The Gates of Hell: MKULTRA, Robert Graves, William Sargant, & Wasson’s Magic Mushroom

William Sargant was a British psychiatrist best remembered for promoting treatments such as psychosurgery, deep sleep treatment, electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock therapy. Sargant worked in some capacity for MI5 (and possibly MI6), and corresponded with the infamous psychiatrist Ewen Cameron (who was performing MKULTRA research in Canada). While he reputedly wanted the British government to distance itself from the CIA project (he called it “blacker than black”), he remained committed to the principle of mind control, and allegedly became the link between British Intelligence and MKULTRA. Besides his affiliations with the Tavistock Institute, there is also a curious overlap with the world of Fabianism, leftist movements, and progressive creative circles. In 1954, a convalescing Sargant was completing his book Battle for the Mind in Majorca, and had Robert Graves on hand to help him edit it. Robert Graves is the famous poet, novelist and critic who is as responsible as Joseph Campbell for reintroducing ancient myths into popular culture (The White Goddess) and popularizing ancient history (I Claudius).

So what’s the connection between a poet-mythologist and the world of social engineering and mind control? The answer I found was surprising because also so familiar: the world of hallucinogens. In 1952, Robert Gordon Wasson (the man who brought the magic mushroom to the west) wrote to Graves asking him about the kind of mushroom which had allegedly been responsible for Claudius’ death. Graves sent Wasson an account of ancient Mexican religious ceremonies that included the ingestion of mushrooms—mushrooms that had “eluded botanists and explorers for nearly five hundred years and, as a result, were generally considered to be mythical.” Graves claimed there was new evidence for their actual existence, but that currently the only thing known about them was that they were referred to as “the flesh of God.” It was allegedly Graves’ tip that sent the Wassons down to Mexico in 1955, where they made the discovery that would help kick start the counterculture by sparking off the “psychedelic revolution.”

Among the first people to hear of Wasson’s discovery were Graves and his “friend,” William Sargant. A few months after Wasson’s discovery, the CIA were reporting on the work of “an amateur mycologist” and the potential to incorporate his findings into what was then Project Artichoke, soon to be MKULTRA. Small world. (Wasson’s team was then allegedly infiltrated by CIA agent James Moore, before the next trip to Mexico.) As for Wasson being “an amateur mycologist”: maybe so, but he was also vice president of J. P. Morgan at the time, one of the biggest banks in the world, so not exactly an “independent researcher.” To cement Wasson’s finding, Life magazine ran a piece in 1957 called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” Life magazine was published by Henry Luce, close friend of CIA-director (and MKULTRA initiator) Allen Dulles. According to Carl Bernstein, in “CIA and the Media,” Luce “readily allowed certain members of his staff to work for the Agency and agreed to provide jobs and credentials for other CIA operatives who lacked journalistic experience.”

In his memoir, author Tom Robbins talks about the impact this article had in “turning on” countless young Americans—himself and Timothy Leary included—all thanks to an English war poet who became famous writing historical novels about ancient Rome! Was it also the CIA who coined the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction”?

For full piece with citations, go here.

Jasun Horsley

Jasun Horsley

Existential detective. Liminalist author. Movie autist in chronic confessional mode. You only think you don't know who I am.
Jasun Horsley
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