Santa Claus, Krampus and the Magic Mushrooms
by : Cody Noconi, (Ed.) Amanda Noconi
Mushrooms are by their very nature mercurial, and traditionally hard to define or study. No other variety better exemplifies this quality than the iconic fairy tale toadstool known as the Fly agaric or Amanita muscaria. Just about everyone in the world has at some point seen the classic red capped mushroom, speckled in cotton-like white dots. Amanita muscaria is a cosmopolitan variety of ectomychoryzzhal fungi native to conifer and deciduous woodlands, meaning that is can be found just about anywhere in the world where the appropriate environmental conditions are found. Thus far, it’s role in the birth and evolution of what most Americans associate with the Christmas holiday, has been underappreciated and sadly overlooked. The character of Santa Claus and his dualistic counterpart Krampus, is particularly worth further inquiry and speculation. That is not to suggest that Amanita muscaria directly inspired the characters Klaus and Krampus, but the subtle influences the mushroom has had on the holiday can certainly be traced to the post-Reformation period and reanalyzed from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
Typically not used as a foodstuff, Fly agaric is most often harvested for it’s hallucinogenic or intoxicating properties. Evidence in the form of cave paintings and linguistic analysis suggest that this mushroom has been used as such, conservatively for at least five millennia. In modern times it has gained a poor reputation for unreliable or dangerous experiences, especially among the mycophobic European and North Americans. As ethnobotanist Jonathon Ott pointed out, “A saying in German, "er hat verriickte Schwammerln gegessen" ("he has eaten crazy mushrooms") is still sometimes used in Austria, as is the corresponding phrase in Hungarian, employing the term bolond gomha ("fool's mushroom").” 1 This sometimes infamous association is likely due to some common misconceptions about mycology, combined with a serious lack of education regarding the various delivery methods, chemical constituents and dosages.
Amanita muscaria contains a high amount of ibotenic acid, a powerful hallucinogen that also causes tremors, chills, gastric distress and nausea as a side effect in even relatively low doses. In order to avoid these negative side effects, Ibotenic Acid must be broken down, or decarboxylated into the compound muscomol. While some methods are more effective than others, this transformation can take place through the drying process, via alcohol extraction, or by passing through the digestive system of another animal (we’ll get back to this shortly). The resulting muscomol is roughly four to five times more psychotropically potent than its chemical precursor, and causes little or no physical side effects. The mushroom contains small amounts of muscomol naturally, but generally not in significant enough amounts to reliably produce hallucinations or euphoria. 2
In order to better understand the emergence of the characters Klaus and Krampus in the Christmas mythos and to their curious relationship to the Amanita muscaria, one must first analyze the folk traditions of the cultures bordering and trading around the arctic circle.
Siberian Shaman and Magical Reindeer
Sometime between 5000-3000BcE, one can trace the earliest linguistic evidence of Amanita muscaria use as an intoxicant. Around approximately 4,000 BCE, the Uralic language split into two branches, both of which contain similar root words for intoxication. Curiously, in some of these languages the root "pang" signifies both 'intoxicated' and the A. muscaria mushroom simultaneously. These linguistic similarities suggest that A. muscaria was known to be intoxicating before the languages split around 4000 BCE. 3
Further evidence suggests that Siberian shaman have been using the fly agaric since approximately 3500 BCE. Petroglyphs along the Pegtymel River which drains into the Arctic Ocean in northeastern Siberia, seem to depict anthropomorphic figures with mushrooms attached to their heads. The Pegtymel river area is currently inhabited by the Chukchi culture, who are known to have used A. muscaria as a traditional intoxicant. The Chukchi people were one of the main subjects of 18th-and 19th-century reports on Siberian mushroom use in association with folk medicine and shamanic rites. The very first artistic depictions of Siberian shaman published in an academic sense, clearly depict the mystics wearing a caribou headdress and a drum, presumably made from the same animal. One can also observe what is clearly group intoxication within the huts of the sketches background. 4 It may be therefore supposed that knowledge of intoxicating mushrooms survived in this one region for at least five thousand years. 5
Caribou, or reindeer as they are often called, enthusiastically seek out Amanita muscaria, as the specimens are one of the ruminants most treasured food sources. Nomadic tribes of reindeer herders throughout the region have regularly observed caribou intoxication after the animals ingest, at times huge amounts of the hallucinogenic mushroom. 6 Reindeer herding extends beyond the same 5000-3500BCE timeline established by the linguistic evidence. Therefore it cannot be considered mere speculation to suggest that reindeer herding, shamanism and amanita muscaria intoxication were all deeply intertwined, if not totally inextricable from one another for thousands of years within those regions.
