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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Allegro's Mushroom -- book excerpt

From my work in progress:

My husband Philip K. Dick became obsessed with John M. Allegro’s book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which was first published in 1970, then disappeared amid a storm of controversy and was finally reissued in 2009, more than 20 years after Allegro’s death at age 65 in 1988. The thesis of Allegro’s book is that Christianity had its origin in a cult of mushroom eaters who told the fictional story of Jesus to disguise their recipes for vision-inducing drugs. He goes on to assert that early Christianity was simply one of many fertility cults.

Allegro was part of the original team that worked on the Dead Sea scrolls, until his refusal to fall in line with the orthodox interpretation of the scrolls led the team leader to publicly attack his work and eventually replace him. Any scholar who disagreed with the official “truth” was ridiculed or ignored by the small team of scholars (usually numbering half a dozen) who jealously guarded their treasure. For example, the team agreed that the scrolls had been written, and then hidden in caves, by a small Jewish sect known as Essenes, even though more recent scholarship tends to support the idea that the scrolls belonged to observant Jews. The scrolls might even have been secretly removed from Jerusalem shortly before the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple (Golb, pages 143 and 145-146).

Since only a handful of scholars had access to the scrolls, and they refused to allow other scholars to see them – or even to look at photographs of them – the orthodox interpretation faced few serious challenges until the Huntington Library began making microfilm copies of the scrolls available to all qualified scholars in 1991.

Norman Golb asserts that Allegro wrote The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross as a reaction to, and revenge for, being pushed out of the scrolls team (page 126, footnote). It certainly does attack Christianity, as Golb noted, and the primary members of the team were Catholic priests.

When Allegro published his book in 1970, he was immediately attacked by traditional scholars – not only the Dead Sea scrolls team – for his startling thesis that Christianity had its origins in a fertility cult that used hallucinogenic mushrooms. However, more recent scholarship and a number of primary texts and images from early Christianity tend to support Allegro’s theory about Amanita muscaria. However, his book contains errors and wild speculations that make it easy to find fault with his thesis. He seems to find what he is looking for, regardless of whether it actually exists.

The Amanita muscaria is a mushroom with white spots on the bright red cap, sitting atop a white stem. Numerous scholars have pointed out its resemblance to the red-and-white costume worn by Santa Claus. Like most red fruits, this mushroom is poisonous. It also causes hallucinations, plus wild frenzy followed by lethargy. It is also a purge, causing severe diarrhea. Allegro speculated that fertility cults used this mushroom to produce enthusiasm, in the sense of being filled with the divine spirit. He further speculated that Jesus Christ was simply a symbolic character who personified the mushroom. This proposition, of course, ignores the biblical prohibition against sorcery, which at the time meant pharmacy, the use of psychoactive drugs. Yet Allegro insists upon finding secret codes in the Bible that boil down to recipes for hallucinogenic potions.

I am going to be very tough on Allegro’s thesis, but The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross does have a great deal of value as an exploration of ancient religious ideas. I simply cannot agree that every snake is a penis and every womb is the volva (immature mushroom), or that a mushroom is a hermaphroditic creature consisting of a penis to be worshipped as God the Father while penetrating its own womb.

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