not confirmed archaeologically or lexically, Lactuca virosa, wild lettuce, a plant that is native to temperate climates, like Europe.  The Egyptian lettuce that had high symbolic value is another variety, Lactuca sativa.  It has mild psychoactive effects.

However, I could talk about mild to high mind altering substances until the cows come home, it doesn't achieve a great deal.  The fact is that citing all of these plants that the Egyptians may have used for a buzz in the Bronze Age is quite cool and interesting, but it does not prove an argument that the Egyptians of the late Neolithic or Bronze Age used magic mushrooms in their rituals.

Egyptian King as high priest
From that sound rationalising Berlant moves on to a well worn trope that ancient Egyptian priests functioned as physicians as a part of their ritual activities.  From that he adds that the pharaoh was a high ranking priest, so therefore his honourable cap would logically be grounded in his role as a mushroom wielding herbalist-shaman in the Neolithic.  Kinda hard to prove that latter claim, btw.

But it gets better, because he specifies sem (sm) priests, rather than any priests (m), but otherwise appears to be ignorant of the roles of priests in Egypt.  Instead he rambles on about sm being derived from ‘plant’, (smw = ‘vegetable’ or ‘herb’), because a connection to plants must validate his mushroom hypothesis, plants and mushrooms being interchangeable ... that's sarcasm ...  No citation is given for his etymology claims.

Nonetheless, Egyptian sem priests were not normal priests, they were responsible for reviving the deceased in the funerary rites, where they stood in for the god Horus reviving his father Osiris by performing the opening of the mouth ritual.  They were technically not physicians, rather glorified necromancers.  They performed the rite wearing a ‘panther’ skin, which he uses later to argue that the mushroom Amanita pantherina was significant to the Egyptians.

Amanita pantherina in a northern European forest. Photo © Rainer Wald.

This is a nice example of English language terms being manipulated to create a false argument.  Academics say ‘panther skin’, but they mean a leopard, leopards have spots, the amanita is called pantherina because it has spots.  Having spots is indicative of nothing … nada.  Particularly since the pantherina has many names beyond this one.  Leopards were incidentally not called ‘spot’ in ancient Egyptian.  Using the same descriptive word is not evidence, but this is a common tactic in pseudo-science.

Returning to his argument about sem priests, the pharaoh of Egypt was indeed the highest ranking priest in the Egyptian religion, but he only acted as sem priest when he performed the final services for his predecessor.  No crown is associated with this role.  However, another problem with this argument is Berlant’s ignorance of Egyptian public service.  Physicians were a separate career from priest in ancient Egypt, although these men were likely trained in the temple complexes.  The word for physician in Egypt was sunu (swnw), but there were many job definitions and roles.

After that gobbledygook, he then switches tactics to attribute the origins of medieval alchemy to ancient Egypt, because the Arabic word al-chemiya is based on the ancient word for Egypt, kmt, ‘the black land’.  This is another trope that circulates, particularly on the fringes, which sounds cool, but currently cannot be etymologically proven further back than the word from ancient Greek, khemeia (Χημείά).  A discussion of medieval alchemists being into magic mushrooms definitely takes up a paragraph or two, but it achieves nothing.

He follows that with sundry modern theories about ritual amanita use from various cultures, and then moves to his actual theory.

Berlant fig 1.

The Egyptian crowns
Berlant argues that 2 ancient Egyptian royal crowns were modelled on psychotropic mushrooms during the formative stages of the Egyptian state some time in the Neolithic.  He isn’t overly fussed about dates, but I am, and will clarify that.  The earliest example of the white crown is from the early Naqada period, so conservatively he is inferring that the white crown was created from a mushroom model sometime between 4500 to 3500 BCE.

He opens his argument with very scruffy images arguing that the white crown is modelled on a pin-stage Psilocybe cubensis, without mentioning to the reader that the pictured immature mushroom is perhaps around a centimetre in size, as at that stage of growth they are very small; hence ‘pin-stage’.  Scale, it is quite important.

Left. Image taken from Abu Bakr 1937 (centre), then cropped and flipped, that itself was copied from Naville 1910, pl. 18 (right).  The original watercolour shows no dark shading and Berlant’s caption is incorrect, it is from the shrine of princess Ashayet in the Temple of Menthuhotep I, 11th Dynasty.

The examples of white crowns given by him are a standard crown from the Narmer palette (Predynastic, ca. 3000) and two anomalous crowns`from the Middle Kingdom (2050-1650 BCE).  He focuses on one of the later unusual crowns, because it sort of fits his point.  This image is from Abubakr 1937, and had he viewed the original, he would have known it is incorrect, it has no dark cap.  I wonder how many books cited in the bibliography were not actually read

White crown  -  red crown  -  double or sekhemty crown (two versions).  Image Andrea Sinclair.

So what are they?  The white crown
The ancient Egyptian white crown, was called hedjet (ḥḏt ‘white one’) and is one of the two crowns that symbolised both kingship and unity of the state.  It represented rule over the region we call Upper Egypt that follows the Nile south from the Delta.  When this crown was combined with the desheret (dšrt ‘red one’) crown of Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta) it symbolised a united Egypt as the sekhemty (sḫmty ‘two powerful ones’) crown.

Each of these crowns is thought to have been made out of leather or felt, but it is impossible to confirm, because not one crown has survived in the archaeological record.  They were not buried with kings, they were magical and divine, and if they were natural fibres they are less likely to survive.  With only iconography as evidence it is difficult to know what the original ideas behind the shapes were.

