November 27, 2016
As we know, Daniel likes to weave a rich and imaginative world into his intricate illustrations, and just when I think I've got to know the ins and outs of a specific composition, I'll discover something which I'd previously missed: it could be the tiniest of flowers, a distant cottage, or a dainty songbird.
One recurring theme which I like to spot is the depiction of one of the most well known toadstools in the world. It is the toadstool of all toadstools, a mycologist delight, and the fungi of fairytales. We all know it by appearance - the classic red toadstool with white spots - but not many know its name, Amanita muscaria, or more commonly known as fly agaric; very pretty but certainly not one to be eaten! So far I've spotted these mushrooms in Daniel's Pheasant, the Red Squirrel, and the Running Hare, but I believe he made in an omission not including it in his Rudolph illustration.
But why am I banging on about this particular fungi you may ask? Well it's because some people actually believe there are very strong Christmas connections with the fly agaric, particularly with Santa's favourite reindeer.
In the northern parts of Scandinavia reindeer are the life force for the nomadic Sami people, with this animal providing food, clothing, and transportation in a stunning but very limiting environment. The reindeer mythology of the Sami people symbolises the importance of the beast. It describes how the reindeer was used to create the land itself: the trees, bushes and grass were created from the deer's fur, its blood formed the rivers and streams, and its eyes and skull were the stars and the sky.
Although very toxic to humans, reindeer have been known to eat the fly agaric, and so, (you might have to use your imagination here), could a mushroom munching deer chewing away on a fly agaric stalk give the appearance of having a festive red nose? It is also said that Sami shamans would consume the fly agaric mushroom for spiritual purposes, as the toxicity of the fungi would result in revealing hallucinations; maybe it was their intoxicated tales which contributed to Santa's flying reindeer?
But this mushroom muscling in on Christmas doesn't just end at Rudolf's nose. The fly agaric was traditionally collected in sacks, (Santa's sack of gifts?) and people also used to hang them beside a fire to dry them out…in stockings (uncanny!). It is also a well known fact that this mushroom grows under pine trees just like a Christmas tree standing over the presents. Come to think of it, what does Father Christmas resemble in his festive red and white costume, hmmm?
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