Contributing writer Jessica Anne Rose explores the wonderful world of mushrooms in Irish mythology, literature and the cottagecore aesthetic.
In many illustrations of mythical creatures such as fairies, you will often find red and white speckled mushrooms accompanying them. This easily identifiable ‘fly agaric’ mushroom has made its way into mainstream fashion thanks to the boom of the cottagecore aesthetic – a nostalgic and carefree style known for its floaty dresses and skirts with a mediaeval influence, bringing back corsets and soft sweater vests. It’s believable that in today’s society and economy some of us (myself included) would like to pretend we’re fairies and run off into the fields. Just be careful the next time you’re posing with some cute mushrooms in your garden – there are many superstitions around the famous fungi!
As a child, I delighted in finding ‘fairy rings,’ which are a group of mushrooms in a circle, as the name suggests. I had grown up with fairy tales that claimed fairy rings were where fairies danced and met at night, but some myths see them as portals to other worlds. Some believe they are tables for fairies and are a sign of a fairy village underground, but one German myth calls the natural phenomenon ‘witches’ rings!’ In this case, witche’ rings were cursed, so if a human dared step foot in it they would be enchanted to dance until they passed out from exhaustion. Austrians believed the rings were created by dragons’ fiery tails. Whatever the truth is, it’s interesting that every culture tied mushrooms into mythology or magic in some way. Coincidence or not?
For the more cynical and academic readers among us, even Shakespeare had his own suspicions about mushrooms. In ‘The Tempest’, Prospero soliloquises about “ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves […] whose pastime is to make the midnight mushrooms”. Perhaps he believed in the myths? It is also theorised Shakespeare was actually under the influence of magic mushrooms whilst writing some of his plays, making this line a clever inside joke. He was an educated man however, and loved to emphasise this fact in his work by referencing other advanced literary works, so I don’t think he’d just throw that line in there if the reference didn’t mean something to him. Lewis Carroll, author of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, depicted mushrooms as having ‘magical’ properties, making Alice change size, and Absolem the caterpillar – who smokes a mysterious pipe and is always dazed – resides upon a mushroom. Was this a symbol that mushrooms were connected to magic, and were similar to thrones for magical beings? Or was Carroll making a sly magic mushroom joke for adults in his children’s novel?
Were these writers just subtly alluding to the existence of medicinal magic mushrooms or connecting the effects of taking them to being ‘under a spell’ of a fairy? It’s fair to say that mushrooms have always held an air of mystery around them. Whether it was just not to eat them, to not step on them for bad luck, or you wondered about the intricacies of their psychedelic effects – mushrooms have quite a lot of history around them for merely being dome shaped fungi scattered round your garden, tracing back to 4000 BC cave paintings. I’m just saying, maybe they knew something we don’t.