The Symbolism of Mushrooms


An ink drawing of a mushroom oozing black liquid

“Associated in art, literature, and folklore with the wicked and exotic, the mushroom has been used since primitive times to represent death and death’s fair sister, sex. Mushrooms have been called ‘devil’s fruit’ and Satan’s beard. They do not take to domestication. They lurk in the forest, assume skeleton hues, and smell of rot and Pan.” – Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

I am of the opinion that it is impossible to have a neutral opinion about mushrooms. You love them or (correctly) you hate them. Or, more correctly, you fear them. Mushrooms are an other. Neither plant nor animal. A little of both, a little of neither. When it comes to horror, mushrooms offer a wide range of symbolic meaning. As Robbins rightly puts it: they can be natural and supernatural, morbid and erotic, Satanic and Pagan.

1. Mushrooms in Folklore

2. Mushrooms as a Symbol of Decay

3. Mushrooms as a Symbol of Longevity

4. Mushroom as a Symbol of Infection

5. Mushrooms on the Mind: Psychedelics and God

6. Mushrooms are a Cult, Actually

7. Mushrooms and Witchcraft: Feminist Fungus

Mushrooms in Folklore

I was walking in the forest one day when I came across a small clearing surrounded by only the oldest of gnarled trunks. At the center of the smooth green undergrowth was a circle of vivid red that, on closer examination, turned out to be a formation of tiny polka-dot mushroom caps. Each was a perfect specimen, a storybook flourish: white stalk, red cap, white polka dots. I stepped into the center of the mushroom ring, pretending I was crossing through an invisible portal into a fairytale realm. 

Immediately, the pit of my stomach felt like it dropped open. I looked around, but there was nothing to obviously point to as the cause of my unease. The circumference of the fairy ring was roughly six or seven feet. A full-grown adult could lie down in it without ever touching the edge. A prickling on the back of my neck suggested that something in the darkened wood was staring at me. I turned. There was nothing but wood and moss. My unease grew. I looked above at the cloudless sky and felt a dizzying sense of stillness. 

It was then that I noticed why I felt like the world had come to a pause. All sound in the forest, the birds and scurrying critters, the wind shuffling between branches, had come to a complete, unnatural halt. 

An ancient form of life, mushrooms have followed humans through history, seeping into the stories we tell. Depending on which folk tale you’re being told, circular mushroom formations, also known as fairy rings, can signify either good or bad luck. Though their name makes them sound like they belong in the yellowed pages of a storybook, they are a very real phenomenon.

Fairy rings occur when a mushroom takes a liking to a specific location. This is it. This is home now. It grows a mycelium deep underground, then sends its fungal fingers, or hyphae, out in all directions. One of the most obvious markers of a fairy ring is a necrotic zone, which is the area where grass or other plant life withers away as it becomes part of the mushroom’s range. As the fungus ages, the oldest parts at the center die, leaving only the outer reaches of a perfect circle. The mushroom we see and know as a fairy circle is only the fruiting body of an underground network of fungus, both living and dead, hidden just out of view. 

Originally, fairy rings were associated with the presence of fairies or elves (more on that later). Some myths suggest that fairy rings occur when the Fae frolic in meadows after a rainstorm. Fairy rings are not for humans to trifle with. According to some English and Celtic folk tales, any human that steps into a fairy ring is forced to dance with the creatures of that ring until they die of exhaustion or otherwise go mad. In other stories across Great Britain, humans in fairy rings are whisked away to the land of the fairies, or fall into a hundred-year sleep.

Fairy rings represent a side of nature we do not and cannot control. The fungus symbolizes a hidden world best left undisturbed. In some countries’ folk history, fairy rings carry evil associations. Dutch folk tales suggest that fairy rings are created wherever the Devil sets down his milk churn. In France, fairy rings are known as ‘sorcerer rings’, which travelers are advised to avoid at all cost, while German folklore associates them with witchcraft, suggesting they are created wherever witches dance in the moonlight.

Because of their long-standing connection to folklore, fairy rings are symbolically mythological; they represent the interwoven threads of living stories. When we see a fairy ring, we see the passage of time, and the complex layering of meaning, both metaphorically and literally. The oldest fairy ring is in France, believed to be around 700 years old. It would have been a centenarian when Henry V brought defeat to French soil in the Battle of Agincourt. It would have been over 200 years old when Shakespeare penned the tragic tale of Juliet and her Romeo. It will outlive you and your children and their children after them. 

a book cover for alice's adventures in wonderland with a young girl amid a

Mushrooms are traditionally connected with magic, whether that be witches, sorcerers, or the Devil. They are both part of nature and beyond our understanding of it. To quote (as I will several times in this article) mycologist Nicholas P. Money, “They trump the supernatural, their magic intensifying as we learn more about them.” Their magic is not, necessarily, benevolent. The Amanita muscaria (the mushroom you think of when you think of a mushroom) is a deadly toadstool. It represents that duality of mushroom symbolism in folklore: equal parts magic and danger.

