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The Dawn of the Entheogenic Revolution

 

Last year I circulated a proposal for a book on the entheogenic revolution, which I consider to be the most significant cultural and historical event of the 20th Century -- now continuing into the 21st. My talks with Joanna on futureprimitive.org, titled "Rapture and Revolution," cover the same topic. In the book I intended to trace the origins of the revolution and explain its central theme, formulated in the Wasson thesis.

The book, tentatively titled "PARADISE DENIED,"opens with a description of the mushroom ceremony attended by Wasson and conducted by the Mazatec curandera, Maria Sabina. At this ceremony the ancient indigenous practice of psychoactive trance induced by sacred plants was introduced into the modern world. I am convinced that everyone who claims to have a sense of planetary conscience, and who shares my concern for the loss of our humanity, ought to know about this moment. This is why I am posting the first chapter of the book on this site.

The entheogenic revolution is also a revelation. The Wasson thesis has been the catalyst for a new view of how human evolution is grounded in religious experience, but in fact this view is the oldest perspective of our species. Ecstatic knowing is our primoridal birthright, given to us by the earth itself. It can neither be conferred nor eliminated by off-planet gods or their male intermediaries. Ecstatic trance was the primary technique of shamanism, the oldest religious practice on earth which preceded all religious dogmas, institutions, and hierarchies. But for millennia the original religious experience of our species has been under taboo -- a taboo currently being enforced with the aim of complete prohibition of access to salubrious nature-given psychoactive plants. Such plants are widely known to be harmless and non-addictive, and have been proven to heal many kinds of illness, mental and physical, and to cure addiction. The Wasson story is more relevant today than it has ever been.

As I stated in my talks with Joanna, I maintain that where a person stands on the issue of cognitive ecstasy induced by psychoactive plants determines where they will stand in the coming planetary shift, more than any other single issue. I do not mean that everyone has to ingest entheogens to make the shift: I mean that taking a stand on the issue of access to such plants will be the decisive factor in how an individual faces and affects the shift. Personally, I believe the shift is going to show us the worst of which we as humans are capable: zombie-like totalitarian entrancement in violence, division, and insanity. If so, it is crucial that another kind of entrancement should not be ignored or suppressed: the rapture of knowing the divine and supernatural dimension of life, first-hand, and being mirrored in the natural magic we thus behold.

In the end, human dignity (if not survival) may reside in our knowing what had to be denied for humankind to turn away from the earth and become self-hating and self-annihilating.

JLL: January 28, 2008, Andalucia

 

Chapter 1 of "Paradise Denied"


The Banker and the Bruja

It is the end of a long summer day in late June, 1955. After sunset, balmy darkness spreads over a hillside village nestled in the remote mountains of central Mexico. In a candlelit shack, a dozen people are gathered, all dark-skinned natives except for two visitors from the United States. The group is about to participate in a velada, an all-night vigil led by the local bruja, a witch versed in the arts of healing and intercourse with invisible worlds.  The ritual involves the ingestion of mushrooms whose properties, the natives say, heal the body, nurture the soul, and confer profound insight into the essential truths of life.

One of the Americans is a fifty-seven-year-old investment banker from New York City. Divested of suit and tie, he wears an olive vest over a checkered shirt, linen slacks, and thin cotton jacket against the evening chill. He has a round face and a modest, distinguished air. An expert in the field of enthomycology (history and folk lore relating to mushrooms), of which he is virtually the founder, the banker hopes to experience first-hand a secret ceremony that survives from pre-Columbian times. Many clues have guided him to this humble shack located at 6000 feet in the mountainous jungle. Suggestions from poets and archeologists, comparative linguistic studies, advice from world-renowned botanists, obscure passages in the annals of the conquest of Mexico—all this pursued with passion and diligence for thirty years.   Now, if he is on the right trail, he will enter the mystical reality to which thirty years of research have pointed him.

The banker's colleague is a photographer from New York, a thin, elegant man with an observant gaze. Although forbidden to take any pictures of the nocturnal rite, he keeps his Zeiss Contaflex with flash attachment ready at hand, as if anticipating to snap some hallucinations on the fly. He sits ill at ease in a rickety chair, off-side from the rest of the group.

