Monday, December 10, 2018

The Curious Christmas Tale of Amanita Muscaria

Santa and his reindeer have, over the years, become the ubiquitous symbol of western Christmas celebration. Despite the overarching religious narrative around Santa Claus and St. Nicholas, there are some that have called the true origin of a sleigh-driving man led by flying reindeer into question. Anthropologists and mycologists have traced a historical link back to mind-altering fungi.

Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria
The Gifts of Winter
This new origin theory suggests that the figure of Santa arose from the practices of shamans native to Siberian and Arctic areas. They would arrive in settlements around the Winter Solstice with a bag stocked full of “presents.” These presents came in the form of Amanita muscaria – a hallucinogenic mushroom more commonly known as the fly agaric or “holy mushroom.” The native people often lived in teepee-esque houses with a single opening to the ground. Since snow often blocked that entrance, the shamans would drop their tidings through an opening in the roof, hence the story of Santa coming through the chimney.

A Little Mushroom Forest
The Botanical Link
That is not the only link these entheogens (substances that induce a spiritual experience) have to our modern festivities. Have you ever wondered why placing presents under a tree came to be the norm or why pine trees are the preferred “Christmas tree”? Well, fly agaric mushrooms are commonly found lurking at the base of conifer and birch trees with their bright red coloration and white spots calling attention to them. From the native’s perspective, the trees were the resting place for their gifts – an important spiritual element of their lives. Moreover, their colors have been adopted for wrapping paper, seasonal decorations and Santa himself.

But Why The Flying Reindeer???
This is where it gets a bit more involved with the “experience.” Unfortunately, reindeer cannot fly, but our minds are palaces of imagination and wonder. The symbol of a flying sleigh led by reindeer embodies the taking of a “trip” and traveling to a different plane of consciousness. The vessel was more symbolic than practical and as Carl Ruck put it, “Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your vision quest and reindeer are common and familiar to people in Eastern Siberia.” With the Amanita muscaria induced departure from reality, the people connected elements of their environment to their psychedelic experiences. These connections helped build spiritual importance of the animals to the people who lived with them. As other groups of people intermingled in time, stories were shared and mythos was merged.

Sassy Reindeer
As traditions and groups of people congealed, elements of the past remained. Reds and whites dominate the Christmas season, Santa still drops in through the chimney, conifers are sold as Christmas trees (even multi-colored), and airborne reindeer still dot the gift cards, decorations and movies of the season. No matter how far we come, traces of what came before can still be found. The Christmas that we know is just one example of that. So remember…instead of cookies, pick some mushrooms and leave those for your Christmas Eve visitor this year.

- Contributed by Sterling N.

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