Lovely guest blog by Steve Andrews …
Have you ever wondered why Santa Claus is depicted wearing red clothes that are trimmed with white fur? Well, the answer may have a lot to do with a well-known toadstool that grows in the autumn under birches and pines, and is known as the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). This is the colourful mushroom that so often appears in fairy tales and is associated with gnomes. These little folk often look like very small versions of Santa with their bushy beards and red caps.
Reindeer and the Fly Agaric
Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as he is also known, is said to deliver gifts at Christmas aided by a team of reindeer that fly through the sky pulling his sleigh. Reindeer are known to eat fly agaric mushrooms and are said to prance energetically about after ingesting these fungi which are known to have strong psychoactive properties. Siberian shamans and those of the Sami people in Lapland are known to consume fly agarics because of the hallucinogenic effects. It has been suggested that the idea of Santa and his reindeer flying through the sky has been inspired by hallucinations and intoxication caused by these fungi. Feelings of floating is one of the hallucinatory experiences reported after this fungus has been ingested.
Toxicity of the Fly Agaric
There is a lot of confusion about the toxicity of the fly agaric with many sources listing it as poisonous. However, it is also regarded as edible in some parts of the world. The truth of the matter appears to be that the fly agaric causes poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, confusion and dizziness, when eaten fresh, although fatalities from this mushroom are rare, but if it is dried the toxic effects are greatly diminished, although its hallucinogenic properties remain. If the fungus is cut up and boiled in water it becomes detoxified and can then be eaten.
It is also known that the urine of a human or animal who has eaten fly agarics will still be able to cause intoxication of anyone who drinks it. For this reason, fly agarics have been fed to reindeer and then the urine of the animals has been drunk. Siberian tribesmen who use the fly agaric will drink the urine of another person who has consumed it first. This form of getting intoxicated is thought to be the origins of the slang term of “getting pissed.”
The main substances in the fly agaric that cause intoxication and hallucinations are ibotenic acid and muscimol, though it is the former that is the more toxic and the latter which causes the mind-altering effects. The ibotenic acid breaks down into muscimol.
One to three dried fly agarics is the usual dose used to produce the desired psychoactive effects. Smoking the fungus after drying is said to produce a much milder experience.
Coca Cola, the Fly Agaric and Santa Claus
The Coca Cola company and soft drink has been linked with Santa Claus and the colours of the fly agaric too, and it has even been suggested that the manufacturers of this popular soft drink created the red and white-garbed Father Christmas we all know today. However, this is not the case, though there were early ads for Coke featuring a rather portly Santa with rosy cheeks and his now traditional red suit trimmed with white fur. It was illustrator Haddon Sundblom who depicted him this way. But there were pictures of Santa dressed in red and white before he was shown in ads for Coca Cola.
Saint Nicholas – an early model for Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas is said to have been a Greek Christian bishop who has been often portrayed as wearing red canonical robes and with a white bushy beard. This saint was said to give generously to children and the poor, just like Santa, who provides presents for boys and girls all over the world.
The Fly Agaric in books and film
The fly agaric has been theorised to be the “soma,” an entheogen that is thought to have partially inspired the ancient Vedas. R. Gordon Wasson wrote about this idea in Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality, published in 1967. John Marco Allegro went even further in 1970 in The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross, in which he suggests that early Christian beliefs and passages in the Bible were inspired by the use of the fly agaric by an ancient fertility cult. Both theories have been supported by some people and debunked by others. I have written about the fly agaric and other “magic mushrooms” in Herbs of the Northern Shaman, published by Moon Books.
The fly agaric made an appearance in the world of movies too in Performance (1970), a fllm starring Mick Jagger and James Fox. Jagger plays a former rock star who introduces gangster Fox to the altered reality the ingestion of the fungus produces.