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The poet, fiction writer, and essayist Robert Graves wrote about mushrooms in Greek religion and myth in the 1950s. He corresponded with Wasson from an early stage of Wasson’s research into mushrooms and contributed evidence and ideas to Wasson on the role of mushrooms in religion. Wasson, however, did not credit him or acknowledge his published work on mushrooms, putting a strain on their friendship. Moreover, Graves’ work has been ignored by the majority of subsequent scholars on mushrooms in Greek myth and religion. Credit that has gone to Wasson and Carl Ruck as first popularizers of the role of mushrooms in Greek myth and religion should go to Graves. This post will clarify what Graves asserted and what the strengths and limitations of his approach were.

Graves primary contribution is the essay “Centaur’s Food,” first published in The Atlantic magazine, but reprinted and more commonly available in Food for Centaurs (1960), a collection of Graves’ poetry and essays. His other writings on psychedelics in religion and history primarily reiterate the findings presented in “Centaur’s Food.” Additionally, “The Poet’s Paradise,” the transcript of a lecture delivered at Oxford in the early 60s, published in Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1961), contains some material on Graves’ views on contemporary use of psychedelics and some new interpretations of religion and mythology. Below I list the claims of the two essays and summarize and comment on the methods Graves’ uses to advance these claims. Finally, I add a few notes about Graves’ relationship with Wasson and Graves’ self-presentation and its impact on the effectiveness of his arguments.

Graves makes some serious blunders, but some of the evidence he draws our attention to remains strikingly relevant and has not been given its due by subsequent entheogen scholars. Graves is the true origin of the middling moderate entheogen theory of religion, as defined here: psychedelics were used commonly in the origins of religion, but later became more and more restricted to select occasions or a select group, until finally they became so secretive that common knowledge of their role was lost; the role of the scholar is to unveil the presence of plants in religious myth and ritual.

In “Centaur’s Food,” Graves claims:

  • The taboo on mushrooms in some cultures is a sign of their earlier use in sacred ceremonies
  • That Greek priests later banned the use of the mushroom and that Greek myth reflects this change by depicting the punishments of figures for serving ambrosia to mortals
  • Mushrooms are found in Greek art: An Etruscan Bronze mirror dating to 500 BC depicts a mushroom at the feet of Ixion; A vase painting of the centaur Nessus dying after being shot with an arrow by Heracles depicts mushroom in between centaur’s feet; The relief scultpure from Phrsalus from 5th BC depicts Demeter and Persphone holding a mushroom
  • That the first letters of the ingredients for the recipes given for Ambrosia, Nectar, and the Eleusinian Kykeon in Greek sources spell out the Greek word for mushroom in various forms; The mu- syllable of the Greek word for ‘mystery’ musterion refers to fly (muos) and mushroom (muka). Mystery celebration at Athens held during the fall, the mushroom season. The corresponding spring festival was named for flowering, springtime plants (anthesterion), so seems like that musterion somehow refers to a substance.
  • Dionysus was the mushroom, both born from lightning; that Maenads raged like Berserk in amanita-state; that ripping off of heads in Dionysus rituals refers to removal of head of mushroom from stalk.
  • That animals used as symbols of major cities in the Peloponnese refer to mushrooms (toad for Argos, fox for Messene, serpent for Laconia); nearby city name Mycenae refers to mushroom. Founder of Argos, Phoroneus, name may refer to toad, born from an ash-tree, which are known to attract lightning, which is sign of mushroom. The fox-skins worn by the avid followers of Dionsysus, the Thracians, resemeble mushrooms in vase paintings. The little foxes in Old Testament stories refers to amanita. The fox in the story of the Spartan boy who snuck a fox into school in his tunic and then said nothing in order to not be found out even as the fox began to gnaw on his innards refers to amanita. Swelling in Old Testament and Greek Myth refers to mushroom.
  • The Athenian festival called Scirophoria is a procession of mushrooms or later mushroom-like parasols.

“The Poet’s Paradise” claims:

  • Visions of paradise and of hell due to drugs; commonality of these visions not to due to Jungian collective unconscious, but due to shared culture and drug experiencing; ‘Wisdom’ due to drugs
  • Amanita was used in Europe, but reserved for the priesthood and taboos were used to deter others from having it; the taboo hung on long after rites were over; Amanita was initially used, but later the more common panaeolus and psiloybe used; Mushroom use was secretive and reserved only for those of a certain integrity; No Christian or Jew consumed mushrooms; despite Christian peyote churches, predicts that Catholics and Protestants cannot accept visionary plants and will lead Prohibition, in cahoots with tobacco and liquor industries
  • An Aztec fresco depicts a river in paradise as a mushroom
  • Pastries offered during Eleusis rite shaped like phallus and piglets refer to mushrooms to due shape and name respectively
  • Dionysus was sometimes called the lame god, so were toads (which refer to mushrooms)
  • Perseus ability to fly refer to visionary state, who named Mycenae from a mushroom he found growing on the spot.
  • Sea metaphors due to a physiological effect of psilocybe, that of lowering body temperature

Methods used by Graves:

