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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 26th December 2011 

On 23rd November, I wrote about the phenomenon that I likened to buying a red Nissan Micra. That is, you notice references to things in which you have an interest so they seem to occur more often.

Just occasionally, however, things do occur uncharacteristically often and it happened, today, on BBC Radio 4. Two very different programmes contained items about Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, and the stories associated with it.

The first programme was the popular science discussion programme, ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, chaired by Prof Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince. For seven days after the broadcast you can listen to the programme by following this link. If the programme is no longer available you can get more information on it from the BBC website.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric 

The second programme was ‘The Unbelievable Truth’, a panel game featuring four celebrities talking about different subjects and having to include a number of truths in an otherwise completely untrue account and hoping the other panellists don’t spot them. Again, for seven days, the programme can be listened to online or it, also, has its own page on the BBC site.

Both programmes took account of the season; ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ looked at what scientific evidence there is for the components of the Christmas season and ‘The Impossible Truth’ had Christmas related subjects for each panellist.

Amanita muscaria came into the science programme when the guests were discussing whether there is any basis to the Father Christmas story. It was suggested that, in northern Scandinavia, the shaman would bring wisdom (gifts) to the tribe after using the hallucinogenic mushroom and it was suggested (somewhat improbably) that his entry into the tribe’s tents would be via the same aperture that allowed smoke to escape thus giving him the appearance of coming through the chimney.

It was also said that the red and white of the mushroom is what gives Santa his characteristic colours. Though it would be nice if this were so, it was, in fact, as said on the Amanita muscaria page of this site, an advertising executive from Coca Cola, in the 1930s, who decided to clothe Santa Claus in the company’s colours.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

On ‘The Impossible Truth’, one of the panellists had to speak about reindeer and included in his talk the fact that reindeer will seek out human urine in the snow because of its salt content. This led to a discussion about the reverse practice of humans seeking out reindeer pee in order to get intoxicated from the presence of muscimol.

That led me to have one of those moments when you suddenly question something you've accepted for years. It is, of course, said that the notion of reindeer flying results from their consumption of an hallucinogenic.

What, finally, penetrated my slow, old brain was the question; 'How do we know that Amanita muscaria made reindeer think they could fly?' It's not as though there is a parallel story that it also gave them the power of human speech so they could relate their hallucinogenic experiences. If reindeer who eat fly agaric mushrooms experience hallucinations of flying there is no way that we would be aware of that.

I suspect that humans using fly agaric thought they saw flying reindeer or, if they obtained the drug from drinking reindeer pee and had the hallucination of flying themselves, they concluded that reindeer would have the same experience.


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