Theseus' Folly

The evidence that we have available to us shows that in pre-contact Mesoamerica fungi was used as both a food and medicine in the Mazatec, Nahuatl, Purepecha, Raramuris and Zapotec cultures of Mexico. Japanese researchers, who have shown a strong interest in this time period, reported at a symposium at Wakayama University that despite this evidence, there appears to be no record of using mushrooms in a ceremonial manner (Guzmán, 315-316).

The premise of the Myconomicon project is that the use of fungi as food and medicine is and was an everyday spiritual practice and our conception of mushrooms only holding significance in a ceremonial frame is another infection from Wasson’s work being the only voice in the field, informing all other research. This is not a baseless contention. Take, for example, the following from ‘The lowland Maya area: Three millennia at the human-wildland interface’:

“[it is] observed that the common name “yuyo” (from the name of a red common wild fruit) was applied both to the edible Amanita caesarea as well as the poisonous A. muscaria…” (Guzmán, 315-316)

Amanita caesarea

Amanita caesarea

Amanita muscaria

Amanita muscaria

In my estimation, this is clear linguistic evidence that the indigenous population refer to different mushrooms in a subtle enough way that Anglo researchers might have missed the true meaning and imported their own bias, which was fully informed by Wasson’s work. Who is to say that the edible varieties are not held in as much esteem as the psychoactive ones, or perhaps more so since the edible mushroom sustains life and delights the palette. Further, from the same document:

“Referring to the Dresden Codex (Dresden Codex Reproduction 1981)… four men (displayed on two pages—two men per page) [are observed] falling through space, with special leaves on their bodies. Lowy believed that these leaves were stylized mushrooms that related to A. muscaria… Another interpretation of the Dresden Codex “falling men” lies in their relationship with the god of rain (Chak) and the fungus Ustilago maydis… There are some important ethnomycological observations to be made regarding Ustilago maydis, the edible fungus of the Nahuatl culture known as “huitlacoche”, which is a parasitic fungus on corn. This fungus is called “ta chaak,” “ta chak ixim,” “ixim chaak,” and “nal chaak,” among other names, all of which are related to Chak, the god of rain. It is believed that this fungus falls on the corn from rain, and that the fungus has concentrated the violence of the thunderbolt. These interesting observations on the fungus that falls from the sky with all the violence of the thunderbolt are strongly related, and demonstrate the connection of Ustilago maydis with the Thunderbolt Legend, the Dresden Codex, and the mushroom stones portraying “falling men”…” (Guzmán, 317, 320)

Lending strength to the thesis put forth in our entry on Ustilago maydis that what the ‘West’ considers to be just food or at best, gourmet fare, other cultures associate deep spiritual and magical significance to these mushrooms.

The Japanese/Amerindian connection is not as unusual as it might appear to some and it is one we will need to return to time and again in the course of this research as the mission of the mushroom kingdom is strongly tied to Japan and indigenous lifeways. This can be seen in Larry Korn’s biography of the ecologist, scientist and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. When Fukuoka’s principle book, ‘One-Straw Revolution’ was published, the Native American journal Akwesasne Notes published the following review:

“Although the process he advocates arises in southern Japan… the philosophy and technique is amazingly close to that of Native peoples prior to the introduction of European agriculture… his message could have been spoken by a Lakota, a Seneca, or a Zuni traditionalist…” (Korn, 128)

This is the message of the mushroomkin, this return, as we will see once we encounter our primary spirit-form for this entry. But first, why is this important, why follow the path of the mycomage into the forest to nuzzle the roots of trees, to inherit a kingdom of detritus? In essence, it is one of the clearest ways that we can, on an individual and magical level, reject what Anna Tsing terms the ‘plantation culture,’ or as we would understand it better, perhaps, the imperialist paradigm. For Tsing, the structure of the modern world — particularly our current dominant economic systems — can be traced back to the structure of the imperial plantation and everything that went along with maintaining them. Tsing explains this model better, so I will let her use her own words:

“alienation, interchangeability, and expansion… lead to unprecedented profits. This formula shaped the dreams we have come to call progress and modernity… factories built plantation-style alienation into their plans. The success of expansion through scalability shaped capitalist modernization. By envisioning more and more of the world through the lens of the plantation, investors devised new commodities…

Contrast the matsutake forest: unlike sugarcane clones, matsutake make it evident that they cannot live without transformative relations with other species… The fungus gets its carbohydrates from mutualistic relations with the roots of its host trees, for whom it also forages. Matsutake make it possible for host trees to live in poor soils, without fertile humus. In turn, they are nourished by the trees… Matsutake resist the conditions of the plantation. They require the dynamic multispecies diversity of the forest — with its contaminating relationality…

