Check your sources. A maxim of all true investigation, this adage seems arbitrary to the proponents of the Holy Mushroom theory.
Ironically, one of its loudest advocates, Jan Irvin, tells us to “get out [our] library cards because [we] have homework to do2Interview with Acharya S., Gnostic Media, Podcast 21.“, while not doing the homework himself (as will be demonstrated).
To be fair contextually, Irvin was not addressing the Holy Mushroom theory when he offered this advice, but rather the provocative (though loopy) work of Acharya S., one of the last writers still clinging to so-called . Jan’s words were apparently intended as a bluff, because Acharya’s ideas have been denounced by many top scholars of early religion and astronomy3Dr. Noel M. Swerdlow, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, University of Chicago; John Banes, professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford; Victor Blunden, editor at Ancient Egypt Magazine, University of Manchester; Bill Gordon, Department of Near Eastern Language and Cultures, University of California; the list continues.; it is supposed that these scholars used their library cards. Irvin’s defense of Acharya S. perfectly exemplifies Point Two of Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit4i.e., does the source often make similar claims? See Michael Shermer, : Where Science Meets Nonsense (Oxford University Press, 2002), pgs, 18-19.. Irvin believes the whole gamut; if it’s religious and conspiratorial, it must be true.
Such is the case with Irvin’s “Holy Mushroom Cult” idea. As I finished reading his (), I came upon a rather infamous picture of mushroom cult lore in the back of the book. The image shows a man eating what supposedly looks like an mushroom5I only have the black and white edition of .. Irvin cites Oxford University’s Bodleian Library as his source for the picture. Beneath the image, Irvin writes that the man is “dancing under the influence of the mushroom6Jan Irvin, : Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity (Gnostic Media, 2008) pg. 115.“. Since the image really does look like an mushroom, I wanted more information on it.
Thankfully, another Christian mushroom theorist, Carl Ruck, addressed this image more fully in his addendum to Gnostic Media’s release of John Allegro’s . Ruck, a Classics professor at Boston University, was invited by Irvin to append his unpublished article Fungus Redivivus to the back of the larger text. Ruck describes this picture in more detail:
One example alone should suffice to silence the art historians: a painting from a 14th century alchemical manuscript, now in the Bodleian library [sic] in Oxford. It is a treatise discussing the “salamander.” A drawing in the manuscript depicts a man apparently intoxicated, dancing or perhaps staggering, with one hand to his forehead, suggesting that he is dizzy or that he has just had an intense revelation. In the other hand, he holds a mushroom, which he evidently picked from a typical mushroom-tree beside him. The mushroom has a red cap spotted white, and similar mushrooms branch from its stipe-like trunk…7Carl A. P. Ruck, Fungus Redivivus: New Light on the Mushroom Controversy in John Marco Allegro, , 40th Anniversary Edition (Gnostic Media, 2009), pg. 376. Also, before I am accused of only looking at one picture: I have addressed several other supposed “mushroom images” in other articles on this site. Second, as Rush’s above quote indicates, this image is supposed to “silence the art critics”.
Irvin’s shorter description in is similar, but includes the bold idea that “the salamander is as [sic] a symbol of the .” While he confidently relates that the man is “dancing”, Ruck cautiously writes that the man is “dancing or perhaps staggering”. As will be shown, both Ruck and Irvin are wrong.
The Salamander in Medieval Art
Let’s begin with some of the more easily dismissible material presented by Ruck and Irvin. In one paragraph (the block text above), Ruck tells us that the manuscript is two different things: an alchemist’s tract and a “treatise discussing the ‘salamander'”. Here he had two chances to get it right and fell short both times: the manuscript is not an alchemist’s tract; nor is it a medieval salamander dissertation8The salamander only appears on one page, folio 027v. Hardly the length of a “treatise”.. It is a Latin bestiary (MS. Bodl. 602), a catalogue of the known (and fantastical9Sirens, centaurs, and unicorns are also discussed.) animals believed to roam the forests during the Middle Ages10From here on, this manuscript will be referred to as its catalogued name: MS. Bodl. 602.. Salamanders are certainly discussed, but so are a host of other animals, both real and imagined. Also, MS. Bodl. 602 is not from the 14th century as both authors claim. The manuscript dates to the mid-13th century—perhaps a minor detail, but it does speak to an overriding theme of careless research among Mushroom theorists11This is not the only questionable dating courtesy of Irvin. In , he reproduces the Epistle to the Renegade Bishops, calling the text “ancient” during an interview with Joe Rogan (The Joe Rogan Experience, Podcast #119). The Epistle dates to the 16th century — perhaps ten centuries after any time that can be called “ancient”. Though I should mention that some can argue that the Epistle originated in the 13th century, this is still a far cry from antiquity..