The Egyptians were quite meticulous about plant signs: these are three different sedge signs.  Left is the sign sw. Centre is the symbol of Upper Egypt, šm̕ Right is the sign n, here doubled.

Relatively clear so far, but in discussing these crowns Berlant appears to have misunderstood the terms for the crowns in Egyptian.  He states that the name for the double crown was determined by ‘2 plants’ and the ‘n’ sedge sign doubled.  I can only guess that for ‘2 plants’ he means the plants of Upper and Lower Egypt, as he doesn't give them.  However, the determinative in Egyptian is often the object indicated, so the Egyptian word usually uses the sign for the crown.

Example from the Middle Kingdom showing the names of the two crowns associated with the plants of Upper and Lower Egypt.  Image from Abu Bakr 1937, 25.

The white crown may be associated (not determined) with the sedge of Upper Egypt, shema, but it was written šm-s (+ crown).  The red crown similarly had the triple papyrus of Lower Egypt, as mw-s.  Two sedge signs, nn, had grammatical functions and no connection to crowns.  I am unaware that the sekhemty was determined by the sedge and papyrus.  No citation is given for where he got these claims and he appears to have misunderstood the use of a determinative.  What is clear however, is his belief that a plant sign associated with a crown supports his argument for a magic mushroom crown.

By employing Berlant’s methods, I suspect I could make an argument that the white crown was based on an onion, because it is a bit onion shaped.  Onions are native to ancient Egypt, they are white, there is evidence for them, and best of all, the word for onion in ancient Egyptian was djt, the same word as for the crown (different determinative).  But I am not, because this is still a weak argument, and nobody would care, because onions are simply not that cool.

Atef crown as hieroglyph  -  atef with colour  -  hemhem crown.  Image Andrea Sinclair.

The hemhem crown
By contrast to the early date of the white crown, the hmhm crown does not fit his theory so neatly, as it did not exist before the 18th Dynasty, and seems to come into use during the Amarna period, ca. 1350 BCE.  It was a crown based on a combination of 3 atef (atf) crowns with solar disks on their tops … not a mushroom cap, as he claims … a sun disk, sometimes an ished fruit.  You need to use a blurry image to make this one stick … which he has done and stretched them as well.

The atef crown was a bundle of reeds tied together towards the top.  There is very little to argue against this interpretation, as most images show the reeds.  It is attested from the 4th or 5th Dynasty.  Disappointingly for Berlant’s argument, this crown bears no tangible connection to the white crown except a superficial resemblance to it.  Abu Bakr argued that the latter was also originally made with reeds.  The Egyptian Muu dancers cited later in the paper also wear papyrus reed headdresses, and therefore their's may have a connection to papyrus symbolism rather than to a cluster of psilocybe.

Both white and hemhem crowns may be decorated with ram or cattle horns, so this provides fuel for another claim that the horns are significant because Psilocybe cubensis grows in livestock manure. The horns are a visual reference to the mushroom … wow.  But he doesn’t stop there and adds that mushrooms growing in dung are also the reason for the significance of the scarab beetle pushing a dung ball, because … I kid you not … when you are high on psilocybe you see a bright light, which is how the Egyptians came to worship the sun god. 

Apparently you also see mushroom gnomes, which totally explains Muu dancers … and dwarf gods … eeek.

The manure equals light rationale is then reinforced with the statement that the Egyptians recognised the connection, because when manure burns it gives off light … wtf … this is supposed to be coherent reasoning … Everything gives off light when you set it on fire.  How do I explain that of the many things in the universe the Egyptians considered evil and unclean, manure was right up there in the top ten along with urine … they did not feel warm and fuzzy about dung.

Part of the Cannibal Spell on the east gable of the Antechamber, Pyramid of Unas.  Image Piankoff, 1968.

White = green: Enigmatic phrasing in the pyramid of Unas
This is a ripper, as he has chosen a spell from the Pyramid and Coffin Texts that is called the Cannibal Spell, because it is about the deceased king gruesomely devouring the divine essence of the gods in his process of rebirth.  Berlant cites the version from the Unas pyramid (line 274) where as a part of this process the dead king says he has eaten the red (crown), swallowed the green.

If you are sharp, you may have noticed neither of us has mentioned a green crown, which has caused a bit of idle debate as to the significance of ‘the green’ and some scholars do not translate the word ‘green’ (wadj) as crown, as there is no crown determinative.  Others have, and make an analogy to the two crowns and social unity.  The latter will be what inspired Berlant.

He therefore rationalises that the green crown in this line is another name for the white crown, and puts some effort into this by arguing that wadj, ‘green’, indicates plants (and mushrooms), and that because the god Osiris has green flesh and wears the white crown, therefore the crown too must be associated with the colour green.

This is a glorious example of weak logic.  Green = plants = Osiris + white crown = mushroom.  But it is essential to the paper, because otherwise he has no argument.  The red crown cannot be argued to resemble a mushroom. Which is awkward, because that is how most scholars view this analogy..

James Allen: ‘for he has eaten the red and swallowed the raw
Katya Goebs: ‘he has eaten the Red Crown, he has swallowed the Fresh/Green One’. (also Faulkner)

Had he done his homework he would know that ‘green’, ‘raw’, ‘fresh’, wadj, was another way of referring to Lower Egypt, and it was associated with the goddess of the Delta, Wadjet … it is her symbol.  So Unas has swallowed the red crown and ‘the green one’, the goddess of the red crown … the phrase is emphatic, not dualistic.  He is devouring divine magic.

Berlant goes on to support his argument by citing an eclectic cross section of prehistoric petroglyphs and shamanic rituals involving mushroom ingestion from the present to the Palaeolithic, most of which bear no relation to Egypt.  The petroglyphs he cites that are from Egypt are likely thousands of years earlier than the inception of the crowns ... oh, and they are fish traps.

18th Dynasty glass studs from the British Museum, London.  Image © British Museum Trustees..

New Kingdom ear studs (1400-1200 BCE)
These were a nice try on his part, as Egyptian glass and faience ear studs do look superficially a bit mushroomy.  Although, this is a subjective response to a view from one angle.  His sources for these objects are an exhibition catalogue from 1982, and a lightweight introduction to Egyptian jewellery by Aldred from 1971.

Occam’s razor is a nice analogy here, in that a symbol is more likely to be related to a common symbol than one that is not.  Awkwardly, there is no hieroglyph for mushroom in ancient Egyptian, but there is a sign that looks like these studs, we have already seen it, wadj, that has magical value, and a great deal of significance.  It is therefore more likely to be this symbol than one that doesn’t exist.  This sign incidentally does look like a cross section of a mushroom … it is a papyrus flower.

Left. the symbol of Lower Egypt, mw, a papyrus cluster.  Centre, two versions of the sign for papyrus.  Right, a mirror with papyrus handle.  Images Andrea Sinclair (photo taken at the Georg Steindorff Museum, Leipzig).

Berlant maintains his mature attitude and begins this section with a spiteful crack about the ‘failure of experts to interpret the obvious’.  However, these objects are (probably) ear studs, things that go in ears, and the ‘stem’ would actually be intended to go into the earlobe.  It would not be visible when they were worn.  In addition, the identification is disputed, as they are pierced through the long section and therefore may be a bead, representing, you guessed it, a wadj sceptre.

If these objects are earrings, the viewed part when worn is the round top.  And this top can be decorated with a flower pattern.  Berlant conveniently uses low quality black and white photographs for his examples and the original colours are not visible.  So let me fill that in, dark or light blue was the most common colour for 18th Dynasty glass and faience.  These were often combined with white or yellow.

Because of this, a flower on the cap will likely be a Nymphaea caerulea (dark blue), if it is white, a nymphaea lotus, or green-blue, a papyrus.  These were common in Egyptian sacred symbolism, they represent creation and rebirth.  There are many 18th Dynasty faience ear studs with this design.  Figures 8.C and E incidentally show studs with a flower pattern ...  I call that recognising the obvious.

Faience ear studs from the Petrie Museum London; UC1863, 1287, 1282, 1283.  Images © Petrie Museum.

But equally confusing is that Berlant arbitrarily combines mushrooms in this part of the argument and claims these objects are mimicking three very different species; Psilocybe cubensis, Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina.  Which would be cool if any of these had caps of red with white spots (muscaria), or brown with white spots (panther), but they do not.  Spots are not a feature of these objects. 

Also, if you were considering pantherina for a high, maybe have a paramedic on standby.

The royal mushrooms in the Papyrus Westcar.
Any Egyptologists out there? … Because, yes that is right, I was surprised too … The text underpinning the whole argument is from the Westcar Papyrus: The Story of Reddjedet.  The title Cheops and the Magician that he uses is a way of referring to the text because it is a group of stories told to this king.

If you don’t know it, this odd little tale is about the birth of 3 Old Kingdom pharaohs to the wife of a wab priest, the lady Reddjedet, and it involves the sun god Re sending 5 gods disguised as sacred musicians to aid in the birth and recognition of the children.  The gods are Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet, Heqet and Khnum. They duly assist at the birth of the babies and like all good fairies predict their future kingship.  On completion the gods are paid with barley with which to make beer.  After which:

…Khnum loaded himself with a sack of barley.  They proceeded toward the place they had come from. Then Isis said to these gods ‘what is it we came for if not to do wonders for those three children, to report to our father who made us come.’  So they made three royal crowns and placed them in the sack of barley.  Then they let a sky of storm and rain come up and they returned to the house.  They said: ‘Please put the sack of barley here in a sealed room until we come back from dancing in the north.

This translation is from Lichtheim (1975) and uses the phrase ‘sack of barley’, because grain must have been in a container.  A sack would be an ideal environment for fungi if damp.  However, the original does not specify that the barley is in a sack.  It says barley on the assumption that we know what it is in.  The determinative for barley is a vessel, which infers the use of vessels for grain in Egypt, a practice that is not unusual in Bronze Age cultures.  Later in the story it is specified that the barley is in a jar.

The following episode about a storm provides an excuse for the gods to return and beg the household to keep the barley dry, which directs the narrative toward the later discovery of the crowns.  There is no indication in the text that the grain became wet from the rain or that fungus grew in it.  That is not the direction of the plot, the gods were using the storm as an excuse to give Reddjedet the barley with its hidden crowns, and incidentally moisture in the grain would ruin the beer that it was used for later.

The approximately 14 days incubation and growth for psilocybe that he uses to support his claim (no page number for Stamets, and not under cubensis) would make more sense if the ancient Egyptians had had the ability to monitor mushroom spore germination.  In the folk story the 14 days actually represents the amount of time the woman was in seclusion from her household as purification ritual after giving birth.

There is also no indication which crowns he believes they are.  There were about 13 royal crowns for Egyptian kings.  His argument is about 2 crowns being based on Psilocybe cubensis (which grows naturally in dung).  And he clearly states that all 3 crowns must be mushrooms, regardless of their identity, because of the barley sack and the rain.  There is no other evidence given.

