The answer is that the sacred mushroom was characterized in name and mythology by its distinctive coloring, the deep red of the cap contrasting with the white stem, and with the white or yellowish “warts” standing out against the red, remnants of the broken volva from which it grew. In the following chapter we shall look at the names deriving from the color and “scabby” form. of the Amanita muscaria, and how its distinctive appearance contributed in no small measure to the awesome wonder with which its worshippers regarded the fungus, and the stories woven around it.
By “golden” in this context we have to think of the red gold most common in the ancient world, rather than the purer, yellow metal of modern jewellery. The story runs as follows: Phrixus and Helle, the two children of the Boetian king Athamas, were hated by their step— mother mo. Their lives were threatened and Hermes gave them a fabulous ram on which they fled to safety.
The ram had a fleece of gold and could fly as well as reason and speak. The two children climbed onto its back and flew off. Helle fell off as they crossed the sea named after her, Hellespont, “Helle’s Sea” (Dardanelles), but Phrixus managed to remain aboard until they reached Colchis on the Black Sea.
The unfortunate ram was then sacrificed, and its wonderful fleece offered to the king of that country, Aeetes, who hung it on a tree and set a dragon to guard it night and day. Meanwhile at loichus in Thessaly, one Jason, attempting to win back part of his rightful heritage of the kingdom from his wicked uncle Pelias, was set the task of finding and bringing back the Golden Fleece.
With the help of Hera and Athene he built a fifty-oared ship called the Argo, in which he had set a bough of the prophetic oak of Zeus at Dodona. Among his heroic crew were the Dioscouroi, setting the mushroom seal firmly upon the myth. After many adventures the Argonauts managed to lull the dragon and seize the Fleece and make good their escape, with the help of the king’s daughter Medea, who went with them. She married Jason and they lived happily for ten years before the hero fell in love with another and abandoned Medea. She avenged herself by sending the new bride a costly robe which, immediately it was put on, consumed her with inextinguishable fire.2
The ram was a prime symbol of fecundity in the ancient world but this story illustrates another of its virtues: its hair was of great importance for weaving outer garments and tent-cloths. In Sumerian the same word DARA is used of the animal and for hair dyed red. When the latter significance was required a determinative SIG, “hair”, could be put before the word.
From the reversed combination DARA-SIG, the Greeks obtained their word for “hair” generally, thrix, through *tra_igs.s Properly it meant “red hair” and it is probably with this sense that a similarly derived word Thraikos is used of the people of Thrace, the “Thracians”, the “red—headed people”.4 Dionysus was a Thracian god,5 and his frantic Maenads were called Threiciae.
But the reference here is probably not primarily to the homeland of the cult but to the “red-cloaked” Amanita muscaria that sent them berserk. This may have been what Josephus had in mind in a particular reference to the Jewish priest—king Alexander Jannaeus. Following an abortive revolt by his Jewish subjects against him, the king is said to have crucified eight hundred of his subjects in Jerusalem, about the year 83 BC.
So, says Josephus, the people called him a “Thracian”.6 This may have been an allusion to a suspicion that he was an eater of the sacred mushroom himself, or to the popular imagery that linked the mushroom with the cross of crucifixion. It would seem from one of the names given by Dioscorides to the Mandrake that i,/ was also called by the name “Thracian”.6, 8
It would be interesting to
know if the people of Thrace, apart from their religious interest in
the red—”haired” Amanita muscaria, were themselves “redheaded” as
their name implies. Certainly they were famed for their viciousness
on the field of battle, and it is interesting that the idea that
associates red—headed people with quick tempers persists even to
this day.7 In the Old Testament, the story of how the crafty,
smooth-skinned Jacob managed to trick his red, rough-skinned brother
Esau out of his birthright is another presentation of the
“red-cloaked” mushroom theme in mythology.
So he went and took them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved. Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son; and the skins of the kids she put on his hands and upon the smooth part of his neck; and she gave the savory food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob.
So he went in to his father, and said,
Esau’s name, as we may now recognizes from the Sumerian *E-ShU-A, “raised canopy”,9 a fitting epithet for one who represented in mythical form the cap of the Amanita muscaria, as his brother Jacob (Sumerian *IA..A_GTJB, “pillar”) was the mushroom stem.10
The “redness” of his skin is remarked upon in the story of the twins’ birth:
So striking was the color of the cap of the Amanita muscaria that it gave its name to red or purple dyes in the ancient world. Of such was the Greek phoinix, the “Phoenix”, name of the palm tree, the bird, and the Levantine coast, as well as a famous purple dye. As we shall see, the Greek word was derived from a Sumerian phrase “mighty man holding up the sky”, a fanciful descriptive epithet of the mushroom.12
The Latin tablion, also, denoting the purple fringe of authority, derives also from the Sumerian *TAB_BA_LI, literally “double-cone”, or “cup” being the two halves of the split mushroom volva.13 Of particular interest for our study is the Sumerian word GAN-NU, used of the red dye cochineal.14 This, also, derives very probably from the red top of the Amanita muscaria, since GAN also means a cone or hemispherical shape, such as the lid of a bowl,15 or a woman’s breast.
It is from this latter use in the fuller Sumerian phrase AGAN, “breast”, that Greek obtained its name for the mushroom, Amanita, properly the “breast—shaped object”, referring to the cap.16 From the Sumerian GAN-NU, denoting the red dye, came the Hebrew word khJnün for the red cap or daub put as a protection on the head of ewes in pasture.17
Such a red cap well described the pileus of the Arnanita muscaria, and it provided a most useful epithet for the sacred mushroom to the New Testament myth-makers. For khjnan looks exactly like another Semitic word meaning “be gracious”, source of many personal names in the Old Testament, like Khãnãn, Hanan; KhJnün, Hanun; Khannah, Hannah; Yo-khJnJn (“Yahweh has been gracious”), John (Greek Iöannës) , and so on.18
Thus, seeking Semitic personal names for their characters in the Gospel stories, the writers had in these “gracious” Old Testament names a rich store from which to choose. We have thus an “Anna”, and “Annas” and several “Johns”. The colour reference of the latter name is particularly clear in the case of John, the brother of James, the Boanerges.
The name James is, of course, the English representation of “Jacob” (Greek Iaköbos, Hebrew Ya’aqob), whose brother in the Old Testament story is Esau, the “red— skinned” one, and the counterpart of the New Testament “John”. In the better known “John the Baptist”, the colour reference is also prominent.
The myth_makers/have simply added to the name the Semitic epithet Tabbal, “the c’ipper” (baptizer), or “dyer”,19 derived ultimately from the same Sumerian *TAB_BA_R/LI, “mushroom”, that gave Accadian its tabarru, “red dye”, and Latin its tablion, “purple fringe”, just mentioned.
The name and title of “John the Baptist” in the New Testament story then, means no more than the “red-topped mushroom”, but in giving him the added fungus name, *T_BA_LI, the story—tellers were able to assign him an important role in the story as the “baptizer” of Jesus and others. In the added descriptions and stories of this desert prophet in the Gospels further mushroom names and epithets were played upon.
The prophet’s description is modeled, of course, on that of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who “wore a garment of hair-cloth” (II Kgs i :8).20 But the New Testament writer’s addition, that the hair came from a “camel” is an interesting illustration of the way he and his fellow exegetes adapt the ancient traditions to fit their purposes. The point of “camel” here is that the Hebrew name for the animal, kirkarah,21 formed a useful word-play or pun on the Greek name for the Mandrake, Kirkaia.
In fact, we may now trace back both words to a common Sumerian root, KUR-KUR, a name of the Holy Plant. It means “two cones”: applied to the mushroom it denoted the two halves of the volva, like TAB-BA-LI above, and to the camel, the double hump.
The “locusts” part of the prophet’s diet has given the biblical naturalists much trouble.
There were, of course, edible locusts known in those times, but popular tradition fancied the Carob as the most likely reference of the text, and today the Ceratonia Siliqua is known as “St John’s Bread”.22 Unfortunately, this Carob is not a desert plant, so discussion on the identity of the “locust” has continued unabated. In fact it now seems much more likely that the source of the reference is another word—play between the Semitic gobay, guba’, “edible locust”, and gab’a, “mushroom”.
The similarity is not accidental: both come from a Sumerian root, GUG, “pod”, the locust reference being to the larva of the insect, the mushroom’s to the volva from which it develops.23 Even the popular designation of the Carob as “St John’s Bread” is not all that removed from the truth, since the Carob, as we have seen, shared at least in ancient Accadian the same name as the mushroom.24
No story in the New Testament has so gripped the imagination of authors, artists, opera librettists, and others than that of the death of John the Baptist at the instigation of a jealous woman:
The whole story is woven from names of the sacred mushroom. The most obvious word-play is between the “Baptist’s” name, Tabbala’; the “platter” (Latin tabula, borrowed as tabid’ into Semitic); and the mushroom TAB-BA-LI.25 But other, more subtle punning has provided most of the details, such as the “banquet for the men of Galilee”,26 the offer of gifts “unto half my kingdom”,27 the prophet being “bound in prison”,28 and so on.
