Entry 237 – Mushrooms

Fungi in folklore and folk magic

Animated GIF of mushrooms growing and decaying
image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson
(use under CC 2.0 license)

Readers, I am probably not the person you want to invite to parties. Unless you happen to be playing Trivial Pursuit at your gathering, I’m inclined to become unnecessarily excited by any subject an unwary guest might bring up in a casual manner, and then—well, it’s all over. I’ll go on an infodumping share that can be, frankly, a lot. 

One of the topics that’s sure to send me on such a tear is mushrooms. I have had a long-standing love of fungi ever since my youth. They were a favorite food growing up (along with spinach, and again, I am quite an oddity I know). They went into Italian pasta sauces, topped mashed potatoes in sautéed form, were a prime pairing on my favorite pizzas (along with pepperoni), and made a perfect substitute for French fries when fried and served with a horseradish cream sauce.

A little over a year ago, I read Merlin Sheldrake’s astoundingly good book, Entangled Life, which looks at the simply unfathomable ways that fungi impact the world in which we live. They are essentially why plants can and do live on land, provide a sort of organic internet between organisms of vastly different species, reshape our brains in both positive and terrifying ways, and lead to violent conflicts among truffle hunters in France (please do not kill dogs over mushrooms, even fancy ones). 

I’ve also long known there were a few connections between fungi and the world of witchcraft. One of my favorite witch stories, “Meadowsweet’s Red Chaplet,” by Robin Artisson, is sparked by an experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms. The best example of this is the Amanita muscaria, also known as the fly agaric or red-cap mushroom. It’s ubiquitous in fairy tale illustrations with its ruddy top and white spots (and even makes a major pop culture appearance in video games via the Super Mario franchise, which does make you wonder just how real our favorite plumber’s adventures are). There are speculations that Amanita was an ingredient in witches’ flying ointments (and I’ve used some very good flying oil made by Sarah Lawless which included it as an ingredient–you should also consider listening to our interview with her on folklore and fungi from last year, too). It most certainly produced hallucinogenic effects in those who consumed it (although it can also cause violent vomiting, too). Some research suggests it was a major component of the shamanistic practices of the Northern European indigenous tribes like the Sami, too, although it is worth remembering that many of the claims about fly agaric’s ubiquitous use and powers are overstretched or impositions from the present onto the past. But red-capped agaric mushrooms do make appearances in witch lore at times. For example, I’ve identified a pair of stories from Irish and Appalachian lore that seem to point to the use of fly agaric in witch flight there, too (I write about it in my book, New World Witchery, as well).

Today, though, I want to look at some of the other mushrooms that show up in folk magic and lore, because when is it not a good time to talk about fungi? (the answer is: trick question, it is always a good time to talk about fungi).

Probably the mushroom most directly associated with folklore and magic other than the fly agaric/Amanita red-cap would be the “toadstool.” This is a bit of a misnomer, as a toadstool is a folk name given to several different broad-capped mushrooms (including Amanita at times). The name, which implies an affinity with toads of course, may also contribute a bit to some toadstool lore. In fact, a bit of lore from the Frank C. Brown collection notes that “The handling of large species of toadstool, sometimes popularly called ‘wart-toadstool,’ will cause warts to grow on the part of the hand coming in contact with it” (p. 311).  Toadstools and toads are not particularly likely to give you warts, but the shaggy wart-like appearance of toadstool spots likely influences the sympathetic magical thinking here. 

Toadstools also appear frequently in fairy lore, often influenced by Victorian ideas about fairies as diminutive creatures who might use such natural items as tables, umbrellas, or, of course, stools to sit on. Seventeenth century proto-science fiction author Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish once wrote a poem in which the Queen of Fairies used a toadstool as a banquet table, for example. Dancing or laying in a fairy ring of mushrooms was a surefire way to end up in the Otherworld, or catch the attention of the Good Folk. One of the most famous “Otherworld” journeys in literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass) feature the use of mushrooms to change size, although it is possible that author Lewis Carroll did not intend any psychedelic or magical connotations in his stories. 

One other bit of lore about toadstools, however, gives them a slightly divinatory property. According to lore found in the mountainous regions of southeastern North America (such as the Ozarks and Appalachians), the appearance of toadstools predicts rain. Vance Randolph even says that the “sudden appearance” of such mushrooms is a “sure sign” that rain will come within the next twelve hours (p. 17).

