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by Gary Lincoff
  at The Third International Medicinal Mushroom Conference / Port Townsend, Washington / October, 2005

A stone’s throw west of Alaska is a strip of land bordered by the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, known as the Kamchatka Peninsula and part of the Russian Far East. It contains many active volcanoes and the largest population of grizzly bears in the world. It has forests of pine and birch and larch, but its broad plains are mostly tundra, areas of dwarf birch, blueberries, alder thickets, grassland, mosses and lichens. It contains two distinct human populations, the Russians, who live in and around the city of Petropavlovsk, and four major tribes of hunter-gatherers, who are scattered in villages along the coasts and throughout the peninsula’s tundra zone, and live by fishing and hunting, reindeer herding, and berry-picking.

The hunter-gatherer peoples differ from the Russians in many ways but none more dramatic than in their use of mushrooms. The Russians hunt many kinds of edible mushrooms but avoid one mushroom in particular, the fly-agaric, Amanita muscaria, which they regard as very poisonous. In fact, it is used in Russia and Europe as a fly-killer: the mushroom is placed in a cup of milk to which flies are attracted and become numbed.
The hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, collect and eat just one single mushroom, the same fly-agaric that the Russians avoid.

The history and mythology of this mushroom’s use has been written about extensively and can be found in books, such as Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning, and on-line at numerous websites. Some believe Jesus to have been a metaphor for a secret mushroom cult. Some believe that the fly-agaric is the Soma of the ancient Indian Rg Veda poem. Others believe that it was used to make soldiers “go berserk” in warfare, that is, appear to be crazed. It is reported to have been used as a substitute for vodka, to make men drunk in northern Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries, and that drinking their urine would extend the drunkenness of these people. It is believed that Lewis Carroll read accounts by European prisoners in the Russian Far North of this mushroom’s use and then changed its effects to fit his needs when he wrote Alice in Wonderland.

Experimental use of this mushroom by people in the United States and Europe in our time to discover whether or not it is hallucinogenic has been discussed in books and on-line by Terence McKenna and Jonathan Ott and others. That it is biologically active and causes a variety of symptoms is not in doubt. How effective it is as a source of drunkenness, or as a hallucinogen, or as an ally in helping to make contact with the spirit world, while reported by many, remains to be established. Whether it is effective as a medicinal mushroom, as it has been claimed to be in Kamchatka, also remains to be established.

I led two groups of Americans to Kamchatka in 1994 and 1995 to visit with and interview groups of tribal hunter-gatherers to find out exactly what they do with this mushroom. While there, we also consumed the mushroom, the results of which we report on below. An article about these trips appeared in Shaman’s Drum (Spring, 1996), and there is also a video (“Song of Mukhomor”) about these trips made by Tom Stimson, which can be purchased on-line.

The mushroom in question, the fly-agaric, has the scientific name of Amanita muscaria. It occurs across Canada and the northern United States and Alaska, and across northern Europe and Asia, wherever birch trees and pine trees occur. It is one of the most photogenic mushrooms in the world. It is often found illustrated in storybooks for children, such as “Babar,” and it is included in field guides to the mushrooms of North America, Europe, and Asia, for instance in The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.

Amanita muscaria v. muscaria (Kamchatka)
Amanita muscaria v. flavivolvata (Colorado)
Amanita muscaria v. formosa (New York)

There are at least three recognized color forms of this mushroom: the scarlet cap with white veil remnants (known from Europe and Asia, and called Amanita muscaria var. muscaria), the red to orange cap with yellow veil remnants (known from the Rocky Mountains to the west coast and called Amanita muscaria var. flavivolvata), and the yellow to orange cap with white veil remnanats (known from northeastern North America and called Amanita muscaria var. formosa, also known as A. muscaria var. guessowii).

The fly-agaric is known to contain at least four compounds that can cause poisoning in human beings: muscarine, ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscazone. The only toxin of consequence, however, is muscimol. It causes, among other things, delirium, a coma-like sleep, hyperenergetic behavior on awakening, that is, revealing more power than one is thought capable of displaying, and a misperception of reality (small branches, for example, are perceived as giant logs, and vice versa).

The peoples we visited are known as Koryaks and Even (or Evensk). The Koryaks live in the central part of Kamchatka in villages separated by forest and tundra, and reachable by us only by helicopter. On one trip we visited Ossora, on the Bering Sea coast, the inland village of Tymlat, and Lesnaya, a village on the coast of the Sea of Ohkotsk and just north of the town of Palana. On the other trip, we went north of Korf and visited the villages of Manily, Talovka, and Khalino, as well as a yurt on the tundra during the summer reindeer grazing season.

