The History of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Use Through the Ages

Just like the psychedelic journeys it creates, the history of psilocybin has been a long and fascinating journey. From its use in religious rituals in ancient cultures to its rise to stardom in the counterculture movement. From groundbreaking scientific research to the dark ages of magic mushrooms. the history of psilocybin in many ways mirrors human history.

This complete guide includes the complete sometimes magical, sometimes tragic and sometimes inspiring history of psilocybin.

The history of psilocybin from ancient times to modern uses

Psilocybin is the main chemical agent behind the psychedelic effects of magic mushrooms. It has been used for thousands of years, for ceremonial, religious, medicinal and recreational purposes.

Prehistoric Psilocybin

How long have people been using psilocybin? So, how long have we been around?

Magic mushrooms have been used since the birth of civilization 12,000 years ago, and may have been used even before that.

The first evidence of magic mushroom use is a mural found in Northern Australia depicting mushrooms and psychedelic illustrations. Archaeologists have dated it to 10,000 BC. Rock paintings in Spain suggest that magic mushrooms were around prehistoric people in Europe in 4,000 BC.

Some scientists argue that it can be assumed that humans have been consuming psilocybin since our brains developed and we became distinct in evolution. This is partly because other species, such as dolphins, reindeer and jaguars, seek out and consume psychedelics. Also, psilocybe mushrooms are not only available but common, on every continent.

Ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna even argued that shrooms may have accelerated human evolutioncreating a state of hyper-connectivity between brain networks, doubling the size of the human brain, enabling technological innovations and sparking ideas like religion and language.

Psilocybin in Central America

The ancient cultures that most famously used psilocybin were in Central America. There are many indigenous artworks in Central America that depict mushrooms as a means of communicating with the gods.

In the Nahuatl language, used by the Maya and Aztecs, The magic mushrooms were called Teonanácatl, which translates to “flesh of the gods.” The religious myths of the Aztecs, Mayas and Toltecs often mention mushrooms, stating that they were given to their ancestors by the serpent god who created all life.

Because of this, psilocybin was used in religious and spiritual ceremonies for divination, healing, numbing pain, and celebrations. Their use can be traced back to 1,500 BC.

It wasn’t just psilocybin that Central Americans used for these rituals. They also used peyote, morning glory seeds, and Salvia divinorum for sacred rituals.

When the Spanish brutally conquered the Native Americans, they banned rituals involving psychedelic materials, calling them barbaric and against the Catholic Church.

Because of this, sacred rituals involving magic mushrooms had to become an underground practice.

The Ancient History of Psilocybin

Psilocybin was not only found in Central America in ancient times, but took the world by storm.

Siberia and magic mushrooms

Indigenous tribes in Siberia used hallucinogenic mushrooms called Amanita Muscaria which, funnily enough, are also commonly consumed by reindeer. These crops are even known to collect and drink the psychoactive urine of said reindeer.

The Siberians used the altered state created by these mushrooms to push themselves physically, enduring the cold temperatures through the disruptive effects.

Ancient Greece and magic mushrooms

In Ancient Greece, the famous rites worshiping the goddess Demeter called the Eleusinian Mysteries drank a psychoactive concoction containing a mixture of psychedelic mushrooms. The ceremonies were so secret that if you divulged any details you gained from them, you could face the death penalty. They were attended by famous personalities such as Plato, Homer and Aristotle.

Ancient Egypt and magic mushrooms

The ancient Egyptians created many works of art depicting magic mushrooms. They called them “food of the gods” and believed to have been placed on earth by the god Osiris. Because of how special it was, it was only consumed for religious reasons by priests and the upper class.

The Scientists are coming! Magic Mushrooms in Western Culture

In 1799 a British family unknowingly picked and ate many magic mushrooms from the banks of the Thames. It’s safe to say that what ensued was NOT the afternoon they had originally planned.

Because of this, in 1803 magic mushrooms were given the taxonomic classification Agaricus Semilanceatus which was changed in 1871 to Psilocybe Semilanceata.

Two ethnobotanists, Schultes and Reko, discovered that psilocybin mushrooms were used by local doctors in Mexico and had a depressant effect on the nervous system. They published their findings in Leaflets of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University in 1939.

Gordon Wasson and his wife Valeria Wasson, when they heard about the magic mushrooms they traveled to Central America to learn more about them. Under the guidance of two local shamans, Don Aurelio and Maria Sabina, they tried psilocybin and were impressed by its profound effects.

They published their findings in “Life” magazine in 1957coining the term “magic mushrooms”. Albert Hoffman, who synthesized LSD, discovered and isolated the compounds psilocybin and psilocin from samples sent to him by Wasson, creating synthetic versions sold by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals under the name Indocybin.

Wasson’s article inspired a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary to learn more about magic mushrooms and found the famous Harvard Psilocybin Project with Dr. Richard Alpert. They obtained pharmaceutical-grade psilocybin from Sandoz and used it to conduct experiments to see how psilocybin could solve people’s emotional problems.

Unfortunately, they chose to use college students who felt “stressed” and prisoners who likely had no choice in their experiments. After being tried and then caught giving psychedelics to undergraduates, they were fired.

The War on Drugs: The Dark Ages of Magic Mushrooms

In the 1960s psychedelics became an important symbol in the counterculture movement in the US and UK.

Due to their growing popularity and disillusionment with the “system” that psychedelics caused, psychedelics were banned in the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

In 1968 the US federally banned psilocybin. 2 years later it was designated as a schedule 1 drug along with cannabis and LSD.

Taking advantage of fears and fraudulent research, President Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1971 starting the extremely harmful War on Drugs.

Because of the ban, almost all research into the benefits of psilocybin in humans has stopped.

The search for magic mushrooms begins again

For thirty years, until the late 1990s, research into psilocybin was put on hold until the University of Zurich began conducting research in 1997. The study, which found that psilocybin increased brain activity, catalyzed in research at other institutions.

Psilocybin has been found to not only increase brain activity, but may also be effective in treating many psychological conditions and chronic pain.*

These promising findings led to a loosening of restrictions and a push for decriminalization and legalization across the country.

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