Plant Names and the Mysteries of the Fungus
If we are going to penetrate their secrets we have somehow to discover the names of their prime ingredients, the plants and drugs the prophets and doctors dispensed. We have now at least the advantage of knowing the most ancient language of the area and can in many cases begin to decipher the names of the plants and their attendant angels and demons.
But it has to be recognized that of all branches of research into the life of the ancient world, identification of plant names is one of the most difficult.
The old botanists were as aware of the problem as the modern researcher.
The more “strange” the herb, the more note-. worthy its characteristics, the greater the number of folk—names. Dioscorides, for instance, gives some two—score names to the Mandrake, 2 that famous aphrodisiac with which Leah purchased a night of connubial bliss with Jacob (Gen 30: 14ff.), and whose narcotic properties could not suffice to give poor Othello “that sweet sleep which thou owedst yesterday”.3
Until comparatively recently, botanists lacked adequate methods of classification, so that plants tended to be grouped together on the basis of what we nowadays would consider secondary characteristics. Thus speaking of the Ground-pine, Pliny records that “a third variety has the same smell and therefore the same name”.
Even now, the inexactitude of local plant names is the despair of field botanists. Pliny felt as sorely frustrated:
We have now one great philological advantage over all previous researchers into the identification of plant-names.
Despite the long gap in time between the Sumerian botanists and their Greek and Roman successors it now appears that many of the important names of plants remained virtually unchanged. During the course of thousands of years those titles became attached to different plants: hence the confusion in nomenclatures of which Pliny speaks. But if we can know what the name originally meant, what characteristic of the plant or its drug was foremost in the minds of its first chroniclers, we have a much better chance of discovering its original identity.
For example, we all know what the Paeony looks like:
Pliny says the name came from the physician god Apollo, whose chant of praise bears the same name, our “paean”.
But he goes on to say it,
Apparently, one has to be careful how you pick this precious herb. It is best done at night-time,
Well, of course, this is not our crimson Paeony. It is some magic plant, “the first to be discovered”, as our Roman botanist tells us. For various reasons which will become apparent, we can now differentiate this very special “Paeony” from other plants to which the name was given, and identify it with the subject of our present study, the Amanita muscaria, the sacred mushroom.
Doubtless, the flower Paeony gained the name originally
because its flower was thought to resemble the color of the
red-topped fungus. It would not have been possible to deduce the
relationship between the flower and the mushroom merely on the
description given by Pliny: one had first to decipher the name
“Paeony” and discover its original significance and point of common
To take another example: Greek knows the plant Naveiwort as Kotulëdзn, Latin Cotyledon. The word means any socket-shaped cavity, such as that of a hip-joint, or the inside of a cup, or the hollow of a hand. In botanical language the Greek word comes to mean the first or “seed leaves” of a plant, usually of simple form, but it can be applied to many plants having some part of them of a “cup” or “hollow” form.
To discover some more particular reference of the name it is necessary to trace it back to its constituent elements. This we can now do for the first time, showing that its Sumerian source provided a phrase, *GU_ TAL-U-DUN, meaning “ball-and-socket”, or, particularly applied “penis-and-vulva”.8
It is the sexual allusions of the name which, as we shall see, brought it into the range of fungus nomenclature. Furthermore, the specific reference in Greek of Kotulëdön to “hip-joint” gave rise to a number of myths having to do with “mushroom” figures having their hips disjointed or being pierced in the hip or side of the body.9
For the decipherment of plant-names helps us not only to identify those characteristics which caused them to be applied to various species but also to discover the original sources and meanings of the tales which grew up around the plants and their drugs. It is becoming clear that many of the classical and biblical stories are based on pieces of vegetation, and in particular on the sacred mushroom.
There is one overt piece of vegetation mythology in the Old Testament parable of Jotham in the book of Judges. In the story the trees of the forest ask representatives of each species to act as their king.
