Humanist, Volume 86, April Edition, pages 49-51, 1971

The Myth of the Mushroom

Allegro's theory that the New Testament is an elaborate cryptogram is critically examined by Professor Wells

JOHN ALLEGRO'S NEW BOOK [1] is a companion volume to his The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. [2] Allegro regards the oldest religions of the Near East as fertility cults. He argues that primitive man imagined the rain which fructified the crops as analogous to the semen which fructified his own kind (SM p 20). The rain was God's seed, and God himself a mighty penis in the sky. The function of religious rites was to bring this penis to ejaculation. Allegro also thinks that the Jewish and Christian religions originated as fertility cults. His basis for this claim is that he can trace such god names as Zeus, Yahweh and Jesus to a Sumerian root which, about 3500 BC, meant ‘semen’ (pp 21-3). ‘The etymologist’ he tells us, ‘looks for the “root” of the word, that is the inner core which expresses its fundamental or “radical” concept’ (SM p 3). He supposes that this root provides a guide to the meaning of the word over the whole of its history. This is the basis for his statement that, to seek the ‘later meanings in religious literature like the Bible’ of the words ‘god’, ‘priest’, ‘sin’, etc, one must first ‘discover their basic meaning’, that is, the meaning of their Sumerian roots (SM p.xvii).

Changing meanings

I lack the knowledge to dispute his views on particular etymologies, but an obvious objection to the theory is that – as Allegro well knows (SM p 4) –words very often persist, while the ideas associated with them change radically. Even if the ‘root’ of the word ‘Jesus’ means ‘semen’ in what Allegro says is the earliest written language of the world (p 30), it does not follow that the word had that meaning at the time when Christianity originated – any more than the word ‘hysterical’ today suggests a disordered womb, notwithstanding the meaning of υδτεα Allegro tries to discount considerations of this kind by alleging that ‘in any study of the sources and development of a particular religion, ideas are the vital factor. History takes second place. Even time is relatively unimportant’ (SM p xx).

The clear implication of this is that the ideas are not substantially affected by history or by time. This is surely erroneous, and Allegro concedes as much when he says, apropos of modern religious thinking, that ‘churches of all denominations are continually changing their interpretation of the Creed if not the words’ (p 140). He seems, however, to suppose that such rapid change is characteristic only of modern religious thinking. Thus he says:

Of course, the meanings of words change; the more often they are used the wider becomes their reference. Today, with faster and easier means of communication, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain control over the meanings of words . . . In antiquity, people and ideas did not move quite so fast. Travel was not easy; remote areas would stay remote over generations and their languages would preserve old words and linguistic forms long lost in places open to foreign influence. (SM pp 4-5)

But, surely, before literacy and even writing were universal, and before there was much centralization, the meanings of words would change more, and not less, rapidly. If the meaning of the Sumerian root of a Biblical word is merely one phase in a sequence of meanings, and if it is the original meaning that is of importance for Christian origins, then we shall have to refer the matter to the palaeontologists.

Allegro argues, doubtless correctly, that religious terminology and liturgies were handed down unchanged over long periods, with the result that the hymns and religious epics ‘differ considerably from the common tongue of the same period’. The common language of daily intercourse had gradually changed, while the language of religious transactions had been preserved from a remote past. The philologists, he says, will study such liturgies because it in them that ‘we can expect to find words used in their most primitive sense’ (SM p 5). But it is precisely because the archaisms of these liturgies could no longer be understood by the worshippers that old words came to be reinterpreted and associated with new ideas.

What is true of words is equally true of rituals. Frazer and others have shown that rites which were originally intended to promote the growth of crops persisted in urban environments which had lost direct concern with agriculture, and where, therefore, their original purpose was no longer understood. By the beginning of our era such rites had been widely reinterpreted as ensuring the performers some kind of immortality. Allegro, however, seems to suppose that a fertility ritual continued to he regarded as such, even in adaptation. He does not deny that, as civilization developed, ‘the aim of religious ritual became less to influence the weather and the crops than to attain wisdom and the knowledge of the future’ But he nevertheless supposes that the later worshippers, as much as the earlier, were consciously concerned with a divine penis. And his justification for this view is that ‘the heavenly penis … was not only the source of life-giving semen, it was the origin of knowledge’.

