In “The Last of Us,” the fungal disease that turns people into “infected” creatures is based on a real-life fungus called Cordyceps that infects insects and controls their behavior. Science fiction? Hell yes. But it’s based on real science. Turns out mushrooms might have a consciousness despite having no nervous system. So the question is: how well can fungus think?
Some experts argue that fungi may have a form of consciousness that rivals that of animals or humans. It all boils down to the mycelia. Mycelia are thread-like structures that make up the vegetative part of fungi. They range in size from just a few cells to several acres.
Mycelium in fungi collects intelligence and transmits it to anything they’re connected to — information about how to survive and fight disease, warnings of nearby dangers, and also ways to raise a host plant’s defenses.
In “The Last of Us,” merely, stepping on an active filament from the fungus can trigger the fungal zombies from much further away to activate and attack them.
Different Levels of Consciousness
Most of us are so hardwired to think of humans with brains as the only things that have a consciousness. Yet if we consider consciousness a continuum, then this opens up the possibility for less complex organisms to have self-awareness.
I’m not suggesting that mushrooms lead rich, emotional lives. Yet fungal mycelia resemble neural pathways and can span vast distances, creating a web of communication and cooperation that shapes entire ecosystems.
Fungi does support a rudimentary level of consciousness. Mycelia show decision-making capabilities, such as spatial recognition, learning, and short-term memory.
Cordyceps, the culprit for the apocalyptic situation in “The Last of Us,” exhibits complex and highly adaptive behaviors that allows it to manipulate its host and ensure its own survival.
Cordyceps is based on a real world fungus that infects insects. One species of Cordyceps causes infected ants to climb to the top of a plant and attach themselves to a leaf, where they eventually die and release spores that can infect other ants.
In “The Last of Us,” the fungus is portrayed as having a sort of hive mind, with infected individuals acting as part of a larger organism, seeking to spread the infection to new hosts.
Perhaps we have already been infected by such a fungus, and they continue to keep us alive and breathing to propagate their own species.
In the West, we think of ghosts as spirits to haunt old and dilapidated places. The kinds of specters that make our blood run cold and serve to scare the wits out of us. Yet across Easter Asia, the concept of a hungry ghosts emerged — these hungry ghost are forced to wander to earth, eternally wanting.
The Japanese call these ghosts Gaki (literally meaning “hungry ghost”) but they also go under the name Preta from Buddhist cosmology. These are the spirits of people who were exceptionally greedy in life. Most of the tales about how Gaki are created originate with a person refusing to give a Buddhist monk food or water.
A commonality with all hungry ghosts is their insatiable need to eat. Yet most of the time they are unable to consume food. For some it’s impossible to find nourishment. With others, their mouths or necks are too small to eat the food. And for some, the food bursts into flames even as they consume it.
Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
The Buddhist cosmology has six realms of existence and rebirth. The realm of Gakidō is the land of hungry spirits. It’s a barren land filled with deserts. A person who is cursed to become a Gaki is trapped there for 500 years (A single day for a hungry ghost is equivalent to 10 of our years). Yet the living can perform a ritual to ease the cravings of these restless spirits.
A special Buddhist ceremony, called the Segaki (feeding the hungry ghosts) is performed as part of the O-Bon festival in July or August (and feels a bit like the Western All Hallows’ Eve). Offerings of rice and water are presented on altars positioned out of sight of any Buddha statues.
The 36 Types of Hungry Ghosts
Gaki come in all shapes and sizes. Many of the sites simply give a brief example of a few, but we’ll list the whole shebang here. If you want a more detailed explanation, you can read Sūtra of the Foundations of Mindfulness of the True Law. Presented here are the first 16 of these ghosts. The remainder will come in the next post.
1 Cauldron-Body Ghosts
These Gaki are twice the size of a human and they can never find food. These ghosts are plagued by fire. In life, they were greedy and refused to return items to their rightful owners.
2 Needle-Mouth Ghosts
These spirits have throats only as wide as a needle. Even when they find food, they cannot consume it. In life, these people were rich but pretended to be poor to avoid giving to charity.
3 Vomit-Eating Ghosts
Ghosts of this sort prefer to scarf up vomit. Although harmless, they may follow around an alcoholic and seek to influence that person to drink more, in order to produce more vomit. In life, these people only shared “inferior” or lower-quality food with others while keeping the most delicious eats for themselves.
4 Excrement-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki prefer to dine on excrement and frequent dirty toilets. If you enter a bathroom and feel like someone is watching you, it might be this spirit. In life, they offered spoiled food to charity or to holy people.
5 Foodless Ghosts
These should really be called thirst-ghosts. They roam the countryside in search of water to quench the raging flames in their stomachs. In life, these people starved others to death. They can also be people who abused their power over others (as in jailers abusing prisoners).
