from Head Magazine February 1978
Photos by Jeremy Bigwood
The 2nd International Conference on Hallucinogenic mushrooms was held from October 27-30, 1977 at Fort Wordon, overlooking the Straits of Juan de Fuca on the Olympic Peninsula of the State of Washington.
In this majestic location, between white-capped bays amid stormy weather, the world’s foremost authorities on hallucinogenic mushrooms convened the most important drug plant conference in the past ten years.
The conference was accredited by the Washington State Medical Association and was attended by more than 60 physicians and related professionals (including chemists from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Royal Canadian Mounted police, university professors and graduate students). Some 250 attended in all, representing 20 states and three Canadian provinces.
Interested drug scene devotees were very much in evidence, most of whom had first learned of the conference by reading Head. Head’s Editor and Publisher, Charlotte Greenberg, covered the conference personally.
The affair was organized by Preston Wheaton, Tim Girvin, Jeremy Bigwood and myself [Jonathan Ott], and we began our publicity with an item in Head’s May/June 1977 “Science” column, written in my capacity as this magazine’s Science Editor.
The featured speaker at this unique conference was R. Gordon Wasson, retired banker and modern discoverer of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Active and dynamic at age 79, Gordon Wasson enthralled the audience with the depth of his knowledge and the sincerity of his convictions. Wasson, after all, had been the first outsider to ingest the “sacred mushrooms” of Mexico, in 1955.
The quintessential scholar, Wasson is the author of five books, distinguished by their superb writing, lavish production, rarity, and consequent high price. His pioneering work, Mushrooms, Russia and History, written in collaboration with his late wife, Valentina Pavlovna. A limited edition of 512 copies, had sold for $1750 at auction.
Dr. Albert Hofmann, world-renowned discoverer of LSD, joined Wasson on the conference faculty. It was Hofmann’s superb chemical work that resulted in the identification and synthesis of psilocybin and psilocin, the active principles of Wasson’s Mexican mushrooms. Hofmann, best known for his 1943 discovery of LSD (which he first synthesized in 1938) has accomplished a lifetime of valuable chemical research, and his knowledge of alkaloid chemistry is encyclopedic.
Harvard’s Hallucinogen Authorities
Hofmann and Wasson were accompanied by their longtime colleague, Richard Evans Schultes, director of the Harvard Botanical Museum and a leading authority on the botany of hallucinogenic plants. It was Schultes’ pioneering work in Mexico in the late 1930s that first subjected the hallucinogenic mushrooms to botanical scrutiny, and his 1939 paper that eventually put Wasson on the trail of the sacred mushrooms in 1952.
Schultes has devoted most of his long career to the study of the flora of the Amazon, with particular attention to psychotropic plants, his specialty. Schultes and Hofmann are the authors of The Botany and Chemistry of the Hallucinogens, the most authoritative text on the subject, a revised edition which is now in press.
Norman Zinsberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Andrew Weil of the Harvard Botanical Museum presented the medical aspects of hallucinogenic use.
Zinberg and Weil rose to prominence in the mid-sixties by publishing results of the first modern experiment with marijuana in human beings. After much bureaucratic red tape, Weil and Zinsberg gained approval to administer marijuana to volunteers in a double-blind setting. Their important physiological data on cannabis dispelled many myths originally promulgated by anti-narcotic zealots.
David Harnden, an emergency physician at Presbyterian Hospital in San Francisco joined Weil and Zinsberg as members of the conference’s medical faculty. The Bay Area research team of David B. Repke and Dale Thomas Leslie covered the chemistry of the hallucinogenic mushrooms while Richard Rose, an archaeologist of the Maya Indian civilization from Tufts University, discussed artifacts thought to be related to Mycolatry (mushroom-worship) in Mesoamerica.
The botanical aspect was covered by Gastón Guzmán, professor of mycology at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico (now at the Instituto de Ecologia, Xalapa, Mexico), probably the world’s leading authority on the taxonomy of psychotropic mushrooms, who was ably assisted by Dale Leslie. Later, Mr. Leslie teamed up with frequent Head contributor Jeremy Bigwood to teach a course on hallucinogenic mushroom cultivation.
Carl A. P. Ruck and Danny Staples, professors of Greek at Boston University, joined Wasson and Hofmann in presenting a bold new look into the religious life of our ancient Greek ancestors, about which we will learn more in a moment.
