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Amanita muscaria Compared to Alcohol

Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric) has a long and interesting history with some strange theories attached to it. In this article I plunge into the muddy waters surrounding this mushroom, and with the help from old Yukagirs, Yakuts, Chuchi et al. in eastern Siberia, and modern shamans and scientists, I try to find out how this old style drug compares with modern alcohol.

Amanita muscaria, Fly AgaricAmanita muscaria used to be the choice of the day for many eastern Siberian tribes when it came to recreational drugs. Later it received competition from tobacco, and was finally ousted by cheap Russian vodka. Gordon Wasson "rediscovered" the red capped mushroom and the prehistoric, world wide Amanita muscaria cults. According to him it was the ingredient of the mythical soma-drink in India, and the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. John Allegro argued that Jesus had in fact been an Amanita muscaria, and the holy Bible the secret papers of a fertility cult centered round the mushroom. The mushroom was seen as a woman straddling a penis, later symbolized by the cross.

To Start With..
Short History
Ibotenic Acid and Muscimol
Flashbacks and Long Lasting Detrimental Effects
What to Expect During an Amanita Muscaria Intoxication
Case Descriptions of Effects

To Start With..

My intention is to try to find facts about the toxicity and the pros and cons when it comes to the effects, and based on those findings discuss the mushrooms usefulness as a competitor to alcohol. To discuss why people are interested in mind-altering substances in the first place, if it's good or bad and the politics surrounding it, are not an objective of this article.

Short History

At least since the 13th century, Amanita muscaria has been considered poisonous due to its ability to kill flies, which is not exactly true, it just make them comatose for a while, but in the 1800's something changed. Beginning in France, the common assumption of Amanita muscaria being poisonous was challenged. The mushroom was assumed dangerous in some parts of the world, but not everywhere. The Russians ate it, and some French mycologists had evidently consumed large quantities without getting sick. These thoughts naturally also reached Sweden, and in the 1930's it reached the heights of its culinary recognition when it appeared in mushroom guides as delicious after the red cap is removed and the mushroom parboiled. This point of view didn't go unchallenged though, and it seems that Amanita muscaria wasn't widely trusted or commonly used.

These days in Sweden, the mushroom is back were it came from, in the bad company of other poisonous toadstools. But something has changed. Now it's potential as a hallucinogen has earned it some fame and renewed interest.
There are some recorded cases of young calves dying after, possibly, eating Amanita muscaria, some observations of older cows vomiting, and of course doctor Krombholtz experiments with a variety of animals in 1832. Some of the research subjects survived, some didn't, and the conclusion was that the mushroom is deadly poisonous for all vertebrates, it's only a matter of dose. Count Achilles de Ville showed a few years later that it is also true for humans after eating two dozens of them for breakfast. Krombholtz also discovered that the white spots on the cap were twice as potent as the red skin. A piece of information I can't recall ever seeing anywhere else. Maybe recent day Amanita users haven't red their Krumbholtz?


Amanita muscaria contain muscarine in accordance with its name, but only in such small quantities that we may as well leave it out of the equation. The mushroom may contain different levels of substances depending on...well, nobody seem to know for sure, but the Poison Information Center in Sweden suggested that the mushrooms picked in spring and summer would be more powerful than ones picked in autumn. Different years could also yield different results. The main ingredients in the mixture of entheogenic constituents are, according to resent scientific knowledge, ibotenic acid, muscimol and muscazon. Following description of the symptoms can be read in Giftsvampar och Svampgifter (Persson et al. 1990).
"The symptoms of poisoning develop in short time, usually between half an hour and four hours. Vomiting and nausea occur in the beginning, while diarrhea is unusual. Development of symptoms on the central nervous system, like confusion, dizziness, uneasiness, agitation, muscle spasms, visual disorder and hallucinations are typical. The intoxicated person may also behave completely psychotic and have a distorted sense of time and space. Unconsciousness and cramps may occur in severe cases. Peripheral anticholinergic symptoms (atropine like) like heart beating, wide pupils, dryness of mouth and difficulties to urinate, also occur in typical cases."
Muscarine poisoning is treated with atropine, so the atropine like effects that occur when eating Amanita muscaria strongly suggest that muscarine is not a major player among the constituents in the mushroom. But then again, at www.erowid.org, increased salivation and perspiration is listed as one of the negative effects of Amanita muscaria, and those are symptoms of muscarine poisoning.

