Ravens, shamans and ‘shrooms


In 1988 I made a documentary with the Hokkaido Broadcasting Co. We filmed on the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeast Siberia, in Alaska and in Japan. Our main theme was the raven and the many raven legends that link the peoples of the Pacific Rim.

When we were in Petropavlosk, the capital of Kamchatka, we were introduced to a Koryak shaman, an old lady called Maria who lived in a run-down three-story suburban apartment. Everything around that had been built by man was decaying and decrepit, with paint flaking everywhere and roofs and fences sagging, while drab washing had been hung out hopefully in the gray and damp. No wonder our Russian interpreter was enamored of Florida!

It was agreed that we would film the old lady the following day, and we chose a location beside a lovely wide salmon river on a grassy bank with ash, birch and willow woods behind and lenticular clouds swimming like giant fish above the peak of a snow-capped volcano yonder. It was a lovely spot for a picnic. Our Russian driver soon set up a campfire to boil a pot of freshly caught salmon with carrots and potatoes, which we washed down with flagons of beer that we’d bought in town from a small yellow tank on wheels.

The old lady, her hair in long gray braids, wore reindeer-hide boots and an anorak trimmed with wolverine fur. She had lots of raven tales for us — once they were translated from Koryak into Russian by her daughter, then into English by our interpreters, then into Japanese by me. She also showed us the contents of her pouch, which included odd-shaped stones, some small vertebrae bones, a feather and some dried and shriveled mushrooms that she called “mukhomor.” These were used by the shamans, and by far more foolish people, to induce hallucinogenic trances.

These mushrooms, which are also common in Europe and North America, are known in English as fly agaric, or fly amanita, and botanically as Amanita muscaria. Country folk used to boil them in milk, then set the pot out of the way of animals and children to attract flies, which were then either killed or stupefied when they came to feed on the brew.

Fly agaric usually has a bright-red cap, covered with white or yellow warts. The gills and stalk are white. It is the classic illustrator’s toadstool. I don’t know if the old lady used some of her dried mushroom before coming to meet us, but she put on an amazing performance of drumming and dancing. She held a round, flat drum — rather like an Irish bhodran — and beat it from below with a whalebone stick covered in dog skin.

She had wonderful tales of how the raven fell into the sea and brought up the land, then went skiing to form the mountains. When the raven sat down he made fjords. The raven then gave some great mountains life, so they became volcanoes. Old Maria said that when you saw white smoke and steam coming out of a volcano, then the raven and his spirit friends were cooking whale meat.

Maria chanted and danced, as spry as a young girl, her drum going “Da didi don ton! Don don don don! Da didi don ton” while she chanted in a high shrill voice “Eiy eh hoh hoh! Aiyah! Haiya! Hoh oh hoh hoh!” With her back bent over the drum, and her hips swaying, it was fantastic!

A few days later we went to film some young dancers, way out in the country along 100 km of good road, 400 km of bad road. The director also wanted to find some fly agaric in the wild. We picnicked along the way, and after he went off to look around, the driver came back and said he had found some mukhomor.

I went to look and saw that it was a mushroom of the same Amanita family, but it was definitely not fly amanita. This was a Caesar’s amanita, with a smooth orange cap, yellow gills and stalk. A scattering of leaf mold had stuck to the cap.

“That’s not what you want,” I told him. “That’s a Caesar’s amanita, known as a tamago dake in Japanese, and not only is it not at all toxic, but actually it’s very delicious.”

However, the driver and the Russian interpreters insisted it was a fly agaric and, as they were locals, the director took their word. Me, though, I knew I was right. We get these Caesar’s amanita growing in our woods in Kurohime in Nagano Prefecture around late August, and they happen to be one of my gastronomic favorites.

So I picked this one, and found two more. Then I stuck them on a stick and toasted them over the campfire. When the driver tried to snatch the stick from me, I shoved him away and snarled like a dog with a bone.

“If you eat just a bit you will be sick,” the interpreter said, “and if you eat a whole one, then you will die.”

“These are excellent, and I bet you 100 rubles that I’ll be fine,” was my untroubled response. So I ate all three and washed them down with tea. Everybody was horrified, but of course I was right — otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this now, would I?

The next day I asked the driver for the 100 rubles I’d bet him . . . but he wouldn’t pay.

“He says that you aren’t human, you’re some kind of shaman, because any human would have died after eating that,” the interpreter explained.

A week later, when we were out filming a reindeer herd, I found some fly agaric and pointed out the clear differences between it and the tamago dake. This mushroom, whose Japanese name literally translates as “egg mushroom,” is so called because when it first pushes up through the ground it is wrapped in a soft white cover that makes it look like a boiled egg. It prefers pine and oak woods, and in Europe it is highly prized, and is said to have been a favorite nibble of the Caesars.

I’ve never tried fly agaric myself, but I am told its toxicity varies from mushroom to mushroom and area to area, and that its effects vary from person to person. A policeman in Kamchatka told me that they had a problem with young people using the mushroom as a substitute for more modern drugs. Whatever, the toxins it contains play havoc with your liver and kidneys.

If you want to learn more, then the best mushroom book that I know is David Aurora’s “Mushrooms Demystified,” which is published by Berkley, California-based Ten Speed Press. The book graphically details some incidences of mushroom poisoning that should suffice to put off anyone with any sense from ever experimenting with mushrooms that they don’t really know well.