Last week, I published an article on this blog about how the Romans enjoyed eating wild-foraged mushrooms and may have used them in political murders. You see, I have a penchant for classical history and spent a lot of time in college studying up on the war-torn, chaotic, and fascinating Greco-Roman period, with a specific focus on the Peloponnesian War, which ravaged Greece for nearly 3 decades of the 5th century BCE. I also had a special fondness for the political convulsions of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. I suppose these interests might indicate that I am a little bloody-minded, but I found it to be a very pleasurable academic pursuit in the wake of many years as a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic and avid reader of fantasy fiction.
Right as I was finishing up with the piece on the Romans, I realized that I had not really touched on the Greek perspective on mushrooms, even though their relationship with mushrooms was certainly an influence in Hellenic thinking and cultural expression. There are significant differences between the Hellenes (Greeks) and the Romans, but in many ways the Romans looked to the Greeks for ideas about science, philosophy, military strategy, and of course religion (most of the primary Roman gods are basically ripped-off versions of older Greek deities). The Romans even thought that their society was descended from Aeneas, a Trojan hero who fought in that war after which certain computer viruses are named.
Anyway, although I am moving backwards through history, I figured it made sense to address the mycophilia (and in some cases mycophobia) of the Greeks, Egyptians, and other people of Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean.
One additional note: although I rarely discuss psychoactive and hallucinogenic mushrooms and fungi on this blog, I find some of the theories relating to these organisms in the context of Greek culture to be interesting enough to include. Please don’t take this the wrong way; I am neither endorsing nor condemning the historic use of magic mushrooms, and frankly I usually steer clear of the topic in order to avoid annoying conversations with people who think that all mushroom hunters are gooned-out trippers. Anyway, enough of that, let’s get onto an overview of mushroom use in the bronze age. Huzzah!
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Mushrooms Around the Ancient Aegean Sea
There is a good bit of evidence supporting the notion that ancient Europeans experimented with mycophagy, which is fancy lingo for eating mushrooms. A decade and change ago, archaeologists in Nola, Italy discovered a food bowl with mushroom residue on it, confirming suspicion that Bronze Age pantries were supplemented with wild-gathered mushrooms. Other archaeological digs support this hypothesis—bits of puffball mushrooms have been found at Paleolithic sites in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, and the Red Lady of el Miron had spores of both boleteus and agaric mushrooms on her teeth when she died nearly 19,000 years ago.
As humanity struggled through its squalid and mean adolescence, there is no doubt that fungi attracted attention for their potential as food and medicine, and Europe’s temperate climate supports an astonishing number of mushroom species that people experimented with. By 400 BC, mushroom collecting was widespread and entrenched, as it remains today in much of Europe. After all, mushroom hunting is the national sport of the Czech Republic. In future posts, I will examine more northern and eastern European mushroom history, but for now suffice it to say, mushroom hunting and use were common practices during the paleolithic era, setting the stage for Bronze Age curiosity and exploration of mycology.
The powerful men of the Classical Period coveted mushrooms, and having the means to collect and consume mushrooms was one hallmark of class that distinguished nobleman from commoner. Ample historical evidence suggests that eastern Mediterranean cultures—the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, and others—loved their edible fungi.
The ancient Egyptians called mushrooms “sons of the gods” and “plants of immortality” and thought that the storm god Set created them by hurling lightning bolts coated in mushroom-seed to earth. Consuming mushrooms was the exclusive privilege of the pharaoh and his dining companions. Hieroglyphs carved some 4,600 years ago forbid common men from even touching mushrooms because they were strictly provender for the high-born. The pharaoh Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid of Giza around 4,575 years ago, adored truffles and made sure the royal table was always supplied with these rare desert-born fungi.
Not only did the Egyptians think mushrooms were scrumptious; they were also considered health food. In the early 400s, an Egyptian scholar named Athenaeus authored Deipnoshistae (The Partying Professors or The Gatronomers, depending on your translator). Deipnoshistae included a mushroom recipe for a dish called mykai. In the style so popular amongst classical authors, Athenaeus couched Deipnoshistae as a dialogue between famous thinkers, including Diphilus of Siphnos, who was a renowned Hellenistic court scholar, nutritional expert, and doctor.
