A Mukenaian Beginning

Once upon a time, certain fungi were so highly respected that over the ages a great many monuments were built in their honour and after their likeness. Some of these designs have come to be regarded as architectural classics, especially those developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, that can still be seen gracing countless corridors and facades the world around. Yet, despite widespread proliferation and innumerable articles praising their form, very few seem to have any idea how these classic forms could have been inspired by one or other species of fungus.

In tracing the origin of the classics, the manifestation of Mycenaean Greece (1650-1150 BCE) reveals a fungus regime was firmly in place a thousand years before the Parthenon was rebuilt atop the Athenian akropolis in 430 BCE. At the very centre of this pre-historic civilisation stood the renowned citadel of Mukenai (Mycenae), home to king Agamemnon of Trojan War fame. Situated in northeast Peloponnese about 100kms southwest of Athens, the ancient Greeks declared Mukenai was named after a mushroom mukes - from which derives our word "mycology", the study of mushrooms. Myth recounts that its founder, Perseus, drank some juice from a mushroom mukes, and so impressed by that consumed, named his city after the 'shroom.

Despite many in recent times scoffing at this ancient aetiology, another invention attributed to Perseus, the diskos (discus), may also have been inspired by a fungus. With the size and shape of ancient Greek diskoi closely resembling a sandwich of two large mushroom pilei joined gills to gills following the removal of their stipes, the very word diskos may have its origin as a diminution of ancient Greek di or dis - "two" - compounded with yet another ancient Greek mushroom word iskas - "an unidentified species commonly found around oaks". Our word "biscuit" appears of similar construct. Further allusions to fungi may be gathered from the classic Greek statue titled diskobolos (discus-thrower), where the rotating action of the discus thrower circumscribes the shape of a mature mushroom. (see Stadion.) But with the ancient Greeks keen on sport and fond of word-plays, what better recreation did they pursue than see who could spin a fungus the furthest.

The significance of the diskos in ancient Greek culture must not be overlooked, especially as it proved instrumental to the 776 BCE re-inauguration of the Olympic Games, named after the sacred site of Olumpia in northwest Peloponnese. According to Greek legend, a bronze diskos was inscribed in spiral fashion (not unlike the enigmatic Phaistos disk) with a peace treaty calling for the suspension of all civil strife in order to stage the games. Coinciding closely with these games appeared the first Doric temple, whose geometric design resembles a giant mother mushroom surrounded and supported by her columnar offspring, not unlike a rectangular fairy ring of mushrooms, and which may have functioned as farm, factory and storage facility (fund/fridge/freezer?) of select fungi and their by-products. For many centuries thereafter, this famous diskos was museumed within the most sacred Doric temple of Era (Hera) at Olumpia.

Despite precious little surviving of Mycenaean surface architecture, one particular kind of monumental structure, erected in their hundreds across southern Greece, also shares several features in common with a mushroom. Widely known as tholoi (singular tholos) and usually classed as tombs, these monuments basically comprise a large hollow dome buried beneath an earthen mound and accessed by a long and narrow passageway open to the sky. With the pointed dome representing the curvaceous pileus of a mushroom and the passageway its straight stipe, the subterranean aspect of these structures readily compares to a mushroom about to rise from the ground. However, the ancient Greeks also referred to these structures as thekes and thesauroi ("treasuries"), as with the highly elaborate Treasury of Atreus at Mukenai (see Proto-Aeolic). Yet the ancient Greek mushroom word mukes was also applied to burial chambers (compare the flesh-eating habits of fungi with sarcophagos = "flesh-eater"), just as fungi are regularly associated with death and decay. With nine of these monumental structures erected over a period of 300 years immediately around the citadel of Mukenai, that includes some of the finest ever built, and with the name Mukenai, like that of Athenai (Athens), deemed to be of plural form, it seems feasible that these structures were once originally called mukenas (plural mukenai = "mushroom hives").

The species of fungus most revered by the ancient Greeks seems to have been that currently classed as Amanita muscaria, but which the ancient Greeks simply called amanitas, amongst other names. Fruiting to a large red and white-spotted pileus atop a snow-white stipe, this fungus no doubt thrived throughout the vast pine, oak and birch forests that once dominated the Aegean region. (see Fungus Family and Hercules). With the Amanita muscaria serving as the inspiration behind the naming of Mukenai, the invention of the diskos, and the construction of the tholoi (err mukenai), the same mushroom can have inspired the later architecture, indeed greater culture, of ancient Greece, and subsequent European civilisation (see Form Follows Fungus.)

Upon launching his fiery brand, Odusseus might have warned the Kuklopes, "There is far more to fungi than meets the eye."

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