Furthermore, matsutake foragers are far from the disciplined, interchangeable laborers of the cane fields. Without disciplined alientation, no scalable corporations form in the forest… Yet is would be a mistake to see matsutake commerce as a primitive survival.. Matsutake commerce does not occur in some imagined time before scalability. It is dependent on scalability — in ruins… matsutake commerce and ecology depend on interactions between scalability and its undoing” (Tsing, 2017, 40)

No scalable corporations form in the forest…

The Greeks described mushrooms as the Tears of Helen (Ruck et al, 137). Helen was the daughter of Zeus the thrower of thunderbolts (which are nearly universally associated with mushrooms in the ancient world from Egypt to Mesoamerica) and the human princess Leda. Her beauty drove Theseus, who we will speak of later, to abduct her. She is said to be born of an egg laid by Leda following her coupling with Zeus who came to her in the form of a swan. This connects with mushrooms as many form first an egg-like sac that the fruiting body emerges from. Helen’s beauty is also, as we know, the focus for the fall and folly of many a man.

Helen was the herald of war and death. Mushrooms are the principle teachers of the concepts of necromancy. As an archetype they show us that life and death are locked in a dance together — something many of us forget until we lose a parent or friend or are ourselves faced with a serious illness (Friedman, xviii). When individuals turn from the pure scientific or practical description of our interactions with mushrooms and begin ‘thinking with mushrooms,’ they inevitably end up drawing the only comparisons that make sense, mushrooms are a religion, or at the very least, they inspire religious thought. They return us to the primitive (even as we fill our spare rooms with technical apparatus to cultivate them) and it is a healthy, honest channel into primitive lifeways (perhaps because of the use of all the most modern technology in their pursuit). Living with mushrooms is living a future-primitive lifeway. Primitivism is romantic, a dream-space we all inhabit from time-to-time, some of us (the magically-adjacent) more than the rest. It is an antidote to our true lives lived among the animate ruins of ecological and political disaster — all brought on by the goals of the plantation culture (Tsing, 1993, xi). Primitivism is also, more often than not, appropriative and as such, aligned with an imperlist world view. The future-primitive lifeway of the mycomage, she who lives and thinks primarily with Baba Yaga, King Borovik and his kingdom of Lessi, avoids appropriation and engages her own deeptime ancestral lines on an honest and equal level.

Future-primitives are in marginalized by their own imagination and narrate their lives with intertwinned stories of civilization and life on its edges (Tsing, 1993, 7). They desire wealth and technological luxury but are not willing to put up with the new plantation culture of the office or indentured remote work or any other lifeway that tethers them to a plantation boss, those shadows beyond the corporate supervisor and the salvage economics of capitalism. Future-primitives cultivate and live the forager-aesthetic. Foragers and those that sincerely think and live with mushroomkin are a distinct class of disrupters. Mushrooms are antithetical to industrialization and civilized society and nothing proves this more than their iconization in the luxury restuarants of the world. Add in the marginality of the witch, the cunningman, even the reserved Otherness of the Solomonic magician and you have a powerful anarchic force that can be directly applied to the war against the dominant materialist paradigm. Separately, mushroomkin and wizards achieve this, but together, they can change the world.

For those still concerned with appropriating indigenous lifeways, take comfort, for mushrooms are included in some of the oldest expressions of Western culture. The first century cookbook known as Apicius includes recipes for truffles and other mushrooms flavored with coriander, thyme, rosemary and mint. In this same time period, the Romans used ritually specific amber knives and silver bowls called boletaria to prepare mushrooms (Bone, 30). The Greek Magical Papyri is from the same period and posseses similar aesthetics when it comes to the trappings of ritual. It is safe to assume that the PGM is a contemporary of the Western expression of mushroom lore. This is as much the lineage of the Western magician as any Venetian grimoire — it also happens that it is the distinct lineage of all other humans on the planet as well.

Our connection to mushroom lore is also our connection to the trees and forests of this world. King Borovik, the counsel of Baba Yaga, sits at the feet of the trees that have sworn allegience to him and protect him from Helios as he traverses an open sky. Mushrooms fruiting often signify stress in the tree kingdom above them. Morels, for instance, have been known to produce more plentiful fruitings when the apples, elms, ash or aspens they are symbiots with have their root systems damaged (Marley, 39). Mushrooms are the first to rise from damaged ecosystems as well. They are firekin, harbingers of our misguided attempts of non-management of forest land, which is now resulting in greater and uncontrollable forest fires in conjunction with global climate change. Mushrooms live and think with trees and with fire and are driven by a mission to be consumed — or to become one with humankind (Marley, 40). Through our relationship with them we establish a stronger connection to, and a better understanding of, treekin.

