Did you know that there’s evidence of humans consuming psilocybin-containing fungi as long ago as 11,000 years?

As we covered in our article Mushrooms and Humanity, the relationship we humans share with fungi—of the psychedelic variety or otherwise—goes back a long, long time. Different cultures had different views on fungi, but one theme seems to appear throughout the ages, regardless of time or societal beliefs: mushrooms have always been considered important and useful, if not sacred. In some cases, they have even been worshiped as the food of the gods or even gods themselves.

In today’s post, we’ll look at what historians and ethnomycologists believe the relationship between humans and fungi were like across a variety of different cultures, ranging from ancient Egypt to Viking-dominated Scandinavia.

Mushrooms in Ancient Egypt

Since 2016, Egypt has held a “National Fungus Day”, spearheaded by Abdel-Azeem, the founder of the Arab Society for Fungal Conservation. This special event offers attendees the opportunity to hear lectures from local mycologists about modern-day applications of fungi, a series of fungi-related activities, and historical information about the little-known (yet prominent) presence of fungi in ancient Egypt.

Evidence of mushrooms in ancient Egypt
Fig. A: Wall relief of a mushroom basket in Temple of Hathor, Dendera, Fig. B: A pillar with a fan or oyster-shaped top in Temple of Philae in Aswan, Egypt, Fig. C: Mushroom relief in Edfu Temple © Abdel-Azeem 2016.

In ancient Egypt, historians believe that mushrooms were associated with immortality, and while it seems unlikely in practice, it may be that mushrooms were at least supposed to be reserved for nobility only. Regardless of who was eating the mushrooms, hieroglyphs such as those seen above clearly indicate that fungi weren’t an unknown to the Egyptians—and some historians even go so far as to suggest that psilocybin mushroom cultivation wasn’t uncommon.

Some even believe that the Egyptian Ankh symbol, traditionally thought to represent life, may actually itself be symbolic representation of a mushroom. Among the oldest surviving Egyptian texts refer to a red and golden “plant” that was the food of the gods (sometimes translated as celestial food). Researchers believe that this red and golden plant may in fact be a reference to Amanita muscaria or some variation thereof.

Egyptian Ankh, theorized to represent a mushroom

One of the best arguments for the validity of this theory can be found in the book The Sacred Mushroom: Key to the Door of Eternity, written by Andrija Puharich, a neurologist from Maine who had varied interests in “alternative” topics such as extrasensory perception and psychedelic mushrooms.

In his 1959 book, Puharich makes a surprisingly convincing argument for the Ankh-as-a-mushroom theory, amid many other fascinating revelations about the role of psilocybin-containing fungi throughout history. The Sacred Mushroom has since entered the public domain and can be freely read on archive.org.

The Role of Medicinal Mushrooms in 14th Century China

Mushrooms still play a critical role in traditional Chinese medicine to this day, but the practice is far from new—evidence suggests mushrooms were used as medicine as far back as the 14th century and almost certainly even long before that.

During the era of the Ming Dynasty from 1368 – 1644, the use of shiitake mushrooms became very popular, since mushroom cultivators of the time had figured out how to grow them on logs. Shiitake, still hailed for its many beneficial properties, was used during that era as an anti-aging “tonic”, used to soothe the aches and pains of the elderly.

Of course, another very popular mushroom in China is the lingzhi mushroom, which you may better know as reishi. Used for over 2,000 years, the fungi is thought to have a wide range of benefits, including as a treatment for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Unfortunately, few modern studies have fairly evaluated these claims, but shiitake and lingzhi are still extremely popular in not only modern day China, but around the world.

Did Viking Berserkers Really Consume Psychoactive Fungi Prior to Engaging in Combat?

Viking use of psilocybin mushrooms

Amanita muscaria again makes an appearance in theories about the fungi being consumed by Vikings in roughly 800 – 1,000 A.D. Scandinavia, wherein scholars believe that certain Viking warriors would consume the Amanita muscaria fruit body prior to battle.

These warriors were known as berserkers, their title the result of extreme aggression and ruthlessness in battle. Texts originating from roughly the same era attributed to Icelandic politician and author Snorri Sturluson describe the Viking berserkers as “strong as wild oxen” and “mad as wolves”. Supposedly, they would howl, bite, and even attack their compatriots in the heat of battle (presumably not on purpose). This behavior, of course, is explained by the consumption of the Amanita muscaria.

However, the truth is that nobody really knows if this is what the Viking berserkers were consuming. Theories abound, and one credible opposing argument has been presented by Karsten Fatur, an ethnobotanist at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. In a 2019 interview with Ars Technica, Fatur suggested that rather than Amanita muscaria, it’s quite possible that the Viking berserkers were in fact consuming Hyoscyamus niger, more commonly known as Henbane.

Henbane plant illustration
Hyoscyamus niger as seen in Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887

Henbane is a flowering plant native to Europe which was used as a painkiller and narcotic. It also has anesthetic properties and may have been prescribed as an insomnia treatment. It also happens to cause short-term memory loss and anger. Fatur—we believe rightly so—points out that psychedelic mushroom consumption rarely (if ever) results in the consumer experiencing uncontrollable rage.

Whatever they were eating, we know one thing for sure—it’s awfully nice to be sitting in a comfortable office chair here at the Quality Spores headquarters rather than facing down an angry Viking!

Modern Day Psilocybin Mushroom Spore Research: Easier Than Ever to Get Started

The history of fungi is long, varied, and undeniably fascinating. If you’d like to get a closer look at the formative stages of fungi for yourself, we carry a wide selection of psilocybin mushroom spores, perfect for amateur microscopy. Learn more about the hobby here, and if you’re ready to place an order, we welcome you to visit our shop.