A brief cultural history of the mushroom 2
Photo by akg-images/picture alliance

A brief cultural history of the mushroom

They are associated with witches and fairy tales, bring enlightenment to shamans and hippies, and are an autumn delight for foodies: Mushrooms and humans have a very special relationship.
Deutsche Welle | Oct 17 2022

Mushrooms pop up up everywhere: in meadows, in the forest, on rotting tree trunks or in cow manure. In the fall, many people in Germany head out to the woods with their baskets in search of edible specimens. Connoisseurs keep their best spots a secret to avoid the competition.

But mushrooms are much more than a foodie's treat. They have fired people's imaginations for thousands of years.


Food of the gods

Some mushrooms simply taste delicious, while others have mind-altering effects that have made them part of spiritual rituals. That was already experienced by early humans; various depictions of mushrooms have been found in cave paintings.

For the Egyptians, mushrooms were the "food of the gods." They believed that eating them could help them live longer — or even make them immortal.

The Greeks drank ergot mushrooms during certain ceremonies and reported seeing visions and ghostly apparitions.

The Maya and Aztecs also consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms. Montezuma II, the last ruler of the Aztecs, is said to have eaten copious amounts of "Teonanacatl" (flesh of the gods) at his coronation ceremony.

The Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagun observed a gathering of Indigenous people and noted in his diaries: "They ate the mushrooms with honey. When the mushrooms started having an effect, there was dancing and weeping… Some saw in their visions how they would die in the war, some how they would become wealthy, some how they would commit adultery and would then be stoned and have their skulls smashed in."

While Sahagun meticulously recorded local customs — his documentation of Aztec life and culture was listed by UNESCO as World Documentary Heritage in 2015 — other missionaries saw the mushroom cult as a threat to Christian salvation. They felt the devil was speaking though the mushrooms, and the rituals were forbidden. The conquistadors severely punished anyone using them.

Mushrooms containing the psychedelic compound psilocybin have been used in rituals for ages

The mushroom in the Middle Ages

In medieval Europe, people distrusted mushrooms and fungi too. They were associated with witchcraft and evil, which is also reflected in the names they were given, such as Devil's Fingers, Witches' Butter or Satan's bolete.

Naturally occurring arcs of mushrooms, known as fairy rings in English and witches' rings in German, were seen as hazardous and evil places where witches had gathered to dance on Walpurgis Night. People avoided walking into them and did not let their cows graze in pastures where they were found, as they believed it would affect their milk. Today we know that such rings are formed from threads of mushroom sprouting out of an individual fungus growing underground, and forming a circular shape.


Mushrooms in fairy tales

In legends and fairy tales of later centuries, mushrooms often serve as the dwelling place of dwarfs or fairies.

The oldest, best-known German fairy tale about mushrooms, "Das Märchen von den Pilzen," dates back to 1870 — and gives young readers important advice on the topic: "So think carefully, you dear little girls, and also you boys, when you meet the nice, fragile things in the forest. Do not smash the beautiful mushrooms out of sheer lust for destruction... They too have received life from Him [God] and enjoy their brief existence."


Turning Vikings into Berserkers

The Vikings were feared warriors, but the most notorious among them were the Berserkers, who became bloodthirsty in battle. Neither friend nor foe were safe from them. "They were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields … they slew men, but neither fire nor iron had effect upon them," according to the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia.

It was long believed that eating fly agaric mushrooms put the men in this state. In medieval chronicles, however, it can be read that before their fights they rather resorted to another psychoactive mushroom commonly known as the liberty cap. Had they eaten masses of fly agaric, they probably would have collapsed in front of the enemy.

Nevertheless, the fly agaric played an important role for the Norsemen: According to the Germanic traditions, the Vikings enriched their mead (honey wine) with fly agaric.

The amanita muscaria
A pop culture icon: The amanita muscaria, commonly known as the fly agaric or fly amanita

Mushroom tourism in Mexico

From the late 1950s, hallucinogenic mushrooms experienced a renaissance. Despite all the bans imposed by the conquistadors, the descendants of the Aztecs and Maya kept the mushroom cult alive.

In 1955, US mushroom researcher R. Gordon Wasson became the first outsider to attend a sacred ceremony among Mexico's Mazatec people. The shaman Maria Sabina led the holy "Velada" (night watch).

Wasson published "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" in Life magazine in 1957. In the article, he described the magical effects of the "Teonanacatl." It triggered a wave of counter-cultural tourism to Sabina's home village of Huautla.

Scientists and hippies made pilgrimages to Mexico. Stars like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Mick Jagger are said to have been among them — and they were all less interested in the healer's chants than in the "magic mushrooms."

But the mushroom tourism did not bring luck to the shaman. Many of the foreigners lost control and did not respect the locals while intoxicated.

Angered that a sacred ritual was degenerating into a tourist attraction, the Indigenous people eventually expelled Maria Sabina from their community and burned down her house. To make matters worse, the police also accused her of drug dealing and she was briefly detained. Later she made a living by giving lectures on the mushroom ritual.

Magic mushrooms became illegal in the United States in 1969, and other countries followed suit. They could no longer officially be researched for medical purposes either.

Gathering mushrooms is popular in Germany and many countries around the world
Gathering mushrooms is popular in Germany and many countries around the world

Mushrooms today

And today? In some countries — such as the Netherlands — you can buy magic mushrooms quite legally in shops, and trade is also booming on the internet. The fungus, which was once supposed to open the door to the gods, has long since become a party drug.

But otherwise, many types of mushrooms are a culinary delicacy that can be just as delightful as their intoxicating relatives — but without the side effects.

This article was originally written in German.