6 Odor-Eating Ghosts
Ghosts in this category feed off the smell of food offered to deities. In life, these people didn’t share the best foods with their spouse or family members.
7 Dharma-Eating Ghosts
These repulsive ghosts are bony and emancipated, with protruding veins along their body. Insects swarm around them, slowly nibbling away. Their only sustenance is to hear monks at the temple teaching Dharma. They tend to cluster around temples anytime there is a Dharma talk. In life, they spread false teaching of Dharma.
8 Water-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki have desiccated and brittle bodies. They live near drains or rivers and slurp up water, but with their dry, withered bodies make it hard to hydrate. They can only swallow small droplets of water at a time because they try to grab it with their hands and it slips through their fingers. In life, these people were brewers of alcohol, but they tampered with their product by adding worms or insects.
9 Living-On-Hope Ghosts
These spirits are extremely hairy with deep wrinkles on their faces. The can only consume offerings made by mourners to honor deceased parents. THey frequent funerals. In life, these people profited off the misfortune of others by selling goods at inflated prices.
10 Spittle-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki hunger for human spit and they follow those who spit often. In life, they offered impure food to monks.
11 Garland-Eating Ghosts
These ghosts can appear in dreams to scare people. They crave offerings intended for Buddha or monks. However, once they have these offerings in hand, the garland attached itself to the ghost to torment it. In life, these people were caught stealing from religious places.
12 Blood-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki are attracted to blood. They will influence the mind of a victim to self-inflict wounds in order to draw blood.
Another type of ghost with supernatural power. They are attracted by blood and blood sacrifice. Some people mistaken them as gods and make blood offerings to them and pray to them for material gains.
13 Flesh-Eating Ghosts
These ghosts feed on various meat offerings, preferring raw meat to blood. In life, these people were butchers who took advantage of customers by short selling meat.
14 Fragrance-Eating Ghosts
Gaki of this sort yearn for incense and sweet smells. They have the ability to fool people into worshiping them in order that someone will burn incense. In life, they sold low-quality incense at high prices.
15 Harmful-Conduct Ghosts
These ghosts feed off the wicked deeds of unsavory people. They delight in epidemics and death, often traveling thousands of miles in seconds to find a meal. In life, they encouraged people to donate to the poor, but kept the donations for themselves.
16 Looking-For-The-Right-Opportunity Ghosts
These ghosts have hairy bodies and are always surrounded by flames. They feed off the negative energy generated from weak-willed people — a sort of energy vampire. Meditation and chanting can strengthen the mind and thus fend off these ghosts. Instead of a former human life, these spirits are yakṣa, a nature-spirits.
The next post will show the rest of the hungry ghosts. Until then, be virtuous, lest you end up as a Gaki in the afterlife.
At this point, Krampus has become a well known phenomenon. There’s even an American Dad episode about the mischievous bringer of discipline. Krampus is a downright celebrity these days. Here are three lesser known strange and bizarre Christmas traditions.
The Poop Log of Catalonia
Tió de Nadal translates from Catalan to “Christmas log” or simply “tree trunk.” The other name for this Xmas tradition is Caga Tió, or poop log. Yes that’s right. It’s a log that poops out presents on Christmas Day.
It works like this, starting on the Dia de la Immaculada Concepció (Feast of Immaculate Conception, December 8th) you “feed” the Caga Tió sweets and candy. Each evening, after dinner, kids would save a peel from an orange or other fruit and place it in a feeding bowl in front of the little log. Bits of cookies and other sweets work as well.
Each night, you drape a blanket over the body of Caga Tió to keep it warm. We don’t want our gift-giving log to freeze in a cold winter home. This continues until December 24th, and gradually the log will grow in size (or maybe it’s the parents switching out the log for larger one).
Then comes the beating. You gather around your log and hit it with a stick to make sure it poops, all while singing a cute little song…
Caga tió, (Poop log) tió de Nadal, (Log of Christmas) no caguis arengades (Don’t poop salted herring) que són massa salads (They are too salty) caga turróns (Poop turróns) que són més bons! (They are much better!)
Then, like magic, presents and candies (called turróns) appear under the blanket.
Ukrainian Christmas Spiders
In Ukraine, you will often see spiderwebs decorating the Christmas tree. This comes from an old legend about some rather helpful arachnids.
There was once a widow who lived in a tiny house with her children. One day, a pine one took root outside their home and the children tended to the growing seedling in hopes of having a splendid Christmas tree. Yet as the year slipped into winter, the widow knew that they would not be able to afford decorations. Finally on Christmas Eve, they set up the tree in their house, but its branches were bare.
That night, while they slept, the spiders of the house heard the sobs from the disappointed children. They went to work on the tree, spinning delicate webs on every branch.