Berlant’s argument that the crowns are magic mushrooms is based on the translation that he used and on subjective thinking.  He also appears to be assuming that because the story is about Old Kingdom Egyptian kings that it is an early text.  It is not.  The Westcar Papyrus is no earlier than the late Middle Kingdom (ca. 1700 BCE), or possibly slightly later.

Osiris wearing atef crown between wedjat eyes from the tomb of Sennedjem, early 19th Dynasty.  Image Wikipedia.

Osiris was a mushroom
Osiris was an important Egyptian god of the dead, regeneration and vegetation. He was a god associated with the annual rebirth of plants after the Nile flood in Egypt and the personification of the underworld.   However, Berlant isn’t concerned with 200 years of accumulated evidence on the Egyptian pantheon and instead argues Osiris was a mushroom god based on the fact that this god has a crown that he believes resembles a Psilocybe cubensis in immature state.  Oh, and that in schematic drawings and photos he looks a bit mushroomesque.

Let’s not go into the tedious fact that the white crown has no dark cap and looks to me as much like an old fashioned English milk bottle lolly as an immature mushroom.  My partner however vehemently claims they are evidence of the pharaohs loving ten pin bowling.  So when the theory that the pyramids are giant bowling alleys goes viral on Facebook we all know who to blame.

But to be accurate, no god from ancient Egypt is documented as associated with mushrooms, and I repeat, there is no sign for mushroom in ancient Egyptian.  There is also at this moment in time no confirmed word in the ancient Egyptian vocabulary for mushroom, nor for a fungus.  It is difficult to support an argument for significance within Egyptian culture when there is no textual or visual evidence for it.

Also, the crown that is worn by Osiris may vary in Egyptian iconography.  He is shown wearing the white crown from the Middle Kingdom, but later he also wears the atef crown discussed earlier that is made with bound reeds and therefore definitely not in the mushroom range.  And he is not the only god to be traditionally depicted wearing these crowns.  Many gods do.

Left: Berlant fig 16:  He calls it a ‘Mushroom with feathered serpent’.  It is the standard of the Thinite region and of the city, Abydos, sacred to Osiris.  The standard has feathers attached to a diadem above a wig, which is clear on the common form of the sign (right, my drawing).  The snake is derived from the uraeus cobra joined with headband and streamer.  His image has been stretched horizontally and is from Budge 1904, I.

Another argument for Osiris being a Psilocybe cubensis is taken from the Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani, ca. 1250 BCE), because the god (and dead guy) is addressed in this with ‘thy head is blue like lapis lazuli’.  This is from Budge again, but from 1905 … and I am idly wondering who plowed through three volumes just to come up with these few miserable quotes … So, anyway, of course it is a scruffy translation, as the word for dark blue in Egyptian was lapis lazuli: the phrase is actually ‘blue of head’ or ‘lapis head’.

Berlant deftly manipulates this example to argue that as Psilocybe cubensis caps stain blue when handled (they do), so another royal crown, the khepresh, or blue crown must also be based on a mushroom.  This crown is again late and was adopted into royal regalia in the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1650 BCE).  However, anyone with knowledge of Egyptian colour knows that dark blue/lapis lazuli was the colour of divine hair in Egyptian art and literature.  The prose is about Ani acquiring divine features: a golden body, lapis hair, turquoise on his arms.

Berlant fig 17:  Wishful thinking. Left, his scan is from Budge 1904, II (image right).  Osiris posed a bit tilted is simply not that mushroomy (he has tilted it slightly more).  The original scene represents Osiris in the final stages of the process of being reborn.  It is part of a frieze from the Osiris chapel in the Temple of Hathor at Dendera (Ptolemaic period, 332-30 BCE).

Osiris does not wear the blue crown, no god does, (until very late), and seriously if the white crown was a cubensis perhaps it too ought to be blue (or blue and gold), not white … just saying.

Later in the text Berlant goes full blown creative and argues that quite a few Osirian motifs are mushroom related, again soundly on the basis of subjective interpretation.  However, Osiris was not a monopodal (one footed) personification of a mushroom, he was the god of the underworld and the supreme personification of a dead man.  He is a mummy... Self explanatory really ... Also maybe that Osiris bed that was seeded with grain and left in tombs to germinate is actually about the grain that sprouts in it.

Finally, the rationale that underworld jackal gods like Anubis and Wepwawet are evidence that the Predynastic Egyptians trained their dogs to hunt truffels is … bwaahaha … gold.

Berlant fig 23:  Left: his B/W and inverted image.  Jackal god Wepwawet ‘pointing at a mushroom surrounded by monopodal ithyphallic’ mushrooms … say what? … Those gods are pretty talented to balance staves on their penises (the ‘knobs’ are knees or hands).  I'd suggest the 'mushroom' is a poorly drawn offering table.  This image is late, from when Egypt was no longer under local rulers (coffin, Cairo Museum, Late Period).  The style reflects this.

The order of the golden flies
I actually had to read this section over repeatedly.  It is so surreal.  In it Berlant states that gold models of flies were awarded to people for bravery in (New Kingdom) Egypt.  This is absolutely correct, if you were successful in battle (male or female) you were awarded fly of bravery pendants by the pharaoh, but it gets weirder from here.  Because from that simple beginning he concocts a ripper of a story that again involves amanitas.

