Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Mushrooms, Hunting, Ritual Performance and Rock art...

While visiting rock art sites in Sweden (Glösa and Gärdesån) I was interested to find fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) growing in their vicinity. Fly-agaric mushrooms have a long tradition of use for their psychoactive properties.

Fig. 1 Fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) from Glösa, Jamtland, Sweden

Numerous writers have suggested a link between rock art and the consumption of psychoactive substances. While much of the iconography at Glösa and Gärdesån deal with naturalistic images of elk and deer, staples for hunter-gatherers in the region (Fig. 3, from Gärdesån, appears to be concerned with tracking), there are also a number of geometric images that appear to defy easy classification.

Fig. 2 Naturalistic imagery at Glösa.

Fig. 3 Tracking at Gärdesån

Fig. 4 Geometric pattern from Gsa, Jamtland, Sweden.

Such images might be considered to fit the description of “endogenous phenomena”, i.e. what Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1993) refer to as “entoptics” - subjective visual phenomena frequently occurring when under the influence of psychoactive substances. Dronfield (1996) distinguishes between two different forms of subjective visual phenomena:

  • Hallucinations – consisting of “subjective images constructed from details stored in the visual memory”, for example dreams and the type of hallucination experienced through the use of psychedelic drugs.
  • Endogenous phenomena - consisting of “non-iconic visual experiences which are generated by structures in the visual nervous system and whose shapes are determined by properties of those neural structures” (1996, 374)

The majority of e
ntoptic images consist of geomet rical forms, such as “grids/lattices, parallel lines, dots, zig zags, curves, and filigrees/meanders ” (Dronfield, 1996, 374). The most abstract of the pictographs at Glösa would fit perfectly into this descriptive category.

Fig. 5 Abstract motifs from Glösa

Fig. 6 Geometric lattice from Glösa.

Fig. 7 Stylised human form from Gärdesån

Hunter-gatherer's would likely have been well aware of the psychoactive properties of the fly-agaric mushroom; being reliant upon the flora and fauna of their habitat, hunter-gatherers must necessarilly possess a significant knowledge of their properties in order to decide what is edible and what is not. It is not unlikely that these people consumed such plants for their spiritual efficacy in allowing access to the other world, perhaps as part of a form of ritual hunting magic; many of the images of animals have red spots on their bodies, possibly symbolic of hunting wounds, and the human foot tracks at Gärdesån (Fig. 3) might have been used as a form of ritualised dance used in hunting magic. The use of psychoactive substances when performing such magic may have brought the figures depicted to life thus making the magic more effective.

Just speculation, but maybe.

P.S. The information boards at Glösa mentioned that some of the animals depicted on the rocks are not easily identifiable as distinct species. Perhaps they represent mythical creatures, or animals experienced during psychedelic journeys in the other world - like the red eared dogs of Tir-Na-Nog. It is a possibility.


Dronfield, J. 1996. The Vision Thing: Diagnosis of Endogenous Derivation in Abstract Arts. Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 373-391.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. 1993. On Vision and Power in the Neolithic: Evidence From the Decorated Monuments. Current Anthropology, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 55-65.

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