Sampling Alice in Wonderland’s Magic Mushroom

Amanita muscaria. Photo: Shutterstock

In the remote village of Uelen in Siberia’s Chukotka, there aren’t any restaurants. No takeouts or curbside deliveries, either. So I went foraging for mushrooms on the local tundra, and I soon collected enough Scaber Stalks (Leccinum scabrum) to feed me for several days, assuming I accompany them with something like walrus blubber. For mushrooms require more calories to digest than they contain, so it’s a good idea to eat a fatty food along with them.

On another day I went foraging with a local schoolteacher named Umqy (Polar Bear). We happened on a fruiting of Amanita muscaria, which the Chukchi call wapak. This red-capped, psychoactive mushroom with rings of white warts on its cap is an iconic species, appearing in Alice in Wonderland as well as on postcards and stoner websites.

Chukotka, in Siberia’s far northeast. Photo: Wikipedia

Traditionally, the Chukchi ate A. muscaria in order to get in touch with their ancestors, and upon doing so, they’d ask those ancestors about (for example) how to get rid of the viral infection afflicting their reindeer or whether a potential wife would be a decent mate.

“With a wapak, you don’t need a ticket or a boarding pass,” Umqy said, a grin on his face. For the mushroom typically makes you feel like you’re flying.

Here I should mention that Chukchi who ate wapaks in Stalinist times were regarded as enemies of the state because they were engaged in a highly individual rather than a communal act. Reputedly, those who ate wapaks were forced onto a plane, and once the plane was in the air, the cargo door would be flung open.

“You say you can fly,” a Stalinist henchman would announce. “Okay — then fly…” Whereupon he would push his victim out of the plane.

Even today, most Chukchi are reluctant to talk about cultural matters with Russians, so planted in their genes are incidents from the Soviet era. We have no wapaks in our area, a Chukchi elder told a Russian ethnographer of my acquaintance. But since I wasn’t Russian, Umqy happily shared his lore with me. For example, he gave me the following instructions on how to pick wapaks:

You should be extremely careful with the cap. If you damage it, you might end up with some sort of head injury. If you remove the warts from the cap, you might end up losing all your hair. And if you injure the stem, something unpleasant will happen to one of your legs.

“How unpleasant?” I asked.

“The leg might need to be amputated,” he replied.

I’d heard that only a shaman was allowed to eat the mushroom in earlier times, and then his followers would drink his urine. For muscimol — the primary trip-taking alkaloid in A. muscaria — passes through a person’s system more or less unaltered.

I asked Umqy if he had ever drunk the urine of a shaman.

“We hardly have any shamans anymore,” he said. “But I once drank some of my own mocha (piss) after I ate a few wapaks. I didn’t fly very far, though…”

I decided to eat some wapaks myself. So I gathered a few, being very careful not to damage any part of them. Umqy then told me that I had to bare my naked buttocks to the moon just before I ate them, or I would suffer from a prolonged bout of bad luck. When I lowered my trousers and raised my buttocks, Umqy and a few of his friends burst into riotous laughter.

“We’ve made a joke on you,” Umqy said.

“Luna ne naplevat’ na tvoyu zadnitsu!” one of his friends remarked. Which means, “The moon doesn’t give a damn about your ass” in Russian.

But how did I feel after eating the mushroom? As it happened, I didn’t fly off to visit my ancestors, wherever they happened to be, but I did feel euphoric, an emotion somewhat unusual for me. In fact, I felt so upbeat that I joined the other individuals in laughing at the sight of my naked buttocks.

Let me conclude by saying that most Chukchi don’t eat wapaks nowadays. Instead, they drink vodka, lots of it. I can imagine their ancestors feeling very lonely, with almost no one visiting them anymore.

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About the Author

lawrence millman

Lawrence Millman is a man who wears a variety of hats. As an explorer, he has journeyed to the Arctic 35 times, but not once to Rome; as a mycologist, he has a fungal species named after him (Inonotus millmanii); and as a former prisoner of war in academia, he has taught at Harvard, the University of New Hampshire, and — best of all — the University of Iceland.

His 18 books include such titles as Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Lost in the Arctic, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Northern Latitudes, Hiking to Siberia, At the End of the World, and Fungipedia. Bruce Chatwin called him “the master of the remote,” and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth describes him as “a true original who takes no prisoners.

He keeps a post office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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B Geoffries
B Geoffries
1 month ago

Excellent piece and about the most interesting thing I’ve read here, both a topographical and psychonautical expedition. Having gone into similar things in places not too far from your locations I appreciate the multiple frontiers here. Great stuff.

+4
Samantha Hakala
Samantha Hakala
1 month ago

Enjoyable read!!

+1
Cory Turner
1 month ago

My stomach became knotted and my younger years flooded my mind with the excitement and anticipation of the spiritual journeys and enlightenment experienced by delving into the unknown abilities of furthering my consciousness. Well done sir!

+3
Tom
Tom
1 month ago

You’re spreading false information which could actually kill somebody these mushrooms actually have to go through a specific process to be heated to break down the poisons that are in them you cannot eat these raw, this is got to be one of the most irresponsible things I’ve seen people recommend essentially to the public.

+6
Daniel Kopyc
Daniel Kopyc
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom

Yes, I’ve also heard that special preparation — including a drying process was used. Also, weren’t reindeer used as the animal to extract the muscimol — I’ve never heard that it was a shaman?

+1
lawrence millman
L. Millman
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom

Amanita.muscaria has never been documented killing a single.person. However, drying them is the traditional way to make them safe for shamanic ingestion. Boiling them for ca 15 minutes makes them an edible that you can use with beef and potatoes. Note that A. muscaria is a very popular edible in Japan.

+4
Ben
Ben
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Millman

Extremely rare, but possible in the right dose

+1
lawrence millman
L. Millman
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben

Apples are possible in the right dose as well

+2
mike lyucous
mike lyucous
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Millman

i had a pt die of eating a 32 ounce steak and drinking 6 beers -which at 0200 hrs wound up in his lungs -so ya i suppose apples can kill especially if they can find a gun

+1
Ben
Ben
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom

Spot on Tom!

+1
Yyg
Yyg
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben

Have you ever eaten amnita mascara?

0
Yyg
Yyg
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom

This is not true, you can eat fly agaric raw, as well as many other mushrooms that people think are poisonous, like anything some people are allergic others are not.

+1
Yyg
Yyg
1 month ago
Reply to  Yyg

As well as some are just psychedelic.

+1
Vicka Corey
Vicka Corey
1 month ago

This species appears worldwide, but the Kamchatka population appears to be more psychoactive and less unpleasant than specimens elsewhere in the world. You won’t die, but trying this with a mushroom from your yard is likely to be much less pleasant.

+1
B Geoffries
B Geoffries
1 month ago

If it’s psychedelics alone you want this is not the fungi to go with, but as part of a specific cultural experience it’s certainly a thing, though pretty hit or miss. Drying them is useful more as a way to get a clearer idea of dose, as well as stabilize them from the effects of decay.

+1
JamjesttwojBog
JamjesttwojBog
1 month ago

Każdy kto uważa że te cudowne grzyby są trujące nie ma zielonego pojęcia o niczym. Działanie fantastyczne

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Last edited 1 month ago by JamjesttwojBog
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