The “daughter of Herodias” or “the
little heron” as the name means, is a piece of mushroom
nomenclature, as is the use of the name “Herod” itself throughout
the story. Here, as elsewhere, real—life characters feature in the
story, otherwise quite fictional, largely because their names lent
themselves to easy punning on mushroom names or epithets.
In the vision of the Amanita muscaria that must now seem the most likely reference of the first chapter of the book of Revelation, the mystic, being “in the Spirit”, as he says, saw this white flecking of the shining “sun”-like face of the mushroom as white wool I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying,
Such a distinctive and striking appearance as that presented by the cap of the Amanita muscaria gives us a great advantage in our search for old mushroom names.
But it leads us into strange places and into comparisons with the most unlikely objects, animals, plants, and even gems which, apart from their color characteristics, have little to do with the mushroom. This is largely why the mythology and symbolism of the sacred fungus has managed to keep its secrets for so long.
But the epithet has remained a mystery and has survived even the zealous activities of the Christian censors largely because its relevance had been forgotten. We can now see that it is, in fact, a descriptive title of the sacred mushroom, the Semitic word being a transliteration of the Greek pant her, our “panther”. The reference is to the markings of the animal’s coat, described by Pliny as “sinai! spots like eyes on a light ground”.31
The ancient botanists must have used the name of the animal for the fungus, just as today the near—relative of the Amanita muscaria, Amanita panther— ma, is so named among modern mycologists.32 References to the Christian “Jesus”-figure occur but sporadically in old Jewish traditions, for it is here that the Christian censors, who came to control most of the libraries of the civilized world, have understandably been most active.
Where the name does occur, it is often attached to epithets or “incidents” whose significance has been lost. These now need a thorough re-examination, for the “Pandera” references show conclusively that the early Jews were well aware of the original mushroom nature of the Christian cult, even though, later, through persecution and the passage of time, this knowledge was lost or, at least, no longer expressed in literary form.
In the New Testament, a straight pun is made on the
descriptive title of the fungus, when one of the “red-cap” figures,
Annas, is said to have been the “father—in—law” (Greek pentheros) of
Caiaphas (John 18:13). This piece of information is unsupportable
from historical sources,33 and probably quite untrue. It is merely
one item in a grouping of mushroom epithets which include also the
title of the high priest, Caiaphas, properly “Overer”, but used in
the New Testament, along with Peter’s surname, “Cephas”, as a play
on the mushroom word, Latin cepa.34
It comes from the Sumerian BAR, “skin”, and the word we met before with the meaning “red-wool”, DARA. Another use of DARA is with the significance of “spotted, variegated in colour” and so *BAR_DARA will have meant “spotted, variegated skin”, and came dialectally into Greek as panther, as a descriptive title of the peculiarly marked animal.36 In Hebrew this same original phrase can now be recognized behind its word for the gumBedolakh (Latin Bdellium).37 The Old Testament in-. cludes it among the sources of comparison when it describes the heaven— sent Manna of the wilderness (Num 11:7).
The Manna, as we have already noted, is to be
understood as the mushroom, and the reference to Bdellium is due to
the appearance of that gum, containing, as Pliny says, “a number of
white spots, like fingernails”.38
He says the stone earned its name through being
“exceptionally beautiflul”.44 The New Testament, apparently
recognizing the specific mushroom application of the name, meaning
“red and white spotted skin”, plays upon this understanding of Paiderös on a number of occasions. For
A particularly interesting example of this epithet appears in the story of the Last Supper: When Jesus had thus spoken he was troubled in spirit and testified, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying in Jesus’ bosom; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said,
Here again we have the “dipping” theme derived from a play on the mushroom name *TAB..BA.LI and the Semitic root t-b-1, “dip, dye”. The words “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, the Paiderüs, “red and white spotted skin”, continue the color allusions of the passage. The “Scabby One” and Lapis Lazuli. The characteristic peeling, “scabby” aspect of the Amanita muscaria is also reflected in its nomenclature and mythology.