 Respectfully accepting the presence of the outsiders, the bruja proceeds calmly with her usual preparations for the ritual.  She is a Mazatec half-breed three years older than the banker, well-known in the region as an herbalist, healer, and guide to mystical visions. Her skin is nut-brown, her face slightly flattened, giving her a simian look from certain angles. She has high cheekbones, a disarming glint in her eyes, and long black tresses. A small creature who emanates immense inner strength, the bruja moves with deft, delicate gestures. The black hair flowing over her shoulders to her waist, parted evenly in the middle of her forehead, suggests an angelic bird with sleek, shiny wings folded to its sides.

A hush settles on the group as the bruja opens a cardboard box holding los santos niños, "the holy children," as she calls the psychoactive fungi known to her Mazatec ancestors as teonanacatl, "flesh of the gods."  While the participants watch in reverential silence, she sorts the heap of slender, blue-stained specimens. Tradition requires they be eaten in pairs, up to thirteen in a session. She sorts the lot and matches the pairs with childlike absorption. With candles lit and a few relics in place, the soft background chanting begins, and the bruja hands the first pair of sacred mushrooms to the banker. He accepts them with his head bowed, looking intently into her placid, almost indifferent face.

Next, the photographer partakes of his share. He and the banker both settle back against the mudbrick wall and chew slowly. The taste of the slender fungi is musty and pungent, but not unpleasant. After ingestion of the third pair, the mushrooms induce a slight shiver—of revulsion or delight, it is impossible to say. Reflecting on the sensation, the banker wonders if his body is shuddering with excitement even before his mind knows what is to come. 

One by one the votive candles sputter out. All the participants slump against the walls or go prone on the dirt floor. Anticipating the cool of the night, the banker and his colleague slip into their sleeping bags and lay on their backs. The room is now so dark that they do not see any difference with eyes shut or open.  In the pitch-blackness, the banker senses rather than sees what the bruja is doing. Standing, almost floating above the participants, her small lithe body is in constant movement. She chants softly in a lilting cadence, and dances, whirling slowly to the left and right. Her hands dart and sweep through the blackness, making magical passes that weave her physically into the ambient currents of the nahual, the Otherworld.  In the clipped accents of Mazatec she sings what she feels and knows, using the assertion of self even though she is but the selfless instrument of what flows through her:

Woman who thunders am I, woman who resounds am I
Spiderwoman am I, hummingbird woman am I
Eagle woman am I, important eagle woman am I
Whirling woman of the whirlwind am I,
Woman of the sacred, enchanted place am I
Woman of the shooting stars am I

Listening to the bruja's song propels the banker into his own enchanted place. He loses all track of time as the visions come, totally captivating his mind and seeming to press into his very pores.  But the effect of the pressure is releasing, so he floats outside his body, hovers above it, like a disembodied eye.

The visions begin in a smooth flow, each form morphing into the next: geometries of flower and crystal, a stream of architectural motifs in soft, transparent colors.  The fluidity of the hallucinations makes the banker feel he is dissolving, the earth walls of the hut vanishing before his protracted gaze. The harmonious shapes make him think of the music of the spheres, and with this thought, a higher hearing clicks on.  He sees, hears, and feels the eruption of colors and forms that now engulf him entirely. Ecstasy is the only word he can apply to the totality of sensations flowing through him. The images he sees do not provoke the ecstasy so much as erupt from it. For once in his life, the banker has a direct encounter with all he is not, all that lies beyond his consciousness yet mysteriously lies within it: Otherness. This is the source, the origin of all he beholds and even of his beholding itself. 
The trance deepen. His visions now assume the pristine quality of figures etched in liquid crystal: so that every object appears to be, not its limited physical self but a divine prototype, an ethereal form hovering on the edge of formlessness. And behind the images there looms a nameless power that seems to pull him into infinity.

He realizes that were he to surrender himself totally to the awe that infuses him, he would float like a feather into the Divine Presence.