  • Anthropological theories (taboo is sign of earlier sacredness, taboos had ritual exceptions)
  • Common names for mushrooms or nicknames reflect taboo and can be used to interpret myth/religion/art
  • Compare with known mushroom use in Siberia and Mexico (Berserk and Lightning God)
  • Identification of mushrooms in visual art
  • Connects myths and figures to each other through shared imagery or other similarities, then applies characteristics of one myth to another
  • Gets mushroom recipe for Ambrosia, Nectar, Kykeon with poetic feature of listing a secret word with the first letters of a series of words
  • Notes a few comments by ancients about mushrooms – Nero says they are food of the gods, I.e. ambrosia; Porphyry calls them god-nourishing, normally an epithet for ambrosia; Plutarch says mushrooms grow from no roots or seed, but from lightning; Dionysus’ feasts called the Ambrosia
  • Common sense – what else causes visions?
  • Ritual action and mythology symbolically refers to mushroom, mushroom-induced activity, or mushroom preparation
  • Mu- roots of words suggests links between concepts muketa, musterion, muos
  • Analogy between names of festivals to point to mushrooms
  • Draws on personal experience in “The Poet’s Paradise” to claim heaven and hell are visionary states.
  • Physiological and phenomenological effects of mushroom explain metaphor (but in a weakened way)


  • Mushroom religion earlier, taboo’d and then supressed, so we have to sift through later evidence for the signs of this earlier religion. This is moderate entheogen view. Assumes secret hidden pagan tradition, not Jewish (yet he interprets some Old Testament stories as referring to mushrooms) or Christian. Bad Anthropological theory immediately hinders; Graves is deficient at theoretical level. This affects the type of evidence that he sees and the ways he interprets it. This is the important theoretical limitation, affects Wasson (or tied up in Wasson’s work) and subsequent entheogen scholarship (especially Ruck)
  • Has some understanding of phenomenology and altered state, uses it in interpretation, but vague and incomplete; for Graves myths more prominently reflect ritual and practice, should be treated as history and asked historical questions of.
  • Relies on ‘connections’ strategy typical of anthropological approaches to myth; explains myths by other myths instead of internally. This is a bad characteristic of Ruck’s writings, too.
  • Not mono plant fallacy – amanita as original, later substituted with more common but still visionary mushrooms
  • Cross cultural evidence; variety of evidence
  • For contemporaries he wants to reserver drugs for those with good moral character. Says good moral character necessary for positive experience.
  • Equates drug state with non-drug poetic trance, but elevates poetic trance as ‘active’, against ‘passive’ mushroom state

Graves was a literary figure and, like Wasson, an amateur scholar. His writings reflect these two features. The writings often have a literary flow and include bits of poetry. For example, “Centaur’s Food” is written as a travelogue, tracing the development of Graves’ hypothesis as he travels from his home in Majorca to England, and “The Poet’s Paradise” concludes with an ode to Dionysus composed by Graves. Furthermore, Graves is very aware of his outsider status to academic scholarship. He mocks scholars’ braindead interpretations of Greek Art and the authority given to them, and also comments self-deprecatingly on his own ideas as the musings of an amateur. This last feature, though, leads him not present his arguments as strongly as possible. Citations to texts he refers to and images of works he refers to are missing, and the reader is usually unable to read or see the Graves’ evidence.

Graves speaks frequently of his relationship with Wasson in his published work on psychedelics, and the letters published in Between Sun and Moon: Selected Correspondence (1984) reveal more of that relationship. Graves was contacted by the Wasson’s wife Valentina as the Wassons prepared their first book, Mushrooms and Russia. She contacted him to ask his opinion about the poisoning of the Roman Emperor Claudius in AD 54, who was said to have died after ingesting a poisonous mushroom. Graves had become famous for his works of historical fiction featuring Claudius. Graves is excited by their interest in mushrooms in culture and develops and shares with the Wassons the idea that the negative association displayed by some cultures towards mushrooms is the sign of an earlier religious usage of mushrooms and taboo. He discovers and informs Wasson about the ritual use of mushrooms in Oaxaca, Mexico, the publicizing of which would make Wasson famous and cement his reputation as foremost enthnomycologist. Wasson’s account of the mushroom ceremonies in Oaxaca in turn prompt Graves to think about mushrooms in Greek religion. The correspondence shows Graves sharing evidence and interpretations with Wasson that he would later publish in “Centaur’s Food”. Their relationship begins to sour, however, when Wasson fails to cite “Centaur’s Food” or mention Graves’ role in developing the ideas published in Soma. Graves complains of this in a published review of Soma, “The Two Births of Dionysus”, and Wasson apologizes in a private letter, claims that on the one hand he had merely forgotten to cite Graves’ role in idea development and on the other had omitted Greek culture from Soma in order to take on only one group of scholars at once.

Wasson appropriated (stole?) Graves’ ideas and downplayed Greek (Western) myth/religion, just as he later did, when arguing against Allegro. Wasson later addressed Greek religion in The Road to Eleusis, but in the way to maximize publicity, but minimize uptake by scholars. Ruck’s solid research on Dionysus and wine is obscured and downplayed by Wasson’s grandstanding about Eleusis.