In European folklore amanita muscaria are reputed to attract flies (this is usually the case as they get old, hence ‘fly agaric’).  He extrapolates from this that eating amanitas makes you brave (citation pls), so ancient warriors ate them before battle (he means Vikings), and because flies were associated with amanitas they were a symbol of great fighters and heroism.

The icing on the cake is his claim that this is evidence for an Order of the Golden Fly in ancient Egypt, a group that gave its inductees gold flies on initiation (and has not been adequately studied by Egyptologists) … aaargh… deep breaths … in out … in out … The ‘order of the Golden Fly’ is a modern translation of the name of these awards.  He is confusing the word ‘order’ as an ‘award’ with ‘order’ as a ‘society’, like say the Freemasons ... yet I am still idly wondering what their secret handshake would have been.

Eyes of Horus on a Middle Kingdom coffin from the Georg Steindorff Museum, Leipzig.  Photo Andrea Sinclair.

The Eye of Horus was a mushroom
Berlant again cites a text from Budge for this example which is from Spell 17 of the Book of the Dead (Papyrus of Ani).  In this case, he claims the text involves the gods eating cakes of ‘plants’ (‘mushrooms’) which are the Eye of Horus.  So let’s just ignore that there is a difference between ‘plant’ and ‘mushroom’, and cut to the chase … the word Budge translated as ‘saffron’ (Berlant’s ‘plant’) is incorrect, it is tjehenet, ‘faience’.

Wallis Budge 1895.

‘He to whom have been given cakes of saffron in Tananet Osiris is,
Otherwise said, the cakes of saffron in Tananet heaven and earth are,
Otherwise said, the strengthener Shu of the two earths is in Suten-henen.
Now the cakes of saffron the eye of Horus are.’

Faience is a glassy material that was used in ancient Egypt to make amulets, particularly for the Eye of Horus, the Wedjat eye (wdjat, not related to wadj), which symbolically represented protection, because it protects the sun god.  The material itself symbolises regeneration.  But Budge’s (and Berlant’s) translation is faulty beyond the word tjehenet.  The spell says that faience is the Eye of Horus, but the gods are not eating it.  Rather the deceased man Ani who is Osiris is given faience.

A better translation by James Allen 2005.

‘The one who is given the dishes of faience that is in the earth-shrine is Osiris,
to whom elation is granted in the forecourt of Henennesut,
The one who is given the dishes of faience that is in the earth-shrine is the sky, it is the earth,
It is the crushing of the two lands by Shu in Henennesut,
As for the faience, it is the eye of Horus.’

Allen chose to infer the faience was a vessel with the word ‘dishes’, while Faulkner (1996) preferred ‘meal of faience’.

Mmmm crunchy: Faience Eye of Horus amulets. Image Andrews 1994, fig 46.

Nonetheless, this part of the Book of the Dead is about the tomb owner gaining regeneration by eating divine magic and coming out of his tomb in the morning daylight like the sun.  There is no context where the popular funerary amulet, the Eye of Horus, can be forced to fit a mushroom metaphor.  It is based on the feather patterning around the eye of a falcon.  Horus was the son of Osiris, an aspect of the sun and a falcon god.

On the basis of that enormous leap of faith Berlant then brings this entire fiasco to a close with the lengthy rationalisation that in ancient Egypt magic mushrooms were put in beer and cakes that were ritually eaten by the living and the god Osiris as the Eye of Horus, because eyes are obvious symbols of entheogenic mushroom caps(!), and that this practice has direct parallels with all other cultures who had a ‘food of the gods’, or a ‘tree of life’.

He then flips cultures and chronology and cites Classical Greek myths, Herodotus, the Rig Veda, and theories that the Hindu soma was the Amanita muscaria.  Basically the paper closes on the conclusion that magic mushrooms were every sacred plant in human history, with the added bonus of a few paragraphs about how dim and inflexible Egyptologists are.

Berlant fig 10 (left) Horus ‘eating the white crown’ is a good example of taking an image out of context.   Horus was the god of kingship.  He is depicted ritually granting a king his rule.  The god is not eating the sign, this is a presentation gesture.  He will be presenting the crown to the king, because you know, coronations involve crowns.  It is a drawing from Budge 1904, I.

II. Summary: What not to do in an academic paper.
There are so many things wrong with this paper it is mind boggling.  Berlant makes repeated errors predominantly because he doesn’t know the topics he is discussing in any depth.  And by shallow, I mean you couldn’t successfully drown a terrier in it.

Every ancient Egyptian text he has cited to argue his point has been misunderstood.  He also gleefully uses faulty reasoning based on subjective interpretations of the evidence he selects.  He cites this evidence in a casual fashion using objects that often bear no relation to the topic and includes laughably wide chronological and geographical ranges.  Over all, the paper lacks focus and jumps from one idea to the next without developing any.

He often does not cite sources for claims about Egyptology.  Repeatedly saying ‘Egyptologists say’ carries no weight unless you say whom, particularly when the paper leans heavily on literature from 1900.  His statements about the etymology of Egyptian words are equally not to be trusted.  Berlant is no linguist, nor did he refer to relevant studies or ask an expert.  The interpretations of terms in the paper will be his own, taken with a dash of out of date literature.

Equally, the attacks on the integrity of Egyptologists that constitutes the conclusion of this paper is just juvenile and petty, this alone should have attracted the attention of professional reviewers, if his hesitation to cite sources did not.  

This whole paper would be more suited to a publication before the mid 20th century when leaps of faith and indifference to chronology were de rigueur, than to a reputedly legitimate scientific publication in the 21st.  I can only assume that the editors of the journal were ignorant of the topics.  But by publishing this toss they have given his theory the illusion of respectability.

