To Catch A Fly

Fly agaric, or Amanita muscaria, is perhaps one of the most recognised mushrooms in the UK. It is often used as perching posts for pixies and gnomes in storybooks, and can regularly be seen bringing a spot of colour to the forest landscape. With its blood red cap and white spots, it’s almost unmistakable. Fly agaric can be found from late summer throughout winter, dotted around birch, spruce and pine trees.

As is often the case in the natural world, pretty means dangerous. With a name derived from its ability to kill flies, fly agaric has been widely used as an insecticide. It is a poisonous mushroom known for its hallucinogenic properties but, despite this, it has been a part of religious tradition for thousands of years. In Hindu practice, fly agaric was supposedly used to produce a psychedelic drink called soma, taken as part of religious ceremonies to increase one’s awareness and evoke sensations of bliss, poetic inspiration and even immortality. However, there has been disagreement among modern scholars over the exact ingredients in this psychoactive beverage. Soma has been described as containing a plant with leaves and flowers, contrast to fly agaric.

Elsewhere in ancient history, fly agaric was consumed in potion-form by Vikings in the 8th century, allowing them to fight in battles with increased frenzy. And of course, Alice used the mushroom to change her size in Wonderland, after being instructed to do so by a smoking caterpillar with a ‘languid, sleepy voice’.

Though perhaps this wouldn’t be the recommended theme in modern children’s literature, it shows that the mysterious fly agaric has woven a complex and intriguing story through the ages. Now, as autumn descends, the fungi season is in full swing. Fly agaric sits radiantly among more drab varieties of mushroom, its vibrant colour a dangerous lure. It is a specimen that has fascinated us for centuries, and will continue to intrigue long into the future.

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The Legend of Jokul Frosti

The frost coated everything in sight. Like a shimmering white blanket it lay draped over leaf, twig and soil. The spectacle brought a hush to the usual bustle of early morning; for the brief time that the frost was here, a silence that only winter could bring hovered in the air.

There were leaves scattered over the roots of the trees from which they were shed, curled and dry and chattering every time a breeze stirred them. Jack Frost had traced every vein with white crystal, setting down each cold stone beside the next like lines of silver beads. A knot in the wood of a fallen log had been sprinkled with frost too. The perfect cubes of ice were arranged in clusters like the hidden crystals that form inside a geode, except this display was here for everyone to see.

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Frost has been a source of delight for thousands of years. Over the course of a few hours, the sleeping streets are transformed into a stunning white sculpture. Perhaps the most magical of all is how fleeting it is; when the sun rises, the silver art melts, disappearing until the next freeze.

Formed from water vapour clinging to freezing surfaces, the white colour of frost is brought by air bubbles that have become trapped in the ice crystals. Hoar frost is the frozen version of dew, formed when water vapour transforms directly to solid ice. Its magical swirling patterns and shapes are perhaps what sparked the deep-set Norse mythology that gave frost a far greater meaning. According to legend, it was in fact the artwork of a mysterious character we all recognise: Jack Frost.

“Then he went to the mountain, and powdered its crest,

He climbed up the trees, and their boughs he dressed

With diamonds and pearls…”

Extract from “The Frost” by Hannah Flagg Gould (1789-1865)

Hannah Flagg Gould’s poem about Jack Frost is a playful representation. After painting the mountains and trees with an artistic flair, he causes mischief in a house by “biting a basket of fruit”, spoiling the food for the occupiers of the house to find the next morning.

It is thought that the legend of Jack Frost originated from Viking folklore. His modern name is an Anglicised rendition of Jokul Frosti, meaning “Icicle Frost”. The son of the Nordic wind god Kari, Jokul was a nymph-like creature who painted beautiful frosty patterns on windows during the night. He was the personification of the chill that arrived with winter and nipped the noses of children with his icy bite.

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Ice Crystals

While Jack Frost is often depicted as a playful sprite with innocent intentions, other cultures recognised Jokul as a more sombre figure – one that was feared and respected. Scandinavian mythology paints a picture of a frost giant that brought not only bitter cold but the black doom of winter that symbolised the end of the world. In northern Russia and Finland, an almighty deity known as Frostman commanded the weather, and was given sacrifices by reindeer herders to persuade him to lessen the severity of blizzards. The villagers would leave bowls of porridge for the Frostman to ensure their crops weren’t touched by the damaging frost. Elsewhere in Japanese folklore, Frostman was a malicious character, the brother of Mistman, who were both keepers of the frost and dew.

Jack Frost is well known but barely understood in modern culture. Most people envisage the elfish creature that decorates the night with beautiful silver patterns that melt with the sunrise. Over time, he has shed the fearsome demeanour that came with the frost giants of Norse mythology. Something as beautiful as sweeping hoarfrost or delicate ice crystals surely couldn’t have been summoned by a menacing omen of everlasting winter. Frost, like the Aurora borealis, is a natural wonder. Although it may not be as sought after as dancing green skylights, it is a microscopic miracle. Whether it is the handiwork of Jokul Frosti will forever be a mystery.