The Even person we interviewed, Tatiana Urkachan, is a shaman or tribal healer, living in the town of Palana. Tatiana told us that she was a 7th generation shaman, and that what she knew about healing had come to her by being passed down through the ages. The Koryaks use this mushroom in a variety of ways, including administering it to their old people to insure their sleep at night and their energy during the day. Tatiana, the Even shaman, uses this mushroom externally as a poultice to treat patient wounds, as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, and internally (by herself) as a device to allow her to visit the spirit world to seek, for example, the cure for an illness (physical, mental, or spiritual), or the place where a successful hunt could occur.

We can study these two groups of people, the Russians and the hunter-gatherers, by looking at a number of ways in which they differ:

1. The mushroom

The Koryaks use only this mushroom (Amanita muscaria) and no other. [Tatiana, the Even shaman, uses a few other mushrooms, such as the medicinal clinker fungus (Inonotus obliquus), but only those that occur on or about birch trees, which tribal peoples in the Russian Far East regard as sacred. In Kamchatka, one birch in particular, the endemic Betula ermanii, is believed to be the pathway between the world we know, the upper world, and the underworld: a ladder is sometimes made of birch wood to give the shaman a visual means by which to ascend or descend in the shaman’s journey to effect a cure, offer protection from evil spirits, or secure a successful hunt. [When we tried to present the Koryaks with a gift of dried Amanita muscaria from Colorado, not only would they not accept it, but they told us they would not even use Amanita muscaria from the mainland, just a few miles across the Sea of Okhotsk. They only use the fly-agaric associated with their local birch tree, which they regard as sacred, all others being profane,]  The Koryaks who use Amanita muscaria do not use any alcoholic beverages, such as vodka.

The Russians, on the other hand, use many mushrooms for food but do not use the fly-agaric for anything and, of course, they do drink vodka and other alcoholic beverages.

2. Life-style, diet, and general health

The Koryaks are tribal hunter-gatherers who lead a very active outdoor life-style, fishing, herding, and gathering fruits and wild plants. Their diet is low to absent in saturated fats, dairy products, sodium, and cereal grains. Their general health is reported as low in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease. They also have low levels of life-style cancers, such as lung, stomach, colon, and breast cancer.

The Russians, as do other Europeans and Americans, live in detribalized, largely unrelated groups of peoples who largely lead an urbanized, sedentary indoor life-style, in offices and stores, and their diet and general health is the opposite that of the Koryaks. The Russians also live longer lives than the Koryaks, in part because of the availability of western medicine in the capital and its absence in hunter-gatherer villages.

3. Medicine and religion

In Russia and the West medicine and religion are separate disciplines, in each of which professionals are trained and recognized. Among the Koryak, on the other hand, there are no professional doctors or religious leaders. The closest they have is what they call family shamanism, a kind of non-professional diagnosis of illness and a very active religious performance involving a trance-inducing singing, drumming, and dancing. They believe that everything is alive and anything can become anything else so, for example, a person can become a deer or a river, or a raven or coyote. This follows their creation myths, as told in their stories about totem animal spirits such as the Raven and Coyote. They also believe that evil spirits exist in the world and they need protection from these evil spirits. The fly-agaric mushroom, which can cause delirium, is taken by the people to assist them in these practices and beliefs.

Across the Sea of Okhotsk, on the continent and on the outskirts of Khabarovsk, near the border between Russia and China, is a tribal people called the Nanai. Although they do not use the Amanita muscaria mushroom, so far as we were able to determine, they do use other mushrooms for ritual purposes. They perform a “bear dance” in the woods. It shows people hunting for mushrooms while watching out for bears. They place the mushrooms they collect, all good edibles, in ritual bowls that they leave as an offering on the ground in the forest. This is supposed to protect them from bears and evil spirits in the forest.

The Russians who are religious go to church and mostly sit down and pray and listen to sermons by trained and appointed religious leaders. Their creation myth is the story found in Genesis, and they do not eat the fly-agaric mushroom.

