The study of utilization of fungi by common people, as food or medicine, or in crafts, stories, or rituals. Ethnomycology is a subfield of ethnobotany (although, strictly speaking, fungi are not plants) or ethnobiology. Originally, emphasis was on psychoactive fungi, such as the ritual use by Mesoamerican Indians of mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe, or the putative identification of Amanita muscaria (the “fairy tale” mushroom with the white-dotted red cap) as the soma (sacred drink of the gods and warriors) of Vedic scriptures (the oldest texts of Hinduism). Over time, the discipline has broadened considerably, and most contemporary research documents culinary or medicinal uses of fungi by various indigenous peoples, especially hunter-gatherers and peasant farmers. Although most studies focus on use of mushrooms by indigenous peoples, the field includes miscellaneous practices involving fungi by any bearers of “folk” traditions. See also: Fungi; Mushroom; Mycology
Robert Gordon Wasson (1898–1986), an amateur (but very competent) mycologist, is generally regarded as the founder of ethnomycology. His early studies of ethnic use of psychoactive mushrooms, especially his descriptions of the “sacred mushroom” velada of María Sabina, a Mazatec Indian woman, were summarized in a widely read article in Life magazine in 1957. By contrast, Mushrooms, Russia and History, coauthored with his wife, Valentina P. Wasson (1901–1958), was printed as an edition of only 500 copies. This latter work is regarded as a foundation text for the discipline. In addition to use of psychoactive fungi, the Wassons discussed the putative division of peoples into mycophilic (mushroom-loving) versus mycophobic (mushroom-fearing) cultures. The former are exemplified by the Slavs, especially the Russians, and the latter by several peoples of northwestern Europe, especially the English. R. G. Wasson also published on A. muscaria as the famed soma of the Vedic scriptures. Much of his argument devolved on the specifics of parallel use of A. muscaria by Siberian shamans.
Following Wasson, several investigators published controversial works on the putative impact of psychoactive fungi on various civilizations. John Allegro (one of the original translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls; 1923–1988) was an advocate for the influence of A. muscaria on Christianity and other religions. R. G. Wasson and several colleagues presented analogous hypotheses on the role of psychoactive fungi in the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, an idea further popularized by the poet and novelist, Robert Graves (1895–1985). The idea that psychoactive fungi and other entheogens (psychoactive substances used in religious contexts) have profoundly influenced human history has often been absorbed into Wiccan and New Age beliefs. Academics have generally been more skeptical, especially regarding historical effects on Christianity and other major world religions.
Indigenous uses of fungi
Regardless of views on the cultural significance of A. muscaria and Psilocybe species, there is strong academic and popular interest in indigenous use of fungi, especially mushrooms, for food, medicine, crafts, and other applications. Especially strong, and now widely popularized even in Western countries, are East Asian culinary and medicinal traditions involving fungi. Mushroom kits are available for small-scale cultivation of such edible mushrooms as Grifola frondosa (maitake), Lentinula edodes (shiitake), and other fungi of the East Asian tradition. Other mushrooms that are highly revered in East Asia have not been produced under artificial cultivation, but they (or their close relatives) are harvested from the wild in Asia or elsewhere. One good example is Tricholoma magnivelare (matsutake or pine mushroom, a close relative of the Asian T. matsutake), harvested in North America for export to Japan as well as for local markets. Mushrooms much esteemed in European tradition include chanterelles (Cantharellus species), Caesar's mushroom (Amanita caesarea), truffles (Tuber species), and the cep (Boletus edulis or king bolete), all of which are gathered rather than cultivated, although some success has been achieved in inoculating oak seedlings with truffle spores. In African and some Asian countries, Termitomyces species (associated, as the name implies, with termite mounds) are considered especially choice. In Latin America, Mexico is the leading country for ethnomycological research, as well as for mushroom cultivation and harvest of wild mushrooms by peasant farmers. Popular are chanterelles, Caesar's mushroom, pig's ears (Gomphus clavatus), the delicious milky cap (Lactarius deliciosus), and many other fungi, including immature fruiting bodies of corn smut (Ustilago maydis). The cataloging of fungi eaten by indigenous peoples worldwide has been undertaken by agencies of the United Nations, as well as by several national governments for their respective countries. The conservation of such fungi (and their habitats) and the economic value of wild mushrooms (exports, imports, effect on local economies, etc.) are the subjects of much research.
