The Hallucinogenic Fungi Of Mexico
An Inquiry Into The Origins of The Religious Idea Among Primitive Peoples
R. Gordon Wasson
WHEN I RECEIVED in Mexico your President's invitation to speak
here today, I knew that your Committee had made an unorthodox
choice, for I am not a professional mycologist. As the appointed
hour approached my trepidation kept mounting, for I saw myself
an amateur about to be thrown to a pack of professionals. But
your President's gracious introductory remarks, however unmerited,
have put me at my ease and lead me to hope that we shall all enjoy
together a mushroom foray of a rather unusual nature.
El honguillo viene por si mismo, no se sabe de donde,
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 men, 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 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 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 that abused 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 now draw your attention to 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 this 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." One writer in the 2nd century A.D., by name Aristides, 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.
Just dwell for a moment on that description. How 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! Our ancient writers' words are as applicable to contemporary Mexico as they were to classic Greece ! May it not be 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," theotróphos?  The Greeks of the classic period were mycophobes. Was this 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? Are we 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)óngos or sp(h)óngê, to the meaning "sponge," and replaced it by a special word, múkês, for the designation of mushrooms. Now it happens that the root of this word múkês 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 that the standard word for "mushroom" would fall into disuse through a religious tabu (as in Hebrew "Yahweh" gave way to "Adonai") and that the Greeks substituted an alternative fungal term that was a homonym of "mystery"? You can hear the pun, see the gesture, "Mum's the word," with the index finger over the mouth.... 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 indoles that have remarkable psychotropic properties. As you all know, he has isolated the active agents in some of our Mexican mushrooms, psilocybin and psilocin, two tryptamine derivatives and members of the indole family of substances. He has defined their molecular structure. The magic indoles are present in other plants used widely among the Indians of Mexico. He has isolated and identified three of the active agents in ololiuqui, the famous seeds, subject of many studies, that have long been used in Mexico for their psychotropic properties. In the Mazatec country the seeds of ololiuqui are one of the alternatives used when the sacred mushrooms are not available. Imagine our surprise when we began looking for these seeds in quantity last year, to discover that the Zapotec Indians employ two seeds: in some villages one, in others the other, and in some both. There is no question which seed was the ololiuqui of the Aztecs. It is a climbing morning-glory known to science as Rivea corymbosa (L.) Hallier filius. The seeds are brown and almost round. The second plant was identified at the National Herbarium in Washington as Ipomoea violacea L., also a climbing morning-glory but easily distinguished in the field from Rivea corymbosa. The seeds are long, black, and angular, and so far as we now know, they are used only in some parts of the Zapotec country. Both are called in Zapotec badoh, but the black seeds are badoh negro, black badoh, to distinguish them from the true ololiuqui seeds.
Dr. Hofmann found that the alkaloidal components of the two seeds were identical, and they yielded d-lysergic acid amide and d-isolysergic acid amide, in the LSD 25 family of substances and known heretofore only as derivatives of ergot. Is it not surprising to find in higher plants such as the Convolvulaceae the same Iysergic acid derivatives as in the lower fungi? The third substance found in these seeds was chanoclavine, also isolated by Dr. Hofmann et al. some years ago from a culture of Claviceps species.
Thus it comes about that, thanks to the achievements of our biological chemists, 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 higher plants or, as in Mexico from both.
I would not be understood as contending 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 the Revelation. Yet the succession of images in his Vision, so clearly seen and yet 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. [Italics mine. From The Writings of William Blake, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes, vol. III, p. 108]
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 animalsthey look as though they had come straight from the Maker's workshop. This newness of everythingit is as though the world had just dawnedoverwhelms you and melts you with its beauty. Not unnaturally, what is happening to you seems to you 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. Poets and philosophers for millennia have pondered and discussed his conception. 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 that you are seeing these things, the priestess sings, not loud, but with authority. The Indians are notoriously not given to displays of inner feelingsexcept 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 who have eaten of Amanita muscaria and lie under the spell of their shamans, displaying as these do their 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 listeth, 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 musicthe music of the spheres. "Where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?" How apposite to the Mexican experience was the ancient Greek's rhetorical question! All your senses are similarly affected: the cigarette with which you occasionally break the tension of the night smells as no cigarette before had ever smelled; the glass of simple 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. (You, being a stranger, are perforce only a receptor. But the Mazatec communicants are also participants with the curandera in an extempore religious colloquy. Her utterances elicit spontaneous responses from them, responses that maintain a perfect harmony with her and with each other, building up to a quiet, swaying, antiphonal chant. In a successful ceremony this is an essential element, and one cannot experience the full effect of the role of the mushroom in the Indian community unless one attends such a gathering, either alone or with one or at most two other strangers.) As your body lies there in its sleeping bag, your soul is free, loses all sense 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 in your memory, never to be effaced. At last you know what the ineffable is, and what ecstasy means. Ecstasy! The mind harks back to the origin of that word. For the Greeks ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. Can you find a better word than that 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 vulgar abuse the word, and we must recapture its full and terrifying sense.... A few hours later, the next morning, you are fit to go to 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 ejaculations 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 was it 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 attribute of his kind. It made him see what this perishing mortal eye cannot see. How right the Greeks were to hedge about this Mystery, this imbibing of the potion, with secrecy and surveillance! What today is resolved into a mere drug, a tryptamine or Iysergic acid derivative, was for him a prodigious miracle, inspiring in him poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Or do we need them more than ever? Some are shocked that the key even to religion might be reduced to a mere 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." Out of a mere drug comes the ineffable, comes ecstasy. It is not the only instance in the history of humankind where the lowly has given birth to the divine. Altering a sacred text, we would say that this paradox is a hard saying, yet one worthy of all men to be believed.