But why, we ask, was it considered to be the origin of knowledge? Because, Allegro answers (SM pp xi - xii), man, conscious that he was cleverer than animal, thought he ‘must have been tapping a source of wisdom no less real than the rain that fructified the ground’. But Allegro is supposed to be explaining why man regarded rain, alias semen, as a ‘real source of wisdom!’ Anyway, it is vital to his theory that, ‘to the ancient; knowledge and fertility derived from the same source’ (p 23). To assimilate the divine semen is to have divine knowledge and thus power. Now there were obviously ‘some plants and trees which contained more of the god's sperm in their sap than others’ – for some had no power, while others could heal and yet others kill. Thus by eating the right plants the prophet could induce within himself an hallucinatory state which he explained as direct communion with God (pp 24-6). Such resort to drugs was common, and one ‘particular drug source’ (p 30) was specially favoured, namely the red-topped mushroom Amanita Muscaria.

Allegro's evidence for the importance of this plant is, of course, philological. Greek and Latin plant names can be traced to ‘a common source in Sumerian’ (p 30), and these roots can be interpreted as allusions to certain features of a mushroom. For instance, one of the Greek names for the mandrake is ‘traceable to a Sumerian original meaning “heavenly shade”’, and this is clearly ‘a reference to the canopy of the opened fungus (SM p 40). If we object that a mandrake is not a mushroom, Allegro will reply that ‘the ancients did differentiate the mushroom from other plants, so that Its names have to be disentangled from those of quite unrelated species’. His method, then, is to take any plant name in Greek or Latin, trace it to a root which suggests, however remotely, one of the real or supposed characters of a mushroom, and then claim that the original meaning of the Greek or Latin word was ‘mushroom’.

The secret cult

Allegro seems to think that the theory that god was a penis in the sky was universal. We should need a lot of evidence to convinced – something on the scale of a new edition of the Golden Bough! He similarly supposes (p 39) that resort to drugs, particularly to Amanita Muscaria, was almost universal in the ancient world. Yet he holds that the identity of this plant which provided the divine semen was a closely guarded secret (p 30), and that the manner of using the herb, the accompanying incantations etc, were equally secret. Such secrets were normally passed on by word of mouth from believer to initiate; but a crisis such as the Jewish War of AD 66-70 would disperse the faithful, with the result that the secrets would to be recorded in writing if they were to survive. Naturally, these writings must betray nothing to outsiders and be intelligible only to those within the dispersed communities. Allegro believes that the New Testament was written as a disguised herbal of this kind, to meet the crisis created by the Jewish War. It is thus an elaborate cryptogram to be deciphered by philologists.

One objection to this theory is that the earliest part of the New Testament (the principal letters of Paul) is generally agreed to have been written – unlike the gospels – before the catastrophe of AD 66, and presents a supernatural Jesus with no doctrines or biography, radically different from .the historical personage of the gospels. Allegro also supposes that the extent to which early Christian communities were persecuted proves that they were obliged to keep their cultic activities secret. Yet on the same page (p 40) he admits that the evidence for this persecution is scant, since there are but ‘very few places’ where Christians are ‘mentioned at all’ by Roman writers.

The Jesus who suffered under Pilate is, on this theory, purely mythical. He was invented as a cipher and later accepted as an historical personage by Christians who wished to rid their faith of drug addiction. In trying to discredit the historicity of Jesus by such a theory, Allegro will unfortunately produce the opposite effect. The reader, aware of the obvious defects of the theory, will readily suppose the existence of an historical Jesus to be an unassailable fact and will be quite unaware that there is evidence against it far stronger than any offered by Allegro.

