L’histoire de la mycothérapie - MYCELAB

The history of mycotherapy

Since the dawn of time, mushrooms have been present on planet Earth. Despite an increase in Western consumption, they are often perceived as mysterious, cryptic or strange. What is their story ? We live alongside them but we know little about them. Focus on these extraordinary organizations.

What is ethnomycology?

Ethnomycology corresponds to the study of the close relationships between Man and mushrooms over the centuries. It allows us to know their uses in different societies because human beings have been aware of the therapeutic power of mushrooms for millennia.

Prehistory and mycotherapy

We have discovered very few writings on the relationships between humans and mushrooms during the Protohistoric period. Only paintings found in the Sahara, of the fly agaric ( Amanita muscaria ) which is a poisonous mushroom used for its medicinal and religious properties but also, writings in Siberia for shamanic rituals.

At the end of prehistory, the therapeutic use of mushrooms seems more frequent and more organized. On September 19, 1991, the discovery of Ötzi, a Homo Sapiens dating back 5,300 years, was made. His body was naturally mummified by freezing under the snow, it was found near the Alpine summit Similaun in the Otztal massif. He was carrying a mushroom, the Polypore ( Piptoporus betulinus ), which has many therapeutic properties. Archaeological analyzes showed that he was suffering from trichinosis (infection caused by a parasite and transmitted to humans through the consumption of poorly or uncooked meat) which may justify the use of Polypore.

China and mycotherapy

China appears to be the precursor in the use of mushrooms. The oldest writings concerning mushrooms are listed in the “ Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing ” (inspired by the words of Shennong, ancient emperor who reigned over China around 2800 BC) published in the first century BC. In this work we find mushrooms such as Shiitake ( Lentinula edodes ), Reishi ( Ganoderma lucidum ), Hedgehog Mushroom ( Hericium erinaceus ), Caterpillar Mushroom ( Ophiocordyceps sinensis ) and Kawaratake ( Trametes versicolor ).

On the Asian continent, mycotherapy has always been anchored in the culture and traditional doctors regularly use mushrooms known to be immunostimulating as a complement to therapeutic treatments. For example, Caterpillar Mushroom ( Ophiocordyceps sinensis) and Glossy Ganoderma ( Ganoderma lucidum) are used in China and Shiitake ( Lentinula edodes) and White Polypore ( Trametes versicolor) are used in Japan as complementary treatments to chemotherapy.

The West and mycotherapy

During Antiquity, more precisely during the mythology of Ancient Greece (900 BC – 400 BC) it is said that Perseus (hero, son of Zeus) tired of his day, stopped at the edge of a stream. He picked a mushroom to collect some water for consumption. Then, he decided to call this prosperous place of life “Mycenae”. Since then, mushrooms have represented magic, immortality and divinity. For more superstitious populations, mushrooms have supernatural powers. They allow you to eat, to heal yourself, to light a fire, but also to be poisoned. At this time, mushrooms represent the hand of the Gods, they are an inexhaustible source of food in times of famine, or conversely, a toxic food representing the wrath of the Gods.

Euripides (Greek poet 460 BC – 370 BC) wrote a work on the toxicity of mushrooms, he warned against their consumption because his children and his wife died after ingesting them.

Hippocrates (Father of modern medicine 460 BC – 377 BC) shares his experience with the use of mushrooms for cooking and medicine. Shortly after, Theophrastus (disciple of Aristotle 371 BC – 288 BC), continued his work and proposed a classification of mushrooms.

During the Roman conquest of Egypt and ancient Greece we record the consumption of edible mushrooms and the use of toxic mushrooms as poison.

In the 2nd century AD, Galen of Pergamum (130 AD - 215 AD approx.) was recognized as the greatest physician of antiquity after Hippocrates. He was already making mushroom-based preparations for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, this work and its knowledge were not taken into account at that time. The cause is that agricultural land was regularly affected by diseases for which certain fungi are responsible.

During the Middle Ages, many rumors circulated about mushrooms which led to a lot of intrigue and a certain folklore on the subject. Certain species of mushrooms are called “fairy circles”, “witch circles” which are the source of many legends. According to mythologies (Nordic, Celtic, Greek, Roman and European) it is the elves, dryads, nymphs and gnomes who are directly linked to mushrooms.

In England, the feeling is quite different, the English etymology of the word mushroom "toadstool", which literally means: "toad stool" generates fears and superstitions, because, as you know, the image of the toad and the witch are intimately linked. Mushrooms are used in black magic, they symbolize the devil fruit and the manifestation of evil. They are given terrifying names: Medusa's head (Armillaria mellea), Satan's bolete (Boletus satanas), Trumpet of the dead (Craterellus cornucopioids), Devil's egg (Ityphallus impudicus), Angels of death (Amanita verna and Amanita virosa) , Murder agaric (Lactarius torminosus), and many others…. These various names helped give mushrooms a bad reputation and this reputation has continued over the centuries.

It was at the end of the 16th century that we observed an interest in the study of mushrooms. It was the Flemish botanist Charles de L'Ecluse (1526-1609) who published the first work in 1601 entitled: “ Rariorum plantarum historia: Fungorum in Pannoniis observatorum brevia historia ” where he described 100 species of mushrooms. This research and work was taken up and further developed by Franciscus Van Sterbeek (1630-1693), himself Flemish, who wrote the first guide to mushrooms “ Theatrum Fungorum Of Het Tooneel Der Campernoelien ”.

The Dutchman Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the Englishman Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and the Swede Carl Von Linné (1707-1778) also greatly participated in the deciphering and understanding of mushrooms during the Renaissance.

This period also saw the birth of two works on mycology:

  • Synopsis Methodica Fungorum ” by Christan Hendrick Persoon (1761-1836) published in 1801.
  • Systema Mycologicum ” by Elias Magnus Fries (1794-1878) published in 1821. In this work, the author proposes a classification based on the morphology of mushrooms and opens the way to modern mycology. Thanks to this feat, he will be nicknamed "father of descriptive mycology." »

In France, two brothers Charles Tulasne (1816-1884) and Louis-René Tulasne (1815-1885) published an illustrated work “ Selecta Fungorum carpologia ” in 1865. Their descriptions are very meticulous, because the mushrooms are observed under a microscope. This work will become the reference in terms of classification.

In the 20th century, discoveries are more and more recurrent and often occur by chance. For example, Alexander Fleming, an English biologist (1881-1955), discovered, in 1928, by chance, the substance “penicillin”, a powerful antibiotic which helped save millions of lives. There is also the example of the Sandoz laboratory (currently Novartis) which discovered Tolypocladium infatum from which an immunosuppressive agent was isolated : cyclosporin. This agent enabled the revolution and medical evolution of organ transplants and still saves many human lives.

The mushrooms are slowly making their way… (or through the plants)

In conclusion, the evolution of mycotherapy over the centuries is the result of collective and complementary work. This knowledge has been enriched over the ages, which has made it possible to better understand these organisms in their own right but also to create very promising therapeutic treatments. For example, today, 40% of therapeutic drugs in the world come from mushrooms.

Despite an increase in the consumption of mushrooms by Westerners, we find few traces of therapeutic uses in the West. This is undoubtedly due to the mycophobic vision of Westerners, to the problems of supplying mushrooms with therapeutic properties, to the lack of knowledge about them but also to the predominant place that phytotherapy takes in Western medicine which does not leave or very little room for mushrooms.

Did you like this article? Also find our article on mycotherapy.



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