¿Te gustan las setas alucinógenas?
Do you like magic mushrooms? You do? Well, if you’re planning to visit Mexico City anytime soon (keeping Covid restrictions in mind, of course), you’re in buenas manos! Our fun-loving amigos over at the City of Palaces have a long, enchanted history with psilocybin mushrooms and truffles. Mexican psychonauts have existed for over 400 years — using magic mushrooms in rituals and sacred medicine.
Magic Mushrooms: ‘The Flesh of God’
Early Mexican tribes saw magic mushrooms as sacred. For example, the Nahuatl word for shrooms is teonanacatl, or “the flesh of God”, because of the spiritual visions it causes. The Mesoamerican people kept psilocybin in high regard, and continued to use it — up until the 1500s when Spaniards came and conquered Mexico. Back then, Catholic friars weren’t too keen on shamanic rituals, and the use of psychedelics such as magic mushrooms and ayahuasca. To the colonists, psilocybin was the work of the Devil. For more than 300 years, the Spaniards banned the use of magic mushrooms in tribal ceremonies.
It was only in 1955 that the world was reintroduced to Mexican magic. A mycologist called R. Gordon Wasson travelled to meet the Mazatec people in Southern Mexico, and saw the psilocybin rituals with his own eyes (including his “third”!) The shaman invited Wasson to join in the fun, the accounts of which appeared in Life magazine in 1957. He went back home to the U.S. with magic mushrooms — and asked for the help of no less than the “Father of LSD” himself, Albert Hofmann, to extract the psilocin from the shrooms.
Shrooms as ‘Medicina’
Today, magic mushrooms and truffles are enjoyed worldwide — especially in the central highlands of Mexico. During the rainy season, villagers in the Sierra Mazateca grow and harvest three species of magic mushrooms, namely: Psilocybe cubensis, which grows best on cow dung; Psilocybe caerulescens, which grows on loose soil after a landslide; and Psilocybe mexicana, aka the “Philosopher’s Stone”, which is surprisingly tricky to obtain in the wild…
It is also in Huautla de Jimenez where Wasson met Maria Sabina, arguably the most famous curandera, or native healer, ever in Southern Mexico. Like many shamans in the region, Sabina used magic mushrooms and ayahuasca to cure illnesses: whether physical, mental, or spiritual. This is why psilocybin is so prized in the Sierra Mazatec. For locals, shrooms were seen as medicina because they could heal gout and fever.
Magic Mushroom Rituals
There are two types of magic mushroom rituals in Mexico. The first one is your typical “consult your shaman” ritual, in which you visit the local healer to find out whether you’ll heal quickly or die slowly. The shaman takes the magic mushrooms, which allows them to sense their patient’s sickness (and the rate of recovery or death). It could be argued that this is one technique that leaves way too much to the imagination…
The second ritual is muchos more reliable. How so? The patient takes the magic mushrooms themselves, rather than just the shaman. Thus, the psilocybin works its healing magic on your body. But this ritual comes with strict conditions, such as hiking on the Sierra to clear the mind; and avoiding meat and beans for three days before and after taking psilocybin. Oh, and did we mention no sexual intercourse, too?
Preparing For The Ritual
For the ritual, you must first wait for the sun to set before taking magic mushrooms. You also need to wash your hands, face, and entire body with clear water, and dress up in “non-revealing” clothes. Dinner will have to wait, too, because the ritual demands you eat shrooms on an empty stomach. (There’s science behind it, actually! Psilocin converts to psilocybin faster without any food.) After seeing that you’ve done the prep work, the shaman begins a cleansing process known as limpia. They burn various herbs and the resin of the copal tree, so the fumes can purify your spirit.
Next, the shaman asks you exactly what’s hurting you: whether physically or emotionally. Are you feverish? Depressed? Having bad dreams lately? They grab a chicken egg and roll it over your head, torso, arms and legs, while chanting a prayer. (Think of the egg as a thermometer that can “absorb” evil energy.) The shaman then breaks the egg, and reads the yolk and egg whites to check your physical / mental condition. At times, the ritual stops there. But if your sickness is deemed legit, the shaman will serve 7 pairs of magic mushrooms in a corn husk — all of which you have to eat.