The Arabs call the mushroom, “the scabby one”, and it is probably this feature of the sacred fungus to which Isaiah refers when he warns the “daughters of Zion”46 engaged in witchcraft47 that “the Lord will make your crowns scabby and denude your vulva (?)“ (Isa 3:17).
The prophet seems to
be alluding to the “scabby one” they were adoring in their cult, and
the reference is probably the same when he has Yahweh complain to
Israel that he had planted her as a vine48 and hoped to reap
“justice” (mishpat), but had received for his pains only “fungi”,
scabs (mispakh), making a pun on the two words (Isa 5:7).
One thing is now quite certain: the situation was never the clear— cut opposition of Yahwism versus the old fertility cults that later Jewish and Christian theologians liked to suppose. Yahweh was himself a fertility god,49 and the cult of the sacred mushroom against which Isaiah in certain passages like the ones above seems to be railing, was but an esoteric development of that fertility religion.
But to return to our “scabby” mushroom. As one might expect, the flaking of the surface of the Amanita muscaria, with its “wart”—like particles of white skin against the red of the cap, reminded the myth- makers of sufferers from leprosy and other skin diseases. So we should be prepared to find in biblical stories concerned with lepers allusions to the mushroom. In the Gospels people so afflicted are commonly mentioned, but one “ulcerous” character claims our special attention, mainly because of his name, Lazarus (Luke i6 :19—3 i).
On the face of it, “Lazarus” is simply a form of the Old Testament name Eleazar.50 But here, as so often with New Testament names, we have in an approximation to a biblical name an epithet of the mushroom. What the New Testament cryptographer had in mind here in his “Lazarus” was the word we know in English as “Lazuli”, usually found in conjunction with “Lapis” (“stone”) to describe a blue mineral containing flecks of gold, as Pliny describes it, adding that it can be “tinged with purple”.51
Our name “Lazuli” comes from the Persian Lazhurward, and, as we can now trace it back, ultimately from a Sumerian phrase *AR..zAI,. DARA, “brightly shining variegated (stone)”. The Persian form is simply a jumbled form of the Sumerian, and from it Semitic derived its Lazrad on which form the New Testament word-play with “Lazarus” was made.52
To the writer of the Gospel the significance of the name lay in the speckled, purplish colour of the Amanita muscaria, to which, in his description of the unfortunate beggar, he added the “scabby, ulcerous” appearance given by the warty surface of the cap:
In Hebrew, for instance, the Z—G-N of the Sumerian became s-p—r, giving sappir, “Lapis Lazuli”, and the same form is found in the Greek sappheiros, our “sapphire”, usually attached to quite another stone.53 From our more immediate point of view, a more interesting development was to produce the group n-b-s. Thus Accadian had nabJsu, “red dyed wool”, and in Aramaic nabüsa is the name of a certain red woolly caterpillar that infects the Service tree, Sorbus domestica.54
The motif of “red flecked with white” continues in the Greek and Latin names of the “giraffe”, nãbüs, which Pliny describes as “an animal with a neck like a horse, the feet and legs of an ox, a head like a camel, and is of a ruddy color picked out with white spots”, which is a good description of the coloration of the Amanita muscaria.
It is, as now we see, the same n—b—s verbal group that is the significant part of the name of the New Testament character,
The surname of this philanthropist has caused the commentators much trouble in the past,56 for the New Testament cryptographer has given us another of his pseudo—translations, telling us that “Barnabas” means “Son of Encouragement”. He implies thereby that the first part “Bar—” is the Aramaic “Son of—” and that the nabas at the end represents another Semitic word meaning “Encouragement”.
In point of fact, there is no extant root which offers that meaning and which looks like —nabas. The name is not, indeed, Aramaic at all: the first element is the Sumerian BAR, “skin”, and the second is our “giraffe”, “red—with— white-spots” word, the whole being yet another epithet of the Amanita muscaria. The pseudo-translation, “Son of Encouragement”, refers not to Barnabas, but comes from a wordplay we have already met, between the roots Wi—n—n, “gracious, encouragement”, and kh—n— n, “red” (our “red-cap”).57
The writer points the way to decipherment himself when he says that Barnabas was “a native of Cyprus” (Kuprios). He and his readers were well aware that the Greek word for the red dye “Henna” is kupros, the Hebrew kopher, Aramaic kuphrJ’.58 The similarity which made the word—play here possible is not, as we can now appreciate, purely coincidental. Both go back to an original Sumerian GU-BAR, “top of the head; glans penis” ;59 in the case of the offshore island, the reference is to the old fertility geography of the area which saw the island as the tip of a penis awaiting entry into the “groin” of the mainland.
