September is National Mushroom Month, so let's celebrate this fun fungus by examining how the mushroom was used in antiquity:
1. To poison an emperor: Eager for her son Nero to be made heir to his stepdad/great-uncle, Claudius, the Roman empress Agrippina the Younger decided to off her husband at dinner. She drafted an infamous poisoner named Locusta to help her, "preparing with her aid a poison whose effect was sure, she put it in one of the vegetables called mushrooms," according to Cassius Dio. Suetonius says mushrooms were "a dish of which he was extravagantly fond." To make sure Claudius didn't suspect anything, Agrippina ate some of the untainted mushrooms, but served her husband the poisoned one. Its side effect made it look like Claudius was drunk, so when he died not long after, she could blame it on the alcohol.
2. To found cities: Well, mythologically, anyway. Rumor had it that the hero Perseus founded the great city of Mycenae in Greece (home of Agamemnon, among others) after finding a mushroom (myces). He was so thirsty that he decided to pick up a fungus; luckily for Perseus, water flowed out of it, so he named his new city after it. Another myth relates that the city of Corinth was inhabited by people who sprang from mushrooms.
Modern Mycenae, named for mushrooms? Image via K beard/Wikimedia Commons.
3. To get high (maybe?): New Age writings have long suggested the use of magic mushrooms in ancient mystery cults, but there isn't a ton of evidence to support that supposition. Still, people keep on making it, inspired, in part, by poet-cum-mythographer Robert Graves's idea that October was a time for eating mushrooms, so mystery rites that took place in the fall must have included consumption of penis-shaped cakes infused with 'shrooms. Modern amateur pharmacologists have also suggested that a sacred drink at the Eleusinian mysteries, called kykeon, might have contained mushrooms. One particularly entertaining paper, whose writers were warned of seeing mushrooms anywhere they wanted in archaeology, discusses the field of "ethnomycology" and its place in Greece.
4. To cook with: Despite the poisonous qualities of some mushrooms, ancient chefs did love a good fungus-infused dish. In the cookbook of Apicius, the recipe writer suggests cooking them quickly in garum (fish guts fermented in brine) and pepper, then drained; alternatively, one might make them in "pepper, reduced wine, vinegar and oil" or "in salt water, with oil, pure wine, and serve[d] with chopped coriander," perhaps adding eggs on top of the tasty stems.
Sure, these mushrooms are Japanese, but perhaps those cooked according to Apicius's recipes might resemble the final dish! Image via RickardA/Wikimedia Commons.
5. To cure various ailments: As well as poisoning people, mushrooms could also cure some sicknesses, according to Pliny the Elder. After warning readers extensively of their dangers, he cites another scholar's opinion that they can be good for the stomach or for dispelling mucus; some women also used them to get rid of freckles. Finally, one could mix mushrooms with lead (not a great idea) and water as a wash for ailing eyes, or apply mushrooms steeped in water to dog bites or ulcers.
Feature image via Wikimedia Commons.