An interesting habit of caribou which has been regularly observed, involves reindeer drinking the urine of fellow herd members. Hunters have noticed this habit occurs most readily when males are in rut, as they likely use this technique to test females fertility. This practice also happens to coincide with Amanita muscaria season. Although not yet thoroughly documented, the traditional folklore suggests that when Reindeer X ingests and becomes intoxicated by Fly agaric, other caribou in the herd will then greedily drink the urine of the intoxicated Reindeer X. These other caribou then subsequently begin to show signs of inebriation as well. The reason for this behavior involves the decarboxylation process mentioned earlier, wherin ibotenic acid is transformed into it’s much more hallucinogenic counterpart muscomol while passing through the digestive tract of Reindeer X. The resulting muscomol laced urine from Reindeer X would theoretically be much more hallucinogenically active than the fresh mushrooms alone, and offer little or no negative side effects.
It is unknown if the nomadic herders of Siberia were inspired by their observations of the natural world or otherwise, but this practice of drinking the urine of an individual intoxicated by Amanita muscaria seems to have survived in the region by both reindeer and humans until modern times. The drinking of urine for health benefits may seem like an odd practice by today’s standards, but it has a long and well established history in the folk remedies along the Eurasian continents. Interestingly, it was also observed that the drinking of muscomol laced urine could continue for up to five cycles, passing from one individual to another before the urine lost its capacity for intoxication. 7 By some reports in Siberia during the 18th and 19th centuries, a single Amanita muscaria specimen could be traded for a whole reindeer! 8 This practice may have been perpetuated in order to further stretch such a precious commodity circulated within a traditionally poor region. Whether out of ritual, scarcity or sheer economy, the native tribes of Siberia regularly practiced this rustic form of myco-alchemy for thousands of years, most frequently during the Autumn and Winter seasons.
As reindeer urine is no doubt harder to obtain than from a humanoid friend, Shaman today still regularly use their own bodies to process ibotenic acid into muscomol. The person actually eating the mushroom would not only be subject to the considerable risk of gastric distress, nausea and vomiting, but would not get as hallucinogenically ‘stoned’ as his urine drinking cohorts. The shaman sacrifices themselves, handing out steaming cups of hallucinogen laced sacrament to willing and often enthusiatic initiates. In order to better illustrate this practice, Jonathon Ott keenly put forward the following account:
One would do well to take note of the authors use of the word liquor when referring to a freshly boiled mushroom tea, not any kind of alcoholic beverage. As Carl Ruck pointed out in Road to Eleusis, some wines of ancient Greece were so powerful that they had to be diluted with twenty parts water or else they induce madness or death. 10 Clearly the idea of intoxicating beverages has evolved over time, and it seems apparent that our ancestors did not make the same distinctions we make today about the alcoholic content of a beverage. The important variable that judged the merit of a given intoxicating substance, was instead its ability to intoxicate in the first place.
There are many who would quickly dismiss this heap of circumstantial evidence as correlation mistaken for causation, mere conjecture or irrationality. As Andy Letcher pointed out in his book Shroom, “a modern urban myth that shamans or anyone else drank reindeer urine: an intoxicated deer would be slaughtered and eaten, by which means the effects would be passed on...the majority of Siberian shaman had the discernment to avoid it [Amanita muscaria] all together.” 11 Andy also points out one of the main contentions to this hypothesis connecting Christmas symbolism to Amanita muscaria use, regarding the exact role of reindeer in Siberian cosmology. 12 This critique of the hypothesis is not wholly accurate however, and is itself mere conjecture. 13 Andy himself was later forced to change his position on the topic when faced with tangible connections to reindeer herding, shamanism and Amanita use. From Letcher’s blog in 2011:
Despite a lack of cave paintings, given the ritual use of reindeer carcasses in the form of regalia or costume, spirit traps, and exorcisms, it is clear that the veneration of caribou has so far been wholly underappreciated. Letcher very admirably ended his 2011 blog post with, “A report from a credible witness that some Saami do drink fly-agaric-imbued reindeer urine and that the effects are palpable. I stand corrected.” 15 So far, this hypothesis has been limited to just the reindeer herders of Siberia, but it is becoming more and more apparent that this practice extends all along regions surrounding the arctic circle. Aside from Siberia, urine drinking induced intoxication is found in Scandanavia, old Germania, and even into North America. Magical reindeer that can provide a journey through the heavens is certainly an interesting connection to the later emergence of the Santa character which conveniently coincides with the cultural immigration of these traditions to colonial America.
