Fungi in the Ancient World:
How Mushrooms, Mildews, Molds, and Yeast Shaped the Early Civilizations of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East
Author Frank Dugan is a Research Plant Pathologist with the USDA-ARS at Washington State University. When he’s not busy working with agricultural crop plant germplasm or evaluating seed trials, he obviously is immersed in just about every other kind of mycological arcana. His new book, Fungi in the Ancient World, is packed full of tales, folklore, and images of mushrooms from ancient civilizations. Likewise, there are plenty of accounts on the uses of mushrooms and all sorts of other fungi (brewing, baking, entheogens, etc.) from previous cultures. When the book first arrived I was very surprised to see its diminutive size. With just 140 pages (30, of which, are the voluminous references cited), “How thoroughly could the topic be covered,” I wondered. But cover it, Dugan does, albeit very concisely.
Fungi in the Ancient World is comprised of 16 chapters (many are only a page or two long), 30 pages of references, and an index. The chapter titles are: Introduction; Fungi in Baking and Brewing (including the section Fermentation Products and Deities); Edible Fungi; Fungi as “Entheogens”; Poisonous Fungi and Mycotoxins; Fungi Used for Medicinal Purposes and Other Technologies; Plant-Pathogenic Fungi; Fungi as Agents of Rot on Wood and Fabric; Human and Animal Pathogens; Environmental and Ecological Roles of Fungi (including the section Coprophilous Fungi and Archaeobotany); Ancient Fungi Preserved in Glacial Ice or Permafrost; Ancient Images of Fungi (including the section Phalli and the Dancing Myco-Shamans); Fungi in Ancient European Folklore; Ideas of the Ancients on Fungal Biology; Some Additional Hypotheses Regarding the Impact of Fungi in Ancient Times (including the section Psychoactive Fungi and the Evolution of Consciousness); and Conclusions.
The strengths of this book are in its brevity and in the thoroughness of its references cited. Although the images in the book are plentiful, all are in black and white and not of especially high resolution. Nevertheless, this book will no doubt be THE starting place for anyone researching mycology and mycolatry of ancient cultures…or merely investigating ancient folklore. The vast majority of the accounts come from the ancient Greeks and Romans, of course, but Dugan sheds light on a number of other civilizations’ mycological uses.
Books in this genre usually concern themselves with the topic of entheogens and psychotropic mushrooms used for (perceived) religious purposes. Dugan doesn’t commit too many pages to the topic and is likely skeptical of many of the entheogenic claims made by predecessors (Wasson, Ruck, McKenna, Schultes, Graves, Allegro, and others) as to the identity of the ancient Vedic “soma” (Amanita muscaria), the root source of Christianity and likely all religions (Amanita muscaria), and the cryptic subject of many of the ancient myths and legends (you guessed it: Amanita muscaria!). The author cautions that “…some care must be taken to disentangle plausible events in historical antiquity from the enthusiasms and experiences of the modern authors.”
Despite exhaustive research, modern humans and livestock are still afflicted with mycotoxins produced by fungi growing on our foodstuffs. Be glad that our remedies no longer consist of “pungent mustard, bird dung, and vinegar mixed into various concoctions”! Seemingly equally inefficacious was a treatment of crop seeds (to prevent fungal contamination) by “exposure to perforated sealskin” and other remedies based on superstitions. Unsurprisingly, given his profession, the author focuses most of his attention on chapters pertaining to plant pathogens and mycotoxins on grain (or the solutions the ancients came up with to prevent fungi from spoiling their harvest).
Taking a historical look at fungal plant pathogens in the chapter “Environmental and Ecological Roles of Fungi” Dugan addresses the issue of “What Killed the Elms?” No, not the American elm (which has been dramatically felled by Dutch elm disease in last century), but the Neolithic elm of northwestern Europe. Turns out, the culprit was likely the fungus Ceratocystis which causes Dutch elm disease in the modern era. Dugan doesn’t mention our modern day elm plague, of course, as he sticks to fungi of the ancient world. Still, what comes around, goes around.It’s interesting to read how the tiny fungus has been a source of scourge and sustenance and cultural icon for denizens of the planet. Both in the ancient world and still today. I would recommend this book to academics, researchers, and grad students in mycology and plant pathology, of course, but those outside the academic world would also enjoy the book as well. However, at the listed price of $70, it will likely be out of reach of all but the most ardent collector of mycoliterature. Nonacademics on a tight budget will no doubt be able to track down a copy at the nearest university library and you will be rewarded for your effort!
— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi