Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies

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Author: Plutarch

Question II.

WHY MUSHROOMS ARE THOUGHT TO BE PRODUCED BY THUNDER, AND WHY IT IS BELIEVED THAT MEN ASLEEP ARE NEVER THUNDERSTRUCK.

AGEMACHUS, PLUTARCH, DOROTHEUS.

At a supper in Elis, Agemachus set before us very large mushrooms. And when all admired at them, one with a smile said, These are worthy the late thunder, as it were deriding those who imagine mushrooms are produced by thunder. Some said that thunder did split the earth, using the air as a wedge for that purpose, and that by those chinks those that sought after mushrooms were directed where to find them; and thence it grew a common opinion, that thunder engenders mushrooms, and not only makes them a passage to appear; as if one should imagine that a shower of rain breeds snails, and not rather makes them creep forth and be seen abroad. Agemachus stood up stiffly for the received opinion, and told us, we should not disbelieve it only because it was strange, for there are a thousand other effects of thunder and lightning and a thousand omens deduced from them, whose causes it is very hard, if not impossible, to discover; for this laughed-at, this proverbial mushroom doth not escape the thunder because it is so little, but because it hath some antipathetical qualities that preserve it from blasting; as likewise a fig-tree, the skin of a sea-calf (as they say), and that of the hyena, with which sailors cover the ends of their sails. And husbandmen call thunder-showers nourishing, and think them to be so. Indeed, it is absurd to wonder at these things, when we see the most incredible things imaginable in thunder, as flame rising out of moist vapors, and from soft clouds such astonishing noises. Thus, he continued, I prattle, exhorting you to inquire after the cause; and I shall accept this as your club for these mushrooms.

Then I began: Agemachus himself helps us exceedingly towards this discovery; for nothing at the present seems more probable than that, together with the thunder, oftentimes generative waters fall, which take that quality from the heat mixed with them. For the piercing pure parts of the fire break away in lightning; but the grosser windy part, being wrapped up in cloud, changes it, taking away the coldness and heating the moisture, altering and being altered with it, affects it so that it is made fit to enter the pores of plants, and is easily assimilated to them. Besides, such rain gives those things which it waters a peculiar temperature and difference of juice. Thus dew makes the grass sweeter to the sheep, and the clouds from which a rainbow is reflected make those trees on which they fall fragrant. And our priests, distinguishing it by this, call the wood of those trees Iris-struck, fancying that Iris, or the rainbow, hath rested on them. Now it is probable that when these thunder and lightning showers with a great deal of warmth and spirit descend forcibly into the caverns of the earth, these are rolled around, and knobs and tumors are formed like those produced by heat and noxious humors in our bodies, which we call wens or kernels. For a mushroom is not like a plant, neither is it produced without rain; it hath no root nor sprouts, it depends on nothing, but is a being by itself, having its substance of the earth, a little changed and altered. If this discourse seems frivolous, I assure you that such are most of the effects of thunder and lightning which we see; and upon that account men think them to be immediately directed by Heaven, and not depending on natural causes.

Dorotheus the rhetorician, one of our company, said: You speak right, sir, for not only the vulgar and illiterate, but even some of the philosophers, have been of that opinion. I remember here in this town lightning broke into a house and did a great many strange things. It let the wine out of a vessel, though the earthen vessel remained whole; and falling upon a man asleep, it neither hurt him nor blasted his clothes, but melted certain pieces of silver that he had in his pocket, defaced them quite, and made them run into a lump. Upon this he went to a philosopher, a Pythagorean, that sojourned in the town, and asked the reason; the philosopher directed him to some expiating rites, and advised him to consider seriously with himself and go to prayers. And I have been told, upon a sentinel at Rome, as he stood to guard the temple, burned the latchet of his shoe, and did no other harm; and several silver candlesticks lying in wooden boxes, the silver was melted while the boxes lay untouched. These stories you may believe or not as you please. But that which is most wonderful, and which everybody knows, is this,—the bodies of those that are killed by thunderbolt never putrefy. For many neither burn nor bury such bodies, but let them lie above ground with a fence about them, so that every one may see the they remain uncorrupted, confuted by this Euripides’s Clymene, who says thus of Phaeton,

My best beloved, but now he lies
And putrefies in some dark vale.

