The Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, is a hallucinogen and must be considered poisonous. These attractive fungi often appear in groups and are a common sight in all kinds of woodlands.
Usually recurring in the same place for several years, Amanita muscaria is found frequently throughout the northern hemisphere, including Britain and Ireland, mainland Europe, Asia, the USA, and Canada.
The common name Fly Agaric is a reference to the tradition of using this mushroom as an insecticide. In some European countries caps of Amanita muscaria are crumbled up and placed in saucers of milk to attract house flies. The flies drink the milk, which contains ibotenic acid that not only attracts flies but also poisons them. (Ibotenic acid is soluble in water and hence in milk also, and so the ibotenic acid is dissolved from within the mushroom.) As the flies drink the milk they become drowsy, collapse and die (or perhap they simply drown in their spiked milk drink!). The specific epithet muscaria comes from the Latin word musca, meaning ‘a fly’.
Psychoactive alkaloid content of Amanita muscaria
The Fly Agaric can contain the psychoactive chemical compounds muscimol and the c losely related ibotenic acid as well as muscazone and muscarine (but they may not always be in significant concentrations). These are not the same as the psychoactive chemicals associated with the Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata, which is the most common (in Britain) of the so-called Magic Mushrooms; that little grassland mushroom gets (gives!) its kicks from quite different psychoactive compounds: psilocybin and baeocystin. Nevertheless, some people do still insist on referring to the Fly Agaric as a magic mushroom.
The psychoactive compounds contained in Fly Agarics are also toxins, and that means that this is a poisonous mushroom, at least to some degree. Eating dried Fly Agarics can cause a range of symptoms ranging from drowsiness, nausea and sweating to distorted sight and sounds, euphoria and dizziness. These effects are very variable not only from person to person but also with the quantity consumed and the (equally variable) strength of the toxins in individual specimens of the Fly Agaric.
A highly valued intoxicating mushroom
This passage dating around 1730 describes a historical practice among the Koryak people in Russia, who traded with other Russian communities for a type of mushroom called “Muchumur” (likely Amanita muscaria or “fly agaric”). These mushrooms were highly valued, with wealthier individuals storing large amounts for winter use. During feasts, these mushrooms were boiled in water, and the resulting liquid, when consumed, had intoxicating effects. The poorer members of the community would position themselves outside the huts of the wealthier individuals during these feasts, awaiting the guests to relieve themselves. They would then collect the urine in wooden bowls and consume it, getting intoxicated themselves, as the psychoactive components of the mushroom were still present in the urine.
Soma, a sacred drink known some 4000 years ago
Gordon Wasson, in his 1968 book Soma, the Divine Mushroom of Immortality, put forward the argument, with evidence, that the sacred drink known some 4000 years ago as Soma and used in religious ceremonies by the Vedic Aryans – people thought to have originated in central Asia, including Indian Hindus who eventually settled in what is now Afghanistan – was actually made not from a plant (as had long been accepted) but using the juices pressed from Fly Agaric mushrooms. Despite many experiments, Wasson was unable to reproduce the ecstatic effects that were attributed to the sacred ‘plant’ from which Soma was made. (No records of the botanical identity of the plant Soma remain, and non-hallucinogenic substitutes have been used in religious ceremonies for a far back as records exist.)
Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, has a red-and-white coat that may also be a reference to the Fly Agaric. Reindeers are known to eat Amanita muscaria mushrooms – and indeed, how else is a reindeer going to be able to fly? There are reports of Siberian people, seeing the drunken behavior of a reindeer that had eaten Fly Agarics, slaughtering the beast in order to get the same mind-bending effects from eating its meat.
Christianity and the Fly Agaric
John Marco Allegro, a renowned scholar, theorized in his 1970 book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, that early Christian theology was derived from a fertility cult revolving around the entheogenic mushroom A. muscaria. However, this controversial hypothesis found minimal support outside ethnomycology and faced widespread criticism from theologians and academics, including Sir Godfrey Driver and Henry Chadwick of Oxford University. Christian author John C. King further refuted Allegro’s theory in his own 1970 book, A Christian View of the Mushroom Myth, arguing geographical inconsistencies and questioning Allegro’s connections between biblical and Sumerian names. King proposed that if such a theory were true, the mushroom’s usage would represent an impeccably kept secret for two millennia.
Catching flies with the Fly Agaric
Amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric, has a history of being used as a fly trap, although it does not kill flies directly. The fungus contains two main psychoactive compounds: ibotenic acid and muscimol. When flies consume these compounds, they can experience effects similar to intoxication, often causing them to become less active or even appear “stupefied.” In some cases, this can lead to the flies being trapped or more easily killed, but the fungus itself is not lethal to flies.
This study explores the traditional use of Amanita muscaria, a mushroom known for its fly-catching properties, among communities in the Karst and Gorjanci regions of Slovenia. Researchers interviewed local residents to document traditional preparation methods of this fungus for pest control. In total, nine different methods were recorded, ranging from simple soaking in milk or water to more complex procedures involving heat and mechanical processing. The researchers then replicated these methods and measured the release of two key compounds, ibotenic acid and muscimol, over time using high-performance liquid chromatography. They found that the release of these substances was time-dependent and not influenced by the type of solvent used. The least amount of these compounds was released when the mushroom was only soaked in water or milk. Additional heat and mechanical processing resulted in a faster release. The study concluded that using A. muscaria for fly control was common in Gorjanci but not in Karst and that the preparation methods significantly affected the release profile of ibotenic acid.