Liberty Cap: the surprising tale of how Europe’s magic mushroom got its name
It’s fall, the best season for mushroom pickers. And mushrooms– particularly magic ones– are in the spotlight. A growing body of research is showing that psilocybin, the main psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, has possible in treating psychological disorders like anxiety, ptsd and addiction. The state of Oregon simply voted to legalise the mushrooms for healing use– a United States.
Of the nearly 200 species of psychedelic mushrooms that have actually been identified worldwide, only one– Psilocybe semilanceata– grows in any abundance in northern Europe. Like many mushrooms, Psilocybe semilanceata is typically known not by its scientific designation, but by its folk or typical name, the “liberty cap” mushroom.
For several years, this bothered me. As a Roman historian, I know the liberty cap (the pileus, in Latin) as a hat provided to a Roman servant on the celebration of their being released. It was a conical felt cap, shaped like that of a smurf, and which undeniably bears a clear resemblance to Psilocybe semilanceata’s unique pointy cap.
How on earth did an odd Roman social practice end up providing its name to a contemporary psychedelic? As I soon found, the answer takes us through an assassination, a variety of revolutions, a little poetry, a dash of xenophobia, and an extremely unusual scientific discovery.
The original liberty cap was a real hat, used by released servants in the Roman world to mark their status: no longer home, however never ever genuinely “complimentary”, tainted by their history. For the freedman, it was a sign both of pride and shame.
In the year 44 BC, the hat acquired a brand-new cultural currency after Julius Caesar was famously killed on the Ides of March (March 15). To promote his part in the deed, Marcus Junius Brutus (of “et tu, Brute” popularity) minted coins, the obverse of which bore the legend EID MAR underneath a pair of daggers and the distinctive liberty cap. Brutus’s significance was clear: Rome herself had actually been freed from Caesar’s tyranny.
Brutus’s use of this sign equated it from a low status social marker into an elite political sign, and one that delighted in a substantially longer life than the short-term Brutus himself. Throughout the remainder of the Roman duration the goddess Libertas and the liberty cap were a commonly used shorthand by emperors keen to stress the freedom that their absolute rule bought.
Caps of transformation
With the collapse of Roman power in Europe in the 5th century ADVERTISEMENT, the liberty cap was forgotten. However then, during the 16th century, as interest in and specific emulation of Roman antiquity started to spread out through the countries of Europe, the liberty cap again reached public consciousness.
Books like Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) described the hat and its importance for informed audiences, and it again began to be used as a political symbol. When the Dutch drove the Spanish from Holland in 1577, coins bearing the liberty cap were minted, and William of Orange likewise minted liberty cap coins to honor his bloodless seizure of the English throne in 1688.
But it remained in two of the fantastic republican transformations of the 18th century– the French and American transformations– that it ended up being a really popular icon. Now mixed with the visual kind of the ancient Phrygian cap, the liberty cap (bonnet rougue in French) appeared no longer simply as a representational gadget but as a real item of headwear or decoration.
In France, on June 20 1790, an armed mob stormed the royal houses in the Tuileries and forced Louis XVI (later on to be carried out by the revolutionaries) to wear the liberty cap. In America, revolutionary groups declared their disobedience versus British guideline by raising a liberty cap upon a pole in the general public squares of their towns. In 1781 a medal, created by no less than Benjamin Franklin to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Libertas Americana (the personification of American Liberty) is portrayed with wild, totally free streaming hair, the pole and cap of liberty slung throughout her shoulder.
From headwear to fungi
The transformations of France and America were seen with substantial disquiet from Britain. The pole and cap of liberty plainly made an impact on a young poet by the name of James Woodhouse, whose 1803 poem, “Autumn and the Redbreast, an Ode”, paid a striking tribute to the diverse appeal of mushrooms:
Whose tapering stems, robust, or light,
Like columns catch the searching sight,
To claim remark where e’er I roam;
Supporting each a shapely dome;
Like fair umbrellas, furl’d, or spread,
Display their many-colour’d head;
Grey, purple, yellow, white, or brown,
Shap’d like War’s shield, or Prelate’s crown—
Like Freedom’s cap, or Friar’s cowl,
Or China’s bright inverted bowl
This seems to be the very first connection of the physical cap of liberty and the distinctive pixie cap of the mushroom. It was clearly not used because it was a recognized name (note his inventive imagery with the other shapes he describes), but rather coined by Woodhouse as a poetic grow.
