The Mosaic Completed

Nevertheless, Wasson was sufficiently a child of the scientific age not to leave it at that (he is, in fact, a meticulous and critical scholar and tireless researcher, as demonstrated by his extraordinary book on the identity of Soma [1968] and his latest work, the first definitive monograph on an Oaxacan mushroom rite [1974]). Even before his Mazatec mushroom experience he was in close contact with Roger Heim as one of the leading mycologists in the western world, and Heim now accompanied him on further expeditions into the mountains of Oaxaca, in consequence of which a dozen or so different mushrooms of the family Strophariaceae, mostly of the genus Psilocybe, but also of Conocybe and Stropharia, were identified. With the additional field work of Singer (1958) and the Mexican botanist Gaston Guzman-Huerta (1959a, b), by the end of the 1950's the mosaic of the sacred mushrooms of Mexico, completely unknown only twenty years earlier, was reasonably complete.

* It is typical of the syncretistic nature of the present-day mushroom cult that some Oaxacan Indians say God gave them the sacred mushrooms because they could not read and it was necessary for him to speak to them directly through the mushrooms. Eunice Pike and her fellow missionary Florence Cowan (Pike and Cowan, 1959) have related how difficult it is to explain the Christian message to people who are convinced they already possess the means—the sacred mushrooms—to receive the word of God in immediate and vivid form, to visit heaven for themselves, and to establish direct contact with God. Readers interested in other sensitive accounts of the mushroom experience might consult, apart from Wasson's most recent work (1974), Henry Munn's essay in Harner (1973).

According to Schultes's summary of 1972, and his and Hofmann's collaborative monograph on the plant hallucinogens (1973), species of Psilocybe and Stropharia are the most important, the most significant being apparently Psilocybe mexicana, P. caerulescens var. mawtecorum, P. caerulescens var. nigripes, P. yungensis,* P. mixaeensis, P. hoogshagenii, P. aztecorum, P. muliercula, and Stropharia cubensis. Singer (1958) reported that his own work in Oaxaca failed to find Panaeolus sphinctrinus—one of the three hallucinogenic species the Indians gave Schultes and Reko in 1938—in the Mazatec inventory of sacred mushrooms. But as Schultes (1972a) points out, different shamans have their own favorite species and also tend to vary these according to seasonal availability and the precise purpose for which the mushroom is intended. Psilocybe mexicana, a small, tawny inhabitant of wet pasture lands, he writes, is probably the most important species utilized hallucinogenically in Mexico, but the strongest psychedelic effects seem to belong to Stropharia cubensis.

Heim was able to propagate a laboratory culture of the sacred mushrooms in Paris, but when attempts to isolate the active principles of Psilocybe mexicana proved unsuccessful, he submitted several specimens, as well as other species, to Hofmann for analysis at Sandoz. Hofmann was almost immediately successful in discovering the agents responsible for the extraordinary psychic effects of the mushrooms, and, shortly afterwards, in reproducing the chemicals synthetically without the aid of the plants themselves. The principal active agent was identified to be an acidic phosphoric acid ester of 4-hydroxydimethyltryptamine, allied to other naturally occurring organic compounds such as bufotenine and serotonin, and probably derived biogenetically from tryptophane. This he named psilocybine. Also present as an unstable derivative was a compound he called psilocine. The same constituents have been isolated from several North American and European mushroom species that are not used as hallucinogens and for which we have no indication that they were ever so employed (Schultes, 1972a: 10).

The active agents of the sacred mushrooms, Hofmann reported, amount to about 0.03% of the total weight of the plants; to achieve the effect of as many as 30 mushrooms (only a few are actually used at a time in the rite) would require only 0.01 gram of the crystallized powder dissolved in water.

Hofmann (1964) has summarized the most important results of the phyto-chemical investigation of the sacred mushrooms as follows: Psilocybine and psilocine are chemically-structurally related to serotonin, a substance that occurs in the mammalian brain and that plays a role in the chemistry of brain function. The structural relationship of the active principles of the mushrooms with serotonin provides an explanation for their psychic effects, and offers insights into the biochemistry of the brain itself. The pharmacological phenomena are explainable in terms of central excitation of the sympathetic nervous system. In human subjects, doses of 6 to 20 milligrams bring about, without any physical symptoms worth mentioning, fundamental changes or transformations of consciousness, with wholly different perceptions of space, time, and one's psychic and bodily self. The sense of sight and also that of hearing are greatly heightened, to the point of visions and hallucinations. Not uncommonly, long-forgotten events, often those that belong to the realm of earliest childhood, manifest themselves with extraordinary clarity.

* Schultes suggests that this might have been the species employed by the Yurimagua Indians of Peru.

Although he was by no means finished with the phytochemistry of the mushrooms (for example, he himself, in the company of Wasson, was still to experience their wondrous mystical effects in a mushroom rite conducted by the famous Mazatec curing priestess Maria Sabina [Wasson et at., 1974]), for Hofmann the stage was now set for his discovery in the divine morning glories of lysergic acid derivatives closely related to LSD—just as the synthethis of LSD in 1943 had led to the isolation of psilocybine and psilocine in the sacred mushrooms.

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