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COOL Archives: The Mushroom Rites of Mexico (1963)

Posted on Sunday, November 25 @ 22:34:21 UTC by skip

The Mushroom Rites of Mexico
By R. Gordon Wasson

I DO NOT recall which of us, my wife or I, first dared to 'put into' words back in the Forties the surmise that our own remote ancestors, perhaps 4,000 years ago, worshipped a divine mushroom. Nor am I sure whether our conjecture was before or after we had learned of the role of Amanita muscaria in the religion of several remote tribes of Siberia. Our bold surmise seems less bold now than it did then.

I remember distinctly, however, how it came about that we embarked an our Middle American explorations. In the fall of 1952 we learned that the 16th century writers, describing the Indian cultures of Mexico, had recorded that certain mushrooms played a divinatory role in the religion of the natives. Simultaneously we learned that certain pre-Columbian stone artifacts resembling mushrooms, most of them roughly a foot high, had been turning up, usually in the highlands of Guatemala, in increasing numbers. For want of a better name, the archeologists called them "mushroom stones," but not one archeologist had linked them with mushrooms or with the rites described by the 16th century writers in neighboring Mexico. They were an enigma, and "mushroom stone" was merely a term of convenience. Some of these stone carvings carried an effigy on the stipe, either a human face or an animal, and all of them were very like mushrooms.

Like the child in the Emperor’s New Clothes, we spoke up, declaring that the so-called "mushroom stones" really represented mushrooms, and that they were the symbol of a religion, like the Cross in the Christian religion or the Star of Judea or the Crescent of the Moslems. If we are right - and little by little the accumulating evidence seems to be in our favor - then this Middle American cult of a divine mushroom, this cult of "God's flesh" as the Indians in pre-Columbian times called it, can be traced back to about B.C. 1500, in what we call the early Pre-classic period, the earliest period in which man was in sufficient command of his technique to be able to carve stone. Thus we find a mushroom in the center of the cult with perhaps the longest continuous history in the world. These oldest mushroom stones are technically and stylistically among the finest that we have, evidence of a flourishing rite at the time they were made. Earlier still, it is tempting to imagine countless generations of wooden effigies, mushroomic symbols of the cult, that have long since turned to dust.
It remained for us to find out what kinds of mushrooms had been worshipped in Middle America, and why. Fortunately, we could build on the experience of a few predecessors in the field: Blas Pablo Reka, Robert J. Weitlaner, Jean Bassett Johnson, Richard Evans Schultes, and Eunice V. Pike. They all reported that the cult still existed in the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca. And so we went there in 1953. So far as we know, we were the first outsiders to eat the mushrooms, the first to be invited to partake in the agape of the sacred mushroom. We have found this cult of the divine mushroom a revelation, in the true meaning of that abused word, though for the Indians it is an every-day feature, albeit a Holy Mystery, of their lives.

Here let me say a word parenthetically about the nature of the psychic disturbance that the eating of the mushroom causes. This disturbance is wholly different from the effects of alcohol, as different as night from day. We are entering upon a discussion where the vocabulary of the English language, of any European language, is seriously deficient. There are no apt wards in them to characterize your state when you are, shall we say, "bemushroomed." For hundreds, even thousands, of years we have thought about these things in terms of alcohol, and we now have to break the bonds imposed on us by the alcoholic association. We are all confined within the prison walls of our every-day vocabulary; with skill in our choice of words we may stretch accepted meanings to cover slightly new feelings and thoughts, but when a state of mind is utterly distinct, wholly novel, then all our old words fail. (How do you tell a man born blind what seeing is like?) In the present case, this is especially true because superficially the bemushroomed man shows a few of the objective symptoms of one intoxicated, drunk. Now virtually all the words describing the state of drunkenness, from "intoxicated" (which, of course, means "poisoned") through the scores of current vulgarisms, are contemptuous, belittling, pejorative. How curious it is that modern civilized man finds surcease from care in a drug for which he seems to have no respect. If we use by analogy the terms suitable for alcohol, we prejudice the mushroom, and since there are few among us who have been bemushroomed, there is danger that the experience will not be fairly judged. What we need is a vocabulary to describe all the modalities of a Divine Inebriant.