This metaphor caught the attention of a well-known reader, Robert Southey, who had examined the volume in which the poem appeared in 1804. In 1812, Southey, in addition to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published Omniana, a two volume collection of table talk and various musings planned to educated and notify the would-be conversationalist. Nestled in among attacks upon Catholic customs and notes upon early English metre was the following observation on the “Cap of Liberty”:
There is a common fungus, which so exactly represents the pole and cap of liberty, that it seems offered by nature herself as the appropriate emblem of Gallic republicanism, — mushroom patriots, with a mushroom cap of liberty.
Neither Woodhouse nor Southey and Coleridge identified the accurate mushroom they wanted with the cap of liberty metaphor. As the discipline of mycology– the research study of fungis– started to cement itself in the 19th century, a field driven by specifically the kind of gentleman scholars that would have kept a copy of Omniana on their racks, the name was plainly and generally associated with Psilocybe semilanceata.
At that time, this was a entirely unknown and unremarkable little mushroom below the notification of any however dedicated mycologists. As typical names for mushrooms began to be included in mycological handbooks, Psilocybe semilanceata was consistently determined as the liberty cap.
Maybe the earliest such example remained in Mordecai Cooke’s 1871 Handbook of British Fungi. In 1894, Cooke published his Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms, which tellingly described Psilocybe semilanceata, within quotation marks, as “cap of liberty”, precisely the phrasing utilized by Coleridge, whom it would appear that Cooke was purposely quoting. By the 20th century, the name was firmly developed.
A mushroom becomes magic
The story could, perhaps, end there, but it has a wonderful coda, in which the liberty cap mushroom was moved from total obscurity as merely one of actually hundreds of harmless LBMs (little brown mushrooms) known just by clinical experts to perhaps among the very best understood members of Europe’s mycological fauna.
Throughout the literature written by Europeans on the custom-mades and religious beliefs of the peoples of Central America, there existed rumours of a magical food that the Aztecs called teonanácatl (” the divine mushroom”). These rumours had actually long been marked down as superstitious mythologising, no more deserving of major factor to consider than the shapeshifters of Norse and Icelandic saga. In the early part of the 20th century, the magnificent mushroom caught the imagination of apparently the most not likely guy on the world, Robert Gordon Wasson, the vice president of the Wall Street banking firm JP Morgan.
Because the 1920s, Wasson had been consumed with ethnomycology (the study of human cultural interactions with mushrooms). In the course of research study that would cause a voluminous bibliography, Wasson travelled to Mexico and there, after a long and discouraging search, finally discovered a female who was willing to start him in the tricks of the sacred mushroom. He ended up being (maybe) the very first white guy to deliberately consume a hallucinogenic fungus and released his experience in a 1957 Life post, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom“.
Wasson’s discovery was an experience. In 1958 a group led by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann– the man who initially synthesised (and ingested) LSD– had the ability to isolate the main psychoactive substance in the mushrooms, which was called psilocybin as a nod to the reality that it was primarily mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe that had the chemical. Though species of the hallucinogen fungi were most focused in Central America, they began to be found worldwide. In 1969, a post in Transactions of the British Mycological Society developed that none aside from the harmless little liberty cap contained psilocybin.
There are other psychedelic species that grow in Britain (consisting of the distinctive red and white Amanita muscaria– fly agaric– which includes muscimol not psilocybin), the liberty cap has actually secured a reputation as the poster-child for Britain’s domestically growing psychedelic fungis. Modern “shroomers” can’t withstand punning on the liberty cap name– with its associations to the transcendental “freedom” afforded by psychedelics– and grassroots organisations such as the Shroom Liberation Front attest to this fact.
However in origin, the liberty cap’s name has nothing to do with psychologist and hallucinogen advocate Timothy Leary (” turn on, tune in, drop out”) or the 1960s counter culture. Rather– and somewhat unbelievably– it traces a course back through the political transformations of the early modern duration, by means of the murder of the autocrat Julius Caesar, to a conical cap worn by Rome’s previous servants.
To position the cap on their heads suggested their liberation. To pluck the contemporary liberty cap from the ground could see you spending a cool 7 years in jail.