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The Discovery of a Lifetime

Top half of one of twelve panels in the Psalter,
illustrating Biblical scenes with psychoactive mushrooms

In November 2006, shortly after the publication of my book Not in His Image, where I describe entheogenic rites in the pagan Mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere, I made a long-awaited visit to the National Library in Paris. Upon acquiring a membership card I was able to consult the archives for Greek and Latin manuscripts, of which the BNF (Bibliotheque National de France) has an impressive collection. I was in quest of a very particular item, Latin MS 8846, the Paris Eadwine Psalter. This is the single and unique illustrated Medieval text of its kind, incomparable to anything else.

I was not able to handle the actual MS, but I examined the color microfilm made from it. My session of three hours in the microfilm booth left me with wide eyes, a slack jaw, and unsteady feet. I literally staggered out into the Rue de Richelieu. For a couple of hours I remained in state of astonishment, awed by the images I had seen rolling across the microfilm screen.

Psychedelic Bible

The Paris Eadwine Psalter is an oversize bound book of about 184 sheets, about 367 pages counting both sides. The cover page is stamped Volume No. 174, 10 October 1873, presumably the day it was acquired or catalogued. It opens with five full-page panels divided into twelve sections, lavishly colored and detailed. The panels show incidents from the Old Testament, running from the creation of Adam and Eve to the life of the Patriarch Jacob. There immediately follow many half-page and full-page illustrations of the Psalms interspersed with Latin commentary. After about 100 pages come four more twelve-section panels resuming the story of Jacob, then the illustrations jump to the Ark of the Covenant, David and Goliath, and John the Baptist. About 45 pages further on there is a unique page composed of eighteen panels celebrating Jesus Christ, and then two more twelve-panel pages illustrating events in the life of the Savior.

All this is totally routine Biblical narrative, larded with pious commentary and directions for song and prayer. What is not routine by a long shot is the way the narrative is illustrated. Blue-staining mushrooms and mushroom-like omphali occur in lavish form in the first 100 pages, but mostly diminish and disappear after that. Dozens of pages present versions of a stylized tree with a blue trunk, suggesting how several psychoactive mushrooms of the Genus psilocybe can grow from the trunk of a single "fruiting body" that sprouts from the mycelium. Often the trees are integratred into dramatic scenes showing humans interacting with angels and demons.

Other, more elaborate scenes depict Apocalyptic events with the figure of Christ often placed right next to a mushroom cluster. The intertwining stems of the fungi, realistically shown as slender and curvaceous, just as they appear in the wild, are artistically woven in the Celtic style of the Book of Kells and other Irish illuminated manuscripts from the same era. In many scenes (as seen below), a naturalistic mushroom nestles among ornate omphalos-buds that recall the segmented appearance of raspberries and blackberries, yet these latter forms are clearly not naturalistic. They are carefully painted ovals or egg-shapes, distinct from the slender pin-headed mushroom without segments. Clearly, the artist knew the difference between stylistic and naturalistic representation and, for some reason, chose to juxtapose the two. I have suggested that the omphalos-bud was an artistic convention of the Mysteries intended to indicate how molecular structure looks in the visionary trance induced by psychoactive plants.


There is considerable confusion about the naming of Latin MS 8846, called the Anglo-Catalan Psalter. Because it was made in Canterbury, England, around 1180 CE, it is sometimes called the Canterbury Psalter. It was left unfinished and taken to Spain for completion, hence the odd name Anglo-Catalan.

At the very same time, another, nearly identical psalter was produced in Canterbury: MS R 17.1 (987), now kept at Trinity College, Cambridge, England. Both psalters are attributed to the master scribe named Eadwine ("generous friend"), and both contain the same sequence of narrative events, but the Canterbury psalter MS R 17.1 displays none of the entheogenic imagery of BNF Latin MS 8846, the Paris Eadwine Psalter. In 1935 M. R. James published a reduced fascimile of the Cambridge MS. More recently, in 1992, it has been published as The Eadwine Psalter by the Modern Humanities Research Association of Pennsylvania State University in the USA. This book can be ordered on Amazon.com for a heady price. Disappointingly, it shows that the Cambridge MS is totally devoid of psychoactive mushroom imagery.