The banker shifts in his sleeping bag, pulls up his legs, and tucks in deeper. He is simultaneously aware of being cocooned, snugly encased in his bedding,  and bemushroomed, magically transported beyond the limits of his physical being. Through the rush of hallucinated sounds, he hears a percussive snap of the bruja slapping her body on the thighs and ribs. These brusque gestures seem to emit a flood of sparks that tingle on his face, while the tenderness of her singing moves him to tears. He is overwhelmed by emotions of reverence and gratitude.

The bruja dances in the stillness like a flower nodding to exquisite currents a black wind.

Mushroom Lovers

R. Gordon Wasson (1898 - 1986) was born in Great Falls, Montana, the son of an Episcopalian clergyman.  His father appears to have been a conventional man with some uncommon views and exceptional talents. He was a polylingist, fluent in both Latin and Greek, with a life-long interest in Icelandic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Anglo-Saxon. He studied at Columbia and later at the Theological Seminary of New York, then became the Rector of a small parish in Newark, New Jersey. Wasson's mother, a vivacious woman descended from rather dour Dutch-Scottish stock, was on the team of six women librarians chosen to organize the Library of Columbia University. Wasson's love for books, as well as his passion for comparative linguistic studies, were implanted in his earliest years.

Wasson and his brother Edward were subjected to stern Biblical indoctrination. Before he was thirteen, the boys had read the Bible in its entirety three times. For Gordon, this seems to have been a literary adventure more than a religious chose. In additional to his pastoral duties, the elder Wasson read a lot of poetry, especially the Romantics, and showed some literary talent of his own.  In Religion and Drink, self-published in 1914, he argued that references to alcohol in Scripture imply that inebriation is not inconsistent with God's plan. Father practiced what he preached. When Prohibition came along, he brewed his own beer in the cellar. Religion and Drink was certainly the first cue to Gordon Wasson's life-long interest in divine intoxication. His father also suggested to him that a similar view might apply for other intoxicants, including mushrooms. This notion took some years to mature in his son's mind, but when it did it flowered into a full-blown obsession.    

Due to prudent household management and the financial success of his father's book, the young Wasson had the rare opportunity to visit Europe on his own. At 17, he wandered freely in France and Spain, learning languages and picking up local lore. During the First World War he served as a radio operator in France, then returned to the US and attended Columbia University, where he graduated with honors in 1920, taking a Bachelor's degree in literature. His love of books and learning would sustain him all his life and win him many loyal friends.
         After working various jobs in journalism and magazine editing, Wasson joined the Herald Tribune financial news department at the age of twenty-seven. Over nine years, he shifted from writing about finance to doing business with the leading financiers of the day. In 1934 he joined J. P. Morgan and Company, was promoted to vice-president nine years later, and remained with the company until 1963. His career of thirty years was paralleled by a kind of secret life. A savvy businessman, Wasson always managed to set aside a good part of his time, and fortune, for personal studies and writing projects. Writing was one of his passions, but he never considered it for commercial gain.

He published his first book, The Hall Carbine Affair (1941), to refute the claim that J. P. Morgan had done a dirty gun deal during the Civil War, selling defective rifles to the U.S. Army. Critics of Wasson see in this book a blatant defence of arms dealing, consistent with the author's social status and banking connections. His supporters, on the other hand, argue that it exemplifies Wasson's passionate concern for getting the facts right, and prefigures his fascination with historical myth. Such divisions of opinion arise frequently as the Wasson legacy becomes more widely known and debated. In The Hill Carbine Affair, Wasson demonstrated notable skill in deconstructing received stories and sifting through blind assumptions, talents he would later apply to far-reaching research into the origin of religion.  
Wasson might have lived as a hybrid, half hard-core financier, half dilettante scholar, and remained virtually unknown, but for a supremely decisive event: in 1926 he married Valentina Pavlovna, a pediatrican from Moscow. Tina, as she was known by all, brought her husband to the subject that was to engage him more deeply than any other, and for life.

In conversation with friends, Wasson often recounted the awkward moment of his initiation. On their honeymoon in the Catskills, the couple went for a woodland stroll and came across a field full of mushrooms. Valentina darted from his side, collecting armfuls of damp fungi with rapturous excitement, while Wasson stood and shuddered. He was, he soon learned, a mycophobe, someone who is repelled by contact with mushrooms, toadstools, and fungi, or even by the mere thought it. In long discussions with Tina, he became convinced that human beings fall into two categories, mycophobes and mycophiles, mushroom-haters and mushroom-lovers, and never the twain shall meet. But Wasson was to be the exception.  Converted by his Russian wife and driven by his passion to learn about all things exotic and esoteric, he became a committed mushroom-lover and a learned advocate of mycophilia.    
     