Fun fact! In Mexican tradition, magic mushrooms are seen as casados or “married”. This is why shrooms are always served in two’s!
Magic Mushroom Cults
Evidence also points to the early existence of magic mushroom cults in Mexico. Mesoamerican cults revolved around teonanacatl, also known as Psilocybe mexicana. Ethnobotanist R. G. Wasson said that the use of psilocybin mushrooms goes back to the first pueblos or tribes in the American continent. The trippy qualities of shrooms — raising one’s consciousness to a whole ‘nother level — may have shaped the religious practices in both North and South America…
Other sources point to an even earlier use of magic mushrooms in ancient Mexico. Take for example: the astounding find of 200 “stone mushrooms” in Guatemala and Chiapas. Experts dated the stone mushrooms to be at least 3,000 years old. They were first mistaken for phallic idols, worshipped for fertility; then as molcajete or pestles to grind corn into flour; but were later pinned down as fungi. Hmm, why not all of them? Shrooms are versatile, y’know!
Magic mushrooms were also a huge influence on Mesoamerican art. Take for example: the fresco of Tepantitla, discovered near the pyramids of Teotihuacan. The colourful mural depicts a mythical Eden ruled by Tialoc: the god of rain, water, and fertile lands. This perfect landscape was called Tlalocan — a paradise where some believe hallucinogenic plants “grew like weeds”. Talk about heaven, right?
*P.S. If you wanna check it out for yourself, there’s a stunning reproduction in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico!
Visions: Divine or Demonic?
So how did ancient Mexicans view the psychedelic trips they experiences from eating magic mushrooms and truffles? Well, it depends on who you ask — and when! Before the Conquista (or when the Spaniards colonised the Americas), natives saw psychedelic visions as sacred. Hence, they treated natural psychedelics with respect. Ayahuasca and magic mushrooms gave shamans the ability to heal… and to see infinite “branches” of the future. They even got a nickname for magic mushrooms: santos niños, or “sacred children”.
However, right after the Spanish conquest, the Catholic priests saw the eating of teonanacatl, or “the flesh of God”, as too identical to the Eucharist. So the clergy tried to quash the “cult” of magic mushrooms in Mexico’s villages, to no avail. It wasn’t too long until a friar dared to try the shrooms for himself: a Franciscan named Toribio de Benavente, aka Motolinia.
In his 1558 book, titled “History of the Indians of New Spain”, Motolinia wrote about the use of magic mushrooms by the Indians, and the so-called “nightmare visions” they caused. He noted how magic mushrooms were often eaten with honey (a natural antiseptic). The friar also saw indigenous dream symbols such as the Serpent, and out-of-body experiences. His verdict? Shrooms = “work of the Devil”.
After Motolinia reported his story to the Church, they condemned all rituals involving the use of magic mushrooms. For hundreds of years, shamans used psilocybin only in the most remote pueblos…
In 1953, the world was reintroduced to magic mushrooms in Mexico. The country was revived as a mecca for psychedelics. Woohoo! Thanks to three explorers who trekked the Sierra Mazatec, in search of the shroomy “Philosopher’s Stones”…
There was Robert Gordon Wasson, a U.S. banker who also studied fungi; Robert Heim, a mycologist who worked for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (and the team’s “scientific checker”); and tour guide Guy Stresser-Péan, an expert in indigenous languages. Together, they visited the Mazatec tribe, and saw that rituals using magic mushrooms were still alive and well — not as ‘extinct’ as the Spaniards had claimed!
Meanwhile in Paris, Jean Delay, who led the Institute of Psychology of the University of Paris, tested psilocybin on patients with mental conditions. This led to a groundbreaking 1958 study called Les champignons hallucinogènes du Mexique (or “The Magic Mushrooms of Mexico”) — which is still inspiring new discoveries to this day.
Thank You, Mexico!
The world is currently enjoying a psychedelic renaissance like never before. Science is proving that psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms and truffles, is more than just the “tripper’s favourite”. Shrooms are being studied again for PTSD, anxiety, and depression. As a result, the U.S. and Canada are on the move to decriminalise psychedelics, and progress is being made everyday. A large part of this is due to the generosity with which curanderas like Maria Sabina shared their ancient wisdom, without which we may never have known about the magic in our earth.
¡Muchísimas gracias, Mexico!