Christmas is nearly upon us, and I can’t help thinking of a certain mushroom. Specifically, I think of Amanita muscaria, a large, often obese red-and-white species that plays a part in the composition of Santa Claus. I can hear your gasps of astonishment, so consider the following:
In the Middle Ages, Europeans had peculiar notions about Lapland. For instance, they thought all Samis (Lapps) were shamans. As it happens, many of them in fact were. Let’s say a sick person puts out a call for a noaidi (shaman). The noaidi would arrive at that person’s lodge in a reindeer-drawn sled. He would be obliged to enter via the chimney because the pile-up of snow prevents him from entering through the front door.
Before his arrival, the noaidi would already have ingested several dried karpassienis (Amanita muscarias), which would help him ascertain the cause of his patient’s illness. It’s said that the noaidi who has eaten this mushroom typically turns into a facsimile of it, or at least takes on its distinctive red-and-white color scheme. Also, payment for his services would be in food, often lots of it, so he would usually be a quite large man.Here I might mention that reindeer are inordinately fond of A. muscaria. Presumably, it gives them the same sensation that it gives to us non-reindeer — the sensation of flying. If you interviewed a reindeer, I suspect that it might say that it quite liked the feeling of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. It might add that a reindeer with a red nose is afflicted with a parasite, a bot fly larva (or larvae), and while this can be painful, it doesn’t usually result in one’s nose glowing like a light bulb…
To learn more about the Santa Claus-mushroom connection, I recommend that you read my book Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer. You can purchase a copy by sending at a check for $20 (postpaid) to: Lawrence Millman, P.O. Box 381582, Cambridge, MA 02238. You won’t regret it!