This post is the latest article in an ongoing series I am writing about the history of mycophiles (mushroom-lovers) around the globe. Although not as targeted as my past posts on the Red Lady of el Miron, the Greeks, and the Romans, this post gives a sort of scatter-shot perspective on different ancient cultures that loved mushrooms in one way or another. In these next two weeks, look out for companion posts that delve into Chinese, Japanese, and Mesoamerican mycophiles. So sit back, grab a cup of mushroom tea, and take a look at some of the amazingly diverse cultures that love them some fungus!
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
What is a Mycophile?
“What is it about the mushrooms? Well, to me they’re just so interesting. They’re kind of disgusting to some degree. I grew up loving movies like Alien and John Carpenter’s Thing, but I didn’t want to LIVE in that world, and now I do . . . And you can’t really go back afterwards.
“It’s fascinating to encounter the unknowm, and it’s a great challenge in life to understand one’s own aesthetics. These things are so disgusting and ugly looking, but they’re just fascinating materially and behaviorally. And so they are now the most beautiful things in the world to me. For something that’s completely disgusting and horrific to become beautiful, that’s part of what it is to be human. That’s a remarkable leap we can make, and do make, all the time.
“This stuff is REALLY amazing. I think I can objectively say that it’s amazing. To understand mushrooms is to understand how weird life actually is.”
~Phil Ross, Sculptor, Mycologist, Ardent Mycophile
Author’s Note on Terms:
Three words are ubiquitous in the mushroom-loving community. They are listed below with contextual examples, just in case you’re not already a mushroom nut.
Mycophile: A fungus lover.
Contextual Example: “Patrick made butter poached chanterelles for dinner, then we looked at some budding yeast under his microscope. That guy’s a total mycophile.”
Mycocentric: A viewpoint that places extreme weight on fungal doings and matters.
Contextual Example: “Dan’s girlfriends always break up with him during mushroom season because he’s too mycocentric. Mushroom hunting is all he ever thinks about.”
Mycophobe: Someone who fears fungi. Such persons often think mushrooms are icky and believe that an inordinate number of wild mushrooms are poisonous. This mycophobia often does not cross-apply to popular fungus-based products like antibiotics, beer, and bread, but rather is reserved for fungi that produce fruiting bodies.
Contextual Example: “Josh uses Lysol spray every two minutes, and he shudders every time he passes the portobellos in the produce section. Last week he told me that mushroom hunting is super dangerous and advised me to stop doing it. What a mycophobe!”
Mycophiles Are Everywhere!
The first mushroom fanatic is shrouded in the mists of time, an unknowable person of antiquity that was never captured in the written records of our species. However, it is clear that before there were literary societies, political assassinations, and moist sanitizing towelettes, mushrooms shaped the human psyche. Today, many people give them little thought—they are simply another denizen of the produce section or an annoying blemish in the front yard. However, mushrooms have much to offer us—not just as dinnertime delights or salubrious medicine but also as a lens through which we can view the unknown.
In times past, mushrooms were main characters in the myths that people used to understand the universe. The mysterious and sudden appearance of mushrooms, coupled with their lurid colors and shapes, excited the curiosity of the ancients. However, mushrooms also aroused suspicion and fear. That one sort can kill a man, another can send him into a transcendent mental state, and a third makes a delicious soup was profoundly curious and frightening at the same time, and grappling with this paradox occupied a lot of mental real estate in the course of human history.
To catalog every society that treasures fungi would be a fool’s errand. Rather, I will turn my attention to the general arc of mushroom fever in “hot spots” around the globe that embraced mushrooms as fundamental to the cultural mythos.
Culinary and Medicinal Mushrooms in History
The Chinese discovered the medicinal value of shiitake around 6,000 years ago, and the mushroom has enjoyed a reputation for excellence ever since. Japanese poets waxed purple about the wondrous delight of mushroom hunting, which was viewed as a pure and philosophical pursuit that connected the hunter to the earth. In the words of Shiku, a 19th century Japanese poet:
becomes the wind:
On the other side of the world, the flavorful almond agaric mushroom (Agaricus blazei) was a staple food for Brazilian natives that has potent anti-cancer compounds. In addition to being a good edible mushroom, Agaricus blazei conveyed significant health benefits to the tribes that relied on it for tasty, almond-flavored dishes, and their cancer rates are far lower than the average, even to this day.
