Friday, April 4, 2014

Fly Agaric - The Classic Fairytale Mushroom

I had an awesome find at the local charity shop the other day. A matching set of ceramic kitchen canisters with little mushrooms sprouting from the lids as handles!

Ceramic canister mushroom set I scored for $6

There is just something about about the Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria) fungi that has captivated human fondness despite its toxic reality.
The fungus is deadly if taken in sufficient quantities, but used to be used by many different cultures to induce hallucinations.

The first memory I have of this iconic mushroom was in Transition (the year before Kindergarten for kids too young to start Kindy), in those days we used to have a nap in the middle of the day and students were to bring in a pillow to snuggle on/with at nap time.
My mother sewed a small pillow for me using fabric that had a screen-printed forest scene with tiny Fly Agaric mushrooms popping up here and there. That fabric has stayed in my mind for 30+ years! I have even dreamed of being back in the classroom trying to find the treasured pillow - no doubt a subconscious longing for simplicity and comfort! If only I could find a piece of that fabric today!!

Next, the Fly Agaric appeared in the beautiful illustrations of Ivan Bilibin in vintage Russian fairy tale books such as Vassilisa the Beautiful published in Moscow in the 1970's.

My battered old copy of Vassilisa the Beautiful with Illustrations by Ivan Bilibin

The hideous Baba Yaga was the witch of the story, fierce and at the same time wise, she would fly through the forest in a wooden butter churn.

The terrifying Baba Yaga in her butter churn

In the image in the book I used to ogle as a child, the Fly Agaric mushrooms seem to sprout up around her and her wooden house with chicken legs that could move through the forest. They were used by the artist as a symbol of danger and perhaps evil. I guess they are coloured the way they are to be a warning, so it does make sense that they are used as a sign of danger but not so much sense that they are used as homes for Smurfs to live in.

Another example of the Fly Agaric being used to symbolise danger is in Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This book has the most beautiful illustrations and has been a favourite of mine for many years.

Trina Schart Hyman's illustration of Red Riding Hood meeting the Wolf

Then of course when I was in my early teens I was pretty keen on playing Super Mario Kart on the old Super Nintendo with my twinno. And even though he was one of the slowest characters, I couldn't
resist choosing to be Toad (Kinopio in Japan) which is an animated red/white mushroom.

Toad from Mario Kart, slow but Super cute!

Around 10 years ago I happened to be driving with my parents and husband when we noticed Fly Agaric mushrooms growing by the side of the road under some silver birch trees. They were actually in the front garden of an office building on the main street of Canberra! My wonderful family actually went out of their way to pull over and collect some specimens for me to paint in watercolour.
Passers by must have thought we were insane, mushrooming for toxic fungi in the front garden of the NRMA insurance company!!

I hope with all of the rain this part of the country has seen in the past few weeks I will be able to see more Fly Agaric soon.


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