These difficulties in communicating have played their part in certain amusing situations. Two psychiatrists who have taken the mushroom and known the experience in its full dimensions have been criticized in professional circles as being no longer "objective." Thus we are all divided into two classes: those who have taken the mushroom and are disqualified by our subjective experience and those who have not taken the mushroom and are disqualified by their total ignorance of the subject. As for me, a mere layman, I am profoundly grateful to my Indian friends for having initiated me into the tremendous Mystery of the mushroom. In writing about what happens, I shall be using familiar phrases that may seem to give same idea of the bemushroomed state. I must hasten to warn that I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of my words, any words, to conjure up an image of that state.

Let me first describe the monolingual villages in the uplands of southern Mexico. Only a handful of the inhabitants have learned Spanish. The men are appallingly given to the abuse of alcohol, but in their minds the mushrooms are utterly different, not in degree, but in kind. Of alcohol they speak with the same jocular vulgarity that we do. But about mushrooms they prefer not to speak at all, at least when they are in company and especially when strangers, white strangers, are present. If you are wise, you will talk about something, anything, else. Then, when evening and darkness come and you are alone with a wise old man or woman whose confidence you have won, by the light of a candle held in the hand and talking in a whisper, you may bring up the subject. Now you will learn how the mushrooms are gathered, perhaps before sunrise, when the mountain side is caressed by the pre-dawn breeze, at the time of the New Moon, in certain regions only by a virgin. The mushrooms are wrapped in a leaf, perhaps a banana leaf, sheltered thus from irreverent eyes, and in some villages they are taken first to the church, where they remain for some time on the altar, in a jicara or gourd bowl. They are never exposed in the market-place but pass from hand to hand by pre-arrangement.

I could write at length about the words used to designate these sacred mushrooms in the languages of the various peoples that know them. The Aztecs before the Spaniards arrived called them teonanancatl, God's flesh. I need hardly remind you of a disquieting parallel, the designation of the Elements in our Eucharist: "Take, eat, this is my Body. . ."; and again, "Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son. . . ." But there is one difference. The orthodox Christian must accept by faith the miracle of the conversion of the bread into God's flesh: that is what is meant by the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. By contrast, the mushroom of the Aztecs carries its own conviction; every communicant will testify to the miracle that he has experienced. In the language of the Mazatecs, the sacred mushrooms are called 'nti si tho. The first word, 'nti, is a particle expressing reverence and endearment. The second element means "that which springs forth." In 1953 our muleteer had traveled the mountain trails and knew Spanish, though he could neither read nor write, nor even tell time by a clock's face. We asked him why mushrooms were called "that which springs forth." His answer, breathtaking in its sincerity and feeling was filled with the poetry of religion, and I quote it word for word as he gave it:

EI honguillo viene por si mismo, no se sabe de donde, como el viento que viene sin saber de donde ni porque.

The little mushroom comes of itself, no one knows whence, like the wind that comes we know not whence nor why.

When we first went down to Mexico, we felt certain, my wife and I, that we were on the trail of an ancient and holy mystery, and we went as pilgrims seeking the Grail. To this attitude of ours I attribute such success as we have had. It has not been easy. For four and a half centuries the rulers of Mexico, men of Spanish blood or at least of Spanish culture, have never entered sympathetically into the ways of the Indians, and the Church regarded the sacred mushroom as an idolatry. The Protestant missionaries of today are naturally intent on teaching the Gospel, not on absorbing the religion of the Indians. Nor are most anthropologists good at this sort of thing. For more than four centuries the Indians have kept the divine mushroom close to their hearts, sheltered from desecration by white man, a precious secret. We know that today there are many curanderos who carry on the cult, each according to his lights, some of them consummate artists, performing the ancient liturgy in remote huts before minuscule congregations. With the passing years they will die off, and as the country opens up the cult is destined to disappear. They are hard to reach, these curanderos.

