XI - The Mushroom “Egg” and Birds of Mythology

As the virgin goddess plays an important part in fertility cults throughout the ancient world, so the virgin volva of the sacred mushroom, her real-life counterpart of Nature, figures largely in fungus nomenclature and mythology. Yet the mushroom is in some respects a hermaphrodite, displaying characteristics of both sexes. With the stem at flu stretch, as we have seen, the Amanita muscaria seemed to the ancients like an erect, fiery—topped penis.1


But if the volva is sliced open before it splits of its own accord, there will be found inside a fully formed mushroom waiting to expand, like a fetus in a womb, or a chick in an egg (fig. 4). It is small wonder, then, that the mushroom was spoken of as a “womb” and many of its folk-designations and imagery come from this concept.


One such name we have already noticed in Paeony, the Holy Plant, and, in mythological terms, “Peter, Bar—jona”. Using the same Sumerian element in the last part of that word, *IA_u_NA, “fertility; womb”, and prefaced with the Sumerian word GIG, “shade, protection”, there came into Semitic the name qiqIyJn, “pod—plant”, used for Jonah’s mushroom sun-shade.2


That same word in Hebrew represented also a plant of a quite different kind but which also had pod-or womb- like fruits containing the laxative with which nursery tummy-upsets have made us all too familiar, castor oil. Our English translators of the Jonah story have sometimes had the unfortunate prophet seeking shade from the sun under a Castor oil tree. Our word “uterus” comes ultimately from a Sumerian phrase *USh_TAR with the same meaning.


A fuller form of “Bar-jona” combined *BARUNA with *USh TAR to make the Greek name of the Holy Plant, Peristereön3 which became most important for mushroom mythology in the Greek-speaking world and particularly in the New Testament. The old botanists not unnaturally connected the name with the “dove”, Greek peristera, thinking the Holy Plant must have been the natural habitat for these birds. In fact, the connection is much more direct.


The bird’s name in Greek, as its equivalent yonab in Semitic (Jonah’s name is the same word), actually means “womb”; the reference to the bird is secondary.4

Fig. 4

Diagrammatic section of (i) a volva before “birth” (ii) a mature mushroom

A number of birds are, like the dove, connected in ancient nomenclature and mythology with fertility and the womb, and thus with the mushroom. The dove is traditionally associated with peace, the word for which in both Greek and Semitic has an underlying significance of “fertility” and “fruitfulness”. In Hebrew the delightful word, shlJm, is used, like its Arabic equivalent, salãm, as a traditional greeting, “Peace!”


But it is more than not being at war with anything or anybody; it has, like the sound of the word itself, a sense of being replete, content, in the terms of the old fertility philosophy, in a state of balance with yourself and the world.


Those people of the ancient Near East who gave us our culture, would have viewed our concern with the Pill with incredulity. The barren womb was a plague from the god; a woman without a fetus in her belly was an insult to her sex and her man. In that house there could be no shãlöm, no “peace” The dove symbolized fruitfulness.


As Nature is composed of opposites, and as the fetus is born of the white sperm of the male and the dark red blood of the female,6 so the white dove has its counterpart in the black raven. Its name also can be traced back in Greek and Semitic to the womb idea,7 and it too was traditionally associated with fertility. The Greeks invoked the raven at weddings, and there was a curious idea that, like the dove, the raven laid its eggs or mated through its beak.8


Pliny poured scorn on the idea, and thought it was just a way of kissing. Nevertheless, he quotes the “old wives’ tale” that pregnant women should avoid eating ravens’ eggs lest they bear their children through their mouths. It was the same observation of the manner of courtship of these birds that led the Romans to call a man who indulged in labial kissing during sex-play, a “crow”.


It was a raven that was sent out first from Noah’s ark to survey the flooded world, and it was a dove sent out later that brought back evidence of new growth in its beak (Gen 8 :61f.). In the Old Testament account of the Creation, the spirit of God hovers like a bird above the primeval sea, wafting with its wing-beat the breath of God into the slime from which the world was made (Gen 1:2).


So Pliny speaks of “that famous breath (spiritus) that generates the universe by fluctuating to and fro as in a kind of wonib”.10


It is much the same imagery that portrays the Holy Spirit fluttering down on the head of Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3:16), making him, too, a “Bar.jona”, “Son of a Dove” Another important example of the winged creature-fertility motif in the Old Testament is the idea of the cherubim.


The modern popular image of the cherub as a rosy-cheeked and under-clad infant with diminutive wings owes more to late artistic conceptions of post- biblical Jewish angelology than the Old Testament. There the cherub is pictured as a strange hybrid creature, having two, four or six wings (counting Isaiah’s “seraphim” as of the same order) and one, two or four heads, human and bestial.


Yahweh rides upon a cherub,

“swiftly upon the wings of the wind” (Ps 18:io [Heb. ix] II Sam 22:11), and is “the one enthroned upon the cherubim” (I Sam 4:4, etc).

This last figure refers to the throne of Yahweh in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem temple where two cherubim stand on either side of an arched canopy 11 (“mercy—seat”) over the ark of the testimony (Exod 25: i7ff.).


The outstretched wings of the cherubim form Yahweh’s throne, and it is there that the god promises to meet Moses and his high priestly successors for oracular consultation. The cherubim are here exercising a protective function as they do in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24), scene of the primeval creation. Similarly, Ezekiel speaks of them as the “screening cherubim of the anointing” in God’s garden (28:1 3f.).


