Franco Fabbro


Franco Fabbro - March 1996

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Use of hallucinogenic substances in ancient religions

The ritual use of hallucinogenic substances has been widely documented for various shamanic cults of Asian, American and African culture. In the so-called major religions hallucinogens have also been found to play a relevant role in ritualistic practice. Some hymns of the Rig Veda for instance, were composed under the influence of a plant called soma, which, according to ethnobotanic studies, has been identified as the mushroom Amanita muscaria, commonly known as fly-agaric [1]. The use of soma in early Indian religion spread to ancient Iran: actually, in Zoroastrianism an intoxicating substance, haoma, was used in rites as a drink, and also in this case researchers suggest that haoma was extracted from the fly-agaric [2]. Most probably, the practice of ingesting hallucinogenic substances in order to reach ecstasy and have visions during religious ceremonies later also influenced Jewish sacerdotal environments, in particular during the first and second deportation of the Jewish people in Babilonia (597 B.C. and 587-520 B.C., respectively). The experience of captivity probably allowed some Jewish sacerdotal groups to become acquainted with and then use particular religious practices that influenced prophetism (cf. the books of Ezekiel and Zechariah in the Bible) and apocalypticism (cf. the books of Daniel in the Bible, and Enoch and Ezra of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha). These practices bore typical features of ecstatic experiences induced by hallucinogens (cf. Ezekiel 1-3; Ezra 9:23-28). Religious habits in early Christianity had so many things in common with early Judaism, and in particular with apocalypticism [3], that a transmission of the techniques to reach ecstasy and visions from early Judaism to early Christianity is most likely to have occurred. Philological studies of the past suggested that some early Christian groups also made use of Amanita muscaria as a hallucinogenic substance during specific religious rites [4]. This hypothesis has been vigorously contested [5], in particular because no historical data were said to be available in order to support it.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Basilica of Aquileia

However, it is my purpose to add further relevant data to corroborate this interesting hypothesis, by bringing new evidence in favour of it. In the worship hall of the ancient Basilica of Aquileia, which is located towards the north of the church, measures 37 meters long and 17 meters wide (see Fig. 1) and dates back to a period before 330 A.D. [6], a beautiful mosaic is very likely to attest to the habit of ingesting mushrooms during early Christian religious ceremonies. Aquileia lies in the northern part of the Adriatic Sea where Italy borders on Slovenia, some 5 km from the coast along a canalized river and about 100 km from Venice.

Figure 1. 

Plan of the northern hall of the ancient basilica of Aquileia with the mosaics of the first Christian church dating back to a period before 330 A.D. The arrow and circle show the location of the two baskets containing mushrooms and snails. A large proportion of the mosaic has been destroyed with the construction of the church tower (T) erected in the 11th century A.D.

It was founded by the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. and by the 1st century A.D. it was a strategically important military harbour and a flourishing trade centre, counting about 200,000 inhabitants. This town had tight cultural and commercial links with Rome and Alexandria in Egypt, the most important economic and cultural centres at that time, and hosted a large Jewish community [7]. In the oratory of the northern hall (Fig. 1), the most ancient part of the whole basilica, the floor mosaic depicts, among a variety of other objects, animals and symbols, two baskets: one containing red mushrooms and the other nine snails (Fig. 2 and 3). An epigraph in the mosaic states that the oratory was part of a building which was used for religious ceremonies.

Figure 2.

Part of the Aquileian mosaic showing the basket with mushrooms.There are at least eight exemplars with dark red caps and typical characteristics of the type Amanita muscaria. Since these mushrooms are contained in a basket some scholars [8] suggest that this is a hint for their use during ceremonies as edible substances and not as mere ornamental patterns.

Figure 3. 

Part of the Aquileian mosaic showing the basket with snails, most probably of the type Helix (Helix) cincta. Also in this case the presence of a basket suggests that snails were eaten during religious ceremonies probably together with mushrooms. 

Its words are: Ianuariu(s) ... de Dei dono v(ovit) p(edes) DCCCLXXX (...), which means that Ianuarius contributed with his money, God’s gift, to the costs of 880 feet (26 square meters) of mosaic flooring. It has been suggested that the two baskets containing edible plants and animals hint at ritual meals and agapae enjoyed by early Christians in places of worship [8]. In the basket full of mushrooms there are at least eight exemplars with dark red caps scattered with pale orange mosaic tesserae and white radiating gill-shaped lamellae in the undersurface of the caps. On the basis of the colour and the form of these mushrooms, it is reasonable to suggest that these are fungi of the type Amanita muscaria. Just besides the mushrooms there is a second basket containing nine snails of the type Helix (Helix) cincta, which can be found also nowadays in the fields around Aquileia.
In the 4th century A.D. the mosaic floor of the northern hall was completely covered by the pavement of a new church and only after about 1,500 years, at the beginning of the present century, were the mosaics of the first Christian church in Aquileia unveiled again [9]. By remaining covered for such a long time, the mosaic did not suffer from deterioration and rehandlings by other artists, thus preserving a unique iconography of early Christianity. Illustrations of mushrooms and snails are quite unusual within Christian iconography. Snails were a very common food among the ancient Romans, who ate them also during funeral banquets, because these hibernating animals were symbolically related to burials and resurrection [10]. In addition, the Romans were particularly familiar with snail-breeding techniques, knowing that the way they fed these animals determined their taste and postprandial effects. Amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom commonly growing in vast areas of Europe and Asia, is part of the typical vegetation of the Carnic Alps around the territory of Aquileia. The ingestion of 1 to 4 fly-agarics may induce an intense feeling of joy and excitation with a reduction of the sense of fatigue and an enhancement of verbal production. By taking in more pieces (5 to 9), subjetcs first become very agitated and have vivid hallucinations, then they fall in a narcotic-cataleptic state, characterized by a deep sleep, from which they cannot be roused, and a very intense dreaming activity [11]. The psychotropic activity elicited by this mushroom mainly depends on the agent muscimol, which is an agonist of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) [12]. Muscimol has the highest affinity for the GABAA receptors with a weak activity at GABAB receptors, thus being able to modify cerebral excitability in general and in particular motor, emotional and cognitive activities, which are controlled by the basal ganglia and the frontal lobes [13, 14].
Since the assumption of Amanita muscaria may cause gastroenteric symptoms (e.g. nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain), most probably these complications were avoided with simple precautions: Instead of directly eating the mushrooms, it was good practice to first feed snails with these mushrooms for several days and then eat the snails. By doing so, the active hallucinogenic substances contained in Amanita muscaria could be ingested without having nasty gastroenteric side effects. A similar practice is also known among Siberian shamans, who have hallucination experiences after eating the meat of reindeer feeding on Amanita muscaria [15].