It is evident that beneath the image as presented in , the scribe left a description, which Irvin curiously cut from his reproduction. Here we had a real treat: text accompanying a picture of what looks like an mushroom! Surely this script would confirm the holy mushroom theory and – to borrow from Ruck – “suffice to silence the art historians”. I wondered why Irvin cropped the text out of the picture in MS. Bodl. 602 from his reproduction in . Since Irvin withheld the text, I decided to do what he recommends: I got out my library card and did some homework, flying to Oxford to check out the elusive manuscript for myself.
Upon careful inspection of the manuscript, I realized there could be as many as three possible reasons for Irvin to withhold the text:
- He didn’t go to Bodleian, but obtained the picture elsewhere, inserting the renowned library as his source perhaps to add credibility to his somewhat ridiculous interpretation.
- He went to Bodleian, couldn’t read the text, and so he just ignored it (like the “scholar” he claims to be would do).
- He went to Bodleian, translated the text, and decided to suppress the information.
I leave the question open to Mr. Irvin to answer for us.
Figure 1 (above) is the image in question. As should be demonstrably clear, the supposed “red cap spotted white” mushroom that Ruck describes isn’t that at all. The cap is unmistakably blue; the trunk inarguably green ( stems are white). As for the inscription12See Appendix 1 for picture of text, and full English translation., the man in the image is hardly “dancing” or experiencing “intense revelations”. He has, in fact, been poisoned and is dying. Irvin contends: “[t]he salamander is as [sic] a symbol of the 13Irvin (2008), pg. 115.“, but that is emphatically not what the artist meant to represent. The author of MS. Bodl. 602 wrote rather clearly that the poison from salamanders was so strong that if it crept into a fruit-bearing tree, the once-palatable fruit turned poisonous. Since mushrooms were known poisons in antiquity, requiring no infiltration by salamander venom, the tree in folio 027v most emphatically cannot be a mushroom; the text even calls the plant a “tree” (arbor).
Why wouldn’t the author just call the admittedly mushroom-looking tree a mushroom? Ask a holy mushroom theory advocate and she or he will tell you that the author wrote “tree” or “salamander” to mask the secret use of the mushroom14See Rush (2011). This is referred to as “non-evidence”; saying something was “covered up” does not count as confirmation of one’s theory when standard rules of historical criteria are applied. Also see Appendix 2 of this study.. Despite the nature of such a conspiracy-laden “rebuttal”, I’ll address it. Irvin assumes that the salamander and tree represent “the caduceus” (secretly, of course15Irvin (2008), pg. 115.). He wants the salamander to represent the caduceus because he believes that the caduceus represents medicine, and by extension, drugs.
But alas, it isn’t so. People often mistake Hermes’ staff (featuring two snakes entwined) as symbolic of medicine; yet, it was a symbol of commerce in antiquity — not medicine. What Irvin really wanted the salamander to represent was not Hermes’ staff, but the Rod of Asclepius – the actual depiction of medicine in the ancient world16Socrates 182; hence Socrates’ final ironic comment to Crito as the hemlock poison slowly killed him.. Furthermore, both Hermes’ staff and the Rod of Asclepius incorporate snakes, not salamanders. Thus, even if Hermes’ staff is the caduceus (snake), Irvin is still wrong.
What MS. Bodl. 602 Actually Says
I cannot be sure, but it seems that Irvin’s popular notions were influenced by another writer – Chris Bennett – whose (1995) is the second earliest reprinting of the MS. Bodl. 602 image I could find, coming just a few years after Fred Gettings’ Visions of the Occult (1987)17Fred Gettings, Visions of the Occult (London: Guild Publishing, 1987), pg. 14.. With two sources for this picture available, Irvin seems to want us to believe that he visited the Bodleian Library, as he doesn’t cite Bennett or Gettings as a source (though Ruck does). It also probably explains why neither Ruck nor Irvin has the correct century; Bennett’s date is erroneous, as is Gettings’, the latter of which seems to be the origin of the misdating.
Did Irvin and Ruck simply not check?
There is no “alchemy symbolism” going on here; the author of the bestiary explicitly wrote what the salamander signifies, namely its two best known qualities in history: its poisonous nature and its fire-resistant body.
