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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

High as a Kite



Anyone who has studied shamanism in any detail will have heard statements to the effect that shamans imbibed the potent Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) in a rather odd, idiosyncratic manner: they would collect the urine of reindeer that had eaten the mushroom and become intoxicated as a result, and drink this urine in order to enter altered states of consciousness.
But is it true? In his fantastic book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Amazon US and UK), Andy Letcher dispels many myths about 'freaky fungi', and the reindeer urine story is one. According to Letcher, it is "a modern urban myth that shamans or anyone else drank reindeer urine: an intoxicated deer would be slaughtered and eaten, by which means the effects would be passed on."
So there you have it: the reindeer urine shamanism story has been debunked. One might think so, except someone has since disputed Andy Letcher's claim: the expert author on mushroom culture, Andy Letcher! Writing on his blog, Letcher tells how a chance meeting with a reindeer herder, who had herds in both Britain and Scandinavia, led to a surprising outcome. Without being prompted on the question of reindeer urine being drunk by shamans, the herder told Letcher the following story:
    Once, while living amongst the Saami, his hosts started feeding reindeer with fly-agarics, which the deer consumed with some relish. Waiting for nature to take its course, the fruits of micturition were collected in a bucket (strapped to the animals' flanks perhaps?), boiled up in a pot (I'm guessing to concentrate the brew or perhaps to make it more potable) and shared round.
    "I don't drink and I've never taken any drugs" he told me. "But I took some when they passed it round. Well, you have to, don't you? They expect it. Anyway, I was high as a kite I was, high as a kite. There was an old eighty year old grandmother with us, and I fancied her, that's how high I was. High as a bloody kite!"
Letcher's last word on the topic? "So there you have it. A report from a credible witness that some Saami do drink fly-agaric-imbued reindeer urine and that the effects are palpable. I stand corrected." And if you're wondering why shamans would choose to drink Fly Agaric-containing urine (both reindeer, and human), rather than eat the mushrooms raw, Paul Devereux's wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (Amazon US and Amazon UK) may provide at least one possibility:
    Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century, reported seeing Koryak tribespeople waiting outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate. When they did, the warm, steaming tawny-gold nectar was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. The Amanita muscaria effect could apparently be recycled up to five times in this manner, and, remarkably, was less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with the direct ingestion of the mushroom itself.
So, next time you're at a party and everyone's discussing magic mushrooms and urine drinking, you'll be able to set them all straight.