Of Magic Mushrooms and Mushroom Clouds: A Merrily Alchemical Christmas from the Lloyd Library and Museum.
“One of the premier scientific and cultural libraries in the world.” ―Nicholas P. Money, Miami University, Oxford, OH (Professor of Botany and Western Program Director)
A Speculative Essay Linking Back-to-Back Exhibits:
“The Magic and Myth of Alchemy” (September 22 – November 17, 2012) & “What Makes Reindeer Fly?” (December 3, 2012 through February 28, 2013)
by Regan Brown
I. Mythos, Logos and The Dream of Reason.
“But our progressiveness, though it may result in a great many delighted wish-fulfillments, piles up an equally gigantic Promethean debt which has to be paid off from time to time in the form of hideous catastrophes. For ages man has dreamed of flying, and all we got for it is saturation bombing.”
― C.G. Jung, CW 9.1, Par 276
“War machines. I have constructed weapons for all the Borgia guards and other terrible monstrosities besides.”
―Leonardo da Vinci’s Character in the “Assassin’s Creed” Video Game.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
― Arthur C. Clarke from “The Three Laws of Prediction”.
What Makes Reindeer Fly? Why does Santa wear red and white? Decoding such seemingly innocuous and symbolic “kid’s play” can often lead to profound results, yet it’s often like peeling the humble onion, which seems to have no real center and whose particular odor and chemistry may have evolved with the specific intention of a hermetically layered inoculation against such a process, a type of resistance possibly formed by centuries of self defense and survival. Many plants, specifically mushrooms, which are in most cases much more beautiful and colorful than the onion, are furthermore prettily packaged poisons, some varieties of which can yield fantastical results for the consciousness, sending one right through the looking glass or even the glass onion IF, and this must be stressed, IF handled very carefully and properly, as they have been for centuries by indigenous peoples worldwide before they were “discovered” and classified in modern scientific literature. One in particular, the often red and white polka-dotted “Fly Agaric” [Fig. 1] has made its most famous appearance in “Alice and Wonderland” a hodge-podge of hermetically sealed phantasm if there ever was one, although it’s doubtful Alice’s author ever partook of the smoking Caterpillar’s Throne, though one shouldn’t be faulted for attributing such a fantastical vision to a psychedelic experience, or at least a membership in “The Golden Dawn”, one of many such pseudo-scientific and mystical secret societies many Victorians turned to in response to the “Death of God” . The Fly Agaric in Wonderland or in Disney’s Fantasia or on all those House Party Posters I saw back in the 90’s, (the Rave’s connection with Dionysian Bacchanalia and Ecstasy is, I think, more than casual), was reduced to a symbol, an allegory for a communion with something much more than the humdrum; a surreal or parallel reality as old as the Ages: The Place Where the Gods Live and Speak Directly to You. They (mushrooms and fairy-tales) get picked up, polished off and replenished to grow anew generation after generation all the way back from long before the Renaissance right on down to their sanitizing by that Rosicrucian CEO, Walt Disney , “whose secret we see in a children’s game/ of ring a round of roses told”, as the Contemporary American Poet Robert Duncan once put it. Even John Cage, that Granddaddy of Conceptual Music and an avid Mycologist (fungi/ mushroom expert) himself saw analogs to mushrooms in the reinvention of Contemporary Art and Culture he was instrumental in orchestrating.
“A woman once asked Mr. Cage, ”Have you an explanation of the symbolism involved in the death of the Buddha by eating a mushroom?” Mr. Cage thought: ”Mushrooms grow most vigorously in the fall, the period of destruction, and the function of many of them is to bring about the final decay of rotting material. In fact, as I read somewhere, the world would be an impassible heap of old rubbish were it not for mushrooms and their capacity to get rid of it. So I wrote to the lady in Philadelphia. I said, ‘The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish. The Buddha died a natural death’ ” .
This “natural death” is probably a kind of metaphorical Nirvana, reached in deep meditation or in contemplating Leaves of Grass and also possibly relatable to the death of the Ego one experiences at the hands of “la petit mort”, a kind of brain orgasm that erases the self and reshuffles reality afresh, not always mediated by psychotropic drugs; this I stress just to deflect any inference that the above quote by Cage was in any way a suggestion that the Buddha was high on Fly Agaric. Cage’s interest in the fungus as a function of the yin and yang of destruction and nourishment seems more complex than this.
Luckily, among all this talk of death (and resurrection), some of these fantastical ways of seeing and telling related in fairy tales, alchemical and religious texts, and their visual art offshoots, have survived attempts to censor or obliterate them, [Fig 2] even attempts contemporaneously within our “enlightened” and highly clinical age; think of the scandals surrounding the Duchamp of “Bride Stripped Bare” or Beuys’ “How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare” and even Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle”. Yet these ways of hermetic creation remain the same psychological Trojan Horses they’ve always been meant to be, sometimes consciously exerted to enshroud their lessons in seemingly harmless yet visceral symbolism, and thereby promote and protect from persecution or just plain censorship, the belief systems and adherents of faiths beyond the Status Quo Orthodoxy or the even more frightening and widespread Inquisition of Catholicism/ cum Fascism/ cum Communism/ cum that “Laissez-Faire” Faith-Based Fraud of a Technologically Fueled Capitalism that levels forests to build Mission Churches and then turns around peddles to the Natives their extracted terminal seed derivatives, sperm and ovum for an increasing menagerie of trademarked endangered species whose wildlings are then shipped off to live at the “Zoological Society and Botanical Garden”. Phew. Can you tell that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time ruminating around the Zoo with my two year old lately? Such the stalwart institution of any respectable medium sized city seems to me to be a perfectly obvious metaphor of the contemporary human condition: a relentless force of domestication that pens one up in a rutted and circuitous mechanical pacing, searching for meaningful consciousness in a caged up virtual landscape composed of safety glass, plastic rocks and fake waterfalls with Koi fish screen savers refreshed every couple of hours. We root around at the corners of this penned up frame, scraping for an escape, and just sometimes the keys turn up in the most inconspicuous of places…
The Lloyd Library and Museum is an unassuming rectangular brick and mortar modernist structure at 917 Plum Street, in Downtown Cincinnati, that you’ve probably driven past hundreds of times and never even noticed. I know I have, till recently when I noticed the two “Alchemy” and “Reindeer” exhibitions mentioned in the titles above, entirely by happenstance no less, on some online events calendar. (http://www.lloydlibrary.org/exhibits.html) The Museum and Library’s mission is pretty straightforward and understandably bibliophilic-sounding: “To collect and maintain a library of botanical, medical, pharmaceutical, and scientific books and periodicals, and works of allied sciences that serve the scientific research community, as well as constituents of the general public, through library services and programming that bring science, art, and history to life.” …Snore right? But once you walk into that nondescript and plain looking brick building that houses this collection, it kind of plays out like that archetypal adolescent soft focus fantasy wherein the Librarian takes off her glasses and unpins her flowing locks, shaking them down around her shoulders, transforming into, well you know the fantasy. In reality, the Lloyd’s librarians buzz you in past a couple of security doors that open up on a real brick house, the walls lined with beautiful Botanical Prints, and a fully assembled cold-still, not to mention, a nice little gallery currently exhibiting both Illustrated texts from the Library Collection about Magic Mycology (Mushrooms) and Illustrations by a class from the Art Academy of Cincinnati inspired by a nearly unrivaled number of texts surrounding everything and more from that mission statement, and specifically the current theme of “Why Do Reindeer Fly”. For the info-freaks, scientists and even magic realists among us, this place is as sexy as Hel. (I meant to spell it that way…)
The Lloyd Brothers [Fig 3] were anything but sexy in my humble opinion, but were described as the Bee Gees of their time, (apparently because there were three of ’em), in a somewhat tongue and cheek but thoroughly entertaining lecture to kick off the current show at the Lloyd Library by the 50 year old co-curator, (I mention his age because he stressed that fact several times, or is stressed by that fact), PhD and Miami University Botany Professor Nicholas P. Money (aka Olde P. Money). The Professor’s “number of siblings” simile is where the apparent Bee Gee comparison ends I hope, as barber shop choirs were popular in their late 19th to early 20th Century day and time. It gives me a fever on this Saturday Night before deadline just thinking about it.
Mainly they’re known for their Lloyd Brother’s Pharmacists, Inc. and were one of those odd concoctions of both a 19th Century empiricism, trying to shake off its superstitious ancestors, and a budding American capitalism, trying to come up with general standards that would separate them from all the Wild West snake-oil salesmen and Southern Carpetbaggers, but not lead them too far astray from the spiritually informed origins of their science, the still then, at least clandestinely considered to be/ more complete form of Chemistry: Practical Alchemy. ‘Tis yet an Art and Science (yes it’s still practiced)  which sometimes gets mischaracterized as only being the practice of turning base metals, or sometimes more coarsely put, shit into gold. It has its even more direct 20th Century Art World analogs in this coarser context, in a literal and more tongue and cheek kinda way (though I’m not sure that’s the right orifice for this comparison) in terms of, again that Duchamp guy, and his well known toilet, which he just so happened to have sold replicas of in the Sixties for millions of dollars a piece. There’s also the lesser-known Piero Manzoni and his tins of “Artist Shit”  which he sealed and priced per weight of gold when he originally “made” them, in a thoroughly Freudian sense. They would go for much more than their weight in gold on the market nowadays. You could also toss in all those chemically clad cans of Coke Warhol memorialized and that you’ve probably bought or were bought for you at least sometime in your life: a prettily packaged poison, the price of which might have been justifiable when they used to put real cocaine in the cans, but now are barely worth the cost of the excitement provided by the couple of weeks process that watching a nail disintegrate inside their brackish carbonated mixture might generate. Our old family doctor used to give us spoonfuls of Coca-Cola Extract to settle our stomachs back in the day, which seemed an odd throwback at the time, one that harkens to a time in which the Lloyd Brothers lived.
One of the Lloyd’s most notable and financially successful developments, outside of the Library this success supported, was a highly popular line of what were called Specific Medicines: “A basic definition for Lloyd Specifics is that they were, with rare exception, highly concentrated, unofficial tinctures (approximately eight times the strength of most official tinctures) of plant constituents extracted by maceration or percolation.”  Not anything to get a bunch of teenage girls and boys screaming hysterically with BeeGee-Mania I guess, but this does hint at their extensive dealings with the plant-chemical kingdom and more specifically their Alchemical leanings which are borne out not only by their extensive collection of rare Alchemical texts from the Fifteenth Century onward (available for viewing by request at the Lloyd) but also many other fascinating percolations from this prolific family that tie in to our present concerns. Most notably, and possibly one of the strangest and most intriguing being a fantastical Victorian Odyssey of a book, now on display at the Lloyd, written by the eldest brother, John Uri Lloyd and beautifully Illustrated by J. Augustus Knapp entitled “Etidorpha, or, the end of the earth: the strange history of a mysterious being and the account of a remarkable journey “. [Fig. 4]. Try singing that little title ditty in a falsetto voice to a four on the floor disco beat, which might just be more fascinating than the read itself, from what I’m told, although the synopsis and the fact that it poured out of such a staid, buttoned up and respectful member of the Cincinnati Mercantile Community makes it worth a first or second look, at least in its Wikipedia distillation:
“The book purports to be a manuscript dictated by a strange being named I-Am-The-Man to a man named Llewyllyn Drury. Drury’s adventure culminates in a trek through a cave in Kentucky into the core of the earth. Ideas presented in Etidorhpa (Aphrodite spelled backwards) include practical Alchemy, secret Masonic orders, the Hollow Earth theory and the concept of transcending the physical realm. Since Lloyd was a pharmacologist, his novel has provoked speculation that drug use contributed to its fantastic and visionary nature. Substances from marihuana and opium to nightshade, henbane, jimsonweed, and psilocybin mushrooms have been suggested as possibilities — though no real evidence on the matter is available.” 
