Today as I was snapping this picture of a lovely specimen of Fly Agaric, I looked up and noticed a small group of reindeer passing on the road, 50m away. And no, I had not ingested any of the mushroom! The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd Centre is based along the road, and I think they may be training the reindeer ready for sledge-pulling duties in December when they are kept busy the whole month.
I thought this a funny coincidence as reindeer are heavily associated with Fly agaric mushroom.
Fly agaric is a poisonous mushroom related to Death Cap. It contains two toxins, ibotenic acid and muscimol, which are responsible for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects.
In Lapland and Siberia, the reindeer who live there are quite fond of this mushroom and will go to great lengths to find it. In fact they are so partial to a bit of tasty magic mushroom of the fly Agaric variety that they can be herded simply by throwing these mushrooms on the ground for them to find.
The mushroom’s potent effect on humans was discovered by accident thousands of years ago, when shepherds became intoxicated after consuming the meat of reindeer who ingested the fungus.
Soon after, the shepherds also discovered that drinking the urine of reindeer who ate the mushrooms not only caused hallucinations, but it went a long way too. Since the mushroom’s psychedelic ingredients are not metabolized by the body and remain psychoactively potent even after being ingested and excreted, the urine could be consumed and re-consumed up to six times before losing its effectiveness.
With both the Reindeer and the Shaman under the hallucinatory effects of the drug it genuinely appeared to the Shaman that the Reindeer could fly. When the first missionaries reached Lapland they heard stories of such reindeer flight and wove those tales into the folklore of Western cultures concerning Saint Nicholas.
This mushroom’s association with gnomes and fairies (as often seen in traditional children’s books) is also because of it’s hallucinatory effects.
Certain Siberian Shamans believed that for each mushroom consumed one gnome would manifest itself and, noting that these squat earth spirits race like the wind itself, would always consume two and a half Fly Agaric mushrooms to enter their trance – two to enable their minds to see the gnomes and the half to conjur a weaker “half-gnome.” On their race through the convoluted passage to the Faery Realm, the Shaman would often lose sight of the spritely gnomes and, unable to find the entrance to the Faery World unaided, would return to their material bodies with no gifts of arcane knowledge or sage council from the wise spirits. The conjuration of this third, less abled, gnome would hinder the progress of his comrades, thus allowing the Shaman to follow the gnomes through the labyrinthine route to the Nether World with no fear of losing their way.
Now, if I ever tell you about seeing Fly agaric and faeries, then you can worry about me!