April showers bring May flowers. They also bring blooms of fungi that push up from the moist soil to reproduce and rot. They lurk in the shadows, peeking out from behind wet stones and clinging to pulpy trees. They poke up from the grass like glistening penises eager for penetration.
Fungi are the ultimate outsiders in the natural world. According to Thomas Sebeok, the founder of Zoosemiotics, fungi are “othered” from plants, which get their nutrition from photosynthesis, and animals, which digest other organisms internally. In plants and animals, digestion is invisible, hidden. Fungi, on the other hand, digest their food externally, sitting as it were in a fetid puddle of their own vomit. They are decomposers who thrive on death and decay.
Fungi are also “othered” in their fundamental fluidity. They are individual organisms and yet part of a fungal collective across which they can send chemical signals, a form of communication called “mycosemiosis.” They respire both anaerobically and aerobically. And then there is the issue of fungus sex.
(Turn down the lights.)
Fungi reproduce asexually by budding, fragmentation, and the production of hairlike hyphae. When aroused, these hyphae can find one another, fuse together, and create fleshy fruiting bodies that erupt with microscopic spores.
Off in the shadows, the fungi are having a sticky orgy that continues until the weather changes and the resources for decay disappear. The mixture of moisture and warmth so common in April makes it the perfect month for freaky fungal rotting and rutting.
Robigalia: Festival of Fungus
Ancient Romans were concerned with fungal reproduction, particularly in April, when crops of wheat were planted. Wheat was (and is) susceptible to fungal infections such as ergot and rust. In an attempt to secure a fungus-free harvest, Romans held Robigalia—the Festival of Mold and Mildew—which was celebrated on April 25th.
While games and feasting abounded, the central act of Robigalia was the sacrifice of a reddish dog and a sheep. Their entrails were used to predict the success or failure of that year’s crops, then burnt as an offering on an altar dedicated to Robigus / Robigo—the male or female deity of Mold. In the Fasti or Book of Days (published in 8 CE), Ovid records not only the sacrifice but also the incantation of the priest as he implores: “Thou scaly Mildew” and “dread goddess,” “spare the sprouting corn” and to keep your “scabby hands off the harvest!” The priest then adds that if Robigus would like to munch on weapons, that would be fine, since rust on a sword is far better than rust on wheat.
There is a great deal of sympathetic magic at work in the rituals of Robigalia. The red dog, the rusty red color of sacrificial blood, the drinking of red wine, and the invocation of rust on iron all correlate with the reddish nature of wheat fungus—also known as rust—that was of greatest concern as the warm April sun and abundant rains created the ideal conditions for fungal reproduction. In honoring the god/dess of Mildew and Mold with reddish things, priests hoped that he or she would be happy and wreak havoc elsewhere.
Robigalia was not merely an attempt at appeasement, however. It was a reminder that famine and fertility, life and death, were two sides of the same coin, falling in the darkness. In ancient Rome, one never knew how that coin might land. Romans acknowledged the rot in the crops—honored the death that walked among them.
Embracing the Fungus
In embracing the fragility of human life, Romans also acknowledged the power of the natural world over human existence. In modern America, we ignore our dependence on the environment until a wicked nor’easter or a tornado rolls through our state, reminding us that we are soft bodied and vulnerable after all. With an almost supernatural belief in the powers of modern engineering, science, and medicine, we believe that the “inside” of our homes and bodies can be hermetically sealed from “outside” invaders. All of the air filters, antifungals, and germ gel in the world, however, can’t actually protect us from the microscopic natural world that is a fundamental part of who we are—a world that will eventually consume us whole.
Just as water and weather can invade a dilapidated house and promote the growth of fungus that will consume it from within, so too are our bodies subject to fungal invasion and decay. Fungal spores are persistent and pervasive—one study from 2011 suggests that fungi outnumber plants 6 to 1! (Blackwell) In life, you might be colonized by athlete’s foot, jock itch, yeast infections, thrush, or ringworm. In death you might become a fungal soup—a party spot for their rutting and rotting. If you are very lucky, you may just become home to Hebeloma syrjense, the Corpse Finder Mushroom—fungal royalty!
On this Robigalia, celebrate the fleeting nature of life. Honor your existence and the interconnection between your body and the natural world. And above all pour a libation for the fungal “other” whose presence signifies decay and reproduction, death and life, all in one freaky little package.
Ideas for Celebrating Robigalia
- Drink beer or mead. Lots of it. Enjoy it with yeasty bread and butter.
- For an appetizer, make a mushroom duxelles and place it on flatbread with caramelized onions and goat cheese. For double-fungus action, use Gorgonzola cheese instead. Bake it in the oven and eat it. Pair it with a good wine.
- For dinner: make Truffle Mac and Cheese. Or morel mushroom ravioli drizzled with garlic oil and dusted with Parmesan.
- For desert: mushroom-shaped cookies like these. Or marzipan mushrooms like these.
- Or this fungal corpse cake inspired by Hannibal, “Amuse-Bouche.”
- Entertainment: Pop in a fungus movie like Matango (1963) or Splinter (2008). Now that you’ve eaten the fungus, watch the fungus eat you!
- Eat magic mushrooms fresh from the bag.
- Go out into the back yard, remove your clothes, and rut in the cool soil—just like your fugal brethren. If the neighbors raise an eyebrow, tell them it’s Robigalia and offer them a snack. Or invite them to join in. Whatever. We’re all connected anyway.
M. Blackwell, “The Fungi: 1, 2, 3…5.1 Million Species?” American Journal of Botany 98:3 (2011), 426-38.
A. Reynolds, “The Classical Continuum in Roman Humanism: The Festival of Pasquino, The Robigalia, and Satire.” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 49:2 (1987), 289-307.
T. Sebeok, “The Sign Science and the Life Science.” Applied Semiotics 3:6 (1999), 85-96.