In classical mythology the counterpart of the biblical cherubim are the griffins who guard a source of treasure near a cave called “the Earth’s Door-bolt”, the entrance into the womb of mother Earth.12 Like the cherub, the griffin is pictured bearing the god on its back, and drawing the chariot of the fertility goddess Aphrodite with her charioteer Eros.13


Ezekiel, and following him late Jewish mysticism, makes much of the cherubim and related chariot imagery. To the prophet, in some form of hallucinatory trance, they appear as grotesque apparitions in a storm, surrounded by flashes of lightning and roars of thunder (Ezek 1:4,24). They move not only on outstretched wings but with whirling, eye—studded wheels, having in them the “spirit of life”, and they bear the glory of Yahweh from the Temple porch (chs. i, io). Above their heads is a canopy and beneath it their wings are spread, two for flying and two to cover their bodies (Ezek i:6, 23).


The mushroom imagery is here dramatically evident. The prophet sees the Amanita muscaria, its glowing red cap studded with the white flakes of the broken pellicle from the volva. In this skin lies the hallucinatory drug, one of whose properties is to enhance the perceptive faculties, making colors brighter and objects far larger or smaller than their real size.14

Philologically, also, the cherub-griffin is related to the fungus. The names in Indo-European and Semitic go back to another “pod-” or “womb-” word, *GtJIUB, similar in meaning to the source of the name of the well-known pod-plant, the Carob.’5 It was this Carob that supplied the horn- or uterus-shaped pods eaten by the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:16).


Pliny described them as “not longer than a man’s finger, occasionally curved like a sickle, with the thickness of a man’s thumb”.16 The name had another reference in the ancient world, however. The Acadian botanists use the same Semitic word for Carob to describe the Sumerian “Seed—of—life” plant, the mushroom.17

The association between birds and the womb must have been in part due to the similarity seen between the chick in its pellicle of the egg and the fetus in the uterine membrane, just as Pliny drew a parallel between the baby mushroom in its “volva” and the chick in the egg. But for the idea of the outstretched wings of the womb-birds like the cherub- griffin, one should look to the fancied resemblance between the wings and the so-called “horns” of the uterus, the Fallopian tubes, which branch out from the top and terminate in the ovaries.


A stylization of this kind appears in the Egyptian hieroglyph representing the bicornate uterus of the heifer, It was this kind of imagery which brought together the name of the palm-tree, Phoenix, with the most famous of all the “womb-birds” of mythology. The relationship of the palm- tree, with its long stem surmounted by a canopy of leaves, and the mushroom, will be discussed later,19 but the similarity between them both and the stylized uterus will be immediately evident. The Phoenix bird was for centuries a favorite theme of mythology and philosophers, pagan and Christian.20 I


t was believed to burn itself alive on its own nest at the end of an extremely long life, and from its body or ashes which had become fertilized there came forth another Phoenix. This offspring was, in some versions, created from the beginning a perfect replica of its parent, or, according to other reports, grew from a preliminary larval stage, like a grub. The Phoenix-bird mythology is another piece of mushroom folklore. 21


As the fetus is generated in the furnace of the uterus, so the mushroom, that “evil ferment of the soil”, as Nicander (second century BC) calls it,22 is created, a “womb” within a “womb”, as it were. Like the fabulous Phoenix, the mushroom is self-generated and regenerated, bursting forth from the volva, only to die as quickly and then apparently miraculously to reappear, a resurrection of its own self.


A great deal of the mythology of the ancient Near East hinges on the theme of the dying and rising god. It is usually, and correctly, seen as symbolism in story form of the processes of nature whereby in the heat of summer the earth’s greenness disappears in death, to reappear the following spring in new birth. But, as we shall see, in the life cycle of the mushroom this natural cycle was quickened to a matter of days or even hours.23


The fungus was a microcosm of the whole fertility process, the essence of god compressed into the womb and penis of the hermaphrodite mushroom.

It was long ago suggested that the Phoenix bird was the stork, ever the type and emblem of maternal and filial affection. The Latin name for this bird, ciconia is almost certainly derived from the Sumerian *GIG-IA-U-NA, “pod of fertility”, the Hebrew qiqäyön of Jonah’s sunshade mushroom.24 That it was the shape motif that earned for the bird this mushroom name, seems to be indicated by the use of ciconia in Latin for a “T”-shaped implement for measuring the depth of furrows in the field, as if this were the obvious characteristic of the bird as it stood on one leg, its body forming the “canopy”


The swan is another of the fertility birds. Possibly its long curved neck seemed to represent the vaginal passage, whilst its white body was the uterus and its outstretched wings were the Fallopian tubes. The Greek and Latin names for the bird, through which we received our “cygnet”, are pod-names, derived from a Sumerian *GUG...NU,25 “seed pod”.


In classical mythology, Zeus takes the form of a swan to mate with Leda, and from the union she was delivered of an egg from which came the heroine-goddess Helen and her twin brothers Castor and Pollux. The whole of this story is mushroom-inspired as we shall see, and the very common twin mythology of the ancient world comes directly out of the mushroom cult. When the egg or volva of the mushroom splits into two, one half is left in the ground, the other forced upwards by the expanding stem or phallus, borne aloft as a canopy towards the sky.


In those simplified terms, anyway, the old myth-makers saw the development of the fungus, and from that conception they formulated many stories and characters having to do with twin-children, bearing names related to the “womb” and the “penis”.


When the offspring are combined into one person, like Adonis, Apollo, Dionysus, and so on, he is often pictured as a beautiful, rather effeminate youth, a favorite theme of the classical sculptors. On occasion, this person is a Hermaphrodite, a mixture of both sexes, the prime example of which was, as the name implies, the offspring of Hermes (Sumerian *ERUM..US1I, “erect penis”)26 and Aphrodite (*A_BURU_DA_TI, “organ of fecundity”, that is, the “womb”).27


In the following chapter we shall look at some “twin” stories derived from the “hermaphrodite”28 mushroom, and at the symbolism it evoked.

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