How the psychedelic movement started in Cheshire

In the summer of 1964, author and MK-Ultra test subject Ken Kesey and his friends took a bus trip across the United States, spreading a whole new drug everywhere they went: LSD.

It would be the start of a psychedelic revolution that would spawn some of the most enduring and innovative music, literature and art of the last century.

However, this wasn’t the first time the effects of psychedelic drugs had reverberated through mainstream pop culture. It happened almost exactly a century ago, when a Cheshire writer introduced the shamanic use of Siberian mushrooms in a children’s book.

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Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, born in Daresbury, and better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll, published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865.

Lewis Carroll, 1857

Marcus Boon, a writer and lecturer at York University in Toronto, noted the book’s psychedelic qualities in his Road of Excess: A Writers’ History of Drugs, that “pretty much any episode of the book… [resonates] with the psychedelic experience.”

“Alice changes size when she drinks from unmarked ‘poison’ bottles, or eats cakes that say ‘EAT ME… Alice encounters a caterpillar perched on top of a mushroom, smoking a hookah, then s’ goes away, informing her that she can grow larger or smaller, depending on which side of the perfectly circular mushroom she eats.

“The logic games at Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the tricks played with visual space by the Cheshire Cat, pretty much any episode in the book in fact, resonates with the psychedelic experience.”

The Cheshire Cat as depicted by John Tenniel.
The Cheshire Cat as depicted by John Tenniel, Lewis Carroll’s first illustrator.

Boon cites the following quote from the book itself as particularly psychedelic: “At first, however, she waited a few minutes to see if she would shrink any further: she was feeling a little nervous about it; ’cause it might finish, you know, said Alice, in my outing quite, like a candle. ‘I wonder how I should be then?’ And she tried to imagine what a candle flame looks like after it’s extinguished, because she couldn’t remember ever seeing such a thing.”

1865 seems incredibly early for an English writer to know anything about psychedelics. 100 years later, LSD was just beginning to make waves in pop culture; but Boon says Carroll had a fairly deep knowledge of the effects of some choice psychoactive substances.

Boon states, “Carroll knew the world of narcotics through friendships with users such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Henry Kingsley; he also had a copy of Stimulants and narcotics (1864), by the English toxicologist Francis Anstie, who reviews the psychoactive substances available at the time.

“Specifically, Carroll had read Mordecai Cooke’s books on intoxicants, The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860) and Simple and easy account of British mushrooms (1862), with their descriptions of the use of Siberian amanita”.

Amanita mushroom

The amanita mushroom has been suggested as the mysterious psychedelic ‘Soma’, a drug that appears in the Hindu Vedas and is an important part of Zoroastrianism.

Boon isn’t the first to make the connection between Lewis Carroll’s work and psychedelics. Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic mainstay “White Rabbit,” one of the movement’s defining songs, is very much based on Wonderland.

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