The connection between mushrooms and death is exemplified by the persistent myth (and it is a myth; there is no scientific backing for this claim) that fairy rings signify locations where corpses have been buried. 

Mushrooms as a Symbol of Decay

I awoke in my own bed with no memory of falling asleep. The linen sheets were warm and crumpled, wrapped snugly around my body. By the grey haze of the light creeping around the edges of the drapes, it was just after dawn. I wriggled deeper into my cocoon, drawn to its comfort. A sour smell like rotten earth rose from the freshly cleaned blankets. 

All at once, I flung the covers from me. The stench tripled, undercut by a sickly sweetness, the kind that I might associate with sick beds and wrinkled skin. I looked down and stifled a scream. My bed was packed with loose earth that all but covered my thighs and midriff. My right foot had a sickly green tint, the veins thick and deep blue. It had swollen to twice its normal size, like something left for weeks in a river. From the toes, in place of nails, sprouted little spores the color of rancid cream.

“[Mushrooms] are nature’s natural recyclers where old becomes new and dead matter is broken down in order to give birth to something new.”

The Wicked Griffin

Mushrooms’ willingness to feast on dead matter associates them, inevitably, with decay. They are not harbingers of death, but they are scavengers of its remains. Mushrooms appear at the intersection of life and death. They are a bad sign towards hope of survival. According to Edmond, Oklahoma’s Urban Forestry Department, “The presence of a fungal fruiting body on a living tree is always a sign that decay is present in that tree… According to [urban forestry expert] Dr. Christopher Luley, “all decay of any consequence in urban trees is caused by fungi.”

“What would be wrong about that?”

“Only the thought of them growing over dead things!”

“But then mushrooms always grow over dead things in a way.”

Silvia Moreno-García, Mexican Gothic

One of the most disturbing death scenes in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series appears in the show’s second episode, “Amuse-Bouche.” In it, a serial killer kidnaps victims, places them into a medically induced coma, and uses them as live fertilizer for his mushroom garden. Here, fungus symbolizes living decay. Those afflicted aren’t corpses, but they might as well be.

I was originally going to use a picture from the episode, to illustrate my point. So, like a normal person, I Googled “Hannibal mushrooms” but instead of clicking Images search, I accidentally went to the Shopping tab, which was the best “mistake” of my life because I came across the image on the left, which is basically perfect. Anyway, it’s by fishpillowses, and you can buy this excellent Hannigram mushroom are on Redbubble.

I’m not even going to bother with a pic from the episode; this is better.

Mushrooms as a Symbol of Longevity

The flip side of mushrooms signifying “the end” is their association with life, extended. It all comes down to scope and point of view. For the corpse the fungus feast on, reality has come to a screeching halt. But for the mushrooms, it is a Tuesday snack. In fact, mushrooms are extremely important members of the forest ecosystem. They are not necessarily the causers of decay, just a signifier that it is occuring. If anything, they are doing their best to clear it away. According to the Ministry of Forests in British Columbia, “A forest in which nothing rotted would soon be choked with accumulating dead leaves and woody material, and starved for essential minerals and other nutrients bound up in the undecomposed debris.”

“It was a woman in a dress of yellow antique lace. Where her face ought to have been there was a glow, golden like that of the mushrooms on the wall. The woman’s glow grew stronger, then dimmed. It was like watching a firefly in the summer night sky.

Next to Noemí the wall had started to quiver, beating to the same rhythm as the golden woman. Beneath her the floorboards pulsed too; a heart, alive and knowing. The golden filaments that had emerged together with the mushrooms covered the wall like a netting and continued to grow. She noticed, then, that the woman’s dress was not made of lace, bit instead woven with the same filaments.

The woman raised a gloved hand and pointed to Noemí, and she opened her mouth, but having no mouth since her face was a golden blur, no words came out. Noemí had not felt scared. Not until now. But this, the woman attempting to speak, it made her indescribably afraid.”

Silvia Moreno-García, Mexican Gothic

Mushrooms represent interconnectedness. The largest living organism in the world is a fungus, the Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It covers four square miles of forest floor, communicating via a subterranean web of mycelium. In horror, this interconnectedness can be leveraged a couple different ways. Obviously, you can go down the hive mind route, the concept of one consciousness spread across numerous different beings. That’s the angle I took when I wrote a short story that combined a fear of mushrooms with the experience of getting all four wisdom teeth removed (one day, I will publish this story, I swear, and when I do, I’ll link it here).

