Without further ado, here is the first Mushroom Monday book report, delivered to you on Toadstool Tuesday.
I’d first like to acknowledge that if you like reading and you like mushrooms (as a reader of this publication that includes you), there are a lot of great mushroom book clubs. The New York Mycological Society has a club hosted by Katina Rogers, and NAMA has an online club hosted by John Michelotti. I never saw The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross on any reading list, though, and frankly, the book only came across my radar after listening to Aaron Rodgers on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
With that said, be sure to take all the ideas presented by the author with a few grains of salt. The book is provocative and, like the Santa Claus theory, maybe there is some truth to it. If you think it’s all hogwash, well you’re probably right. Ancient Sumer, religion, and etymology are not my forte. I got a bachelor’s degree in biology from vaunted Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana (Go Hoosiers). However, I also did attend church not once but twice this past Christmas, and I was an usher in the evening service (had to stand the whole time) so perhaps I’m just being coy. Whether you think any of this is feasible, or not, I spent the last month reading this book and that’s time I can’t get back.
The author is John Marco Allegro. He is best known for translating the Dead Sea Scrolls, an ancient set of Jewish/astrological texts dating back sometime between the 3rd and 1st century BC. The scrolls were thought to be written by the Essenes - a sect of mystic Judaism that lived in Judaea during the time period. He describes the Dead Sea Scrolls as “a chart of the physical and spiritual characteristics to be expected of the people born in certain sections of the zodiac. (p. 32).
Allegro seems like quite an intellectual, and for most of this book I tried to come at the text as high-browed and academic as possible. I tried not to get tripped up when, referencing the Sacred Fungus, Amanita muscaria, he’d say things like, “Born from a volva or “egg” it appears like a small penis, raising itself like the human organ sexually aroused, and when it spread wide its canopy the old botanists saw it as a phallus bearing the “burden” of a woman’s groin” (p. xxiii). Whoa, I thought. I was ready to learn about Santa Claus and he’s talking about erections and the burden of a woman’s groin. My parents are going to read this. And that was just the introduction, folks, I hadn’t even gotten to the first chapter.
Allegro was controversial for what many experts consider an overly creative translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the publication of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross in 1970 basically exiled him from the academic world. I get it, if people can ruin their careers with a tweet now-a-days, an entire book that can basically be distilled down to religious eroticism could definitely force colleagues to lose your phone number.
The author argues that modern day Christianity and Judaism - and all the “Western” theologies in between like Greek mythology - are based off Ancient Sumerian cults that worshipped the fertility of earth, specifically the rain. Allegro writes, “The root of Christianity in this sense lies not in the Old Testament, but, like that of Judaism itself, in a pre-Semitic, pre-Hellenic culture that existed in Mesopotamia some two or three thousand years before the earliest Old Testament composition. The Christian doctrine of the fatherhood of God stems not from the paternal relationship of Yahweh to his chosen people but from the naturalistic philosophy that saw the divine creator as a heavenly penis impregnating mother earth. (p.7) The “Sacred Fungus” (Amanita muscaria) represents that naturalistic philosophy not just in physical shape, but through the enlightenment achieved through consumption.
He suggests that the stories in the Bible, specifically the New Testament, are code to describe the power of the Sacred Fungus. That the modern day religion we have today is born from the improper interpretation of the Bible. He writes, “those most deceived appear to have been the sect who took over the name of “Christian” and who formed the basis of the Church, the history of which forms no part of the present study” (42). That’s a lot to digest and his evidence is all over the place, but we’ll try to understand his reasoning.
Setting and Story
Allegro takes us back to a time and place - around 4000 BC in Ancient Sumer, Southern Mesopotamia - where humans had stumbled upon a land so fertile that it altered the fate of the planet forever. The humans that settled here were allegedly the first people to transition from hunter-gatherers to a more stationary, agricultural lifestyle and Sumer is regarded as the earliest known civilization. The author asserts at a point in the book that the Garden of Eden in the Bible is allegedly an allusion to Mesopotamia (p.8).
It was interesting to think about life back then, and how important rain was not just for agriculture, but for all of life. If it didn’t rain, people starved. I suppose before civilization people could roam large distances in search of game/food, but once they started to rely more on agriculture their lives and subsequent first religions were based off the rain. The idea that “heavenly spermatozoa” would rain down and fertilize all the land.
The rain also created the Sacred Fungus (as we all know mushrooms are ~90% water). That sacred fungus, Amanita muscaria, would specifically be administered to people through shamans or medicine men, and recipients would have psychoactive experiences, including hallucinations. The type of trips that cults and religions are born from, folks. Allegro writes of the Sacred Fungus, “It thus had the unique ability of forming a bridge between man and god, being not entirely divine not yet merely mortal” (112). It was used as an entheogen - a psychoactive substance used for a spiritual purpose.