Old Germania, The All-Father, Elves and Slepnir
In what the Romans called Germania, the ritual use of Amanita as an intoxicating beverage is found among the famous warriors of the All-Father Wotan, or Odin. While evidence of native reindeer herders that continue through the region, there lies more aggressive or hedonistic traditions of Amanita muscaria use. The Berserkers, the infamous shock troops of the ancient Germanic and Scandivian societies, existed in small, animistic tribal communities which venerated and emulated one of three main animals. Svinfylking – the boar warriors, Ulfhednar – the wolf warriors, and by far the most famous, Berserkers - the bear warriors. The warriors wore the skins or furs of their given totem guardian and were known to engage in pre-battle ceremonies in which they believed they could transform into their given tribal deity, entering the battle field in a frenzied or primitive-like altered state.16
Though this theory is not well supported yet, a good deal of Scandivian historians believe that between approximately 500BCE and 1500CE, Viking 'Bezerker Warriors' ingested Amanita muscaria before going into battle. Mycologyst Gordon Wasson pontificated on the matter when he stated, “No one who discusses the fly agaric in Europe can ignore the debate that has been carried on for almost two centuries in Scandinavia on this issue. First Samuel Odman in 1784 and then Frederik Christian Schubeler in 1886 propounded the thesis that those Viking warriors known as 'beserks' ate the fly-agaric before they 'went beserk'; in short, that 'beserk-raging' was deliberately caused by the ingestion of our spotted amanita." 18
Wasson received heavy criticism for how he presented the Amanita - Berserker hypothesis. It is clearly apparent that they did not use the mushroom exclusively to reach their bestial altered states, as Wasson seems to suggest. Admittedly these totem warriors could have achieved these states endogenously by a variety of methods, or through a vast number of better documented herbs. While there is a definite lack of documented evidence to verify the theory, that does not necessarily mean that these cultures knew about Amanita muscaria intoxication. This argument against the hypothesis is akin to suggesting that oral sex was unknown at the time due to a lack of documented evidence for it’s existence. A lack of regular documentation does not conclusively rule out the use of Amanita muscaria by these cultures, simply that more work in this area needs to be done. In an accepted time frame of some two thousand years, it can be certain that these cultures availed themselves of every available and reliable vehicle for eliciting such ecstatic states.
These animistic totem tribes would hold large hedonistic feasts prior to battle, in which mixed meads were a staple commodity. Meads and wines have a suitable pH and alcohol content for the decarboxylation process to occur with relatively high efficiency. By simply soaking dried Amanita muscaria specimens in a wine or mead, one would very quickly produce an exponentially more potent beverage. During these pre-violence feasts, warriors could properly prep for battle with this liquid courage, while in the company of other like-minded individuals ritualistically achieving a shared altered state. Although the ancient tribes people of Old Germania did not use the same words that society recognizes today, these feasts are brilliant, though brutal, executions of dose, set and setting. If one were to remove the battle and bloodshed, it actually sounded like a pretty fun time.