An ink drawing of a mushroom oozing liquid

Another avenue for exploring mushroom symbolism is the concept of being overtaken. In stories where fungus encroaches, the threat is both bodily and existential. Spores growing out of pores is icky, but the erasure of an individual self is existentially terrifying. It is decay of an entirely different type: a contamination of being

“An element of body horror is standard for fungoid fiction. With many tales of fungus and fungoid figures, there is often a threat and overwhelming fear of contamination prevalent within the plot.”

Claire Quigley, A Celebration of Fungoid Fiction

Mushrooms as a Symbol of Infection

The first thing I did, once my wits were collected, was create a paste of honey, ginger root, garlic, and clove. I spread the golden cure over my foot from ankle to toe, then wrapped it in a cotton cloth. Now, all there was to do was wait. The cloth was not so thick that I couldn’t wear shoes, so I slipped into my work boots and set out for the day. All the while, the infected foot felt no different. There was no pain or numbness. Not even tingling to signify the medicinal paste was hard at work.

There was plenty to distract myself with. I toiled away in the garden: clearing weeds from the tubers, planting the tomato seeds that finally dried, piling rocks and sticks at the edge of the property so they didn’t disturb growth. If you’ll believe me, I actually forgot about my affliction by the time I was settling in for the night. When I unbuttoned my trousers, I found that not only was the foot still diseased, but the infection had spread all the way up to my thigh. Above the skin, a thin white tendril wrapped itself several times around my leg. Subcutaneously, my veins seemed to have grown fat as worms, glowing blue in the candlelight. Swallowing hard, I pressed the taut skin and felt something shift. On closer examination, I realized they were not veins at all.

Another definition of the word “mushroom” is “to grow rapidly in size or scope.” As in, “to mushroom.” One day, your yard is nothing but grass; the next morning, there are caps among the dew. Mushrooms are “masterpieces of natural engineering”; the exposed gills of a mushroom shed 30,000 spores per second, sending out billions of allergenic particles every single day. Mushrooms represent an infection that appears and grows faster than we can track it.

And don’t even get me started on spores.

Spores are like germs, invisible yet ever-present, able to covertly invade a body. Though not strictly horror, the eighth installment of A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Grim Grotto, features a scene that haunted me through pre-adolescence. In it, the Baudelaires and Fiona Widdershins realize, only after having spent hours in a tiny grotto with limited air supply, that they have been in the presence of Medusoid Mycelium, a deadly mushroom that infects those around it through invisible, airborne spores. By the time they realize their predicament, it’s too late. They have already been contaminated and the clock is ticking.

The mushroom lends itself easily to parasitic associations. Though not inherently a parasitic plant (not a plant at all, technically), its rapid spread and morbid diet turns it into the carrion bird of the forest ecosystem. The motif of fungus as a source of infection is also explored in video game series The Last of Us. In The Last of Us, the Cordyceps fungus causes the Cordyceps brain infection, a zombification process whereby human consciousness is subsumed by mindless hunger. 

William Hope Hodgson combines the fears of parasitic vegetation and the fear of infection in his fungal horror story, “A Voice in the Night.” In it, a ship-wrecked young couple discover a strange fungus that, though initially benign, grows sinister the longer they live near it. The threat posed by the fungus is its ability to spread: onto wood, onto pillows, onto shirts, onto skin.  According to English professor Michael Grant Kellermeyer, “Hodgson was a fanatical germaphobe – terrified by fungi, mold, and bacteria, and obsessed with “hygiene.”

Unlike other signifiers of death, mushrooms do not necessarily promise an end. Instead, they insinuate a tortured continuation. The mushroom zombies in Last of Us are shadow puppet versions of their former selves. The couple in “The Voice in the Night,” isn’t facing swift death but creeping absorption: 

“We had now given up all thought or hope of leaving the island. We had realized that it would be unallowable to go among healthy humans, with the things from which we were suffering. With this determination and knowledge in our minds we knew that we should have to husband our food and water; for we did not know, at that time, but that we should possibly live for many years.”

William Hope Hodgson, “The Voice in the Night”

For Hodgson, Kellermeyer continues, “Mother Nature is not a peaceful dame in search of harmony and balance, but a fanciful madwoman spreading chaos and anarchy wherever mortals fail to resist it. Ironically Hodgson views Nature as the source of pollution and contamination.”

