Anyone interested in magic mushrooms needs to read the 2006 book by Andy Letcher titled “Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.” You may or may not like it, because the author does not pull his punches with existing theories on Shroom history. But even so, you need to read it!
Why? Because there is probably no other human alive besides Letcher that has read practically every piece of information ever published about magic mushrooms. And he has been good enough to put it together for us in a compact book of only 300 pages. (384 with reference section and index.)
Two major portions of Shroom are devoted to the Siberian use of the Fly Agaric for both recreational and spiritual purposes, and to Gordon Wasson’s mid-century discovery of magic mushroom use in Mexico and subsequent popularization of Psilocybin mushrooms in the West.
The second half of the book gives a fascinating account of the spread and undulating popularity of magic mushrooms through North America and Europe, and to a lesser degree also Australia-New Zealand. The British hippy festivals of the late 70’s and early 80’s, where shrooms were a mainstay, are delved into. And of course the American magic mushroom advocate Terence McKenna receives much attention.
The one aspect of Shroom that bothers me is how Letcher dismisses many “unproven” theories on the historical use of magic mushrooms by presenting the counter-arguments that are often equally unconvincing.
As an example, he makes the point that the famous ancient rock paintings in the Sahara Desert, which many believe depict mushroom wielding shamans, could easily be interpreted differently. As a reader, one is left with the sense that because the interpretation of the petroglyphs as mushrooms may be wrong, therefore it is wrong.
Critical evaluation of any unproven theory is a great thing but it needs to be balanced. Letcher often appears overly critical of the theories of historic mushroom usage, while being totally uncritical of the arguments of the detractors of said theories.
This lack of balance is especially blatant when one realizes that he uses the reality of a changing environment and flora as an argument against the possible use of magic mushrooms by Druids in a heavily forested ancient Britain even though it grows abundantly in British pastures today, while simultaneously arguing that the Fly agaric could not have been used in ancient Egypt because no Fly agaric related mushroom grows there today.
In all fairness, though, Letcher does get more balanced in his presentation of different viewpoints towards the end of the book, acknowledging several times that there is no objective way to be sure which of the opposing claims are valid. He deserves kudos for that.
All in all, this book must surely be the most thorough and comprehensive account ever written on the history of magic mushrooms; in particular the more recent part of that history, relating to the past one hundred years or so.
But Shroom is not only a book about magic mushrooms. It also tells the stories of other psychedelic drugs, such as mescaline (Aldous Huxley), LSD (Timothy Leary), and ecstasy (rave culture).
So in spite of my reservations against Letcher’s somewhat unbalanced siding with the critics against various theories of the historic use of magic mushrooms, I insist that if you have a sincere interest in shrooms, you really do need to read this book. It’s a fascinating account of the history of shrooms.
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