The mycomage lives her magical life on the margins, among the roots, beneath the pine needles. Marginality is the key that opens an understanding to all cultures. It exposes the gulf between infectious Western thought and language and that of the Other. It is all human thought at this level, down here in the pine needles, and we are all Others (Tsing, 1993, 13) and all one. Langdon Cook, in his work ‘The Mushroom Hunters’ reports on his experiences with a forager in the rain forests of the Pacific-Northwest:

“in the damp forests of the Pacific-Northwest… a mostly undocumented commerce has blossomed into big business — with an outlaw edge… Driving beater cars and vans along bumpy Forest Service roads, pickers follow the great flushes of fungal gold up and down the coast and deep into the interior ranges [spending] months at a time in hardscabble timber communities… The pickers in turn sell their goods to buyers and brokers… The top end of the food chain includes the end users… home cooks [and] chefs…” (Cook, xiv)

This is the aesthetic of the mycomage… on the outskirts, purposefully Othered in order to get closer, to gain greater access, to her spirit-forms of choice, the mushroomkin. And in the act of pulling herself out of the nearly all-encompasing plantation culture and retreating to the forest where no scalable corporation can exist, she finds a deep connection and universality. Maria Sabina parallels this sentiment when she states:

“I know that God is formed by all the saints. Just as we, together, form humanity, God is formed by all the saints. That is why I don’t have a preference for any one saint. All the saints are equal, one has the same force as the other, none has more power than another.” (Rothenberg, 37)

This is a powerful thought, that all of the saints cumulatively make up the body of God. To the chaos magician then, the more saints one ‘knowns’ or communicates with or offers to, the closer the magician is to the God-body, the God-form, the universal, the creator, the Great Spirit. Psychedlic mushrooms show just one part of the body (the mind) their secrets. The rest of the mushroom kingdom show the rest of the body their secrets, from the blood to the brain and everything in-between. It is wrong-headed for the mycomage to only focus on one type of mushroom. Just as all of the saints make up the body of God and all of humankind make up humanity, all of mushroomkin make up their own kingdom and, as we are finding is their mission, they make up all of the human body as well. We exist in the same assemblage and their mission is to teach us, sustain us, and in turn, they become us. Maria Sabina reports to us this same information when she speaks about the mushrooms asking her to ‘eat them up’:

“the children ask when they are working: ‘Where are my feet? Why didn’t you eat me all up?” And they order: “Look for the rest of my body and take me.” The words of the children should be obeyed. One has to look for the bits that weren’t eaten before beginning the vigil and take them.” (Rothenberg, 42)

Is she referring to the mycellium? Paul Stamets speaks of the power and medicine that just exists or exists in stronger amounts in mushroom mycellium. Many research studies focus on just this part of the mushroom body. ‘Where are my feet?’ they ask, ‘Why didn’t you consume all of me?’ they ask. Mushroomkin want to be removed from the earth and consumed by us entirely.

Which brings us to our spirit-form for this entry in the Myconomicon, Daedaleopsis confragosa, a deep forest dweller and, as we will see, an ancestral ally to us all.

Daedeopolis confragosa

Daedeopolis confragosa

Daedaleopisis confragosa is a polypore that goes by the common name of ‘Blushing Bracket.’ They are the exclusive companions of trees at all stages of their life (or death) cycle. The Blushing Bracket, while inedible, is a powerfully medicinal spirit with archeological evidence tieing it to ritual activity back as far as we have found evidence of human culture (Vidović, 575). The Blushing Bracket has been found to contain multiple networked antioxidant compounds such as high concentrations of flavanoids as well as containing Zinc and Selenium — elements that are normally low in individuals living in European contries (Vidović, 581). It is also a powerful antibiotic. With the rise of ‘superbugs,’ these ancient allies of the forest should be brought closer as their forgotten medicines might just be what stops that final super-flu that makes the best effort at wiping us all from the face of the planet (Fakoya, 137). The medicinal components in Blushing Bracket, as well as all other mushrooms, possess the ability to target numerous pathogens and other fungus that are harmful to humankind (Knežević et al, 509). Is it fungi’s (relatively) close association with humankind on the evolutionary tree that allows their naturally generated antibacterial compounds to work as well if not better in human hosts? Do they evolve to help us through their own volition, fulfilling the mission of their existence as spirit-forms on this planet?

