Image Via Carl de Borhegyi
With the recent re-birth of psychedelics in popular culture, it is important to reflect on its indigenous history and pay our respects.
For those of you who are interested in researching into the use and history of psychedelics, it is important to be aware that many scientists who are writing the information you will find are non-indigenous settlers who have written about their personal experience with psychedelics - this is not the same experience as indigenous peoples have with psilocybin, or with any other psychedelic for that matter. With this in mind, we must acknowledge that the information present in this article as well as in others, is not 100% guaranteed to be an accurate representation of the pre-colonial ceremonial usage of psychedelics. While it is important to consider the perspective of the Western world on Psychedelics, we must equally place importance on the history and understanding of Psychedelics through the lens of indigenous cultures. As Mike Jay stated in 2019, white college-educated men have “been the public face of psychedelic culture ever since it emerged, over half a century ago”, yet have only engaged with psychedelics, specifically psilocybin, since the 1950’s. Contrastingly, psilocybin has been used in indigenous communities for over a millennia!
Why is it important to hold ourselves accountable and find diversity in our research? Because non-indigenous people relying predominantly on non-indigenous sources to get information on indigenous histories perpetuates the erasure of indigenous culture and significance in our history. So as difficult as it is to stay away from popularized, westernized research, we must put in our best efforts and find authentic sources.
Psilocybin mushrooms fall under a larger genus of mushrooms called Psilocybe. Psilocybin is the psychoactive ingredient in these mushrooms which cause the hallucinogenic effects. Research by Kaleb Smith found that psilocybin mushrooms are found to grow all across the world. There are 250 species of Psilocybe mushrooms, 150 of which contain psilocybin. The psychoactive strains can be identified by their ability to oxidize when injured and turn a dark blue colour.
Psilocybin has been used by indigenous peoples throughout the globe, including but not limited to the indigenous tribes of Africa, North, South and Central America throughout history to engage with spirituality and healing. Psilocybin specifically can be traced back to use in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica where it has been ceremonially used by indigenous groups in Mexico and Central America. As explained by Jamilah R. George et al., the Aztecs of Mexico were most notably known to engage in sacred mushroom ceremonies using psilocybin mushrooms under the belief that “psilocybin allowed traditional healers to enter “the world beyond”, bestowing upon them divine knowledge that could be brought back to the community”. The Aztecs refer to psilocybe as Teonanácatl which directly translates to “The flesh of god” ; this is fitting as they worshiped psilocybe mushrooms as some would worship a god. The Aztecs also associate Teonanácatl with the prince of flowers, Xochipilli, the Aztec god of creativity, dancing, feasting, flowers, painting, pleasure, souls and summer. Sculptures and artwork depicting Xochipilli incorporate various entheogenic plants used by Aztecs.
When the Spanish Catholics colonized Mexico in the 1520’s, they immediately rejected Aztec culture and erased it through the burning of Aztec Codices. With this came the suppression of sacred mushroom ceremonies, The Holy Nahuatl Codex holding all of the information about the sacred mushroom ceremonies was also burned at temples by the Catholic church. These texts were replaced with messages describing the altered state of consciousness provided by hallucinogenic mushrooms as satanic – direct influences of the devil himself, as stated by Guzmán. As a result, the sacred Teonanácatl ceremonies continued in secret for hundreds of years and were only maintained by those who retreated to mountainous areas, like the Mazatec’s of Oaxaca. The mushrooms used in sacred ceremonies today are predominantly the ones found to grow at high elevations, even though several species also grow in the lowlands. Furthermore, most of the information we currently have about the sacred mushroom ceremonies are focused on the Mazatec’s of Oaxaca, as a result of this persecution of mushroom worship by the Catholic Church.
The burning of indigenous Mexican codices left very minimal literature on sacred mushroom ceremonies and the literature that does exist describes the post-colonial sacred mushroom ceremonies, which were influenced by Catholicism. The following information is gathered from the information still existing today.