The Wassons intended their first writing project to be a cookbook, "An Introduction to Russia through the Kitchen" as the subtitle declared, with Tina the sole author.  The treatment was loose and eclectic, covering mushrooms and recipes along with vodka, caviar, and the works of Anton Chekov. Wasson was to contribute a scholarly  introduction. Developed while World War II was raging, the book acquired a different form than originally planned, and a vastly expanded perspective. When it appeared in 1957, Mushrooms, Russia and History presented the culmination of thirty years of intensive research and lively discussion. Tina Wasson died a year later, on the last day of 1958, but her husband continued their quest with unfailing determination for another three decades. It took just under thirty years for Gordon and Tina to formulate the Wasson thesis on the origin of religions, as it would come to be known, and another thirty for Wasson alone to corroborate it.

Wasson often retold the story of his conversion in the Catskills, tirelessly inspired by the vision of his young wife gathering toadstools into her colored skirt while he stood aghast, fearing she would be dead by morning. In later years he gladly admitted that he could not say if it was Tina or himself who, sometime in the early 1940s, initially voiced the idea that was to develop into the Wasson thesis. Whatever one makes of that thesis,  pro or con, it must be noted that it differs in one basic  respect from other ideas that have interpreted history, or even altered history, through the centuries: it was not the grand production of a male mind, but the offspring of the marriage of two minds, male and female. The original taboo in the Garden of Eden involved a pair, the parents of the human race, and the breakaway from that taboo also devolved upon a human couple. In mythopoetic terms, Tina and Gordon Wasson are the Adam and Eve of botanical religion.

Diabolical Reflection

During the first three decades of his quest, Wasson was an armchair scholar rather like Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), whom he admired and emulated. Frazer was the British anthropologist whose multi-volume opus The Golden Bough established the genre of comparative mythology at the dawn of the 20th Century. Although Frazer's methodology is now largely discredited, his book is a classic that remains in print (in condensed form), mainly due to its rich and compelling literary style. Wasson aspired to be an accomplished stylist, and succeeded—botanist William Emboden dubbed him "the poet of ethnomycology"—but it would take more than fine writing to confirm his controversial ideas about the origin of religion.

In the 1950s, while working on final version of Mushrooms, Russia and History, R. Gordon Wasson finally left behind the library and ventured into the field, or more precisely, the high jungle. His aim was not merely to gather mushrooms with his wife, as he had been doing for years, but to locate the survival of an ancient mushroom cult. To this end, he began a series of summer forays into the mountains of Mexico, near Oaxaca. All in all, would visit the region for ten successive rainy seasons (when mushrooms sprout) from 1953 to 1962. Decades of research and the opportunity for first-hand experience of the topic of that research were now converging. Excited by being in the field at last, and sensing a breakthrough, Wasson delayed the publication of his book. Almost daily, he received tantalizing information about the survival of a mushroom ritual of some kind in central Mexico. To participate in the ceremonies of such a cult would, he believed, provide the ultimate proof of his theory.  

In September 1952, two momentous clues arrived "almost in the same mail," according to his daughter, Masha Wasson Britten, who accompanied him and Tina on several trips. British poet and mythologist Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess, wrote from Majorca about the discovery in Mexico and Guatemala of ceremonial grinding stones shaped like mushrooms. such cultic objects would be solid artifactual proof of the practices Wasson was investigating. At the same time another overseas colleague confirmed the role of sacred fungi in MesoAmerican cultures, pointing the Wassons to the annals of the conquest of Mexico as a possible source of documentary evidence for their quest. 

