Mushrooms in Literature and Art
Article written by: Molly Helfend
Citing Mushroom Writing
Contemporary and classic literature
Fungi have regularly sprouted up throughout literary history. Writers have very often turned to fungi when searching for a metaphor for decay or rottenness. Examples can be found in the works of many great poets and authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Keats, Shelley, Spenser, and Tennyson. We see mushrooms arise in such classics as Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jule Verne, and in several science fiction books, including ones by legendary authors Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham, who have written stories that feature fungi in menacing form.
Short story writers have occasionally delved into the world of fungi as well. In H.G. Wells' 1896 tale, The Purple Pileus, a man tries to commit suicide by eating an agaric toadstool called Purple Pileus, Mycena purpureofusca, which rather than killing him, produces hallucinatory effects that help him solve his domestic problems. Mushrooms are often associated with gnomes or sprites, making them a benign favorite figure for children's illustrators, designers, and advertisers. Fungi have been used as inspiration in children’s literature, particularly in Raymond Briggs' picture book, Fungus the Bogeyman. In addition, in Vance Randolph’s old folkloric book, Ozark Magic and Folklore, he says that in many parts of the Ozarks, it is believed that "mushrooms must be gathered when the moon is full—gather 'em at any other time and they will be unpalatable, or perhaps even poisonous." He also says that mushrooms growing in an orchard where apple trees are in bloom are always edible.
Today, fungi continue to provide a source of material for contemporary authors. Mystery writer Sue Grafton features the poisonous Death Cap, Amanita phalloides, in her book, "I" Is for Innocent. Additionally, in Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Acceptable Risk, he tells the story of a scientist who discovers a mold that produces a mind-altering drug.
One of the most beloved literary series of all time, Harry Potter has charmed the world with its magical potions and charms. It is no surprise that the series also has fungal references intermixed throughout the seven books. There are endless references to mushrooms in the series, however some of the best mentions are from Ron Weasley, who compares Severus Snape to a poisonous mushroom, stating that, “Poisonous toadstools don’t change their spots.” Additionally, in Order of the Phoenix, during his OWL exam, Ron accidentally mutates a dinner plate into a large mushroom. Lastly, in The Deathly Hallows, author JK Rowling mentions that Harry, Ron and Hermione ate wild mushrooms for sustenance during their hunt for Voldemort’s Horcruxes.
Alice in Wonderland
One of the best known children’s mushroom-inspired literary masterpieces is Alice in Wonderland. We find the best reference from Alice herself, as she nibbles one side of a mushroom that makes her grow larger, and the other side that makes her shrink. It is speculated that author Lewis Carroll was speaking of the effects of the infamous Fly Agaric mushroom, as when eaten, it can produce hallucinogenic effects that make objects appear larger or smaller in the user's eye. Another reference is found during Alice’s interaction with the caterpillar, who sat atop a mushroom smoking hookah.
"In a minute or two the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, 'One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.'
'One side of what? The other side of what?' thought Alice to herself.
'Of the mushroom,' said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight."
Quotes and poems
“Mushrooms were the roses in the garden of that unseen world, because the real mushroom plant was underground. the parts you could see - what most people called a mushroom - was just a brief apparition. A cloud flower.”
- Margaret Atwood
“Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound. By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi, the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty. There seem to be two sides of this world, presented us at different times, as we see things in growth or dissolution, in life or death. and seen with the eye of the poet, as god sees them, all things are alive and beautiful”
- Henry David Thoreau
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,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
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
Ancient and modern art
Fungal hyphae has existed in the consciousness of artists throughout history. From the psychedelic 60s inducing creative vision, to Victorian storytellers linking fungi to fairies or even to toadstool paintings discovered during medieval eras. Mushrooms have always coexisted with the creative consciousness of human development. From Mayan art to couture fashion inspiration, you can see mushrooms popping up in the past and present. Speaking of fashion, make sure to check out Rahul Mishra’s beautiful collection inspired by Turkey Tail mushrooms.
Mushrooms have been found in traditional art by cultures around the world for centuries. Mushroom symbolism has been a recurring theme throughout history. It has appeared in many Christian paintings, such as in Hieronymus Bosch’s work, The Garden of Earthly Delight, where Amanita muscaria can be seen on the left-hand panel of the work. The intricacy of this painting’s symbolism has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries, however, one could surmise that the mushroom represented one of human’s temptations; to alter one’s state of consciousness with psychotropic substances. This theme is not only found in this painting. Ancient Mayan mushroom stones have been discovered that depict dream or trance-like face expressions. Other examples of traditional mushroom usage in art can be found on Japanese Netsuke figurines and Russian Pegtymal petroglyphs.
Today, mushrooms are especially used as inspiration and material for environmental and eco-artists. Mushrooms have brought up themes and projects surrounding sustainable living, bio-technology and ecology in the contemporary art world. You can find mushrooms on Anselm Kiefer Über Deutschland’s and Sonja Bäumel’s piece, “Objects not static and silent but alive and talking,” which use the growth of mushrooms to provoke those to think about the static character of the objects surrounding us, as opposed to our own dynamic way of living.
Further art resources:
Although “shrooms” are known to pop up in music and lyrics since the 1960s, mushrooms have also provided inspiration to countless artists before the psychedelic era. Performed in 1904, Igor Stravinsky composed a 6-minute song called The Mushrooms Going to War. The song tells the story of a pine mushroom who calls up various mushroom troops to arms. But each group claims exemption with the golden chanterelle objecting that they are too frail, and the wrinkled morels too old. In addition, composer John Cage said that “much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.” A lot of his work was influenced by his passionate fascination with mycology. Czechoslovakian composer Václav Hálek creates beautiful soundscapes by closely observing mushrooms he finds in the woods and notating the music that appears in his mind's ear. In modern times, mushrooms inspired Jack Black’s song Papagaenu (He's my Sassafras), in the musical The Prick of Destiny.
Further mushroom music resources:
It may sound random, but fungi became quite an inspiration for classical playwrights. French playwright MoliËre loved mushrooms so much that he went as far as to name his most famous protagonist Tartuffe - meaning truffle. His fondness for fungi is also reflected in the title of his estate, Perigord - an area noted for its exquisite black truffles. In addition, William Shakespeare references mushrooms in The Tempest, in a monologue spoken by Prospero in Act 5 Scene 1.
“ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
and ye that on the sands with printless foot
do chase the ebbing neptune and do fly him
when he comes back; you demi-puppets that
by moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
is to make midnight mushrooms …”