The best known and loved and the most frequently drawn and photographed fungus is surely Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric. A wealth of myth and legend surrounds it. There have been various suggestions as to the source of the name of this fungus. The most simple interpretation relates to the habit in Europe since mediaeval times, and possibly before this, of using it to stupefy flies, by putting pieces of the cap in milk or sugared water, or by sprinkling sugar on the cap. These lures were placed on window-sills. At the other side of the world, quite independently, the Japanese have also used the fungus for killing flies and call it "Hayetoritake", denoting this.

A further more complex interpretation of the name goes as follows. Accounts of the effects of eating the fungus vary from a claim that "it puts partakers into a peaceful and gentle mood similar to the effect of opium", to the complete opposite. The Vikings were said to use it to go "berserk" (the word derives from the bear-skin shirt worn by the warriors). One writer, Wasson, surmised that the origin of the name therefore relates to the similar maddening effect of various flies, such as the Warble Fly, or the Gadfly, on reindeer and cattle, causing them to "gad about". He lists many phrases from several languages, linking apparently drunken behaviour with flies and an even more sinister connection with Satanism. Satan is known as "Lord of the Flies" and the name "Beelzebub" derives from the Hebrew "Ba’al Zevuv", literally "Lord of the Fly".

One characteristic effect of Fly Agaric intoxication is the distortion of size, in particular everything apppearing much larger or smaller than usual - "a slit taketh the view of a big door, and a spoon of water the sea". This gives rise to speculation as to how much Lewis Carroll knew about the fungus. An enduring image from "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" is that of the caterpillar sitting on an indeterminate toadstool and smoking from a hookah, looking down at a diminutive Alice who is the same height as the toadstool. The Caterpillar says: " One side will make you grow taller and the other side will make you grow shorter". "One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself. "Of the mushroom" said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud.

Those who remember the B.B.C. children’s series, the "Magic Roundabout" may also remember lots of little red fungi with white dots and wonder whether they were entirely decorative, bearing in mind the antics of the spring-loaded Zebedee and spaced-out Brian the snail. The constituent in the fungus which causes so much disturbed behaviour is the hallucinogenic Ibotenic acid which is however unstable. It rapidly degrades on drying to form Muscinol, a compound that turns out to be, conveniently, 5 to 10 times more potent than Ibotenic acid. In addition to this advantage dried caps also appear to cause less gastrointestinal effects and moreover keep well for 5 to 7 years. Early users, as for example the Koryak tribes reported on by travellers in the early 18th century, learnt this by trial and error no doubt! These tribes are usually quoted in conjunction with the Fly Agaric.

The Koryak were a shamanistic (their religion allowed priests or witch-doctors to mediate with the gods or spirits), reindeer-herding people. A Koryak would swallow a cap of Amanita muscaria as an agent of divination, to direct his spirit. These people believed that the fungus-spirit was originally given by the "Existence" and was generated by the "Existence" spitting on the soil. A comparable European story is told (with however no biblical basis) of Christ and St Peter walking in the woods, short of food, Peter secretly nibbling bread. Not yet sanctified and tempted by the Devil following, he spits out the bread so as not to get caught and the spat bread turns into edible fungi. The Devil following tries the same trick producing more colourful but poisonous fungi, presumably the Fly Agaric.

The Koryak dried the fungi because they believed that three fresh caps can kill. Three to ten dried caps were eaten for intoxification. The flavour is unpleasant so the women first chewed the fungus and rolled it into little sausages for the men to swallow whole. Alternative methods of taking the drug included steeping the dried caps in fruit-juices such as a Whortle-berry drink, or an infusion of Willow-herb. Reports of the effects varied, with some saying that it was a very pleasnt social drug. However, others reported that "some dance and sing whilst others cry out in agony". Certainly effects included spectacular visions or dreams, the feeling of flying, a strong belief in seeing the future, as well as seeing all past life.

The Koryak also traded some of their dried fungi. It was a greatly prized commodity, so highly valued because of its effects that, out of season, one Fly Agaric was worth three reindeer, or (in 1871) 20 dollars’ worth of furs. Some rich Koryaks preserved their Fly Agarics to be later boiled in water which was then drunk. A good deal of the residual Ibotenic Acid and the Muscimol in the water was subsequently excreted in the consumer’s urine and so to employ a euphemism was "re-cycled". It is said that poorer people who could not afford to purchase the fungus itself would wait outside the rich men’s dwellings with bowls so that they too might collect the precious liquid and enjoy its effects.