Diphilus shared his instructions for preparing mykai, a stewed mushroom dish that was quite popular with the Romans in later years. In addition, Athenaeus’s characterization of Diphilus recommended mushrooms as a healthy main course, which points to the Egyptian view that mushrooms were medicinal and culinary significant.
The curious and clever Greeks of the Classical Period were among the first westerners to write about mushrooms and explore their origins and potential. Given the lively cultural exchange between the Greeks and their eastern neighbors, it’s possible that mycophilia traveled across the Aegean from Asia Minor and Egypt, and the idea of mushroom spores traveling to earth on lightning bolts hurled by powerful gods was a common theme espoused by both Greeks and Egyptians.
Natural science was an area of inquiry that fascinated Greek philosopher-scholars, and mushrooms presented a baffling problem because they did not grow like other plants. Aristotle found mushrooms puzzling but he was determined to figure out what sort of creature they were because, in his words, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
Socrates’ student observed that mushrooms reproduced quickly, and he believed that they must have very small seeds that could not be observed by the naked eye. Ultimately, Aristotle classified mushrooms as plants in his Natural Philosophy, but he was uneasy with the conclusion and urged others to look more closely at the problem.
Hippocrates, the famed doctor for which the physician’s oath is named, discussed beneficial and poisonous mushrooms with his students at the Athenian Lyceum around 430 BC, and presented some ideas about how to treat patients with mushroom poisoning. Around the same time, the tragedian Euripides wrote about the dangers of accidental mushroom poisoning after his wife and children succumbed to illness in the aftermath of a deadly mushroom meal.
Despite concern about poisonous fungi, Greek horticulturalists tackled culinary mushroom cultivation around 200 BC, adding to a growing body of knowledge about the practical uses of fungi. The scientist Theophrastus broke the ice in an essay with the titillating title Concerning Odors by noting that mushrooms growing on dung were not vile and stinky like other evil and rotting things and actually could be good to eat. Theophrastus’ protégé Nicandros took things a step further when he discovered how to get ground-loving mushrooms to grow in manure-filled holes next to fig trees, and he taught his method to anyone who would listen.
The Greeks clearly appreciated the culinary value of fungi even though wild mushrooms were sometimes risky meals. Anthropological and literary evidence suggest that Greeks cultivated Agrocybe aeregita on a small scale (commonly called the pioppino, a wood-decomposer that’s common in European markets today), as did the Romans after them. The Roman historian Seutonius explained that the Greeks called mushrooms “food of the gods,” and noted that the Hellenes favored them as supplements to an otherwise sparse table.
Although Aristotle used scientific reasoning to approach the classification of mushrooms, most of his contemporaries were inclined to view mushrooms as expressions of magical forces at work in the world. Writers who included observations about fungi agreed that mushrooms’ propensity for growing in the aftermath of rain and lightning storms was a simple fact.
Porphyry, a mycophile from the Phoenician city of Tyre, remarked that mushrooms could reasonably be called “sons of the gods” because they were born without seed. In the popular plays and literature of the time, mushrooms were called “gifts of Zeus,” the head honcho of the Greek pantheon and god of thunder and storms. In these ways, mushrooms were woven into the intellectual and spiritual life of Classical Greece and Asia Minor in a way that highlighted the mystery of the fungal organism.
The Greeks were clearly curious about mushrooms but still believed that there was something unknowable about their sudden and dramatic appearance.
Mushrooms and Greek Religious Traditions
The Greeks had a complex relationship with religion, as anyone who’s read their mythology knows. The gods were fickle and self-involved, leaving people with the impression that sometimes life is just downright unfair, no matter how well you do homage to a particular deity. The stories of faithless Zeus being pursued by Hera, Poseidon’s vendetta against quick-witted Odysseus, and that rather nasty incident when three beautiful goddesses duked it out over the Golden Apple are all perfect examples of the cynicism embedded in Greek religious thought.