On this first characteristic, the text couldn’t be clearer: “if [the salamander] creeps into a tree, its poisons are absorbed into the fruit, and those who eat the fruit are killed by the poison18MS. Bodl. 602, Folio 027v, “Nam si arbori irrepserit, omnia poma inficit veneno, et eos qui ex eis pomis ederint occidit.” Incidentally, “poma” can mean either “fruit” or “apple”, making it more likely that this is not only a tree instead of a mushroom, but specifically an apple tree. Deciding what kind of tree (apple or otherwise) it is depends largely on one’s translation of “poma”; either way, it is certainly not an mushroom.“. The man in the image has eaten this poisoned fruit and is now dying; not dancing, not experiencing visions — dying. The same as if he had drunk water infected by a salamander (or salamander-tainted fruit) that had fallen into a well19Ibid., “Qui eciam, si in puteum ceciderit, vis veneni eius potantes interficit.”.
This caution that the author of MS. Bodl. 602 would copy in the 13th century had already been outlined as early as the 1st century CE by Pliny the Elder: “The salamander, too, will poison either water or wine, in which it happens to be drowned; and what is more, if it has only drunk thereof, the liquid becomes poisonous20John Bostock and Riley, H.T. (eds.), The Natural History of Pliny the Elder: Translated with Copious Notes and Illustrations, Vol III (London: George Bell and Sons, 1892) pg. 98..”
Thus, even if the image were depicting an mushroom, the message would still be “do not eat; mushrooms are deathly poisonous”. Irvin is therefore wrong twice.
As for the roasting salamander in the image, Irvin is founding his notions in popular myths – the opposite of historical methodology. Because I believe it more likely that Irvin adopted these popular myths from Green Gold, and not, I will only discuss the former here21Though the latter is equally erroneous in its theories, and might have been a source for Irvin too..
In Green Gold, Bennett suggests that “perhaps” medieval folks called a “psychedelic trip ‘roasting a salamander'”22Chris Bennett et al., (Access Unlimited, 1995), pgs. 240-41.. Here, he playfully imagines that the dying man on fol. 027v has inhaled the salamander fumes and is tripping. However, the accompanying text merely relates ancient Jewish folklore regarding the salamander’s resistance to fire.
The author of MS. Bodl. 602 draws a parallel from a well-known biblical passage to make his point—how Hananiah, Azariah, Mishael23Chaldaeanized as Shadrach, Abednego, and Meshach. See Appendix 1., the pious travel companions of the biblical Daniel, almost met a fiery end. These men were taken to Babylon, and after refusing to worship a golden statute commissioned by Nebuchadnezzar, they were ordered burned. Alas, the men were so holy that the fires could not burn them, after which King Nebuchadnezzar proclaimed Yahweh a true God24Book of Daniel, 3: 24-30..
Another Jewish folktale recounts how Hezekiah was saved from an incendiary death by his mother, who rubbed him with the blood of a salamander, thus making him fireproof25The Later Kings of Judah, “Hezekiah” (available here)..
The legendary attributes of the salamander also appear in non-Jewish sources. The myth of the salamander’s fire-resistant scales had reached Christendom by at least the 4th century CE. Indeed, Augustine uses the salamander fire-myth as evidence that “everything which burns is not consumed, as the souls in hell are not26New Advent (trans.) Saint Augustine’s City of God, Book 21, Chapter 4.“. Several centuries later, Isidore of Seville, in his attempt to preserve the knowledge of antiquity after the fall of Rome, recorded both mystical properties of the salamander:
“The salamander alone of animals puts out fires; it can live in fire without pain and without being burned. Of all the venomous animals its strength is the greatest because it kills many at once. If it crawls into a tree it poisons all of the fruit, and anyone who eats the fruit will die; if it falls in a well it poisons the water so that anyone who drinks it dies27Stephen Barney et al., (trans.) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville: Translated, with Introduction and Notes (Cambridge University Press, 2006) Book 12, 4:36, pg. 257. Incidentally, Seville writes about mushrooms too: “Mushrooms (fungi) are so named because when dried they catch fire. … mushrooms are also called esca (literally “food”) because they are both a food for a fire and a nutriment. Others say mushrooms were so called because certain kinds of them are killers,” pg. 356. The mushroom is also mentioned as a poison while Seville expounds on the virtues of the sycamore fig, pg. 344. Thus, even if Holy Mushroom theorists did present us with legitimate shroom art, the morsels might denote nourishment, fire kindle, or poison, and not necessarily a psychedelic trip..”