The switching between an argument for psilocybe or Amanita muscaria as significant fungi in the late Neolithic through to the Iron Age is irritating.  The topic is not about indiscriminate use of magic mushrooms in antiquity, it is about the ancient Egyptian crowns being based on Psilocybe cubensis.  The amanitas have no impact on this argument.  Nor do galerina or horse mushrooms.  They do not resemble cubensis, and they cannot be proven to have a connection to New Kingdom ear studs or to an ‘Order of the Golden Fly’, a secret society that he quite irresponsibly pulled out of his arse.

Nor do any other psychoactive substances that were consumed in various cultures or time periods on the entire planet support these claims.  He may as well be arguing that morphine use, or coffee and wine consumption in contemporary western culture are evidence for ancient Egyptian mushroom use. This is where I find ethno-anthropology approaches to be flawed.  Some researchers (independent and academic) may use cultural comparison as a convenient disguise for the lack of empirical evidence for their argument.  

These methods are only useful to reinforce an already freestanding argument.

If you remove all the comparisons to unrelated cultures and the later Egyptian evidence he uses, you will find that Berlant has not provided one example contemporary with the Late Neolithic in Egypt to argue his point.  He provides no evidence for the original crowns being based on hallucinogenic mushrooms.  The whole paper is smoke and mirrors.

Poor bibliographical sources
Berlant cites too many out of date sources for Egyptology, and much of his argument is based on the work of E.A.W. Budge.  Citing the Dover reprints from the 1970s only loosely hides the fact that Budge has been dead since before a major world war.  The 4 books cited were published between 1895 and 1920, and underpin this whole paper.  While Budge was a legend of the field in 1900, his translations are completely out of date and in many cases embarrassingly faulty. 

The paper also leans heavily on pseudo-archaeology from the 1960s and 1970s, including John Allegro, whose Sacred Mushroom and the Cross is another exercise in subjective thinking and wild leaps of weird faith (yes, I have read it).  He incidentally argued that the Egyptian hieroglyph of a ‘drill’ was based on a mushroom because ‘to bore’ is a euphemism for sex (p. 130), again a modern word play imposed on an ancient culture. Allegro’s translations of ancient Greek, Egyptian and Akkadian only work if you have never studied these languages, and he too showed ignorance of mycology, basing his argument that Jesus and Tammuz were mushrooms from a secret cult almost entirely on Amanita muscaria … yes that really was his theory.

The classicist Robert Graves also gets a show in, as he theorised about amanita use in ancient European cult and enjoyed dabbling in wild leaps of faith. Mark Mabry (2000) too is another dubious source.  He basically took Allegro’s idea and reapplied it to ancient Egypt, by arguing that the god Osiris was an Amanita muscaria and that the white crown was a young muscaria fruit body.  He seems to have been a big influence on this paper. Finally the guy who ought to take much credit, if you could call it that, is parapsychologist Andrija Puharich, who wrote The Sacred Mushroom (1959) which is the foundation text for ancient Egypt and supposed ritual use of magic mushrooms. In this he wrote up 18 months of past life trances of a patient who claimed to be have been a muscaria tripping ancient Egyptian priest from the 4th Dynasty. Not exactly a sound research technique btw.

Another issue that I encountered that goes beyond this paper, is the use of disreputable studies in academic papers, as it is possible to read scientific publications who let down their studies by citing Allegro, or other questionable sources for their ‘historical’ context.  By not consulting archaeologists they are perpetuating these myths.  In fact, this idea that Amanita muscaria is the psychoactive mushroom of all mushrooms is like some modern myth for a good high, when there are many more effective, but not as toxic or eye catching alternatives.

On the mushroom topic, Berlant’s scientific citations are minimalist to say the least.  He cites one book, Stamet 1996, which is a good source, but it only covers psychoactives, and is not entirely impartial.  He clearly avoided looking at the environmental range for Psilocybe cubensis, because it states that the growth environment is livestock dung and the geographical range is the United States, Mexico, central America, northern South America, subtropical Asia, and north-eastern Australia

He might have referred to Guzman et al 2000, in which the environmental ranges for entheogenic Amanita muscaria, pantherina and all psilocybe do not include north-east Africa.  Cubensis is a tropical to temperate climate species.  Amanita muscaria grow in well mulched forests in temperate to cold environments, they particularly favour birch forests.  Pantherina grow in forests in temperate regions. They like beeches and pines. 

If you eat these with the intention of getting high, you will die.  Galerina marginata. Photo Frank Merten.

For the rest of the mushrooms, the edible horse mushroom, Agaricus arvensis is specific to dung and grows in temperate to cold climates.  The growth environment of Galerina marginata is wood mulch, in temperate climates, in the northern hemisphere.  While the environmental range for Amanita brunnescens is temperate to cold, but it is only found on the east coast of North America, and grows among conifers.

All mushrooms cited in the paper need moist environments to grow, and while I am confident the excuse it was wetter in Egypt in the Neolithic might spring to mind, ‘wetter’ is a relative term when we are discussing one of the world’s most arid regions.  Egypt was more humid in the Neolithic, but there is no evidence for temperate forest flora growing then, like oak, birch and beech.

But more to the point, Egypt’s climate was not wetter in the pharaonic period.  Most of Berlant’s argument for hallucinogenic mushroom use from ancient Egypt dates to the pharaonic period, including all texts, most images, the white, hmhm and blue crowns, golden flies and ear studs.  In much of this text he seems to assume they still knew and actively used hallucinogenic mushrooms thousands of years later.

