New World Hallucinogens

In the New World—North, Central, and South America and the West Indies—the number and cultural importance of hallucinogens reached amazing heights in the past—and in places their role is undiminished.

More than ninety species are employed for their intoxicating principles, compared to fewer than a dozen in the Old World. It would not be an exaggeration to say that some of the New World cultures, particularly in Mexico and South America, were practically enslaved by the religious use of hallucinogens, which acquired a deep and controlling significance in almost every aspect of life. Cultures in North America and the West Indies used fewer hallucinogens, and their role often seemed secondary. Although tobacco and coca, the source of cocaine, have become of worldwide importance, none of the true hallucinogens of the Western Hemisphere has assumed the global significance of the Old World cannabis.

No ethnological study of American Indians can be considered complete without an in-depth appreciation of their hallucinogens. Unexpected discoveries have come from studying the hallucinogenic use of New World plants. Many hallucinogenic preparations called for the addition of plant additives capable of altering the intoxication. The accomplishments of aboriginal Americans in the use of mixtures have been extraordinary.

While known New World hallucinogens are numerous, studies are still uncovering species new to the list. The most curious aspect of the studies, however, is why, in view of their vital importance to New World cultures, the botanical identities of many of the hallucinogens remained unknown until comparatively recent times.

PUFFBALLS (Lycoperdon mixtecorum and L. marginotum) are used by the Mixtec Indicins Of Oaxaca, Mexico as auditory hallucinogens. After eating these fungi, a native hears voices and echoes. There is apparently no ceremony connected with puffballs, and they do not enjoy the place as divinatory agents that the mushrooms do in Oaxaca. L. mixtecorum is the stronger of the two. It is called gi-i-wa, meaning ''fungus of the first quality." L. marginatum, which has a strong odor of excrement is known as gi-i-sa-wa, meaning ''fungus of the second quality.

Although intoxicating substances have not yet been found in the puffballs, there are reports in the literature that some of them have had narcotic effects when eaten. Most of the estimated 50 to 100 species of Lycoperdon grow in mossy forests of the temperate zone. They belong to the Lycoperdaceae, a family of the Gasteromycetes.

The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which dates back several thousand years, centers in the mountains of southern Mexico.

MUSHROOMS of many species were used as hallucinogens by the Aztec Indians, who colled them teonanacotl, meaning "flesh of the gods" in the Nahuatl Indian language. These mushrooms, all of the family Agaricaceae, are still valued in Mexican magic or eligious rites. They belong to four genera: Conocybe and Panaeolus, almost cosmopolitan in their range; Psilocybe, found in North and South America, Europe, and Asia; and Stropharia, known in North America, the West Indies, and Europe.

MUSHROOM WORSHIP seems to have roots in centuries of native tradition. Mexican frescoes, going back to A.D. 300, have designs suggestive of mushrooms. Even more remarkable are the artifacts called mushroom stones (p. 60), excavated in large numbers from highland Maya sites in Guatemala and dating buck to 1000 B.C. Consisting of a stem with a human or animal foce and surmounted by an umbrella-shaped top, they long puzzled archaeologists. Now interpreted as a kind of icon connected with religious rituals, they indicate that 3,000 years ago, a sophisticated religion surrounded the sacramental use of these fungi.

It has been suggested that perhaps mushrooms were the earliest hallucinogenic plants to be discovered. The other- worldly experience induced by these mysterious forms of plant life could easily have suggested a spiritual plane of existence.

Detail from a fresco at a Tepantitla (Teotihuacan Mexico) representing Tloloc, the god of clouds, rain, and waters. Note the pale blue mushrooms with orange stems and also the "colorines' - the darker blue, bean-shaped forms with red spots. See pages 90 and 97 for discussion of colorines and piule. (After Heim and Wasson.)

Typical icons associated with mushroom cults dating back 3,000 years in Guatemala.


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Contents...1-10...11-20...21-30...31-40...41-50...51-60...61-70...71-80...81-90 91-100...101-110...111-120...121-130...131-140...141-150...151-156...Index

Detail from fresco at Sacuala, Teotihuacan, Mexico, showing four greenish "mushrooms" that seem to be emerging from the mouth of a god, possibly the Sun God.

EARLY USE OF THE SACRED MUSHROOMS is known mainly from the extensive descriptions written by the Spanish clerics. For this we owe them a great debt.

