You probably associate Irish folklore and fairytales with magical creatures like faeries, pixies, and leprechauns. But did you know these creatures are based on ancient Celtic shamanism and mushroom rituals? It’s also one of the reasons the imagery of toadstools is associated with fairy tales. These amazing psychedelic mushrooms were what led to visions that shaped an entire culture’s folklore.
In ancient Ireland, before Christianity had swept across Europe, Paganism was the main religion throughout Ireland and Scotland. Druids, or shamans, were the highest-ranking figures of these communities and were well-educated in most subjects, including flora and fauna. They also acted as the spiritual leaders of these groups. Two main magic mushrooms were commonly used during these rituals: Fly-Agaric and Liberty Caps.
Fly-Agaric mushrooms(Amanita muscaria) are what you typically picture when you think of fairy tale mushrooms. They have large red caps with white spots and grow in damp wooded areas in autumn. Consuming even less than one whole cap, which is the fruiting body of the mushroom that grows above ground, can create psychoactive effects like hallucinations.
Ancient Celtic druids would consume these mushrooms, which they often called “flesh of the gods.” These rituals helped them access other states of consciousness to gain a deeper spiritual connection, which they then would share with others in the community. Poets in the Renaissance would describe this ritual as eating the “red flesh of a pig” and would use the hallucinations to find inspiration for their art.
Liberty Cap Mushrooms (Psilocybe semilanceata) are small brown mushrooms with a gilled cap reminiscent of the shape of a gnome hat. These can be found all over Ireland and have hallucinogenic effects when consumed. Because the effects of Liberty Cap Mushrooms are much milder than Fly-Agaric, they were often consumed by the common folk of ancient Ireland.
Sweat houses were one of the spaces where these psychedelic rituals were held. Sweating often can lead to more intense trips, and many ceremonial sweathouses still stand in Ireland today. Celtic druids would consume mushrooms, sit in these houses, and allow the psychedelic effects to help them gain a higher level of consciousness.
Some even believe that religious groups were dedicated to these psilocybin mushrooms and that these psychedelic experiences could even have been the origin of the Pagan religions we think of when we picture ancient Celtic culture.
Both mushrooms have been known to give consumers visions of fairies, leprechauns, and other creatures. It is now believed that the use of mushrooms in these ancient spiritual ceremonies inspired the folklore of ancient Ireland.
A common belief in Europe folklore is that stepping into “fairy rings,” which are mushrooms that grow in a circular shape, would cause visions of fairies and uncontrollable dancing. The Celts were no different from their neighbors in this belief.
However, not all visions were as cute as fairies and gnomes. There are records of a one-eyed monster appearing in “bad trips” from these mushrooms, which led to the creation of the story of Balor, an evil and destructive cyclops.
In Celtic Ireland, this holiday on November 1 marks the shift between the light and dark halves of the year. This is related to the end of the harvest season, and it was the most important of the Celtic fire festivals. Samhain isn’t the same as Halloween, but our traditional Trick or Treat holiday is now understood to have roots in these ancient Celtic rituals.
Samhain, and our Halloween, occurs during a season when many believe the wall between the physical and spiritual worlds thins. Mushroom use was even more common then, leading to more visions of creatures and otherworld beings.
It’s truly amazing that these adorable tiny mushrooms could be the inspiration for folklore that has existed for thousands of years. If you’re curious to learn more about mushrooms overall, Mushrooms Demystified is a great place to start.