The main reason for this digression being that the warrior initiates and hierophants of the All-Father would have similarly found a dependable source of their ritual intoxication through the World Trees. The local tree varieties associated with the universal archetype of the World Tree, are the same woods used by the Amanita as a suitable habitat for hallucinogenic fruiting bodies. A traditional harvesting and drying technique for nomadic reindeer herders around the Arctic Circle, involves running a string through the specimen, and hanging Amanita muscaria from vacant branch tips which are in closest proximity to the community fires. 19
Odin, often associated with the Father Winter archetype, often rides a mystical steed closely tied to mycological activity. Odin’s magical eight legged horse, Slepnir is said to have a red and white muzzle, zealously earned by devouring his enemies entrails and frothing from the speed at which the horse travels. It is sometimes circulated in folk traditions of Scandinavia and Old Germania, that when drops of this blood/saliva combination fall onto bare ground, Amanita muscaria mushrooms are believed to sprout quickly thereafter. The blood/saliva transformation into Amanita muscaria is the common running motif that links the areas, but the Slepnir version is by far the most metal. For instance, if Lemy were in the market for a holiday steed, he’d pick Slepnir. Slepnir is the brutal, Scandinavian equine god from which Rudolf the American pop star eventually coalesced. Although Rudolf was the sole conception of a mid 20th century Madison Avenue ad campaign, it is interesting that his motifs emerged independently yet still parallel to his predecessor.
Additionally, Scandinavian and Germanic folklore has a well established tradition of the feyfolk, otherwise known as pixies, elves, fairies, gnomes, and the like. The palpably mystical habit of Amanita muscaria to sprout in neat circles beneath the traditional World Trees, was often perceived as a physical gateway to other worlds. Given the mushrooms visionary qualaties, one can easily see where this perception emerged. These fungal circles are more commonly known as ‘fairy rings’ for their association with other realms and the feyfolk that were rumored to haunt the area. Another familiar element of this region includes the folk traditions of elfish humanoids, which bring precious gifts in the heart of winter. These small magical beings are often depicted near the mushrooms habitat, and actually in proximity to, or physically carrying Amanita muscaria specimens. In case there is any ambiguity left in regards to the creatures presence and demeanor, the wee persons are often highlighted with rosy cheeks and obviously intoxicated faces. The iconic mushrooms are also regularly represented as a gift on par with gold or lucky talisman such as horseshoes. These representations were commonly distributed during the winter holidays throughout the 18th through 20th centuries in the area.
The various ancient communities surrounding the Arctic circle were keen observers of their environment, and although they had some misconceptions regarding mycology, these communities certainly imprinted these fungal observations into their traditions and lore. It should be clear to even a casual observer at this point that these people clearly knew when to find these mushroom, where they could be located, and what affects they produced when ingested. The classic regional saying, “All mushroom are edible, but some only once,” suggests a well recorded history of experimentally and empirically derived knowledge. The impressive fungal pharmacopoeia these peoples gathered over the millennia and encoded into their culture, should be taken with more seriousness and better analyzed before the more esoteric aspects of that knowledge is lost forever.
Two Shaman, One Vessel: Krampus and Klaus
The ancient, non-Christian influences of Christmas’ emergence have been fairly well established at this point. What has been left largely untouched by historians regarding the groups discussed thus far, is that these groups of antiquity carried with them a nuanced perspective on plant medicines that the modern mind generally lacks. They appreciated the dualistic and at times troublingly introspective or frightening nature of the psychedelic experience. This perspective then lent itself to their cultural pantheon and iconography of the time and place, which was in turn later tossed into the cultural melting pot that was colonial America. That symbolism then lent itself to the evolution of the holiday Christmas, most clearly from the 17th century until today. An esoteric chain of breadcrumbs which should now begin to come into focus.
Slavic, Scandanavian, Germanic, and Dutch immigrants all made their way to colonial North America, bringing with them a deeply held veneration of Saint Nicholas. In what later became the United Sates, the Dutch Sinterklass was homogenized into Santa Klaus or Claus. 20 It is during this post-Reformation period in America that the tradition of Christmas as we might recognize it today begins to really take form. Consequently at this point, there also emerges a dualistic counterpart to the Father Winter archetype, in fiendish partner Krampus. Borrowed from previously established Dutch and Old Germaninic folklore such as Black Pete or Belsnickel, Krampus is the horned, anthropomorphic (most often depicted as part goat, part man) spirit of Winter that comes in the dead of night to punish the wicked. Worth noting, the Krampus figure is often carrying a birch switch to achieve these ends. This regular motif becomes obviously transparent when one considers that birch trees are one of Amanita muscarias favorite growth substrates. Although the figure goes by a myriad of names and titles, his role in the Winter season is long established in the tradition of Eastern Europe and into Siberia. The figure Krampus and his role in the winter holidays exited from the mainstream celebration in America through the 20th century, and has only recently begun to make a resurgence in conventional consciousness. If one has ever had a ‘bad trip’ then one might recognize the archetypal experience Krampus offers.
