The Sacred Mushrooms Rediscovery In Mexico

If true, surely one of the more significant developments in the study of the ritual use of plant hallucinogens in Middle America is the recent spate of reports that at least some individuals in two Maya populations in southern Mexico are employing the psychoactive mushroom Stropharia cubensis* in the context of religious ceremony, divination, or curing. The two groups for which this has been reported—but not as yet wholly confirmed by scientifically trained observers—are the Choi, who live not far from the Classic Maya ceremonial and funerary center of Palenque, Chiapas (which, like other Maya lowland sites is thought to have been built and inhabited by Cholan-speaking Maya), and one small population of Lacandones, of whom only a few remnant groups survive today in the general area of the Usumacinta River near the border of Guatemala. Pending the necessary confirmation, the several accounts that have reached anthropologists and others in the recent past have already led to speculation that perhaps some other Maya-speaking populations may also be found to have retained—or else re-adopted—mushroom rituals that were long thought to have died out among them centuries ago.

Considering the stream of non-Indian mushroom "devotees" that descended on the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca after their mushroom rites were publicized in the 1950's and early 1960's, perhaps all that should be said for now about the Maya situation is that some reputable scholars have become convinced over the past several years that mushrooms are being employed ritually by at least some Choi and Lacandon Maya. It is true, however, that colleagues who sought to confirm this on the spot were unable to do so in the brief time available to them. At the very least, it seems, the local informants are more reticent on the subject now than even a few years ago. Whatever the reason, the most recent efforts to obtain first-hand information have proved unavailing. The problem is further complicated by a peculiarity of S. cubensis: it is a dung fungus that nowadays grows typically on the dung of cattle (as it does, for example, in the grassy meadows all around Palenque). This might lead one to think that it could not be a native New World species but must have been introduced together with cattle after the conquest. Against this, however, we have the fact S. cubensis has not been reported in Spain or southern Europe, and, in any event, as we shall see in another chapter, there is a native ruminant whose droppings are perfectly capable of playing host to S. cubensis and that played an extraordinarily prominent role in the cosmology of the Maya and other Indian peoples. That animal is the deer.

* Although the species name appears to identify this psychedelic mushroom with Cuba, it should not be taken to mean that it is, or originally was, native only to that island or Ihe Caribbean in general. Rather, it was so designated because it was first described in 1906 by F. S. Earle after encountering it in Cuba. S. cubensis appears to be a New World variety found mainly—but not exclusively—in Mexico and parts of Guatemala; interestingly enough, a similar species, originally called Naematoloma caerulescens but subsequently assigned to the same genus as S. cubensis, was identified in 1907 in what is now North Vietnam. For the most recent discussion of the Psilocybin mushrooms, including S. cubensis, see Steven Hayden Pollock, M.D., "The Psilocybin Mushroom Pandemic," Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 73-84 (1975).

The use of an hallucinogenic mushroom in Choi country was first reported by a student of M. D. Coe at Yale University (Fürst, 1972a:x); the existence of what appeared to be a well-integrated complex of mushroom intoxication, for the purpose of conversing with the deities, was first published by a specialist in Classic Maya art. Merle Greene Robertson (1972), in a paper on the carved monuments of Yaxchilan, an important Maya site on the Usumacinta River. In the course of her research, Mrs. Robertson said, she learned that some Lacandon priests consumed the mushrooms in ritual seclusion, sometimes within the ruins of the smaller temple or funerary structures at Yaxchilan. The mushrooms, she was told, are prepared in specially consecrated pottery bowls that are used for no other purpose and that differ from the so-called "god pots" with anthropomorphic decorations in which incense is burned.

The Lacandones have been subjected to anthropological inquiry for many decades, and it must be emphasized that although ritual intoxication is an essential aspect of their ceremonial life, not one of these investigators witnessed, or heard of, such mushroom rites. Nonetheless, Mrs. Robertson was told by her informants that the sacred mushrooms had served as a medium of communication with the gods for "as long as the oldest" member of that particular group could remember. One cannot help but feel that such information must be taken seriously; the Indians learned long ago—with good and sufficient reason—to conceal and disguise whatever they thought might provoke the wrath or disapproval of the ecclesiastical authorities and other outsiders. Besides, with the exception of peyote, the plant hallucinogens have only recently become the focus of anthropological inquiry in the Americas and elsewhere; field workers are only just beginning to learn to ask the right questions (or better, not to ask questions at all but wait patiently for the information to come naturally, which may, and often does, take many weeks or months of living with the people and convincing them that one means no harm nor desires to change their ways). So it should perhaps not surprise us that neither A. M. Tozzer (1907), author of a classic comparative study of the Lacandones, nor other students of Maya culture considered that ritual intoxication—which has been well-described—might have involved more than just alcohol.

However much it remains to be substantiated, the reported present-day existence of mushroom use among certain Maya groups should go a long way toward settling the question of mushroom "cults" among the ancient Maya, and the reasons for its apparent disappearance from the one area of Middle America where the archaeological evidence for such a cult has been most persuasive.

As Thompson (1970) noted, the Colonial sources on the Maya, which include several useful works on herbal medicines, are silent about intoxicating mushrooms, as well as about other botanically identified psychoactive plants (with the exception of tobacco), however much the sacred mushrooms and plant hallucinogens in general fascinated their contemporaries writing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century central Mexico. Yet it has long been known that as long as 3,000 years ago at least the inhabitants of the highlands and the Pacific slope of Guatemala, as well as some of their neighbors, held certain mushrooms to be so sacred and powerful—perhaps even divine—that they represented them in great number in sculptured stone. In fact, the production of mushroom images or idols of varying symbolic complexity endured in Mesoamerica for nearly two millennia, from ca. 1000 BC to the end of the Classic period, ca. AD 900, suggesting that a cult of sacred mushrooms not only lasted thousands of years but was anciently more widespread than the sixteenth-century chronicles would lead us to believe.

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