Amanita Muscaria or Fly Agaric - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Amanita Muscaria or Fly Agaric

(Amanita muscaria)

Other names: Witches’ Eggs

Amanita muscaria, also commonly called fly agaric, is not a botanical. It is a fungus, a type of mushroom. However, these are modern classifications. Ancient people looked for similarities of essence as well as for differences and distinctions. Mushrooms were (and are) used similarly to botanicals and so it is classified here amongst the botanicals.

Even if you know next to nothing about mushrooms or botanicals, even if you don’t know what’s so special about Amanita muscaria, it’s pretty certain that you’re familiar with what it looks like even if you don’t recognize its name. You may never have seen a real one, but you’ve undoubtedly seen its picture. Amanita muscaria are the big red speckled mushrooms known as toadstools that are inevitable components of folkloric imagery. Look at traditional illustrations of witches, dwarfs, or fairies and you’ll likely find at least one amanita tucked into a corner.

Mushrooms were understood as very special and powerful. Mushrooms pop up overnight directly from Earth or emerge from tree trunks, fully grown as if by magic. Some have psychotropic properties; many are poisonous, some to the point of fatality.

In Germany, mushrooms in general are known as hexensessel or “witch’s chair.”

Psychotropic mushrooms, of which Amanita muscaria is the classic example, have historically been used in spiritual rituals worldwide. In fact there are scholars who believe that Amanita muscaria may have initially inspired a vast proportion of all human spiritual traditions and religions.

Among the traditions that some believe derive from mushroom cults are the Eleusinian Mystery religion, various ancient Egyptian traditions, Judaism and Christianity. Some scholars believe that Amanita muscaria was the mysterious biblical manna as well as Jesus Christ’s “bread of life.” There is even a Dead Sea Scrolls’ scholar who has suggested that New Testament references to Jesus are actually euphemisms, eventually forgotten, misunderstood, and distorted, for Amanita muscaria, hence the emphasis on the host as sacrament. Others believe that soma, the mysterious brew of the Aryan people of India mentioned in the Rig Veda, is really amanita.

Amanita’s associations with shamanism and ancient religion are so primordial and powerful that they transcend associations with witchcraft. Thus, images of Amanita muscaria show up everywhere, in Easter imagery as much as in Halloween’s. Folkloric toys are created in the form of these mushrooms—I have a Polish carved wooden toy amanita. You remove the polkadotted red roof to reveal carved wooden soldiers within. Even though amanita is poisonous, its image proliferates in children’s books, not as scary images like spiders but friendly ones. (Can you imagine artists blithely submitting similar images of datura or wolfsbane?) Those dancing mushrooms in Disney’s Fantasia? Amanita muscaria. Some even believe that the image of Santa Claus in his red and white suit may be a coded reference to amanita. Certainly his reindeerdriven sleigh can only be a reference to the cultures of the far north, where Amanita muscaria is intrinsically tied to shamanism, with reindeers integral to the ritual. (You’ll find out why below.) Santa’s habit of going up and down chimneys is also strangely reminiscent of shamans’ and witches’ flight.

Fly agaric is not uncommon throughout Eurasia and North America. It prefers poor soils, growing in marshes or along roads. It grows near birch, fir or pine trees, and is a traditional component of Siberian shamanism, where it’s sometimes called “lightning mushroom.” Based on linguistic studies, its use in that region may go back at least as far as 4000 BCE.

Amanita muscaria provokes a state of intoxication and allegedly opens portals to other realms. It has traditionally been used for divination, to contact spirits or journey to other realms and to locate lost, stolen or missing objects, especially those believed hidden in Earth.

Although Amanita muscaria is highly toxic, historically certain methods of preparation make it safer for use. Ibotenic acid, one of the psychotropic chemicals in amanita, is almost wholly retained in urine and not used by the body. (This is not true of its other chemical constituents, including the poisonous atropine and muscarine.) The traditional method of use, among the Finno-Ugric people of Finland, Lapland, and Siberia was to drink the urine of reindeer, which ate the mushrooms. (Reindeer may even have taught people about Amanita muscaria.) Reindeer meat may also be eaten in order to receive the hallucinatory experience. This is traditionally believed to be the safest method of use.

Amanita muscaria is among the ingredients cited in formulas for witches’ flying ointments. However, it is not among the magical ingredients traditionally cited in medieval grimoires. Shamans desired to meet, commune, consort, and battle with spirits; medieval sorcerers just wanted to boss them around.

Medieval sorcerers, with all their emphasis on commanding and compelling spirits, weren’t interested in using substances that couldn’t be commanded as well. Amanita is, to say the least, unpredictable. It is also potentially fatal. It is not safe for individual experimentation under any circumstances, nor has it ever been considered appropriate for solitary sorcery. Instead amanita’s use has historically been restricted to shamanism and to those folk magic practices directly descended from shamanism.

Because it is potentially fatal, Amanita muscaria has historically been a component of group ritual supervised by sober observers. Because dosage is so crucial, because the amanita cannot be standardized, and because there’s no room for mistakes, amanita lore has always been transmitted orally and within shamanic channels.

According to Russian folklore, the presiding spirits of these mushrooms manifest in the form of small red tubular beings who are able to communicate with those under amanita’s influence. (The mushroom may be understood as providing a portal for communicating with these spirits.) These spirits can be helpful and provide information, however they are also reputed to be wild tricksters with a taste for mean practical jokes, funny to them perhaps but tragic for their target. They may try to persuade the consumer of the mushroom to do potentially dangerous things—one more reason why sober supervision is so crucial.

Vivid red Amanita muscaria with its white polka dots may be understood as the mushroom equivalent of Amazonian poison arrow frogs. Its bold color announces its poisonous nature.

Decoctions of Amanita muscaria have historically been used to kill flies, hence it is also commonly called fly agaric. Amanita muscaria’s many other nicknames reflect its background in shamanism and witchcraft. Words used to name fly agaric are frequently connected to words for that shamanic tool the drum, and to toads. The common rationale for toad references has to do with childlike images of toads sheltering from the rain under large umbrella-like toadstools. However, among the chemical components isolated from Amanita muscaria is bufotenine a secretion otherwise found in toads’ skins.