The presence of mosaic illustrations in the basilica of Aquileia representing mushrooms with psychotropic properties indicates that some religious rites of early Christianity, which were probably linked to mysterial cults meant to be kept secret, were related to the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances facilitating mystic ecstasy. It still remains to be seen, however, whether these ecstatic techniques were a common heritage of all early Christian churches or whether they were known and practiced only within some heretic groups of Christians. Roman authorities repeatedly accused early Christians of practicing sorcery by using hallucinogenic substances (Origen, Contra Celsum, I,68; VI,38) [16]. However, Irenaeus (130-200 A.D.) bishop of Lyon, maintained that only heretic churches, thus also the gnostic churches, made use of hallucinogens within magic rites (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, I,13-15; I,24-25) [17].
The identification of pictures reproducing hallucinogenic mushrooms in the premises of an ancient Christian church may help us to understand some aspects of those mysterious rites or of the so-called "discipline of the arcanum" [18] characterizing the most ancient Christian liturgy that, by definition, had to be kept secret and handed down orally to initiated disciples only.

Copyright © Franco Fabbro --draft-- comments are welcomed at

Notes and References

  1. Wasson, G.R. Soma. Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968). Wasson G.R. The soma in the Rig Veda: What was it? Journal of the American Oriental Society, 91: 169-187 (1971).
  2. Gnoli, G. Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland. A Study on the Origins of Mazdeism and Related Problems (Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples, 1980). More recently, D. S. Flattery and M. Schwartz (Haoma and Harmaline, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989) claimed that haoma was not obtained from the mushroom Amanita muscaria, but rather from Peganum harmala, a plant containing a strong psychoactive alkaloid, i.e. harmaline. As the authors report, this hypothesis had been suggested to them by Dr. Claudio Naranjo (pp. 23-25) who described the hallucinogenic effects he himself experienced after ingesting a drink containing harmaline. In addition, Naranjo denies having felt any effect after eating some pieces of Amanita muscaria which he had gathered in California (personal communication). However, it is well known that the concentration of psychoactive agents in Amanita muscaria significantly differs according to the place and the season of gathering. On the other hand, the hallucinogenic effects of this mushroom as well as their variability in concentration have been widely recognized already in the first systematic, scientific papers on hallucinogenic substances (See Lewin, L. Phantastika - Die betäubenden und erregenden Genussmittel, Verlag G. Stilke, Berlin, 1924).
  3. Charlesworth, J.H. Jesus within Judaism. New Light from Exciting Archaeological Discoveries (Doubleday, New York, 1988).
  4. Allegro, J.M. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (Doubleday, New York, 1970).
  5. King, J.C. A Christian View of the Mushroom Myth (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1970).
  6. Bertacchi L. in Da Aquileia a Venezia (eds Forlati Tamaro, B. et al.) 185-221 (Scheiwiller, Milano, 1980).
  7. Mirabella Roberti, M. Aquileia e l’Oriente mediterraneo (Arti Grafiche Friulane, Udine, 1977).
  8. Brusin, G. & Zovatto, P.L. 1957. Monumenti paleocristiani di Aquileia e di Grado (Doretti, Udine, 1957).
  9. Von Lanckoronski, K. et al. Der Dom von Aquileia. Sein Bau und seine Geschichte (Gerlach-Wiedling, Wien, 1906).
  10. Gallo, G. L’allevamento della chiocciola (Edagricole, Bologna, 1976).
  11. Waser, P.G. in Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ed. Efron, D.H.) 419-438 (Raven Press, New York, 1979).
  12. Schultes, R.E. & Hofmann, A. The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens (Thomas Pub., Springfield, 1980).
  13. Lloyd, K.G. & Morselli, P.L. in Psychopharmacology. The Third Generation of Progress (ed. Meltzer, H.Y.) 183-195 (Raven Press, New York, 1987).
  14. Bhatia, K.P. & Marsden C.D.The behavioural and motor consequences of focal lesions of the basal ganglia in man. Brain 117, 859-876 (1994).
  15. Wasson, G.R. Soma. Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1968). See Note A: Explorers, Travelers, Anthropologists, pp.231-302.
  16. Origène. Contre Celse (ed. Borret M.) 5 vol. (Cerf, Paris, 1967-1976). See also Tacito. Annales, 15, 44, 2-5, and L’orazione contro i Cristiani di Marco Cornelio Frontone (in Penna R. 1991. L’ambiente storico-culturale delle origini cristiane. Una documentazione ragionata. Dehoniana, Bologna, pp. 275-277, pp. 283-285).
  17. Irénée de Lyon. Contre les Hérésies (eds Rousseau D. & Doutreleau L.) 8 vol. (Cerf, Paris, 1965-1979).
  18. Luck G. Arcana Mundi. Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1987)
Aggiornato il 10 aprile 1996


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