Shroom: ten years on

I find it hard to believe but it's exactly ten years since my book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom was published. Though the occasional sentence makes me wince, and I blush at the florid dedication to now ex-partner, I remain immensely proud of it. It picked up some great reviews, not least from the New York Times.

UK paperback version of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

Like any book, it has its weaknesses. I was wrong about John Allegro, author of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, who argued that Christianity originated in a fly-agaric cult. Taking my lead from a letter by Robert Graves I assumed he was, as Graves put it, "nuts". He wasn't, and he genuinely hoped his theory would achieve academic recognition. While that doesn't affect my conclusion that his theory is wildly implausible, I'm sorry I questioned his sanity.

And my coverage of magic mushrooms in America during the 60s and 70s was too thin. Limited funds meant I didn't have the resources to travel to meet the movers and shakers from that time, and the social networking revolution, which would've meant I didn't have to, only really took off after the book was published. I hope that some later scholar will do them and the period justice.

I'm sure there are others.

I always hoped that the book would have a long shelf-life, and it seems that interest in the book is gaining momentum once again. I would imagine that's to do with a new generation of psychedelic millennials seeking to know more about the history of their interests and enthusiasms. I still get fan mail…

Fan mail for Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

…though if you read some of the reviews on Amazon, you'd think I'm the devil incarnate. If one reviewer is to be believed, I saved someone them undergoing unnecessary gender-reassignment surgery (which I think is meant as some kind of satire, though the point of it is lost on me), and most incredibly of all I have been cast – let's be polite and say by certain 'conspiracy theorists' – as virulently anti-psychedelic. This came as quite a shock!

Conspiracy theorists attack Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom by Andy Letcher

I prefer to let people read between the lines rather than spelling everything out in red letters, but for the record my stance has always been pro the judicious use of psychedelics (and I would have thought that was obvious to anyone who's actually read the book). However, I've never understood why being pro-psychedelics requires the abrogation of reason, and if psychedelia truly wants to come in from the cold, as I believe it must, then it has to subject itself to some critical self-examination.

The desire to see the world as it is and not how we would wish it to be lies as much behind the psychedelic quest as it does the academic project. My hope was that by placing the history of the magic mushroom on firmer foundations, it would grant the subject more, not less, credibility, at least in the eyes of those with the actual power to change things. The fact that psychedelic studies seems to be returning inexorably to the academy suggests there are many others who agree.

So, yes, Shroom is an academic book masquerading as a popular read but it's certainly not a work of scientism, attempting to pour scorn on the wilder imaginings of the psilocybin flash. After all, it's the refusal of the trip ever to accept closure of meaning that makes it so damned interesting.

US paperback version of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom
Fans of the book may like to know that I am writing again on the subject of magic mushrooms, as I always intended to do, only this time in a more writerly and autobiographical way, and without recourse to the footnote. Shroom took two years to research and write, working full time. Now that I can only snatch an hour or so here and there, this next book may take a little longer, so watch this space.

But in the meantime, I'd like to thank all those of you that bought the book and the many who've written to me to say how much they enjoyed it.

And if you haven't read it yet, why not treat yourself to a copy?


  1. Hi Andy, I was given a copy of this last week by Dave Todd and devoured it in 3 days! I greatly admired your scholarship and it brought me a lot of clarity around a particularly foggy subject. Thanks so much for all of your work. I'd love you to come and speak to the Brighton Psychedelic Society.

    1. Thanks for saying! I'd love to come and speak.

    2. I will totally hold you to that! We're thinking of a launch event in September or October, panel discussion probably. I'll be in touch ... :-)

  2. Andy,

    A friend of mine shared this post with me and so I poked around some of the reviews and I'm curious to read your response to this one by Michael Hoffman, who apparently, has some competing views. And a stupid number of other reviews on Amazon.

    1. Hello Steve, I debated this at length shortly after Shroom was published. The problem with Hoffman's position is this, why is there no corroborating evidence? We have records detailing the most obscure heretical sects from the Middle Ages, why not the mushroom cult?

      The rule is this. Not everything that looks like a mushroom in art is a mushroom. Not everything that is a mushroom is a magic mushroom. Just because it's a magic mushroom doesn't mean that it was used intentionally for its psychedelic effects. Just because it's used intentionally, doesn't mean that it's used for religious purposes (here I recommend Steve Beyer's excellent book, Singing to the Plants. In Mestizo shamanism, people do not take ayahuasca to have religious experiences - though that's what we in the West do - they do so to get well. Very different).

      In the absence of other evidence, each link in the chain remains inferential only, and the parsimonious explanation is that we're not looking at a secret, or suppressed Christian mushroom cult. If any evidence turns up, I will be the first to admit I was wrong.

      In any case, I don't set out to prove or disprove anything, merely to assess what evidence there is and to see which theories fit the best. That may be none or many.

      By contrast, Hoffman et al. use an outdated methodology whereby they start with a premise, and then selectively cherrypick as much evidence to support it as possible. It was used by scholars such as J. G. Frazer, Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade, but the new historicism of the 1970s found it severely wanting. I take my lead from Ronald Hutton, who is the master of the new methodology, and I thoroughly recommend you read his Pagan Britain to see how it's done.

      BTW, I have absolutely no problem with people having religious, spiritual or mystical experiences under the influence of psychedelics. My problem is with the assumption that that is the motivating factor for all people at all times. It is patently not true of our time, where people take psychedelics for all manner of reasons, recreational, hedonistic (that is, for aesthetic or intellectual pleasure), occult, psychological, animistic, shamanistic etc etc. To project it onto the past is an act of colonialism, one that silences the many other voices that rarely get heard.

      I hope that helps.

      A x

  3. Really enjoyed your article, think I will order the book!

    All the best to you!


  4. Hi

    Loved the book!
    Re dates of people in the west using psilocybes, I just noticed the border of this Bilibin picture -
    He died in 1942

  5. I thought it was a great book! For me the most fascinating part was the account of the poor family in 19hC London who became accidentally intoxicated. What happens when people encounter these substances with no way to frame the experience? Accounts like this (if more could be found) would make for an interesting book on their own.



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