An ethnomycological journey into Christmas
by Douglas Barnes
Would Christmas be what it is without mushrooms? I'd like to put forward to you that Santa Claus himself owes at least part of his existence to the mushroom Amanita muscaria.
But Sinterklaas also owes some of his essence to Odin, ruler of the Norse gods. Sinterklaas is known for riding his white horse, whereas Odin rides his flying gray horse. Sinterklaas has his mischievous black-faced helpers. Odin has his ravens. Children would leave carrots, hay or sugar in their shoes for Odin's horse. In return, Odin would leave candy or gifts in exchange. Dutch children leave carrots, apples or hay in their shoes for Sinterklaas who, in exchange, leaves behind gifts.
Odin's chariot is visible in the night sky as the Big Dipper, which contains the North Star, which in turn shows the way to the North Pole. The North Pole, as we know, happens to be the home of Santa Claus.
I think I've made a decent case for connecting Santa to Odin, but not Amanita muscaria to Norse culture, or Santa. Not yet, anyway.
Amanita muscaria is a striking red mushroom with white spots. This colour scheme is obviously relevant to the argument. It has a number of psychotropic properties owing to the muscimol and muscimol's precursor ibotenic acid contained in the mushroom (mainly in the universal veil). Among its effects are visual and auditory distortions, impared balance, mild muscle spasms, and the sensation of floating or flying. Some clinical subjects have reported simultaneous states of wakeful consciousness and lucid dreaming. Another common report is a deeply moving spiritual experience. Considering this, it is not surprising that the mushroom is revered in many cultures around the world. It has a tradition of use among the Norse, some of whom took it in very large quantities to become fierce berserks or berserkers. Odin was said to have a berserkergang of his own to follow him in battle. No doubt it was a relief to Norwegians when the berserk practice was outlawed in 1123 AD.
The Athabaskans also have a tradition of using the mushroom as do the Afghans. In researching this, I came across a 1979 article in Afghanistan Journal in which one elder of the Shutul Valley in Afghanistan fittingly described his experience of the mushroom as thus: “Once, I thought I was a tree.” The Shutul people also use it as a treatment for frostbite and psychotic conditions. Considering that muscimol acts on the GABA-A receptor, it's likely that this “psychotic condition” mentioned by the Shutulis is depression.
The late eminent ethnomycologist, Gordon Wasson, put forward the theory that “soma,” the sacramental substance mentioned in the Hindu holy book Rig Veda, was, in fact, Amanita muscaria. This is certainly plausible, though the exact composition of soma was kept a secret to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.
|From Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month|
So let's recap. We have this Santa Clause chap who happens to be dressed in Amanita muscaria camouflage. Santa is based on Sinterklaas, who is based on Odin. Odin, with his flying horse, his acquisition of wisdom, and his berserkers, comes from a culture steeped in the mushroom. Santa travels via flying reindeer - the very same beast that itself has a remarkable affinity for the mushroom, as well as historically being swapped for it. Finally, we've got people making replicas of the mushroom and using it as a decoration to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.
Believe what you want to believe. Me? I'm going to nod my head in respect for this mighty mycological miracle.