Despite their doubts about the gods’ interest in the happiness and wellbeing of mankind, the Hellenes had a few holy practices that were treated with a great deal of reverence, and some ethnomycologists who study the connection between fungi and human society are convinced that these rituals were facilitated by the use of psychoactive fungi.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, Dionysian orgies, and the Oracle at Delphi were all Greek traditions in which the celebrants were unbridled by everyday reason, beheld visions, and believed the gods spoke to them and informed their actions. Although there is no solid reference to fungus being consumed at these rituals (which is not surprising, because all of these events were strictly closed-doors affairs and thus are still shrouded in some degree mystery), the possibility that the Greeks were religious mushroom trippers is an idea that persists in the mycological community today.
Some scholars believe that the ecstatic rituals of the Greeks were fueled by the use of a fungus called ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a toxic and hallucinogenic fungus that grows on grain. One byproduct of ergot infection of grain berries is LSA, a chemical precursor to lysergic acid (LSD).
Ergot is responsible for at least a few cases of collective hysteria in history, most notably in Salem, Massachusetts. Numerous historians think that accidental ergot ingestion triggered group hallucinations and paranoia and brought about the witch trials that permanently besmirched the reputation of Puritanical New England.
R. Gordon Wasson, a banker and self-styled ethnomycologist, took significant interest in the Greeks’ possible use of intoxicating fungi as well. Wasson believed that soma, which is a divine plant that is frequently mentioned in the Rg Veda (an ancient holy text that informed pre-Hindu Vedic beliefs) was the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria).
Wasson presented an alternative to the LSA/ergot theory to explain the ecstatic rituals of the Greeks. Wasson thought the Greeks, like the Vedic priesthood of ancient India, used the red and white polka-dotted fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) to generate altered states of consciousness. In the same vein, a prominent psychonaut named Terrence McKenna put forth the idea that the Greeks used psilocybin mushrooms in their religious ceremonies and secretive, cultish rituals.
Terrence McKenna is to psilocybin what Timothy Leary is to LSD, and he advocated for the use of hallucinogens for decades. In spite of his bizarre demeanor and strange vocal timbre, McKenna became a pop icon in the 1970s up until his death in 2000, and he and his brother Dennis co-authored a psilocybin cultivation manual under the cryptic pseudonyms O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric that is directly responsible for the explosion of home magic mushroom growing in the United States. In a statement that pretty well sums up his philosophy, McKenna once remarked, “I think of going to the grave without having a psychedelic experience like going to the grave without ever having sex. It means that you never figured out what it is all about.”
Interestingly enough, the initiates at the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries were told to gather a wild “bulbous plant” at Agrai during the course of the experience, and some depictions of urns at the Eleusinian Mysteries appear to be filled with mushrooms. Considering that the Greeks thought that mushrooms were indeed plants with very small seeds, it’s entirely possible that contemporary writers who described hunting for wild “bulbous plants” at Agrai in preparation for the Lesser Mysteries were actually describing mushroom hunting!
Whether or not the Eleusinian Mysteries were fueled by psychoactive plants or fungi remains unclear, but it’s a fascinating hypothesis that neatly answers some very long-standing questions about the Greeks’ wild spiritual celebrations.
Whether or not McKenna and Wasson were right about the Greeks intentionally consuming psychoactive fungi at their various prophetic and religious celebrations, the historical evidence certainly supports the notion that mushrooms were a curiosity to the physicians, naturalists, gourmets, and philosophers of the Classical period.
Concluding Thoughts on Greek and Egyptian Mushroom Use
I think it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the Greek understanding of mushrooms is somewhat similar to our own in the United States. References to mushrooms in Greek literature are sparse, and where they do appear, they are surrounded by uncertainty and some degree of fear. It’s obvious that at least a few prominent Greeks enjoyed eating mushrooms, but the writings and lectures of other Greek thinkers discouraging mushroom consumption because of the possibility of poisoning speak loudly of mistrust of wild-gathered mushrooms in particular.
The Egyptians, on the other hand, seemed to have more parallels with the Romans, in that they both had a positive relationship with mushrooms and thought they were healthy prestigious food that were a signal of wealth and class. Maybe it’s the truffles; both cultures loved them, and it’s sort of hard to hate on mushrooms when you’ve got truffles in your back yard.