Inside the exploration of psychedelics in early Christianity

Dr. Jerry and Julie Brown traveled across Europe, from Scotland to Turkey, compiling evidence of psychedelic mushrooms in old churches.

Dec 20, 2017

Photo by Jeremy Woodhouse

Churches all over the world have psychedelic imagery hidden in plain sight. Anthropologist Dr. Jerry Brown and his wife Dr. Julie Brown traveled Europe and the Middle East to uncover the secret psychedelic histories in Christianity and other religions.

The couple’s journey started in Scotland. While visiting the castles and churches built centuries ago, the pair discovered something quite intriguing when looking at a ‘Green Man,’ a character or deity that represents renewal and is found across cultures. Green Men usually have vines and leaves obscuring their faces.

But when Dr. Brown, while in the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, absentmindedly turned the image of a Green Man upside down, he clearly saw a psychedelic mushroom on its forehead. The species was Amanita muscaria, a mushroom with hallucinogenic properties that has historically been taken by indigenous peoples in Siberia for religious reasons.

This discovery sent Dr. Jerry and Dr. Julie Brown on a mission


green man Why California is important for ending marijuana prohibition in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Rosslyn Chapel

The Green Man carving was compelling, but, the Browns soon learned, that this was only the beginning. After Switzerland, the couple went to Greece and learned that ancient Greco religions likely used psychedelic mushrooms in ceremonies.

They chronicled their entire journey in a book called “The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity.” It even includes some historical evidence which shows that Socrates was executed for telling his fellow Athenians what he saw during his trips.

But it primarily focuses on other examples throughout Europe in which early Christians used magic mushrooms for religious purposes. One example chronicled comes from France.

Just after the Second Crusade, the Browns write, European knights returned home and built a chapel called the Chapel of Plaincourault. In that nearly 900-year-old building is a fresco of the temptation scene from Genesis. The tree of knowledge that the serpent tries to tempt Eve with isn’t a tree at all, it’s a giant mushroom. It’s red and white, and looks a lot like the Amanita muscaria mushroom.

If that’s what it is, it’s pretty extraordinary considering the current level of stigma around psychedelics in most sects of Christianity. But even though the imagery in the fresco does look a lot like a mushroom, Dr. Brown acknowledges that not everyone thinks it is. For example, art historian Ervin Panofsky says, “the plant in this fresco has nothing whatever to do with mushrooms . . . and the similarity with Amanita muscaria is purely fortuitous.”

While some of these may be coincidences, there is a pattern

Great Canterbury Psalter1 Why California is important for ending marijuana prohibition in the U.S.
Photo via Medievalists

Psychedelic imagery isn’t confined to frescos and church walls. It’s also in some of the most iconic Christian literature in world history. The Great Canterbury Psalter, from medieval Britain, is one of the best examples.

The book, which was originally bound in leather and adorned with jewels, is full of colourful, painstaking illustrations. In it, there’s a biblical scene where God creates plants. But instead of plants, it’s exclusively mushrooms. Dr. Brown points out that one of the mushrooms looks nearly identical to Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

The Browns Continued To Find Examples Like This

Dr. Jerry and Dr. Julie Brown eventually spent months travelling to 13 sites in six different countries, from Scotland to Turkey. They also researched beyond Europe to cover a small community in Mexico that still practices a mostly psychedelic inspired religion. Outsiders first visited these shamanic peoples in Mexico in the 1950s, and their discoveries helped kick off the psychedelic movement of the 1960s.

Dr. Jerry and Dr. Julie Brown’s book doesn’t answer exactly what role magic mushrooms played in early christianity, but it does give us enough evidence to establish a reverence among medieval christians for hallucinogens. And that should cause all of us out there to ask some provocative questions.

Dec 20, 2017