Mushroom Cult theorists popular view of medieval manuscripts has them believing that any old manuscript is veiled in secret symbolism. Yet, as rich in esoteric mushroom mysteries as the image on folio 027v appears, it is actually rather ordinary for the time it was composed.
As should be obvious by now, MS. Bodl. 602 simply depicts long-held traditions about salamanders. And it isn’t alone. Other manuscripts, like the c. 1300 Brussels Manuscript, and the c. Douai Manuscript (c. late 13th century), also show this widely held belief: each document depicts a man eating a fruit (usually an apple) that a salamander has corrupted with poison. The theme is common28Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second Family Bestiary Willenne B. Clark, pgs. 66-7. The fire resistant-theme is also found in a French bestiary dating to 1350 on hold at Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Roll Title KB, KA 16, Folio 126r.. There is also this curious depiction (Figure 2) of the same image from the, produced in the 15th century. This man is neither dancing nor experiencing divine revelations. He is dead from eating the poisoned fruit of the fire-resistant salamander, just as the legends of yore foretold.
I understand how it may look like a man eating the fruit is having intense visions of a fire-born serpent. A cursory interpretation holds the “snake” as representing Satan from the (Christianized) serpent in the Garden of Eden. Satan is tempting the man to eat the “fruit” from the Tree of Knowledge (which is just masked ). But that would be to see the picture in reverse: the fruit isn’t causing the man to have visions of the salamander; the salamander is causing the usually comestible fruit to be poisoned. The salamander “symbolism” couldn’t be more obvious (fireproof and poisonous), provided one understands what these well-known bestiary symbols represent.
Irvin’s assumptions about folio 027v are no different; he has certainly read his own hopes and interests into the image. That is not sound history — evidence shapes theories; theories do not shape evidence. Jan Irvin simply has it all backward.
Also, take a look at the trees (Figure 3). Here we see a (possibly) traceable evolution in how bestiary artists portrayed trees in their works from the 13th century into the 15th. The supposed “white spots” (present on ) are nothing more than outlines surrounding some ambiguous fruit. In fact, when the image is enlarged, the whiteness clearly serves only as a border around spots that appear to be a color-fusion of gray and light purple.
And take a look at these other trees from MS. Bodl. 602 (Figure 4):
These are folios 064v and 059r. Notice the green “cap” in 064v (like 027v), and the red -style “cap” on the tree in 059r. If Jan Irvin is going to say these are just more pictures of mushrooms, I return several questions to him: where is the “caduceus” representing “drugs” in these pictures? Where is the person “dancing under the influence” of these supposed “mushroom trees”? Where are the “intense revelations”? Is the tracker in fol. 064v on a “spiritual” hunt?
Or perhaps such questions are irrelevant. Maybe we need only compare MS. Bodl. 602 fol. 014r to 027v. One cannot miss the blue “caps” and green “stems” in these pictures. The artist even dots the apex of his leaves with a little red ball in both. If one of these is a “mushroom tree”, the other one must be accepted as a “mushroom tree” as well. There is no salamander to roast and inhale in fol. 014r, and yet the tree looks every bit like the one on 027v. Given these similar characteristics of foliage in the folios, it seems more likely that this was simply how the artists at a particular art school drew trees.
And what are we to make of these weasels (mustela) found in MS. Bodl. 602 fol. 024r (Figure 6)? The trees look every bit like the kinds of trees that, using the Jan Irvin standards of criteria, would count as mushrooms.
Will he claim that these weasels are inducting themselves into the secret Christian Mushroom Cult too?
If this red-topped plant from this stained-glass panel (Figure 7) from Charters Cathedral in France is an , as Irvin claims it is29Irvin (2008), pg. 123., than the plants the weasels are eating in folio 024r are amanitas too.
Why, then, does the accompanying text describing the weasel say nothing about that critter’s penchant for enlightenment achieved through ingesting psychedelic drugs?
To Put A Cap On It
Like other texts of the time, MS. Bodl. 602 merely recounts salamander lore: its toxic quality – so strong that it can impregnate a fruit-bearing tree or a well with poison simply by coming into contact with it – and its mythicized resistance to fire. There is no hidden alchemical symbolism; the manuscript illuminations are beautiful to those of us who appreciate the nostalgia of such images, but they are also rather ordinary for the time.
Moreover, I fully admit that at first glance, despite the blue coloring, the tree on folio 027v really does look like an . But if even the plants in medieval treatises that do look like mushrooms aren’t actually mushrooms when carefully investigated, what are we to think when we encounter images like Figure 8? It is a picture from a prayer book known as the (England, 1099) presented in as Christian mushroom art.
