The Snake’s cap or The Fly Agaric

Description

You should flee from it as from a snake, as from the devil, they say around here. And yet, how is it that this red apparition with white dots, almost like Little Red Riding Hood’s kerchief, is as magical as it is ordinary, encountered at every turn in the common decorations of homes, shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and especially in children’s playgrounds? Could it be the Western influence and its stories about fairies, or the current theories that claim the true origin of Santa Claus lies somewhere in Siberia where fly agarics dried on trees and shamans entered and exited through chimneys?

If we dig a little deeper into the history of witchcraft practices around here, we find the roots of the mushroom in the Romanian culture.

Amanita muscaria maintains its mystery; discovering about witches is not an easy thing as their secrets are well guarded. This text is just the beginning of the research.

The symbiotic relationship between the fly agaric and trees

The fly agaric mushroom almost always appears under birches, firs, pines, or oaks—a fairy-tale image whose scientific explanation amplifies its magical aura. The mushroom lives in a sort of brotherly love with these tree species, offering each other mutual support and nutrients. This kind of symbiotic relationship between fungi and root plants is called mycorrhiza, and it’s a story of evolutionary partnership dating back to ancient times, about 500 million years ago when fungi and plants began colonizing the earth.

What we observe on the soil’s surface, the white stem with the red cap covered in white spots, is just the fruit of the mycelium spread beneath the ground. The mushroom’s hyphae, the network of filaments forming the mycelium, connect with the tree’s roots and, in doing so, provide nutrients extracted from the soil, enlarging the root’s absorption area to draw more water from the ground. In return, it receives carbohydrates produced by the trees through photosynthesis, which the mushroom needs to thrive.

It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship where both the fly agaric and the tree it bonds with fulfill their needs for survival and growth, a collaboration so harmonious that it has endured since they appeared on earth and probably will continue to persist until they vanish

The snake’s cap / The devil’s cap

In Bukovina, it is believed that snakes have a particular pleasure in sucking the milk from this sponge mushroom, the whitish juice that immediately appears in droplets when a piece of it is broken off. And they supposedly like it even more to eat it whole. This fact isn’t all that unusual when we think about reindeer, which also consume the fly agaric. Their urine, in turn, is consumed by the shamans of Siberia because the digestive process in the animals’ stomachs filters out a toxic substance present in the mushroom, leaving behind the compound sought after by shamans to enter the trance.

It seems that bears also eat the snake’s cap, and there could be a parallel between the shamanic spiritual quests and the entirely natural ones of bears. It’s not about the special state of consciousness that gives shamans the ability to travel into subtle realms and communicate with ancestral spirits, but rather the state of courage and strength required to calmly confront these intense experiences. Similarly, bears consume the mushroom more during mating season when they need to confront and most likely fight with other males, including the cubs that the she-bear usually keeps close for several years after birth. Other animals also enjoy eating fly agarics, such as foxes and squirrels. Not to mention snails and worms, proof that the myth still circulating among mushroom novices that poisonous mushrooms will remain untouched in the forests is entirely erroneous and dangerous.

In the popular Romanian belief, the fly agaric is not only poisonous but even lethal. In Moldova, it is said that it’s called this way because it is as fast and venomous as a snake, and if a person were to eat it, they would die instantly.

Fly agaric is also called the Devil’s Cap, primarily to be well aware that it’s not a clean thing, for anyone to understand that it’s wiser to leave this mushroom alone and not to force their luck. But also because there’s a story going around that it has a red cap like the devil’s hood, and when the devil was chased by St. Elijah to strike him with lightning, he found shelter right under this cap, which he ate afterwards, out of anger.

Fly agaric in witches’ hallucinogenic ointments

The fly agaric could be one of the ingredients that witches used to attain states where they would have the well-known visions of flying on brooms. Other plants used were henbane, deadly nightshade, and belladonna. There’s no written evidence to attest to these things, which is natural because anything related to witchcraft is usually kept secret, and such precious information is transmitted within the coven, spells spoken out loud lose their power and put the witch in danger. Moreover, the few known historical pieces of evidence were obtained during the Inquisition. So, we know that these plants were used in Central and Western Europe, and we can assume that being precisely the hallucinogenic plants that grew on our lands, they were used here for the same purposes.

We also know that witches have not been absent from our culture over time, and both Romanian women and men who engaged in such less common and generally feared activities used to prepare potions to induce visions. The oldest attestation in a document dates back to 1741 in the Austrian-occupied Banat, where three women from Sânpetru Mare were accused of witchcraft and prosecuted, along with the bewitched brooms and the pot in which they had prepared the ointment.

The hallucinogenic substances entered the witches’ bodies through absorption through the skin. However, I.P. Culianu believes that they rubbed those special ointments and brooms, which they then rode on in flight, so that when they held them between their legs, the narcotic could be more easily absorbed by the sensitive skin of the vagina.

“The witches gather on Mount Retezat. They come on brooms. They anoint themselves with some ointments, being in their naked skins, then flee out the chimney.” “Around midnight (St. Andrew’s Day), she saw how the woman rose, anointed herself with some ointments, and fled out the chimney.” – from information gathered by ethnologist Gh. Pavelescu and recounted by Andrei Oișteanu in his book Narcotics in Romanian Culture.

The Death of Flies

The Fly Agaric, looks so speckled from afar that you could say it’s covered in insects. In Bukovina, a solution is made from this mushroom to eradicate flies. The mushroom is finely chopped and boiled either in sweet milk or in water with added sugar. Then the vessel containing the concoction is placed in fly-infested areas. The flies are enticed by the sweetness promising them a tasty meal, but they perish as soon as they taste it.

The Remedy for Mushroom Poisoning

There are many myths about recognizing edible mushrooms, the most well-known being the test with a silver spoon that is said to blacken upon contact with toxins. There is also the theory that any mushroom soaked long enough in wine vinegar becomes edible. None of these theories are proven.
The first aid for mushroom poisoning involves emptying the stomach, classic finger down the throat or drinking warm water to induce vomiting. Then comes bitter salt, which aids in cleansing, and charcoal to absorb the toxins. In Cartea satului, Dr. Voiculescu says, ‘Another even more healing remedy is the domestic rabbit’s stomach (rânză). Take the rânză from 10 or 12 domestic rabbits, mince them while raw, and give them to the person poisoned by mushrooms to swallow.'”

Bibliography:


1. Andrei Oișteanu, Narcotice în cultura română: istorie, religie și literatură, ed. a 4-a rev., adăug. și il., Iași, Polirom,
2019
2. Simion Florea Marian, Botanica poporană română Volumul I/ Ediție critică, introducere, repere biobibliografice,
indice Botanica, indice capitole publicate antum/postum, text stabilit, indice informatori și bibliografie de Aura
Brădățan, Editura Academiei Române, Suceava, 2010
4. Vasile Voiculescu, Cartea satului, Toate leacurile la îndemână, Ed. III-a, Fundația Culturală Regală ”Principele
Carol”, Insitutul de arte Grafice ”Luceafărul” S.A., București, 1938


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