Mushrooms have held spiritual significance in several ancient cultures around the globe. From ancient Greek civilizations to modern Western counterculture, psychedelic mushrooms have played a significant role in religious ceremonies, divination, and spiritual exploration.
Many cultures viewed mushrooms as a bridge between real life and the spirit world. Their consumption was believed to allow for communication with the gods. The spiritual meaning of mushrooms remains prevalent today, as several cultures continue consuming their hallucinogenic properties. The interconnectedness of mushrooms aren’t just relegated to the psychedelic world, with the medicinal properties of functional varieties like reishi found in cultures worldwide.
Magic mushrooms played a critical role in ancient Mesoamerican religious ceremonies and rituals, especially for the Aztecs and Mayans. According to research on ancient artifacts, they used several hallucinogenic medicines for ceremonial purposes (1).
One of these medicines, Teonanácatl, was used during spiritual ceremonies and feasts. In addition, they thought mushrooms had the power to heal, and they often used them in traditional medicine. Psychedelic mushrooms in the Psilocybe genus were used to treat different physical and spiritual ailments.
A regular religious event in Ancient Greco-Roman culture, the Eleusinian Mysteries, included consuming a sacred drink called kykeon. The beverage was made with barley and an herb called pennyroyal. Scientists speculate that the barley in the liquid was purposely contaminated with ergot, a fungus that contains compounds similar to LSD. Others believe they may have consumed psilocybin mushrooms or plants containing DMT. As part of the tradition, the consumption of kykeon was necessary for a person to participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The ceremony included participants walking for ten days to reach the Temple of Demeter. They would fast and end by drinking the kykeon to experience the unknown mysteries of death and rebirth. By the end of the ritual, participants come to terms with their fear of death and understand their life’s purpose.
Ancient Siberia traditionally used mushrooms in spiritual practices. Shamanic rituals often involved the consumption of the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) so that the shaman could enter into a spiritual trance to communicate with spirits. Fly Agaric is a different type of mushroom with psychedelic properties. It does not contain psilocybin but instead contains ibotenic acid and muscimol, which causes hallucinations and other psychoactive effects.
To experience the altered state of consciousness that the mushroom produces, shamans must carefully prepare for the ceremony beforehand with certain practices like fasting and wearing traditional ritual clothing (2). The consumption of these mushrooms held great significance as part of the shamanic journey, and they believed it provided them the ability to understand hidden wisdom.
Tungusic and Samoyedic cultures held mushrooms in high esteem because they saw them as a key to understanding the unknown mysteries of the natural world. Mushrooms were used to communicate with the dead, interpret dreams, and visit the spiritual realm (3).
In modern indigenous cultures, mushrooms hold a deep spiritual significance that links back to ancient times and is found in many cultures worldwide. In these cultures, individuals consume psychedelic mushrooms for spiritual practices and rituals to communicate with the spiritual world.
One of the first records indicating hallucinogenic mushrooms comes from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria and many other recorded historical instances throughout the continent of Africa (4). Due to the effects of colonialism, much of the passed-down oral history regarding mushrooms has been lost, leaving only a few elders who’ve retained some remaining cultural knowledge. Many of these traditions may still be practiced today, undocumented by smaller tribes and different cultural subgroups that have not yet been thoroughly studied.
For instance, according to ethnomycologist findings, there are two primary mushrooms used by those who live in theIvory Coast; Tamu, the “mushroom of knowledge,” and another shroom without a traditional name, known as the “mushroom of action.” The mushrooms are given as medicine by a traditional healer to an individual who seeks to confront their fears and gain spiritual knowledge and renewal.
Some small villages in Mexico continue to participate in theircultural practices of consuming psychedelic mushrooms. Those from the Sierra Mazatec region use the several types of shrooms that grow there as medicine for ceremonial and healing purposes.
Participants in the ritual must undergo a cleansing process where they must walk the mountains to clear their minds of daily worries while abstaining from certain pleasures and fasting. During the ceremony, a shaman will ask the patient to express their concerns while chanting prayers. By the conclusion of the ritual, the participant will have more clarity and resolve regarding their troubles.
Several Native American tribes in North America see mushrooms as spiritual symbols and medicines. Despite their stigmatized and illegal status, many tribes continue to use mushrooms in religious and spiritual ceremonies, as some families still have sacred knowledge regarding plant medicine.
For example, the Ajumawi tribe of the Mount Shasta region uses a mushroom related to Fly Agric called A. Pantherina or Panther Cap for spiritual purposes (5). Shamans would consume the mushrooms during religious healing ceremonies to view their patient’s spirit. The mushroom also allowed them to see the spirits of inanimate objects around them, such as trees, mountains, and water.
In Western culture, mushrooms have been popularized as a means of spiritual exploration and psychedelic therapy. The counterculture movement of the 1960s saw a resurgence of interest in the spiritual properties of magic mushrooms. This growth of intrigue was largely credited to the research from scientists.
For instance, Timothy Leary advocated for the use of mushrooms as a tool for spiritual and psychological growth. However, indigenous Mexican knowledge guided Leary’s studies through their generous sharing of ancient wisdom. Cultural healers in rural Mexican villages heavily influenced scientists in the 60s and 70s because of the medicinal knowledge they passed down to visitors.
Eating mushrooms for spiritual exploration and psychedelic therapy continues to be popular today. Research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has been gaining momentum in recent years. In addition, several religions and spiritual retreats use hallucinogens like mushrooms to gain more insight and resolve inner turmoil.
Psychedelic substances like mushrooms are taboo in many Asian countries due to stigmatization and laws. Regardless, several different cultures throughout Asia use entheogens to alter their consciousness. Functional mushrooms are prevalent in Traditional Chinese Medicine, with reishi even appearing at the gates of heaven in early art from China.
Mushrooms have held great significance in several Hindu schools of thought. An ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns called Rigveda mentions a beverage called Soma which is made from Fly Agaric mushrooms. Soma is used for improved meditations and spiritual visions and is consumed during ritualistic ceremonies.
Similarly, mushrooms held a vital role in early Buddist initiations, most notably in Vajrayana Buddhism, with several scriptural accounts of psychedelic use (6). Of course, not all Buddhists use mind-altering substances as a part of their practice, but it is important to note that psychedelic mushrooms still hold importance to many modern Buddhists. Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality has recently boomed in several parts of the world, as some argue that hallucinogens provide similar spiritual effects to meditation.
In a survey published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 30.6% of Indian participants reported using psychedelics for “medication/spiritual reasons” (7). Today, a town in India called Kodaikanal is becoming increasingly popular for those searching for a spiritual journey.
Locals have traditionally used psychedelic mushrooms for centuries, but many people have flocked to the town in search of shrooms to alter their consciousness. Though historical evidence gives us a clearer idea of cultural mushroom use in India, psychedelic mushrooms are still used for spiritual development.
The symbolism of mushrooms across cultures and throughout history has played a vital role in religious ceremonies, divination, and spiritual exploration. Across many cultures, even today, having mushroom dreams or seeing them in real life symbolizes new beginnings, good health, and good luck. The ongoing significance of mushrooms in spiritual practices is a testament to their power and potential as a means of connecting with the divine. The symbolic meaning of mushrooms and their mycelium roots continues to root itself in each generation.