Hans Persson from the Swedish Poison Information Center also tell about many cases with symptoms of muscarine poisoning, and suggests that it may be that different substances are absorbed at different times, and that may give muscarine a change to make an impact even though the levels are low.
Ibotenic acid becomes muscimol over time, specially when drying the mushroom, and it may actually be that fresh specimen doesn't contain any muscimol at all, i.e. the actual hallucinogen.

Ibotenic Acid and Muscimol

The relationship between ibotenic acid and muscimol is explained in Pharmacotheon (Jonathan Ott, 1993).
"It would appear that muscimol is the psychoactive constituent, and that following ingestion of ibotenic acid, a fraction of the material decarboxylates to muscimol, which then produces the inebriation. After oral ingestion of ibotenic acid, a substantial percentage of the drug is excreted unaltered in the urine, but small amounts of muscimol are also excreted (Chilton, unpublished). This mechanism would potentially explain the Siberian urinary drug recycling practice. After ingestion of the mushroom, the celebrant would excrete substantial amounts of ibotenic acid in his urine. A second user ingesting the urine of the first, would cause some of the ibotenic acid to be decarboxylated to muscimol during digestion, producing inebriation when the muscimol was absorbed; and the bulk of the ibotenic acid would be re-excreted in his urine in turn. Thus a 100 mg dose of ibotenic acid might potentially represent four or five 10-15 mg doses of muscimol, and Steller's 1774 report that one dose of mushrooms could be recycled through four or five persons is certainly feasible. Muscimol itself probably does not play a significant role in urinary drug recycling, since it was found that only a small percentage of injected muscimol was excreted in the urine of mice (Ott et al. 1975a). This hypothesis has yet to be verified quantitatively in human beings, though it has been demonstrated qualitatively in preliminary experiments (Chilton 1979)."


Flashbacks and Long Lasting Detrimental Effects

According to the Swedish Poison Information Center, only one reported case exist of a flashback after eating Amanita muscaria. A man in Slovenia mistakenly ate the mushroom, started to vomit and fell asleep, and was found comatose. "Ten hours after ingestion, he awoke and was completely oriented; 18 hours after ingestion his condition deteriorated again and he became confused and uncooperative. Afterwards paranoid psychosis with visual and auditory hallucinations appeared and persisted for five days."
(2005, Poison Control Center, University Medical Center Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia)
There are no reported cases of long lasting detrimental effects.

What to Expect During an Amanita Muscaria Intoxication

Ole Högberg takes us through a typical Amanita muscaria intoxication among the Siberian tribes in his book Flugsvampen och Människan, as described by Bogoras in the beginning of 1900.
Fresh / raw mushrooms were considered poisonous and three Amanitas lethal. To use dried mushrooms was the usual way to go. These were also supposed to give a deeper level of intoxication. The usual amount was between one and four mushrooms, sometimes more.
According to Bogoras the experience could be divided into three distinct stages.

First Stage
The first phase start from anywhere between zero to several hours, but usually after fifteen minutes. The hands begin to shake, and arms and legs twitch involuntary. The eyes are starry. This phase is experienced as something positive, and people become talkative and noisy with lots of laughter, dancing and singing. Sudden changes of mood are possible. This is also the time when the intoxicated feels unusually energetic and strong.

Second Stage
During the second stage the spasms may turn into cramps. It becomes difficult to focus and everything float. The smallest movements can result in such large consequences that supervision becomes necessary. During this phase, the intoxicated may experience small things as huge, a bucket of water may seem like a deep lake. It is still possible to have a conversation with the subject. This is also the time when the person may have to deal with the nasty "mushroom spirits". These encounters belong to the domains of experienced shamans, but even he/she need to be careful.

Third Stage
During the third and last stage, the intoxicated person isn't part of this world anymore and can't be contacted. He is now traveling with the spirits to faraway places and shown strange people and things.

At Erowid some people have described a similar set of three stages: "first the nausea / body effects stage, the second sedated / dreamy state, and the third stage during which the active psychedelic effects predominate." At Erowid the effects of Amanita muscaria have been categorized as "positive", "neutral" and "negative", but there are no mentions of unpleasant hallucinations. See further below under negative effects.
One more excerpt from the erowid.org site:
"The Amanita intoxication can be quite variable, from nausea, sweating, and salivation produced from a high level of muscarine in the mushroom, to the more desirous effects of euphoria, elevated mood, auditory and visual hallucinations, and increased strength and stamina produced by the muscimol, or the best of all, to feel the desire to dance and sing. But it must be understood that within this mushroom is heaven and hell. While with one experiment you can find bliss, within the next you may find terror."
Amanita notes, 1997 (Michael S. Smith)

