Mushroom Stones and the Cult of Sacred Mushrooms

Mention in several of the early sources on Guatemalan Maya languages of a mushroom specifically named for the underworld—i.e. the realm of the dead—is especially interesting in light of the discovery of a ceremonial cache of nine beautifully sculptured miniature mushroom stones and nine miniature metates (grinding stones), dating back some 2,200 years, in a richly furnished tomb at Kaminaljuyu, a late Preclassic and Early Classic archaeological site near Guatemala City. The coincidence of the number of mushroom effigy sculptures interred with a Maya dignitary and the number of rulers of the traditional Maya underworld immediately impressed archaeologist Stephan de Borhegyi (1961), who proposed that the mushroom idols were almost certainly connected with the Nine Lords of Xibalba, as described in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche-Maya.

Stone effigies of mushrooms have in fact been turning up in archaeological contexts in Guatemala and Mexico since the nineteenth century. Borhegyi, who until his untimely accidental death in 1969 was director of the Public Museum of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, described, classified, and tentatively dated some 50 of these. More recently, a botanist, Bernard Lowy (1971), augmented the list with another 50, mainly from the highlands and Pacific slope of Guatemala. At this writing, Richard M. Rose, an anthropologist working on a classification of all known mushroom effigies, has catalogued more than 200, many dating to the first millennium BC The majority were found on Guatemalan soil, but others come from as far south as El Salvador and Honduras, and as far north as Veracruz and Guerrero in Mexico. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, such as the nine miniature sculptures from Kaminaljuyu, the majority of these interesting effigies was not recovered under scientifically controlled conditions, so that reliable information on provenance and context is not usually available (Richard M. Rose, personal communication).

Connection between these sculptures and the historic mushroom cults of Mesoamerica has not always been accepted. Though many mushroom stones are quite faithful to nature, they were, until recently, not even universally thought to represent mushrooms at all, and a few diehards even now, in the face of all the evidence, reject this interpretation. When first reported in the nineteenth century, the sculptures were thought to be phallic symbols only, a theory that still crops up occasionally but that must be rejected as one-sidedly male-centered. To have any validity at all, the phallic element would have to be seen as one half of a male-female unity, in that the arrangement or juxtaposition of stem (male) and cap (female) in the mushroom fits well into the traditional Mesoamerican system of complementary opposites and the synthesis of male and female elements as the essential precondition for fertility and fecundity. (It is this concept that is expressed so well in Mesoamerican cosmology in the merging of a primordial male and female pair of creator gods into a single bisexual being.)

It was Carl Sapper who in 1898 first identified archaeological mushroom stones from Guatemala and El Salvador as idols of deities in the shape of mushrooms, rejecting, on obvious morphological grounds, the notion that they had served as phallic symbols in a fertility cult. Even now one hears it said that perhaps they were used as seats, or as territorial markers, or even that they might have been potter's tools that served for the making of molds for ceramic bowls. Of these, only for the marker opinion could one make some kind of argument—but even if a mushroom idol served anciently to mark the boundary of a community's land holdings, which in any event were considered sacred, it could have done so as idol of a guardian deity rather than as a property marker in the modern sense. In any case, refusal to recognize the sculptures as what they obviously are-mushroom idols—is likely to be a function of R. G. Wasson's ingenious division of people into those who loathe mushrooms and those who like them (or, in his terminology, mycophobes and mycophiles), a dichotomy that he relates to the history of sacred mushrooms in the lives of different populations since remote antiquity. Even without the visual evidence, one would have to explain away the fact that many of these sculptures, especially those that date between 1000 and 100 BC, not only represent a naturalistic mushroom but also incorporate a human face or figure, or some mythic or real animal-toads and jaguars in particular—that merge with or project from the stem. The jaguar-mushroom association is especially interesting in light of the mention, in the Coto dictionary, of a mushroom called "jaguar ear." One of the most intriguing of these mushroom "idols" depicts the fungus emerging from the upturned mouth of a toad, apparently Bufo marinus, the venomous amphibian that in much of Middle America, and also in the South American tropics, stands for the divine earth as Mother Goddess in her monstrous, devouring animal manifestation (e.g. Tlaltecuhtli, "Owner of the Earth," the earth monster in Aztec cosmology, or Toad Mother Eaua Ouinahi, also meaning Owner or Guardian of the Earth, of theTacana Indians of Amazonian Bolivia [Fürst, 1972b].) Wasson (1967a), in his previously quoted discussion of the crucial role of the doncella, or maiden, in the preparation of ritual hallucinogens, has drawn attention to another interesting synthesis of naturalistic and symbolic elements in a mushroom stone in a New York collection:

The cap of the mushroom carries the grooved ring that according to Stephan F. de Borhegyi is the hallmark of the early pre-Classic[*] period, perhaps BC 1000. The stone comes from the Highlands of Guatemala. Out of the stipe there leans forward a strong, eager, sensitive face, bending over an inclined plane. It was not until we had seen the doncella leaning over a metate and grinding the sacred mushrooms in Juxtlahuaca in 1960, that the explanation of the Namuth artifact came to us. The inclined plane in front of the leaning human figure must be a metate. It follows that the face must be that of a woman. Dr. Borhegyi and I went to see the artifact once more: it was a woman! A young woman, for her breasts were only budding, a doncella. How exciting it is to make such a discovery as this: a theme that we find in the contemporary Mixteca, and in the Sierra Mazateca, and in the Zapotec country, is precisely the same as we find recorded in Jacinto de la Serna and in the records of the Santo Oficio. (p. 348)

* According to current terminology for the cultural phases of Mesoamerican prehistory this should be called Middle Formative. The dating is in any event only approximate.

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