The liberty cap: roman slavery, revolution, and magic mushrooms
What do Roman slaves, antimonarchical revolutionaries, and people in tie-dyed trousers all have in common? The answer (or an answer) is that they’re all rather partial to liberty caps.
If a ‘liberty cap’ is familiar at all to most people today, it is probably in its most modern incarnation, the common name of a tiny brown fungus that belongs to the fairly large group of so-called ‘magic mushrooms’ – that is mushrooms whose consumption induces psychedelic trips in human beings. Of the more than one hundred species of magic mushroom worldwide, only the liberty cap – Psilocybe semilanceata – grows naturally in Britain. Considering what it does to you if you eat it, the tiny liberty cap looks pretty unremarkable. What is remarkable, however, is the story of how it got its name, which proves to be one of those interesting and bizarrely winding paths that etymologies take, not only through languages themselves, but also through the cultural space that words themselves inhabit.
The pileus, a symbol of freedom
‘Liberty cap’ is the English word for an item of headwear known in the Roman world as a pileus. The pileus was a conical felt cap, shaped a little like a fez or a Smurf hat, and its Latin name was derived from a Greek root πῖλος (pilos), simply meaning ‘wool’ or ‘felt’. The hat itself had a special meaning, and was worn only by a certain type of person – the freedman, someone who had once been a slave but had been set free. The pileus was given by a master to his slave as part of the formal ceremony of his manumission. So recognisable was this ritual, in fact, that Roman legal books recognised the fact that a slave could be formally freed simply by the impositio pilei, ‘the giving of the cap’. After being freed, freedmen were expected to wear the pileus, particularly on formal occasions like the funeral of their former master. As such, the hat was a social marker that could be for its wearer a source of both shame and of pride: shame that he had been a slave, pride that he no longer was one.
For the Romans, the pileus and the notion of freedom were so intertwined that gradually, in Latin, the meaning of the word began to change such that it could actually be used simply to mean ‘freedom’. This gave rise to the oft used Latin phrase, servos ad pileum vocare, which was a pun that meant both ‘to call slaves to the cap’ and ‘to call slaves to freedom’. Often, dangerous rabble rousers, inciting violence against the state, would ‘call slaves to the cap’, that is promise freedom to slaves who joined in some rebellious enterprise.
From freedom to liberty
The ubiquity of the pileus as a symbol led to its eventual co-option by Rome’s ruling classes. When the senators Brutus and Cassius murdered the would-be tyrant Julius Caesar on the floor of the senate house in 44 BC, they advertised the deed with coins that showed a pileus between two daggers and the legend EID MAR, recalling the day upon which the murder had taken place (remember Shakespeare’s ‘beware the ides of March’). This innovative appropriation turned this lowly social marker into a political symbol, its implication being that the murder had freed all of Rome from the ‘slavery’ of despotic rule.
Though neither Brutus nor Cassius managed to see out the rest of the decade, the symbol endured for centuries. After the Roman Empire dwindled, it disappeared, only to be rediscovered in the early modern period by Europeans desperate to evoke the grandeur of Rome. Thus, from the sixteenth century on, the pileus was resurrected as a political symbol. As the symbol began to appear in contemporary politics an English name was sought and, given that the Latin word pileus had punned on both the notion of ‘being a hat’ and ‘gaining one’s liberty’, it’s not unreasonable that it tended to be translated as ‘liberty cap’.
The liberty cap reached its heyday in the late eighteenth century, when it became a potent symbol of two of the most influential antimonarchical revolutions in human history – the American Revolution and the French Revolution. In America, revolutionaries mounted liberty caps on poles and used them as a kind of battle standard around which to rally forces first protesting and later fighting against British Rule. In France, the humble liberty cap became seen as the antithesis to the elaborate wigs of the aristocracy and the hateful crown of the king. Wearing the liberty cap marked one out as a true citizen of France and a son of the revolution. So it was that antimonarchical forces on both sides of the Atlantic threw off the shackles of monarchy (with varying success) under the most unlikely of banners – a droopy red hat.
Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830), a painting to commemorate the (second) French Revolution, in which the figure of Liberty can be seen sporting the liberty cap
In Britain, therefore, the ‘liberty cap’ became a fairly widely recognised – and generally feared – symbol of violent revolution. Those of poetical bent, however, couldn’t help noticing that the French and American liberty cap looked awfully like the conical cap of certain mushrooms:
Grey, purple, yellow, white, or brown,
Shap’d like War’s shield, or Prelate’s crown—
Like Freedom’s cap, or Friar’s cowl,
Or China’s bright inverted bowl
So wrote the poet, James Woodhouse, in a short paean he penned to mushroom-kind in 1787.
This similarity was particularly enjoyed by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who indulged in a deprecating giggle at the fact that a common mushroom so perfectly resembled these upstart revolutionaries: ‘Mushroom patriots, with a mushroom cap of liberty,’ they chuckled, including this little joke-ette in their 1812 Omniana, a book of musings and witty observations designed both to entertain and supply with anecdotes a readership of gentleman and cultured types short on dinner-party-ready banter.
This joke, such as it was, obviously hit the mark (Victorians loved a good pun), for when the newly classified fungus, Psilocybe semilanceata began to be included in British mycological field guides, its common name was routinely given as ‘the liberty cap’. No one, of course, would have ever had occasion to encounter this slightly curious name, barring a very few specialists, were it not for the astounding discovery in the late 1950s that Aztec legends about vision inducing fungi in the hills of Central America were true. Scientists across the globe – including Albert Hoffman, the man who first synthesised LSD – studied these fungi, and it soon became apparent that there were dozens of hallucinogenic species growing across the world. Liberty caps were confirmed to contain psychedelic chemicals in 1969 and in 1976 a landmark court ruling in Britain declared liberty caps to be perfectly legal. Thus the little mushroom suddenly shot to fame. The Home Office estimates that today 7.2% of adults in England and Wales – 2.5 million people – have tried magic mushrooms at some point in their lives and anyone who grew up in the ‘90s, before magic mushrooms were made a class A drug, will doubtless be able to remember people trying to sound cool by talking knowingly about ‘libs’.
The surprising life of cultural memes
The liberty cap is an interesting example of how words associated with highly specific cultural practices can undergo the most bizarre mutations of meaning and context. The liberty cap began its life centuries before English even existed, as the pileus (now, ironically, the scientific term for the cap of any mushroom). Within its own cultural context that meaning shifted to become an elite symbol that embodied an abstract political idea. Brought out of the antiquarian sphere during the eighteenth century, this symbol became, during the nineteenth, an increasingly obscure reference attached to an utterly obscure mushroom, and would have stayed that way had an accident of chemistry not suddenly made the liberty cap one of Britain’s (and of the English language’s) more intriguing fungi, as highly prized to some as the Roman liberty cap of antiquity. It’s a cruel irony that to have a liberty cap in your possession today could see you wind up behind bars.
The research communicated in this article was first published by the author in the journal Folklore under the title ‘The Cap of Liberty: Roman Slavery, Cultural Memory, and Magic Mushrooms’.