Almost invariably they speak no Spanish. To them, performing before strangers seems a profanation. They will refuse even to meet with you, much less to discuss the beliefs that go with the mushrooms and perform for you. Do not think that it is a question of money:

no hicimos esto por dinero, "We did not do this for money," said Guadalupe, after we had spent the night with her family and the curandera Maria Sabina. Perhaps you will learn the names of a number of renowned curanderos, and your emissaries will even promise to deliver them to you, but then you wait and wait and they never come. You will brush past them in the market-place, and they will know you, but you will not know them. The judge in the town hall may be the very man you are seeking; and you may pass the time of day with him, yet never learn that he is your curandero.

After all, would you have it any different? What priest of the Catholic Church will perform Mass to satisfy an unbeliever's curiosity? The curandero who today, for a big fee, will perform the mushroom rite for any stranger is a prostitute and a faker, and his insincere performance has the validity of a rite put on by an unfrocked priest. In the modern world, religion is often an etiolated thing, a social activity with mild ethical rules. Religion in primitive society was an awesome reality, "terrible" in the original meaning of the word, pervading all life and culminating in ceremonies that were forbidden to the profane. This is what the mushroom ceremony is in the remote parts of Mexico.

We often think of the mysteries of antiquity as a manifestation of primitive religion. Let me point out certain parallels between our Mexican rite and the Mystery performed at Eleusis. The timing seems significant. In the Mazatec country the preferred season for "consulting the mushroom" is during the rains, when the mushrooms grow from June through August. The Eleusinian Mystery was celebrated in September or early October, the season of the mushrooms in the Mediterranean basin. At the heart of the Mystery of Eleusis lay a secret. In the surviving texts there are numerous references to the secret, but in none is it revealed. Yet Mysteries such as the one at Eleusis played a major role in Greek civilization, and thousands must have possessed the key. From the writings of the Greeks, from a fresco in Pompeii, we know that the initiate drank a potion. Then, in the depths of the night, he beheld a great vision and the next day he was still so awestruck that he felt he would never be the same man as before. What the initiate experienced was "new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition."  Aristides in the second century A.D. pulled the curtain aside for an instant with this fragmentary description of the Eleusinian Mystery:

Eleusis is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous. At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?

And then he went on to speak of the "ineffable visions" that it had been the privilege of many generations of fortunate men and women to behold.

It is most striking that the Mystery of antiquity and our mushroom rite in Mexico are accompanied in the two societies by veils of reticence that so far as we can tell, match each other point for point. The ancient writers' words are as applicable to contemporary Mexico as they were to classical Greece. It also seems significant that the Greeks were wont to refer to mushrooms as "the food of the gods," broma theon, and that Porphyrius is quoted as having called them "nurslings of the gods," theotrophos. The Greeks of the classic period were mycophobes (that is, they shunned mushrooms), perhaps because their ancestors had felt that the whole fungal tribe was infected "by attraction" with the holiness of some mushrooms and that they were not for mortal men to eat, at least not every day. We might be dealing with what was in origin a religious tabu.

In earliest times the Greeks confined the common European word for mushroom, which in their language was sp(h)angos or sp(h)onge, to the meaning "sponge," and replaced it by a special word, mukes, for the designation of mushrooms. Now it happens that the root of this word mukes in Greek is a homonym of the root of the Greek word for "Mystery," mu. A bold speculation flashes through the mind. The word for "Mystery" comes from a root that means the closing of the apertures of the body, the closing of the eyes and ears. If the mushroom played a vital and secret role in primitive Greek religion, what could be more natural than the falling into disuse of the standard word for "mushroom" through a religious tabu (as in Hebrew, "Yahweh" gave way to "Adonai") and the substitution of an alternative fungal term that was a homonym of "Mystery"? We must remember in considering this problem, that in antiquity the ecology of Greece and the Greek isles was different from now. Deforestation and the goats had not wrought the havoc of the intervening centuries; they had not left the mountains naked to the sun. On the wooded isles and in the forests of the mainland, there must have been a wealth of mushrooms.

