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Stone ‘mushroom’ formations in Bulgaria.

Mushroom Monuments of Thrace and Ancient Sacred Rites

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Throughout northeastern Greece, western Turkey, and Bulgaria, in the region known in antiquity as Macedonia, Anatolia, and Thrace, there are numerous megalithic natural rock formations that resemble mushrooms. In some cases, these structures have been modified by human intervention to increase their fungal likeness. In addition to these external features of the landscape, certain caves that served as sanctuaries present a fungal likeness in the configuration of their entrances—two adjacent openings with an overhanging rock configuration giving the impression of a stipe supporting a mushroom cap.

The Stone Mushrooms near Beli Plast Village, Bulgaria.

The Stone Mushrooms near Beli Plast Village, Bulgaria. ( Public Domain )

Sacred Ritual Sites

The external megaliths (like the menhirs scattered throughout Europe and the British Isles) suggest phallic symbolic metaphors whose complement is the vulva lying beyond the cave’s entrance, combining to indicate a sacred marriage. Sometimes two adjacent mushroom megaliths combine, with the passageway through the space intervening at their base is interpreted in folkloric tradition as a rite of initiation and religious empowerment with solar implications.

Large menhir in County Cork, Ireland.

Large menhir in County Cork, Ireland. ( Public Domain )

There are archaeological indications that these sites functioned as the foci of religious observances as early as the Neolithic period, and probably earlier, emerging primarily into prominence in the mid second millennium and continuing through the Roman occupation. Folkloric traditions suggest that the sacral function continued through the conversion of the Empire to Christianity, and even today, the sites are still held sacred and often betray evidence that the local inhabitants consult them to access their supposedly magical powers.

Sacred Marriage and Sexual Implications

Common to all these sites is their proximity to a water source, a river or a fountain spring, often said to be haunted by a nymph, whose male mate is the river.

Mushroom rock formations in Turkey. The cone is constructed from limestone and volcanic ash, while the cap is of hard, more resistant rock such as lahar or ignimbrite

Mushroom rock formations in Turkey. The cone is constructed from limestone and volcanic ash, while the cap is of hard, more resistant rock such as lahar or ignimbrite. (Dennis Jarvis/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The mushroom cap of the megalithic rock outcrops may be cut to excavate a kind of natural chalice to catch rainfall, sometimes channeled to an altar at the mushroom’s base. The rock chalices are now documented also in the Alps and throughout Europe. The chalice in the rock imparted a fungal identity to the fallen rainwater.

Sometimes the chalice appears to have also served a function as mortar for the preparation or compounding of a sacred potion, the manipulation of the pestle in the stone mortar imparting a sexual implication to the pharmaceutical procedure. The rain was seen as the ejaculation of a celestial penis, but also as divine milk from the manipulated udders of the celestial cow hidden in the clouds. The milking of the udder was interchangeable with the masturbatory manipulation of the penis, whose ejaculate was also referred to as milk. The joining of the milk and semen in the compounding of the potion similarly symbolized a sacred marriage with the celestial bull that was the cow’s complement.

Common folkloric belief identifies the milk as the metamorphosis of the menstrual discharge, which ceases upon pregnancy; and on the authority of Aristotle, the menses was seen as an inferior version of the semen. Semen and urine are interchangeable as penile effluents, and the common folkloric identity of rain in Greek tradition was that it flowed from Zeus.

Mushroom rock formations in Turkey.

Mushroom rock formations in Turkey. (Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Mystical Psychoactive Communion

The mushroom monuments are sometimes ornamented with carvings or paintings, or are otherwise associated with folkloric motifs that indicate that the fungi were psychoactive or visionary. There can be little doubt that the prepared sacred drink was intoxicating and intended to access altered consciousness or mystical communion in a ritual context. In some instances, a grouping of mushroom megaliths is identified in folkloric tradition as the petrified guests at a marriage ceremony.

The rock formation of the Petrified Wedding near the village of Zimzelen, Kardzhali Province, southern Bulgaria.

