The magic of the toadstool

An overview

Author: Wolfgang Bauer
The toadstool is a faithful companion of man. Its influence on cultural history is immeasurable. Already shamans and priests appreciated the consciousness-expanding effect of the mushroom and saw in it a way to connect with the spiritual sphere and to communicate with its entities. Also as a remedy, as a paraphernalium in magical experiments and undertakings, as a hidden actor in fantastic fairy tales and legends, right up to modern literature, the fly agaric has always exerted an influence on earthly events.

In a paradoxical way, the toadstool as a poisonous mushroom stands on the one hand as a symbol of the danger and also abysmal nature. On the other hand it is considered a symbol of happiness. It decorates children’s rooms, homes and gardens and accompanies festivals in the course of the year. The mushroom delights jubilarians and is often used in art as well as in advertising as an irresistible eye-catcher. It also makes impressive appearances in fantastic literature, detective novels, comics and films.

In ancient times already, shamans and priests used the mushroom in their soul journeys to spirits and gods. The secret of its ritual use was closely guarded in archaic cultures. Traces of its use can be found in legends, myths about the gods, sagas and magic fairy tales. Furthermore in alchemical works in which speculation was made about mysterious miracle cures such as the Holy Grail or the Philosopher’s Stone. To this day, the fly agaric serves well as a remedy for humans and animals still.

The forest doctor provides his patients with the healing essence of the fly agaric.

The red fly agaric (amanita muscaria) naturally belongs to the family of bulbous-leaved mushrooms. Closest relatives are the brown toadstool (amanita regalis), also known as the king fly agaric. Also the reddish-brown panther mushroom (amanita pantherina). Mushroom pickers may though confuse the fly agaric with the red emperor mushroom (amanita caesarea), a special class edible mushroom. For foodies, the emperor mushroom is the “emperor in the kitchen”. There is always confusion between the panther mushroom and the flesh-colored brown pearl mushroom (amanita rubescens), a moderately good edible mushroom.

When eaten, intentionally or unintentionally, the toadstool consequently produces a psychoactive effect.

When I look into their eyes, I have the impression that I am looking into life itself.


Illustrators of fairy tales often show the toadstool in their drawings, as if they saw in it the cause/trigger for all the magical events in the plot. For example, the flowers that Little Red Riding Hood picks off the path are toadstools glowing red. The wolf looks not with greed at Little Red Riding Hood, but at the toadstools beside her. Toadstools grow in front of and around the witch’s house. And just to provide a clue as to what kind of “gingerbread” the witch has actually hung on the walls of her cottage to dry. Instead of painting a spring, the painter in the fairy tale “Little Brother and Little Sister” shows a toadstool next to the little brother.

Is toadstool juice indeed the source that turned the baby brother into an animal? Toadstools grow next to the coffin in which Snow White lies in a coma after consuming a “poisonous apple”. They also grow right next to the dwarf who shows the king’s son the way to the all-healing magic potion in the fairy tale “Water of Life”. The fairy tale and myth researcher Sergius Golowin (1930-2006) went into thorough detail in his 1973 book “Magie der verbotenen Märchen: Of Witch Drugs and Fairy Herbs”.  He detailed connections between psychoactive plants and mushrooms and also the miraculous happenings in magic tales.

He ascribes to psychoactive mushrooms, herbs and roots the ability to “carry people off with seven-league boots into unimaginable fairy tale realms” who get involved with them.


R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986), the founder of ethnomycology, spent a long time trying to find out which remedy might have been the basis of the Soma. The Soma is the mythical intoxicating potion of the Indo-Germanic Vedas, in the 2nd millennium before Christ. The Soma of the primitive Aryans helped the priests to gain knowledge and access to the divine sphere. It also helped them to find happiness and the power of victory. Traditional accounts suggest that a psychoactive plant provided the central ingredient for the soma (literally: pressed juice).