If our classical scholars were given the opportunity to attend the rite at Eleusis, to talk with the priestess, what would they not exchange for that chance? They would approach the precincts, enter the hallowed chamber, with the reverence born of the texts venerated by scholars for millennia. How propitious would their frame of mind be, 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, since we are in 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.
Footnotes1. For this and the following quotations see Walter F. Otto: The Meaning of the Eleusinian Mysteries, published in The Mysteries, 1955, ed. by Joseph Campbell, Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series XXX, 2; pp. 20 et seq. Italics are mine. (back)
2. Giambattista della Porta: Villa, 1592, Frankfort, p. 764. (back)
3. Holger Pedersen in an early paper contended that the basic fungal words of Europe were identical: Old High German swamb, Slavic gomba, Lithuanian gumbas, Latin fungus, Greek sp(h)óngos, sp(h)óngê, and Armenian sung, sunk. (Published in Polish: 'Przyczynki do gramatyki porównawczej jezyków slowianskich,' in Materyaly i Prace Komisyi Jesytowe; Akademii Umieietnosci w Krakozvie, Cracow, 1(1): 167-176.) Since then some philologists have declined to accept this thesis as more than a possibility, especially as to the Slavic term, but Professor Roman Jakobson in a recent personal communication to me says: 'The etymology of Holger Pedersen, the great Danish specialist in the comparative study of Indo-European languages, seems to me and to many other linguists, e.g., the distinguished Czech etymologist V. Machek, as the only convincing attempt to interpret the fungal name of the European languages. Not one single serious argument has been brought against Pedersen's "attractive" explanation, as Berneker defines it, and not one single defensible hypothesis has been brought to replace this one.' (back)
4. The Chemistry of Natural Products, paper read by Dr. Hofmann, Aug. 18, 1960, in the I.U.P.A.C. Symposium, Melbourne. (back)
5. The best summary of the ololiuqui literature and problem is Richard Evans Schultes' A Contribution to Our Knowledge of Rivea corymbosa, the Narcotic Ololiuqui of the Aztecs, Botanical Museum, Harvard University, 1941. Also see Humphrey Osmond's Ololiuqui: The Ancient Aztec Narcotic, Journal of Mental Science, July 1955, 101(424): 526-537. Dr. Osmond reports on the effects of the seeds on himself. (back)
6. Ipomoea violacea Linnaeus Pl. Sp. (1953) 161. Convolvulus indicsus Miller Gard. Dict. (1768) No. 5. Ipomoea tricolor Cavanilles Icon. Pl. Rar. 3 (1794) 5. Convolvulus violaceus Sprengel Syst. 1 (1825) 399. Convolznalus venustus Sprengel Syst. 1 (1825) 399. Ipomoea rubrocoerulea Hooker Bot. Mag. (1834) t. 3297. Pharbitis violacea (L.) Bojer Hort. Maurit. (1837) 227. Tereietra violacea (L.) Rafinesque Fl. Tellur. 4 (1839) 124. Ipomoca Hookeri G. Don Gen. Syst. 4 (1838) 274. Pharbitis rubrocoeruleus (Hook.) Planchon Fl. des Serres 9 (1854) 281. Convolvulus rubrocoeruleus (Hook.) D. Dietrich Syn. Pl. 1 (1839) 670. Ipomoea puncticulata 8entham Bot. Voy. Sulph. (1945) 136. (back)
7. Credit for the discovery of the ceremonial use of Ipomoea violacea seeds goes to Thomas MacDougall and Francisco Ortega ("Chico"), famous Zapotec guide and itinerant trader. They have not yet delimited the area of diffusion, but they have found badoh negro seeds in use in the following Zapotec towns and villages in the uplands of southern Oaxaca: San Bartolo Yautepec, San Carlos Yautepec and Santa Catarina Quieri, all in the district of Yautepec; Santa Cruz Ozolotepec and San Andres Lovene, District of Miahuatlan; and finally a settlement called Roalo, between Zaachila and Zimatlan, just south of the city of Oaxaca. In San Bartolo I. violacea is used to the exclusion of Rivea corymbosa, but in the other towns both are used. These data are based on personal correspondence and also Thomas MacDougall: Ipomoea tricolor: A Hallucinogenic Plant of the Zapotecs, in Boletín of the Centro de Investigaciones Antropol6gicas de Mexico, No. 6, March 1, 1960. Reports from Juquila, to the west of the Zapotec towns mentioned above, indicate that I. violacea seeds may also be used among the Chatino Indians. (back)
8. A. Hofmann with R. Brunner, H. Kokel, and A. Brack, Helv. Chem. Acta, 1957, 40:1358. (back)
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