Ancient tribes from Uganda revered mushrooms as a food source and took two different mushrooms as totems. Another significant central African tribal group called the Bongo collected many different sorts of fungi since time immemorial, aging and powdering them for soups and other dishes. This pungent mushroom powder added a flavor roughly equivalent to Vietnamese fish sauce, which we all know is totally delicious.
Muslims codified their respect for truffles—one of the Hadiths attributed to the Prophet Mohammad indicates that truffles are holy manna and are good for the eyes. Arab Bedouins, Australian natives, Italians, Turks, Frenchmen, and Kalahari Bushmen independently discovered that truffles were excellent foods, and hunting for them is an integral part of all their culinary traditions that subsequently became a source of revenue as truffle mania spread to chefs around the globe.
The Russians, Czechs, Hungarians, and other Eastern Europeans also stand out for their love affair with mushrooms. Mushroom hunting is considered the national sport of the Czech Republic, and Czech folklore has it that Jesus Christ gifted edible mushrooms to the poor of the world in order to combat famine.
The Russians are wild for edible fungi as well, and their language is full of affectionate names for mushrooms that are as old the Russian tongue itself. A light, warm summer rain is called “mushroom rain,” and it is considered a common problem for a man to become “razsh” or “mushroom crazy.” Askakov and Tolstoy wrote beautifully about the joys of mushroom hunting, a glorious pursuit that is just as exciting and universal as romantic love.
Mycophobia is the norm in Western Europe and the British Isles, but the rest of the world gathers, consumes, and contemplates mushrooms in a much more positive way. In the societies that gave rise to so-called western civilization, the dynamic attraction and repulsion of mushrooms shaped the social hierarchy (as with the Romans and Egyptians, who had laws prohibiting common folk from eating mushrooms), informed mythic tradition (as with the Greeks, who may have used psychoactive mushrooms at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Oracle at Delphi, and Dionysian sex parties), and drove scientific inquiry (as with Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and other classical scholars who wrote about mushrooms from a purely rational standpoint).
Today, mycophiles in the United States labor under the shadow of a persistent cultural suspicion of mushrooms. It is as though at a certain point in western history, mushrooms were condemned: the wild ones are poison, the psychoactive ones are unholy, and the safe ones are just a chalky, watery addition to one’s iceberg lettuce salad, devoid of flavor or nutritional value. The simple fact that most Americans look at yeast and penicillin as fundamentally different organisms than mushrooms speaks to a partitioning of the human psyche, a setting apart of mushrooms as Other. However, this is not the case in most parts of the world, because other societies mediated the relationship with the fungi in a way that takes full advantage of their culinary and medicinal value.
“Magic Mushroom” Use by Ancient Cultures
Although I rarely touch on the subject of so-called “magic mushrooms” on this blog, it’s worth noting that ancient cultures around the globe may have used psychoactive mushrooms in religious, spiritual, and shamanic rituals.
Although most Americans think of unwashed festival hippies, VW buses belching smoke, and intensely monotonous drum circles when they consider psychedelic mushrooms, a few select species of psychoactive mushrooms were sacred in other cultures. No account of the human-fungal connection would be complete without a discussion of entheogenic mushrooms. Entheogenic means containing or triggering divine energies and is one name for mushrooms that contain chemicals that cause mystical experiences and altered states of consciousness. Most folks are familiar with less flattering words to describe these mushrooms: psychoactive, psychotropic, psychedelic, hallucinogenic, so on and so forth.
A bizarre cave painting of a bee-headed shaman from Northern Algeria dating back 5,500 years is considered by some to be evidence of magic mushroom use in ancient times. The Tassili bee man is covered head to toe in mushrooms, and he grips fistfuls of fungi. The image is compelling and extremely trippy; the bee man’s large penis and intense, forward-leaning stance are accentuated, as are the mushrooms that bristle from every part of his frame; a popularized version of the image appeared in Terrence McKenna’s book Food of the Gods, but even the original shows mushrooms sprouting out of the bee man. Many ethnobotanists think that the Tassili piece is proof that early Bronze Age North Africans observed sacred mushroom rites of one kind or another, although the exact nature of the mushrooms and their use is not known.