The terrible thing about mushrooms is that they are not, in fact, preternatural. Despite their associations to the Devil and witchcraft, they are firmly a part of the natural system. There is plant. There is animal. There is fungus. Their associations are supernatural, but that is just our way of trying to understand them. If anything, they are hypernatural: such an incontrovertible yet foreign part of nature that they exist on an enhanced plane of existence. Compared to the mushroom, people are but a blip in the grand scheme of the universe. 

Mushrooms help us realize humanity’s impermanence. As Money explains, “Because humans evolved in ecosystems dependent upon mushrooms there would be no us without mushrooms. And no matter how superior we feel, humans remain dependent upon the continual activity of these fungi. The relationship isn’t reciprocal: without us there would definitely be mushrooms. Judged against the rest of life (and, so often, we do place ourselves against the rest of nature) humans can be considered as a recent and damaging afterthought.”

Mushrooms on the Mind: Psychedelics and God

An ink drawing of a mushroom oozing shadow with a psychadelic background

“Once upon a time, I spent 30 years studying mushrooms and other fungi. Now, as my scientific interests broaden with my waistline, I would like to share three things that I have learned about the meaning of life from thinking about these extraordinary sex organs and the microbes that produce them. This mycological inquiry has revealed the following: (i) life on land would collapse without the activities of mushrooms; (ii) we owe our existence to mushrooms; and (iii) there is (probably) no God. The logic is spotless.”

Nicholas P. Money, “What Mushrooms have Taught me about the meaning of life,”

You can’t talk about mushrooms and their relationship to humans without bringing up our good ole friend psilocybin. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University into the effects of magic mushrooms, a single dose of psilocybin can have lasting effects on our personality. Participants in the study reported feeling closer to God while under the effects of the psilocybin. According to Money, this functions as proof that the atheists have it right; “Belief in God has no more substance than a mushroom dream.”

However, others argue that it proves the opposite. God is real and mushrooms are our gateway to them. Regardless of which conclusion you draw, there is no denying that there is a link between the earthly and the ethereal in the magic mushroom. 

Through psychedelic mushrooms, we begin to unpack our relationship with the world around us. In an article about “mushroom trip horror stories” by Vice, one person tells of the “psychological loop” they fell into under the influence of psilocybin where they were convinced they were dead. “I was having ego death,” they explain, “I didn’t think there was a difference between life and death.”

Another Vice article describes a rising trend of people “horror-tripping”, or deliberately inducing a bad trip for reasons, I guess? The aim, as described by 26-year-old Enrique NOLASTNAME, is to challenge yourself with the darkest parts of your psyche. “Dark trips help you see things in a way that good trips won’t let you,” he explains, “It’s like when Luke Skywalker meets Darth Vader, Skywalker is actually facing up to the shadow of himself.”

The death of ego associated with psychedelic mushrooms connects with the cosmic horror inspired by ordinary mushrooms. For some, it becomes a path towards whittling away at the lonely, individualistic “me” and replacing it with the communal, interconnected “us”. Going back to the Johns Hopkins study, many participants described their experience consuming magic mushrooms as mystical, evoking “a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”

Mushrooms are a Cult, Actually

We walked several miles without tiring. The dirt was spongy under our bare feet, our shoes abandoned nearly an hour ago when they proved insufficient. We had lived alone until now. We knew there was a village some way away; it was where Mother used to disappear for days to trade eggs and foraged goods for fabric and soap. It was where Mother set off all those years ago, when she promised she’d be back soon. 

We were lonely. All those years without Mother, tending to an unruly garden. We claimed we were  too busy to be lonely,  always moving like an impatient spring breeze amid long grass. The truth had to be faced. We stole a still moment and we discovered the particles of earth that make up a handful of dirt, the dozen seedlings of a single dandelion. We are a spore on the wind. We are not alone; we will never be alone again.

The village comes into view as we step over the hill. We stop, admire the mycelium curled from our feet around our waist to our neck. We gently stroke the fungal necklace as we appreciate the first smattering of wooden houses. We are not alone. Our feet move almost of our own accord towards the nearest dwelling. We will never be alone again.

[On why she joined a cult]:  “I wanted someone to come in and say ‘Do this, care about that’ It felt so good to take my hands off the wheel. I’m sorry but I hated you. I was so angry that I thought I hated you.”

Ivy Mayfair-Richards (played by Alison Pill), American Horror Story: Cult

Magic mushrooms and cults perform similar functions in that they provide an opportunity for us to “take our hands off the wheel.” One of the most famous horror movies about cults in the last decade, Midsommar, features both the use of psychedelic mushrooms and the theme of self versus group. Psychedelic mushrooms fulfil their “death of ego” purpose on an individual chemical level; cults perform the same function on a societal level.

