The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) is a book by the British archaeologist John Marco Allegro. His early career focused on studying the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls. With this book, however, many say that it ruined his career, although others say it gave him the fame that he deserved.
The basic idea behind the book is that primitive religions were based on fertility rites (rituals that recreate the reproductive processes of nature either symbolically or through sex). Allegro believed that fertility cults like this used the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria (or fly agaric – the red mushroom with white spots). He also said that these mushrooms are at the root of many religions, including early Christianity. Christianity was essentially the product of a sex-and-mushroom cult, and the mushroom was seen as the gateway to understanding God. Through this understanding, it was believed that fertility would also be promoted.
Allegro argued that the mushroom and its powers were a secret, so they had to be written down in the form of codes hidden in mythical stories. In his own words: “This is the basic origin of the stories of the New Testament. They were a literary device to spread the rites of mushroom worship to the faithful.” Jesus in the Gospels was code for the Amanita mushroom, according to Allegro. All major scholars rejected Allegro’s ideas, including his academic mentor. Even his publisher regretted publishing the book.
Allegro draws on some interesting evidence to support his hypothesis. He argues that the fresco in the 13th century Chapel of Plaincourault in Central France clearly shows Adam and Eve next to a tree made of large Amanita muscaria mushrooms. The serpent can be seen coiling around the tree. It seems strange that this mushroom would be depicted in arguably the most famous story in the Bible.
Fresco at the Chapel of Plaincourault
Terence McKenna in Food of the Gods also claims that the fruit which Adam and Eve ate from was a symbol for a psychedelic mushroom since it gave them “knowledge” (e.g. that they were naked) which they didn’t previously have.
In October 2008, Jan Irvin published The Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity which was the first book to present texts which supported Allegro’s theory. For example, a 16th century Christian text called The Epistle to the Renegade Bishops explicitly mentions and discusses “the holy mushroom”. Irvin provides dozens of Christian images to support Allegro’s ideas – images that weren’t available when The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross was originally published in 1970. The front cover of Irvin’s book includes one of these images – some mushrooms can be seen. Some say that in these kinds of images, it is not the Amanita mushroom that is shown, but psilocybin mushrooms, such as the ones shown below.
More examples of mushrooms in Christian art (including some more dubious examples that people often use to support the psychedelic Christianity hypothesis):
Allegro asserts that it’s not such a controversial idea that religions could be based on the use of psychedelic plants. It’s been said that other ancient cultures might have used psychedelic plants as well in their religious rituals. In Book 9 of the classic Hindu text, the Rig Veda, a “pressed juice” called Soma is mentioned as something drunk by priests. Some sort of visionary state is reported: “Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joys and felicities combine, and longing wishes are fulfilled.”
Some say that Soma could have been a psychedelic mushroom, maybe the Amanita mushroom – R. Gordon Wasson held this opinion. Terence Mckenna in Food of the Gods says that a more likely candidate for Soma, due to its better efficacy at inducing psychedelic states, is the Psilocybe cubensis mushroom. This mushroom can grow in cow dung in certain climates, which may explain why the cow has gained such a sacred status in the Hindu tradition. However, other academics claim that Soma was cannabis. In addition, the blue lotus flower was worshipped by the ancient Egyptians and it is now known to have some psychoactive properties.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone in ancient Greece. A drink called kykeon was consumed which the Illiad says was made up of barley, water, herbs and goats cheese. In the Odyssey, however, the character Circe adds a magic potion to it. Some speculate that the barley used in this drink was parasitized by ergot (a fungus) and that the psychoactive properties of the fungus were responsible for the intense experiences that people reported at Eleusis. Ergot contains ergotamine, a precursor to LSD – this is why Albert Hoffman used ergot to synthesise LSD.
‘Mushroom cults’ in Mesoamerica date back to at least 1,000 BC, indicated by mushroom stone effigies found in the Guatemalan highlands. In addition, frescoes from central Mexico dated to 300 AD show signs of mushroom worship. ‘Sacred mushrooms’ feature in Aztec texts as well – the Codex Vindobonensis, for example, visually depicts the ceremonial use of psychedelic mushrooms. The Aztecs called these mushrooms teonanacatl which literally means “flesh of the gods”. (Here’s further information on ancient mushroom use). Allegro argues that Christianity is just one more example of a religion which at its core involves the use of psychedelic plants as a way to access the ‘divine’.
Mushroom statues indicate the presence of ‘mushroom cults’ in ancient Mesoamerica. Professor of anthropology John A. Rush, in his book The Mushroom in Christian Art, attempts to bolster Allegro’s position that Jesus was not a historical figure, but a psychedelic mushroom. He draws on these examples of art as pieces of evidence. Rush also elaborates the argument for a hallucinogenic basis of Christianity, by highlighting – in a Da Vinci Code-esque manner – the secretive nature of this knowledge. But as Psychedelic Press UK state in its review of the book:
As with any art interpretation, it can be extremely difficult to take symbology out of its cultural context and this is perhaps the most challenging point of this project. Has Rush succeeded? Typically, yes and no. Yes, because Rush has demonstrated that the mushroom does play a particular role in Christian art, something hitherto ignored by religious scholars in the main. But no, because the groundwork for the reinterpretation of the symbology is based on an, as yet, still scantily evidenced theory, and the idea that knowledge of the mushroom has remained in secret with an elite priest class within the Church all this time, really needs more evidence than the art itself.
Just because mushrooms have been depicted in Christian art, it does not follow that Christianity is based on the use of magic mushrooms. Allegro might be guilty of creating a sensationalised hypothesis about the origins of Christianity. It may also be a leap to say that these examples of mushrooms depicted in Christian art necessarily mean that the religion is based on the consumption of psychedelic mushrooms. In the case of the Aztecs, on the other hand, the evidence of magic mushroom consumption is far more clear. It is possible that magic mushrooms were a key factor in the birth and development of Christianity (maybe even a driving force), but this idea is still within the realm of speculation.