The next morning, the youngest child opened a window and the first rays of sunlight sparkled against the new decorations. The light of Christmas Day transformed the webbing into silver and gold. From that day forward, the widow never wanted for anything.
Ukrainians still decorate their trees with spiderwebs to bring good luck for the coming year. So maybe don’t shoo that spider away too quickly on Christmas Eve. After all, they also need a warm and cozy place on a winter night.
Mischievous Greek Goblins
The Kallikantzaroi are mischief-making goblins who live in the center of the Earth. They spend the year trying to saw down the Tree of Life, which holds up the world.
During the Twelve Days of Christmas, they dig their way to the surface to bring their naughty tricks to our houses. This is the time, starting at the Winter Solstice, where the sun does not shift in the sky.
Tiny black creatures with long tails, the Kallikantzaroi are mostly blind owing to their life underground. Afraid of the sunlight, they only emerge at night, feeding on any small critters, such as frogs, worms and snails.
They sneak into your house through any cracked window, down chimneys, or through keyholes. Once inside, the havoc begins. They are not evil, per se, but impish and idiotic.
There are up to twenty different types of Kallikantzaroi and each specialized in a different type of mayhem. Some urinate on your cooking or imbue food with horrific smells. Others mimic voices to tease, torment or steal.
You can keep the Kallikantzaroi away by leaving a colander on your doorstep. These little imps will have to count all the holes, but they can only ever make it to two and then are forced to start over. You can also burn an old shoe — the foul smell will keep these pests away.
A link to the Norse tradition of Yule comes with a method to keep these goblins out of your chimney. You simply burn a log, but keep it going for all twelve days. Once you’ve reached January 6th, you are safe and the Kallikantzaroi return to the center of the Earth.
The game Undertale, released September 15, 2015, has legions of devoted followers. You play as a human who falls into the Underground, filled with monsters. The most determined being Undyne the Undying. She is the head of the royal guard in the Underground. Her task, eliminate any and all humans. But what exactly is the origin of Undyne?
From Nymph to Royal Guard
Undyne’s name derives from the word Undyne (also spelled Ondine), a mythical water nymph. The undine is an elemental spirit representing water. The Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus, invented the name in his book “A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits” from 1566. The Latin root for undine is unda or “wave”.
No such fate would befall Undyne, her name a play on the word undying. She is committed to eliminating humans and stealing your soul — the last one needed to allow the monsters to escape from the underground.
A Determined Piranha
One theory about Undyne’s appearance is that she is a humanoid version of a piranha fish (specifically Serrasalmus Rhombeus).
Undyne is a fish-like monster with blue scales and a protruding maw of teeth. This matched the toothy grin of a piranha. Additionally, the Serrasalmus Rhombeus has red finned gills, matching Undyne’s red ponytail. Finally, piranhas have eyes with vertical slits, much the same as Undyne.
These fish also share Undyne’s personality, a ferocious determination to attack. However, piranha work in packs. Undyne needs no other help.
If a vampire has you on their menu, you can reach for a stake or garlic. But another solution is to simply confuse the vampire. Through the years, people have surmised various weaknesses of these nocturnal bloodsuckers and come up with different ways to perplex them. A confused vampire is one that won’t be feasting on you.
Force the Vampire to Do Some Math
Many cultures contend that vampires are obsessive to the point of compulsion. They will count various objects, no matter how many, until the job is done. We can use this to our advantage.
Germans would scatter seeds (poppy, mustard, oat or carrot) around the grave of a suspected vampire. The undead was compelled to count all the seeds before leaving the grave to seek blood. Although this seems like a simple task, often the vampire found themselves delayed till daylight. The Kashubs of Poland believed a vampire could only count a single seed a year, thus keeping it busy for centuries.
Knots could also delay a vampire. Nets were often buried with the deceased forcing the undead to untie all the knots.
A more macabre practice was to leave a dead cat or dog on your doorstep. In this case, the vampire must count all the hairs on the animal. Personally, I would opt for the seeds.
Trick the Vampire with Poop
Never has the poop emoji been so powerful. No garlic or crucifix at hand? Just shove a bowl of excrement in the vampire’s face.
In Europe, vampires were thought to exit the grave through small holes (the size a serpent might make). In Bulgaria, they placed bowls of feces (or poison) right outside these holes. The vampire, it seems, is so famished that it will consume the first thing it comes across, devouring the bowl of excrement.
Get the Vampire Drunk
A happy vampire is one that won’t invade your home. Sometimes a bottle of whiskey was left in the grave with the corpse. If the vampire became too drunk, it might not be able to find the home of its relatives, preventing it from feeding on you.
In Romania, people would bury a bottle of wine with the corpse. After six weeks, they dug up the bottle and drank it, offering a form of protection from the strigoi (a Romanian vampire).