Dune’s Magic Mushroom Origin Story
The importance of Dune within the science fiction genre is akin to discussions of Microsoft and Apple in the birth of personal computing. By dozens of accounts, Dune is arguable the most popular science fiction book of all time. But few know about Dune’s magic mushroom origin story and how profound of an influence it may have had on the books creator.
In Frank Herbert’s novel, a laundry list of timeless themes and topics emerges, including: power, male/female dynamics, religion, politics, psychology, ecology, and a mystical substance that expands consciousness and causes entire galaxies to fight over the rights to cultivate it: the Spice Melange.
Dune’s Magic Mushroom
“The most precious substance in the Universe is the spice melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel.”
— Frank Herbert, Dune
It doesn’t take much for any reader to decipher that the Spice in Dune is far more than just a valuable resource for intergalactic travel. As noted in the novel, it is essentially the Water of Life. As the book states, the Spice Melange “gives insight”…the ability for a man to look within his “inward eye. He will look where we cannot — into both feminine and masculine pasts.”
Spice = Psychedelic Mushrooms
If you have jumped far enough into the rabbit hole, you will have found out that Frank Herbert was inspired by his own experience with magic mushrooms (psilocybin) as he was an avid mushroom cultivator.
But where would the source of this truly amazing tidbit be found?
As it turns out, in a publication of one of the world’s most (if not, the most) prolific mycologist, Paul Stamets.
In “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World” (publication 2005) by Paul Stamets; Ten Speed Press), Stamets provides a fascinating expose and guide to the countless applications that fungi can offer to the environment, health, pest control, and the complexity which fungal networks operate on earth.
Hidden within Chapter 9: Inoculation Methods: Spores, Spawn, and Stem Butts, a small section on Page 126 called “Musings on Using Spores: The Fairy Dust of Mushrooms” is where this long-held secret sits.
Here, Stamets introduces the reader to a unique method used by Frank Herbert by pouring a 5-gallon bucket of spore-mass slurry near newly planted firs.
Stamets goes on to confirm Herberts approach as “following natures lead” which is generally a great rule of thumb for inoculating fungi.
But then at the end of the section on Page 127, Stamets reveals to the reader a fact known to almost nobody but suspected by many within the Dune fan culture and psychedelic enthusiast circles hip to the Spice Melange mythology:
“Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune—the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant sand worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Fremen (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by the tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico)—came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.”
Thus, the spice melange was Dune’s magic mushroom.
Evaluating the Source
Before attaching any suspicion or criticism to this passage, it would be a good idea to take a moment to appreciate how just three small paragraphs in a 344 page book about mycelium provides a window into one of the most enigmatic sci-fi sagas ever conceived or written.
The impact of the Dune series cannot be overstated. Since it’s publication in 1964, curious readers have sought what kinds of mind-bending inspirations could have tapped Herberts mind to create the universe that touched so many.
Requiring a full six years to research, Herbert drew ideas from the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, his aunt who was a Catholic nun for Bene Gesserits, and evidently the consciousness-altering effects of psilocybe (“Magic”) mushrooms.
While it is difficult to pin down what a writers ultimate thought processes may have been for a set of fictional characters, world building, or ecological science fiction philosophy, it should be noted that Stamets is first and foremost a scientist. Thus, a profound revelation such as the one above should not be taken lightly.
Dune 2021 – Elevates the Psychedelic Experience
Amazingly, we are given this transitory experience through the protagonist (Paul Atreides) in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune 2021 movie. Which begs the question: Did Villeneuve (or the production team) pick up on something beyond Herbert’s Book and Lynch’s 1984 Version?
Villeneuve’s Dune may have actually dug deeper into the hero’s journey of mind-altering substances.
We are given a more interesting take on young Paul Atreides’ first encounter with spice–which was not even represented in Lynch’s 1984 version or Herbert’s original book. [Fun Fact: in both the book and original 1984 movie, Paul never gets out of the ornithopter to get his first trip off the spice].
For those who have already seen it, Paul is overwhelmed with the psychoactive components of spice melange when he is covered in a cloud of dust. The “voices” he begins to hear suggest he is “awakening”, and his conversations with his mother later detail the visions he can’t ignore.
Which suggests that either Villeneuve’s team had at least some knowledge of Herbert’s past with psychedelic “magic” mushrooms as the foundation for the story or maybe the producers have tapped into something far deeper within the narrative of one whose consciousness was suddenly expanded far beyond himself.
After all, we who have either read the book or seen the original know Paul must eventually drink the “Water of Life” in order to make his full transition into the Lisan Al-Gaib (“the Voice from the Outer World”).
Why not then, portray the stuff that is supposed to be as powerful as the story says it is–especially for the future omniscient ruler of the known universe? If spice is as important as the story says it is, then why not have the first experience being as disorienting and frightening as one would imagine?
This isn’t a far cry from anyone who has taken the plunge into powerful psychedelics and the profound effects they bare on its users.
The Importance of Magic Mushrooms & Psychedelics Today
If there is any point to making this connection, most would agree that it depends on who hears it.
Psychedelic research has recently emerged into a second renaissance and the decriminalization of certain mind-altering substances has been proposed by optimistic researchers and legislators alike.
The timing of the Dune 2021 remake shouldn’t be overlooked at this very critical time for psychedelics. It’s mysterious and prolific writer’s secret source for the books very conception gives us a glimpse into it’s creative potential. The overwhelming evidence supporting those who suffer from PTSD, depression, and other quality-of-life impediments who have sought comfort and total transformation through psychedelic therapy are making monumental leaps in mental health research.
Not only that, but the prologue to Dune begins by telling us all how life on Earth pretty much went downhill—when we depended too heavily on technology and stopped using our heads.
“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
Its hard not to think about the millions self-proclaimed addicts to social media and other virtual reality based activities that have separated many from nature and those close to them.
It’s no wonder that so many can draw hope from Dune’s magic mushroom now that we see so much is at stake today. People feel a disconnect with their national identity and simultaneously struggle with their own identities and the purpose that their lives should stand for.
The lessons that can be drawn from the novel, as well as from the movie—have limitless potential.
There was a point in time where some suspected that Herbert was attempting to lay the ground work for his own cult (which he was very much against by the way). This may have been simply because his fanbase was so utterly enthralled with the richness, complexity, and shear depth of the Dune universe and all it had to offer humanity.
Science fiction in general can give us glimpses into what’s possible in rare and interesting ways. When it comes to Dune’s magic mushroom origins, we are given an even more special tool to evaluate what could be.
Given the growing applications of psychedelics to those who can be uplifted by them, we have a lot to contemplate as we transition into a very technologically advanced time.
Imagine if an entire generation can have the chance to explore their own complexity as Frank Herbert once did. We can all potentially create and share new universes of knowledge with the rest of humanity. Perhaps, it can lead us to a day where we all may breath new life into a future where creation has no limits.
“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune
Julie DavenportDecember 5, 2021 at 2:24 pm
Thank you for this insightfully written piece.