One chronicler, writing in the mid-1500's, after the conquest of Mexico, referred frequently to those mushrooms " which are harmful and intoxicate like wine, " so that those who eat them "see visions, feel a faintness of heart and are provoked to lust''; the natives "when they begin to get excited by them start dancing, singing, weeping. Some do not want to eat but sit down . . . and see themselves dying in a vision; others see themselves being eaten by a wild beast; others imagine that they are capturing prisoners of war, that they are rich, that they possess many slaves, that they had committed adultery and were to have their heads crushed for the offense "

A work of Aztec medicine mentions three kinds of intoxicating mushrooms. One, teyhuintli causes " madness that on occasion is lasting, of which the symptom is an uncontrollable laughter; there are others which . . . bring before the eyes all sorts of things, such as wars and the likeness of demons. Yet others are not less desired by princes for their festivals and banquets, and these fetch a high price. With nightlong vigils are they sought, awesome and terrifying."

SPANISH OPPOSITION to the Aztecs' worship of pagan deities with the sacramental aid of mushrooms was strong. Although the Spanish conquerors of Mexico hated and attacked the religious use of all hallucinogens - peyote, ololiuqui, toloache, and others - teonanocatl was the target of special wrath. Their religious fanaticism was drawn especially toward this despised and feared form of plant life that, through its vision-giving powers, held the Indian in awe, allowing him to commune directly with his gods. The new religion, Christianity, had nothing so attractive to offer him. Trying to stamp out the use of the mushrooms, the Spaniards succeeded only in driving the custom into the hinterlands, where it persists today. Not only did it persist, but the ritual adopted many Christian aspects, and the modern ritual is a pagan-Christian blend.

The pagan god of the underworld speaks through the mushroom, teononocatl, as represented by a Mexican artist in the 16th century. (From the Magliabecchiano Codex, Biblioteca Nazionole, Florence.)

IDENTIFICATION OF THE SACRED MUSHROOMS was slow in coming. Driven into hiding by the Spaniards, the mushroom cult was not encountered in Mexico for four centuries. During that time, although the Mexican flora was known to include various toxic mushrooms, it was believed that the Aztecs had tried to protect their real sacred plant: they had led the Spaniards to believe that teonanacatl meant mushroom, when it actually meant peyote. It wos pointed out that the symptoms of mushroom intoxication coincided remarkably with those described for peyote intoxication and that dried mushrooms might easily have been confused with the shriveled brown heads of the peyote cactus. But the numerous detailed references by careful writers, including medical men trained in botany, argued against this theory.

Not until the 1930's were botanists able to identify specimens of mushrooms found in actual use in divinatory rites in Mexico. Later work has shown that more than 20 species of mushrooms are similarly employed among seven or eight tribes in southern Mexico.

A 16th-century illustration of teononacatl (a), the intoxicating mushroom of the Aztecs, still valued in Mexican magico-religious rites; identity of (b) is unknown. From Sahagun's Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana, Val. IV (Florentine Codex).

THE MODERN MUSHROOM CEREMONY of the Mazatec Indians of northeastern Oaxaca illustrates the importance of the ritual in present-day Mexico and how the sacred character of these plants has persisted from pre-conquest times. The divine mushrooms are gathered during the new moon on the hillsides before dawn by a virgin; they are often consecrated on the altar of the local Catholic church. Their strange growth pattern helps make mushrooms mysterious and awesome to the Mazatec, who call them 'nti-si-tho, meaning "worshipful object that springs forth." They believe that the mushroom springs up miraculously and that it may be sent from outer realms on thunderbolts. As one Indian put it poetically: "The little mushroom comes of itself, no one knows whence, like the wind that comes we know not when or why."

The all-night Mazatec ceremony, led usually by a woman shaman (curandera), comprises long, complicated, and curiously repetitious chants, percussive beats, and prayers. Often a curing rite takes place during which the practitioner, through the "power" of the sacred mushrooms, communicates and intercedes with supernatural forces. There is no question of the vibrant relevance of the mushroom rituals to modern Indian life in southern Mexico. None of the attraction of these divine mushrooms has been lost as a result of contact with Christianity or modern ideas. The spirit of reverence characteristic of the mushroom ceremony is as profound as that of any of the world's great religions.

Curandera with Mazatec patient and dish of sacred mushrooms. Scene is typical of the all-night mushroom ceremony. Curandera is under the influence of the mushrooms.

KINDS OF MUSHROOMS USED by different shamans are determined partly by personal preference and partly by the purpose of the use. Seasonal und regional availability also have a bearing on the choice. Stropharia cubensis and Psilocybe mexicana may be the most commonly employed, but half a dozen other species of Psilocybe as well as Conocybe siliginoides and Panaeolus sphinctrinus are also important. The native names are colorful and sometimes significant.. Psilocybe aztecorum is called "children of the waters"; P. zapotecorum, "crown-of-thorns mushroom"; and P. caerulescens var. nigripes, "mushroom of superior reason." (See illustrations on pp. 66-67). The possibility exists that other hallucinogenic species of mushrooms are also used.

