In my recent wanderings in the small cedar forest by the river near my house, I chanced upon a community of emerging reddish-orange fungi. They sat among the cedars in a crowded aggregation. Some pushed their way up through the duff like little buds, barely visible; others rose up with pointed steep caps; and others had opened further into tiny ‘witch’s hats’ and blackened.
According to Frank Dugan, fungus plays a key role in many folktales and fairy tales. “They appear as foods, poisons, diseases, decorations, dyes or tinder, and even in insults, compliments, graffiti and video games,” says the author of Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet.
Fungi figure in wonderfully with stories of and about witches. “Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe,” Fungal Folklore tells us. Even ferry rings are called “Hexen Rings” in Germany; Hexe means witch and this refers to “the dancing of witches on Walpurgis night (the eve of May Day) when the old pagan witches were thought to hold high revelry,” writes Dugan.
In the Slavic folktale, Baba Yaga is an ancient swamp witch; she’s a cruel ogress who steals, cooks and eats her victims, usually children; OR offers them help. It’s complicated; she’s either a maternal helper or a cannibalistic villain; or both. Certainly a trickster. Baba Yaga is guardian of the fountains of the water of life and lives in a forest hut perched on bird’s legs, surrounded by pine trees and glowing skulls. She can manipulate earth and wood, and can mesmerise. Baba Yaga has lately become something of an icon for feminism and the power of the feminine.
Says Marissa Clifford in Vice: “Like other witches, deistic Baba is agent of transformation, who, according to Kitaiskaia, exists ‘kind of outside of the things which constrain human society, like time and morality.’ She may well be so compelling for women today because of her rejection of social standards, and the power that comes from that. She’s an outlier with power that isn’t derived from her beauty, or her relationships with others. Instead, it comes from within her—earth, hut, and firey stove.”
Witches, Fungi & Potions
“Witches have long used fungi in their potions in Europe,” The Fungus Among Us tells us. According to Dugan, the dung-loving Panaeolus papilionaceus (Petticoat Mottlegill) was used in witch’s concoctions in Portugal. The entheogen Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric)—the elixir of ancient alchemists—is known as Hexenpils (‘Witches’ mushroom’) in Austria. Among German tribes, it is associated with Woton/Odin, god of ecstasy, war and shamanic knowledge. Puffballs were reportedly used in potions by witches in the Basque country. Witch’s butter (Exidia spp.) also figures in folklore. “Stabbing, burning or otherwise destroying these fungi were believed to harm the witch herself,” writes Owen. The Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica) is aptly named for its blackening witch-style ‘hat’ that starts bright red-orange and turns coal black.
Many country folk through the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries performed rituals to protect their crops from the devastation wrought by witches and spirits. Thiselton-Dyer discusses the malignant Roggenwolf (‘rye wolf’ of Germanic folklore) who stole children and fed on them and the various rituals peasants used to appease these Feldgeister (field spirits), such as leaving a sheaf of rye in the fields over the winter. The Roggenwolf is, of course, the personification of ergot, the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which caused convulsions, burning, “massive-appetite”, and “the sense of becoming an animal.” People who contracted ergot poisoning from the contaminated rye were accused of being witches and brutally killed.
Ergot and The Last Summoner
In my historical fantasy “The Last Summoner,” young Vivianne Schoen, Baroness of Grunwald—accused of being a witch—is chased by her father’s guard to be burnt at the stake. Blamed for the sudden stupor of her father and the chaplain who both love their rye bread, it didn’t help that Vivianne possesses unnatural powers in metal manipulation, has weird markings or blemishes on her back or that suspicions of her preternatural mother being a witch precede her. Then odd things start to happen; cattle stop producing milk and other farm animals behave strangely. At a feast to celebrate her own coming nuptial to a foreign stranger and just after she is falsely accused of adultery, people suddenly succumb to fits of convulsions, facial distortions, hallucinations and paralysis. Targeted as the obvious candidate to blame, she must flee her home or be burnt alive at the stake:
…With a final unintelligible gasp that wet her cheek with flying spittle, he convulsed violently and pitched to the floor, shaking and vomiting his dinner.
Vivianne stared at her father, rolling and twitching in a seizure on the floor and crying out gibberish. She turned to the castle community, who were now pointing and shouting at her. Their faces had twisted from transfixed revulsion into fear and anger. Somehow they blamed her for both the stranger’s accident and her father’s sudden paroxysm. Perhaps for losing them a battle in the bargain too. Even Père Daniel’s face looked stricken with confused accusation. Until now Vivianne hadn’t realized how much his opinion of her meant to her. She felt his faltering faith drive like a blade into her heart and would have burst into tears had the crowd not suddenly grown very surly, which demanded her sudden attention.
Gertrude, the new dairymaid she’d assisted earlier, flung the first accusation: “She’s a witch!”
“Witch!” another echoed. “You heard her father call her one!”
