Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria) is regarded as the archetypal toadstool: with a red (often white spotted) cap and white gill is often used as a cartoon representation of fungi. It looks as though it should be deadly poisonous and will it will give you a severe and violent upset stomach if eaten raw, fatalities are rare.
The toxic substance is Ibotenic Acid which attracts and kills flies, hence the old practice of crumbling the cap into a saucer of milk. The toxin is soluble in water and is absorbed by the insect when it feeds on the milk. Whether the fly is killed by the toxin or whether it drowns because it’s stoned out of its head is debatable, as this fungus also contains Muscinol which is a hallucinogen. Muscinol itself has no effect on the human brain, however, the action of an enzyme in the human gut changes it into a highly psychoactive substance which disturbs the brain’s ability to process spatial awareness. This is a different effect to that of Liberty Caps, the so-called magic mushroom. This property has been used by shaman for at least 4,000 years in religious ceremonies, most notably in India where the early Hindus drank Soma, a concoction made from this mushroom. The human body does not use up Mucinol and secretes it in the urine.
In the early 19th century, a Swedish nobleman was given an enforced vacation to Siberia by the Tsar for 16 years. This was part of the poser struggle in Asia as Russia tried to claim a Naval base that was not ice-bound for much of the year. This culminated in the Crimean War, much o which was fought in the Baltic, and continues today with the annexation of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea by Russian backed rebels. Upon his release he published his observations which were translated into English and widely read, In his writings on Fly Agaric, he noted the usage by the local shaman in their ceremonies. he reported that the people who drank the urine of the shaman also experienced the effects of the drug.
Reindeer are junkies. If you have eaten this mushroom, they will try to drink your urine even when you are in mid-flow, so ladies, if you thought that squatting in the woods was undignified……….
Professor Charles Dodson would certainly have known of this book as a don at Oxford University. He uses the loss of spatial awareness as the major plotline in his most famous book. Queen Victoria was so enchanted by the story that she ordered the complete writings of this author and she received several volumes dedicated to the finer points of advanced calculus. And the book? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Photos by Graeme Davis