The Sacred Mushroom Teonancatl

Late in 1956 a notice in the daily paper caught my interest. Among some Indians in southern Mexico, American researchers had discovered mushrooms that were eaten in religious ceremonies and that produced an inebriated condition accompanied by hallucinations.

Since, outside of the mescaline cactus found also in Mexico, no other drug was known at the time that, like LSD, produced hallucinations, I would have liked to establish contact with these researchers, in order to learn details about these hallucinogenic mushrooms. But there were no names and addresses in the short newspaper article, so that it was impossible to get further information. Nevertheless, the mysterious mushrooms, whose chemical investigation would be a tempting problem, stayed in my thoughts from then on.

As it later turned out, LSD was the reason that these mushrooms found their way into my laboratory, with out my assistance, at the beginning of the following year.

Through the mediation of Dr. Yves Dunant, at the time director of the Paris branch of Sandoz, an inquiry came to the pharmaceutical research management in Basel from Professor Roger Heim, director of the Laboratoire de Cryptogamie of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, asking whether we were interested in carrying out the chemical investigation of the Mexican hallucinogenic mushrooms. With great joy I declared myself ready to begin this work in my department, in the laboratories for natural product research. That was to be my link to the exciting investigations of the Mexican sacred mushrooms, which were already broadly advanced in the ethnomycological and botanical aspects.

For a long time the existence of these magic mushrooms had remained an enigma. The history of their rediscovery is presented at first hand in the magnificent two-volume standard work of ethnomycology, Mushrooms, Russia and History (Pantheon Books, New York, 1957), for the authors, the American researchers Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and her husband, R. Gordon Wasson, played a decisive role in this rediscovery. The following descriptions of the fascinating history of these mushrooms are taken from the Wassons' book.

The first written evidence of the use of inebriating mushrooms on festival occasions, or in the course of religious ceremonies and magically oriented healing practices, is found among the Spanish chroniclers and naturalists of the sixteenth century, who entered the country soon after the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortés. The most important of these witnesses is the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, who mentions the magic mushrooms and describes their effects and their use in several passages of his famous historical work, Historia General de tas Cosas de Nueva Espana, written between the years 1529 and 1590. Thus he describes, for example, how merchants celebrated the return home from a successful business trip with a mushroom party:

Coming at the very first, at the time of feasting, they ate mushrooms when, as they said, it was the hour of the blowing of the flutes. Not yet did they partake of food; they drank only chocolate during the night. And they ate mushrooms with honey. When already the mushrooms were taking effect, there was dancing, there was weeping Some saw in a vision that they would die in war. Some saw in a vision that they would be devoured by wild beasts Some saw in a vision that they would become rich, wealthy. Some saw in a vision that they would buy slaves, would become slave owners. Some saw in a vision that they would commit adultery [and so] would have their heads bashed in, would be stoned to death Some saw in a vision that they would perish in the water. Some saw in a vision that they would pass to tranquillity in death. Some saw in a vision that they would fall from the housetop, tumble to their death. . . . All such things they saw And when [the effects of] the mushroom ceased, they conversed with one another, spoke of what they had seen in the vision.

In a publication from the same period, Diego Duran, a Dominican friar, reported that inebriating mushrooms were eaten at the great festivity on the occasion of the accession to the throne of Moctezuma II, the famed emperor of the Aztecs, in the year 1502. A passage in the seventeenth-century chronicle of Don Jacinto de la Serna refers to the use of these mushrooms in a religious framework:

And what happened was that there had come to [the village] an Indian . . . and his name was Juan Chichiton . . . and he had brought the red-colored mushrooms that are gathered in the uplands, and with them he had committed a great idolatry In the house where everyone had gathered on the occasion of a saint's feast . . . the teponastli [an Aztec percussion instrument] was playing and singing was going on the whole night through. After most of the night had passed, Juan Chichiton, who was the priest for that solumn rite, to all of those present at the fiesta gave the mushrooms to eat, after the manner of Communion, and gave them pulque to drink. . . so that they all went out of their heads, a shame it was to see.

In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, these mushrooms were described as teo-nancatl, which can be translated as "sacred mushroom."