According to Kaleb Smith, The modern syncretic teonanacatl ceremony is called a Velda, translating to “night vigil” in Spanish. The mushroom Velda ceremonies are always held at night to reduce distractions and intensify mental concentration. The darkest part of the night, 3:00am to 5:00am, is considered a spiritual period used to manifest visions; in many North American tribes, this period is known as “Dark Face Time” and is said to be the time where “the world of spirits and ancestors wrap the earth like a great black blanket, their realm coming so close to our own that communication may be facilitated across the veil”. Although there are variations in which species of psychoactive mushrooms are used in each region, each ceremony uses only 1 species of Psilocybe mushroom. Participants are encouraged to come without having eaten, consumed alcohol or medicines, and to engage in abstinence after the ceremony. These rituals are held under the guidance of a shaman or older experienced person, using a Catholic altar space. Guzmán states that the mushrooms are “placed in a gourd (a large fruit with hard skin , or a Jicara and incensed with copal resin”. Up to 12 mushrooms are then given to participants in pairs of two, symbolizing male-female pairs; only 1 or 2 mushrooms are given to outsiders to begin with, due to their potency. Teonanácatl velda was defined by the Mazatec by its characteristic effect on language – it was seen to induce a “vivid ecstatic and animated hyperverbal state in the shamans, who would weave long threads of winding thought associations late into the night.”
As a result, shamans would often produce improvised poems, songs and chants, e.g.
“I am the little woman of the great expanse of the waters, says
I am the women of the expanse of the divine sea, says
I am a woman who looks into the insides of things, says
Clown woman beneath water, says
Clown woman beneath the sea, says”
(Estrada, 1981, p.173)
Within these quotes, the shaman taps into the metaphor of “oceanic consciousness” – related to subconscious, a descent through layers and ranges of consciousness. Elderly shamans today represent the last surviving practitioners of ancient tonanácatl techniques among Mazatec people because younger generations are drawn into larger cities by employment and modern conveniences.
Discovery of the sacred mushroom ceremonies within the Western world began with Marina Sabina, Gordon Wasson and his wife. Gordon Wasson and his wife had an interest in mushrooms and surveyed the world in hopes to learn more about the religious and cultural significance of mushrooms in different contexts. According to High Times Greats: R. Gordon Wasson, in 1952 the Wasson’s received two letters, one with a Guatemalan stone carving of a mushroom, and another of a poet Robert Graves, bringing their attention to research showing evidence of a “mushroom cult” in Mexico.
This sparked their interest and the Wasson’s decided to venture to Mexico in quest of coming across these mushrooms. They arrived in Huautla de Jiménez, a city in Oaxaca and met with Marina Sabina, a local shaman, who led them through a mushroom Velda. Marina Sabina had been performing Mushroom Velda’s regularly throughout her life; she began ingesting psilocybin mushrooms around the age of 6, and had continued using psilocybe mushrooms since. After the ceremony, R. Gordon Wasson wrote a 15-page detailed report of his experience to Life Magazine on February 13, 1957. This Magazine entry single handedly began the psychedelic revolution in the Western world.
Since then, Marina Sabina had an upsurge in international visitors coming to her home in Huautla de Jiménez, all seeking to engage in an hallucinogenic experience with Psilocybin mushrooms. Visitors included celebrities like John Lennon, who played a role in popularizing psilocybin mushrooms within the western world. Sabina began to receive blame from her community for the influx of psilocybin-related tourism, as people felt as the psilocybin mushrooms were losing their spirituality.
“For a time there came young people of one and the other sex long-haired, with strange clothes. They wore shirts of many colours and used necklaces. A lot came… these young people, blonde and dark-skinned, didn’t respect our customs. Never, as far as I remember, were the saint children eaten with such a lack of respect” – Marina Sabina cited from Estrada, 1981, p. 86)
The “saint children” Sabina is referring to here represent psychedelic mushrooms.
Sabina was quoted saying, “Before Wasson, I felt that the saint children elevated me. I don’t feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If Cayetano hadn’t brought the foreigners… the saint children would have kept their power… From the moment foreigners arrived, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.” – Marina Sabina cited from Estrada, 1981 p. 20
Wasson felt guilty about this, believing “[he is] responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia”.
From this point onwards, psilocybin had been a topic of interest in the Western world and still to this day, as we well know, is used by Western and Indigenous communities around the world for various purposes. As we go forward and continue on our own hallucinogenic journeys, it is important we must remember the people who first discovered these species and their astonishing powers and show appreciation and gratitude; this can be through conducting your own research and sharing your knowledge, giving back to indigenous communities, or whatever way works for you!
*DISCLAIMER: The materials presented by this web site, www.yawntogether.com, are for informational and harm reduction purposes only and are not offered as medical or legal advice as to any particular matter in any particular jurisdiction. No reader should act on the basis of these materials without seeking appropriate professional advice as to the particular facts and applicable law involved.