They found exactly what they were looking for in the writings of Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish Catholic clerk who arrived in the New World in 1536. His General History of the Things of New Spain presents the earliest textual reference to mushroom intoxication in the Western hemisphere. Until his death at the age of ninety, Sahagun lived among the Aztecs, Mazatecs, Zapotecs and other tribes of central Mexico. A first-hand witness to many local rites and customs, he supervised the writing and illustration of the Florentine Codex which displays images of mushroom eaters.  Sahagun reported that the natives ate the fungi with honey, causing them to become excited and to dance,  laugh and cry, or sink into deep and wordless contemplation. Some natives claimed to witness their own deaths, or be eaten by wild animals, while others reported magical flight and seeing things at a distance.

Sahagun [1499 - 1590] was a missionary of the Franciscan order, able to write and speak three languages, Latin, Spanish, and Nahautl. Gifted with an astute and observant mind, he could not fail to remark some alarming similarities between his faith and Aztec religion. The conquistador Cortez was likewise troubled, especially by two parallels: the image of an Aztec deity carrying a cross, and the ingestion of an inebriant called neonanacatl, "flesh of the gods." The first instance was a mistaken conflation of two distinct mythic images. The Aztec deity Yacatecuhtli,  Lord Long Nose, was the patron god of merchants. He was pictured carrying a cross marked with footprints at the extremities to represent his role as pathkeeper, lord of the crossroads, not as the sign of a mission of divine sacrifice. Lord Long Nose is not a Mexican version of Jesus Christ, but the visual identity of the cross-bearer images was (and is) nevertheless astonishing.

The second parallel observed by Sahagun, Cortez, and others was even more alarming, and carried an ambiguous twist. The faith of Christians was anchored in a sacramental act: "Take, eat, this is my body." To the literal mind, this command signifies the eating of the flesh of a god-man, Jesus Christ. The flesh of the savior is the eucarist in the symbolic sense, but a cannibalistic act always looms behind the symbolism.  The Aztecs celebrated a eucharistic rite in two senses: they ate the flesh of the gods, sacred mushrooms, and they ate human flesh. In fact, the Aztecs were rabid cannibals who routinely dined on human parts stewed with corn—"Aztec succotash," as scholars dub it. They made this savoury stew from less valued body parts such as ankles and fore-arms, leftovers from the choice parts reserved for the priesthood, who ceremonially ingested the victims they sacrificed. In this custom, devout Europeans such as Sahagun saw a "diabolical reflection" of the Last Supper. Like Cortez himself, the Franciscan friar had to exert continuous and enormous pressure to force the natives to renounce their form of cannibalism for a unique, acceptable form, the vicarious atonement of the Host.  Fortunately for the Spanish, their task was favored by inter-tribal conflicts, for most neighboring tribes regarded the Aztecs as a vicious, demented and tyrannical race. Other tribes did practice cannibalism as well, but not on the scale of the Aztecs. The neighboring warrior tribes  were tired of seeing their best young men captured in battle and eaten in gruesome ritual sacrifice. 

But conversion to vicarious atonement was only half the challenge that Sahagun faced. The co-existence of two Aztec eucharists, human flesh and the sacred mushroom, was baffling and confronted the Europeans with a metaphysical problem, for mushroom-eating was a subjective or mystical rite.  Sahagun claimed that the Chicimecas—"dog people," as the Aztecs were contemptuously known for their culinary habits—drew courage to fight and kill enemies from eating mushrooms. This report is inconsistent with all first-hand testimony, both native and anthropological, on the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms or other sacred plants known to induce visionary states. Violent and aggressive behavior are totally antithetical to the known effects of psychoactive botanicals. Demonic entities can manifest in the visionary states so induced, but they do not dominate the experience, and more often than not they are entirely absent. Psychopharmacological effects are subjective, reflecting the mental state of participant, and the setting of the ceremony. Mushroom-eating among the Mexican tribes offered a spiritual experience that could not be eradicated from outside, and there was no religious substitute for it in Christianity.  Replacing the cannibal war cult of the Aztecs with the militaristic cult of Christian salvation was relatively easy, due to obvious parallels, and historically the transposition worked. But the native custom of consuming the flesh of the gods confronted the conquerors with a mystical problem.  