There are indications that ceremonial use of such mushrooms reaches far back into pre-Columbian times. So-called mushroom stones have been found in El Salvador, Guatemala, and the contiguous mountainous districts of Mexico. These are stone sculptures in the form of pileate mushroom, on whose stemthe face or the form of a god or an animal-like demon is carved. Most are about 30 cm high. The oldest examples, according to archaeologists, date back to before 500 B.C.

R. G. Wasson argues, quite convincingly, that there is a connection between these mushroom stones and teonanacatl. If true, this means that the mushroom cult, the magico-medicinal and religious-ceremonial use of the magic mushrooms, is more than two thousand years old.

To the Christian missionaries, the inebriating, vision- and hallucination-producing effects of these mushrooms seemed to be Devils work. They therefore tried, with all the means in their power, to extirpate their use. But they succeeded only partially, for the Indians have continued secretly down to our time to utilize the mushroom teonanacatl, which was sacred to them.

Strange to say, the reports in the old chronicles about the use of magic mushrooms remained unnoticed during the following centuries, probably because they were considered products of the imagination of a superstitious age.

All traces of the existence of "sacred mushrooms" were in danger of becoming obliterated once and for all, when, in 1915, an American botanist of repute, Dr. W. E. Safford, in an address before the Botanical Society in Washington and in a scientific publication, advanced the thesis that no such thing as magic mushrooms had ever existed at all: the Spanish chroniclers had taken the mescaline cactus for a mushroom! Even if false, this proposition of Safford's served nevertheless to direct the attention of the scientific world to the riddle of the mysterious mushrooms.

It was the Mexican physician Dr. Blas Pablo Reko who first openly disagreed with Safford's interpretation and who found evidence that mushrooms were still employed in medicinal-religious ceremonies even in our time, in remote districts of the southern mountains of Mexico. But not until the years 19338 did the anthropologist Robert J. Weitlaner and Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, a botanist from Harvard University, find actual mushrooms in that region, which were used there for this ceremonial purpose; and only in 1938 could a group of young American anthropologists, under the direction of Jean Bassett Johnson, attend a secret nocturnal mushroom ceremony for the first time. This was in Huautla de Jiménez, the capital of the Mazatec country, in the State of Oaxaca. But these researchers were only spectators, they were not permitted to partake of the mushrooms. Johnson reported on the experience in a Swedish journal (Ethnological Studies 9, 1939).

Then exploration of the magic mushrooms was interrupted. World War II broke out. Schultes, at the behest of the American government, had to occupy himself with rubber production in the Amazon territory, and Johnson was killed after the Allied landing in North Africa.

It was the American researchers, the married couple Dr. Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and her husband, R. Gordon Wasson, who again took up the problem from the ethnographic aspect. R. G. Wasson was a banker, vice-president of the J. P. Morgan Co. in New York. His wife, who died in 1958, was a pediatrician. The Wassons began their work in 1953, in the Mazatec village Huautla de Jiménez, where fifteen years earlier J. B. Johnson and others had established the continued existence of the ancient Indian mushroom cult. They received especially valuable information from an American missionary who had been active there for many years, Eunice V. Pike, member of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Thanks to her knowledge of the native language and her ministerial association with the inhabitants, Pike had information about the significance of the magic mushrooms that nobody else possessed. During several lengthy sojourns in Huautla and environs, the Wassons were able to study the present use of the mushrooms in detail and compare it with the descriptions in the old chronicles. This showed that the belief in the "sacred mushrooms" was still prevalent in that region. However, the Indians kept their beliefs a secret from strangers. It took great tact and skill, therefore, to gain the confidence of the indigenous population and to receive insight into this secret domain.

In the modern form of the mushroom cult, the old religious ideas and customs are mingled with Christian ideas and Christian terminology. Thus the mushrooms are often spoken of as the blood of Christ, because they will grow only where a drop of Christ's blood has fallen on the earth. According to another notion, the mushrooms sprout where a drop of saliva from Christ's mouth has moistened the ground, and it is therefore Jesus Christ himself who speaks through the mushrooms.

The mushroom ceremony follows the form of a consultation. The seeker of advice or a sick person or his or her family questions a "wise man" or a "wise woman," a sabio or sabia, also named curandero or curandera, in return for a modest payment. Curandero can best be translated into English as "healing priest," for his function is that of a physician as well as that of a priest, both being found only rarely in these remote regions. In the Mazatec language the healing priest is called co-ta-ci-ne, which means "one who knows." He eats the mushroom in the framework of a ceremony that always takes place at night. The other persons present at the ceremony may sometimes receive mushrooms as well, yet a much greater dose always goes to the curandero. The performance is executed with the accompaniment of prayers and entreaties, while the mushrooms are incensed briefly over a basin, in which copal (an incense-like resin) is burned. In complete darkness, at times by candlelight, while the others present lie quietly on their straw mats, the curandero, kneeling or sitting, prays and sings before a type of altar bearing a crucifix, an image of a saint, or some other object of worship. Under the influence of the sacred mushrooms, the curandero counsels in a visionary state, in which even the inactive observers more or less participate. In the monotonous song of the curandero, the mushroom teonanacatl gives its answers to the questions posed. It says whether the diseased person will live or die, which herbs will effect the cure; it reveals who has killed a specific person, or who has stolen the horse; or it makes known how a distant relative fares, and so forth.

The mushroom ceremony not only has the function of a consulation of the type described, for the Indians it also has a meaning in many respects similar to the Holy Communion for the believing Christian. From many utterances of the natives it could be inferred that they believe that God has given the Indians the sacred mushroom because they are poor and possess no doctors and medicines; and also, because they cannot read, in particular the Bible, God can therefore speak directly to them through the mushroom. The missionary Eunice V. Pike even alluded to the difficulties that result from explaining the Christian message, the written word, to a people who believe they possess a means-the sacred mushrooms of course - to make God's will known to them in a direct, clear manner: yes, the mushrooms permit them to see into heaven and to establish communication with God himself.

The Indians' reverence for the sacred mushrooms is also evident in their belief that they can be eaten only by a "clean" person. "Clean" here means ceremonially clean, and that term among other things includes sexual abstinence at least four days before and after ingestion of the mushrooms. Certain rules must also be observed in gathering the mushrooms. With non-observance of these commandments, the mushrooms can make the person who eats it insane, or can even kill.

The Wassons had undertaken their first expedition to the Mazatec country in 1953, but not until 1955 did they succeed in overcoming the shyness and reserve of the Mazatec friends they had managed to make, to the point of being admitted as active participants in a mushroom ceremony. R. Gordon Wasson and his companion, the photographer Allan Richardson, were given sacred mushrooms to eat at the end of June 1955, on the occasion of a nocturnal mushroom ceremony. They thereby became in all likelihood the first outsiders, the first whites, ever permitted to take teonanácatl.

In the second volume of Mushrooms, Russia and History, in enraptured words, Wasson describes how the mushroom seized possession of him completely, although he had tried to struggle against its effects, in order to be able to remain an objective observer. First he saw geometric, colored patterns, which then took on architectural characteristics. Next followed visions of splendid colonnades, palaces of supernatural harmony and magnificence embellished with precious gems, triumphal cars drawn by fabulous creatures as they are known only from mythology, and landscapes of fabulous luster. Detached from the body, the spirit soared timelessly in a realm of fantasy among images of a higher reality and deeper meaning than those of the ordinary, everyday world. The essence of life, the ineffable, seemed to be on the verge of being unlocked, but the ultimate door failed to open.

This experience was the final proof, for Wasson, that the magical powers attributed to the mushrooms actually existed and were not merely superstition.

In order to introduce the mushrooms to scientific research, Wasson had earlier established an association with mycologist Professor Roger Heim of Paris. Accompanying the Wassons on further expeditions into the Mazatec country, Heim conducted the botanical identification of the sacred mushrooms. He showed that they were gilled mushrooms from the family Strophariaceae, about a dozen different species not previously described scientifically, the greatest part belonging to the genus Psilocybe. Professor Heim also succeeded in cultivating some of the species in the laboratory. The mushroom Psilocybe mexicana turned out to be especially suitable for artificial cultivation.

Chemical investigations ran parallel with these botanical studies on the magic mushrooms, with the goal of extracting the hallucinogenically active principle from the mushroom material and preparing it in chemically pure form. Such investigations were carried out at Professor Heim's instigation in the chemical laboratory of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and work teams were occupied with this problem in the United States in the research laboratories of two large pharmaceutical companies: Merck, and Smith, Kline and French. The American laboratories had obtained some of the mushrooms from R. G. Wasson and had gathered others themselves in the Sierra Mazateca.

As the chemical investigations in Paris and in the United States turned out to be ineffectual, Professor Heim addressed this matter to our firm, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, because he felt that our experimental experience with LSD, related to the magic mushrooms by similar activity, could be of use in the isolation attempts. Thus it was LSD that showed teonanácatl the way into our laboratory.

As director of the department of natural products of the Sandoz pharmaceutical -chemical research laboratories at that time, I wanted to assign-the investigation of the magic mushrooms to one of my coworkers. However, nobody showed much eagerness to take on this problem because it was known that LSD and everything connected with it were scarcely popular subjects to the top management. Because the enthusiasm necessary for successful endeavors cannot be commanded, and because the enthusiasm was already present in me as far as this problem was concerned, I decided to conduct the investigation myself.

Some 100 g of dried mushrooms of the species Psilocybe mexicana, cultivated by

Professor Heim in the laboratory, were available for the beginning of the chemical analysis. My laboratory assistant, Hans Tscherter, who during our decade-long collaboration, had developed into a very capable helper, completely familiar with my manner of work, aided me in the extraction and isolation attempts. Since there were no clues at all concerning the chemical properties of the active principle we sought, the isolation attempts had to be conducted on the basis of the effects of the extract fractions. But none of the various extracts showed an unequivocal effect, either in the mouse or the dog, which could have pointed to the presence of hallucinogenic principles. It therefore became doubtful whether the mushrooms cultivated and dried in Paris were still active at all. That could only be determined by experimenting with this mushroom material on a human being. As in the case of LSD, I made this fundamental experiment myself, since it is not appropriate for researchers to ask anyone else to perform self-experiments that they require for their own investigations, especially if they entail, as in this case, a certain risk.

In this experiment I ate 32 dried specimens of Psilocybe mexicana, which together weighed 2.4 g. This amount corresponded to an average dose, according to the reports of Wasson and Heim, as it is used by the curanderos. The mushrooms displayed a strong psychic effect, as the following extract from the report on that experiment shows:

Thirty minutes after my taking the mushrooms, the exterior world began to undergo a strange transformation. Everything assumed a Mexican character. As I was perfectly well aware that my knowledge of the Mexican origin of the mushroom would lead me to imagine only Mexican scenery, I tried deliberately to look on my environment as I knew it normally. But all voluntary efforts to look at things in their customary forms and colors proved ineffective. Whether my eyes were closed or open, I saw only Mexican motifs and colors. When the doctor supervising the experiment bent over me to check my blood pressure, he was transformed into an Aztec priest and I would not have been astonished if he had drawn an obsidian knife. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, it amused me to see how the Germanic face of my colleague had acquired a purely Indian expression. At the peak of the intoxication, about 1 1/2 hours after ingestion of the mushrooms, the rush of interior pictures, mostly abstract motifs rapidly changing in shape and color, reached such an alarming degree that I feared that I would be torn into this whirlpool of form and color and would dissolve. After about six hours the dream came to an end. Subjectively, I had no idea how long this condition had lasted. I felt my return to everyday reality to be a happy return from a strange, fantastic but quite real world to an old and familiar home.

This self-experiment showed once again that human beings react much more sensitively than animals to psychoactive substances. We had already reached the same conclusion in experimenting with LSD on animals, as described in an earlier chapter of this book. It was not inactivity of the mushroom material, but rather the deficient reaction capability of the research animals vis-à-vis such a type of active principle, that explained why our extracts had appeared inactive in the mouse and dog.

Because the assay on human subjects was the only test at our disposal for the detection of the active extract fractions, we had no other choice than to perform the testing on ourselves if we wanted to carry on the work and bring it to a successful conclusion. In the self-experiment just described, a strong reaction lasting several hours was produced by 2.4 g dried mushrooms. Therefore, in the sequel we used samples corresponding to only one-third of this amount, namely 0.8 g dried mushrooms. If these samples contained the active principle, they would only provoke a mild effect that impaired the ability to work for a short time, but this effect would still be so distinct that the inactive fractions and those containing the active principle could unequivocally be differentiated from one another. Several coworkers and colleagues volunteered as guinea pigs for this series of tests.

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