Images in the text
First of all, his image sources are rarely credited and I am astonished that a professional journal allowed such ordinary quality images to be published.  Equally, scans of modern line drawings of objects from 19th century texts (or from pseudo-science texts that have used these) are not reliable sources for studying ancient iconography.  Nor are modern reception artworks.  
His image choices are consistently blurry, low resolution and often irrelevant.  Read my lips … always look at a decent resolution original, not a copy.  Another technique used in conjunction with these is the manipulation of some images in a digital program to make them look more like mushrooms and strengthen the argument.  This is unethical.

Some highlights:
Fig 2: The image of the hmhm crown is manipulated, and has been stretched out of shape in an image program.  This has also been done to a later image of this crown (14.D).

Fig 3.A:  The goddess that ‘might be Demeter’ is Late Minoan (1400-1100 BCE) from Crete, and not associated with any classical period god due to chronological inconvenience (and no label).  However, she definitely has poppies on her head … well done that man ...  The Mycenaeans were into poppies at the same time everybody else was. 
B-C:  Modern artwork (with incorrect colours) of the Nile gods tying together the shema sedge and mhw papyrus as symbols of Egyptian unity.  There are no lotuses.  C is a modern artwork of a Hawaian figure. I assume these images are a tie back to the idea that if they were sniffing lotuses or worshipping poppy gods they were also doing mushrooms ... like if you are doing drugs you must be doing all the drugs … or something.   Fig 3 is overall a weak attempt to support an argument for a mushroom crown.

Figs 4-5:  Irrelevant: Petroglyphs from Russia and the Sahara, no source given; ‘Neolithic’.

Fig 6-7.  The petroglyphs from El Hosh in Egypt date between 11,000 and 5,000 BCE.  He appears to assume they are contemporary to his argument.  However, while there have been weird and wonderful claims about what they are; phalluses, mushrooms, a star map(!), they have been effectively argued to be fish traps (Huyge 2005).

Fig 9: ‘Mushroom in a basket’. This sign for the white crown combines two hieroglyphs: hdjt and nb, nb is translated as ‘all, every’, the original basket icon it is based on is irrelevant.  It is a way of expressing ‘all rule over Upper Egypt’.  But at face value, if it was a basket, how would a mushroom in a basket strengthen the argument?

Fig 11.A:  Irrelevant visual comparison.  His claim the Venus of Willendorf from the early European prehistoric (30,000 years ago) is a mushroom (he says her hair looks like a muscaria cap) has no impact on ancient Egypt’s potential use of mushrooms 25,000 years later.  And what is the point of the horse mushroom (11.C)? These are edible field mushrooms.  His choice of mushrooms appears to be haphazard.

Fig 12:  Irrelevant visual comparison to Egyptian figurines from who knows where:  Lawn galerina (A), spelled one l not two, refers to Galerina venenata, or ‘deadly lawn galerina’ which is now Galerina marginata.  These are extremely toxic. They grow in Europe and North America.  The variety Amanita brunnescens (D) only grows in North America.  It is a bit toxic.  Neither are psychoactive.  Galerina kills people who mistake them for psilocybe.

Fig 13: Give me a break.  More blurry comparisons to blurry objects with no citation.

Fig 14.  Again irrelevant visual comparison. An image of immature mushrooms growing in a modern artificial growth environment has no impact on a discussion of ancient iconography.  The two blurry images of Canaanite? human figures contribute nothing, particularly when no source is given.  The final modern drawing (Budge again?) of a hmhm crown is stretched vertically to look more like the previous images.  Iconography fail.

Figs 18-19, 22:  Forcing an image to fit your subjective model again; Osiris in ‘mushroomlike poses’ and a fungus with white cap that is only superficially similar (to a scruffy line drawing from Budge), but is also not identifiably a muscaria.  This could be any pale amanita. However, a bright red cap with white spots would not fit the analogy so well.

Fig 21:  The tekenu was a figure wrapped in white and/or black cowhide that may sit in various poses on a sled during the funerary ritual.  Berlant has chosen images that look most like a mushroom (to him), his image 21.B is not a tekenu, it is a sem priest (18th Dynasty, tomb of Rekhmire). No sources cited (A. 12th Dynasty, tomb of Sehotepibre).  See Serrano Delgado 2011.

Other depictions of Tekenu from Egyptian tombs. Left: tomb of Monthuherkhepeshef, Davies 1913; pl. VIII. Right, tomb of Puimre, Davies 1923, pl. LXXII.

III. Conclusion
As an Egyptologist who is also recreationally a fan of mushroom spotting I would never be so arrogant to claim that no fungi grow in Egypt, ancient or modern.  Fungi grow in every region of the world where moisture is present, but the many, many varieties of fungi are highly climate, growth environment and geographically sensitive.  And fungi is our classification, there is no reason to assume Egyptians understood that say mould and yeast were ‘mushrooms’ or ‘plants’.

The mushrooms that ethnoanthropological and alternative writers cite in their writing are subjective and reflect their own cultural backgrounds.  These approaches are incidentally predominantly western-centric.  Berlant, for example, has cited mushrooms that are embedded in European folklore and that all grow in the eastern United States, where he lives.

However, for the 3000 or more years of recorded history from ancient Egypt there is no evidence for a cultural value for mushrooms, none, neither visually or linguistically.  No sign, no image, no name in hieroglyphs has yet been identified.  There is also no archaeological or botanical evidence for mushrooms from ancient Egypt.  Prior to the pharaonic period there is also no confirmed evidence, and the catch cry ‘it is lost’ or ‘was secret’ is not evidence. 