The reindeer herded by the Koryak were also very fond of the Fly Agaric and were said to travel miles in search of a crop which they would then eat until collapsing in a "trance". They would also drink their own urine, or snow moistened with it, possibly for extra effect, although they might also do so as a way of conserving salts such as nitrates which were in short supply in their diet. If the animals were killed and eaten when intoxicated, their flesh would in turn feed and intoxicate and the Koryak would follow herds for days for this double benefit. Collapsed reindeer must also be easier to kill.

The red colour of the cap of the Fly Agaric with its white decoration, the flying effect of its intoxications, and the association with reindeer all contributed to the development of the myth of Santa Claus by an American professor in the early nineteenth century. The features quoted were translated into the merry figure of Santa Claus with his red coat with white buttons and trimmings, his flying sledge drawn by reindeer, who like the shaman, is the bringer of gifts from the gods. His arrival down the chimney derives from a feature of the winter dwellings built by Siberian tribes. These were excavations in the ground which could be entered only by a hole in the roof which also served as a smoke hole. This was the symbolic entrance and exit for the spirit of the shaman engaged in "flight". In this context it is interesting to note that, in Germany, the Fly Agaric is considered to be the patron plant of chimney sweeps.

Fairy Rings

Interesting and amusing stories surround many species of fungi. "Fairy Rings" are the familiar narrow rings of bare ground, of almost any size, found in fields and lawns. They were traditionally thought to be made by fairies dancing in circles on midsummer night’s eve. An additional embellishment was the seating provided by the toadstools (most commonly Marasmius oreades) that appear on the rings, usually in autumn, for the tired fairies who must have done a lot of dancing since midsummer’s eve. The grass within the circles is thought to be best avoided, lest it anger the fairies, or cause the wanderer to be magicked. The dew from the lusher grass just outside the ring is used by country girls for their complexions, or even for a love potion. On the other hand grass from inside the ring, in addition to more serious risks, might make your complexion spotty!

Other causes attributed to the formation of the rings include resting dragons causing bare patches, marking the position of treasure (which could not be obtained without the aid of fairies), thunder, lightning, ants, moles, haystacks and cow urine. As yet no-one has suggested the arrival of aliens! (Though Tremella mesenterica, the "Yellow Brain Fungus" has been popularly thought to occur where stars fell to earth).

The rings are in fact caused by the simplest of mechanisms. The Fairy Ring Mushroom simply spreads out from the point where it first became established because it can only spread outwards. Nutrients required by the fungus are depleted from where it has grown, so the ring can proceed only in one direction, outwards, forming the inevitable ring. (The question does arise, however, as to why other field fungi, e.g. Agaricus species, do not form rings). The lusher grass just forward of the front is thought to be due to release of excess ammonia by the advancing hyphae, making nitrogen available to the grass. The bare ground of the ring itself is due to the very effective depletion of nutrients from the soil by the fungus (and possibly also due to parasitism of the grass) and the return to lushness within the ring is due to the release of nutrients back into the soil by the decaying mycelium.

Rings grow indefinitely but break up and become hard to recognise. They grow at an average of about 12.5 cm radius a year. Most records range from 8 to 34 cm. Growth depends on species, soil and weather.

The Stinkhorn

Finally, stories about the stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, abound. Common names include the "Devil’s Horn" (presumably not as on head) and the "Devil’s Stinkpot" (also anatomical). There are endless stories about this obvious fertility symbol but one particularly seems to deserve telling. The following is written by Gwen Raverat in her book "Period Piece" about her Aunt Etty. "In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn (though in Latin it bears a grosser name). The name is justified for the fungus can be hunted by the scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty’s great invention. Armed with a basket and a pointed black stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching when she caught a whiff of her prey. Then with a deadly pounce she would fall upon her victim and poke his putrid carcase into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing room fire with the door locked - because of the morals of the maids". The story has grown in the telling, with versions having Aunt Etty knocking the fungi to the ground with a knobbed club - the origin of golf? One author ventured: "If a monument to her heroic gesture should be erected, it would prove most curious".

But most surprising of all is the fact that Aunt Etty was none other than the eldest daughter of the great Charles Darwin.

Important Note

Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric is a poisonous mushroom whose effects are very unpredictable. It can be fatal in large doses and experimentation is definitely not to be recommended.

Further Information and Links - provided by Paul Hamlyn

In I822 Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York who was familiar with European folklore, wrote "A Visit from St. Nicholas" later to be published as The Night before Christmas. Roger Highfield in his best selling book Can Reindeer Fly - The Physics of Christmas claims that this Christmas poem marks perhaps the most important single blueprint for the modern Santa Claus. Patrick Harding of Sheffield University argues that the fly agaric may originally have been known as the flying agaric - the agaric that could create the illusion of flying because of its hallucinogenic properties.

See also the Norwegian fungus of the month site: Who put the Fly Agaric into Christmas?

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