In the name of the Father, the Son & the Holy Fungus.
Historians and theologians have long debated the “real story” of Jesus. Sure, the Bible tells us he was the son of God, born to a virgin in the stables of Bethlehem — but that’s just one take on it. Some believe that Jesus was a real person, but the stories of his supernatural powers are made up. Others feel that the Jesus we read about is a composite of several historical people.
And then there’s the one guy who thought he was a mushroom.
John M. Allegro was a British archaeologist who published “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” in 1970. He took as a starting point something that’s perplexed biblical scholars for centuries: When translating the Bible from the original Hebrew, there are some words that seem out of place. They’re typically translated as people’s names, but Allegro dismissed that hypothesis for something wildly different.
Allegro was no mere crank — he studied at Manchester University and was invited to be part of the team that deciphered the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, his interpretation of those ancient texts was at odds with his cohorts’. They were primarily interested in using the Scrolls to advance the current understanding of Christianity.
After translating an ancient document known as the Copper Scroll, Allegro became convinced that the story of Christ was actually a metaphor devised by the Essene people to hide the truth about their activities. They were just the latest proponents of a mystery cult centered around powerful hallucinations brought on by a fungus.
According to Allegro’s interpretation, Jesus was no bearded miracle man. Instead, he was a fly agaric mushroom.
The fly agaric — scientific name Amanita muscaria if you’re nasty — has long been one of nature’s most potent hallucinogens. Found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, it delivers a powerful punch of muscimol, a psychoactive chemical that causes visual and auditory hallucinations. What’s interesting about the fly agaric compared to other hallucinogens is how it synchronizes the brain’s electrical activity, instead of disrupting it. This can create a feeling of certainty and clarity very similar to a religious experience.
Allegro used etymology to tease out hidden meanings in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, he speculated that the word “Christian” comes from a Sumerian root word meaning “smeared with semen.” The mushroom cults of ancient times were ribald, sexual affairs, and Allegro’s book tells a story of how the cults were sanitized, over centuries, into the religion we now know.
If you look closely at his logic, Allegro doesn’t seem quite that crazy. The Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, in which you consume “the body of Christ” to become closer to God? Certainly could have come from consuming a small piece of mushroom to induce hallucinations. And, in fact, he argues that the fresco at Plaincourault Chapel in France depicts exactly that.
Most religious scholars didn’t look so kindly on “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.” Some critics theorized that the book was Allegro’s revenge on the narrow-minded Christians who rejected his earlier translations — an attempt to tar the entire religion by framing it as the goofy, drug-addled hallucinations of a bunch of proto-hippies.
Unfortunately, many of the leaps of logic in Allegro’s book are pretty big. Although he was a gifted scholar of language, a lot of his interpretations of words weren’t rooted in their actual use at the time, and he seemed to grab at whatever straws he could to reinforce his thesis.
The book marked the end of Allegro’s mainstream career. Publisher Hodder and Stoughton issued a public apology and quietly let it go out of print. Allegro went on to promote his theories to a dwindling audience for some time, but the cocaine-addled 1970s didn’t have much patience for hippie mysticism.
As absurd as Allegro’s theories may seem, they’re not that much more ridiculous than anything else in the Bible: a man living in the stomach of a giant fish for days, a plague of frogs, a talking snake. Religion is allegory at its heart, metaphors designed to help shape society. The idea of the Son of God coming to Earth as a red-and-white mushroom isn’t any weirder than him coming here as a man, when you think about it.