City Lights Books, 300 pages, paperback, $16.77
Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras: The Drug Cult That Civilized Europe is a heavy book for heavy thinkers. The audience for this book is not necessarily the type of people who follow Phish –though it doesn’t exclude them — but people who have achieved a certain level of academic success and merit. Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras is an extremely well-constructed academic argument proving that it is impossible to deny the connection between the use of entheogenic substances and religious practice for generations across countries and cultures. The evidence is extremely well documented in art, literature (myths and oral storytelling), and architecture. Over time, all these forms of evidence become blended into cross-cultural metaphors and ideas that show the same information coming from multiple cultures. Mithraism and its influence spread farther than its actual infrastructure.
Carl Ruck received his Ph.D from Harvard, though as stated in a recent interview about the book, some academic institutions have tried to discount him as nonacademic and something closer to the guy selling Grateful Dead t-shirts out of his van. Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras, however, will be something that the academic society can not look past.
The book takes a vast, far-reaching look through history, starting before the onset of Christianity. The first two segments of the book, the prelude and the preface, establish the point of view the reader needs to understand the rest of the book. The prelude discusses the concept of the “first supper” that many religions share in common, where a member eats a special meal and is then put into a state of mind where he or she becomes “one with god.” It further argues that entheogenic shamanism was a great influence on Greek philosophers. The preface informs the reader about how various eastern religious ideas and Vedic scripts, stories, and practices had a direct influence on Roman religions and how the Romans took influence these eastern ideas as they crossed paths throughout history. It also explains how Mithraism initiated its members through a dinner where they “experienced the entire pattern of the universe” in a time when Mithraism was a direct competitor of Christianity.
Once we’re equipped with the right tools, the first chapter starts our trip through history. The reader is exposed to so much information on each page that the book is far more dense than appears. The authors show us that words we use daily have a direct connection to the people who ate these chemical substances. For instance, as stated in an interview, the words “medicine” and “meditation” come from the Latin word “med” which means middle, like between heaven and earth, or heaven and hell, the sky and the ground, life and death. Images like the serpents wrapped around a staff with angel wings seen on many hospitals came from ceremonies of the Mithras. These little pieces of information are bountiful in this book and create a mosaic of facts and ideas that solidify the argument.
The other argument underlying in the book concerns the Christians stealing stories and practices from the Mithras. One wouldn’t think that ancient people putting the letter or symbol “X” on their bread before baking had any significance to these ancient cults. However, people did this because they believed bread to be holy, and a metaphor for the entire universe, and that the “X”(interchangeable with the cross depending on which way you view it) was symbolic of the axis of the entire universe. After learning that, one must wonder the significance of Christ being killed on a cross, or ponder that perhaps “X-mas” may have more meaning than originally thought.
The majority of the book walks through history in depth, from shortly before 0 BC to 1000 AD, and then quickly shoves 1000 AD to the present day into a few chapters. It is during the last portion that most readers will find things that appeal to them about the connections Mithraism has to Freemasons, how Napoleon Bonaparte insisted his initiation dinner to the Freemasons was done in the Pyramids of Giza, and even goes to show connections to our founding fathers. It is not without mention that Ruck is releasing another book in 2013 dealing on this topic focusing on the middle ages to further his academic argument.
This book is not something you want to read with your friends while smoking pot in your parents’ basement — that type of book can be found at Urban Outfitters. Mushrooms, Myth & Mithras is a real academic effort published by City Lights, and though it isn’t the easiest book to read, it is not impossible for someone in high school. There are as many as 50 footnotes each chapter, and while some of these footnotes are simply a bibliographical references to other texts, others are nearly page-long descriptions and notes to help shape the context for the reader. Fans of David Foster Wallace will have proper training in actually keeping up with the footnotes and actual text at the same time. What I’m trying to say is that you’ll need two bookmarks if you want to read this book seriously as you’ll be flipping back and forth a few times each page.