For centuries, the sudden and rapid eruption of circles of mushrooms
from the soil led people to believe that dark or terrible forces
were at work. Lightning strikes, meteorites, shooting stars,
earthly vapours, and witches have all been proposed as agents
of their origin.
In France fairy rings were called sorcerers' rings and in Austria,
witches' rings. A Tyrolean legend claims that the rings were
burned into the ground by the fiery tail of a dragon. In Holland
they were said to be the marks where the Devil rested his milk
churn. In Europe, the belief that fungi were the work of evil
spirits or witches persisted well into the 19th century.
In England, as their name suggests, they were places where fairies
come to dance. The mushrooms around the perimeter were seats
where the sprites could rest after their exertions. People in
rural England claimed to have seen fairies dancing at fairy
rings as recently as the start of the twentieth century.
One common theme in all these traditions is the belief that
dire consequences await anyone foolhardy enough to enter a fairy
ring. Trespassers would be struck blind or lame, or even disappear
to become slaves in the fairies' underground realm. In Wales
the rings were associated with fertility and doom, and anyone
foolish enough to plow one up would incur the wrath of the fairies.
It was also widely believed that if animals grazed within a
fairy ring their milk would putrefy.
On the positive side, fairy rings were said to bring good luck
to houses built in fields where they occur. In another tradition,
the rings were sites of buried treasure, but there was a catchthe
treasure could only be retrieved with the help of fairies or
Many cultures had other weird and wonderful explanations for
the fantastical origins of fungi. In parts of Africa, mushrooms
were sometimes regarded as souls of the dead, or as symbols
of the human soul. In Silesia, morel mushrooms were once believed
to be the work of the Devil.
In parts of Central America a children's tale relates that mushrooms
are little umbrellas carried by woodland spirits to shelter
them from the rain. The spirits leave the mushrooms behind at
dawn when it is time to return to their underground world.
Fungi have been the focus of many other superstitious beliefs
and traditions. In New England folklore, a fungus called the
"death baby" growing in the yard is a harbinger of imminent
death in the family. In the district of Norrland in Sweden there
is a tradition of throwing toadstools into bonfires on midsummer's
eve (June 23) to ward off evil spirits. Look into the folklore
of any culture and you're almost sure to find other examples.
Even Santa Claus has been linked to fungi. One anthropologist
has suggested that his red and white outfit symbolize Fly Agaric.
Siberian shamans were known to consume this mushroom, and Santa's
use of the chimney is similar to a shaman custom of leaving
a dwelling through its smoke hole during a festival.