Ethnomycological studies also document medicinal uses of mushrooms and other fungi. The East Asian tradition is especially rich, with numerous contemporary and historical uses for fungi. Some mushrooms, such as Lentinula edodes and Volvariella volvacea (the paddy straw mushroom), also have strong culinary roles. These two are believed to enhance immune system responses and to lower cholesterol, respectively. Others are more strictly medicinal, such as Coriolus versicolor (a shelf fungus that grows on wood) or Ganoderma species (also shelf fungi), the former possessing putative antitumor properties and the latter used as a tonic. Cordyceps species (which form little club-shaped bodies on dead caterpillars) have gained fame as performance-enhancing dietary supplements for athletes. Other examples of medicinal fungi include chaga (Inonotus obliquus), famed for putative antitumor properties in Eurasian traditions, or various puffballs, the dry spores of which were used to staunch bleeding in Native American, European, and other cultures. In folk medicine, fungi were often ingested or applied topically in combination with verbal spells (“charms”) for therapeutic effects. For example, D. aldinia concentrica, sometimes accompanied by charms, is documented as having medicinal applications in Africa, Mesoamerica, and Europe. In England, D. concentrica was called King Alfred's cakes or cramp balls, and was carried on one's person to ward off cramps. In the British Isles in Anglo-Saxon times and later, there are many instances of common yeast being used in conjunction with charms to ward off various ailments. There are also records of antibiotic-producing mold fungi being applied to wounds, because peoples had learned through trial and error of their potential against infection. Many fungi are indeed nutritious, or contain compounds of medicinal value, but claims of “nutraceutical” benefits are seldom documented in scientific studies of the caliber of those conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Skepticism is frequently warranted for more extreme claims, and caution should be used when experimenting with fungal folk remedies or when eating a fungus with which one is not thoroughly familiar. See also: Nutrition
Other noteworthy applications in indigenous traditions include yeasts or other fungi for fermentation of foods and beverages. Yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae and other yeast species) have been used for centuries by various cultures for alcohol production. In Asian traditions, certain species in Aspergillus (notably A. sojae, used to make soy sauce), Rhizopus (for tempeh, fermented soybeans, in Indonesia), and Monascus purpureus (for ang-kak, a solid, deep-red fermented rice, in various countries) have been used in food and beverage manufacture. These and other culturable fungi are of such benefit for food and beverage production, or are so often used directly as food themselves, that many strains (“fungal germplasm”) are stored in public or private culture collections. On numerous occasions, indigenous practices have spawned small- or large-scale industrial enterprises; thus, ethnomycology has often evolved into fungal biotechnology. See also: Food fermentation; Fungal biotechnology; Yeast
In premodern times, some fungi (especially Fomes fomentarius, a shelf fungus that grows on wood) were very important as “tinder” fungi. A burning coal would be placed inside a dried fungus, enabling the smoldering fire to be “stored” for a long time. Tinder fungi were also used to make a kind of felt (amadou) that was made into hats, cloth, belts, bags, and other articles. Slightly decayed wood (spalting, variously colored blue or green) was used in decorative work for cabinets or furniture. Fungi, chiefly wood-rotting shelf fungi or mushrooms, have been used for manufacture of razor strops, perfumes, cosmetics, inks, decorations, and numerous other specialty items. In premodern or early modern times, there were many analogous uses for lichens (“plants” that are symbiotic associations of algae and fungi). The study of ethnolichenology parallels ethnomycology in multiple instances (medicine, food and fodder, dyes for fabric, and so on). See also: Lichens
Fungi and folklore
Fungi appear repeatedly in world folklore. Although they are understandably not as common as animals or plants, fungi are often featured in folktales, myths, or legends. Fungi comprise the principal food of the “eight immortals” of the Taoist pantheon. In a myth of the Congolese pygmies, the world was born from the mushroom, Alonkok, which splits egglike, the upper half to generate the sky and the lower half making the Earth itself. Mushrooms are associated with ghosts or the dead in North American Indian tales as well as in stories from south Asia and Oceania. Kisin, a deity of the Lacandon Maya associated with earthquakes and death, subsisted on tree mushrooms. Finally, of course, mushrooms (and fairy rings, the products of mushroom growth) are linked with fairies, elves, and other creatures in traditions from Europe.