Let us consider possibilities other than the mushroom. In the Mazatec country the Indians, when there are no mushrooms, have recourse to alternatives. Thanks to the brilliant work of Dr. Albert Hofmann of Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm, we are now sorting out and identifying a whole series of substances with remarkable psychotropic properties. It was Dr. Hofmann who isolated the active agents in some of our Mexican mushrooms: psilocybin and psilocin, two tryptamine derivatives and members of the indole family of compounds. The magic indoles are present in other plants used widely among the Indians of Mexico, such as ololiuqui, from which Dr. Hofmann in July, 1960, obtained three active principles. Two of these were d-Lysergic acid amide and d-isolysergic acid amide, both related to LSD-25 and known heretofore only as derivatives of ergot. Thus it comes about that, as a result of the achievements of our biochemists, we may be on the brink of rediscovering what was common knowledge among the ancient Greeks. I predict that the secret of the Mysteries will be found in the indoles, whether derived from mushrooms or from the higher plants or, as in Mexico, from both.

I do not mean to imply that only these substances (wherever found in nature) bring about visions and ecstasy. Clearly some poets and prophets and many mystics and ascetics seem to have enjoyed ecstatic visions that answer the requirements of the ancient Mysteries and that duplicate the mushroom agape of Mexico. I do not suggest that St. John of Patmos ate mushrooms in order to write the Book of Revelation. Yet the succession of images in his Vision, so clearly seen but such a phantasmagoria, means for me that he was in the same state as one bemushroomed. Nor do I suggest for a moment that William Blake knew the mushroom when he wrote this telling account of the clarity of "vision":

“The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men, whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing eye can see, does not imagine at all.”

This must sound cryptic to one who does not share Blake's vision or who has not taken the mushroom. The advantage of the mushroom is that it puts many (if not everyone) within reach of this state without having to suffer the mortifications of Blake and St.

John. It permits you to see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life, to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say) to know God. It is hardly surprising that your emotions are profoundly affected and you feel that an indissoluble bond unites you with the others who have shared with you in the sacred agape. All that you see during this night has a pristine quality: the landscape, the edifices, the carvings, the animals - they look as though they had come straight from the Maker's workshop.

This newness of everything - it is as if the world had just dawned - overwhelms you and melts you with its beauty. Not unnaturally, what is happening to you seems freighted with significance, beside which the humdrum events of everyday are trivial. All these things you see with an immediacy of vision that leads you to say to yourself, "Now I am seeing for the first time, seeing direct, without the intervention of mortal eyes." (Plato tells us that beyond this ephemeral and imperfect existence here below, there is another Ideal world of Archetypes, where the original, the true, the beautiful Pattern of things exists for evermore. It is clear to me where Plato found his ideas; it was clear to his contemporaries too. Plato had drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great Vision.)

And all the time you are seeing these things, the priestess sings, not loud, but with authority. The Indians are notoriously not given to displays of inner feelings - except on these occasions. The singing is good, but under the influence of the mushroom you think it is infinitely tender and sweet. It is as though you were hearing it with your mind's ear, purged of all dross. You are lying on a petate or mat; perhaps, if you have been wise, on an air mattress and in a sleeping bag. It is dark, for all lights have been extinguished save a few embers among the stones on the floor and the incense in a sherd. It is still, for the thatched hut is apt to be some distance away from the village. In the darkness and stillness, that voice hovers through the hut, coming now from beyond your feet, now at your very ear, now distant, now actually underneath you, with strange ventriloquistic effect. The mushrooms produce this illusion also. Everyone experiences it, just as do the tribesmen of Siberia that have eaten of Amanita muscaria and lie under the spell of their shamans, who display astonishing dexterity with ventriloquistic drum beats.

