DECEMBER, 2000 E.V. (YULE TIDE ISSUE)
Seasons Greetings! The gloom and fumes of NOvember have dissipated, replaced by a festive, smog-tinged glow along the boulevard. With the Yule nights fast upon us, it seems apropos to give an esoteric interpretation of the origin of Santa Claus. Yes, Santa, that icon of Christmas with his coat of red and beard of white. You know, the plump, jolly fellow with the twinkle in his eyes on all those cans of Coke. Although this new version should come as welcome news to those who want to put the Christ back in Christmas, somehow I just don't see it being embraced with open arms, especially by the more fanatical types with their ranting about Santa being an anagram for Satan. Yes, I fear the new interpretation will only reinforce their argument. But, those of you with more open minds will see the feast of the Nativity in a new light - a light that burns as bright as the logs of the fire-festival, Yule logs (not Mr. Hanky) ablaze to keep the evil spirits away on what is regarded by some to be the most dangerous night of the year. Those of German descent who have not lost touch with Old World traditions will know what I mean by "dangerous."
Before I begin, a simple request: please don't e-mail with the "History of Santa Claus" that you've read in Reader's Digest or seen on 20/20. Don't bother surfing the Net either. I'm well aware of the more traditional histories out there: The legend of St. Nicholas or "Sinter Klaas" who brings gifts to children who are good and leaves lumps of coal for those who aren't, - a satire on the customs of transplanted Dutch colonists in New York which became more and more Americanized over the years. I'm also familiar with the tales from Finland and Scandinavia, which feature pagan Germanic gods (Odin, Thor, etc). That's all fine and well for the general populace, but in this newsletter I'm addressing Tool fans - those looking an alternative history - a darker history that was suppressed by the powers that be. So, in the spirit of connecting dots (using methods employed by those writers of a conspiratorial bent to make the pieces of the puzzle fit), I offer this little gem.
THE SECRET ORIGIN OF SANTA CLAUS?
IT may have played a major role in the development of humanity's oldest religions. Scholars have suggested it to be the elusive object of the quest of Gilgamesh - that which bestowed everlasting life to the hero of the epic poems of Mesopotamia. Dr. Andrija Puhurich believed it to be the secret behind the Egyptian rites of death (temple-sleep) and resurrection. Others have claimed it to be the "heavenly" bread or Manna of the Israelites. It may have induced the visions of the ancient prophets such as St. John as well as being the true key to the kingdom of God alluded to by the Gnostic sects.
It has been proposed in books as the basis for the mystery cults of the ancient Near East (Eleusinian, Orphic, etc), being the "mysterious" ingredient which Bacchus/Dionysus revelers laced their wine with, causing divine frenzy and ecstatic states of consciousness which led to the opening of the initiates' eyes as to the true nature of the universe. Gordon Wasson has identified it with the Soma mentioned in passages of the Sanskrit Vedas. For Robert Graves it was the marvelous ambrosia or nectar of the gods, which caused profound religious experiences. It may have enabled the Indians of Mesoamerica (those native to the Sierra Madre of Mexico) to communicate with the spirit-world and receive illumination. It has long been associated with magic and transformation in Old World Europe. And it just may be the reality lurking behind the guise of the red-clad one, Santa, as well as the other traditional motifs of Christmas. It is the fly-agaric mushroom, genus Amanita muscaria.
For those non-mycophiles out there, Amanita muscaria is a "poisonous" fungus with hallucinogenic properties. It is, however, an especially powerful hallucinogen when those who partake of it commune or have an interaction with the "soul" of the mushroom. Those who do so receive the gift of extraordinary visions while being transported to otherworldly realms of consciousness. The mushroom, itself, is most recognizable by its distinctive coloring: a red canopy with white flecks - colors that are associated with the traditional attire of Santa. But there are other features besides its striking colors, which cause us to believe there may be a link between the fly-cap and jolly old St. Nick. For instance, where does Santa reside? To those of us who've sent him a letter asking for that new Tool box set, the answer is simple: The North Pole. Well, it just so happens that it is the forest-belts of the northern latitudes near the Arctic Circle where ethno-botanists have traced widespread use of the fly-agaric mushroom. Amanita muscaria was the sacred mushroom of the shaman's séances, used by tribes such as the Koryaks of Siberia for magico-religious purposes.
Now, here's where it gets really good. From the testimony of explorers and ethno-botanists, the favorite method of taking the mushroom was to drink the urine of reindeer that have "browsed" on the fungi (a decoction of reindeer milk may have been another preferred method). One reason for imbibing the animals' secretions was due to the intoxicating effect on the urine. Unique among the psychedelics, Amanita muscaria retains its effectiveness with the psycho activity becoming even more potent. (NOTE ON CHEMISTRY: According to Peter T. Furst, the principle psychoactive agents of Amanita muscaria are ibotenic acid and muscimole. It is the later, which passes through the kidneys unaltered and allows the mushroom's wondrous properties or "gifts" to be transmitted to others). In this way it acts as a touchstone of sorts, enabling other tribesmen or celebrants of the rite to share the ecstatic experience of the shaman and receive the gift of prophecy. Another reason for drinking the urinated fluids is that it reduces the unpleasant side effects, which occur to those who ingest them raw, usually sun-dried. One such side effect is that the inebriated person's skin and facial features take on a flushed or ruddy glow. Might this be the real reason why Santa's favorite guide was called "Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer?"
Amanita muscaria is a denizen of the conifer forest. It grows under cone-bearing trees, mostly evergreens - firs, spruce, cedar, yew and pines - which it has a symbiotic relationship with. As we all know, Santa's "gifts" are placed under the Christmas tree. The ancients were puzzled by how the fungus sprung from the earth each dewy morning without apparent seed. This unique conception or "virgin birth" was believed to have been the result of the dew or spermal emission of God, represented by the bright Morning and Evening "star", the planet Venus. This may be why our modern Christmas tree is usually crowned with a star or angel. The silver tinsel or angel-hair draped on the tree in festoons represents God's spermatozoa, which falls from above, the genital dew that is scattered under the trees. In order to produce so many gifts for all the good boys and girls, Santa has his little helpers. They are, of course, his elves. It is these strange wee-folk that are so often seen near the spotted, scarlet cap of the toadstool, the Amanita muscaria mushroom that decorates the covers of children's books of folk and fairytales. Are not these the elves of drug-induced visions, which communicate with the bemushroomed shaman?
Finally, what about Santa's unorthodox mode of entry? Rather than use the front door, he chooses to come down the chimney with his bag of gifts. The chimney with its sooty fireplace represents the underworld. The netherworld or collective unconscious where the shaman who partakes of the mushroom receives the gift of knowledge. So there you have it, most of the motifs of our traditional Christmas. We've got Santa wearing the distinctive red and white colors of the mushroom. We've his northern residence, where the shamanistic religion involving the sacred mushroom flourished. We've the reindeers with their part in the rites (including Rudolf). There's the evergreen Christmas tree complete with star and tinsel. We've Santa's elves with their gifts and even the jolly one's chimney entrance. Everything but the Ho! Ho! Ho! And, Ryan, I'm still working on that.
A WORD OF WARNING for all you fledgling shamans out there. There are several varieties of mushrooms that look very similar to Amanita muscaria. These are Amanita virosa, Amanita phalloides and Amanita verna. All of these look-alikes are deadly, even in low doses. So if you are inexperienced in the field of mycology (the study of mushrooms), I strongly advise you to heed the words of Terrence McKenna, "Fool around with Amanita muscaria and you just might wake up with a tag on your toe."
Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro.