The following is excerpted from The Psychedelic Gospels by Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D. and Julie M. Brown, M.A., published by Inner Traditions.
On Christmas Eve, when the streets are all covered with snow and a hush falls over the land, parents recite the story of Santa Claus to wide-eyed children. They discreetly wink as they tell the timeworn tale of a jolly old elf who is dressed all in red and white from his head to his toes. Miraculously, Santa travels around the world in one night, in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, stopping at each home to place gifts under the Christmas tree festively decorated in tinsel and colorful ornaments with a star on top.
How improbable! How curious! But what if this snow-white lie, which we dutifully recount each year, was grounded in an ancient reality whose roots reach back thousands of years to the vast forests of Siberia? What if the real story of Santa was even stranger than that of the commercial myth of Saint Nick, the little sleigh driver “so lively and quick”? What if it was stranger than most of us could ever imagine?
It was high in the Cairngorms in the heart of the Scottish Highlands that Julie first heard the true story of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer. Driving east from the Isle of Skye, where we spent our twenty-fifth anniversary, Julie and I stopped in Inverness, located at the north end of Loch Ness. From there, we followed route A9 as it twisted and turned up into Cairngorms National Park. After lunch in the alpine resort town of Aviemore, Julie made a few phone calls and found lodging at the Braeriach Guest House. Sitting on the banks of the River Spey in the quaint village of Kingcraig, this two-story stone-walled Victorian inn has five guest rooms, all furnished with wooden sleigh beds. The view from our bedroom window looked out past a flower garden to the fast-moving river, on to a wide pastoral valley dotted with black-and-white cows, and up to the peaks of the snow-capped mountains. Over tea that afternoon, we asked our innkeeper Fiona, a refugee from the hubbub of London, what we should see during our stay.
“Oh, my favorite place would be to visit the wild reindeer. When you return, you can have dinner at the Boathouse Restaurant, only a twenty-minute walk from here through the forest.”
The following morning we drove to the long wooden cabin that housed the Cairngorm Reindeer Center. There we met three other couples and our guides, Beth and William, who would lead us up into the mountains. Beth explained that the “reindeer were reintroduced into Scotland in 1952 by a Swedish reindeer herder, Mikel Utsi. Starting from a few reindeer, the herd has grown in numbers over the years and is currently held at between a hundred and thirty and a hundred and fifty by controlling breeding.”1 About fifty of these reindeer live in a natural environment in the forests and highland plateaus nearby. The region is rich with lichen, the chief food of reindeer.
After the orientation we drove in a car caravan up a steep, curvy road. After parking in a small clearing, everyone donned knee-high Wellington boots. It was a cold day, and the trail was wet and muddy from a drizzling rain. We were excited and a bit apprehensive at the thought of encountering creatures in the wild. As the trail opened onto a large pasture, bordered by a dense dark-green forest, the sun broke through the clouds and the rain lifted. As we shed our rain gear, Will put down the sack of food he had carried on his shoulder and instructed us how to behave around the reindeer—who were still nowhere to be seen. “You can pet them, even touch their noses, but not their antlers. They grow very fast, a couple of inches a week, and are very sensitive.”
Just then, Beth began bellowing loudly. It felt eerie to be huddled together on a chilly hilltop while our guide howled into the wilderness. It took a minute before we realized that she was rounding up reindeer. Suddenly, we saw a huge light-brown stag emerge from the woods. He strode majestically toward us, his giant antlers swaying to and fro. Another reindeer followed and then another, slowly walking toward us, a plodding procession of caribou.
As the males, females, and calves drew closer Beth began calling them by name: Sting, Marley, Cranna, Oryx, Gandhi, Magnus . . . Elvis. As the herd approached, Will opened the sack and scooped pellets of food into our hands, telling us to pick a reindeer and go up to him slowly with outstretched arms. I walked up to a large bull. He nuzzled his warm, silky nose into my palms, gently licking them clean. Julie stood back and observed. Soon, everyone was talking, smiling, and even giggling at the sheer delight of being in the presence of these gentle caribou.
Julie noticed an albino reindeer standing off to the side, away from the herd. She asked Beth why he did not join the group.
“Oh, him. Sircus is his name,” Beth replied. “He only takes food from me or Will. He’s a real loner.”
“Really? Do you know why?” Julie inquired.
“I think it’s because he loves mushrooms so much,” Beth said.
At the mention of mushrooms, Julie’s ears perked up. She glanced over at me with a knowing look. Aha, she thought.
“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Beth continued. “All reindeer love fly agaric, but for Sircus they are his favorite food, even more than lichen. Sometimes, during the summer mushroom season, he eats so many that he just stands there mesmerized, staring into the sun, swaying back and forth. That’s why his face is so blotched and pink. It’s sunburned.”
As Beth finished speaking, Sircus turned toward Julie and without hesitation walked up to her. He placed his soft muzzle into her palms and ate slowly, all the while looking into her eyes. Julie glanced toward me, her face beaming. She stood still for a long while, gently petting Sircus. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, the reindeer turned and ambled back toward the forest. Sircus followed. Everyone was silent on the downhill walk back to the cars.
“Jer,” Julie said softly to me, taking my hand along the trail, “I swear I had a real connection with Sircus, as if we knew each other. Don’t you think it strange that I could have such a spiritual encounter with a reindeer?”
“Yes, you must be Saint Francis of the animals,” I said.
Julie laughed and nodded her head in affirmation.
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Once back at the inn, I was tired from our excursion and lay down to take a nap. But when I happened to glance over at the bookshelf next to the bed, I noticed the Field Guide to Mushrooms of Great Britain. Soon, I was turning its richly illustrated pages. After finding Sircus’s favorite, the red-and-white Amanita muscaria, I eventually fell into a deep and restful sleep.
When I awoke, I carried the field guide downstairs, planning to show it to Julie. I found her sitting near a roaring fireplace. She was engaged in animated conversation about our reindeer adventure with the other houseguests: Anne and John, a well-groomed, middle-aged couple from Devon, whose English accent I could understand if I listened carefully, and Bonny and Sid, young punk bikers from Liverpool whom I could barely understand at all. No wonder George Bernard Shaw observed, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
After Julie mentioned that the Reindeer Center rented the caribou out during the Yuletide season to pull sleighs bearing gifts for children across Great Britain, the conversation turned to Christmas and Santa Claus.
“Does anyone know what Santa has to do with Christmas, the birth of Jesus, and this?” I asked, opening the mushroom field guide and showing everyone the photo of the bright red Amanita mushroom covered with snowy white dots.
Before I could finish the sentence, I felt Julie’s two hands firmly tugging on my arm, as she said in her calming therapist’s voice, “Sorry to interrupt, honey, but if we don’t leave now, we won’t be able to walk to dinner and back before dark.”
We strolled under tall trees whose leaves sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. The air carried a sweet scent of wildflowers. Soon we came to the rustic restaurant on the banks of an alpine lake. After finishing the delectable grilled trout fresh from the lake, Julie asked pointedly, “What were you thinking back there?”
“I was just trying to explain my theory of Santa Claus,” I said defensively.
“I . . .” “Come on. You know what I’m talking about,” Julie objected. “What about our vow of secrecy, the one we made to each other at the beginning of this trip? Right before I escorted you out the door, you were about to blurt out that we were searching for the psychedelic roots of Christianity. I need to know that you won’t go around talking to people about our work while we are on this research trip.”
“Okay, I promise,” I replied.
“Now, tell me,” Julie said with a sigh of relief, “what were you trying to say about Santa back there at the inn?”
“While most people think of Christmas in terms of the quintessential Christian celebration,” I began, “the truth is that nearly all of the symbols associated with Santa Claus are based on the shamanic traditions of pre-Christian Europe.”
“I always thought of shamanism as a tribal religion,” Julie said. “I certainly never thought of Santa as a shaman! What do you mean?”
Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
The classic anthropological definition of shamanism comes from Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), who described it as “archaic techniques of ecstasy.” By “ecstasy” he was invoking the Greek term ekstasis, which literally means “to be outside oneself” and in this context figuratively means “flight of the soul.” In essence, shamanism refers to ancient methods for inducing the flight of the soul, for both the living and the recently deceased. One of the most concise descriptions of the universal foundations of shamanism is found in Peter Furst’s Hallucinogens and Culture. These foundations include “the skeletal soul of man and animal and the restitution of life from the bones; all phenomena in the environment as animate; [and] separability of the soul from the body during life.”
At the very center of these belief systems stands the persona of the shaman and his or her unique ecstatic experience. With the aid of spirit helpers he can travel to and intercede with the supernatural forces of the Upperworld and Underworld whose mystical geography he has traversed through training and trance. Frequently, although not always, his mastery comes from the use of sacred psychoactive plants, which serve both as a portal to other realms and as a source of transforming power or “soul stuff.” With the concept of “transformation” so fundamental to this worldview, it is easy to see why sacred plants with the power to radically alter consciousness and provide direct access to these supernatural realms would be universally revered in ancient religions. Throughout prehistory the religions of our ancestors were shamanistic.
“But how does shamanism work?” Julie asked.
Seeing a puzzled look on Julie’s face, I searched for an analogy.
“Imagine yourself,” I replied, “as a Koryak reindeer herder living a nomadic existence in the endless boreal forest belt of Siberia. You live in a world without maps, compasses, or clocks and certainly without GPS. Season upon season you travel with your clan and reindeer herd through a seamless landscape of green and brown forests sometimes interrupted by the blues and grays of lakes and rivers. Then one day you watch your favorite reindeer nibble on a bright red-and-white mushroom that popped up out of the moist ground overnight. Suddenly, the reindeer begins to cavort about in a very un-reindeer-like fashion. You try the mushroom and soon find yourself transported through magical landscapes filled with talking spirits who instruct you how to live well and prosper.”
Julie was listening intently as I asked her, “So what would you think about this world?”
“That it was showing me a spirit world that could help me thrive in the natural world,” Julie replied.
“Precisely,” I agreed, “and that’s the point. For tribal peoples, these supernatural realms were accessed through the shamanic flight of the soul. It’s only within the context of shamanism that we can understand the true origins of Santa Claus.”
Mushroom Rock Art of the Chukchi
Often overlooked and certainly overshadowed by Wasson’s cracking of the Soma code in the Rigveda is his equally surprising discovery of an ancient “Siberian fly-agaric complex” among the ancient indigenous peoples of the Arctic Circle. Peering deep into the wellsprings of time long before the Aryan invasion on the Indus Valley,* Wasson traced the roots of Aryan worship of the Soma mushroom back some six thousand years to the semi-nomadic reindeer herders of Eurasia known to anthropologists as the fathers of shamanism. Today there remain some three hundred thousand reindeer herders divided into thirty ethnolinguistic groups.†
*According to the widely accepted Aryan invasion theory, between the fourth and second centuries BCE, several migrations occurred involving different Proto-Indo-Aryan groups from the steppes of central Asia toward the alluvial plains and valleys of northwest India. However, academics continue to debate whether the Indo-Aryans invaded and assimilated the less sophisticated Indus Valley cultures, or whether the Indo-Aryans moved in as the superior Indus Valley civilization was in a state of decline, adopting their mythologies and technologies. †They inhabit three far-flung, forest-belt regions of Russia and Scandinavia. Among them are the Lapps and Nenets in the Far West; the Ostyak, Samoyed, and Vogul of the central tundra and taiga zones; and the Chukchi, Koryak, and Kamchadal who live in the extreme Far East of Russia.
When Wasson published Soma in 1968, he had to rely on secondhand data derived from folk tales and linguistic analysis and on the firsthand accounts of “explorers, travelers, and anthropologists” who visited these remote regions as far back as the late eighteenth century.4 At that time he was unaware of recent Russian archaeological expeditions that had found iconic evidence—dramatic images etched in stone—of the use of psychoactive mushrooms among the ancient Chukchi.
During field expeditions in 1967 and 1968, Russian archaeologist N. N. Dikov discovered numerous mushroom and reindeer petroglyphs (rock carvings dating from 1000 BCE) on the banks of the Pegtymel River in the Far Eastern Chukotka region, located across the Bering Sea from Alaska. These rock drawings graphically reflect the worldview of nomadic herders and their traditional shamanic practice of ingesting Amanita muscaria. Since that initial discovery, Russian researchers have identified more than two hundred similar compositions at rock art centers in northern Russian, mainly in areas inhabited by reindeer herders.
The central images of these carvings are reindeer and an increasing number of “incomparable” anthropomorphic images of people, mainly women, wearing huge mushroom-shaped hats or, in another interpretation, dancing women with mushrooms hovering over or emanating from the crowns of their heads.
The northern region where these figures are found is one where fly agaric thrive. In a later work, observing that these “doubtless” Amanita muscaria “mushrooms were much larger in scale than normal,” certainly when compared to the humanlike figures, Wasson concurs that this suggests “mushroom possession.” A common theme in these visions is the personification of the spirit (wapaq) of the mushroom as “little men or women.” The Koryak believe that the spirits residing in the fly agaric appear in the form of tiny mushroom folk who give instructions to the be-mushroomed person. One observer reports that among the Ob-Ungrians, “the mushroom eater enters the realm of the little people, talks with them, learns from them what he wishes to know—the future, the outlook for a sick person, etc.”
Santa, the Reindeer Shaman
“So are you saying that the story of Santa Claus originated with the reindeer herders?” Julie asked.
“Not at all,” I replied, “simply this: while most people think of Christmas in terms of the classic Christian holiday, the truth is that most of the symbols associated with Santa Claus are based on the religious traditions of pre-Christian Europe. In fact, every major meme of our modern myth of Santa Claus can be found in Wasson’s pioneering description of a Siberian fly agaric–reindeer culture.
“Convince me,” Julie insisted.
“Okay, I will,” I replied.
In Soma, Wasson notes that “reindeer have a passion for mushrooms and especially for the fly-agaric, on which they inebriate themselves. Reindeer have a passion for urine and especially human urine. (When the human urine is impregnated with fly-agaric, what regal cate is there, to be served to a favored reindeer!)”9 In fact, some herders carry sealskins filled with their own urine to lure stray reindeer back to the herd.
Reindeer have a seminal place in the lives of these semi-nomadic herders as the primary source of useful everyday articles and of spiritual significance. Practically, the reindeer provide transporation by sleigh, food and milk, clothing, shelter in the form of skins for yurts, tools, and many other necessities. Spiritually, flying reindeer serve as guides for shamans, transporting them through the spirit world. The hundreds of flying reindeer megaliths found in Siberia and Mongolia offer graphic representations of myths and legends about winged reindeer who transport their ecstatic riders up into the highest branches of the Cosmic Tree, universally revered by ancient peoples as the Tree of Life.
Christmas Tree as Cosmic Tree
In addition to the nearly universal flood myth similar to the story of Noah in the Bible, many tribal cultures have a deep belief in a sacred Cosmic Tree. In the context of shamanism, this tree provides a cosmic axis around which the three planes of the universe revolve. Its roots run deep into the Underworld, its trunk holds Middle Earth, and its branches reach skyward into the Upperworld.
The birch, pine, cedar, and fir trees play a conspicuous role among Siberian cultures and serve as the nodal points for shamanism. But it was Wasson who first pointed out that birches and evergreens play an essential role in the life cycle of the fly agaric. This is because fly agaric has a symbiotic relationship with these trees in that its invisible spores colonize the host trees’ roots prior to the mushroom bursting into view aboveground as an early stage Amanita muscaria, wrapped in a pure white veil. As a result, tribespeople were amazed to witness how these mushrooms apparently sprang from the earth without any visible seeds in what appears to be a virgin birth.
Like the Cosmic Tree, the center point between heaven and earth, the North Star is also considered sacred. Among reindeer herders, it is also known as the “Immobile Star” or the “Pole Star,” because all the stars in the heavens revolve around it. Thus today we symbolically place a star at the tippy-top of the Christmas tree, and for this reason Santa makes his home in the North Pole.