For scholars – do you honestly believe and think that the way moderns enjoy wine is anything like what our evidence shows us about ancient wine consumption?

Dionysus and wine were the objects of *worship*. Moderns can jokingly say that they ‘worship’ wine, but that’s an empty, shallow use of that word. In no way does the modern experience of wine match with the ancient experience of wine. Look at the evidence (Dionysus worship, symposium drinking parties, use in other mystery ceremonies, including Roman Imperial cult, literary evidence that reflects these practices, etc.).

How can we account for the ancient attitude towards wine?

  • they were silly primitives who revered something as divine which we enlightened moderns are able to use much more discretely and with greater temperance than our silly primitive ancestors.
  • they had a different physiology or body chemistry that made them more affected by fermented grape juice. We moderns lack the ability to be so affected.
  • they were so awed by the ritualistic settings that wine was consumed in that they considered it to be divine. We moderns know better.
  • Ancient wine was not simply fermented grape juice, but a mixture that had effects similar to psychedelic mushroom intoxication. When we come across evidence for ancient wine use, it’s more appropriate to interpret that in terms of psychedelic mushroom intoxication than fermented grape intoxication.

More examples similar to the first three could be supplied. Scholars have written thousands of useless pages propagating such theories or blithely passing them on without examining them. In comparison to the last suggestion, they are clearly bad, clueless explanations, fueled by a pseudo-scientific cultural evolutionism reminiscent of James Frazer (The Golden Bough).

Without the entheogen theory, we’re left (broadly speaking) with two unsatisfying theories: Either the ancients were stupid primitives or they were somehow just so different to be so affected by fermented grape juice.

In the news is the recent discovery in England of a hoard of gold objects dating from the sixth to eighth centuries AD. Among the other pieces of fine metalwork is a scabbard boss – which happens to look like an Amanita Muscaria mushroom:



I haven’t had time to look closely at the other pieces, but it looks like some of the others resemble mushrooms.

Here are two fragments of the Roman poet Ennius (239 – 169 B.C.), from his Annales, an epic poem on the history of Rome. These come from the Loeb edition of Warmington (1935). The first fragment (#352):

et simul erubuit ceu lacte et purpura mixta

Warmington translates this as “and she blushed withal like milk and crimson mingled.” He tells us that this fragment comes from a speech by the Elder Cato and that Cato is speaking about the “one-time modesty of women.”

The second fragment (#353):

pendent peniculamenta unum ad quemque pediclum

Warmington translates this as “skirts hang low down to every little foot.” He says that this fragment comes from the same speech of Cato’s and that Cato here “contrasts the luxury of his own day.”

I wonder how Warmington came to the conclusion that these fragments are from a speech of Cato’s and that they refer to the modesty or luxury of women. There is nothing in the fragments themselves that tells us who is speaking or what is the context. These fragments survive because they were quoted by a 3rd-4th century A.D. grammarian named Nonius. He doesn’t tell us the context, either – just that the first fragment (483.1) is an example of lacte as the nominative form instead of the normal lac and that the second fragment (149.27) contains the unusual word peniculamentum.

The context seems to be uncertain, but even if Warmington is right, these lines nevertheless sound like a description of the Amanita mushroom.

The literal meaning of erubuit is “he/she/it turned red.” Milk and crimson is a poetic description of the deep-red cap with white spots characteristic of the Amanita mushroom (Google image search). What is the subject of the verb? If the mushroom, this is a description of the part of the life cycle of the mushroom when it turns crimson and white. If a person is being referred to, then erubuit means that the person’s face turns red and is flushed because of the mushroom intoxication. Flushed skin is a common physical side-effect of eating the mushroom. “Like milk and crimson mingled” is a poetic way of describing light skin that is flushed. It’s also poetic because it transfers a characteristic of an object (the color) to a person. Erubuit very often has the added idea of feeling shame: “to turn red with shame.” If that meaning is being used here, the person is full of shame after eating the entheogen because he/she recognizes the error of thinking that the ego-system was in charge of making decisions and is ashamed to have ever thought that the ego-system was in charge. We would have a line dense with meaning, which simultaneously refers to the mystic feeling of shame at mistaking the ego for real, the physical flushed skin of the mushroom intoxication, and the mushroom itself described in a poetic way. This kind of dense piling on of meaning is characteristic of Classical poetry.

“skirts” refers to the white veil that hangs down the stalk of the mushroom. The single stalk of the mushroom seems to be a single little foot. This fragment either refers to a group of mushrooms or describes people as if they mushrooms. There isn’t much room here to speculate about additional meanings of the words.

It is tough to work with fragments because we have no idea what is the context. Warmington does not give any evidence that this is a speech by Cato about morality. A good case can be made that these lines refer to the Amanita mushroom. On recognizing physical descriptions of the Amanita mushroom in literature and art, see Heinrich’s Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy and Ruck et al. The Apples of Apollo.


Metaphorical Psychedelic Eternalism
August 2017
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