Flavin’s Corner

Under the Influence

Richard Evans Schultes, long-time director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, passed away on April 10, 2001.  Joey Ramone (a.k.a. Jeffrey Hyman) of the paramount punk band, The Ramones, died of lymphatic cancer on April 15, 2001.  Both of these names race to the fore, when I think of being under the influence, however for far different reasons.  Gabba gabba bye-bye, guys!

Though well respected as a leading authority on rubber plants and for being a pioneer of the multidisciplinary study of ethnobotany (notably for his many years of field-work in the Amazon jungle), Schultes is most often associated with his career spanning interest in psychoactive plants.  After a 1937 trip to Oklaholma with R. Weston La Barre to investigate peyote and his subsequent Masters thesis, "Peyote (Lophophora williamsii [Lemaire] Coulter) and Its Uses," Schultes was part of a group which collected specimens of teonanacatl (the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis) in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1938, later written up as “Teonancatl: the narcotic mushroom of the Aztecs, by R. E. Schultes, American Anthropologist, XLII, 1940, pp. 429-443.  As fate would have it, responding to a request for information about mushrooms, in 1952 the poet Robert Graves sent a semi-retired ex-banker and mushroom investigator, R. Gordon Wasson, an article from a Canadian pharmaceutical journal which mentioned Schultes’ 1938 paper.  In 1955, after contacting Schultes, Wasson became the first known non-Mexican or Native American to participate in a Mexican hallucinogenic mushroom ritual.  For his effort, Graves received copy No. 2 of the signed, limited folio-edition of Mushrooms, Russia, and History, by Valentina P. Wasson & R. Gordon Wasson (Pantheon Books, NY, 1957).

After joining Wasson on one of his trips, the French mycologist, Roger Heim, sent samples of the Mexican mushrooms to renowned Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann (the discoverer/inventor of LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide), who successfully isolated psilocin in 1957.  In 1962, Hofmann accompanied Wasson to Mexico and gave synthetic psilocybin pills to Maria Sabina, a sabia (wise one or wise woman), who reported there was no difference between the pills and the mushrooms.  The same batch of synthetic psilocybin pills were also used by Walter Pahnke and Tim Leary at the famous (infamous?) Good Friday experiment earlier in 1962 at Boston University’s March Chapel.  It’s unfortunate, but Schultes and Leary, during the time they were together at Harvard, as well as afterwards, didn’t agree on much.

In Mushrooms, Russia, and History, Wasson documented a contemporary ritual involving Psilocybe cubensis, as well as collected a wealth of information on past 
and recent usage of the Amanita muscaria mushroom among the Finno-Ugrians 
and other far-north Eurasian peoples.  Continuing with his investigation of A. 
muscaria, Wasson later proposed an identification of Soma (the legendary 
inebriant from the Rig Veda) as the A. muscaria mushroom.  This bold and still 
controversial thesis was published as Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality
by R. Gordon Wasson (with Sanskrit translations by Wendy Doniger), New York: 
Harcourt, Brace, & Jovanovitch, 1968, 1971.  That archaeology continues to point to a significant and widespread usage of ephedra in ancient India and nearby lands, the accepted best-guess of the secret identity of Soma according to most Vedic scholars, has tempered unconditional support of Wasson’s thesis, but quite a few still favor it.  Schultes always did, and mentioned the debate often. Amanita muscaria could very well be the Soma of Vedic literature, or as Wasson allowed, an earlier intoxicant to the later ephedra, a variant which also may have been combined with other things.  I guess no one really knows for sure.

Interest in the fly agaric, the eponymous toadstool, or A. muscaria, the most charming of fungi, had been building since Wasson’s Mushrooms, Russia, and History in 1957 (actually  slightly before, due the author’s generous sharing of information), and was sensationalized and abused early on.  Sure, the episode featuring Aldous Huxley speaking up in Andrija Puharich’s Sacred Mushroom: The Key to the Door of Eternity (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959), that the A. muscaria intoxicated test-patient was continuing to speak while a non-filtered cigarette was burning down into his fingers is great stuff, but he lifted the A. muscaria excitement from Wasson.  Puharich continued his shady trade by being a good friend of the Israeli pyschic, Uri Gellar, and writing a popular biography of Gellar.  Actually, he did a lot of odd, cheap, and fantastic stuff to pay the rent.  In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s in Chicago, he was lecturing to New Age and Theosophical crowds about an alien satellite beaming pink-colored information directly into the brains of all innocents, sounding crudely copied from the sci-fi masterpiece, Valis, by Philip K. Dick, New York: Bantam, 1980.  But, he’s gone now, a mystery for some, and a relief for most.  Right, and Michael Jackson was Gellar’s “Best Man” at a recent wedding.  Seven degrees of Kevin Bacon on Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) to the right, I’ve always held that Allegro’s citing of Puharich as a scientific and chemical expert on A. muscaria in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (by John M. Allegro, New York: Doubleday, 1971), was much worse than accepting $150,000 and allowing The London Times to run excerpts with such titles as “Jesus Was A Penis” in large type.

