Article #17 – Entheogens in the Pyrenees

Whilst walking up in the high forests I came across a lovely little example of Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric, the archetypal mushroom of the European forests. The toxic and hallucinatory potential in these little red and white caps is well known, and prompted me to think what use they may have had in these mountains, and what other floral, fungal and faunal tools might have been used in the past to numb, transport and intoxicate, tying into the wider ethnobotanical research of the Perennial Pyrenees project.

There is a Catalan expression ‘Estar tocat del bolat’ (To be touched by the mushroom), which generally refers to those whose behaviour is a bit off, eccentric, or even bizarre, but in a friendly or even affectionate sense. This does seem to indicate some manner of folk memory of the use (and effects) of entheogenic mushrooms, although it may not refer to one species in particular. I have so far found no specific references to a tradition of consuming Fly Agaric (which, with a little preparation, is possible without poisoning oneself), however the writer of the Anthrome blog (address given at the end of this article) does mention encounters with old and young men ‘who live in the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate France and Spain, who even today turn themselves over to the intoxicating effects of this mushroom some time each year, when it appears in the fall in the birch and black pine forests’.

 

Amanita muscaria 

Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric.  Photo taken from http://pixdaus.com/

 

One interesting feature of consumption of Fly Agaric reported by sacredearth.com is that one is (apparently) affected by ‘macropsia’ and ‘micropsia’, in which objects appear larger or smaller than they are in reality. Mushroom-lore from Siberia speaks of ‘mushroom men’ whose frames are small and compact, sometimes lacking necks, who run along twisting paths and guide the shaman towards the otherworld. Cliff drawings found in the region appear to confirm the appearance of these Fly Agaric men. Given the widespread appearance of Fly Agaric throughout European folklore, habitats and potentially ecstatic consumption for animist ritual purposes, these ‘little men’ who answer the mushroom’s call may bear some link with the almost universal presence of ‘little people’ in European folklore, potentially even in the Pyrenees, or indeed the subterranean folklore of these mountains, where small crevices could be perceived to be great stone caverns or doorways if under the influence. It is always hazardous to paint with immensely broad brush strokes, especially when dealing with the undocumented archaic past and the transmission of myth and ritual, however, a little speculation never hurt anyone, and further research will be done on this by Perennial Pyrenees in time.

 

Psilocybe hispanica

Psilocybe hispanica growing happily on some dung. Photo taken from https://files.shroomery.org

 

Amanita muscaria is however by no means the sole entheogenic fungi to be found within the Pyrenees. Fifteen known species of the Psilocybe mushroom are known in Spain, three of which are hallucinogenic properties (Psilocybe semilanceata, Psilocybe hispanica and Psilocybe gallaeciae), and one of which grows specifically in the meadows and pastures of the Pyrenees:  Psilocybe hispanica. This mushroom grows on dung (i.e. it is coprophilic), and is particularly common in Aragon. A particularly striking potential representation of this fungi in connection with esoteric or sinister practices comes in the form of a 17th-century medallion from the Valle de Tena (Aragonese Pyrenees), which depicts the devil with several toadstools (Guzman, 2003). Given that the Psilocybe mushrooms (with Psilocybe hispanica in particular) are so commonly found around that area, and there is an alleged strong local tradition of witchcraft in this valley, it is possible that this depiction hints at a relationship between the devil, or witchcraft, and these hallucinogenic mushrooms. Another alleged medallion displays the Devil as an imp, surrounded by a horseshoe, and at his feet grow more of these toadstools. This would not be surprising, as the link between other poisonous and hallucinogenic herbs and the ‘witch flights’ or perceived Sabbaths is well known and explored (i.e. Carlo Ginzberg, Michael Howard, Dr. A. Gari etc.). The Basque term for these hallucinogenic Psilocybe fungi is sorguin zorrotz which means ‘witch’s beak’, which may refer to the small upper part of the cap and its link with consumption by local witches, despite no mention of this tradition within Inquisition records.

Selva Pascuala 

Selva Pascuala – note the alleged mushrooms in the bottom right and the accompanying bull. Photo taken from https://i.pinimg.com

 

A far older reference to Psilocybe hispanica comes from the Spanish interior. The 6,000-year-old rock art of the cave site Selva Pascuala (Pajaroncillo, Castilla-La Mancha) depicts in one mural some objects which match the morphology of Psilocybe mushrooms. At first, they were taken to be Psilocybe semilanceata, however they are placed next to a bull, which given the coprophilic nature of Psilocybe hispanica has caused some experts to revise their opinion and claim that the mushrooms in question are indeed Psilocybe hispanica (New Scientist, 2011). This is doubly interesting, as not only might it point towards some manner of ritualistic consumption of these fungi in prehistory, a tradition which may have continued in some manner throughout the centuries in the Pyrenees, but the fact that they grow more or less explicitly within the Pyrenees and that the site is located far from this mountain range might indicate some manner of importance placed on this specific species, easily identified as it is by its preference for dung, and it may have been specifically searched for and prized. If the identification of the mural is correct, it is the earliest known depiction of psychedelic fungi use in Europe, and the third found so far in prehistoric rock art.

 

Goya witch flight

Goya’s ‘Linda maestra’ (1798). It may be that Atropa belladonna helped these two believe they were indeed whizzing around on their brooms! Picture taken from https://i.pinimg.com

 

Another Pyrenean plant that is incredibly hard to find throughout the rest of the Iberian Peninsula is the infamous Atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, long linked folklorically to witchcraft, spirit flights and poisoning. Ginzberg argues that along with opium poppy, monkshood, hemlock and other plants, Atropa belladonna was mashed into a salve and applied to ‘private areas’ (for greater absorption into the bloodstream) to encourage hallucinations or waking dreams of flight and diabolical interactions (Ginzberg, 2004).

 

Toad

The much-maligned European Toad, the subject of numerous sinister myths and folklore. Photo taken from https://upload.wikimedia.org

 

The final example given in this brief article comes not from a plant, but rather an unfortunate amphibian, the toad. These creatures produce a toxin in their parotid gland called Bufotoxin which causes (amongst other things) hallucinations and an increased heartbeat. Some references to the use of this toxin by five witches in Fago (Aragon) have been found in Inquisition records when they were tried in 1657: ‘The accused said that she had a toad and they whipped it with heather branches, they took what they had made it squirt out, they rubbed themselves with it and went wherever they wanted’ (Fericgla, 1996) In Catalonia there was a peculiar hangover of the use of this toad, at least up until around forty years ago. A popular form of dispensing justice was known as ‘sandbagging’, where a miscreant was beaten with a stocking full of sand, thereby dispensing punishment and avoiding involving local law courts. If the crime was more severe than pick-pocketing, stealing etc., then an unfortunate toad was also stuffed into the stocking. The apparent effect of this was that, not only would the accused be beaten black and blue, they would also get the Bufotoxin on their skin, which would leave him or her dazed, seeing terrifying visions (stressful situations tend to exaggerate the effects of hallucinogens) and having little memory of the event afterwards (Goithyja, 2012). No mention is made of what happened to the toad, but it is probably fair to say he would not be returning to his pond…

 

 

References

Books/Articles

Fericgla, Josep Maria, 1996 ‘Traditional Entheogenic and Intoxicating Substances in the Mediterranean Area’. Speech given in the International Conference on Entheogenic substances in San Francisco, USA, in 1996. Available here: http://anthropogen.com/?p=3370

Ginzberg, Carlo, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Chicago, IL: University of Chigaco Press, 2004)

Goithyja, Ayahuasca Glimpse 2012 (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corporation, 2012) 

Guzmán G. (2000). “New species and new records of Psilocybe from Spain, the U.S.A. and Mexico, and a new case of poisoning by Psilocybe barrerae“. Documents Mycologiques.  29 (116): 41–52.

Guzmán G, Castro ML (2003). “Observaciones sobre algunas especies conocidas de Psilocybe (Basidiomycotina, Agaricales, Strophariaceae) de España y descripción de una nueva especie”[Observations on some known species of Psilocybe (Basidiomycotina, Agaricales, Strophariaceae) from Spain and description of a new species] (PDF). Boletín Sociedad Micológica de Madrid (in Spanish and English). 27: 181–7. Available here: http://www.samorini.it/doc1/alt_aut/ek/guzman03.pdf

 

Websites

Anthrome blog:

https://anthrome.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/traditional-entheogenic-and-intoxicating-substances-in-the-mediterranean-area/

Sacred Earth blog:

http://www.sacredearth.com/ethnobotany/plantprofiles/flyagaric.php

New Scientist (2nd March, 2011):

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928025.400-earliest-evidence-for-magic-mushroom-use-in-europe/