Mushroom of the Underworld

Actually, Thompson was only partly right when he said that the Spaniards were silent on the matter of hallucinogens among the Maya, for several of the early dictionaries compiled by Spanish priests in the Guatemalan highlands demonstrate considerable Indian knowledge of the intoxicating effects of a number of mushroom species.* One of the oldest of the Colonial word lists, the Vico dictionary, which was apparently compiled well before the 1550's, explicitly mentions a mushroom called xibalbaj okox (xibalba = underworld, or hell, realm of the dead; okox = mushroom), with the implication that this species is hallucinogenic. In fact, in this context xibalbaj refers not just to the Maya underworld, with its nine lords and nine levels, but also to having visions thereof, so that the name can be understood to mean "mushroom which gives one visions of hell" or "of the world of the dead." The same intoxicating mushroom is also mentioned in a later word list, Fray Tomas Coto's Vocabulario de la lengua Cakchiquel, dated ca. 1690 (manuscript in the library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia), which pulls together much of the earlier material on Cakchiquel-Maya. According to the Coto dictionary, xibalbaj okox, mushroom of the underworld, was also called k'aiwiah okox, which can be translated as "mushroom that makes one lose one's judgment."

Figure 9 Several Mushrooms

* My colleague Robert M. Cannack, one of the most knowledgeable of scholars in the field of highland Guatemalan ethnohistory and culture, to whom I am indebted for the mushroom references in early highland dictionaries, recently collected mushroom lore from a Ouichean-speaking elder, confirming that some of the ancient knowledge continues to survive.

Figure 9 Several Mushrooms

The Coto dictionary also describes a mushroom called k'ekc'un, which inebriates or makes drunk, and another, muxan okox, "mushroom that makes the eater crazy" (from mox, meaning "mushroom" in the Mixe-Zoque languages of southern Mexico, and "crazy," or "falling into a swoon," in Cakchiquel-Maya of the Guatemalan highlands). Lyle Campbell (personal communication) and Terrence Kaufman, two linguists who have recently investigated the problem of linguistic diffusion in Mesoamerica, believe muxan okox to be one of several cases of linguistic borrowing of ritual terms from Mixe-Zoque into Maya languages in ancient times, perhaps as early as 1000 BC, or even before. Since they also postulate Mixe-Zoque as the language of the Olmecs—the "mother culture" of Mesoamerican civilization—it is tempting to suggest that the Olmecs might have been instrumental in the spread of mushroom cults throughout Mesoamerica, as they seem to have been of other significant aspects of early Mexican civilization.

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