Much, if not nearly all, of contemporary folklore, tid-bits, and theories, about A. muscaria are a result of Wasson’s direct enthusiasm, or were addressed and discussed in his published works.  A. muscaria is certainly the most charming of fungi and continues to serve as our collected and consensual archetype of an exotic mushroom.  It’s pretty, but the alkaloids in A. muscaria produce a mild soporific effect, an overall feeling of being comfortable and at ease, but not the intense intoxication required for many of the claimed associations with A. muscaria.  Wasson wasn't comfortable with the theory that A. muscaria somehow assisted the Viking berserkr (Old Norse, “those who wear bear-skin”) tradition, but didn't have another plausible botanical candidate.  I questioned the model showing a mellow ‘shroom as being a catalyst in the ritual of a Viking warrior and soon discovered other alternatives. [Note: Click here for a webpage which discusses the problems arising from an association of A. muscaria and with its being allegedly responsible for the berserker rage; unfortunately it’s in Norwegian!]

After reading the Tain Bo Cuailnge (trans. By Thomas Kinsella, London: Oxford University Press, 1970), and its description of Cuchulainn’s warrior-rage, the “Warp-Spasm” or Riastarthae, perhaps connected to the so-called Noinden Pangs, I suspected there was a possibility that the Viking berserkr and the Celtic Riastarthae could be related.  Cuchulainn was said to have lived in the north of Ireland and trained in Scotland, and indeed the entire Tain recounts a war between the south and the north of Ireland, due to the proximity of Northern Ireland and Scotland and a feeling by the south that those in the north were different.  His training, and possibly the Riastarthae ritual as well, originated in Scotland, and may have been influenced by the Vikings, if some critics of the Tain are correct and it doesn’t date from either the late Bronze Age or around the time of Jesus, but rather several centuries into the Common Era.  The forced violence and the ensuing fierceness of the participant seem to describe a common ritual, but another element occurred to me which emboldened my conviction that I was on the right path–the berserkr wore a “bear-skin” and Cuchulainn was the “Hound of Culann,” an animal motif I believe was part of a larger system which included many mythological creations (i.e., the centaur and minotaur), as well such European standards as the witch (black bird) and the werewolf.  I telephoned Wasson a couple of times to discuss my approach, and then wrote to and subsequently received an invitation to meet with Prof. Schultes at the Harvard Botanical Museum.

The description of Cuchulainn’s Raistarthae suggests a significant poisoning, with its muscle twitching and increased body temperature, and Prof. Schultes believed Solanaceae was most likely responsible.  Numerous recipes for witch and werewolf salves are known, and it remained to allow for a view of various European myths, legends, and monsters as having at their collected basis a ritual of intoxication with an animal-totem identification.  I met with Prof. Schultes in 1983 and again in early 1984 and those meetings had a profound and lasting effect on me.  I’m still under his influence.  Sure, when he introduced me to some under-grads working in the Wasson Collection and instructed them to make photocopies of any materials I might request was way cool, an honor, a privilege of course, but nothing like when he sent Wade Davis to Haiti to document the zombie ritual.  Still, I fondly recall his arm around my shoulders, his advice to take one of his courses as he was retiring soon, and his unflinching encouragement.  I’m still dumbfounded that I had the audacity to talk about drugs and monsters at Harvard!  Yet, ethnobotany seeks to understand our usage of plants, be it as food, medicine, or as recreational entertainment.  Witches and werewolves, as well as the Irish Conan, Cuchulainn, all fit in with ethnobotanical studies as well.  Well, someone has to care about drugs and monsters!

I last saw Prof. Schultes at a reception which followed a special one-day lecture series at Chicago’s The Field Museum of Natural History. [Note: “The Healing Forest,” Sunday, April 7, 1991, Simpson Auditorium, Field Museum, In Honor of Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, featuring Janice Siska, Bill Kurtis, Dr. Mark Plotkin, Dr. Djaja Soejarto, Dr. Wade Davis, and Dr. Richard Evans Schultes.]  I stood in line and shook his hand.  Maybe I mumbled something like “It’s good to see you again...”  It was.  Well, he’s gone now and that’s that.  Or is it?

Last year a heated debate developed on UseNet and e-mail lists around the suggestion that maize, a New World plant, was present in India in pre-Columbian times according to interpretations of Indian statuary.  Admittedly, the carvings do resemble corn, but stylistic repetitions in art are always subject to scrutiny, and the archaeological evidence to support a model of extended trade and contact between India and the New World before Columbus is simply not there.  I didn’t hesitate to visit the current director of The Harvard Botanical Museum and get advice.  Oh, the snapshots of semi-nude Amazon babes were gone, but ethnobotany as multidisciplinarian tasking remains a commitment.  My interest was not out-of-line, in fact, fit in nicely.  Prof. Schultes generously opened his door and that tradition continues at Harvard.  It’s about influence and I’m proud to have been affected by Prof. Schultes.

Joey Ramone?  I met him once at a screening of the movie, Rock N’ Roll High School, in Boston.  I said, “Dude,” he answered, “Dude,” and that was that.  Fan-fucking-tastic rock and roll, but a crappy film.  I’ll miss his music.

getting ready for sedation,

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