In the preceding two posts, I have argued that there is little convincing evidence that shamans outside the extended culture area of the Upper Amazon have ever used hallucinogens in their shamanic work; and, in the immediately preceding post, I argued against the belief that shamans in Siberia used the fly agaraic mushroom Amanita muscaria for shamanizing.
There is also, I believe, little evidence for the shamanic use of psychoactive plants or mushrooms among the indigenous peoples of North America. As among the Khoryaks, non-shamans may attempt to emulate shamans by using psychoactive plants or mushrooms that shamans themselves do not use. For example, among the Chumash and other indigenous peoples in south central California, it can be important to acquire a dream helper, not just for shamans but for ordinary people as well: falcon helps gamblers, bobcat can help hunters, otter can make one a good swimmer, roadrunner helps midwives. Sometimes a dream helper appears in an ordinary dream; this is especially true of shamans, whose powers first appear in dreams during childhood. Conversely, to obtain a dream helper, common people rely heavily on Datura, which plays only a marginal role in the acquisition of shamanic power.
There are similar problems with the claimed fly agaric use by shamans among the Anishinaabeg — often called the Ojibwe — of the Great Lakes area. The claim, first put forward by R. Gordon Wasson in 1978, rests entirely upon the testimony of a single person, an Anishinaabe herbalist and university-trained ethnobotanist named Keewaydinoquay Peschel. She claimed that she herself had been initiated into the shamanic use of the mushroom, and had herself used the mushroom three to five times a year for the past fifty years. She prepared a birch bark scroll containing a legend of how the mushroom came to the Anishinaabeg, which, Wasson said, evidenced its shamanic use.
There are some significant problems with this claim. There is no description of fly agaric use in any detailed ethnography of Anishinaabeg shamanism. When she first met Wasson, Keewaydinoquay apparently was living a solitary and unhappy life, spending much of her time alone on an isolated island; in any event, it is difficult to say to what extent she was, at that time, integrated into Anishinaabeg culture.
|R. Gordon Wasson|
Further, Keewaydinoquay admitted that many Anishinaabeg were in fact strongly opposed to the consumption of fly agaric; indeed, her own revered teacher of herbalism, a woman named Nodjimahkwe, apparently knew about the mushrooms and prohibited her student from eating them. Moreover, versions of the legend told by other Anishinaabeg differ substantially from that given by Keewaydinoquay, including versions that prohibit the eating of any mushrooms at all.
Indeed, the mushroom legend itself, even as retold by Keewaydinoquay, contains little that would connect its use to shamanizing. The story tells how the Anishinaabeg discovered the mushrooms, and points out that those who use the mushroom are happy and pure, while those who do not are worried and unhappy. Although the mushroom reveals the supernatural and other knowledge to those who use it, the story provides no reason to believe that those who reportedly used the mushroom were shamans in any sense.
Further doubt is cast on the claim by the fact that Wasson and Keewaydinoquay were, apparently, lovers, or at least enmeshed in a highly charged personal relationship — one that seems, from her letters, to have been deeply important to Keewaydinoquay. And both derived ancillary benefits from this relationship: Wasson helped Keewaydinoquay obtain a doctorate in anthropology, a teaching position, and the publication of her writings on ethnomycology by the Harvard Botanical Museum; Keewaydinoquay gave Wasson an apparently idiosyncratic account of Anishinaabeg hallucinogen use that happened to be consistent with his theories. In the absence of confirmatory evidence, it is probably fair to view this account with caution.