It is possible, too, that Psilocybe species are used as inebriants outside of Mexico. P. yungensis has been suggested as the mysterious "tree mushroom" that early Jesuit missionaries reported as being employed by the Yurimagua Indians of Amazonian Peru as the source of a potent intoxicating beverage. This species is known to contain an hallucinogenic principle. Field work in modern times, however, has not disclosed the narcotic use of any mushrooms in the Amazon area.

THE EFFECTS OF THE MUSHROOMS include muscular relaxation or limpness, pupil enlargement, hilarity, and difficulty in concentration. The mushrooms cause both visual and auditory hallucinations. Visions are breathtakingly lifelike, in color, and in constant motion. They are followed by lassitude, mental and physical depression, and alteration of time and spoce perception. The user seems to be isolated from the world around him; without loss of consciousness, he becomes wholly indifferent to his surroundings, and his dreamlike state becomes reality to him. This peculiarity of the intoxication makes it interesting to psychiatrists.

One investigator who ate mushrooms in a Mexican Indian ceremony wrote that "your body lies in the darkness, heavy as lead, but your spirit seems to soar . . . and with the speed of thought to travel where it listeth, in time and space, accompanied by the shaman's singing . . . What you are seeing and . . . 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.

"All your senses are similarly affected; the cigarette . . . smells as no cigarette before had ever smelled; the glass of simple water is infinitely better than champagne . . . the bemushroomed person is poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen . . . he is the five senses disembodied . . . 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 . . . (The visions may be of) almost anything . . . except the scenes of your everyday life." As with other hallucinogens, the effects of the mushrooms may vary with mood and setting.

A scientist's description of his experience after eating 32 dried specimens of Psilocybe mexicana was as follows: ". . . When the doctor supervising the experiment bent over me . . . he was transformed into an Aztec priest, and I would not have been astonished if he had drawn an obsidian knife . . . it amused me to see how the Germanic face . . . had acquired a purely Indian expression. At the peak of the intoxication . . . the rush of interior pictures, mostly abstract motifs rapidly changing in shape and color, reached such an alarming degree that I feared that I would be torn into this whirlpool of form and color and would dissolve. After about six hours, the dream came to an end . . . I felt my return to everyday reality to be a happy return from a strange, fantastic but quite really experienced world into an old and familiar home."

CHEMICAL CONSTITUTION of the hallucinogenic mushrooms has surprised scientists. A white crystalline tryptamine of unusual structure - an acidic phosphoric acid ester of 4-hydroxydimethyltryptamine - was isolated. This indole derivative, named psilocybin, is a new type of structure, a 4-substituted tryptamine with a phosphoric acid radical, a type never before known as a naturally occurring constituent of plant tissue. Some of the mushrooms also contain minute amounts of another indolic compound - psilocin - which is unstable. While psilocybin has been found also in European and North American mushrooms, apparently only in Mexico and Guatemala have psilocybin - containing mushrooms been purposefully used for ceremonial intoxication.


Psilocin is believed by some biochemists to be the precursor of the more stable psilocybin.





A laboratory culture of Psilocybe mexicana, grown from spores, an innovation that speeded analysis of the ephemeral mushroom. (After Heim & Wasson: Les Champignons Hallucinogenes du Mexique)

CHEMICAL INVESTIGATION of the Mexican mushrooms was difficult until they could be cultivated. They are almost wholly water and great quantities of them are needed for chemical analyses because their chemical constitution is so ephemeral. The clarification of the chemistry of the Mexican mushrooms was possible only because mycologists were able to cultivate the plants in numbers sufficient to satisfy the needs of the chemists. This accomplishment represents a phase in the study of hallucinogenic plants that must be imitated in the investigation of the chemistry of other narcotics. The laboratory, in this case, became an efficient substitute for nature. By providing suitable conditions, scientists have learned to grow many species in artificial culture.

Cultivation of edible mushrooms is an important commercial enterprise and was practiced in France early in the seventeenth century. Cultivation for laboratory studies is a more recent development.

SWEET FLAG (Acorus calamus), also called sweet calomel, grows in damp places in the north and south temperate regions. A member of the arum family, Araceae, it is one of two species of Acorus. There is some indirect evidence that Indians of northern Canada, who employ the plant as a medicine and a stimulant, may chew the rootstock as an hallucinogen. In excessive doses, it is known to induce strong visual hallucinations. The intoxicating properties may be due to a-asorone and 6-asarone, but the chemistry and pharmacology of the plant are still poorly understood.

Colombian Indians using a snuffing tube fashioned from a bird bone.

VIROLAS (Virola calophylla, V. colophylloidea, and V. theiodora) are among the most recently discovered hallucinogenic plants. These jungle trees of medium size have glossy, dark green leaves with clusters of tiny yellow flowers that emit a pungent aroma. The intoxicating principles are in the blood-red resin yielded by the tree bark, which makes a powerful snuff.

