The Mushroom Folklore of Ireland
For St. Patrick’s Day we share some of the important pieces of mushroom folklore that originated on the Emerald Isle. From Druids incorporating edible mushrooms into their rituals to the connection between mushrooms and faeries, we explore the major impact Ireland has had on mushrooms in our cultural imagination.
DRUID RELIGIOUS CEREMONIES TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE UNIVERSE
A long standing theory is that magic mushrooms were used in the druids religious ceremonies. When the church became more influential, the ceremonies are thought to have disappeared. Druids were said to have prepared fly-agaric for consumption and eaten it for its hallucinogenic properties because the hallucinations conferred great knowledge and enlightenment. The ancient peoples called the fly agaric mushroom the “flesh of the gods” and it is believed that the druids used it to come in direct communication with the universe. It is surmised that the druids would consume mushrooms and then sit in sweat houses, which appear all over Ireland.
Irish folks have long thought of the mushroom “fruit” as a connection to the much larger organism underground. Because the huge tracts of subterranean mushroom can be thousands of years old, many of the ancients believed that its wisdom could be passed to humans via consumption of the fruit.
FAERIES & LEPRECHAUNS
The Liberty Cap and the Fly Agaric mushroom grow in Ireland and both are believed to produce visions of faeries and leprechauns along with a variety of otherworld creatures associated with Ireland. Faeries and mushrooms have always been a big part of Irish culture and deeply intertwined in culture. In fact, the Gaelic slang for faeries and mushrooms is the same word: pookies. In Ireland, the trip one goes on from magic mushrooms is described as “going away with the faeries” being “off with the pixies.” In pagan times, imbas forosnai were psychic poets. The poets spoke of eating “red flesh of a pig, dog or cat” which is believed to be in reference to the fly-agaric. The poets chewed on this “red flesh of a pig” before lying in a dark room to seek out inspiration.
BAD FAERIES & EVIL SPIRITS
Halloween, or Samhain, has Celtic origins. During Halloween, the ancient Irish believed that the membrane between this world and the Otherworld became thin, and creatures could pass through and that an entire spectrum of nonhuman forces could roam the earth at Samhain, coincidentally, magic mushrooms are in season at Samhain during the same time, which leads folks to wonder if altered states of consciousness from psychedelics inspired visions of faeries, leprechauns, pixies, elves and one-eyed monsters roaming the world.
“We have to look at art and folklore to infer mushroom use by the ancestors. The rock art in Knowth and Newgrange appear to depict ‘entoptic’ patterns which, according to some archaeologists, implies psychedelic medicine use by the artists.” says David McNamara. Irish ancestors may have consumed psychedelices, leading them to see the patterns that ended up carved onto rocks at Newgrange, like the swirling triskelion.
CULT OF THE MUSHROOM
Scholars have suggested that ancient Ireland was home to a religion founded on magic mushrooms. Author Peter Lamborn Wilson wrote, Plowing the Clouds, which describes Indo-Europeans using psychedelic drugs in their worship rituals and suggests these experiences were the origin of pagan religions all over Ireland.
SHAMANISM AND FOLKLORE
Similarly, Irish folklore records metaphorical stories of possible mushroom consumption. Wilson says, “The Irish material abounds in references to magical substances which bestow knowledge or pleasure when ingested. Perhaps the best-known are the hazelnuts of wisdom, eaten by the Salmon, fished up by the druid, and cooked by young Finn, who, as sorcerer’s apprentice, burns his thumb on the Salmon’s skin, sticks thumb in mouth, and attains all the wisdom in his master’s stead. The shamanic overtones of this story are quite obvious.”
8th Century Máel Dúin is a story of the son of a warrior chieftain, who experiences an ‘Isle of intoxicating wine fruits’ during his journey to avenge his father’s death. “After the crew had plucked all the fruit off one small tree, they cast lots for who should try them, and the lot fell on Máel Dúin. So he took some of them, and, squeezing the juice into a vessel, drank it. It threw him into a sleep of intoxication so deep that he seemed to be in a trance rather than in a natural slumber, without breath or motion, and with the red foam on his lips. And from that hour till the same hour next day, no one could tell whether he was living or dead. When Máel Dúin awoke next day, he bade his people to gather as much of the fruit as they could bring away with them; for the world, as he told them, never produced anything of such surpassing goodness. They pressed out the juice of the fruit till they had filled all their vessels; and so powerful was it to produce intoxication and sleep, that, before drinking it, they had to mix a large quantity of water with it to moderate its strength.”
Author and poet Shonagh Home says, “As the faerie faith in Ireland goes back many centuries, I speculate there were people other than the artistic/literate classes who were also familiar with psychoactive mushrooms. Our ancestors had extensive knowledge of the plants and fungi of their region and their inherent properties. It stands to reason that those who ingested psychoactive mushrooms, whether accidentally or purposefully, experienced the shimmering imagery and its attending inhabitants that many who have ingested the mushroom today are familiar with. This harkens to the faerie worlds of Tír na nÓg.”
Shonagh also notes on folk stories that “There are numerous Irish stories that speak of magical substances that confer special knowledge and the ability to speak poetically. There is a definite connection in the Irish stories between the ingestion of a special substance and poetic brilliance.”
SHAMANIC USE OF MUSHROOMS
Shonagh also speaks of Mead, a common beverage used also for ritual where it would be spiked with certain herbs and believes that there is a high likelihood that druides included psychoactives like mushrooms in their practices. He says, “The druids trained for 20 years in subjects such as law, astronomy, philosophy, poetry, medicine, music, geometry divination, and magic. It is probable that specific substances were used to induce high trance states to receive poetic inspiration and messages from the gods.”
Let us know what your favorite mushroom folklore is, whether passed down through stories or one of your favorite books or movies!