R. Gordon Wasson, a New York banker and self-styled ethnomycologist who authored numerous books and articles about mushrooms, advanced a theory that the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) was once called soma, a holy intoxicant that appeared in India thousands of years ago. Wasson’s proof was drawn primarily from the Rg Veda, a collection of 1028 hymns and verses that outlined the cosmic order of the universe, told tales of the gods, and inspired an evolving religion that would eventually be rolled into the expansive and dramatic Hindu mythos.
Anthropologically, soma is as mysterious as sunken Atlantis or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—somewhere in the mists of time, the true identity of soma was forgotten, and this fact has maddened generations of botanists and scholars. Soma is the only plant-like being that is truly divine in the Vedas, and it’s the subject of an astonishing 120 of the Rg Veda’s hymns. Somehow, god lurks inside soma, and those that partake of it are gifted with strength and enlightenment.
The Vedas describe soma in a way that’s suspiciously fungal: it springs up on the mountainsides overnight. It does not come from seed, but rather is sown by the gods themselves, who spill soma-germ over the land like a fountain of heavenly sperm. This growth cycle sounds an awful lot like how mushrooms form: a sudden explosion of life springing from invisible spores.
Furthermore, the physical description of soma sounds very like Amanita muscaria. It is red as a bull, and is coated in tufts of sheep’s wool, which sounds an awful lot like Amanita muscaria’s bright red cap flecked with patches of universal veil tissue. Finally, the “magic” of soma runs parallel to the psychoactive effects of consuming the fly agaric mushroom, in that Amanita muscaria is a delerium-inducing fungus that in some cases conveys a sense of vigor and strength, and users sometimes report that it makes them feel like towering giants because one’s sense of perspective and size is warped.
To be clear, many people discount R. Gordon Wasson’s theory on the Rg Veda as a bunch of hogwash, and I cannot say I find it to be completely convincing, but it’s nonetheless an interesting hypothesis that some mycophiles believe to this day. Wasson’s other work was seminal in the historical exploration of mushrooms, and although this particular theory may not be true, Wasson demonstrated that some ancient cultures used magic mushrooms in shamanic practice, especially in Mexico. In future posts, I will explore Wasson’s New World work in greater depth, but suffice it to say, he opened the door to ethnomycological study in the Americas.
Today’s Mycophiles – The West is Coming Around!
With the advent of new scientific knowledge that points out the critical importance of fungi, western thought is in the process of swinging back to an earlier time. A time when mushrooms were a reminder of the beautiful impermanence and interconnectedness of all life on the planet. The sheer amount of new work in mushroom taxonomy, combined with innovative uses of fungi (for instance, using mycelium as biodegradable packaging or building material), is astonishing and inspiring to me.
Nonetheless, I think mushrooms still make some of us uncomfortable. They’re an obvious reminder of death, and make us feel ignorant of the processes that govern life on the planet. The more rational Greeks and Romans became with their intellectual traditions, the more incomprehensible and spooky mushrooms seemed, and these ideas leaked into our consciousness and informed the suspicion of mushrooms that characterized people’s attitudes during the Dark Ages and Medieval period. For quite some time, western philosophy became all about organizing the world into discrete parts with linear relationships.
Feudal agriculture, the Catholic Church, the Black Plague, and colonial expansion all did their part to tarnish the reputation of things that are incomprehensible, non-hierarchical, and self-renewing. Mushrooms by their very nature are non-linear beings and bucked our attempts to break nature into comfortable partitions, and so for a good long while we’ve neglected them.
Evolving our consciousness and becoming more responsible for our symbiotic connections to everything around us is the great task of our times. The ecologies we create with Old World thinking are prone to collapse because of false power relationships and a lack of accountability. Social, environmental, economic, agricultural, the list of oversimplified fantasies we’ve made goes on and on. The fungi have millions of years of evolutionary memory of complete reciprocity with their habitats, and that is why I think there’s a lot to be gained by befriending them.