Meeting Report: Fungi Folklore

Date: 
20 November 2015
Speaker(s): 
Duncan Ford (Countryside Ranger, Hoddom and Kinmount Estate)

At its meeting on 20 November 2015 Duncan Ford, the Countryside Ranger for Hoddom and Kinmount Estate, gave the Society a fascinating talk on the uses of fungi and the folklore associated with them.
The earliest known representation of fungi is to be found in cave paintings in Algeria, which are over 4,500 years old. Painted figures are covered in Psilocybin, which is often referred to as ‘Magic Mushrooms’ due to its hallucinogenic effects when eaten. The face of one figure is in the shape of a bee, which may refer to the sensations of flying and buzzing commonly experienced on consumption of this fungus. Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used by many groups throughout history for ritual and ceremonial purposes, and are still utilised for those purposes today.
The speaker went on to explain the derivation of several terms. For example, mycologists first used the term ‘fungus’ in 1836. It was derived from the Greek word meaning ‘round cap’ or ‘mushroom’. In Greek mythology when Perseus plucked a mushroom a spring spurted forth and the city of Mycenae was established.
The word ‘fungus’ relates to the Greek for ‘sponge’, and several fungi, such as Belatus, have a spongy appearance. The word ‘mushroom’ derives from the French for ‘moss’, which is descriptive of the habitat these mushrooms grow in. The term ‘toadstool’ is used in the 1400s, where it refers to Fly Agaric, the ‘Stalk of Death’. ‘Toad’; may refer to the warty appearance of the toadstool, or to the Anglo Saxon ‘Tosco’, meaning ‘toxin’. The ‘stool’ may link to faeces.
The speaker addressed the question of Fairy Rings, and warned his audience not to walk round a fairy ring anti-clockwise or one will be ensnared by the ‘little folk’. There are myths that rings form where a dragon breathes on the ground, or where a dragon’s tail contacts the earth. In reality the explanation is somewhat more mundane. As nutrients are consumed the toadstool spreads outwards to find new sources of food leaving the inner area sterile.
Puff balls are so-named because they eject large quantities of spores. This cloud of spores has been used to stem the flow of blood. Giant puff balls are used to treat wounds and are often found in butchers’ shops, and the dusty spores were used as fingerprint powder. Many other uses were mentioned. Shaggy inkcaps were used as ink, and in the Boer War for sending secret messages.

The largest living organism is a Honey fungus in Michigan which is 1500 years old and covers nine square kilometres. Honey fungus is one of the most obvious fungi to see, and it can cause devastation in a forest as it destroys the heart of the tree, and spreads prolifically.
Terms such as ‘Will-O-Wisp’ and ‘Fox Fire’ have derived from the fact that some fungi glow in the dark. These have been utilised to make lanterns and hoof fungus has been used to make fuses.
The common stinkhorn has a phallic shape and we were treated to some amusing anecdotes concerning the lengths people went to in order to avoid impressionable young ladies from seeing this fungi.
There is more folklore associated with fly agaric than any other fungus, most of which is concerned with magic and witches’ potions, as consumption distorts the sense of perspective. Lewis Carroll’s Alice ate fly agaric. The speaker ended the formal part of his talk on a very seasonal note by explaining how Shaman in Siberia cut holes in the roof of their tents to provide an exit for the smoke from the fire. The Shaman eat Fly Agaric and hallucinate. The concept is that the spirit of the Shaman rises with the smoke and the spirits are drawn back down through the hole in the roof — ‘the chimney’. This is the origin of Father Christmas coming down the chimney, which when seen in that context is not quite such a strange idea as it may seem. Similarly when fly agaric is eaten one can often perform amazing physical feats for short periods of time. When reindeer eat fly agaric they can bound very high and might give the illusion they are flying. Consequently, we see the explanation of Santa’s sleigh flying through the sky pulled by reindeer.
A lively and entertaining question time completed the evening.