This is a parable, rather like some of those in the New Testament, where the explanation is appended for the benefit of the listeners. Perhaps all plant mythology began in this way, each story having one point to make which was brought out by the narrator’s explanation at the end. In course of time, the instructive element was lost and the parable told and retold without its exegetical commentary, in the end to circulate as just a good yarn.
As antiquity came to lend certain of such stories a gravity perhaps not originally intended, they became accepted into a body of cultic teaching by religious authorities, who then set about providing their own explanations and homiletics and accorded the tales divine authority. A vegetation myth could be adapted by a later writer, fully aware of its original significance, to serve as the medium for some new teaching.
Such may be the case with the story of Jonah in the Old Testament, the prophet who was told to preach repentance to Nineveh.
We are now able positively to identify this story as one of a mushroom group, since the famous plant which gave Jonah shade, which “came into being in a night and perished in a night”, and was subject to the depredation of worms, was certainly a fungus.12 Even the prophet’s name Jonah reflects mushroom nomenclature,’ and the quelling of the storm motif is found elsewhere in related mythology.14
But the “moral” of the tale, insofar as we can understand it, seems to have no particular mushroom significance. As we have said, the first step to discovering the nature of vegetation stories and the particular plant or tree that was originally involved is to decipher the proper names. However, in the case of plants regarded as especially powerful or “magic” like the mushroom, additional problems face the enquirer.
The strange shapes and manner of growth of the fungus, along with its poisonous reputation, combined to evoke feelings of awe and dread in the minds of simple folk. Indeed, there must be few people even today who do not sense some half-fearful fascination at the sight of the mushroom, and shrink from taking it into their hands.
Since certain of the species contain drugs with marked hallucinatory properties,15 it is not surprising that the mushroom should have become the centre of a mystery cult in the Near East which persisted for thousands of years. There seems good evidence that from there it swept into India in the cult of the Soma some 3,500 years ago; it certainly flourished in Siberia until quite recent times, and is found even today in certain parts of South America.16
Partly because of the religious use of the sacred mushroom, and the fearful respect with which country-folk have always treated it, its more original names became taboo and folk—names and epithets proliferated at their expense. It is as if, in our own language, the only name by which we knew the mushroom was the folk-name “toadstool”, and that some researcher of the future was faced with the problem of deciding what species of plant life served as the habitual perch of large frogs.
Thus the extraordinary situation has arisen that this most important mushroom cult, from which much of the mythology of the ancient Near East sprang, has been almost completely overlooked by the historians. In the Bible, for instance, where mushroom mythology plays a most important part, the word “mushroom” has been nowhere noted although one of its most ancient names, Hebrew kotereth, Accadian katarru, appears many times in its quite straightforward meaning of “mushroom—shaped capital of a pillar” (I Kgs 7: i6, etc).17
Even among the Greek and Roman botanical works there are scarcely a dozen different words which have been recognized as relating specifically to the fungus, and the whole of extant Semitic literature can produce few more.18 Mycology, as the study of fungi is called after the Greek mukës, “mushroom”, is a comparatively modern science.19
Although the ancients knew that the mushroom’s apparent seedlessness put it into a category of natural life all its own, they did not always differentiate it from other plants, so that its names have to be disentangled from those of quite unrelated species. In seeking for mushroom folk-names and epithets, one of our main sources obviously will be its distinctive shape of a slender stem supporting an arched canopy, like a sunshade.
