Shroom Late History

A close up of a lovely Psilocybe semilanceata Image Courtesy of Peter Bergson

During the period of Spanish rule that followed the conquering of the Aztecs, mushroom usage was persecuted, to the point it started disappearing from view, and also documented record for some 400 years. It therefore remains unclear how – or indeed whether – mushrooming practices continued in an unbroken fashion to modern times. Nevertheless, the discovery in the early and mid- twentieth century that indigenous Mexicans were still using mushrooms in syncretic religious observances, was to have a dramatic impact on Western culture.

The early twentieth century, was a time when some Western researchers were attentively trying to unravel as to just what paths the major religions of the world had been shaped along, and undertook research to see what role, if any, sacred mushrooms and plants had played in it. It was a kind of equivalent race for the moon of its time, with many well known and respected gentleman of the time, all desperately trying to outdo one another to uncover the unequivocal proof as to the ancient origins of religion, and whether drug sacraments played an important part in their development. Out of the flurry of investigation and discovery that ensued from this, it eventually fell to a party of linguists and anthropologists, led by Jean Bassett Johnson (1916-1944) on an expedition to Mexico, who eventually became the first Westerners to witness an indigenous mushroom curing ceremony. When word got out that these practices still existed it caused a lot of excitement in certain quarters as it was a vindication of many of the researchers own philosophical beliefs. To them it was the equivalent missing link, and provided proof in support of the theories that remnants from these ancient mushroom religions were still in evidence today. It was a great boost, and gave many researches a shot in the arm to carry on with renewed vigour.

Perhaps the most notable name to arise from this period was a respectable gentleman called Robert Gordon Wasson (1898-1986), who had been a vice-president from 1943 till his retirement with JP Morgan & Co. Remarkably, over these years, this man had developed a passionate and consuming interest in all things to do with the role of mushrooms and fungi in human cultures. Once he had heard that the mythological teonanacatl of the Aztecs was not only a mushroom but that it was still in use, it was inevitable that he would make the journey to Mexico to investigate the matter for himself.

Wasson soon thereafter began to accumulate a vast amount of evidence, from philology, etymology, ethnography, folklore and fairy tale, to explain the provenance of their different reactions to all things fungal, much of it making up the bedrock of later published works such as the two volume opus, Mushrooms, Russia and History (1957) amongst others.

In 1952, alerted by letters as to the existence of the Mesoamercian mushrooms stones, and to the fact that teonanacatl had been a mushroom Wasson, was put in touch with Eunice Pike, a missionary resident in Huautla. Pike, exasperated by her inability to sway the locals from their heathen practices, was able to confirm that mushrooms were indeed used in curing rituals. She added incredulously that the Mazatecs believed the mushroom to have a ‘personality’, which spoke through the curanderos, the healers, divining the cause or cure of illness and revealing the location of lost or stolen property. This was exactly what Gordon Wasson wanted to hear and, wasting no time, began to organise an expedition. In the late summer of 1953 (mushrooms season), he made what was to be the first of ten successive trips to Mexico on the trail of psychoactive mushrooms.

The fist trip resulted in Wasson successfully witnessing a velada, Wasson’s term for an all night mushroom vigil. Wasson was at last able to witness, and make detailed records of, an authentic ceremony.

The American’s second trip to Mexico, in 1954, - to the mountainous region of north-east Oaxaca – generated further ethnographic data on indigenous use of mushrooms but it is on the American’s third trip, returning to Huautla with society photographer Allan Richardson, he had his now infamous meeting; with the curandera Maria Sabina (1894-1985): not only was she a locally respected and charismatic healer but, most importantly of all, she agreed to let both Wasson and Richardson eat the ‘sacred’ mushrooms. Thus, they became the first Westerners ever to intentionally do so.

Shortly after eating six pairs of the grubby, acrid mushrooms, Wasson felt as if his soul had been scooped out of his body. Visions of geometric patterns gave way to ‘architectural structures, with colonnades and architraves, patios of regal splendour, the stone-work all in brilliant colours, gold and onyx and ebony, all most harmoniously and ingeniously contrived, in richest magnificence extending beyond the reach of sight…’ He feat himself a ‘disembodied eye’ floating above strange, new landscapes, and then, somehow, a witness to the Platonic realm of forms. For a moment he felt as if he understood the true meaning of the word ‘ecstasy’.

Wasson published many articles and works in between his journey’s to Mexico. These did much to propel his own standing amongst his peers , but also helped to provide insights into the mysterious world of the magic mushroom to a curious and interested West.

The History continues... click here .