Juxtaposed with Father Winter who was later replaced by Santa Klaus, the benevolent, gift giving sage begins to appear as more a concept rather than a physical being. Shamanic practices around the Arctic Circle encorporate a variety of archtypal spirit helpers, and the Claus - Krampus archetype is often found within those cultrues traditions and folklore. This is once again, not to suggest that Santa was a mushroom or even directly influenced by mushroom use. However, the evolution of the Santa character was undoubtedly tied to the same mystical folklore and iconography which was brought to colonial America with the German, Scandinavian and Slavic immigrants.
Finally, the common motif of mystical, elvish attendants which appear bearing ethereal gifts, merriment and communal interconnectivity during the most turbulent time of the year is a stark commonality also found in a transformative psychedelic experience. These gifts are to be found most often beneath the venerated World Trees, such as pine or fir; a tree Americans spend billions on each year in turn venerating as an altar to family, fortune and the New Year. Trinkets and precious ornaments hung from a sympathetic substitute for the World Tree, they are even delivered by magical, sometimes flying steed. This symbolism emerged most starkly in the early 20th century Coca Cola advertisements, but the association of such to the Amanita muscaria mushroom predates that campaign by at least a half a century in the form of vintage holiday cards shown here.
When one combines the folklore from the cultures around the Arctic circle in conjunction with the evolution and emergence of the Christmas holiday in America, the entheogenic influences of Amanita muscaria in the holiday become equally apparent.
Ott, Jonathon, “Pharmocatheon.” Occidental, CA, Jonathan Ott Books, pg323-324
Wasson RG. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968
Witsen, Nicholaas. Noord en Oost Tartarye, 1785.
Wasson RG. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968
BBC Documentary, Magic Mushrooms & Reindeer. Wierd Nature. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkCS9ePWuLU. Accessed 11/15/2017.
Ott, Jonathon, “Pharmocatheon.” Occidental, CA, Jonathan Ott Books, pg323-358
Wasson, R.,Hofmann, A., Ruck, C.P., Smith, H. The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. North Atlantic Books, 2008.
Letcher, Andy. Shroom, A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. Faber and Faber, 2006.
Ibid. p4, 139, 147.
Greg. Taking the P*ss: Did Shamans Really Drink Reindeer Urine? Daily Grail artcile. [online] Available at: https://www.dailygrail.com/2012/09/taking-the-pss-did-shamans-really-drink-reindeer-urine/ Accessed 11/15/2017.
Letcher, Andy. Taking the Piss: Reindeer and Fly Agaric. 2011. [online] Available at: http://andy-letcher.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/taking-piss-reindeers-and-fly-agaric.html Accessed 11/15/2017.
Sturluson, Snorri. Egil's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976. p.60-68
Laing, Samuel. The Heimskringla or the Sagas of the Norse Kings. London, 1889.: John. C. Nimo. p. 276
Wasson RG. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pg 341
Aurora, David. All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms. Ten Speed Press, 1991.
Wheeler, J., Rosenthal, J. St. Nicholas A Closer Look at Christmas. Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005. Chapter 8
Learn to properly identify your mushrooms!
Aurora, David. All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms. Ten Speed Press, 1991.
National Audubon Society. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (National Audubon Society Field Guides). Chanticleer Press ed edition, 1981.
For educational purposes only, and without advocating nor condemning, here are the approximate dosages for oral ingestion of dried Amanita muscaria specimen. Thank you to Erowid.org for providing this information. Please do your homework before conducting any alchemical experiments.
(Dried) Amanita muscaria – Oral Dosages
Light : 1 - 5 g (1 medium cap)
Common : 5 - 10 g (1 - 3 medium caps)
Heroic : 10 - 30 g (2 - 6 medium caps)