Dani, in Midsommar, is extremely susceptible to the allure of the cult. Afloat in grief and uncertainty, she is an untethered character seeking someone, or something, to ground her. Quite literally, the magic mushrooms she takes in the first act “ground her,” inducing psychedelic visions of her body becoming one with the grass. 

Mushrooms and Witchcraft: Feminist Fungus

Now, I’m not out here saying cults are good. However, I do think it’s worth examining the impulses that draw people to cults. It is important to understand the areas of life that prove so dissatisfactory that people prefer to join a cult. Often, our desperate need for connection and purpose stems from an isolation caused by the current status quo. There is a correct way to exist that we are not quite able to succeed at, and we need respite.

“The most notorious traitor and rebel that can be is the witch, for she renounceth God himself, the king of kings, she leaves the society of his church and people, she bindeth herself in league with the Devil.”

William Perkins, Sixteenth-Century English Puritan Theologian

Mushrooms are associated with witchcraft, potions, and ritual. Witches and mushrooms have in common an unfairly earned notoriety. Witches are evil. Witches make deals with the Devil. Witches can and will eat your children. Mushrooms are infection, contamination; mushrooms symbolize existential dread; mushrooms represent the death of ego; mushrooms are death living. I mean, I’m guilty of spreading nasty rumors about mushrooms. I’ve basically spent 4,000 words slandering fungi just because it shows up in places that make me uncomfortable. It appears in the trunk of a dead tree and rather than thinking, “It’s cool of this lil fungus to help get rid of that dead tissue,” I say “and this is why mushrooms are associated with decay.” Witches, particularly between 1400 and 1800, were reviled by their societies. Often unmarried or poor women, they disrupted societal expectations of allowable femininity

The connection between fungus, witches, and women comes down to their association with mystery; they evoke an unknowableness (to a certain unknowing audience). In Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema, Brenda S. Garenour Walter explains, “Unlike the male body, which was muscular and tight, or the rarified flesh of the holy woman, which was purified through ecstatic union, the typical female body was loose and spongy – like a mushroom – and contained myriad hidden caverns. These dark spaces, untouched by the presence of God, provided an ideal habitat for demonic entities who preferred to lodge in the fetid bowels…”

An ink drawing of a mushroom oozing liquid

As someone who isn’t completely terrified of mushrooms, but clearly distrusts them enough to write an entire article about why they belong in horror, it was initially jarring to read a description that described my female body as mushroom-like. See, when analyzing mushrooms, I was seeing them as the “other”, the strange, alien-like invader that appears in the crevices of dead bark in the dead of night. Seeing the female body othered the way I othered mushrooms, I suddenly find myself a little more sympathetic towards fungi. It uncovers new potential for mushrooms as a feminist symbol. 

In “Why Pop Culture Links Women and Killer Plants,” Amandas Ong explains that, “Lethal vegetation has long been a metaphor for female disobedience, in Western mythology and in society at large.” From Eve eating fruit from the tree of knowledge (and thus bringing evil to the previously peaceful heaven on earth) to Hecate goddess of magic using poisonous herbs in witchcraft, deadly plants represent “an allegorical warning that women can’t be trusted with knowledge, lest they use it to bring disorder to mankind.” Mushrooms, specifically, offer an ideal representation of the feminine sphere of domesticity: nurturing and relatively immobile. As such, a poisonous mushroom symbolizes an inversion of the expected docility of femininity. Mushrooms are evil only to those who choose to view them as deliberately malicious, rather than as much a part of nature as birds, trees, and women.

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,

Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

Sylvia Plath, “Mushrooms”

***

With their hypernatural unknowableness, mushrooms offer plenty of symbolic opportunities in horror. They operate well in the grounded domain of the earth, where they can represent decay and infection, and in the psychological sphere of the mind, where they symbolize interconnectedness and ego death. Their roots, or mycelium (if you’ll allow a joke) in folklore reinforce how, over the years, they have always captivated the human imagination. For good or for evil, we’ve always looked at fungus and thought, “Huh. Wonder what that’s about.”

Categories: SymbolismTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 comments

  1. Love this essay! As a fellow mushroom hater in my food I was intrigued by the historical significance and symbolism they hold.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shannon, Fascinating! Brava.. Love the description of Mother Nature by Kellermeyer . And, compared to the mushroom, we r but a blip, humbling! Adore the quote by N.Money..so relevant to this reader! Plath’s poem, your inviting writing style – incredible mushroom research – nightmare material… I’ll never look at them the same again. Merci!

    Liked by 2 people

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