Allegro refers to these early bands of people that worshipped rain and mushrooms as fertility cults, or even “the cult of the mushroom”. Today we call them mycologists. He asserts that the aforementioned Essenes were some of the people that possessed the knowledge of the mushroom and “Holy Plant”. He admits that deciphering translations for plant and mushroom names is not easy. This doesn’t deter him from claiming that when the Roman author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, would write about “Paeony” (what we probably know as the lovely flower peony) and “Mandrake” (the roots of plants in the genus Mandragora which are hallucinogenic when consumed), he’s actually making allusions to Amanita muscaria.
Allegro says that the description Pliny gives of Paeony is not differentiable from what can be said about A. muscaria. He claims the name “Paeony” originates from the Sumerian word BAR-IA-U-NA which means “capsule of fecundity” or “womb” and is code for the volva out of which A. muscaria emerges. This is enough for Allegro to conclude that, “we can now differentiate this very special “Paeony” from other plants to which the name was given, and identify it with the subject of our present study, the Amanita muscaria.” (37). A huge stretch at best, and this book is filled with a lot of this type of research and thinking.
Regardless, these cults that possessed knowledge of psychoactive plants/mushrooms were considered dangerous by Roman authorities because they would undermine the State, specifically the army. Roman emperors couldn’t have their army eating mushrooms, transcending consciousness, and thinking about the moral the cost of their actions. Any person caught with information on the names and uses of psychoactive plants/mushrooms would be in big trouble.
This led the cults to codify this information into what Allegro claims is the basis for the New Testament in the Bible. He writes, “Plant mythology, known for thousands of years over the whole of the ancient world, provided the New Testament cryptographers with the ‘cover’. Mushroom stories abounded in the Old Testament” (42). The New Testament was written as a code for plant medicine and those that could decipher the code would understand the importance and power of the Sacred Fungus.
A piece of evidence Allegro points toward to support his claims is a large painting dating back to 1291 AD that depicts the tree of good and evil from the story of Adam and Eve as a mushroom. Critics suggest that it’s not a mushroom and that artists at the time were experimenting with different ways of drawing trees. Who knows, I wasn’t there, but it’s far from concrete evidence.
Allegro draws a lot of mushroom analogies to religious iconography throughout the book which is kind of fun. He even suggests that both the imagery of Jesus on the Cross and Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders are allusions to the shape of Amanita muscaria. Different stories were created in the different religions born from these coded stories. Allegro writes, “What you expect of your god depends on your physical and spiritual needs in the immediate situation, and the stories you make up about him will reflect the social and ethnic conditions of your own time and place.” (p.6)
Sum of the Parts
The entire book consists of 19 chapters where Allegro looks to support his thesis by translating and decoding stories from the Bible and other religious texts. He also relies on a lot of different accounts from Pliny the Elder, and looks for alternate/deeper meaning in Pliny’s writings. These claims and translations are all supported by a robust, 100 page long Notes section. A lot of these notes and references are his direct translations of Biblical stories, focusing on the latin words, and relating them to their Ancient Sumerian origins. You basically have to take his word for it unless you’re able to make sense of the image below.
There is a helpful addendum at the end, Fungus Redividus by Carl A.P. Ruck who is a Classical Studies professor at Boston University. This text is a milder, more tangible version of the book. It highlights different aspects of fungal mysticism, and includes other religious icons and texts that contained mushrooms. It also follows the work of R. Gordon Wasson and his quest to discover the origins of mushrooms as entheogens. Perhaps, a jumping off point for a book report down the line, but for at least the next couple books I’m going to find something much lighter.
Although the entire book was weird and unexpected, I found some of the ideas stimulating. None of the evidence seemed that compelling to me, unfortunately, and even if it is all true I still need more than a fresco from a chapel in France and loose Biblical analogies to prove it.
Overall, I don’t recommend this book, but if I did it would be to a select few individuals. It doesn’t read well, there are a lot of translations that you just have to take Allegro’s word for, and the eroticism got old quick. There are a lot of mushroom books you should read before you pick this up. However, it is fun to think of what life was like 2000+ years ago. How people whose entire world knowledge revolved around the rain and stars one day ate a psychoactive mushroom and discovered God. All in all I’ll give Allegro 6.4 mushrooms out of 10 for his creativity, hard-work in translations (even if they’re made up), and determination to find the source of modern day religion.
Happy New Year, we’re back to our regularly scheduled mushroomary next Monday,
Allegro, John Marco. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East. Doubleday & Company, 2015.