Illustration of four puffball mushrooms
The common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), sometimes called “devil’s snuffbox” in folklore
image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson
(use under CC 2.0 license)

Another mushroom that makes frequent folkloric appearances is one known as a “puffball” or sometimes a “devil’s snuffbox.” This is usually the common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), although it can be one of a few look-alike species as well. One account of lore collected in Georgia links the term “toadstool” with this mushroom, showing how folk terminology can sometimes apply to a wide variety of species:

“A toadstool is called the Devil’s snuff-box, and the Devil’s imps come at midnight to get the snuff. In the morning you can tell when the imps have been for the snuff, as you will find the toadstool broken off and scattered about. The snuff is used as one of the ingredients of a ‘cunjur-bag.’” 

The “snuff” here are the powdery spores from within the puffball mushroom. If you’ve ever touched a mature puffball, you’ll know these spores can spray out in jets of powdery dust, which is the fungus trying to make more of itself. The snuff-powder clearly draws the influence and attention of devils and imps, which makes me think that the implication here is that these spirits will treat the conjure bag like a kitten would a catnip filled toy. By offering them something they want, they might be compelled to do whatever task the bag was created for.

Another bag-based spell makes use of a toadstool called “frog bread” (possibly also “frog’s bread” or “frog’s breath” based on a later entry in the same volume of lore, which also seems to indicate this is an immature form of the puffball mushroom, too). This fungus gets sewn into a sack with a frog (possibly alive, but most likely dead/preserved) along with a few other ingredients like pins, hair, and finger or toenails. In the narrative account, this bundle was then put into the bed of a woman who was suffering from a wasting sickness of some kind, and it evidently revived her enough that she was “jumping” from the bed (although this may just be the informant having some fun at the expense of Hyatt and playing off the idea of a “frog” cure making someone jump).  (pp. 72-3).

Mushrooms also have a place within the healing work of at least one curandera, a woman known as Maria Sabina from Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico. She used psilocybin mushrooms during nighttime rituals, referring to both the mushrooms and the spirits with whom they connected her as “spirit children.” These rituals would likely have involved dealing with disorders such as susto, a sort of semi-catatonic state requiring a person’s soul to be reintegrated with their body. Unfortunately, Maria Sabina was “discovered” by an American anthropologist named R. Gordon Wasson, who then drove a sort of frenzy of celebrities in the 1960s to her doorstep, eventually overwhelming her and destroying her ability to do her curandera work with the fungi any more. 

Illustration of mushroom growing kit from North Spore company
My family has no idea what they’ve done…
image by Cory Thomas Hutcheson
(use under CC 2.0 license)

Fungi have a lot to offer us, but they remind us that every boon comes with its potential bane, too. In my case, my obsession with mushrooms has grown more intense since reading Sheldrake’s book, and I’ve started identifying wild mushrooms on walks. I’ve had the privilege to read an advance copy of Nathan Hall’s The Path of the Moonlit Hedge in which the author recommends a ritual for connecting with local fungi as an animistic practice, something I’m deeply interested in trying. My family, in what can only be described as a fit of folly which they will almost certainly regret, purchased some at-home growing kits for oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms over the holidays. Already I speak to my beautiful boxes of inoculated sawdust and mycelia daily. This will not end well, I fear (although hopefully with less mind control and zombification than in other mycelium-laced stories like Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us video game series).

But possibly I will convince a few of you to give mushrooms a second look when it comes to magic. They are a part of the deep history of earth, and they transcend the boundaries imposed on them. They connect with the realms of dreams and madness and death and hunger, and send shivers of flight and transformation through us (if they don’t kill us first). They are, in a word, magic.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

REFERENCES

  1. Artisson, Robin, ed. “Meadowsweet’s Red Chaplet,” in The House that Cerrith Built (CreateSpace, 2016). 
  2. Dugan, Frank M. “Fungi, Folkways, & Fairy Tales.” North American Fungi. January 2008.
  3. Hand, Wayland, ed. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Vol. VI (Duke Univ. Press, 1961).
  4. Hyatt, Harry M. Hoodoo–Conjuration–Witchcraft–Rootwork, vol.I (Witches Almanac Press, 2021).
  5. Jay, Mike. “Fungi, Folklore, & Fairyland.The Public Domain Review. 7 October 2020.
  6. Lawless, Sarah. BaneFolk (website). Accessed 3 January 2023.
  7. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (Dover Pub., 1964).
  8. Serflac (username). “Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico.” Atlas Obscura. 8 September 2011.
  9. Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life (Random House, 2021).
  10. Steiner, Roland. “Superstitions and Beliefs from Central Georgia.” Journal of Americal Folklore, vol. 12, no. 47 (1899), pp. 261-71.

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