The Florentine Codex presented visual evidence cited by Wasson to support his thesis. But Sahagun had native artists portray impish, sharp-clawed demons menacing mushroom-eaters—the first instance of anti-drug disinformation in the New World. To suppress the mushroom rituals, the Spanish authorities had to resort to a taboo enforced by severe measures. In 1620, just over fifty years after Sahagun had chronicled the rites, the Inquisition in Mexico City enforced a total ban the sacred fungi, attributing its influence to the Devil. Violation of the ban was punishable by death. Nevertheless, rites with visionary plants including psilocybin mushrooms and peyote continued to be observed in secret by the Huichol, the Tarahumara, the Mazatec, and other MesoAmerican peoples.

Huautla de Jiminez

When he headed for Mexico on the track of mushroom rites, Wasson was charged with the knowledge that the ritual he sought had been driven underground over three hundred years earlier. This added an exciting edge to his scholarly quest. As for the  power of religious taboo, the Rector's son was not in the least deterred. At no point in Wasson's investigations and personal experimentation was he concerned that the botanical sacrament—whatever it was: he had yet to  discover the exact species of the presumed mushroom—was loaded with sacrilegious potential. If he realized—and how could he have not?—that mushroom intoxication posed a dire threat, as well as an attractive alternative, to the established notion of mystical communion, he never voiced such a consideration. 
 
Sahagun's account led the Wassons to a paper by Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, an Austrian physician and amateur botanist living in Mexico. Reko opposed the mistaken view that this unidentified plant was the peyote cactus known be used by some Native American tribes as a visionary catalyst and cathartic. He asserted that it was more likely to have been one of several fungi that grow in the region of Oaxaca. Reko cited a Christian missionary living in the region, Eunice Pike, who said she knew first-hand  that a mushroom ceremony was still practiced there.  Pike condemned the rite as a vile heathen practice that ought to be suppressed, but the very strength of her objection convinced Wasson there was something worth investigating. If one were to find these ceremonies, it would be possible to  identify the ancient sacrament botanically, and undergo first-hand the "effectos narcoticos" (Reko's term) of divine intoxication. With this prospect clearly outlined, Wasson saw the path ahead of him.

The Wassons also relied on a referral from Robert Graves, who had provided the crucial clue on mushroom grinding stones, directing them to Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard enthobotanist. Schultes had attempted to identify psychoactive mushrooms used in a village called Huautla de Jimenez, located at 6000 feet in the mountains, some ten hours drive from Mexico City on a precipitous one-lane road.  In 1937 when Schultes, then working with Dr. Reko, was in the village gathering specimens, some anthropologists was already there, working independently. This team included the first Westerners to witness, but not participate in, a mushroom curing ritual. Anthropologist J. B. Johnson, the leader of the team, was in Mexico specifically to investigate Mazatec shamanism. He was on the same quest as Wasson, but unlike Wasson, he was not guided by a master idea, an unorthodox theory demanding to be proven. He was merely an anthropologist in the field, making observations. Johnson noted two key factors in the traditional mushroom ritual: the shaman performing the rite divined the cause of the illness, and gave instructions to the person to be cured. Both factors are medical or therapeutic, rather than religious, in nature, yet Wasson continued to regard the surviving ceremony in a religious perspective consistent with the thesis he intended to prove.    

Schultes' papers naming the town of Huautla de Jiminez corroborated the testimony of Eunice Pike. To further assist Wasson, the Harvard botanist, who was to become a life-long friend and collaborator, referred him to an Indian guide who lived in the region. But even with native assistance, the alleged ceremony was not easy to find. Local herb sellers tended to be hush on the matter, and the guide did not know anyone who would reveal such a secret, and sacrilegious, rite.

Finally, in a moment of pure exasperation, Wasson marched off to the town hall in Huautla and confronted a local official named Mendosa. Wasson's linguistic studies proved decisive at this moment. When he asked the man, point-blank, "Will you help me learn the secrets of the divine mushroom?", he correctly used the glottal stop of the Mazatec word for divine mushroom, and pronounced it with the required accent of reverence. Mendosa responded by introducing him to a local curandera named Maria Sabina, who immediately invited him to her next velada, due to take place that same evening. 

