Santa was a Shaman

A Fly Agaric festooned Christmas Tree
Synonymous with psychedelic magick, the Fly Agaric mushroom (sometimes known as the 'Witch's Mushroom' or the 'Fairy Stool') is recognised throughout the world for providing a (notoriously dangerous) portal into the Faery Realm. Under the influence of its main hallucinogenic compounds - ibotenic acid and muscimol - partakers of this mystical fungi have returned from their "trips" with tales of having talked with Gnome folk who guided them into other dimensions. Certain Siberian Shamans believed that for each mushroom consumed one Gnome would manifest itself and, noting that these squat earth-spirits could race like the wind itself, would always consume two and a half Fly Agaric mushrooms to enter their trance - two to enable their minds to see the Gnomes and the half to conjur a weaker 'Half-Gnome'. On their race through the convoluted passage into the Faery Realm, the Shaman would often lose sight of the spritely Gnomes and, unable to find the entrance to the Faery World unaided, would return to their material bodies with no gifts of arcane knowledge or sage council from the wise spirits. The conjuration of this third, less abled and slower Gnome would thus allow the Shaman to follow the supernatural creature through the labyrinthine route to the Nether World with no fear of losing his way.

A Typical Brightly Coloured, Speckled Fly Agaric

An interetsing account of how the physical body reacted whilst the Shaman was "away with the Faeries" has been recorded by the German ethnologist Enderli. He wrote that the first physical effects of consuming the mushrooms were trembling and sudden twitching. A strange, wild glow in the eyes would soon follow and as the muscle spasms reached a crescendo, the Shaman's body would fall into a trance. The Shaman would then sing in a low, dull note, gently raising both the pitch and the volume until he started losing control of himself again and started speaking words of no human comprehension. At this stage, the Shaman would usually begin hammering frenzied beats on his ritual drum and, built up into an utter rage, he would then start running amok, turning over and kicking out at everything around him. After the intense rush  of strength and energy, the Shaman would then fall to the floor, fast asleep in a sudden depth of exhaustion. It must be supposed that during these turbulent body reactions, the Shaman's spirit was desperately chasing the spritely Gnomes toward the Other World. Whilst the Shaman slept, his spirit was believed to be away with the various spirits in that other, magical Faery realm.

Fly Agaric were so prized amongst Shamans that a typical currency of one reindeer for each mushroom was a common rate of exchange. This expense, however, was offset by the fact that the full psychedelic properties of the fungi are excreted in the user's urine. This not only extended the hallucinogenic effect of the fungi but also allowed poorer folk to partake in the highly prized experience by purchasing or bartering with the Shamans for the water they passed whilst under the influence of the mushroomom.

A Fly Agaric Standing Proud in a Canterbury Woodland

The iconography connecting Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria)  with the spiritual realm of elves and pixies and gnomes surrounds us all to this day. Even the most conservative of people bring a little of the Fly Agaric's magick into their lives through the literature they read, the television programmes they watch, the religious festivities they follow and even the garden ornaments they may purchase.

For no book of children's fairy stories would be complete without the speckle-topped, crimson headed mushroom making regular appearances amongst its illustrations. That noted piece of Victorian fiction, Alice in Wonderland, also alludes to the mind warping effects of the Fly Agaric when Alice finds a mushroom at the portal between her reality and that of a magickal Kingdom. Referring to one of the well known effects of Fly Agaric - that of macro or micropsia, where visual distortions can lead the beholder into believing that both themselves and/or exterior material objects are markedly larger or smaller than they are in reality - Alice either shrinks or grows to humunguous degrees depending on which side of the mushroom she ate. The fungi then aids Alice through her journey around Wonderland by allowing her to alter her size to enter various magickal locations that would have hitherto been impossible for her to access.

Children's TV shows are similarly awash with references glorifying the Fly Agaric's psychedelic properties. The perrennial favourite Enid Blyton character, Noddy, for instance, has a Gnome as a best friend who lives in a Fly Agaric mushroom and who helps him through his adventues in his magickal world.

Enjoyed by adults as much as children, computer video games also use the iconography of the Fly Agaric mushroom, perhaps most memorably in the acclaimed Super Mario Brothers franchise where, upon consuming the magickal fungi, the Mario Brothers gain super powers and strength.

Traditional art is also awash with references to the Fly Agaric's relationship with "Other Worlds." Whilst Victorian illustators filled their canvasses with Fly Agaric Kingdoms adorned with benign, and rather scantily-dressed fairy folk, Medieval Flemish artists associated such fungi with the eternal damnation of Hell.

Gardens, too, are often given over to replica Fly Agaric mushrooms, along with its mythological partner - the Gnome. It is difficult to imagine the weight of concrete and plaster that has been used to create these little psychedelic icons.

