Wasson, R. Gordon

Wasson, R. Gordon (1898–1996) – American banker and amateur mycologist whose study of “ethnomycology” with his wife Valentina began on a delayed honeymoon in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The Wassons became convinced that the human religious impulse began with a Paleolithic magic mushroom cult that spread globally via cultural diffusion and evolved into “higher religions,” and that fossil residues of this cult endured in folk traditions around the world. They found a wealth of sources for the use of fly agaric, psilocybin, and other hallucinogenic mushrooms across cultures and used the terms mycophobic (mushroom-hating) and mycophilic (mushroom-loving) to delineate positive and negative attitudes. From 1953, Wasson made 10 trips into the Mazatec hinterlands of Mexico, where he found and engaged in indigenous mushroom rituals. His greatest discovery was the “shaman” (curandera) Maria Sabina, who, like other Mazatec curanderos, held veledas (healing ceremonies) using psilocybin mushrooms.

Wasson’s “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” his 1957 article in Life, along with Mushrooms, Russia and History (published in a very limited deluxe edition), were influential on the psychedelic counterculture, and visitors seeking Sabina and magic mushrooms streamed into Mexico in the early 1960s, with disastrous consequences for the local inhabitants of Huautlaand. This applied to Sabina in particular, whose community-oriented, Christian Catholic-inspired mushroom ceremonies were disrupted by self-interested, convention-flouting hippies seeking psychedelic “trips.”

The results of Wasson’s investigations in the Middle and Far East after retirement were published in 1969 as Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality, in which the “soma: of the Rig Veda was (erroneously) identified as fly agaric. Wasson collaborated on the volumes The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978) and Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion (1986), which reified the mushroom cult thesis that remained popular outside of academia. The approaches of cultural diffusion and evolution and the Frazerian comparative method were all outmoded at the time Wasson was writing, and the metanarrative of a worldwide mushroom cult cannot be sustained. Indeed, Andy Letcher demonstrates that Wasson not only overemphasized the importance of fly agaric use but also tailored evidence to fit his theory. Nonetheless, Wasson was awarded an honorary research fellowship at Harvard Botanical Museum, as well as the Addison Emery Verrill Medal for Distinction in the Field of Natural History in 1983. Wasson and colleagues also contributed the term entheogen (literally, “to inspire god within”) to replace the pejorative terms hallucinogenic or psychedelic, psychoactive, or drug. Wasson’s greatest contribution, according to Letcher, was not the misplaced notion of the origins of religion in a prehistoric mushroom cult, but the inauguration of a modern mushroom cult in the 20th century.


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