4A. Use of the fly-agaric by native peoples of the Kamchatka peninsula

The fly-agaric mushroom is gathered by the young and middle-aged Koryaks in the summer and early fall and dried for use during the winter months primarily by the elderly. It is also used by villagers during feast times, to celebrate the end of a hunting/gathering season, or a wedding. It is eaten dried or soaked in blueberry juice and drunk with the juice. One to three mushroom caps are usually consumed at a time, and there are no reported side effects when taken in this way. Excessive numbers of mushrooms eaten, or mushrooms eaten by people who also drink alcohol, such as vodka, are known to cause 24 hour poisonings. [How the mushrooms are collected, that is, what implement is allowed to be used to unearth the mushrooms, how many are allowed to be (or must be) collected at one time, and the physical condition of the mushrooms being collected, are all critical issues that take precedence over the mere gathering of the mushrooms. The difference between Koryak and western mushroom hunting is, in part, the difference between a sacred (spiritual) act and a profane (materialist or scientific) one: we were told that collecting or using the right mushroom the wrong way can be dangerous.]

The fly-agaric is also used by Koryak musicians who claim that it both enhances their creativity and allows them to perform music all night long. One young Koryak musician we interviewed told us that he had, up to that point, taken the fly-agaric a couple of dozen times before performing in a Koryak musical event. A reindeer herd manager we interviewed told us that some of his herders ate the Amanita muscaria when they had to chase after run away reindeer: the mushroom allowed them to go for long periods of time without stopping to eat or rest.

4B. Use of the fly-agaric by peoples elsewhere

Without directed help from a shaman seven of us on our mushroom study tour to Kamchatka elected to take the mushroom in a dried form to find out how it would affect us. We took the mushroom inside a Russian hotel on the outskirts of Petropavlovsk that we were staying in at the time. Our guides required us to sign a statement agreeing to take full financial responsibility for any damage done to property or persons, after which our guides disappeared from sight.

We experimenters each had one of our group members serve as a ‘watcher’ in case a need arose to intervene during and after our consumption of the fly-agaric. We took different amounts of the dried mushroom. I took 5 grams. Others took more. After chewing and swallowing the mushroom, we sat quietly in a room until we fell asleep. We did not fall into a coma-like sleep. We awoke from time to time. One of our group got up and went out of the room. We heard what sounded like dishes crashing to the floor next door but nobody got up to investigate.

Eventually, after a couple of hours we went to our rooms to wash and dress for dinner. At dinner, I rose to make a toast to our Russian guides. As I stood up, I pushed my chair behind me. It hit the wall and broke in several pieces. Was it a result of having eaten the mushroom earlier?

The next day I composed a bit of a song under the influence of the fly-agaric, as I had heard from Koryaks one could and should do to connect in a spiritual way with the fly-agaric mushroom (Mukhomor in Russian), with one’s ancestors, and with one’s living community.

On leaving Kamchatka the next day by plane, I tried to attach my seat belt and pulled it out of the seat. Was this a result of having eaten the fly-agaric mushroom?

Two weeks after returning home I was still feeling the effects of the relatively small amount of the fly-agaric mushroom I had consumed. The primary effect was a sense of power, an upwelling rising from my stomach and settling in my voice which came out at times much louder than I normally talk. The song I composed under the influence of this mushroom in Kamchatka is still inside me, and I am still able to sing it on command.

None of the others on our trip who ate the fly-agaric mushroom reported anything more intense than being extremely tired. Of course, we ate the mushroom on our own, without benefit of a shaman’s direction or watchful presence and, I suspect, we didn’t know how to interpret anything that we might have been experiencing as a result of eating the mushroom.

Two group members, on returning to Colorado, drank their own urine after eating a Colorado collection of the fly-agaric mushroom. They found the urine to be as potent as the dried mushroom, but they also experienced uncomfortable side-effects from the Colorado collection, such as profuse sweating, suggesting the presence of muscarine in this mushroom population. Nobody in our group heard about or detected this in the Kamchatka collections.

Elsewhere, Richard Evans Schultes has reported the use of Amanita muscaria by shamans of the Dogrib Athabascan peoples of the Mackenzie Mountain range in north-western Canada. The Creation stories of the native peoples of Alaska and western Canada have much in common with those of the Kamchatka peninsula. They both use animal myths, often involving the Raven or Coyote, often referred to as Trickster Gods, in shape-shifting stories, to account for the appearance of human beings and the cunning needed to develop the skills to find and cook food – and survive. The shape-shifting abilities of the Raven and Coyote are similar to the abilities attributed to the shamans, who can assume the spiritual forms of all the things in the world, both living and non-living, as well as fly up to the heavens and descend into the underworld to find whatever they are seeking.