Sacred Calling

Maria Sabina [1894 - 1985] was a local woman of humble means, and totally without religious pretensions, but fully aware of being the heir to a hidden tradition dating to pre-Columbian times. To partake of the divine mushrooms, and to initiate others with them,  was her sacred calling, but the line of transmission was not direct, i.e., she was not initiated by elders who preserved Mazatec practices from centuries ago. Rather, she calling came to her intuitively, through a mystical link with the plants themselves.
In an autobiography compiled from interviews, Maria Sabina described her first experience with mushrooms of the genii Psilocybe and Stropharia that grow prolifically in central Mexico. At the age of eight, faced by the mortal illness of her uncle, she intuitively knew that she must go to nature for the medicine needed to cure him. Acting entirely on her own, she went into the jungle and found mushrooms with  psychoactive properties; then she ate them in front of the dying man. She described how the spirits of the plant pulled her into their world and showed her the specific herbs her uncle needed to cure an infection in his blood. She asked the plant-teachers where to find these herbs, and was shown the specific place where they grew. All this happened in a trance, but when she awoke Maria was able to recall everything she had been told and shown. She acted on the instructions she had received, found the right herbs, and cured her uncle.

Maria Sabina's shamanic calling was announced by sacred plants endowed with the capacity to speak to human beings—to communicate telepathically, as it were. This claim is by no means unique to her case. It is common to indigenous peoples who use psychoactive plants for visionary and healing purposes, and that would comprise native cultures all around the world.  Indigenous testimony is unanimous: the plants teach humans many things, including how to identify them in the first place, and how to use them. Does this extraordinary claim merely belie superstitious auto-suggestion, or is some form of  genuine interspecies communication at play? In her autobiography, Maria asserted that "to be a wise woman (sabia) is to be the daughter of los sanctos ninos." She believed that a curandera is not merely the apprentice and servant of the mushrooms, but in some sense their offspring. "The holy children" was her name for the plant-teachers she experienced as living entities, perhaps seen in the form of elves. The term recalls the "little people" of Celtic folk-lore, now understood to be associated with psychoactive plants as well: lepracauns frequent "fairy rings" where mushrooms sprout as fruiting bodies of the circular mesh of an underground web called mycelium.

When the mushrooms spoke to her, Maria Sabina felt a boundless happiness. She attested that the most powerful voices, the "Principal Ones", showed her a book made of resplendent whiteness that expanded to infinite size. They said, "This is the Book of Wisdom, the Book of Language." When Maria spoke in visionary trance, as she did in her velada with Wasson, she was translating directly from the Book. Her testimony recalls the Mutus Liber (Silent Book) of the European alchemists, and the visions of German mystic Jacob Boehme who saw "the signatures of all things" in nature and the cosmos, as if visually accessing a code language imbued in sensory phenomena. In the half-century since banker and bruja met, scholars of shamanism and specialists in ethnobotany have come to understand that her visionary practice was not a freak atavism, but a norm consistent with botanical mysticism attested in many ages and settings. 

 Curanderas like Sabina use visionary trance to divine events and sometimes see into the future. In fact, Sabina declared that the plant-teachers told her someone from outside her world would come and discover the tradition hidden since Spanish rule. She saw Wasson coming. The results of that prediction proved tragic for her.  Once the secret mushroom rite was imparted to outsiders, her life and her vocation changed radically, and largely for the worse.

At first came external recognition, elevating her to the status of a saint. A short decade after Wasson's 1955 velada, a constant stream of pilgrims made their way to Huautla de Jimenez. They included thousands of hippies and counterculture rebels, mostly from the USA, but the curandera's fame rapidly became global. Celebrities including John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Pete Townsend made visits to honor the bruja and partake in her rites. Maria Sabina became a cult figure, her weathered, nut-brown face an icon of the Psychedelic Revolution.

Her unsought fame was to have grave repercussions. Rival brujas viewed here as an enemy and launched a series of attacks, both psychic and physical. They burned down her house and herb shop. Due to her association with hippies, she was falsely convicted of selling marijuana and jailed. Her son was murdered and she was reduced to living in rags with no possessions. At the lowest point of her troubles, Maria Sabina  lamented that the little holy ones no longer spoke to her. Because she had made the sacred magic accessible to the world at large,  it had dissolved, "lost in the clouds." The extent to which Wasson was to blame for the fate that befell the bruja was hotly debated in his lifetime, and continues to be.