The Blushing Bracket, as with other polypores, can be found year-round in any climate in the forests of our planet. This ability to stay in a manifested state even in the dead of winter make them a particularly special natural medicine. Almost all polypores have also been domesticated, successfully cultivated indoors on wood substrates (Knežević et al, 510). While D. confrongosa is inedible, it is relatively simple to make it into medicine. One team of researchers describes the process of preparing an extract for analysis as such:

“Dried fruiting bodies and mycelia (4.0 g) were ground to powder in a laboratory blender. Extraction was carried out with 96% and 70% ethanol, and methanol (120 mL), in a magnetic stirrer for 72 hours, and with hot water at [140°F] under reflux for 90 minutes.” (Knežević et al, 510)

So it is possible that powdered Blushing Bracket could be made into or used in a savory broth that could be ingested as a greater part of a ritual of healing or as a way to assist establishing communication with the spirit form. The same researchers in the above quote found in the conclusion of their work that the resulting extracts were very high in phenolic acids and could be expected to be to possess powerful antioxidant properties (Knežević et al, 517).

At this point I would like to point out another finding in the existing research on the Blushing Bracket. There is some confusion as to its relationship to Daedaleopsis tricolor in the literature. The authors of the 2014 paper ‘Taxonomic evaluation of the polypore Daedaleopsis tricolor based on morphology and molecular data’ have this to say:

“The macromorphological study of many specimens of both Daedaleopsis confragosa and D. tricolor revealed only minor differences. The pileus surface in D. tricolor is soon covered by a thin, dark brown tomentum which sometimes disappeared in senescent basidiocarps, while in D. confragosa it appears only in very old basidiocarps, and is missing from young specimens… However, these macroscopic features are variable and are not sufficient to distinguish two species. Microscopic features even offer no differences between D. confragosa and D. tricolor at all… Taxonomic evaluation of the polypore Daedaleopsis tricolor based solely on macromorphological features cannot solve the question… Molecular data supported treating D. confragosa and D. tricolor as one species. Variability in ITS rDNA was much lower with virtually no difference among strains obtained in our study… The high intraspecific variability in the D. confragosa – D. tricolor complex may be attributed to their wider ecological amplitude (large distribution area, wide spectrum of host trees) compared to D. septentrionalis, which is restricted to colder regions and birch trees.” (Kooks et al, 111, 115)

Daedeopolis tricolor

Daedeopolis tricolor

Daedaleopsis confragosa and D. tricolor are, for all intents and purposes, the same mushroom, yet they express themselves in different ways. It stands to reason, on the basis of the research cited in the overall Myconomicon project, that the kingdom of trees that the individual mushroom rules has much to do with their sovereign’s culture and appearance. In fact, the entire genus is found to be largely similar at the minutest level. Their genus, Daedaleopsis, was first described in 1888 and included six varieties (although we have seen that there is more nuance than that as they are the same mushroom choosing to express itself in different ways) and they can be found to be adapted to the trees and stumps of a number of different species of trees, such as Alnus, Betula, Salix, Corylus, Fagus, Quercus, and Prunus species (Ćilerdžić et al, 19). Of particular interest to our research is the connection of this mushroomkin to the Celtic God that shares his name with the Beech, Fagus.

Fagus was worshiped primarily by those practicing the Gallo-Roman religion, a synthesis of Celtic and Hellenistic deities, rites and practices. He is a god that rules over the welfare of infants and children, with redheads being particularly sacred to him. Beech groves are considered to be sacred spots and early inspiration for the architecture of Christian cathedrals. It stands to reason than that our spirit-form, being the sovereign of these sacred trees, lies on a level in the spiritual hierarchy somewhere between them and Fagus himself. They will likely respond well to methods of worship practiced by Gallo-Romans such as offering incense, dedicatory inscriptions and circumambulation. It is said that Helen (remember her?) carved the name of one of her lovers, Melenaus, in the bark of a sacred beech tree.

Side Note: After writing this small bit about Fagus I went about my day and saw no less than four red-haired women in the span of a couple of hours in different parts of the city. It had that ‘feel’ that something had been uncovered. The Lord of the Beech, I think, is certainly desirous of communication...