A Large Flat-Topped Fly Agaric Mushroom

And then there is Father Christmas. A thorough study of the origins of Santa Claus has de-Christianised the World's most famous supernatural figure and set its roots firmly in the psychedlic rituals of the Fly Agaric consuming Shamans. Siberian Shaman live in teepee-like constructions made from reindeer skins. The rooves of these yurts are supported by a large beam of wood which stretches up to an opening known as a "smoke hole" (an essential feature designed as ventilaton for interior yurt fires). During the Mid-Winter Festival, the chief Shaman would dress in a ritualistic outfit, consisting of a Fly Agaric coloured red and white coat with fur trimmings and long black boots (no prizes for guessing the similarity here with our own familiar image of Father Christmas) and then scour the woods for Fly Agaric mushrooms. Filling his bag with the magickal fungi, the Shaman would then clamber up the outside of the yurt and make his ceremonial entrance via its smoke hole. To the thrilled excitement of those awaiting his arrival, the Shaman would then slide down the central pole and share out his Fly Agaric gifts with those present. At the close of the ceremony, the Shaman woud then leave the yurt by climbing the beam of wood and exiting through the smoke hole.

Even the magical reindeer who guide Father Christmas through the sky and the location of his home originate back to the Fly Agaric's hallucinogenic properties. Siberian Reindeer have a particuar prediliction for the fungi in question and can behave very oddly under its influence. Certain communities, such as the Sami for instance, even feed the animals the mushrooms themslves and then collect the Reindeer's urine as this not only contains the full hallucinogenic strength of the Fly Agaric but much of the mushroom's noted toxicity is removed by the Reindeer's digestive processes. With both the Reindeer and the Shaman 'under the influence', it appeared to the Shaman that the Reindeer could fly. It is this side effect of the mushroom, the perceived notion of impossible flight in wingless animals, that gave Fly Agaric its name and not, as is too commonly supposed, the myth that pieces of the fungi floated in milk, woud attract and kill flies.

As seems the norm with the Christian religion, when missionaries first entered these regions to spread the words of Jesus and saw the sacred rites of the Shaman and heard the stories of flying Reindeer, it did not take long before the customs and folklore of the indiginous peope became intertwined with Christian traditions - on this occassion, those pertaining to Christmas. Even Father Christmas's magical home was eventually relocated in the frozen lands of the 'far North.'

Whilst much of these original connections between the Fly Agaric mushroom and Christmas are hardly popularised in Britain, some areas, in Central Europe especially, blatantly celebrate the Fly Agaric at this time of year by featuring the fungi on Christmas cards and decorations.

A Fly Agaric Decorated Christmas Tree

As can be seen, the Fly Agaric mushroom has been venerated throughout the world and across numerous cultures. The Rig Veda, for example, an ancient Hindu collection of hymns that is one of the earliest known samples of sacred texts (written over 3,000 years ago) is full of references (over 100 of them) to a plant called Soma, which is now believed by scholars to be the Fly Agaric Mushroom.

Fly Agaric

In more recent times, especially in Britain and the West, the hallucinogenic properties of the Fly Agaric mushroom have been largely overlooked by the contemporary counter culture in favour of its diminutive fellow entheogenic fungi - the Psilocybin 'Magic Mushroom.' This has much to do with the often unpredictable nature and perceived dangers associated with the consumption of Fly Agaric. Whilst fatalities are, in fact, rare (most cases of mushroom deaths seem to be the result of misidentifying other Amanita species such as Amanita Phalloides - The Death Cap -and Amanita virosa - The Destroying Angel), caution is necessary when utilising the mushroom for its entheogenic properties. To reduce much of the Fly Agaric's inherent toxicity, users dry the mushroom first. As well as reducing toxicity levels, the act of drying the mushroom actually produces the psychedelic compound Muscinol via the degeneration of the fungi's unstable Ibotenic Acid - effectively increasing the hallucinogenic effect of the Fly Agaric manifold. Even with this precaution intact, however, partakers of this mystical fungi can still expect some vomitting to accompany the intense hangover feeling the day after consuming the mushroom. Also, the 'trip' experienced by users is in no way as uniform as that delivered by Psilocybin 'Magic Mushrooms' with the quote "some dance and sing whilst others cry out in agony" deftly summing up the volatile nature of Fly Agaric consumption.

Important Note: The consumption of both Psilocybin and Fly Agaric mushrooms is illegal in the UK and some other countries and the above information is intended for educational purposes only.

A Fly Agaric, Decorated With Bejewelled Lens Flare :o)

The chemical properties of the Fly Agaric are not confined to the pschedelic, however. The fungi is an important ingredient in several homeopothy treatments including chilblains, nerve disorders, twitching, dizziness, itchiness, senile dementia and also to control delirium tremens in alcoholics.

Morning Sunshine Illuminating a Fly Agaric

Fly Agaric must rank as one of the most beautiful and ornate mushrooms and many gardeners would love to see their gardens decorated with these magickal little gems. Unfortunately, given that they are ectomycorrhizal fungi (they have a growing symbiotic relationship with the roots of birch and pine trees), their rearing is almost impossible outside a woodland environment, perhaps explaining the popularity of their ornamental plastic and concrete replicas.

A Fly Agaric Button Breaking Free
From a Forest Carpet of Pine Needles