Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland – The Public Domain Review
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The first recorded mushroom trip in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on October 3, 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man identified in the subsequent medical report as “J. S.” was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished it, everything began to turn very strange. J. S. noticed black spots and odd flashes of colour interrupting his vision; he became disorientated and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help, but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering in a confused state.
By chance a physician named Everard Brande was passing through this part of town, and he was summoned to treat J. S. and his family. The scene he witnessed was so unusual that he wrote it up at length and published it in The Medical and Physical Journal a few months later.1 The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses fluttering, and their breathing laboured, periodically returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. All were fixated on the fear that they were dying except for the youngest, the eight-year-old son named as “Edward S.”, whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was “attacked with fits of immoderate laughter” which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: “when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked”.
Dr Brande diagnosed the family’s condition as the “deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous”. Today, we can be more specific: this was intoxication by liberty caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the “magic mushrooms” that grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses, and playing fields of Britain every autumn. The botanical illustrator James Sowerby, who was working on the third volume of his landmark Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms (1803), interrupted his schedule to visit J. S. and identify the species in question. Sowerby’s illustration includes a cluster of unmistakable liberty caps, together with a similar-looking species (now recognised as a roundhead of the Stropharia genus). In his accompanying note, Sowerby emphasises that it was the pointy-headed variety (“with the pileus acuminated”) that “nearly proved fatal to a poor family in Piccadilly, London, who were so indiscreet as to stew a quantity” for breakfast.
Alors là, la ressemblance entre le bonnet phrygien et les psylos dans les champs... je ne l’avais encore jamais lue. Et la médaille de Benjamin franklin ne laisse pourtant aucun doute.
During the nineteenth century, the liberty cap took on a different set of associations, derived not from its visionary properties but its distinctive appearance. Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems to have been the first to suggest its common name in a short piece published in 1812 in Omniana, a miscellany co-written with Robert Southey. Coleridge was struck by that “common fungus, which so exactly represents the pole and cap of Liberty that it seems offered by Nature herself as the appropriate emblem of Gallic republicanism”.3 The cap of Liberty, or Phrygian cap, a peaked felt bonnet associated with the similar-looking pileus worn by freed slaves in the Roman empire, had become an icon of political freedom through the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. William of Orange included it as a symbol on a coin struck to celebrate his Glorious Revolution in 1688; the anti-monarchist MP John Wilkes holds it, mounted on its pole, in William Hogarth’s devilish caricature of 1763. It appears on a medal designed by Benjamin Franklin to commemorate July 4, 1776, under the banner LIBERTAS AMERICANA, and it was adopted during the French Revolution by the sans-culottes as their signature bonnet rouge. It was these associations — rather than its psychoactive properties, of which he shows no knowledge — that led Coleridge to celebrate it as the “mushroom Cap of Liberty”, a name that percolated through the many reprints of Omniana into nineteenth-century British culture, folklore, and botany.
In parallel to a growing scientific interest in toxic and hallucinogenic fungi, a vast body of Victorian fairy lore connected mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills, and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives seething with elemental spirits. The similarity of this otherworld to those engendered by plant psychedelics in New World cultures, where psilocybin-containing mushrooms have been used for millennia, is suggestive. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, beneath its innocent exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden tradition of psychedelic knowledge? Were the authors of these fantastical narratives — Alice in Wonderland, for example — aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?
Despite its ubiquity, and occasional and tentative association with nature spirits, the mushroom that became the distinctive motif of fairyland was not the liberty cap but rather the spectacular red-and-white fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). The fly agaric is psychoactive but unlike the liberty cap, which delivers psilocybin in reliable doses, it contains a mix of alkaloids — muscarine, muscimol, ibotenic acid — which generate an unpredictable and toxic cocktail of effects. These can include wooziness and disorientation, drooling, sweats, numbness in the lips and extremities, nausea, muscle twitches, sleep, and a vague, often retrospective sense of liminal consciousness and waking dreams. At lower doses, none of these may manifest; at higher doses they may lead to coma and, on rare occasions, death.
Let us turn now to the most famous and frequently-debated conjunction of fungi, psychedelia, and fairy-lore: the array of mushrooms and hallucinatory potions, mind-bending and shapeshifting motifs in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Do Alice’s adventures represent first-hand knowledge of hallucinogenic mushrooms?
The scenes in question could hardly be better known. Alice, down the rabbit hole, meets a caterpillar sitting on a mushroom, who tells her in a “languid, sleepy voice” that the mushroom is the key to navigating through her strange journey: “one side will make you grow taller, the other side will make you grow shorter”. Alice takes a chunk from each side of the mushroom and begins a series of vertiginous transformations of size, shooting up into the clouds before learning to maintain her normal size by eating alternate bites. Throughout the rest of the book she continues to take the mushroom: entering the house of the Duchess, approaching the domain of the March Hare, and, climactically, before entering the hidden garden with the golden key.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that Alice’s mind-expanding journeys owed anything to the actual drug experiences of their author. Although Carroll — in daily life the Reverend Charles Dodgson — was a moderate drinker and, to judge by his library, opposed to alcohol prohibition, he had a strong dislike of tobacco smoking and wrote sceptically in his letters about the pervasive presence in syrups and soothing tonics of powerful narcotics like opium — the “medicine so dexterously, but ineffectually, concealed in the jam of our early childhood”.8 Yet Alice’s adventures may have their roots in a psychedelic mushroom experience. The scholar Michael Carmichael has demonstrated that, a few days before he began writing the story, Carroll made his only ever visit to Oxford’s Bodleian library, where a copy of Mordecai Cooke’s recently-published drug survey The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860) had been deposited.9 The Bodleian copy of this book still has most of its pages uncut, with the exception of the contents page and the chapter on the fly agaric, entitled “The Exile of Siberia”. Carroll was particularly interested in Russia: it was the only country he ever visited outside Britain. And, as Carmichael puts it, Carroll “would have been immediately attracted to Cooke’s Seven Sisters of Sleep for two more obvious reasons: he had seven sisters and he was a lifelong insomniac”.
If so, he was neither a secret drug initiate nor a Victorian gentleman entirely innocent of the arcane knowledge of drugs. In this sense, Alice’s otherworld experiences seem to hover, like much of Victorian fairy literature and fantasy, in a borderland between naïve innocence of such drugs and knowing references to them. We read them today from a very different vantage point, one in which magic mushrooms are consumed far more widely than in the Victorian or indeed any previous era. In our thriving psychedelic culture, fly agaric is only to be encountered at the distant margins; by contrast, psilocybin mushrooms are a global phenomenon, grown and consumed in virtually every country on earth and even making inroads into clinical psychotherapy. Today the liberty cap is an emblem of a new political struggle: the right to “cognitive liberty”, the free and legal alteration of one’s own consciousness.