- Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail by Terry Atkinson
I note at the start that Terry Atkinson’s book is not necessarily intended for a scholarly audience; Atkinson himself admits in his introduction that Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail may be “one of those ‘crackpot’ books” that follows in a similar vein as Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s 1989 Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which concluded that the real Holy Grail or Sangreal was actually a bloodline, the “sang real,” of Christ’s familial descent. Despite the clear reference to his predecessors in his title, Atkinson distances himself from Baigent and Leigh by noting the hoax upon which their theory was based as well as making a concerted effort to ground his inquiry in literary evidence. His euhemerization of the Holy Grail ultimately attempts to extract it from its more familiar literary and religious trappings and instead to identify the amanita muscaria mushroom and its hallucinogenic effects as the Grail’s real origin. Atkinson’s background is in entertainment journalism and his treatment of the literary evidence is basic. As such, it is perhaps more productive to treat his inquiry as a medievalism reflecting the popular conception of literary scholarship as a kind of chivalric quest in search of sacred icons. Toward the end of his introduction, Atkinson asks his readers “like a knight entering the deep, dark, but promising forests of the Grail stories—to sally forth a while before coming to any conclusions” (4). This approach punctuates the whole of Atkinson’s book as he traces a speculative history of the Grail from Chrétien backward. Perhaps this kind of literary questing represents an attempt at identification with a Grail knight like Perceval. Rather than as a revealing piece of scholarship, as an artifact of modern medievalism, Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail may actually tell us a great deal about how that legend has been modified and imported into modern cultural imagination.
Atkinson’s quest begins in Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century romance Le Conte du Graal, often hailed as the first Arthurian iteration of the Grail Quest [End Page 197] and a narrative that offers Sacred Mushroom/Holy Grail an embarkation point for what becomes a reverse chronology of Grail lore. Atkinson also considers the role that other prominent contributions to the Arthurian Grail canon, including continuations of Chrétien’s quest, Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathe, and the Old French Vulgate Cycle, as well as older non-Arthurian Celtic and pagan sources. However, Atkinson looks primarily to Chrétien for the basic structure of the Grail Quest and is particularly concerned with the Grail’s connection to food or to a consumptive moment that leads to a loss of narrative time. He finds this loss indicative of a mystical experience that is specifically connected to ancient shamanistic practices and the consumption of a hallucinogenic mushroom. Much like Baigent and Leigh, Atkinson treats his sources as intentionally hiding the truth about shamanistic practice, although he does not have as clear a sense of the cultic purpose for these secrets having been hidden in literary allusion. From this point on Atkinson, Alice-like, plumbs the vast depths of a rabbit hole that opens upon the consumption of a certain magical mushroom.
The fungi in question is known as the amanita muscaria and is perhaps the most recognizable mushroom in fantasy narratives with its white-flecked red cap. Atkinson delves into early cultural traditions of shamanism and ritualistic consumption of hallucinogens and finds this “sacred mushroom” to be hidden at the heart of a number of ancient pagan spiritual rites. Influenced primarily (and almost solely) by Jessie L. Weston’s seminal From Ritual to Romance (1957) Atkinson creates a causal theory that accounts for the obfuscation and transformation of the ancient image of the mushroom into the eucharistic cup that we know now through the lens of medieval romance.
From an academic standpoint there are a number of problems Atkinson’s book. These issues include the unanswered question of why this secret has been hidden; some rather reaching assertions about the continuance of this...