In one brief chapter of 1992 facsimile book, religious scholar Patricia Stirneman discusses the relationship of Latin MS 8846 to its Canterbury counterpart. Amazingly, she does not say a word or allude in any way to the lavish psychedelic imagery of the Paris MS; nor does she explain how two manuscripts produced from the same source at the same time could be so utterly different.

To scholars, the presence of psychoactive mushrooms in religious art is a closed subject, I guess, a revelation too outrageous to admit; but for this self-taught scholar it was the discovery of a lifetime.

Intentional Blindness

In 2002 the Spanish publishing house Moleiro publlished an exact copy of the Paris Eadwine Psalter, including the natural blemishes of the original pages. (The only earlier facsimile edition was published in Copenhagen in 1958.) The meticulous catalogue description makes not the slightest allusion to mushroom imagery, or anything at all unusual. The sample pictures offered by Moleiro are carefully cropped to avoid showing any evidence of illuminating fungi. Another on-line resource, Facsimiles of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, reproduces some tell-tale scenes but without comment on what is being shown. An article on the Moleiro edition in the UK online magazine Church Times (July, 2005) says:

THE PSALTER, also known as the Anglo-Catalan Psalter, was made in Canterbury in about 1180. It was left unfinished, and, after 1200, was taken to Catalonia — perhaps as a gift. In the middle of the 14th century, the decoration of the manuscript was completed by Catalan artists, probably working in Barcelona.

The book was meant to be a copy of a famous Carolingian ninth-century Psalter, the Utrecht Psalter, and was acquired by the Christ Church Cathedral Priory, Canterbury, in about 1000. The original was named after the city to whose university library it now belongs, and was made at the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, near Rheims, between 820 and 835. Each psalm is illustrated by drawings with an attempt to depict certain passages in the text, and by amalgamating a number of scenes into a single rectangular picture.

The article states that the Canterbury Psalter in Cambridge, the one without mushrooms, was made first, and then came "the Great Canterbury Psalter, or the Anglo-Catalan Psalter, which followed all the innovations of the Eadwine Psalter. It has three parallel texts — Latin, Hebrew and Catalan — and also has the prefatory illustrations of the Old and New Testament scenes. To an extent, it is a copy of the Eadwine Psalter, particularly in its text, but the artists of the illustrations seem, on occasion, to have referred back to the original Utrecht Psalter of the ninth century."

As I noted elsewhere, the mushroom imagery of the Utrecht Psalter (Reims, c. 800 CE) was known to discover the Paris MS.

The article continues:

A decision was made to alter radically the appearance of the illustrations by changing the monochrome or coloured drawings of the Utrecht and Eadwine Psalters to coloured paintings with larger figures and burnished-gold grounds—the technique used for the most luxuriously illustrated books of the late 12th century.

This new style of illustration required the artists to make many innovations in the visual composition of their imagery. Of all the copies of the Utrecht Psalter, this one made the greatest demand on the creative ingenuity of its artists.

In spite of the elaborate description of artistic techniques, involving the close comparison of three distinct works of art, not a single word is said about the vivid mushroom images in the Paris MS. It appears that religious scholars practice intentional blindness when it comes to this extraordinary work of sacred art.

Private Illuminations

I am no expert on medieval illuminated manuscripts, but from what I can gather the Paris Eadwine Psalter was the unique production of British-Celtic artists who supplied the psychedelic material. If it was produced sequentially, and finished in Catalonia, it seems that the artist(s) who took over the job phased out the mushrooms, which do not appear at all after page 100. Odd, since mushrooms of the Genus psilocybe are known to grow prolifically in Catalonia, on the southfacing slopes of the Pyrenees. But of course they also grow prolifically all over England, Wales, and Ireland.

I would guess there was a division of opinion among the two teams of scribes who produced Latin MS 8846. The second shift in Catalonia did not eliminate the vivid mushroom imagery, but they did not continue it, either. Whatever the case, "the technique used for the most luxuriously illustrated books of the late 12th century" was applied to this masterpiece, suggesting that someone was putting a lot of time and money into it, intending to produce a prized work of art. I wonder if the individual or group who initially conceived this extraordinary book had in mind to illustrate it fully and completely with mushroom imagery. Did the "generous friend" who proposed the Paris Eadwine Psalter, and may have directed its initial execution, want to share his private illuminations with the world at large?

This seems probable, but given how little we know its origin and production, it is impossible to be certain about how and why the Paris Eadwine Psalter was created.

jll Andalucia February 16, 2008

 

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.