Discovery of Hallucinogens Deliberate or Accidental

Which brings up a point that was raised in the Introduction in relation to the plant hallucinogens in general: it is almost impossible to conceive that the discovery of the transformational qualities of certain acrid mushrooms that were clearly unsuitable as ordinary food could have been anything but the result of conscious search for psychodynamic agents and even deliberate experimentation for different ways to activate or heighten their effects. As we saw, this requirement applies especially to the fly-agaric, since it was dried, preferably in the sun, to have the desired effect.

That the Mexican mushrooms, on the other hand, can be eaten fresh* could, I suppose, mean that their magical properties were accidentally discovered when people already accustomed to wild mushrooms in their diet tried them as food. Perhaps so. Certainly it could have been the case in some very remote, primordial time. But to suppose this of the ancestors of the Indians of Oaxaca, one would have to conjure up a vision of the most primitive kinds of humans scavenging almost indiscriminately for anything that appeared edible—a picture that squares with absolutely nothing we know of the food-gathering behavior of the most technologically primitive hunters still left on earth and even less of incipient cultivators. Moreover, an environment in which mushrooms grow is not likely to have been deficient in all kinds of edible resources with far greater food value than the characteristically small and fragile sacred fungi.

What we must also remember is that traditional or pre-industrial people who live in harmony with their environment are the inheritors of a far more sophisticated level of knowledge than ours of the natural world on which their lives depend, and that they discriminate much more decisively and often more accurately than do we between its different phenomena. In the present case this reminder implies that ordinary and magic mushrooms should not even belong to the same category. And that is precisely the situation as we find it among present-day Indians.

As mentioned earlier, the Matlatzincas, who live about a hundred miles southwest of Mexico City, in a valley surrounded by pine forests and towered over by the majestic 15,000-foot-high Toluca volcano, have recently been added to the growing list of sacred-mushroom-using populations. Ordinary wild species also figure importantly in their diet, so that they would certainly fall into Wasson's category of "mycophiles." However, the sacred fungi and ordinary kinds are not simply lumped together under an all-embracing category of "mushroom." Rather, the hallucinogenic species is considered entirely separately, being grouped with such supernatural phenomena as God, the Virgin Mary, saints, ancestors, mountain spirits, and the like.

The Matlatzincas' highly complex mushroom taxonomy has been studied in detail by the Mexican linguist Roberto Escalante, and I am indebted to him for the data that follow. (Also see Escalante, 1973; Escalante and Lopez, 1971.)

* As was pointed out to me by Wasson, anciently a common method of consuming the sacred mushrooms was to press them out and drink their juice—i.e., the same way Soma was taken in Asia. However, they could also be eaten raw, often with honey, as indeed they often are today by Mexican Indians.

To the Matlatzincas, as to other Indians of Mesoamerica, edible mushrooms are of great dietary importance because they sprout during periods of scarcity, when the maize is growing in the fields but when it is still too early for the harvest. During the rainy season, when little work is required in the fields, mushroom gathering involves the entire family, regardless of sex or age, so that it is essential that the criteria of identification be thoroughly familiar to everyone.

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