Are these Trickster Gods also similar to the powers believed to reside in and be responsible for the behavior caused by eating the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria? And, if so, is the fly-agaric an avatar (or incarnation) of one of these Trickster Gods? After all, the fly-agaric does cause a range of behaviors that suggests that shape-shifting is as normal an activity as misperceiving the size of a log or the amount of strength needed to lift a very large weight. And like the Trickster Gods in the ancient Greek world (e.g., Hermes), those found in American and Siberian myths likewise teach survival lessons, whether in healing or survival, or in a successful hunt for food or search for meaning, through cunning and deception, through powers similar to those experienced after consuming the dried fly-agaric mushroom. [The monotheist religions of the West, whether Judeaeo-Christtian or Moslem, do not believe in or describe Trickster Gods. The Old/New Testament and the Koran describe the opposite: the sincere God, neither playful nor deceptive, the sort of God whose behavior, at least in this regard, is what is being promoted among these religions’ worshippers.]

At the conference, Gaston Guzman suggested that Amanita muscaria was used by native peoples in Mexico before they used the “magic mushrooms” in the genus Psilocybe, and Mother Ivonne Sommerkamp reported to me in a personal communication that Amanita muscaria is still being used in at least two villages in Guatemala.

Questions still to resolve:

1.         Is there any evidence that the Amanita muscaria mushroom can be used as a modern Western medicinal in the United States or Europe?

2.         Is there any reproducible evidence that the Amanita muscaria is an effective medicinal mushroom in Kamchatka?

3.         Is there any confirmatory evidence that there is or has been Amanita muscaria use among any of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest, as Richard Evans Schultes has reported?

4.         Is there any evidence that there is or has been Amanita muscaria use among any of the Mesoamerican peoples of Mexico as Gaston Guzman suggested in his lecture at this IMMC-3, or that it still occurs in two villages in Guatemala, according to Mother Ivonne Sommerkamp in her personal communication to me at the same conference?

5.         Is there any evidence to suggest that there is (or is believed to be) a connection between the stories about the Trickster Gods of the polytheistic and pantheist peoples of the Old and New Worlds and the behaviors exhibited by these traditional peoples (hunters & gatherers) who grow up hearing these myths and eating this mushroom, Amanita muscaria? And, if so, what does it mean?

Two groups of people living on the Kamchatka peninsula, the Russians and a hunter-gatherer people known as the Koryak, differ in many ways but none more distinct than their approach to a mushroom called the fly-agaric, Amanita muscaria. The Russians, who love to eat wild mushrooms, avoid this mushroom believing it to be very poisonous. The Koryaks collect only this mushroom that they use in a medicinal/religious way, believing it to allow them to diagnose illness, be successful in their hunt for fish and game, be protected from evil spirits, and maintain the tribal bonds of their communities.

Is the fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) an effective medicinal mushroom? Among the Koryak and other tribal peoples of the Russian Far East, it is believed to be so. The evidence is still anecdotal, and what data there is has not been critically evaluated yet, but whatever its value as a treatment for physical ailments, it does seem to be effective in maintaining community cohesiveness, at least when used by families in tribal villages, and by the spiritual healers known as shamans.


Eliade, Mircea. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton U. Press, NJ.

Fitzhugh, W.W. and A. Crowell. 1988.Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Lee, R.B. and R. Daly. 1999. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge U. Press.

Lincoff, G.H. and D.H. Mitchel. 1977.Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning: A Handbook for Physicians and Mushroom Hunters. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

McKenna, Terence. 1992. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books, New York.        

Ott, Jonathan. 1976. Hallucinogenic Plants of North America. Wingbow Press, Berkeley, CA.

Salzman, Emanuel, Jason, and Joanne, and Gary Lincoff. ‘In search of Mukhomor, the mushroom of immortality,’ Shaman’s Drum. Spring, 1996.

Smelcer, John. 1992. The Raven and the Totem: Traditional Alaska Native Myths and Tales. Salmon Run, Anchorage.

Schultes, Richard Evans and Albert Hofmann. 1979. Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Stimson, Tom. “Song of Mukhomor,” a 25 minute video of our two Mushroom Study tours of Kamchatka (1994 and 1995), available through the Internet. Go to Google.com and type in “Song of Mukhomor.” Also available on some websites given for “Song of Mukhomor” is a four hour unedited videotape of the two trips. This includes extended interview sessions with the Even shaman Tatiana as well local people in the Koryak villages we visited.

Wasson, R.G. 1968. SOMA: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, Inc., New York.