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Mushrooms as Sacred Objects in North America

Sacred mushroomsEthnomycology! What a mouthful. Ethnomycology is the study of how people have used fungi – as food, tinder, medicine, and spiritual tool – and how this use has influenced them. Many cultures of the world consider mushrooms to be sacred curers of sickness and givers of information. You’ve probably heard of the Amanita muscaria, that handsome red mushroom with white spots, or maybe even of the Psilocybe mushrooms of Mexico, so sacred they were called “God’s Flesh.” An intriguing but less discussed topic is the use of fungi by Native Americans of North America.

Haploporus odorus is found above 52 degrees latitude in Canada and Northwestern Europe. It is a polypore – a stalkless shelf-like fungus with pores on its undersurface. It is white, hoof-shaped, and grows on willow trees in conifer forests. Upon close observation one can easily notice the unique characteristic of H. odorus – its smell. The fruiting bodies have a strong odor of anise, kind of like licorice. This smell is strong and persistent, and dried specimens retain their odor. Native Americans appreciated the smells of plants like sage and sweet grass and used these plants for purification rituals. Because of its strong fragrance and other medicinal properties, Haploporus odorus has been an important fungus in the culture of Northern Plains Indians.

Indians used H. odorus as a spiritual symbol, a decoration of sacred objects and a healing tool. The fungus was used to stop wounds from bleeding, made into an infusion to treat diarrhea and dysentery, and combined with another fungus in an infusion to treat coughs. It was burned to produce healing perfumed smoke, and some elders wore necklaces of pieces of the fungus strung on a leather thong as protection against becoming ill. Indians took this fungus from the willow tree, carved it into smooth ovals, and then decorated them with burnt line patterns. Some pieces of fungus were strung onto leather thongs to create necklaces–have a look at this Alberta Plains necklace and ermine ornament courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Other pieces were used to create medicine bundles – powerful collections of sacred objects. So revered was this fungus that the Native Americans even used it as an adornment on sacred war robes and scalp necklaces. It’s clear that it was associated with protection and power.

Another interesting fungus (though not so sacred) is Phellinus igniarius. This polypore grows on birch trees in the interior of northern North America. Native American use of this fungus has been recorded since the 19th century. Coastal Alaskan peoples traded with the Yukon Indians of the interior to obtain it. The Yupik and Dena peoples of the far northwest kept the ashes of P. igniarius in small, beautifully decorated boxes. The boxes were made of ivory, wood, or bone, and then decorated with materials like strips of antler, polished walrus teeth, and tufts of seal hair. You’re probably wondering, ‘Why in the world would anyone keep fungus ashes in beautiful boxes?’ Phellinus igniarius was, and still is today, widely used by the Yupik of Alaska as a masticatory and for smoking purposes. Before tobacco was introduced by the Europeans, the Yupik mixed the burnt fungus ashes with other plant materials, such as cottonwood bark, and smoked or made a quid out of this mixture. Later, they mixed the ashes with tobacco to give it a “powerful kick.” Today, the ash-tobacco mixture is sold in native Alaskan communities under the name iqmik. Please read more about iqmik in this fine essay by Diane Pleninger and Tom Volk, and see a slideshow on iqmik and its dangerous impacts courtesy of Alaska Magazine. It turns out that the alkaline chemicals in the fungus enhance the absorption of nicotine. It’s no wonder that one Indian name for Phellinus igniarius is “elch’ix”, which translates as “burning taste.”

Perhaps the most intriguing use of fungi in North America is the Northwest Coast tribes’ use of Fomitopsis officinalis. This perennial polypore grows against conifer tree trunks in a columnar shape that can reach up to one meter in height. Fomitopsis officinalis was used to treat many ailments. But a significant use of this fungus was revealed only recently. What scientists once thought were carved wooden figures were revealed to be carved of F. officinalis fruiting bodies! These figures were used to guard the graves of shamans. After a shaman’s death, the carved fungus figures were placed at the head of the grave in order to send a message that the grave was occupied by spirits. [Editor's note: we'll take a closer look at this species in the next post...]

There’s still much to learn about the uses of fungi by indigenous peoples of North America. It’s clear that these living things were perceived as powerful and mystical objects, and played an important role in Native American culture.

References

  • Alaska Magazine’s Iqmik slide show.
  • Blanchette, R. A., B. D. Compton, N. J. Turner, and R. L. Gilbertson. 1992. Nineteenth century shaman grave guardians are carved Fomitopsis officinalis sporophores. Mycologia 84:119-124.
  • Blanchette, R. A. 1997. Haploporus odoratus: a sacred fungus in traditional Native American culture of the northern plains. Mycologia 89:233-240.
  • Blanchette, R. A. 2001. Fungus ashes and tobacco: the use of Phellinus ignarius by the indigenous people of North America. The Mycologist 15:4-9.
  • Blanchette, R. A., C. C. Renner, B. W. Held, C. Enoch, and S. Angstman. 2002. The current use of Phellinus igniarius by the Eskimos of Western Alaska. Mycologist 16:142-145.
  • Diane Pleninger and Tom Volk. 2005. Phellinus igniarius, Iqmik, used by native Americans with tobacco. [Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for November 2005]
  • Diane Pleninger. 2009. Iqmik: Troubled Child of Phellinus and Nicotiana. Fungi magazine 2(2) [special ethnomycology issue!]
  • Schultes, Richard E., Albert Hofmann, and Christian Ratsch. Plants of the Gods. 2nd ed. Healing Arts, 1992. Print.

The artwork in this piece is copyrighted by the author and may not be reproduced without permission (ask the blog Editor).

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Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.

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