The first fifty pages of The End of a Road re-state in summary the theory argued in The Sacred Mushroom, and Allegro then sketches the further development of Christianity. The original community must, on his theory, have consisted of men whose aim was ecstatic and hallucinatory experience; and such a body could have had little centrally agreed doctrine and could have cohered only with difficulty. When ecstatic communion with god was replaced by belief in the sojourn on earth of a god-man in the recent past, a uniform faith in certain propositions, believed proved by Biblical evidence, could be imposed by a strong central authority. But since the eighteenth century a close examination of the Bible, led by the clergy themselves, has made this uniformity of doctrine increasingly difficult, and today even the Catholic Church is no longer able to give confident and dogmatic answers to questions of Biblical interpretation or ethics. The crowning irony Allegro sees in the rise the ecumenical movement at this time when in fact Christians are more than ever divided among themselves.

Allegro is concerned that this discrediting of the authority of the Church, to which his own theory of Christian origins contributes, should not lead to rejection of sensible moral tenets that happen to have been associated with Christianity. On the other hand he points out that the moral precepts of the Bible are not very helpful as they stand, since complex modern problems (eg those posed by advances in technology and medicine) are not to be settled by an appeal to such rules of thumb (pp 82, 118). Here he is absolutely right. However, the likelihood of morality suffering as a result of a further diminution of the authority of Jesus is something he perhaps exaggerates – although he is able to argue that a collapse of Church authority in countries where it has been very strong (South America, Italy) could lead to a Communist tyranny every whit as bad as what preceded (pp 48, 102-4). He thinks that, without belief in a hereafter, men are disinclined to think in terms of a relatively remote future, and that standards of behaviour may therefore fall (pp 90-91), I should reply that, although conduct is certainly influenced by fear of punishment or hope of reward, many men are not much influenced by the anticipation of remote consequences. Furthermore, It is not true that, without belief in immortality, ‘the extent of social responsibility would seem limited to the seven or eight decades of a normal lifetime’ (p 91). Most men will surely act by a code which provides for their children and grandchildren, as well as themselves. Nor should we overestimate the extent to which ethical ideas are imposed by a particular religion; for in the most important respects they are the same for all religions and prevail even among those who profess no religion. They clearly owe their origin to the social instinct which prompts all normal men to consider the interests of their fellows.

However, Allegro fears that the decline of religion may lead to the rise of irrational philosophies which are just as deplorable, and this is his basis for continually stressing the need for what he calls independent, critical thinking (pp 104-8, 158). He writes as though the mind could be trained, as a muscle is trained, to deal effectively with whatever it works on. Unfortunately, sound reasoning seems to depend not on the vigour or suppleness of some specific mental capacity, but on (1) adequate knowledge of the matter in hand, (2) absence of bias, and (3) the existence of a strong motive for inquiry – a motive that is free from any element that favours any one conclusion rather than another, All three of these factors are clearly relative to, and vary with, the question at issue, With the result that a man commonly reasons well on one matter and badly on another, and it is quite impossible to train him to a generalized ‘critical thinking’. It seems to the present writer that far too many people have come to suppose that they have been ‘trained to think’ and are therefore qualified to pronounce on complicated problems without careful study of the facts. Allegro's book can only encourage such excessive self-confidence. He declares: ‘We do not all need religion: we do need self-confidence, and the two are incompatible’ (p 181). In truth they are not. Founders of religious sects (Luther, Calvin, Irving) have been confident, even pugnacious. And a self-confidence based on ignorance can lead only to error.

[1] John M. Allegro, The End of a Road (Macgibbon & Kee, 1970, pp 184, £1.75).

[2] (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970.) It is not possible to review the present book without reference to its predecessor (which I shall designate as SM. Page references not preceded by SM are to the volume at present under review).

The Bibliography of Fantastic Beliefs