Amanita muscaria is a basidiomycete mushroom of the genus Amanita. A. muscaria var. muscaria, var. flavivolvata, and var. formosa are commonly called fly agaric (less often fly mushroom) or toadstool.
Variety muscaria is a classic psychedelic mushroom. Fully grown, the cap is usually around 12 cm in diameter (up to 30 cm) with a distinctive blood-red color (crimson, fading to yellow with age), scattered with white to yellow, removable flecks (warts), which are remnants of the universal veil, a membrane that encloses the entire mushroom when it is still very young. The stem is white, 5-20 cm, with a basal bulb that bears universal veil remnants, in the form of a ragged collar or group of ruffs that circles the base of the stalk (or stripe).
It grows on the ground in a number of different woodlands, although birch, pine, spruce and fir are common in its habitats. It is considered poisonous, though rarely fatally so. The name fly agaric comes from its European use as an insecticide: crushed, dipped, or sprinkled in milk. It is sometimes consumed for its psychopharmacological effects. It is a very easily exported species that has been imported to many countries outside of Europe with, for example, pine plantations. When imported to a new country, A. muscaria can jump to native species (for example, Eucalyptus in Australia). It can then be exported with its new symbiont (for example, from Australia to Argentina).
Other varieties have similar appearance to var. muscaria, but differ most conspicuously in cap color:
Var. alba is white and restricted to northern North America
Var. americana has a yellow or yellow-orange cap
Var. flavivolvata is red, with yellow warts, and has a range from southern Alaska to at least Andean Colombia
Var. formosa (a poorly understood European variety) is orange-yellow
Var. guessowii is yellow to orange, with center of cap more orange or reddish orange than the outer part, apparently restricted to northern North America
Var. persicina is pinkish to orangish melon colored with poorly formed or absent remnants of universal veil on the stem and vassal bulb
Var. regalis is liver-brown and has yellow warts (now treated as a separate species (A. regalis).
Toxicity and chemistry
It contains a number of entheogenic constituents: ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscazone and muscarine, of which muscimol (3hydroxy-5-aminomethy-1 isoxazole, an unsaturated cyclic hydroxamic acid) is the most significant. Muscarine, discovered in 1869, was long thought to be the active hallucinogenic agent in A. muscaria until late 1960s, when scientists recognized it as ibotenic acid and muscimol. Some users cook the mushroom before ingestion, because it is said that the ibotenic acid turns into muscimol under this heat. This suposedly removes several unpleasant side effects due to the conversion of the much more toxic ibotenic acid into muscimol.
Consuming the mushrooms in doses of over 1 gram can cause nausea but also can cause a number of other effects, depending on dosage, ranging from twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic effects (lower blood pressure, increase sweat and saliva), visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, and hallucinations. In near fatal doses it causes swollen features, high rage and madness, characterised by bouts of mania, followed by periods of quiet hallucination. Effects appear after 60 minutes or so, peak within three hours, but certain effects can last for up to ten hours. The effect per volume consumed is highly variable and individuals can react quite differently to the same dose. The mushroom has been mistaken for other yellow to red species in the Americas (for example, Armillaria cf. mella and the edible Mexican species Amanita basii (similar to A. caesarea of Europe)). Poison control centers in the U.S. and Canada are aware that amarillo is a common name of caesarea-like species in Mexico, not just the Spanish for yellow.
Deaths from A. muscaria are extremely rare. Fatal doses have occurred in North America (var. guessowii). The amount and ratio of chemical compounds per mushroom varies widely from region to region, season to season, further confusing the issue. Many older books list it as deadly, giving the impression that it is far more toxic than it really is. The vast majority of mushroom poisoning fatalities (90+ %) are from having eaten either the greenish to yellowish to brownish mottled death cap (Amanita phalloides) or one of the destroying angels (Amanita virosa), several overall white Amanita species.
This mushroom, like its psychoactive relatives the Psilocybe species, has been used as an entheogen in rituals to communicate to the spirit world, largely in Siberia, with some reported incidents elsewhere in the northern hemisphere. Mesoamericans never consumed fly agaric for religion, but instead use Psilocybe. Psilocybe and Amanita are not chemically related with regard to their psychoactive properties and therefore produce markedly different psychoactive effects.
The active ingredient is excreted in the urine of those consuming the mushrooms, and it has sometimes been the practice for a shaman to consume the mushrooms, and the rest of the tribe to drink his urine: the shaman, in effect, partially detoxifying the drug (the sweat- and twitch-causing muscarine is absent in the urine). This was also not an uncommon practice in Siberia, where the poor would consume the urine of the wealthy, who could afford to buy the mushrooms. If a fly agaric is eaten, it is usually not fresh, but in its sun-dried form, where the hallucinogenic chemicals are more concentrated (ibotenic acid converted to the more stable and far less poisonous muscimol).
The notion that Nordic Vikings used Amanita muscaria to produce their berserker rages was first suggested by the Swedish professor Samual Ödman in 1784. Ödman based his theory on reports about the use of fly agaric among Siberian shamans. The notion has become widespread since the 19th century, but no contemporary sources mention this use or anything similar in their description of berserkers. Today, it is generally considered an urban legend or at best speculation that cannot be proven.
Mythology and religion
Koryak Siberians have a story about the fly agaric (wapaq) which enabled Big Raven to carry a whale to its home. In the story, the deity Vahiyinin (Existence) spat onto earth, and his spittle became the wapaq, and his saliva becomes the warts. After experiencing the power of the wapaq, Raven was so exhilarated that he told it to grow forever on earth so his children, the people, can learn from it.
Amanita muscaria is widely thought to be the Soma talked about in the Hindu scriptures, and is less often also thought to be the amrita talked about in Buddhist scriptures.
John Marco Allegro argues in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that the Christian religion derives from a sex and psychedelic mushroom cult.
Ethnobotonist and Ethnomycologist Giorgio Samorini in his book Animals and Psychedelics suggests a symbiotic relationship between toads, flies and fly agaric. Flies, after a lick of Amanita Muscaria become inebriated and delirious prey for hungry toads who may have learnt this, therefore hanging out around toadstools. This relationship within nature illuminates an etymological keystone and example of zoopharmacognosy. This would also provide further biosemiotic insight into the ancient mystery of toads, flies and mushrooms appearing together in popular mythology and fairy lore.
Amanita Muscaria in pop-culture
Garden ornaments, and children’s picture books depicting gnomes and fairies very often show fly agaric mushrooms used as seats, or homes; it is rather uncommon for any other mushroom to be shown in this role. How this artistic convention arose is a matter of speculation.
The mushroom is mentioned in the Flowers of Guatemala by the American band R.E.M., providing the songs central image.
The ethno botanist Jonathan Ott has suggested that the idea of Santa Claus and the tradition of hanging stockings over the fireplace are based centrally upon the fly agaric mushroom itself. With its generally red and white color scheme, he argues that Santa Claus suit is related to the mushroom in some way. He also draws parallels to the flying reindeer: It appears that reindeer enjoy the mushroom because of its euphoric results, and therefore prance around in a hallucinogenic after-effect. He also speculates about Santas bag of toys. According to historians, Ancient Siberia was one of the first civilizations to use fly agaric in practice. The Siberian hut, or the yurt, is equipped with a smoke hole at the top. Ott suggests that the shaman entered the yurt through the smoke hole with a sack of mushrooms in his hand, to be placed in stockings over the fireplace to be dried for celebratory use.
The NES game Super Mario Bros. also features mushrooms with a similar appearance which cause a character to double in size and gain strength.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Amanita muscaria.