The rock formation of the Petrified Wedding near the village of Zimzelen, Kardzhali Province, southern Bulgaria. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Psychoactive Winemaking, a Mastery over the Wild

These open-air sanctuaries sometimes are linked with natural stone occurrences of trough-like horizontal stone basins that served as presses for the treading of grapes to extract the juice for the fermentation of wine, sometimes with a fungus carved as decoration into the trough, linking the wild fungi with the cultural transition to agrarian civilization, symbolized by the mastery over the wild uncultivable mushrooms in the controlled and humanly manipulated fermenting fungal growth of the yeasts, found naturally on the skins of the fruits of viticulture, in the production of ethanol, the intoxicant of wine.

A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which it’s believed psycho-active potions were used during rituals. (mid-4th century BC).

A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries, in which it’s believed psycho-active potions were used during rituals. (mid-4th century BC). ( CC BY 2.5 )

Modern vineries have expropriated the ancient archaeological troughs as an element today of their marketing strategies, and it is a tradition that can be traced back to Classical antiquity, in particular with the extraordinarily potent wine that was marketed in the Roman period and that claimed continuity with the legendary wine of Maron, the priest of Apollo and son of Dionysus, with which Odysseus intoxicated the Cyclops Polyphemus. In Homeric times, it required dilution twentyfold with water, and still in the second century BC, on the testimony of the Roman governor of the Thracian province, it needed eight parts water to be drunk safely.

Detail; Bacchus/Dionysus by Michelangelo (1497)

Detail; Bacchus/Dionysus by Michelangelo (1497) ( Public Domain )

Since the ethanol produced by natural fermentation cannot exceed the degree of concentration that would kill the yeast, normally around 15 percent or less, the dilution would reduce the ethanol to an insignificant amount as an intoxicant, and the potency of the wine must have been caused by other herbal additives to the liquid.

This was true of other wines, as well, which were normally drunk diluted with three or four parts water, but fortified in the mixing ceremony with a variety of toxins derived from plant and animal sources, sometimes even lethal substances in sub-lethal amounts, such as serpent venoms, salamander secretions, henbane, opium, Datura (jimsonweed), and deadly hemlock ( Conium maculatum ).

For this reason, Greek wine was extremely intoxicating, with rowdiness and brawling not infrequently occurring after only several cups drunk over an extended period of time. This tradition survives in the modern Greek folk wine of retsina (fortified with psychoactive terpenes from pine resin) and in the demotic naming of the drink, not ‘wine’ ( oínos), but the mix, krasí. A recent discovery of an intact wine cellar from the mid-second millennium BC confirms the presence of psychoactive additives to the wine.

Pine resin is used in the making of Greek folk wine retsina

Pine resin is used in the making of Greek folk wine retsina ( CC BY 2.0 )

Distillation of liquids was not discovered until the 14th century AD, when the distillate was named alcohol by analogy to the process for metallic distillates and equated to the quinta essentia that Aristotle had postulated as the element of the celestial bodies that permeated matter as the spiritual soul. This clearly derives from the ancient tradition that the wine served a sacral function.

A Greek 5th-century red-figure hydria found in a cemetery of ancient Ainos (modern Enez, Turkey) depicts what is obviously a cultic scene, probably relative to the funerary rites performed for the burial of the deceased. A mushroom is highlighted as a special ingredient to be added along with other plants to the mixing of a pithos of wine. This is probably the strong Thracian wine known as ‘Biblian’ ( Bíblinos/Búblinos) that was an export of Samothrace and that, in the ritual initiation into the Mystery of the Great Gods as celebrated on the island and elsewhere in cave sanctuaries throughout ancient Thrace, accessed the ecstatic visionary revel that summoned an apparition of the netherworld goddess.

Youth using an oinochoe (wine jug, in his right hand) to draw wine from a crater, in order to fill a kylix (shallow cup, in his left hand). His nudity shows that he is serving as a cup-bearer in a symposium, or banquet.

Youth using an oinochoe (wine jug, in his right hand) to draw wine from a crater, in order to fill a kylix (shallow cup, in his left hand). His nudity shows that he is serving as a cup-bearer in a symposium, or banquet. ( Public Domain )

Featured image: Stone ‘mushroom’ formations in Bulgaria. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Carl A.P. Ruck

References

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