The authors of ‘Antioxidant potential of Daedaleopsis tricolor basidiocarps and mycelium’ offer more background on this species:

“Some members of this genus have been prized for their medicinal and spiritual powers since Neolithic times, which is confirmed by 7,000 years old D. tricolor fragments found in cottages in an archaeological site near Rome. These fungal fragments were also the oldest material which DNA was isolated and sequenced (Bernicchia et al., 2006). Despite this ancient knowledge, modern science has not yet sufficiently dealt with the medicinal potential of Daedaleopsis spp. so there are only a few reports on their bioactivities.” (Ćilerdžić et al, 20)

Daedeleopsis is, in effect, a carrier of some of the oldest mushroomlore that we have access to. It is a medicine that has been long forgotten but carried humankind through times of sickness for thousands and thousands of years. A victim of imperial mycophobia who patiently waits in the forest for us to return and take it up again as an ally. These researchers also found D. confragosa to be in possesion of anti-hypertensive, analgesic and cytostatic activity, along with the aforementioned antioxidants. It is stated that the powerful antioxidant components in D. confragosa can be used to bring better immunodefense and balance to those of us afflicted with cancer, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases (Ćilerdžić et al, 20). This paper also offers the clearest cultivation and extraction specifics that I found for this species:

“The cultivation of basidiocarps was carried out in 100-mL flasks containing 2.0 g of wheat straw as the carbon source and 10.0 mL of the modified synthetic medium (without glucose) inoculated with 3.0 mL of the inoculum, at 77°F for 21 days. The obtained basidiocarps were dried at 104°F… Finely powdered mycelium as well as wild and cultivated basidiocarps of D. tricolor (10.0 g) were extracted with 300.0 mL of 96% ethanol by stirring on the magnetic stirrer (150 rpm) for 72 h… and… filtered through Whatman No.4 filter paper …” (Ćilerdžić et al, 21)

Probably the most potent bit of magic available offered to us by our spirit-form, aside from its medicinal properties, comes from the associations with its namesake, Daedalus, the craftsman of the Cretan labyrinth — the underside of the mushroom closely resembling this most famous of mazes. The Cretan Labyrinth is connected to King Minos and his wife Pasiphae. Minos is a principle archetype for the capitalist amassing of wealth. The Olympians looked down on his wealth and arrogance and decided to punish him by allowing his daughter to fall in love with a bull. The resulting child was the Minotaur. Pasiphae loved her bull-headed child but soon lost control of him. Minos was unable to kill his adopted son (mostly out of fear for further retribution from Olympus) so instead he hired Daedalus the architect and craftsman to build a prison of no doors, only walls upon walls, hallways nesting within hallways. Still fearful of his son’s rage, what amounts to a symbolic rebuke from the spirit world against the trappings of materialism, Minos sacrificed the flesh and blood of his kingdom in the form of seven young males and seven maidens to the Minotaur every year. Theseus, the same hero who abducted (and very likely raped) Helen’s mother Leda, arrived on the scene in the third year of the sacrifices with the intent on ending the life of the Minotaur as well as the sacrifices. Minos’ other daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with Theseus at first sight and not wanting him to perish in the unsolvable labyrinth, gave him a ball of yarn. Theseus used the yarn to mark his train and after slaying the Minotaur, found his way back out to the arms of Ariadne. Theseus though, is not the shining hero here as he abandoned Ariadne and she took her own life as a result of the heartbreak. (Gautama, 2006)

The Cretan Labyrinth was just a folly for Theseus, who himself represents the worst of male chauvinism. We can see the story of the Cretan Labyrinth in our modern financial districts (especially Wall Street with its archetypal bull) which are populated with self-style theseusii attempting to find their way into and out of the labyrinth.

The sigil for Theseus’ Folly, our Blushing Bracket, can be used to combat many aspects of capitalism and the worst of modern society. These effects can be found in its primary medicinal components, its powerful antioxidants, whose mission is to rid our bodies of those free radicals that underlie all of the most pernicious diseases attributed to modern life. This war against plantation culture can be found in how and where it grows, in the deep forest, offering itself to us year round. It can be found in its symbolism, as a talisman against being exploited by the Western male-dominated paradigm and the salvage economics of capitalism.

Theseus Folly.png

The Blushing Bracket is, finally, a way for us to touch our own ancestral life ways. They were carried by humans, proto-humans, neanderthals, and all the diverse cousins in-between. Foraged, cared for and in turn, they cared for us when our species was in its infancy and an unlikely force challenging the world. To hold one, to imbibe its essence, is to give our bodies the touch and feel and warmth of an embrace long forgotten. It is a path where healing and understanding of our place in the spirit ecology awaits.

Sigil courtesy of the Ghostly Harmless Sigilizer


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Mushroom Images

Amanita caesarea from Geoff Balme

Amanita muscaria from Adam Bryant

Daedaleopsis confragosa from aarongunnar

Daedaleopsis tricolor from Nathan Wilson

Mushroom Images Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License