The faculty was completed by two Washingtonians,. W. Scott Chilton, professor of chemistry at the University of Washington, discussed his work on the chemistry of toxin mushrooms. I joined the faculty to give some insight into the arcane literature on hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The conference convened on the evening of Thursday, October 27, with Schultes in the opening talk leading a rapt audience through the wonderful world of hallucinogenic plants. Schultes showed more than 100 slides of the most important hallucinogenic plants.
Norman Zinsberg followed Schultes, speaking on the sociology of recreational drug use. I brought the introductory session to a close with a “readers guide to hallucinogenic mushrooms,” which extolled the virtues of the work of Wasson, Schultes and Hofmann.
Unveiling of the Secrets of the Greek Mysteries
It was with great excitement that I approached the microphone to open Friday morning’s session, for Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck were that morning to reveal a bold—some would say astounding—new theory, which would for the first time ever place the sacred mushrooms among out venerated cultural ancestors—the ancient Greeks of the classic period.
This was new to everyone. I and my most intimate associates had been apprised of this some months in advance, but no one in the audience, not even Dr. Schultes, knew what was soon be revealed that morning.
In my nervous excitement, I hastily introduced Wasson, who read “My Road to Eleusis,” the first chapter of his forthcoming book, The Road to Eleusis — Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. He, Hofmann and Ruck are publishing the book through Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
To the delight of the audience, Wasson led us on a sentimental journey through his past, a remarkable odyssey that led him from his first interest in mushrooms (in 1926, at the age of 28) throughout the world, to the pinnacle of what will be regarded as one of the major scientific discoveries of our century. With precision and perspicacity, in moving language of great beauty, Wasson reverently described the sacred mushroom cult he discovered in Mexico, and waxed poetic on the remarkable virtues of the mushrooms.
The delightful chapter that Wasson read was adapted from a 1960 talk (subsequently published by the Botanical Museum Leaflets of Harvard University) in which Wasson suggested a relationship between the Mexican sacred mushroom cult and the ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries. I had always regarded this paper to be Wasson’s best, and one of the major spiritual documents of our age, so the reader can imagine my tremulous state as I sat transfixed in the audience, immersed in Wasson’s measured intonation of a text I knew by heart.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated every year in the fall, and held sway over the ancient Greeks for two millennia. A secret lay at the heart of the Mystery. While everyone speaking of Greek and having a price of admission could be initiated into the cult, no one, under penalty of death, could reveal the secret of the Mysteries.
Two, hierophantic families controlled the cult and the sanctuary at Eleusis, including a large hall, the telesterion, in which the initiates beheld a great vision which was, “new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition.” For almost two thousand years an annual procession of pilgrims from all over the civilized world attended the Mysteries, until a rival cult, the early Christians, drive the Mystery into extinction in the fourth Century of our era. The secret was not vouchsafed to us by the Christians.
Wasson drew our attention to the fact that the initiates at Eleusis drank a special potion, the kykeon, before spending the night in the darkened telesterion and seeing the great vision. No scholar had ever suggested that the kykeon was the heart of it all, that it was a potion compounded of an hallucinogenic mushroom: the ergot fungus, Claviceps purpurea.
Ancient Greeks Ate Lysergic Acid
Wasson left the stage to heartfelt applause and no doubt others, like myself, were moved to tears. Wasson yielded the lectern to Albert Hofmann, who read his chapter, “A Challenging Question,” from the aforementioned book, seeking to answer Wasson’s question whether ancient man in Greece could have arrived at an hallucinogenic beverage from the ergot fungus.
It was Hofmann’s pioneering work with the ergot fungus that made available several ergot preparations used in medicine today and Hofmann of course prepared LSD from an ergot alkaloid. He was, in short, a man singularly qualified to answer Wasson’s question.
Hofmann answered yes, ancient man in Greece had the technology, like his counterparts in Mexico, to prepare an hallucinogenic beverage from ergot. The reader may know that ergot regularly infests rye and other grains and that during the Middle Ages, when infested grain was eaten in time of famine, outbreaks of ergotism—a hideous disease characterized by gangrene of the extremities—occurred.
Ergotism is caused by overdose of ergot alkaloids, which are of two types: toxic peptic alkaloids, which exert vasoconstrictive effects, and water soluble lysergic acid derivatives, which are mostly psychoactive. By making a water infusion of the fungus, Hofmann said, ancient man in Greece could have separated the psychoactive principles from the non-water soluble toxic principles.