Below are some experiments, and experiences, of mainly Swedish Amanita muscaria intoxications recorded by Raul Keskküla in his series of articles in the membership publication from the Swedish Mycology Association, Jordstjärnan 20 (3), 1999, and some additional cases from the book Flugsvampen och Människan by Ole Högberg.
The list of positive and negative effects below is done with the mushroom user perspective in mind. I assume the effects listed as positive are desired effects, or experienced as positive.
It is also interesting to note that some people who have prepared Amanita muscaria as food never felt any kind of effects what so ever. Two such cases are described by Raul Keskküla. In both cases the informants had peeled of the red cap.

Case Descriptions of Effects

Positive Effects
Pleasant hallucinations
Increased physical energy
Meditative well-being and unity with cosmos
Distorted sense of time and place
Visions of geometrical figures
Unrestrained feeling

Negative Effects
Unpleasant hallucinations
Eye smarting
Encounters with nasty spirits

Pleasant Hallucinations
"In less than a second, I flew thru a shining pipe, from the bottom and up to the light!" A man, after eating 1 dl of dried Amanita muscaria.
A story passed on by Cristine Karlson Stiber working for the Swedish Poison Information Center (Giftinformationscentralen) during a lecture in Umeå 2006.

A man consume three dried mushrooms together with juice and has a better experience than with LSD, mescaline or similar. According to him the mushroom produced nicer experiences.

A number of informants tell about visions and dreams comprising of all kinds of various things combined in unexpected, unnatural ways. It is possible to see these dreams as hallucinations while you are awake and close your eyes. Three persons tell of erotic visions or feeling.

Increased Physical Energy
A young man wanted to explore the hallucinogen effects of the mushroom, and ate five to six red, raw caps of Amanita muscaria. In the beginning he's body felt heavy, but 1 - 1.5 hours after eating the skins, he experienced a feeling of great physical power, and used the energy to chop wood.

In Siberia, a man took of his snow shoes and walked in deep snow beside his dog sledge for ours and enjoyed it, and an old woman is said to have run for thirty kilometers after eating the mushroom.

Meditative Well-Being and Unity With Cosmos
Two neo shamans wanted to explore the effects and shared two or three mushrooms after drying chopped, small pieces. The ordinary shamanic experiences were enhanced but no visions appeared.
Several other informants describe a relaxing, contemplative feeling.

Distorted Sense of Time and Place
A beer brewed with Amanita muscaria made the participants able to reach distant walls without the need of actually going there. Distances seemed shorter. One person also described a loss of sense of time.

A person got tunnel-vision after eating half of a cap of a dried mushroom, and could see faraway objects very clearly.

One more account of persons tasting Amanita-beer, tells us about distorted sense of time and space.

Visions of Geometrical Figures
There are a number of accounts of people seeing visions of a variety of different geometrical figures. Hairy balls, figures resembling runes, triangles, pyramids, circles, pillars etc.

Unrestrained Feeling
Beer made of Amanita muscaria resulted in an unrestrained feeling.

A man experienced a match as a large log.

Unpleasant Hallucinations
A couple picked and prepared a meal of what they believed to be Puff-balls, but probably picked young Amanita muscaria by mistake. Both fell ill and the husband became unconscious. The husband was thought to have alcohol poisoning. He behaved as if drunk, and saw ants creeping all over the walls and the floor.

A person interested in shamanism consumes about six dried mushrooms during a six week period, and also smokes some of it. He had some terrifying nightmares with chopped up human bodies, and experienced being pushed thru a meat-grinder.

Another person experienced a nightmare with, among other things, fire and still alive pieces of cats.

A young man experienced strong hallucinations after consuming eight dried Amanita muscaria. He felt strong and broke his bicycle chain. When he tried to call his wife the telephone transformed into a banana. Finally back home, he couldn't keep his balance and had difficulties understanding spoken words. He established eye contact with the star he had come from, his skeleton seemed luminous and he called a friend to tell him that he had turned into a mushroom. According to him, the Amanita muscaria is way worse than LSD.

Pain in the eyes
A five year old shrubed his eyes after handling the mushroom.

There are many reported cases of nausea and fatigue, most of the cases reported by persons who ate the mushroom by mistake.

