As it turns out, moose, caribou, and, yes, reindeer will occasion upon Amanita muscaria mushrooms. Also known as Fly Agaric, this mushroom is easily identifiable by its bright red appearance and white spots (we’ve all played Super Mario right?), not all too dissimilar to the appearance of Santa Claus… Could there be some relationship between the Christmas fables and this mushroom?
Well, Fly Agaric contains the psychoactive compound muscimol, which activates the GABA receptors. These are the very same receptors that alcohol and benzodiazepines act on, resulting in, as we’d predict, a sedating “drunk” type effect. Depending on dose, muscimol can lead to psychedelic experiences and, at toxic levels, lead to delirium, dissociation, ataxia, and death. After a little mushroom snack under the snow melt, Rudolph might have looked a bit intoxicated, stumbling, and maybe even picking fights with other males before taking a wee on a nearby tree.
In fact, some have thought that indigenous tribes in Siberia and Eastern Europe would ingest the urine of these intoxicated deer and become high themselves. On first glance, this reeks of myth and wouldn’t be the first time someone made large claims about indigenous groups’ behaviors. Journalist Andy Letcher agreed and chocked it up to myth in his book Shroom. But it turns out to be a well documented practice! In fact, 3 years after its publication, Letcher questioned his conclusions in this blog post and it turns out that that Letcher’s encounter may not be the only anecdote out there (see the tweet below by Dr. Natalie Gukasyan at the Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research); perhaps there’s more truth than fiction here.
update: thank you Dr. Franklin King at Mass General’s Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics for identifying a scientific citation that indeed confirms the practices mentioned above. Additionally, consider reading Giorgio Samorini’s book Animals and Psychedelics where he expands on other topics like these.
Fun and games aside, as NPR reported on in 2010, the modern Santa Claus trope actually came from Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, not from stoned reindeer. And perhaps no one is out there drinking reindeer pee, but I’ll be happy to provide integration to the first soul brave enough to do so. As long as there’s mouthwash involved.