The dye “Henna”, kuphra’, gave a color which seemed to the ancients to resemble the suffused red of the glans penis.60 Even the philanthropist’s first name, Joseph, had probably a similar reference in the mythmaker’s mind. The name means, as we have seen, “Yahweh (semen) — penis”, from Sumerian *IA..u_SIpA/SIB.61 Cognate with this is the name of the precious stone we know as “Jasper”, the Greek iaspis, Hebrew yJshepheh, all deriving from a Sumerian *IA_ SIPA/SIB, “penis—stone”, again referring to the color of the glans.62
The point of the story itself, the sale of the field and donation of its value, is another allusion to the “Akeldama” theme of the Iscariot story. It will be remembered that the story—teller played it in that instance on the idea that the miscreant’s blood—money was used to buy a “field” which, because of its associations, became known as the “Field of Blood” (Acts I :19).
As we shall see,63 word—play there is between the Aramaic demJ’, “blood”, and dJmë, “price, value”, and between ‘akal, “food”, and khaqal, “field”. The real relevance of the name “Akeldama” was “food of compensation” or “atonement”, being equivalent to other names of the Holy Plant which referred to it as God’s atoning sacrifice made to the earth on man’s behalf, the “price” of salvation.
So, in the
story of Barnabas’ gift from the proceeds of the sale of his
“field”, the theme is the same, giving us a name of the sacred
fungus, together with an afitision to its “Akeldama” title and
One such problem was the description of the tunic given to a more famous Joseph by his adoring father Jacob/Israel:
The older understanding of the nature of the tunic came from the early Greek translators who received a tradition that the rare Hebrew word passim meant “many colored, spotted”.64 More recent translators have favored an alternative rendering which described not the color of the garment but its shape and size. They have seen in passim a word meaning “palms of the hands”, so that, somewhat improbably, the description implied that the sleeves of the tunic reached to the “palms”, hence their “long robe with sleeves”.
Happily, thanks to the prompting of the “Barnabas” decipherment we can make a fresh assessment of the rare Hebrew word, finding in it a root cognate with the latter part of Barnabas’ name and meaning “red, spotted with white”, or, as a related Aramaic word denotes, “freckled”.65 The Greek translators of Genesis are thus vindicated, and we traditionalists can cling on to our “coat of many colors” (AV, RV).
To conclude: it is hardly surprising that the worshippers of the sacred fungus found in its distinctive coloring and surface texture a rich source of material for descriptive epithets and folk-tales. Our modern fairy-tale writers are no less attracted by the red—topped toadstool that decorates the covers of so many children’s books.
The classic story of the Golden Fleece has come from the “woolly” nature of the mushroom cap as the ancients envisaged it, and old words for “dyeing red” have their original reference to the Amanita muscaria. In the New Testament, the myth-makers seized upon the similarity between the Semitic word for “red-cap”, to name a number of their characters, including John the “Baptist”.
The Jews have managed to preserve a
name for Jesus, the “Panther”, or “Spotted-skin”, which shows that
at first, anyway, the real significance of the Christian myth and
cult was not lost to their contemporaries. Decipherment of the name
of the “ulcerous” Lazarus, has led the way to appreciating for the
first time the nature and meaning of the New Testament
cryptographer’s “Son of Encouragement”, applied as a
pseudo-translation to the color epithet of the sacred fungus,
But, as we can now appreciate, this enlarged view of the object of their adoration, had long before given the ancients a major source for their cosmographies, accounts of the beginnings of the world. They saw the whole universe as a monster mushroom, the earth as the lower “cup” of the volva, the heaven stretched out above as a great pilleus, supported on a pillar of some sacred mountain. Out of this conception came stories of giants holding up the canopy of heaven, and another source of folk-names and mythology of the mushroom.
Furthermore, we can now begin to understand names
given to the environs of Jerusalem, and the relevance of the
proximity of the Dead Sea to the fertility cults centered on that
city. On a larger scale, it is possible to appreciate the derivation
and significance of names of the areas bordering on the eastern
Mediterranean, regarded as the “crutch” of the earth and thus the
entrance to her womb.