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Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria
How Far Will You Go?

I Want to Get High

At the beginning of the Phantastica section, I tried to suggest reasons why the human race likes to use psychoactive substances. As we moved through the harm scale, we've seen that psychoactive substances can cause harm whether as a result of the diversion of family income to buy khat leaves or from the fifty per cent chance of having one's life shortened by tobacco. But, we, as a race, still want to get high.

On this page we'll look at one of the most extreme examples of what human beings are willing to do just to get high.

Noddy's Mushroom

Fly agaric mushroom lamp

Ask most people if they are familiar with Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric mushroom, and, once they hear the description of its red top with white spots, they will recall seeing it in children's storybooks or in items for the nursery such as the lamp shown here.

There are often surprised to learn it is one of the most psychoactive of the fungi.

The fly agaric mushroom is about the only psychoactive organism found in the extreme north of the world. In places like Scandinavia and northern Russia, fly agaric has a long history of use. The 'Berserks' famed in Viking tales for their fierce and fearless fighting skills are often believed to have used the mushroom to get into their berserk state though there is no contemporaneous evidence for this. Some say that it is Amanita muscaria which is given to reindeer on Christmas Eve to enable them to fly around the whole world in one night, which may be so, but, sadly, the idea that Father Christmas wears red and white to commemorate this does not survive scrutiny.

The Kamchatka Peninsula was home to the Koryak people who relied on fly agaric as their only, albeit scarce, source of psychoactive effects. Somehow, goodness knows how, they discovered something unique about it.

Ibotenic Acid

The principal ingredient of the Amanita muscaria mushroom is ibotenic acid which is unlike most other substances. In almost every case, when a substance is ingested it causes a chemical reaction in the body by combining with another substance which is naturally present. This results in the production of a third substance which is excreted as a waste product. This process is called metabolisation. Normally, all of the ingested substance will be metabolised.

A group of Amanita muscaria under pine trees
A group of Amanita muscaria under pine trees

The Koryak discovered that very little ibotenic acid is metabolised in producing its hallucinogenic intoxication with the vast majority being very quickly excreted from the body via the kidneys. Thus, if they were short of fresh mushrooms and wanted to get high a second time all that was required was to, as it were, pour themselves a glass.

It would seem that, if a friend appeared unexpectedly, he would also be offered a glass as a gesture of friendship.

You have to ask, if human beings are willing to drink other people's urine just to get high, is there any chance of ever eradicating the problems caused today by substances like cocaine, heroin, alcohol and tobacco?

And you have to answer, only if we are willing to say we've progressed. Just as we no longer believe that the devil will appear if we try and pick the deadly nightshade berry so we should no longer believe that getting high is an inevitable part of human experience.