Much of Wikipedia is in fact based on “no real evidence” and is as about as tear inducing for most “legitimate scholars” as peeling that proverbial onion; a kind of factual fairy tale kingdom or no more than a bit of pop culture detritus: a weak gateway drug that may or may not lead to deeper explorations that apparently always need to be dragged under the clinical floodlights. Instead I’ll partake in my particular brand of well, let’s call it “Mythos-Think”, an empirical-ish juxtaposition of thought processes and analyses. (Cue cool CSI rock music playlist):
Seemingly innocuous fairy tale dissection No. 1: Cinderella: Cinder-ella: the ash woman: French: Elle: Norse: Hel: the goddess of a lake of red-blooded fire where fallen warriors were regenerated much like the Phoenix , an important pyrrhic symbol to the Alchemists, a group which always enshrouded it’s often scientific findings in complex archetypes to also avoid persecution by the Church, who, by the by, added the double hockey sticks to the “He” when it turned the regenerative lake of fire into a place where you might burn eternally for stealing, well a bottle of Coke, which if you drink enough of, will almost certainly cause you plenty of misery anyway.
Seemingly innocuous fairy tale dissection No. 2: The red (and white) clad Santa Claus: also rooted in the mists of pagan folklore, specifically Odin who had an eight-legged flying horse some think of as the origin of Santa’s Reindeer, yet is now so globally and nauseatingly ubiquitous that we more often associate Santa with, hey, a bottle of Coke, though he still tends, much like Science and Consumerism, to irk the Pope till this very 21st Century Day, as it all distracts from focus on His Chosen One during this holiest of seasons, Xmas, which just so happens to be derived and blended from a variety of Pagan and Mithraic traditions surrounding the Winter Solstice festival of “Dies Natalis Solis Invictus”, The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.  Sounds kinda like a phoenix to me, blazing forth in a rosy fingered dawn from the bowels of a city’s dirty symbol of death, snow…although global warming may have put an end to that soon enough. I guess Santa should get his suit refitted into something shorter…
Apparently, according to this particular peeling, informed by the Lloyd Library’s exhibition and some Google searches, Santa has been caught with his shorts down, up to some naughtiness in all that down time in the off-season of the “Eternal Winter You Hope Gets Conquered By The Sun”, way up yonder there near the North Pole, with those mushrooms from “Alice in Wonderland”, maybe even Alice herself or the reindeer for that matter…I mean, admit it, haven’t all those dime store Santas whose laps you were so often shoved into throughout childhood just creeped you out more than just a little bit? My two year old won’t go near one, and I’m very proud of him for that. Anyhow, it seems Santa’s blood red and pure white might just be derived from the archetypal and psychedelic Fly Agaric’s mushroom’s flush red and white polka-dotted toadstool-stylin’ [Fig 1] and that the Reindeer, (yes they really do exist), herded by the Laplanders/ Sami people of Northern Scandinavia (can a “Northern” Scandinavia really exist?) like to lick and get high off, both physically and metaphorically, till they piss out a highly refined form of its psychoactive elements which the Sami Shamans et al. collect to keep them all “warm”, all Twi-Lit winter long. They also do the same with their own piss. Talk about turning shit, or piss in this case, into gold! Gee-whiz this makes Christmas so much more interesting than rushing, anxious people in shopping malls pushing past me and my kid, trying to get a foothold at the front of a frothing line of empty ritualism, waiting to plop their screaming toddlers down in the lap of some strange guy in a rumpled mothball-reeking suit, who you hope has gotten some kind of background check and is probably in the middle of desperately trying to caffeinate a hangover (possibly from bad ‘shrooms he got at a party just last night) between endless children prattling away about their product fetish wish-list fulfillments. This Fly Agaric link to Santa thang may even be more interesting than that myth about a child miraculously born in the darkest depths of winter just to be crucified on a couple of boards in adulthood just to get reborn again only because believers believe in him enough to symbolically cannibalize his flesh and blood. The “flesh and blood” of something that gets you off a little bit more than the sacramental pew wine seems a danger in and of itself to the institution of the Church, not to mention that much of this psychotropic tripping was in the days before our illusions and delusions lived their lives out on TV. I mean what can Madison Avenue or the Vatican for that matter market to people in such a state, with visions of their own brand of sugar plum fairies dancing in their head?
This is not to take away anything from the communal myth-making subconscious as it is seen on TV, and more recently in the IT revolution on the Internets. It’s not even to say that myths are things that never happen or ever happened. It’s just more likely they are “enhanced” historical events that happened over and over again and were therefore apotheosized into Archetype…it’s just now the feedback loop is mainly closed by marketing firms selling your (?) dreams of rags to riches back to you, maybe in the form of a Fenix Sports car. Plato’s Cave Puppets are now strung up by those guys in grey suits, up late into the night considering their bottom line next to a line of cocaine, until they have time to take a quick break and go home and torture somebody locked in a hole in their basement.
Soooo… an almost inexplicable epiphany of a particular supposition about Alchemy, Santa and Magic Mushrooms came blazing forth like bright sunlight through a crack in The Metaphorical Cave created by the apparently unintentional juxtaposition of these two recent exhibitions at the Lloyd. It goes someway labyrinthine through other thinkers like this: The Ancient Sacrament of the Fly Agaric and its lesser known psychoactive cousins, whose spores replenish and rebirth their stock seasonally under the ebb and flow of the seasons generated by the Sun, much like most any seed planted will do, much like early agricultural people thought burying their dead in the ground would do, is at the centerpiece of a contention, which some, such as Terrance McKenna,  have nailed down maybe just a bit too concretely: that this Psychoactive Plant and its cousins are the source of All Human Consciousness, that sudden leap to reflexive thinking experienced by our hominid ancestors. This is most likely “improvable”, just really some more “Mythos-Think”, but never the less interesting just the same. More specific to these two exhibitions, there are a few others who have gone so far as to even suggest that the Fly Agaric was the ever elusive Philosopher’s Stone of the Alchemists,  that portal of substance and/or focus of spirit capable of turning shit into Gold, mortality into Immortality, much like the lauded fountain of youth hundreds of explorers grew old and died trying to find. I suspect that after talking this all over on Skype with a practicing Alchemist friend of mine, who has studied and actually done this “magical” stuff extensively, (and here goes the real epiphany for me in all this), that this Philosopher’s Stone/ Key to Consciousness thang whether IT be a psychoactive chemical that basically scrambles your brain’s broadcast system or some other such concoction, if IT is pursued too much in a physical sense, IT could easily end up hung like an albatross, heavy round your neck. Or a can of “Artists Shit” someone bought with a lot of some “Old Money”.
II. Producing Monsters
“Mr. Ping: The secret ingredient is… nothing!
Mr. Ping: You heard me. Nothing! There is no secret ingredient.
Po: Wait, wait… it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?
Mr. Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.
[Po looks at the scroll again, and sees his reflection in it]
Po: There is no secret ingredient…
―from “Kung Fu Panda” (Did I mention I have a two year old?)
” ‘Well, they might have. You agree that birds fly because you have seen them flying. Flying is a common thing with birds. But you will not agree on other things birds do, because you have never seen birds doing them. If your friends knew about men flying with the devil’s weed, then they would agree.’
‘Let’s put it another way, don Juan. What I meant to say is that if I had tied myself to a rock with a heavy chain I would have flown just the same, because my body had nothing to do with my flying.’
Don Juan looked at me incredulously. ‘If you tie yourself to a rock,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid you will have to fly holding the rock with its heavy chain.’ ”
―from “The Teachings of Don Juan” (Chapter 6)
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”
“What’s Going On?”