Two persons looking forward a cheap intoxication ate both raw and dried (in room temperature) mushrooms. One of them ate one raw and two dried, the other one one raw and five dried. The first person experienced his own heartbeats as extremely painful, alienation to his own body and voice, and balance problems. But the second person who ate one raw and five dried had an even worse night. His legs didn't carry him, he vomited and fell unconscious, and traveled thru a tunnel of death towards a light.

One informant became aggressive after sharing a 75 cl bottle of Amanita-beer with a friend. Before she went berserk, she had had an argument with skinheads and been insulted in a bar. She had felt good while the aggressive feeling lasted.

Encounters with Nasty Spirits
Mushroom spirits can be very demanding and evil. In Siberia a man was commanded to sleep outside with his dogs, a terrifying thing to ask, considering it was one of the ways for the Chukchi to dispose of dead bodies.

An other man was commanded to cut his stomach. His friends kept him from doing so.

Yet another one was forced to confess previous misdeeds, much to the joy of his comrades.

In 1897 Count Achilles de Vecchi died after having two dozen Amanita muscaria for breakfast. His friend who only had one dozen survived.


Well then, could Amanita muscaria be used instead of the more traditional alcohol? Descriptions of euphoria, unrestrained behavior, meditative well-being, increased physical energy and distorted sense of time and place fit with both Amanita muscaria and alcohol, as well as some of the negative effects like nausea, aggressiveness and death. And I'm positive it would be a very painful experience to pour alcohol in your eyes. The mushroom's effects are a bit haphazard, but couldn't we say the same also about alcohol? Some people become aggressive, others sleepy, sometimes people become talkative and sing and dance. And the same persons can get totally different experiences from alcohol at different occasions, in accordance with the mushroom. And as with the mushroom, there are zillions of myths, beliefs, stories and half-truths about alcohol. People have personal preferences, some brands are better than others, and everyone has his/hers tolerance levels. Which may vary depending on a number of constantly changing parameters. It is reasonable to assume that it also true for the mushrooms. And as with Amanita muscaria, the dose is as important with alcohol. Drink a little and you won't experience anything particularly exciting, but too large a doze will kill you. Many of us who do have experience of drinking alcohol, probably don't recall the first couple of times as very pleasant memories. Everything tasted like poison and we always drunk too much and always become sick. Until we found how to deal with it personally. Many of the advices from more experienced friends didn't really work for us. An echo of the Amanita muscaria scene as it seems to me.
The similarities are many, but there are also some major differences. With the mushrooms, the physical reactions are different and can be more severe compared to alcohol, and more difficult to predict. There are no labels clearly describing the amount and strength of the mushroom content. If you prefer a particular brand of whisky you always get the same stuff, with mushrooms it is different. You can never be really sure what you get. You start more or less from zero every time. With alcoholic brand beverages we know all the active ingredients and how they work, a situation quite different from Amanita muscaria.
But the biggest difference is maybe the hallucinogen nature of the mushroom, something that most clearly put it apart from alcohol.

Finally I would like to cite a few lines by Francesco Festi and Antonio Bianchi.
"Obviously the personality of the single person, his motivation, attitude, mood and past experience are important in all psychedelic experiences. In fact, people who are interested in "meditative" or introspective experiences have found the Amanita muscaria closer to this feeling, while people interested only in a "trip" have found it "too unpleasant.""
Mycopharmacological Outline and Personal Experience, 2001 (Francesco Festi, Antonio Bianchi)

This very much suggests how the mushroom may be best used.
Amanita muscaria could be seen as useful in its capacity to produce hallucinations, suitable for people looking for introspective experiences, while alcohol is best used for its capability to produce a more predictable, unrestrained and relaxed social atmosphere.


Case report: Department of Clinical Toxicology, Poison Information Center, Collegium Medicum, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, 2004 (Dorota Pach, Beata Butryn, Piotr Hydzik, Barbara Balicka-Slusarczyk)

Case report: Poison Control Center, University Medical Center Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2005

Flugsvampen och Människan, 2003 (Ole Högberg)

Giftinformationscentralen, (a telephone conversation with the Swedish Poison Information Center), late spring 2007

Giftsvampar och Svampgifter, 1990 (Hans Persson, Pelle Holmberg, Hans Marklund, Siw Muskos)

http://www.erowid.org, June 2007

Jordstjärnan 20 (3), 1999 (Raul Keskküla), a membership publication from the Swedish Mycology Association, page 29

Mycopharmacological Outline and Personal Experience, 2001 (Francesco Festi, Antonio Bianchi, June 2007)

Pharmacotheon,1993 (Jonathan Ott)



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