Science must have evidence.

But there is evidence for the use of psychoactive plants in ancient Egyptian daily life, medicine and cult.  The Egyptians did not differentiate psychoactive plants into drugs (bad), herbalism (bad) or medicine (good) like modern western culture tends to promote.  They had no problem with being depicted partying hard with the psychoactives we know about; beer, wine, lotuses, mandrakes.  They wrote long and wonderful medical texts full to the brim with complex plant ingredients.  

Therefore if mushrooms had significant cultural value they ought to be visible to us.

All jokes aside
I have many criticisms of the shallow research, unethical manipulation and elaborate fantasising contained in this paper, but I think my biggest problem is with the wilful negligence that Berlant has shown in writing this and publishing it on every public platform available to him (his own website, Research Gate,, to name a few).  Because his misrepresentation of psychoactive mushrooms is being read by the alternative community who believe it is legitimate science.

Mushrooms cited in the paper have varying levels of toxicity, from none to extreme.  Psylocybe cubensis are psychotropic, but they are not toxic.  Agaricus arvensis are an edible mushroom with no entheogenic abilities.  Amanita muscaria is entheogenic and a neurotoxin. It might kill you, but relatively speaking it is mildly toxic.  Pantherina is more lethal than muscaria, while galerina is a gruesome painful death from ingesting a small amount.  The scale of toxicity of brunnescens is disputed.

Half of these mushrooms have no entheogenic working, four could kill you.  By not pointing this out, this paper infers they are all psychoactive fungi that were significant in ancient cultures.  This is morally and ethically negligent.

There is nothing funny about inferring to people that they can eat toxic mushrooms.

Andrea Sinclair ... 
PS: Actually, I have a PhD in Egyptology, Stephen

Sources and further reading

I extend my gratitude to the experts who generously gave me input on topics that are beyond my area of expertise.  In particular Dr Lutz Popko, Dr Katharina Stegbauer and Professor Hans-Werner Fischer-Elfert, who also kindly asked Professor Tanja Pommerening.  And thanks to all the German mycologists and Pilzfreaks who gave us their ten cents worth - herzlichen Dank an alle.


Andrea Sinclair, Frank Merten, Rainer Wald

Petrie Museum London:

Metropolitan Museum, New York:

A.M.J. Abu Bakr, 1937. Untersuchungen über die ägyptischen Kronen.

C. Andrews, 1994. Amulets of Ancient Egypt.

N. de G. Davies,  1913. Five Theban Tombs.

N. de G. Davies,  1917. Two Ramesside Tombs.

N. de G. Davies,  1923. The Tomb of Puyemre at Thebes Vol. II.

E. Naville, 1910. The XI Dynasty Temple at Deir el Bahari, Vol. II.

A. Piankoff, 1968. The Pyramid of Unas.


A.M.J. Abu Bakr, 1937. Untersuchungen über die ägyptischen Kronen.

J.P. Allen, 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.

J.P. Allen, 2018. ‘From Coffin Texts Spell 335 = Book of the Dead Spell 17 (1.10)’.

E.A. Wallis Budge … please don’t make me cite them.

D.M. Doxey, 2001. ‘Priesthood’. In D. Redford, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt.

R.O. Faulkner  1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts.

R.O. Faulkner, O. Goelet, E. von Dassow, and J. Wasserman, 1994. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day.

K. Goebs, 2004. ‘The Cannibal Spell: Continuity and Change in the Pyramid Text and Coffin Text Versions’.

K. Goebs, 2015. ‘Crown (Egypt)’. Iconography of Deities and Demons electronic publications.

A. Hodgkinson, 2014. ‘Colourful Glass Adornments from Egypt: An 18th Dynasty Enigma.’

F.N. Hepper, 2009. Pharaoh’s Flowers: The Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamen.

D. Huyge 2005. ‘The Fish Hunters of El-Hosh: Rock Art Research and Archaeological Investigations in Upper Egypt (1998-2004)’. 

M. Lichtheim, 1976. Ancient Egyptian Literature 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms.

L. Manniche, 1998. An Ancient Egyptian Herbal.

S. Quirke, 2015. Exploring Religion in Ancient Egypt. Chapter 6: ‘Being Well’.

R.K. Richter, 2008. ‘Medicine’. In D. Redford The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt.

J.M. Serrano Delgado, 2011. ‘The Tekenu in Egyptian Funerary Ritual’. ZÄS 138.

A. Sinclair, 2012. ‘The International Style, Colour and Polychrome Faience’. ANES 49.

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General Science

P.B. de Menocal and D.E. Tierney, 2012. ‘Green Sahara: African Humid Periods Paced by Earth’s Orbital Changes’. Nature Education.

C.T. de Vartavan, 1997. ’Flore d’Égypte prédynastique: 50,000-5,000 BP: étude préliminaire’. Archéo-Nil.


T.J. Baroni, 2017. Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada.

G. Guzman, J.W. Allen, and J. Gartz, 2000. A Worldwide Geographical Distribution of the Neurotropic Fungi, an Analysis and Discussion.

I.R. Hall, S.L, Stephenson, P.K. Buchanon, W. Yun, and A.L.J. Cole, 2003. Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World.

T. Lässe, and J. H. Petersen 2019. Fungi of Temperate Europe. Princeton.
P. Stamets, 1996.  Psilocybinpilze der Welt: Ein praktischer Führer zur sicheren Bestimmung.

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...