After the heyday of the hippie pilgrimage died down, Maria Sabina's life continued in other ways.  She was a resilient woman who would not be confined to the glorified persona that Westerners invariably imposed on her, at the same time judging her by colonialist standards. Toward the end of her long life, the bruja spoke English rather than Mazatec, and played the guitar. Ultimately, she seems to have taken refuge in an ordinary life. It is not known if the voice of the plant-teachers ever returned and called her back to their world.  She died at the age of  ninety-one on November 22, 1985, the 22nd anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Magic Mushrooms

The intimate ceremony that brought the banker and the bruja together took place in total darkness and complete obscurity, unknown to the world at large at the moment it transpired. But it was not to go forever unremarked.
On  May 17, 1957, the mainstream magazine Life, priced at 30 cents, carried a picture of Bert Lahr on the cover. Lahr, world-famous for playing the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, peeks mischievously out from behind a palm plant. The caption reads "Bert Lahr as a Bumbling Lover," but in the upper righthand corner is a larger caption in white capital letters, boxed emphatically in black:

GREAT ADVENTURES III
THE DISCOVERY OF MUSHROOMS
THAT CAUSE STRANGE VISIONS

The magazine offered a ten-page illustrated article written by Wasson under the title “Seeking the Magic Mushrooms." The term "magic mushrooms" was chosen by a Life editor, not Wasson himself. The opening caption read: “A New York banker goes to Mexico´s mountains to participate in the age-old ritual of Indians who chew strange growths for visions.”  Wasson disguised the name and whereabouts of the native woman who had conducted the velada, but there was her picture, bright and bold in glossy images snapped by Allan Richardson, a well-known photographer of New York socialites. The Wassons published their limited edition of  Mushrooms, Russia and History to coincide with the article, and despite its price, the book was a resounding success.

Life in those days bedecked every home coffee-table and office waiting room across the USA. It was published in an international edition and a Spanish version. There had been extensive television promotion of the Wasson article. How did the millions of conventional readers of Life respond to this extraordinary account? To some, it must have been deeply intriguing. Others would have been stunned by sheer incomprehension, if nothing else. Either way, it was a revelation so bizarre that could not be ignored.

The timing of the Life article favored its impact. With the end of World War II a mere thirteen years in the past, and the Cuban missile crisis looming four years ahead, the menace of the Cold War was peaking, but so was a new zeitgeist, a spirit of youthful revolution. At the dawn of the 1960s, the acceleration of change was sudden and terrific. The revolutionary mood erupted most strongly in the USA, inspired in part by a massive national trauma: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. On that same day another famous exponent of mushroom religion, Aldous Huxley, died from cancer, having taken a subcutaneous injection of LSD to aid him on the definitive journey. A bizarre juxtaposition of events, perhaps, but the countercultural revolt of the 1960s was driven by the chemical mysticism of  Wasson, Huxley and others, as much as it was by the shockwave generated by the assassination of JFK.

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How did Wasson's revelation, broadcast to the world via  Life magazine, figure into the youth movement of the 1960s? Wasson emphatically denied that his disclosure had triggered the Psychedelic Revolution. In fact, Aldous Huxley had published The Doors of Perception, his personal account of mystical vision under the influence of mescaline, three years earlier in 1954. Huxley's book was then and still is widely viewed as the signal flare for the visionary adventure of the psychedelic era. But Wasson was so adamant about this issue that in 1970 he felt the need to defend himself publicly with a piece in The New York Times. He wrote that he was deeply pained at the harm brought to Maria Sabina due to his research. In retrospect, his denial of responsibility for some part in triggering the "drug culture" of the 1960s can look naive, if not disingenuous.

But, in fact, neither Wasson's Life article nor any of his other writings proposed the ingestion of psychoactive mushrooms for the general public, and certainly not for recreational purposes. Wasson's work did instigate a wave of experimentation with sacred plants, which continues today with ever-increasing scholarly and medical legitimization, but such experimentation stands clearly apart from the social evils of drug abuse and addiction.

 


 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.