From a botanical, ethnological, and etymological perspective, Wasson’s account suggests successfully that it may have been the fly agaric. In the years 1963 to 1966 he tried to prove his thesis and carried out an intensive research work. For this purpose he stayed in countries of the Pacific region. In Japan, he even conducted a self-experiment. In the book “Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality” published with the Vedist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in 1969, he achieved a detective masterpiece. He traced the many poetic metaphors and figurative paraphrases for the soma in the verses. Along the lines were “the tongue of the way,” the “navel of the earth,” the “fountain of eloquence,”. Not only this but also the “single eye,” or the “sweetness-giving udder” to their respective botanical conditions on the mushroom body.

After weighing all the circumstances, he came to the conclusion that the soma of the Rigveda meant the fly agaric.

Wasson: “If I am correct, then I have succeeded in integrating the [sic!] soma into the cult of a tree (birch, WB) and a mushroom that extends from one end of Eurasia to the other and that goes back to the Stone Age.”

Alice besucht im Wunderland eine sprechende Raupe, die auf einem Pilz mit magischen Eigenschaften sitzt. Zeichnung von Lewis Carroll im ursprünglichen, handgeschriebenen Manuskript aus dem Jahre 1864. Daneben: Dieselbe Szene gezeichnet von John Tenniel, dem Illustrator der Buchausgabe von 1865Alice visits a talking caterpillar in Wonderland, sitting on a mushroom with magical properties. Drawing by Lewis Carroll in the original handwritten manuscript from 1864. Next to it: The same scene drawn by John Tenniel, the illustrator of the 1865 edition of the book.

Only at the foot of spruces, pines, birches, and pines does the toadstool grow in autumn. The birch is the host plant of both the tinder fungus and the toadstool. The tinder is a bracket fungus that grows on the trunk; besides the toadstool, that lives in mycorrhizal association with the roots of the birch. R. Gordon Wasson says that the tinder fungus gave people fire for their bodies and the fly agaric gave fire for their souls. For the people of the taiga, the birch tree is a real tree of life. Furthermore the toadstool at its base is a real “fountain” giving water of life. (Is it a coincidencethat old baptismal fountains in churches and fountains in squares are often shaped like a mushroom? Edzard Klapp asks this question. Are memories of a lost knowledge expressed here?)

Somatrunk is notably described in ancient writings as a mead-like juice. One October, the sociologist Katja Redemann squeezed fresh toadstools. She collected them in the birch forests of the Hunsrück and squeezed with the help of a linen cloth. The abundant juice produced was indeed golden yellow and mead-like. What this aurum potabile, the miraculous drinking gold of the alchemists, does? Reports of people who tasted the water of life tell of journeys to other worlds. Suddenly one got “fairy tale eyes”, felt one with everything around. He gained insight into heaven and hell, past and future, talked to ghosts, dwarfs, elves. And also water women and aliens. Naturally he was able to transform into an animal.


For suggestions and hints I thank the botanist and artist Herman de Vries (Eschenau), the private scholar Edzard Klapp (Steinenbronn) and the antiquarian for old knowledge Adelheid Mühlan (Landau-Wollmesheim).

Der Autor Wolfgang BauerAbout the author

Wolfgang Bauer, studied psychology and accompanying folklore. Worked as a psychological psychotherapist in Frankfurt am Main. Editor and (co-)author of many books on the subjects of symbolism, ancient knowledge and folk botany, including the “Lexikon der Symbole” (Wiesbaden 1980/2004), translated into Russian. Together with Herman de Vries and Katja Redemann: “Rauschpilze: Märchen – Mythen – Erfahrungen, Nachtschattenverlag, Solothurn 2015. With Edzard Klapp: editor of the book by Andrija Puharich: “Der heilige Pilz: Schlüssel zur Pforte der Ewigkeit”, Synergia Verlag Roßdorf 2019. Curator of several exhibitions on the cultural history of the fly agaric and collaborator of the virtual fly agaric museum ( Speaker at conferences on the topics of dreams – trance – vision, sacred plants and magic mushrooms, spirit lore and black fairy tales. YouTube interview: “In conversation with Wolfgang Bauer”.


This article was originally published on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Die Magie des Fliegenpilzes

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