I know Carlos Castaneda has mostly been debunked as a fake, believe me, but I find some pearls of wisdom in it all the same, as evidenced above. I know quite a bit about these modern “Catch Me If You Can” types, since I had my own personal Don Juan fabulist once upon a time, while living in that Post-Soviet Neverland called Prague. (See tricksterdocumentary.com). A trickster to put it simply, is an archetype, a totemic animal or in some cases a real person, who somewhat unintentionally teaches you something by playing tricks on you, some funny, some ruthless, some pathetic, often weaving elaborate stories, lies or even practical jokes into the fabric of everyday life. This can do good or harm, there’s a startling kind of chance operation or indifference there, the almost sociopathic blank stare of pure instinct, which harkens back to the natural world we only tenuously still belong to, but have managed to sort of harness, at least for the precarious time being of Now. As Carl Jung once put it in an essay entitled “On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure”, wherein he linked all this to his Alchemy fascination:
A curious combination of typical trickster motifs can be found in the alchemical figure of Mercurius; for instance, his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and—last but not least—his approximation to the figure of a saviour. These qualities make Mercurius seem like a daemonic being resurrected from primitive times, older even than the Greek Hermes. 
Pentheus, King of Thebes in Euripedes’ almost 3000 year old Greek play “The Bacchae”, tries to Imprison that frenetic force of nature embodied in Dionysus, (who just so happens to have been raised by, you guessed it, Hermes), and thereby gets his head cut off by his own mother in the middle of a an orgiastic frenzy, egged on by Dionysus. The Greeks had such subtle ways of explaining these things. Some have suggested the real bacchanals (yes they were and are real) were infused with a psychotropic mushroom fermented by wine, the mushroom also being a phallic symbol par excellence, “ecstasy” literally meaning out of the body and into the god. These erotic cults were slowly outlawed and forcibly disbanded in Greece because they threatened the stability of the Polis. Think of Dionysus as a sort of modern day Charlie Manson. Maybe even throw Adolph Hitler and the Nazis in there to, on another level entirely, because often when an Insane Mythos, one that just wishes to see the world burn, is harnessed to the Logos of a Technology bent frenetically on Militarization and Weapons Production, you produce some real monsters, as Goya evoked in an etching during a War almost a century earlier than WWII. Have we all ever not been at War?
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s in the Cold War Era, when the shadow of the mushroom cloud loomed, (whose first detonation was ironically named Trinity) and although we probably didn’t think about it much, it lurked in our subconscious like a vengeful yet random Old Testament God whether some of us were living for the day or thinking “everyman for himself”. It was linked to a State Actor then though, unlike today’s extra layer of even more randomized violence, whether it be foreign or domestic “terrorism”, especially when it seems that a person’s own Mind, (with a little help from their environment and a local Gun Peddler), can turn against them and in turn, turn them unwittingly against you. It is all-disquieting to say the very least. Trying to figure out the WHY of all of this seems to be kind of like that scene in “Psycho” when Janet Leigh’s “sister” walks up to the rocking chair and spins Norman Bates mummified mother around to reveal her grizzled grin, or is that a grimace? Maybe this iconic scene is a kind of modern day Mona Lisa that seemingly mocks all our scientific and logical efforts at understanding anything about the human condition whatsoever.
Maybe though, just maybe, the Alchemists had the balance right after all, whatever it was their elusive “Philosopher’s Stone” was or wasn’t. Most of them were learned, prolific and curious men with a conscious, much like the Lloyd brother’s were, which led them to their enlightened endowment in the form of a Library and Museum, which is a true gift and safe haven in this city. The Lloyd’s Pharmacy, back in the day, most likely also had the Hermes Caduceus carved on it somewhere; that modern medical symbol of two snakes spun helically, DNA-like round a staff, tipped by wings. It is also happens to be an ancient symbol of infinity, as early observers saw snakes couple in this manner when mating and watched in fascination as they shed their skin every so often and seemed to eternally regenerate an Ages Old Striving that at the same time makes a way for the New.
Regan Brown (http://www.reganbrown.com/) has advanced degrees in both Creative Writing/ Journalism (B.A. Miami Oxford, 1991) and Fine Arts (MFA, Electronic Arts, DAAP 2009). That noticeable gap is not a typo, but represents a long stint spent living and working in Post-Soviet Central Europe as a journalist, woodwind multi-instrumentalist, and professor and audio/ video producer. He currently teaches New Media Art at NKU and has several works in progress.