With just 3 more days to go until Easter, we’d like you to learn something new during your holidays. However, not about colorful easter eggs, but about mushrooms. You probably think, that those things have nothing in common! Maybe not, but some mushrooms can be quite colorful as well ;)
Many mushrooms are poisonous or even deadly poisonous. Most mushrooms that cause human poisoning cannot be made nontoxic by cooking, canning, freezing, or any other means of processing. Thus, you only can avoid a solid poisoning by avoiding consumption of toxic species.
One of such toadstools is the fly agaric, also known as amanita muscaria. This fungus is instantly recognizable by its bright red cap, which fades to an orange or orange-yellowish colour with age. The cap is between 8 to 20cm in diameter. The fluffy white spots on the cap often take on a yellowish tinge as they grow old.
In Europe you can find the fly agaric from August to November, in North America a little earlier – from June to October. It tends to be found in groups of 4 or 5 mushrooms near birch, pine, spruce and fir woodlands.
The name fly agaric is derived from the household method for getting rid of flies. Therefore the fungus was broken up in milk or sprinkled with sugar. Flies, finding this mixture irresistible, would drink it and become inebriated, stunned, or killed. This practice was described by Albertus Magnus in his book De vegetabilibus in the 13th century.
Nowadays the image of the fly agaric is quite popular. You may come across its image in paintings, children’s books (Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland), Christmas ornaments, movies (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and many other places. Even computer games such as the Mario Brothers series involve Mario ingesting a mushroom, then growing.
It has been used in shamanic cultures to communicate with the spirit world. The fly agaric may have been the earliest hallucinogenic substance used for religious or shamanic purposes, dating back possibly over 10,000 years. The reason for such purpose is a number of psychoactive compounds in the fly agaric: ibotenic acid, muscimol, muscazone and muscarine. The substances alter the perception of sight, sounds etc (the senses) and change/enhance the feelings and thoughts of the user. Effects show after circa 60 minutes, generally peaking within three hours. Sometimes those effects continue however for up to ten hours.
Vikings, for example, would perform a ritual in which they consumed amanita muscaria before invading villages. Afterwards they were able to raid villages fearlessly in a berserker rage.
There have been many books written in regards to a link between Christianity and amanita muscaria. In 1970, the British archaeologist John Marco Allegro wrote probably the most controversial book on this topic, called The Mushroom and the Cross. The basic idea behind the book is that primitive religions were based on fertility rites. Those were rituals that recreated the reproductive processes of nature either symbolically or through sexual act. Allegro believed, that such religions or cults used the fly agaric, which was seen as the gateway to understanding God.
All major scholars rejected Allegro’s ideas, including his academic mentor. In October 2008 however Jan Irvin published The Holy Mushroom: Evidence of Mushrooms in Judeo-Christianity which was the first book to present texts which supported Allegro’s theory.