Mycelium & Myth

Myths must have root systems they can sink back into, to revitalize the soil, and to reemerge with the particular magic suited for this age of ecological chaos and societal collapse.

Some 416 million years ago plants made it onto dry land. But these plants were not the plants you and I know as sturdy trees and sessile flowers. They didn’t yet have roots. Luckily enough fungi were already soil dwellers. Fungi are at least a billion years old. Recently a multi-celled fossil of fungus named Ourasphaira giraldae found in the Canadian Arctic was dated by researchers to be around 715 million years old. Plants “learned” to have roots from these early fungi, depending on the fungi to keep them plugged into nutrients and place for millions of years before the two developed a converged evolution, creating lignin-based woody roots that mutualistically paired with mycorrhizal fungal systems.

As forest ecology has developed, particularly highlighted by recent attention on the work of Suzanne Simard, we see that it is the fungi that coordinate forests and ecosystems, acting as connective tissue between beings and creating delicately synchronized trophic waves of decaying matter, blooming bacterial biomes, released minerals, and soil regeneration.

Fungi are the original angels. Angel in its oldest root of the word: messenger from the Hebrew mal’akh and Old English aerendgast. Root messengers. Weavers. Communicators. They sew soil to plants, trees to trees. They hold ecosystems together like conversations, making sure each questioning chemical threads into its vegetal receptor. Like angels are said to courier messages from a higher realm, fungi connect us into messages from an even older pre-human paradise: the mythic underworld.

As I write and attempt to revitalize the myths that underpin human exceptionalism and capitalist patriarchy, I always try to tap into the rhizomatic realm that predates anthropocentric narratives. I was initially inspired by the investigations of French philosophers Deleuze and Gauttari into rhizomes as non-hierarchical systems of thought with multiple doors of entry. The rhizome dissolves linearity and shows, like the idea of horizontal gene transfer, evolution is not a linear progression. Evolution is a transversal, intimate collaboration.

Deleuze writes, “The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities”. But Deleuze and Gauttari were thinking with botanical rhizomes, not mycelial systems. And their insistence on the “arborescent” realm of dualistic, terminal thought patterns as mirrored by tree branches shows the limits of this line of thinking. There is no such thing as a disembodied tree crown. Where is the trunk? No tree branches, terminal or not, exist without their root brain tucked into soil and slipped into the teeming plurality of a forest wide mycorrhizal consciousness. Instead let me offer that every tree branch eventually falls to nourish the saprophytic (dead material eating) fungi on the forest floor. These fungi liberate the minerals and nutrients that nourish future root systems and future trees.

There is no rhizomatic thinking without arborescent thinking. There is only cyclical thinking; and root thinking, acknowledging its deep-time origins, is mycelial thinking.

I want to offer that mushrooms – mycelium – are an interesting way to think through mythology. In my work rewilding the myths of the masculine, I have come to the conclusion that you can only understand a myth in its particular ecosystem. Just like mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of underground mycelial systems, so are myths the particular above-ground mushrooms of a specific ecology. We can think of mythologems and mythic figures as being like the giant (perhaps 7,000-year-old) honey fungus in Oregon. It stretches for miles underground and fruits up as mushrooms that superficially look like individuals. The cattle cults that spread across the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age are like the honey fungus.

As a mythic figure, “Orpheus” is now understood to have been a title rather than a single mythic figure, as lyric prophets through the centuries stepped into the role of the divine lyrist to sing his Orphic hymns. Likewise, scholar Adam Nicolson has shown that Homer was not so much a person but an oral tradition and a collaborative experience of an entire culture. A version of the Odyssey “fruited” above ground every time a new storyteller performed the myth.

Perhaps Dionysus is the best example. Dionysus always appears without warning, throwing cities into disorder, and, although archeological evidence shows he is one of the oldest pre-Olympic gods, he is always personified as a “stranger” or “new”. He “fruits” up across the Mediterranean, in different cities, often looking different, offering a variety of fermented beverages as suited to the different ecologies. But the real Dionysus is the mycorrhizal system of vegetal gods underground, weaving a net that is ready to pop up and proliferate wherever nature-based, ecstatic wisdom is needed.

I have been thinking of textual myths as “fruiting bodies”. And when you have a fruiting body, you must ask where its roots are located? What is its mythic mycelium?

Nowhere is this made clearer than in the case of the illiterate magician and storyteller known as Jesus or Yeshua. The illiterate, nature-based magician storyteller has been deracinated from the ecology of Galilee. His body literally disappears, and unlike the vegetal gods of Osiris and Dionysus before him, his body does not go back to the forest floor to nourish the fungi and complete the virtuous cycle. He is deracinated. When his teachings are translated into Coptic Greek, the very language of his executioners, his nature-based parables no longer make any sense.

When Jesus said the mustard seed was like the kingdom he was referring to the most pernicious and least favorite weed of Galilean farmers. He was saying, to his farmer friends, “The Kingdom is like an invasive weed that you have a very difficult relationship to. And it’s already here. It’s in your fields.” Most of Jesus’ teachings were intimately rooted in Galilean and Judean ecology. But we lose the nuance when we “translate” him away from his actual body and his actual environment. No wonder his teachings have been so easily perverted into simplistic dogma.

Just like fungi taught plants how to root into the soil, so do myths teach us how to root into relation with our ecological and social ecosystems. They seek to express ultimate truths with personified elementals. They narrativize a deep understanding of our connection to more-than-human time scales. As poet Robert Bringhurst has pointed out, myth isn’t antagonistic to science, but rather an alternative “science” in itself. “[Myth] aims, like science, at perceiving and expressing ultimate truths. But the hypotheses of myths are framed as stories not equations.” While a scientist quantifies reality, he explains, a myth teller personifies it.

But we are living in a strange time now when most of our myths are deracinated. We think we have myths but really these stories are like houseplants, cut off from the mycorrhizal complexity of the soil, and therefore unable to refruit as something freshly adapted to our current environmental conditions and social circumstances. Bringhurst explains, “Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops.”

Revision is decay. It is the acknowledgement that most of the work happens under the ground. Dionysus understands that he must be a different mushroom in Crete than he will be in Thrace. Myths must have root systems they can sink back into, to revitalize the soil, and to reemerge with the particular magic suited for this age of ecological chaos and societal collapse.


Sophie Strand

Sophie is a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, & ecology.

Learn more