In the book Irvin asserts that beside Jesus, “instead of two thieves, we see two mushroom trees”. Again, one will notice that the “caps” are blue (instead of red). Irvin submits further evidence that these are trees: “[t]he tree on the right is complete with spots30Irvin (2008), pg. 133. If they are blue because they are psilocybin mushrooms, why the need for spots?“.
Assuming these are “mushroom trees” is short-sighted. The trees in the image look more like these Yemenese Dragon Blood Trees (Figure 9) than anything like a mushroom.
Moreover, we see how the flowering of the Dragon Blood Tree (Figure 9, bottom) can account for the “spots” that Irvin is too eager to label as representing a mushroom. This is not to say that the tree is a Dragon Blood Tree (I don’t know what it is31Though it can be noted that the Dragon Blood Tree, while native to Yemen, has been known in the West since as early as the 1st century CE. See Lionel Casson, The Periplus Maris Erythraei. (Princeton University Press, 1989), pgs. 69, and 169-170.). But not knowing what something is does not automatically make it something else. I am merely showing that this picture has possibilities other than portraying a mushroom. We have already seen how ready authors like Irvin are to label something a mushroom. If inquiries into psychedelic history are to be taken seriously, one must check before making such emphatic statements.
Mushroom Cult theorists can be quick to accuse someone of making an “argument from ignorance32The Joe Rogan Experience, Podcast #119; see also this episode of Red Ice Radio.“. Yet, like the tree that appears on folio 027v, their arguments bear no fruit worth swallowing. In only five sentences describing one image in , one of the theory’s most prominent researchers, Jan Irvin, made enough mistakes to warrant a dozen or so pages addressing them.
Let’s quickly review these five sentences and mark them against what we now know about the tantalizing tree presented in MS. Bodl. 602, folio 027v:
1. “Alchemy, 14th century.” (Commenting on the genera and date of the treatise.)
False. The text is not an alchemy treatise, but rather a common Latin bestiary. It dates to the 13th century, not the 14th. His misdating is analogous to claiming that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 2069, rather than 1969.
2. “The salamander is the symbol of the .”
False. The salamander signifies a salamander unequivocally, and the supposed in the background is identified as a tree (arbor) in the accompanying text.
3. “… [I]t is the same symbol as the entwined serpent wrapped around the tree, the caduceus.”
False. There is no “serpent”, but instead a salamander. While there are two ideas that can be called “symbolic” (poisoning fruit and fire-resistant body) they have nothing to do with secret alchemical psychedelic experiences. Finally, the salamander isn’t “wrapped” around the tree.
4. “A hybridized mushroom tree is depicted similar to that of the Plaincourault fresco.”
False. It is not a mushroom tree, as all the above evidence has verified. The Plaincourault fresco, another supposed “mushroom tree” picture, representing the Tree of Knowledge with Eve and Adam standing beside it, is painted in a small chapel in southern France33See Allegro (2009).. But if the fruit tree on 027v looks similar to the Plaincourault fresco, that immediately calls into question the possibility of the Plaincourault fresco also illustrating a mushroom. For the sake of the larger holy mushroom theory, it’s in the theorists’ best interest that the tree on folio 027v looks nothing like the supposed “mushroom” in the infamous Plaincourault fresco.
5. “A man is shown holding a mushroom … dancing under the influence of the mushroom34All quotes from Irvin (2008), pg. 115..”
False. The man is holding a fruit (pomis). And he is only dancing with death.
And Thus, the Salamander was Roasted
It would seem that the image intended to “silence the art critics” is yet to present itself. While the fruit tree on folio 027v was certainly a contender, after doing a little homework, a different history of both the tree and the salamander emerge.
One of the problems with the holy mushroom theory is that many of the supposed “shrooms” in Christian art look less like an than the tree on folio 027v. What are we to think when we encounter these lesser-looking mushrooms?
I would have liked for MS. Bodl 602 to have been alchemical in nature – with a scandalous caption that revealed the deepest secrets of the holy mushroom! But interests are not arguments. And based on the evidence presented by authors like Irvin, Rush, and others, if there is a Christian mushroom cult to be found, “mystical” and “religious” art might not be the place to find it, as misidentification problems like the one prompted by folio 027v are sure to reoccur35See The Secret Radish Cult.; and it certainly won’t be found without critical historical inquiry. I therefore leave Jan Irvin with a question:
Got any more homework you want me to do for you?