This characteristic was made much of in mythology, like the Jotham and Jonah stories already referred to. Extended to gigantic proportions this figure is reflected in such imagery as huge men like Atlas holding up the canopy of heaven, or of mountains like Olympus serving the dual function of supporting the sky and providing a connecting link between the gods and earth.20
One of the ways we can now identify the Mandrake as the mushroom is that one of its Greek names, Antimimon, is traceable to a Sumerian original, meaning “heavenly shade”, a reference to the canopy of the opened fungus. Incidentally, the same root,* GIG—AN-TI, gave the Greek gigantes, and in English, “giants”, in pursuance of the imagery of the “giant” holding aloft the arch of heaven.21
Above all, the mushroom provoked sexual imagery and terminology. The manner of its rapid growth from the volva, or “womb”, the rapid erection of its stem like a sexually stirred penis, and its glans—like head, all stimulated phallic names. Of such is the Hebrew kotereih, just referred to, and, coming from the same Sumerian original, GU-TAR, “top of the head: penis”, the most common Semitic name for the mushroom, phutr (Arabic), pitrã’ (Aramaic), portrayed in the New Testament myth as Peter.22
One of the names given the Paeony by Pliny is Glycyside. The name which is meaningless in Latin or Greek is but a jumbled form of an old Sumerian plant-name, UKUSh-TI-GIL-LA, meaning “bolt-gourd; mushroom”.23
The reference to the “bolt” is occasioned by the primitive key which consisted mainly of a rod surmounted by a knob,24 with a right-angled bend at the other end.25 It was pushed through the keyhole and simply lifted the latch on the other side. The phallic imagery of the “knobbed shaft” gave the “key” a sexual significance for the purposes of nomenclature which appears in many instances.
The penis-mushroom was thus in mythological terms, the “key” of the earth, the way to the underworld, the “Peter”, as it were, against which the gates of Hades would not prevail (Matt i6:i8f.; Rev 1:18). Decipherment of plant and drug names not only allows us to share the imagery their shapes provoked in the minds of the ancient botanists, but to learn of the demonic power they were supposed to wield.
particularly important with regard to the Mandrake fungus. The
Sumerian from which the Greek Mandragoras and our “Mandrake” came
was *NMs.TAR.AGAR, “demon or fate-plant of the field”. The
consonants m and n have changed places and T has shifted to the
closely related sound d.
It followed, from the reasoning
of the ancient philosophers, outlined earlier,27 that if you knew
the names of the demonic plants, like the sacred mushroom, you could
control them to some extent. It might be possible to make them grow
where and when you wanted, and, having found them, pronunciation of
the name would enable the finder to take the herb from the ground
with impunity. Furthermore, if, like the Mandrake, it had some
special drug property which, taken without sufficient care and
preparation might occasion bodily harm, it was necessary at certain
points in the cultic ritual to speak the sacred name.28
The whole point of a mystery cult was that few people knew its secret doctrines. So far as possible, the initiates did not commit their special knowledge to writing. Normally the secrets of the sect were transmitted orally, novices being required to learn direct from their mentors by heart, and placed under the most violent oaths never to disclose the details even under torture.
When such special instruction was committed to writing, care would be taken that it should be read only by the members of the sect. This could be done by using a special code or cypher, as is the case with certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls.30
However, discovery of such obviously coded material on a person would render him suspect to the authorities. Another way of passing information was to conceal the message, incantations or special names within a document ostensibly concerned with a quite different subject. Plant mythology, known for thousands of years over the whole of the ancient world, provided the New Testament cryptographers with their “cover”.
Mushroom stories abounded in the Old Testament.
The Christians believed, like their Essene brethren, that they were the true spiritual heirs to ancient Israel. So it was an obvious device to convey to the scattered cells of the cult reminders of their most sacred doctrines and incantatory names and expressions concealed within a story of a “second Moses”, another Lawgiver, named after the patriarch’s successor in office Joshua (Greek Iësous, “Jesus”).
Thus was born the Gospel myth of the New Testament. How far it succeeded in deceiving the authorities, Jewish and Roman, is doubtful. Certainly the Roman records speak with loathing of the Christians and they were hounded with extreme ferocity reserved for political troublemakers within the realm.31 Those most deceived appear to have been the sect who took over the name of “Christian” and who formed the basis of the Church, the history of which forms no part of the present study.
What is of far
greater importance is that we may now break the code and discover
secret names of the Holy Plant, as it was called from the earliest
times, and gain a deeper insight than ever before possible into the
nature of the cult and its place in the ancient world.
among the literary devices used was word-play or punning, already
well-established as an important and widespread means of deriving
hidden meanings from sacred texts.