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Entheogens and the Public Mystery: The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson

Entheogens and the Public Mystery: The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson

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Published by Žarko Almuli
Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008
Special Issue: Psychedelic Science
Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008
Special Issue: Psychedelic Science

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Published by: Žarko Almuli on Feb 07, 2011
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Entheogens and the Public Mystery: The Rhetoric of R. GordonWasson
Antonio Ceraso
Configurations, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 215-243 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
For additional information about this article
Access Provided by Universiteit van Amsterdam at 02/07/11 11:23AM GMT
This article explores the work o R. Gordon Wasson, who discov-ered the use o psilocybin mushrooms among indigenous people inMexico. I argue that Wasson’s writings on these and other psyche-delic substances involve two primary moves. First, Wasson seeks toopen up processes o scientic research beyond institutional anddisciplinary boundaries, thereby constructing deinstitutionalizedknowledge networks. At the same time, he recognizes that such open-ness leaves knowledge-making communities vulnerable to exploita-tion. Wasson’s second move, then, is to draw on the tradition o theancient mystery cults—particularly the Greek mysteries at Eleusis—in order to install protective silences within the open networks. Thistwoold structure o openness and mystery provides an alternativeor thinking about and entering into inormation fows that cancomplicate and enrich current debates on intellectual property.On August 30, 1960, R. Gordon Wasson stood beore the gatheredmembers o the Mycological Society o America and raised the lowlymushroom to the level o a deity. Certain species o mushroom,Wasson argued, as a result o their hallucinogenic eects on con-sciousness, lay at the heart o an otherwise diverse variety o reli-gious experiences. When his keynote address was published in theHarvard
 Botanical Museum Leafets
six months later, his discussion o “certain parallels between our Mexican rite and the Mystery per-ormed at Eleusis” and his claim—grounded in a sel-experiment—
Entheogens and the PublicMystery: The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson
 Antonio CerasoDePaul University
Confgurations, 2008, 16:215–243 © 2009 by The Johns HopkinsUniversity Press and the Society or Literature and Science.
that “out o a mere drug comes the ineable, comes ecstasy,” ol-lowed a leafet on the production o glass fowers, and preceded astudy on the “teosinte introgression in the evolution o modernmaize.”
Mycology, like astronomy, ornithology, and other sciencesthat require widely distributed practices in order to collect data andspecimens, certainly values its amateur practitioners; yet Wasson re-mained very much an amateur, and an amateur selected to presentthe keynote address to the proessional organization’s annual con-erence. With no ormal training in biology, chemistry, botany, oreven mycology itsel and no university appointment or industrialaliation, Wasson’s position in the implicit hierarchy o proes-sional knowledge was clearly dened. His mycological evangelismbeore the gathered scientists was, in short, a risky venture. In hisrousing close, then, one might have expected polite hal-smileswhen Wasson invoked “the belie o some primitive peoples thatmushrooms, the sacred mushrooms, are divinely engendered by Ju-piter Fulminians, the God o the Lightning-bolt, in the Sot MotherEarth.” Wasson’s speech seemed to be less concerned with the sci-ence o mycology than with the character o the sacred. Given hisposition, it is dicult to imagine a more curious setting in which toorward such claims.I any amateur could draw connections between the scienticobject o mycology and the character o the sacred, however, it wassurely Gordon Wasson. An investment banker by trade, Wasson—together with his wie Valentina Pavlovina Wasson, a pediatrician—had pioneered the eld o ethnomycology, compiling data as ama-teurs between the elds o mycology and anthropology or thirtyyears. Just three years beore his keynote speech, the couple hadpublished
 Mushrooms Russia and History 
, an illustrated two-volumestudy o cultural attitudes toward mushrooms, the culmination o their decades-long joint research. Much o the second volume wasdedicated to the Wassons’ search or and eventual participation inhallucinogenic mushroom rites in Mexico; it came complete withrenderings o rare Meso-American mushroom species. Moreover, the
216 Confgurations
 Botanical Museum Leafets
19:6–18 (February–April 1961). Harvard’s
 Botanical Museum Leafet 
was a key publication venue or the study o ethneogens at the time. Just twoissues beore the publication o Wasson’s keynote, Richard Evans Schultes and Ralph F.Raau published an article titled “
: Amazon Narcotic or Not?” The authorsseek to clariy early twentieth-century claims by Richard Spruce that
was anactive ingredient in ayahuasca. While the subject o Schultes and Raau’s article is,then, hallucinogenic, the method diers completely; they include no report rom sel-experiments, and the web o citation and evidence ollows recognizable protocols o scientic discourse.

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