DID EARLY CHRISTIANS USE HALLUCINOGENIC MUSHROOMS? ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE.
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 . 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 . 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
, 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 . This hypothesis has been vigorously contested
, 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. , 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.
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
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
. 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.
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  suggest that this is a hint for their use during
ceremonies as edible substances and not as mere ornamental patterns.
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
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 . 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
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 . 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 . 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 . The psychotropic activity elicited by this mushroom mainly
depends on the agent muscimol, which is an agonist of the gamma-aminobutyric
acid (GABA) . 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
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 .
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) . 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) .
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"  characterizing the most ancient Christian liturgy
that, by definition, had to be kept secret and handed down orally to initiated
Copyright © Franco Fabbro --draft-- comments are welcomed at email@example.com
Notes and References
Aggiornato il 10 aprile 1996
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