Agrippina visits Sewanee’s mushroom fest

This has been a phenomenal week for mushrooms. A reminder that we are not alone: below our feet lives an empire of rot. Stand still for too long and they’ll draw you into their net.

My last post on mushrooms discussed “American Caesar’s mushroom.” My friend and colleague Chris McDonough (and fellow blogger at Uncomely and Broken, a site that I highly recommend) added the following to our mycological ramble into the Classical World:

“The Caesar of the Linnaean term refers, it seems, to the unfortunate Claudius (you must recall that, after Julius and Augustus, all the emperors took the title “Caesar,” a tradition continued by the Czars and Kaisers into relatively modern times). Poor old Claudius, done in by a mushroom fed to him by Agrippina, who wanted her son Nero to ascend to the throne. It’s all in Suetonius, Life of the Divine Claudius, chap. 44, but you may want to watch the BBC’s “I Claudius” version (episode 13, “Old King Log”). The relevant portion is here.

The clip from I Claudius is fabulous. Never was a slowly advancing mushroom on a fork laden with such meaning. Suetonius’ account in no less gripping (taken from the public domain translation by Rolfe):

“That Claudius was poisoned is the general belief, but when it was done and by whom is disputed. Some say that it was his taster, the eunuch Halotus, as he was banqueting on the Citadel with the priests; others that at a family dinner Agrippina served the drug to him with her own hand in mushrooms, a dish of which he was extravagantly fond. Reports also differ as to what followed. Many say that as soon as he swallowed the poison he became speechless, and after suffering excruciating pain all night, died just before dawn. Some say that he first fell into a stupor, then vomited up the whole contents of his overloaded stomach, and was given a second dose, perhaps in a gruel, under pretense that he must be refreshed with food after his exhaustion, or administered in a syringe, as if he were suffering from a surfeit and required relief by that form of evacuation as well.”

‘Nuf said, I think, about the dangers of Amanita mushrooms.

Here is a slide collection of some of the diversity of form on display in the forest this week. My favorite, of course, is the photo with the snail — a young Ventridens, I think. Snails love to graze mushrooms, having the digestive enzymes needed to escape Agrippina’s reach.

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5 thoughts on “Agrippina visits Sewanee’s mushroom fest

  1. Robley Hood

    We’ve been photographing the same thing this week. I almost fell off my bike at Lake Cheston when I saw some as high as my kneecap in the woods!

  2. buck gorrell

    wonderful slide show, dr. h. o how i would love to cruise the woods and gather the edibles, i would be terrified without the guidance of a professional.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Terror is a healthy attitude toward unknown mycological phenomena. The old saying: “There are old mushroom hunters. There are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters”


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