And I believe brimstone is called [Greek omitted] (DIVINE), because its smell is like that fiery offensive scent which rises from bodies that are thunderstruck. And I suppose that, because of this scent, dogs and birds will not prey on such carcasses. Thus far have I gone; let him proceed, since he hath been applauded for his discourse of mushrooms, lest the same jest might be put upon us that was upon Androcydes the painter. For when in his landscape of Scylla he painted fish the best and most to the life of anything in the whole draught, he was said to use his appetite more than his art, for he naturally loved fish. So some may say that we philosophize about mushrooms, the cause of whose production is confessedly doubtful, for the pleasure we take in eating them. ...

And when I put in my suggestion, saying that it was as seasonable to dispute about thunder and lightning amidst our banquets as it would be in a comedy to bring in machines to throw out lightning, the company agreed to omit all other questions relating to the subject, and desired me only to proceed on this head, Why men asleep are never struck with lightning. And I, though I knew I should get no great credit by proposing a cause whose reason was common to other things, said thus: Lightning is wonderfully piercing and subtile, partly because it rises from a very pure substance, and partly because by the swiftness of its motion it purges itself and throws off all gross earthy particles that are mixed with it. Nothing, says Democritus, is blasted with lightning, that cannot resist and stop the motion of the pure flame. Thus the close bodies, as brass, silver, and the like, which stop it, feel its force and are melted, because they resist; whilst rare, thin bodies, and such as are full of pores, are passed through and are not hurted, as clothes or dry wood. It blasts green wood or grass, the moisture within them being seized and kindled by the flame. Now if it is true that men asleep are never killed by lightning, from what we have proposed, and not from anything else, we must endeavor to draw the cause. Now the bodies of those that are awake are stiffer and more apt to resist, all the parts being full of spirits; which as it were in a harp, distending and screwing up the organs of sense, makes the body of the animal firm, close, and compacted. But when men are asleep, the organs are let down, and the body becomes rare, lax, and loose; and the spirits failing, it hath abundance of pores, through which small sounds and smells do flow insensibly. For in that case, there is nothing that can resist and by this resistance receive any sensible impression from any objects that are presented, much less from such as are so subtile and move so swiftly as lightning. Things that are weak Nature shields from harm, fencing them about with some hard, thick covering; but those things that cannot be resisted do less harm to the bodies that yield than to those that oppose their force. Besides, those that are asleep are not startled at the thunder; they have no consternation upon them, which kills a great many that are no otherwise hurt, and we know that thousands die with the very fear of being killed. Even shepherds teach their sheep to run together when it thunders, for whilst they lie scattered they die with fear; and we see thousands fall, which have no marks of any stroke or fire about them, their souls (as it seems), like birds, flying out of their bodies at the fright. For many, as Euripides says,

A clap hath killed, yet ne’er drew drop of blood.

For certainly the hearing is a sense that is soonest and most vigorously wrought upon, and the fear that is caused by an astonishing noise raiseth the greatest commotion and disturbance in the body; from all which men asleep, because insensible, are secure. But those that are awake are oftentimes killed with fear before they are touched; the fear contracts and condenses the body, so that the stroke must be strong, because there is so considerable a resistance.

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Chicago: Plutarch, "Question II.," Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Firth, John B. and trans. Jowett, Benjamin, 1817-1893 in Complete Works of Plutarch—Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies Original Sources, accessed August 18, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QBY545CMBQT2SAG.

MLA: Plutarch. "Question II." Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, edited by Firth, John B., and translated by Jowett, Benjamin, 1817-1893, in Complete Works of Plutarch—Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, Original Sources. 18 Aug. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QBY545CMBQT2SAG.

Harvard: Plutarch, 'Question II.' in Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, ed. and trans. . cited in , Complete Works of Plutarch—Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies. Original Sources, retrieved 18 August 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QBY545CMBQT2SAG.