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Fly Agaric: The Vikings & Alice

18/10/2007

This is one of Ireland's must distinctive mushrooms. It is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and known for its unpredictable and potent poison. The cap is a ...

bright scarlet colour with white to yellowish warts. The gills and stem are both white. Its favorite habitat is under pine and birch trees. Its poisonous properties have had a fascination for humans over the centuries. When the Vikings invaded Ireland they are said to have eaten Fly Agaric before battle to make them demonic and behave in a berserk manner. Folklore from the Northern countries often refers to Fly Agaric as a gift from the gods to provide men with fearlessness and strength. In Walt Dinsey's Fantasia a fairy ring of Fly Agaric shimmers into colour and shapes to the music of Tchailkovsky's Nutcracker Suite.
The poison is not deadly, but its effects are unpredictable and it may cause death in some people. Generally though, there is a great variation in its effect.
In medieval times the mushroom was used to stupefy flies. It was added to milk and left around the house in dishes. In fact, in those times it was called the Bug Agaric.
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Keep an eye out for the Stinkhorn fungus and Fly Agaric and enter your sightings into the Nature's Calendar map. Click on the Nature's Calendar tab at the top of the page and click on Submit your sighting - there you will find Autumn Watch.
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In many cultures it has been used as a gateway to the 'other' world. When fresh it is very poisonous and you must be careful after handling it that it does not get into your system.
Fly Agaric is found throughout the Northern Hemisphere and has been used by tribes in these areas during rituals that involve spirits. Even today, it is still used in some tribes in Eastern Siberia. The North American Indians also used it in a similar manner.
In 'civilized' Europe its use has given rise to the 'little people' such as faeries and leprechauns. Lewis Carroll was obviously familiar with its affects. In Alice in Wonderland there is a scene where a caterpillar is sitting on a mushroom (Fly Agaric) smoking a pipe and Alice is in front of him at mushroom height. She nibbles on the mushroom to make herself bigger and smaller. After the publication of Alice in Wonderland images of the Fly Agaric appeared in much Victorian literature. It was also painted on children's toys and cradles.

Text © Paul Whelan