TSMATC | Describing the growth of the mushroom ( boletos), Pliny says: “the earth produces first a ‘womb’ (vulva) . . . and afterwards (the mushroom) itself inside the womb, like a yolk inside the egg; and the baby mushroom is just as fond of eating its coat as is the chicken. The coat cracks when (the mushroom) first forms; presently, as it gets bigger, the coat is absorbed into the body of the footstalk (pediculi) . . . at first it is flimsier than froth, then it grows substantial like parchment, and then the mushroom. • is born. 1
More prosaically, perhaps, the process is thus described by a modern mycologist: “In the genus Amanita a membrane surrounds the young fungus. In addition to this wrapper or volva there is another membrane, stretching from the margin of the cap and joined to the stem, as in the mushroom. Thus it is as if the “button stage” were surrounded by an outer skin. As the fungus develops this is torn apart. If its texture is sufficiently tenacious to hold it together, it is left as a cup at the base of the stem . . . With growth the membrane covering the gills tears and is left as a ring on the stem.” Of the Amanita phalloides, the writer adds: “Before the volva breaks the fungus looks somewhat like a pigeon’s egg half-buried, or like a small phallus ‘egg’. It is common in glades in woods and adjoining pastures after the first summer rains, and continues through early autumn.”2
It was the fertilization of the “womb” that most puzzled the ancients, and remained a mystery until the end of the last century. To Pliny the fungus had to be reckoned as one of the “greatest of the marvels of nature”, since it “belonged to a class of things that spring up spontaneously and cannot be grown from seed”.3 It was surely “among the most wonderful of all things” in that it could “spring up and live without a root”.4 Until the invention of the microscope the function of the spore, produced by each fungus in its millions, could not be appreciated. The mushroom has, indeed, no seed in the accepted sense, germinating and giving out a root and later a stem apex with or without seed leaves. The walls of each minute spore extrude to form thread-like tubes which branch further until all mass together to form the spongy flesh of the fungus. The result is neither animal nor vegetable, and the mystery of its proper classification persisted until relatively modern times. Thus a sixteenth-century naturalist wrote: “They are a sort of intermediate existence between plants and inanimate nature. In this respect fungi resemble zoophytes, which are intermediate between plants and animals.”5
One explanation for the creation of the mushroom without apparent seed was that the “womb” had been fertilized by thunder, since it was commonly observed that the fungi appeared after thunderstorms. Thus one name given them was Ceraunion, from the Greek keraunios, “thunderbolt”. Another was the Greek hudnon, probably derived from Sumerian *UD_NUN, “storm—seeded”.6
It was thus uniquely-begotten. The normal process of fructification had been by-passed. The seed had not fallen from some previous plant, to be nurtured by the earth until in turn it produced a root and stalk. The god had “spoken” and his creative “word” had been carried to earth by the storm-wind, angelic messenger of heaven, and been implanted directly into the volva. The baby that resulted from this divine union was thus the “Son of God”, more truly representative of its heavenly father than any other form of plant or animal life. Here, in the tiny mushroom, was God manifest, the “Jesus” born of the Virgin “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation • . in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell . . .“ (Col I:15ff.).
The phallic form of the mushroom matched precisely that of his father, whom the Sumerians called ISKUR, “Mighty Penis”, the Semites Adad, or Hadad, “Big—father”, the Greeks Patër-Zeus, and the Romans Jupiter, “Father-god”.7 To see the mushroom was to see the Father, as in Jesus the uncomprehending Philip was urged to look for God: “He who has seen me has seen the Father. . . Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (John 14:9ff.). Even the detutns recognized him as “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24), and it was as “the Holy Plant” that the sacred fungus came to be known throughout the ancient world. The slimy juice of the mushroom which, in some phalloidic species, spills over the “glans” and clown the stem, seemed to the ancients like the viscous exudation of the genital organs prior to coitus and the seminal discharge at orgasm. The Hebrew word for “smooth, slimy” derives from a Sumerian phrase meaning “semen running to waste”,8 and figures in a number of biblical allusions to the mushroom.9 It was otherwise known as “spittle”, and Job asks if there is any taste in the “spittle of the mushroom” (as we should now read the name of that plant) (Job 6:6).10 To have “spittle in the mouth” was a euphemism in the Jewish Talmud for “semen in the vagina”, ll and the close relationship between the two fluids resulted in the very widespread belief that spittle had strong curative and prophylactic properties. Thus, as human semen was a cure for scorpion stings, according to Pliny,12 spittle was a repellent to snakes and an antidote to snake venom.13 Jesus is pictured making a clay poultice to lay over the eyes of the man born blind (John 9:6), mixing his spittle with dust, as Pliny reports that saliva used each morning as an eye ointment cured ophthalmia.14
Rain, the semen of the god, was spurted forth from the divine penis at his thunderous orgasm in the heavens, and was borne as “spittle” from the lips of the glans to earth on the storm wind.15 It was a unique concentration of this powerful spermatozoa in the juice of the “Holy Plant” that the Magi believed would give anyone anointed with it amazing power. They could “obtain every wish, banish fevers, and cure all diseases without exception”.16 So the Christian, the “smeared or anointed one”, received "knowledge of all things” by his “anointing from the Holy One” (I John 2:20). Thereafter he had need of no other teacher and remained for evermore endowed with all knowledge (v. 27). Whatever the full ingredients of the Christian unction may have been, they would certainly have included the aromatic gums and spices of the traditional Israelite anointing oil: myrrh, aromatic cane, cinnamon, and cassia, all representing the powerful semen of the god. Under certain enclosed conditions, a mixture of these substances rubbed on the skin could produce the kind of intoxicating belief in self-omniscience referred to in the New Testament. Furthermore, the atmosphere of the oracular chamber would be charged with reek of sacred incense consisting of “sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense . . .“ (Exod 30:34), giving the kind of overpowering hypnotic effect referred to by an early Christian writer when he speaks of “the frenzy of a lying soothsayer” as a “mere intoxication produced by the reeking fumes of sacrifice”.17
That these ingredients formed only part of the sacred incense formula is well known. Josephus says there were thirteen elements,18 and the Talmud names eleven, plus salt, and a secret “herb” which was added to make the smoke rise in a vertical column before spreading outwards at the top.19 With the characteristic shape of the mushroom in mind, we can hazard a fair guess now at this secret ingredient.
Knowledge and healing were two aspects of the same life-force. If to be rubbed with the “Holy Plant” was to receive divine knowledge, it was also to be cured of every sickness. James suggests that anyone of the Christian community who was sick should call the elders to anoint him with oil in the name of Jesus (Jas 5:14). The Twelve are sent out among their fellow-men casting out demons and anointing the sick with oil (Mark 6:13). Healing by unction persisted in the Church until the twelfth century,20 and the anointing of the dying, the so-called “extreme unction” has persisted in the Roman Catholic Church to this day.21 The principle behind this practice remains the same: the god’s “seed—of— life”, semen, found in spring or rain water, in the sap or resins of plants and trees, and above all in the slimy mucus of the mushroom imparts life to the ailing or the dead.