Virola trees are native to the New World tropics. They are members of the nutmeg family, Myristicaceae, which comprises some 300 species of trees in 18 genera. The best known member of the family is Myristica fragrans, an Asiatic tree that is the source of nutmeg and mace.

In Colombia, the species most often used for hallucinogenic purposes are Virola calophylla and V. calophylloidea, whereas in Brazil and Venezuela the Indians prefer V. theiodora, which seems to yield a more potent resin.

AN INTOXICATING SNUFF is prepared from the bark of Virola trees by Indians of the northwestern Amazon and the headwaters of the Orinoco. An anthropologist who observed the Yekwana Indians of Venezuela in their preparation and use of the snuff in 1909 commented:

"Of special interest are cures, during which the witch doctor inhales hakudufha. This is a magical snuff used exclusively by witch doctors and prepared from the bark of a certain tree which, pounded up, is boiled in a small earthenware pot, until all the water has evaporated and a sediment remains at the bottom of the pot.

"This sediment is toasted in the pot over a slight fire and is then finely powdered with the blade of a knife. Then the sorcerer blows a little of the powder through a reed . . . into the air. Next, he snuffs, whilst, with the same reed, he absorbs the powder into each nostril successively.

"The hakudufha obviously has a strong stimulating effect, for immediately the witch doctor begins to sing and yell wildly, all the while pitching the upper part of his body backwards and forwards."

Strip of bark from Virola tree, showing oozing resin.

Among numerous tribes in eastern Colombia, the use of Virola snuff, often called yakee or parica, is restricted to shamans. Among the Waika or Yanonamo tribes of the frontier region of Brazil and Venezuela, epena or nyakwana, as the snuff is called, is not restricted to medicine men, but may be snuffed ceremonially by all adult males or even taken occasionally without any ritual basis by men individually. The medicine men of these tribes take the snuff to induce a trance that is believed to aid them in diagnosing and treating illness.

Although the use of the snuff among the Indians of South America had been described earlier, its source was not definitely identified as the Virola tree until 1954.

Waika Indian scraping Virola resin into pot, preparatory to cooking it.

PREPARATION OF VIROLA SNUFF varies among different Indians. Some scrape the soft inner layer of the bark and dry the shavings gently over a fire. The shavings are stored for later use. When the snuff is needed, the shavings are pulverized by pounding with a pestle in a mortar made from the fruit case of the Brazil- nut tree. The resulting powder is sifted to a fine, pungent brown dust. To this may be added the powdered leaves of a small, sweet-scented weed, Justicia, and the ashes of amasita, the bark of a beautiful tree, Elizabetha princeps. The snuff is then ready for use.

Dried Justicio leaves are ground before being added to snuff

Other Indians fell the tree, strip off and gently heat the bark, collect the resin in an earthenware pot, boil it down to a thick paste, sun-dry the paste, crush it with a stone, and sift it. Ashes of several barks and the leaf powder of Justicia may or may not be added.

Still other Indians knead the inner shavings of freshly stripped bark to squeeze out all the resin and then boil down the resin to get a thick paste that is sun-dried and prepared into snuff with ashes added.

The same resin, applied directly to arrowheads and congealed in smoke, is one of the Waika arrow poisons. When supplies of snuff are used up in ceremonies, the Indians often scrape the hardened resin from arrow tips to use it as a substitute. It seems to be as potent as the snuff itself.

Waika Indian sizing ground Justica leaves to make fine powder for additive to Virola snuff.

A SNUFF-TAKING CEREMONY is conducted annually by many Waika tribes to memorialize those who have died the previous year. Endocannibalism comprises part of the rite; the ashes of calcined bones of the departed are mixed into a fermented banana drink and are swallowed with the beverage.

The ceremony takes place in a large round house. Following initial chanting by a master of ceremony, the men and older boys form groups and blow huge amounts of snuff through long tubes into each other's nostrils (p. 74). They then begin to dance and to run wildly, shouting, brandishing weapons, and making gestures of bravado. Pairs or groups engage in a strange ritual in which one participant thrusts out his chest and is pounded forcefully with fists, clubs, or rocks by a companion, who then offers his own chest for reciprocation. Although this punishment, in retribution for real or imagined grievances, often draws blood, the effects of the narcotic are so strong that the men do not flinch or show signs of pain. The opponents then squat, throw their arms about each other, and shout into one another's ears. All begin hopping and crawling across the floor in imitation of animals. Eventually all succumb to the drug, losing consciousness for up to half an hour. Hallucinations are said to be experienced during this time.

Waika round house in clearing in Amazon forest.

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