Likewise, in Mexico, I have heard a shaman engage in a most complicated percussive beat: with her hands she hits her chest, her thighs, her forehead, her arms, each giving a different resonance, keeping a complicated rhythm and modulating, even syncopating, the strokes. Your body lies in the darkness, heavy as lead, but your spirit seems to soar and leave the hut, and with the speed of thought to travel where it wishes in time and space, accompanied by the shaman's singing and by the ejaculations of her percussive chant.

What you are seeing and what you are hearing appear as one: the music assumes harmonious shapes, giving visual form to its harmonies, and what you are seeing takes on the modalities of music the music of the spheres. "Where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?" The ancient Greek's rhetorical question is highly apposite to the Mexican experience. All your senses are similarly affected: the cigarette with which you occasionally break tension of the night smells as no cigarette before had ever smelled; The g1ass of water is infinitely better than champagne.

Elsewhere I once wrote that the bemushroomed person is poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen. In truth, he is the five senses disembodied, all of them keyed to the height of sensitivity and awareness, all of them blending into one another most strangely, until the person, utterly passive, becomes a pure receptor, infinitely delicate, of sensations. As your body lies there in its sleeping bag, your soul is free, loses all senses of time, alert as it never was before, living an eternity in a night, seeing infinity in a grain of sand. What you have seen and heard is cut as with a burin into your memory, never to be effaced. At last you know what the ineffable is and what ecstasy means. The mind harks back to the origin of that word. For the Greeks ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I can find no better word to describe the bemushroomed state. In common parlance, among the many who have not experienced ecstasy, ecstasy is fun, and I am frequently asked why I do not reach for mushrooms every night. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe, or to float through that door yonder into the Divine Presence? The unknowing abuse the word, but we must recapture its full and terrifying sense.

A few hours later, the next morning, you are fit to do work. But how unimportant work seems to you, by comparison with the portentous happenings of that night. If you can, you prefer to stay close to the house, and, with those who lived through that night, compare notes and utter exclamations of amazement.

As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of a mushroom (or perhaps a higher plant) with miraculous properties was a revelation to him, a veritable detonator to his soul, arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence, and gentleness and love, to the highest pitch of which mankind is capable, all those sentiments and virtues that mankind has ever since regarded as the highest attributes of his kind. It made him see what the perishing mortal eye cannot see. The Greeks were right to hedge about this Mystery, this imbibing of the potion, with secrecy and surveillance. What today is resolved into the effects of a mere drug, a tryptamine or lysergic acid derivative, was for them a prodigious miracle, inspiring in them poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Perhaps we need them more than ever. Some are shocked that the key to religion might be reduced to a drug. On the other hand, the drug is as mysterious as it ever was: "like the wind it cometh we know not whence nor why."

If our classical scholars were given the opportunity to attend the rite at Eleusis, to talk with the priestess, they would exchange anything for that chance. They would approach the precincts, enter the hallowed chamber with the reverence born of the texts venerated by scholars for millennia. And what would be their frame of mind if they were invited to partake of the potion? Well, those rites take place now, unbeknownst to the classical scholars, in scattered dwellings, humble, thatched, without windows, far from the beaten track, high in the mountains of Mexico, in the stillness of the night, broken only by the distant barking of a dog or the braying of an ass. Or, if it is the rainy season, perhaps the Mystery is accompanied by torrential rains and punctuated by terrifying thunderbolts. Then, indeed, as you lie there bemushroomed, listening to the music and seeing the visions, you know a soul-shattering experience, recalling as you do the belief of some primitive peoples that mushrooms, the sacred mushrooms, are divinely engendered by Jupiter Fulminans, the God of the Lightning-bolt, in the Soft Mother Earth.

Adapted from an earlier article, "The Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico:

An Inquiry Into the Origins of the Religious Idea Among Primitive Peoples"

Source: The Harvard Review Summer 1963

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