Letcher, Andy

Letcher, Andy (1968– ) British scholar of religion whose work has focused on the role of the bard in contemporary Paganism and entheogenic neo-shamanism. His research on the latter, Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (2006), chronicles AngloAmerican psilocybin use, offers a discourse analysis of psychedelic experience, and critically engages with the arguments of key thinkers on hallucinogenic mushrooms, principally Gordon Wasson, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna, whose ideas have permeated popular culture and led to a number of myths about entheogen use worldwide.

Wasson suggested the magic mushroom produced the religious impulse in humans during the European Paleolithic, spreading globally via cultural diffusion. He produced evidence to support his theory from a wide variety of problematic sources, such as identifying fly agaric as the Vedic Soma. Wasson also proposed that European cultures have been either “mycophilic” or “mycophobic,” a worldview enduring in folk memory. Letcher argues that Wasson’s discourse derives from Frazerian cultural evolution with “fossils” of folk memory (of mushroom use) preserved. Wasson also overemphasizes the importance of fly agaric use: in Siberia (the locus classicus of shamanism), fly agaric is used only in two small areas, mainly recreationally, and not by shamans.

Assessing the work of Wasson, Leary, and McKenna as a whole, Letcher argues that these thinkers promoted entheogens as essentially benign and psychedelic experience as essentially the same across cultures and across entheogens (with LSD discourse having a major role in this perception). Yet, such experience is diverse and always culturally mediated. Considering the loaded terms psychedelic, entheogen, drugs, and the like, Letcher finds no suitable, nonpejorative alternative and employs all of them so as not to privilege one discourse over another.

SOURCE:

Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007

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