Hofmann adduced evidence to show that the Greeks were well aware of the psychoactive compounds of ergot, and mentioned that the kykeon was compounded of water, a fragrant mint, and barley (infested with ergot, according to the proposal before us). Hofmann speculated on how the hierophants in control of the secret of the potion may have over the years selected special strains of ergot, particularly productive of psychoactive alkaloids.
Hofmann yielded the floor to Carl Ruck, who discussed the symbolism underlying the Eleusinian Mysteries: the myth of Demeter and Persephone, a fertility myth of death and rebirth. Ruck detailed the myth and the founding of the Mysteries of Demeter, which information was taken from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, an anonymous Seventh Century-BC poem.
We learned from the 2600 year old poem that rebirth form death was the sign of redemption. Ruck described the role of Triptolemus, an early apostle of Demeter’s faith at Eleusis, whose sign was an ear of grain. Triptolemus spread the Eleusinian faith, the art of the cultivation of grain—on which civilized life depended—and the mystery of the rebirth into life of cultivated grain, following sowing in the cold dead of autumn.
Demeter and Persephone were the deified symbols of the rebirth of sown grain, while the ergot fungus that grew on the grain allowed man a glimpse of the hereafter, of man’s Redemption from Death.
Triptolemus’ sacred barley was grown in the Rarian plain adjacent to Eleusis, and was the principle ingredient in Demeter’s potion, the kykeon. It was ergot growing on barley that accounted for the hallucinogenic properties of the kykeon. The purple color of the ergot mushrooms was Demeter’s special color, often called Erysibe, “ergot.”
Before a hushed audience, Ruck described how the initiates assembled each year in the darkened telesterion of Eleusis, ingested the sacred kykeon and entered into ecstasy: to hear the special music of the hierophants and at the climax to see phasmata of light enter the hall from a central chamber, along with the vision of Persephone and her son returning from Hades—a vivid and miraculous redemption, the sight of which was said to be the culminating experience of a lifetime.
For nearly two thousand years the annual celebration occurred and never was the secret revealed, though encomiums of eminent Greeks like Sophocles, Pindar and Plato testified to the importance of the Mysteries.
The Cycle of Death and Rebirth/Redemption has been a fundamental tenet of every religion and Cosmology in man’s civilized history—including and especially Christianity. Now the secret was revealed in Port Townsend on the morning of October 28, 1977, some 1500 years after the last celebration of the Eleusinian Mystery and more than 3000 years after the first!
That afternoon, a panel discussion was given by Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck. They were joined on the stage by Schultes and Danny Staples, who translated the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. In a spirited session, Participants were able to question the fathers of the Psychedelic Age on the Eleusinian Mysteries, LSD, psilocybin and other topics.
Other Secrets Mushroomic
On Friday evening, Gastón Guzmán and Dale Leslie presented their class on microscopic identification of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which was continued on Saturday evening.
Then Jeremy Bigwood, Head Contributing Editor, and Dale Leslie presented their long-awaited course on cultivation of hallucinogenic mushrooms, also continued on Saturday evening. To the delight of many and the consternation of a few, hot-tempered Bigwood assailed the insidious “dung dealers” and other profiteers trying to make a fast buck from the cultivation of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Many “dung dealers” were present in the audience!
In spite of the invectives of this disgruntled element, Bigwood and Leslie (who both grow mushrooms strictly for scientific research projects) are the foremost authorities on this topic, and they presented the latest techniques for optimizing yields and for psilocybin production.
On Saturday morning, Scott Chilton began with a light-hearted look at his research into the chemistry of the psychoactive Amanita species. Schultes again took the stage and discussed the history of the psilocybin mushrooms of Mexico. Schultes was the first botanist to collect identifiable material of the Mexican sacred mushrooms, and he explained how it came about that he, then Wasson, collected the mushrooms for scientific study.
Saturday afternoon’s session was directed toward the medical conferees, as David Harnden led off with a cogent look at diagnosis and treatment of mushroom poisoning.
Andrew Weil then followed with an examination of the darker side of psychedelics, the occasional adverse reactions, which he mostly ascribed to the improper set and setting.
The conference adjourned at Sunday noon, after a three-hour panel discussion in which Chilton, Ott, Weil, Zinsberg, Guzmán, Leslie, Repke, Rose and Harnden fielded questions from the audience.
But will the conference, like the Mysteries, be reborn and celebrated anew in the coming fall? And what other mushroomic secrets await revelations? My associates and I are currently working on the answers to these questions, startling answers that will be revealed in due course.