Santa, the Archetypal Shaman
Our contemporary image of Santa Claus as a rotund, jolly, white-bearded fellow in a red suit (or robe) with white fir trim is a modern version of the archetypal Siberian mushroom shaman. In fact, even today some Siberian male shamans and female mushroom gatherers still dress in ceremonial red-and-white trimmed jackets when they go to gather the sacred mushrooms. The biochemical effects of Soma are most pleasant and transformative when the mushrooms are dried before consumption. For this reason, the shaman initially hangs the fresh fungi to dry in the branches of pine trees (like the colorful ornaments that decorate the Christmas tree).
After the mushroom harvest is complete, the shaman collects his gifts in a sack and places them on his sleigh, which a team of reindeer pulls back to his yurt (Santa’s sleigh full of toys, pulled by flying reindeer). A yurt is the nomad’s teepee-like dwelling typically made out of birch branches and reindeer hides. In winter, snow drifts can cover the yurt’s main entrance, so the shaman enters through the smoke hole at the top (Santa coming down the chimney) to deliver his gifts to appreciative clan members. To further dry the mushrooms, they string them up around the fireplace, and in the morning they awaken to a ritual feast of dried magic mushrooms (Christmas gifts placed in stockings over the fireplace). Once they ingest the mushrooms, the celebrants leave the physical plane and are transported to the mystical realms of the Cosmic Tree, guided by spirits that live within the mushrooms (Santa’s helpers, elves that live in the North Pole).
All of these Christmas themes include the image of Santa Claus: the Christmas tree, the flying reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, Santa coming down the chimney, the exchange of gifts—even the elves who live in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole.
Dusk was falling as we started to walk back around the lake toward the inn. The Santa Claus conversation had sparked Julie’s inquisitiveness. “What about the Christian Saint Nicholas?”
“To be sure, religious historians argue that many saints were simply Christian versions of earlier pagan gods, adapted by the church to encourage heathens to accept the new religion of Rome. It is said that Saint Nicholas’s legends were created mainly out of folk tales about the Teutonic god Hold Nickar, a malevolent water spirit who tips over boats and torments sailors, or even about Alte Hoerner, which stands for ‘Old Horney.’
Julie smiled at the sexual reference to Santa Claus.
“No, no, it’s not what you’re thinking. In old German, Alte Hoerner literally means ‘old horned one’ and in this case the ‘ancient horned god,’ referring to the headdress of reindeer antlers worn by Eurasian shamans. Later on, when pagan deities were demonized by the medieval church under Pope Gregory, the horned god of shamanism became the devil of Christianity. And ‘Santa’ became ‘Satan.’”
“Rings of Smoke through the Trees”
“Look, look around us!” whispered Julie. A low-hanging cloud was slowly creeping through the woods, completely encircling us in a ring of ghostly white gossamer. The mist moved silent as cat paws, covering the ground and the trunks of the trees in a blanket of clouds. The tops of trees stood bare, silhouetted against the gun-metal sky and the fading sun, silent sentinels of the forest.
“Jer,” Julie spoke, in hushed tones, “this is unearthly. All evening, we’ve been talking about the way of the shaman, portals between the worlds, about how all things are alive with spirit.”
“Look,” I said, patiently, “just because this rare cloud rolls in just as we were discussing shamanism doesn’t mean there’s a connection. You can’t prove that; no one can.”
“No, I can’t prove it,” Julie spoke quietly, “but think about what’s happened today! We came to the mountains for vacation, and I met Sircus, an albino, Amanita-loving reindeer, who walks up to me and peers into my soul. We spend the evening talking about mystical realms. And now all around us the forest is alive, as if the living spirit of nature was welcoming us to the world of the shaman . . . affirming our decision to retrace Wasson’s steps.”
I was about to object, but just then these lines from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” ran through my head: “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west/ And my spirit is crying for leaving. In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees/ And the voices of those who stand looking. Ooh, it makes me wonder/ Ooh, it really makes me wonder.”
We stood silently in the middle of the mist-filled forest, wondering what the future would bring. At our next stop in Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, we walked among the monumental ruins of Eleusis, where rituals involving entheogens had been practiced for two thousand years.