Another servant swiftly followed with, “Just like her mother! She’s bewitched the baron! Put a spell on him with her wicked look!”
The crowd ignited to a raucous mob and a spate of accusations gushed out like a dam breaking: “My butter failed to churn because of her!”
“Look at the witchling’s eyes! They blaze with the devil’s own fire!”
“She appeared in Weikhard’s dream and now he’s ill!”
“She touched my cow and afterwards it couldn’t stand!”
“I saw the nursemaid bringing her a daily potion of nettle, mustard and mint with wine to make her lustful!”
Oh, no! They were implicating Uta along with her!
“I smelled basil and cloves in her bed chamber!”
Vivianne had used both to mask the rank odor of Uta’s anti-plague potions, completely innocent of their aphrodisiac properties. Vivianne stared in anguished despair as Père Daniel stood by, mutely sanctioning their actions. She’d thought him her champion once. But obviously this was too much for him to bear. He’d lost his trust in her. As their eyes met briefly, he suddenly gasped out strange words of gibberish. A violent shudder convulsed through him. It threw him forward, as if the devil itself were animating him, then felled him to the ground where he vomited alongside her retching father.
“She’s taken the priest!” someone shouted. “He’s doing the Viper’s dance!” Another screamed in a panic, “Watch out for her eyes!”
Vivianne turned back to the crowd. Whomever her gaze alighted upon shrank back and averted their face in terrified alarm. They were convinced that she could strike them down with a glance. To her horror a few of the castle servants jerked out of their seats with startled cries of gibberish then fell writhing to the ground; some began to vomit. Vivianne recognized the true onslaught of an epidemic. The same illness that had inflicted her father and the chaplain was attacking the staff. And again, the timing was impeccable, thought Vivianne with wry cynicism. As though God was plotting against her.
Gertrude pointed to her. “Seize her! Burn the witch! Before she kills us all!”
“Someone find her demon cat too!” Vivianne heard the doctor shout.
Several of the baron’s knights surged forward, swords drawn. As if suddenly awoken from a stupor, the Teutonic Knights at the high table leapt into action and drew their swords.
NO! Vivianne backed away in alarm. She envisioned their swords suddenly pointing back toward themselves. To her amazement, their swords flung back and the knights dropped them in shocked fright.
In that surreal moment, as the world staggered into slow motion, Vivianne saw the entire castle household draw in a long breath. Still on the floor, Père Daniel’s shakes abated long enough for him to fix lucid eyes upon her and silently mouth, “Cours, ma petite! Cours! Sauves toi!”
After a last glance at her convulsing father, Vivianne took the Père’s advice and ducked through one of the curtained archways behind the table to the kitchen stairwell, and pelted down the stairs.
“After her!” she heard the booming voice of Doctor Grien. “The witch is getting away!”
Vivianne later discovers what caused the sudden ‘bewitchment’ of members of her community: all the people who became ill had eaten the rye bread. She learns about ergot poisoning of rye by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. Conditions had been ideal for ergot to thrive: damp and rainy cool weather.
The Witch’s Hat
Witch’s Hats are a small agaric (cap from 1-4 cm across) that start out bright red to orange, sometimes almost yellow as they thrust up through the cedar duff, looking like buds. The conical pileus is often curved steeply with a fairly sharp top and sometimes with edges that curve slightly inward. The stem (stipe) is often white at the base blending to yellow and will stain black with age.
As the waxcap mushroom develops, the cap spreads out with a discernable brim while maintaining the hat peak of a witch’s hat. As it ages, it turns a deeper red-orange that blackens, often from the edges inward.
This tendency to blacken from bruising or with age is a good diagnostic for this mushroom. Very few others show this trait. Its gills “have the consistency of soft wax when rubbed between the fingers,” Fungus Fact Friday tells us. The gills start white to yellowish and gradually yellow and stain black.
The Witch’s Hat (Hygrocybe conica), also known as Blackening Waxcap (for the obvious reason), shows a diversity of habitat preference and high variability. It tends to grow on the ground under hardwood and conifer trees. The community I stumbled upon fanned out from a few cedar trees in a small mixed cedar forest. The Witch’s Hat also likes mossy areas, where I found several near the river. The saprobic Hygrocybe conica is also a mycorrhizal fungus, sending tendrils from tree to tree.
Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize the root system of a host plant—in this case some cedar trees—providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates through photosynthesis.
Dugan. 2008. “Fungi, folkways & fairy tales.” North American Fungi 3(7): 23-72.
Morgan, A. 1995. “Toads and Toadstools: The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association.” Celestial Arts. Berkeley, California
Munteanu, Nina. 2012. “The Last Summoner.” Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, Kentucky.
Owen, E. 2003. “Welsh Folk-Lore: A Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales. Kessinger Publishing. Whitefish, Montana.
Thiselton-Dyer, T.F. 1898. “Folk-Lore of Plants.” D. Appleton and Co., New York.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.