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Santa’s Long Trip

Add two spoons of psychedelic anthropology, one spoon of hidden history, and a dash of speculation, and you get this interesting passage about the origin of Santa Claus. Just one of the fascinating pages to be found in Paul Devereux’s classic book, The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (Amazon US and Amazon UK):

There is no hard evidence that the fly agaric mushroom was used in north and western Europe for causing ecstatic experience (it has been used in various other ways, especially soaked in milk as a folk method to kill flies, and the Berserkers are controversially claimed to have used it to give superhuman strength and fierceness in battle). Christian Rätsch has indicated that there is some evidence that those who used the “beakers” of prehistoric Britain took Fly Agaric “in a cultic context,” and remarks that it has been associated in myth with the Germanic god-shaman figure, Wotan or Odin. There are also relatively modern hints that suggest a surviving vestige of folk memory concerning ancient magical usage of the mushroom. For example, Gordon Wasson drew attention to some German nursery rhymes that seem to contain unambiguous references:

A manikin stands in the wood
Stock-still and mute
He has of purple pure
A mantle around him.
Say, who may the manikin be
Who stands there on one leg?

An alternative ending exists:

Say, who may the manikin be
Who stands there in the wood alone
With the purple red mantle?

The children are supposed to reply: “Happiness mushroom! Fly Agaric!” (“Glückspilz! Fliegenpilz!”) Wasson also drew attention to the English term “toadstool” which is now used in a general way to mean unpleasant, dangerous fungi, and may derive from the innate Anglo-Saxon tendency to fear and dislike mushrooms. Why such mycophobia? We may perhaps suspect some deep-seated associations being set in train many centuries ago to account for this. The toadstool has vague witchcraft associations and is also typically shown in fairy tales as a red-capped mushroom with white spots. We know the image from our nursery days, and it is an old one: a Medieval chapbook, for instance, has a woodcut showing fairies dancing in front of a fairy hill, with the spotted toadstool nearby. “The virtual panic fear of ‘toadstools’ by some Europeans may…derive from pagan times,” La Barre observes, “since the use of hallucinogenic Amanita mushrooms antedated (and culturally influenced) the Greek and other Indo-European gods originating in northern Eurasia, Amanita being thought to be born of divine thunderbolts.” According to Rogan Taylor, perhaps the most amusing hint of the memory of amanita-based shamanism may well be enshrined, perhaps by accident, in the popular contemporary image of Santa Claus. The figure of Father Christmas evolved over centuries out of pagan traditions, but the modern image of Santa owes most to the elements cobbled together in the 1820s by Professor Clement Clark Moore of Albany, New York, along with illustrators Thomas Nast and Moritz von Schwind, both of Germanic descent. Taylor feels that some traditional elements got pasted into their version, perhaps from the professor’s wide reading, or from the illustrators’ Old World links – or both. He points out that Santa’s robe of red edged with white are the colours of Amanita muscaria, that the idea of Santa clambering down the chimney evokes the entry via the smoke hole into Siberian yurts during winter. Moreover, the reindeers that pull the sleigh can be seen to link to the reindeer-herder tribes who took the magic mushroom. And the magic flight of Santa Claus through the midwinter night sky is a superb expression of the basis of all shamanism – ecstasy, or the flight of the spirit.

So, as you tuck your kiddies in on Christmas Eve, reassure them that the fat gentleman who will be breaking into your house later that night is not drunk…just tripping. And if you think this Xmas anecdote was interesting, you should check out what Paul has to say about witches, hallucinogens, and the archetypal image of the flying broomstick. Halloween will never be the same again…