Fungi as Natural Heroes

Jason Schroeder

The Standard Dictionary of Folklore and Mythology (1949) defines a cultural hero as “a character (human or animal, prehistoric or not) regarded as the giver of a culture to its people.” Cultural heroes are familiar figures for folklorists, mythologists, and mythomaticians; the cultural hero maybe tricksters, such as Native American beings such as Coyote or thieves such as Prometheus. The cultural hero brings, steals, teaches, or invents good and useful things to their people, such as the sun, fire, food, arts, songs, etc. These heroes and their gifts are anthropomorphic – reflecting human values, situations, and contexts. I want to suggest a different type of hero that serves a similar function for the natural world as well as the human world. From prehistoric times, fungi have given the world gifts that have enabled life as we know it today. Thus, I want to suggest fungi as the natural heroes. In this speculative presentation, I will suggest a definition for natural hero, propose evidence for fungi as natural heroes that have given and still give good and useful things to the world from the Silurian–Devonian Tortotubus protuberans (419 mya -358 mya) breaking down matter to make soil to present day mycorrhizal networks that enable trees to talk to one another and respond to threats.

About the Teacher
I hold a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My work has focused primarily on Swedish ballads and folk music from the 19th century. I am an avid chanterelle colllector in Finland. I am currently the director of the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA.