Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) has gained a reputation as the “mushroom of immortality” thanks to its numerous health benefits. According to many sources, it has been used as a tonic in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
- Reishi has been the subject of many myths and legends, especially in East Asian cultures
- It is often known as the “mushroom of immortality,” but the origin of this name is unclear
- Reishi has numerous benefits, but has probably not been used for thousands of years as some sources suggest
- Other substances, including certain hallucinogens, may have been used more widely than reishi in ancient times
However, some experts have suggested that this might not be entirely accurate. Exactly when and why reishi became so renowned is unclear. What we do know, though, is that it has featured in many myths and legends throughout history.
In part 1 of this mini-series, we look at some well-known examples and how they might have catapulted reishi into the mainstream.
Legend of the White Snake
The first of our fungal folktales is a popular Chinese romance known as Legend of the White Snake, or Madame White Snake. It dates back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and chronicles a tragic love affair between a mortal man named Xu Xuan and a white snake spirit known as Bai.
The story has been rewritten many times throughout history, with slight variations in the narrative. However, the main plot points have remained relatively consistent over the years.
In brief, Bai takes on the form of a beautiful woman and meets Xu Xuan. The two fall deeply in love, but a Buddhist monk named Fahai is determined to separate the couple. He knows that Bai is really a snake spirit and is determined to imprison her, believing her to be evil.
While celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival, Fahai persuades Bai to drink realgar wine. Realgar is a form of the highly toxic mineral arsenic sulfide. It was traditionally added to wine and drunk during Dragon Boat Festival to ward off malevolent spirits and disease.
When Bai swallows the beverage, she is forced to reveal her true form, succumbing to Fahai’s plan. Xu Xuan is horrified at the sight of his lover morphing into a white snake, and immediately dies of fright.
Reishi Resurrects the Dead
Bai is devastated by Xu Xuan’s death and embarks on a quest to save him. She travels to the holy Kunlun Mountains to find a magical reishi mushroom, which is said to be able to resurrect the dead.
It is a dangerous mission as the mushroom is protected by two guardians, a crane spirit and a deer spirit. However, Bai successfully fights off the guardian spirits and steals the reishi, bringing Xu Xuan back to life.
Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. What happens next depends on the version, but it usually involves Fahai imprisoning Bai under a pagoda. He executes this punishment despite Bai’s efforts to obtain the magical reishi and save Xu Xuan.
This tale is just one of many examples of reishi being portrayed as a miracle mushroom with supernatural powers. There are countless other stories lauding its potential to extend one’s life, and perhaps even pave the way to immortality. They have now become so widespread that it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction, as we will discuss below.
The Real “Mushroom” of Immortality
The quest for immortality has permeated Chinese culture for millennia. The idea that one can elevate oneself to almost god-like status via internal or external methods has inspired many famous legends. Immortals were said to live for hundreds of years and possess other powers, such as becoming invisible and walking on water.
Attempting to become immortal was reportedly one of the ancient Daoists’ favorite pursuits. There is some truth behind this assumption, as the Daoists are known to have practiced techniques known as internal and external alchemy. The former involved cultivating their lifeforce through regular meditation, fasting, and other practices like semen retention. The latter involved taking potent elixirs made from herbs, minerals, and animal parts.
It is widely believed that reishi was one of the herbs that the Daoists used in their elixirs. So much so that it has now become known as the “mushroom of immortality” worldwide. But while reishi undoubtedly has some impressive health benefits, it seems that it only became popular around the 15th or 16th century. This is much later than many sources claim.
The Chinese name for reishi is ling zhi, with ling meaning “spirit” or “soul” and zhi meaning a kind of fungus. However, according to some sources, zhi originally meant any substance used to achieve immortality.
One of the first suspected references to reishi as an immortality herb was in Zhang Heng’s Western Metropolis Rhapsody. The poem refers to “stone zhi,” which is often interpreted as “stone mushrooms” or reishi. However, he was possibly referring to another substance altogether.
In fact, the most popular ingredients in immortality elixirs were minerals such as cinnabar, gold, silver, jade, and other semi-precious stones. Mercury, realgar, and other highly toxic chemicals were also used. These elixirs were cooked over fires for many years and could reportedly make lost teeth regrow, and white hair turn black again.
However, it is far more likely that those taking the elixirs were slowly poisoning themselves. Some scholars believe that the Daoist’s supernatural powers were nothing more than hallucinations caused by breathing the potion’s noxious fumes.
Others have suggested that the term “mushroom of immortality” referred to psychedelic fungi rather than reishi. This would certainly explain some of the more incredible abilities of the immortals.
Notably, reishi was not among the 127 different immortality herbs mentioned in the Daoist Canon. However, several hallucinogenic plants and fungi, including cannabis, datura, and psilocybin-containing mushrooms, were.
In light of this information, precisely why reishi suddenly became so popular is unclear. Could it be that the Daoists needed a smokescreen to prevent the masses from learning their psychedelic secrets and reishi simply fit the bill?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. However, reishi’s status as a longevity-promoting mushroom still remains. Moreover, there is now plenty of scientific evidence supporting its health benefits.
A Fruitless Quest
Another famous legend about reishi involves the emperor Qin Shi Huang, also known as Shi Huangdi. Ruling from 221–210 BCE, he is best known for being the first emperor to unify China.
As the story goes, the young emperor met a 100-year-old wizard who invited him to Penglai, one of many small islands in a mythical chain off of China’s east coast known as the “Isles of the Blessed.” The islands were said to be populated by magical flora and fauna, and anyone who visited would enjoy a long and healthy life.
Qin Shi Huang ordered three expeditions to find the islands, but each one was unsuccessful. He finally sent out a massive fleet of ships, but it never returned. Some people believe the crew unintentionally landed in Japan, where they settled. Others have suggested they were simply lost at sea.
In many versions of the story, the emperor is searching specifically for a mushroom that grows on Penglai island. He has apparently heard that those who eat it will regain their youth and develop magical powers.
This mushroom is usually regarded as reishi, although some have disputed this. Famous author and ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson, for instance, suggested that the emperor was actually on a quest to find soma, a sacred substance mentioned in the Indian Rig Veda.
Wasson also believed that soma could have been another mushroom, fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). Like reishi, this fungus has a long and rich history of human use and has been the subject of many legends. (We will explore this idea further in Part 2 of this series).
Ancient claims suggesting that reishi is the “mushroom of immortality,” appear to be somewhat exaggerated. Undoubtedly, legendary stories about this mushroom have helped solidify its reputation as an elusive and powerful herb. However, it seems likely that it was not fully appreciated until a few centuries ago.
Nevertheless, modern research has proven that reishi is rich in active compounds and has great therapeutic potential. It is also far less dangerous than the toxic chemicals featured in the Daoists’ immortality elixirs. Therefore, regardless of the mysterious reasons behind reishi becoming so popular, we’re very grateful that it did!