Shroom Recent History

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

Psilocybin is the main active ingredient in so-called 'magic mushrooms'. It has hallucinogenic properties, and is closely related to mescaline in structure. Both chemicals have been known for centuries by the Aztecs in Mexico, who used them in tribal rites, believing the vivid, colourful hallucinations had religious significance. Indeed, the mushroom was so important to the Aztecs that they named it teonanacatl, meaning Flesh of the Gods or God's meat. This mushroom was said to have been distributed to the guests at the coronation of Montezuma to make the ceremony seem even more spectacular. The Aztecs even had professional mystics and prophets who achieved their inspiration by eating other hallucinogenic plants, such as the mescaline-containing peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) as well as mushrooms.

An Aztec Goddess

Perhaps uniquely in the World Mexico (as it is now known) has a genuine history of intentional psilocybin mushroom consumption that extends back at least five hundred years to the time of the Spanish conquest, but may go back much further. The West's encounter with this wholly other way of being began when Hernan Cortes (1485 -1547) landed on the Mexican coast, near present-day Vera Cruz, on Good Friday 1519. Enflamed by rumours of riches and gold whispered to him by his translator and lover, Malinche (1505?-1529?) - the slave woman presented to him as a tribute by the coastal indigenes - the low born Spaniard advance inland with the intention of wrestling whatever territory and gold he could form this 'new world'. With just 550 men, some horses and dogs, and a single cannon, Cortes led a charmed offensive against the ruling Aztec civilization, which, remarkably, fell to him a mere two years later. While it was the Aztecs' predilection for human sacrifice - the relentless offering of still-beating hearts, thousands at a time, to voracious gods - that was chiefly castigated, their application of a range of psychoactive plants and fungi in a variety of religious, secular, and prohylactic contexts caused the horrified Spanish no less offence. In this particular encounter the West quite literally demonised the other, attributing the alleged curative and divinatory powers of these plants to the work of demons or the Devil.

An Aztec Dragon

It is thanks to the endevours of the sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers, fascinated enough by what they encountered to make written records, that we have a picture of indigenous mushroom usage, however distorted it may be by the religious, imperialist and primitivist ideology through which the Spanish viewed this alien World.

The Dominican friar Diego Duran (1588) related in his many accounts the story of how at the coronation of the Aztec sovereign Tizoc in 1481 inebriating mushrooms were provided to the guests. Moctezuma II (1466-1520), the last and ill-fated Aztec ruler defeated by Cortes, employed a coterie of old priests whose job it was to consume mushrooms for divinatory purposes, especially to prognosticate the outcome of battles. Anyone predicting defeat was, however, hastily executed - perhaps a clue to why the Aztec ruler was so swiftly conquered. Moctezuma also appeased his traditional enemies with an annual mushroom feast, the 'Feast of the Revelations'.

A Goddess Statue from ancient Mexico

At the time of the Spanish invasion, psychoactive mushrooms were being consumed in a variety of religious, secular, recreational and even diplomatic contexts within the dominant Mesoamerican Aztec civilization. There exists material evidence, however, to suggest that the practices may be very much older. Several Mesoamerican codices, the indigenous texts written in symbolic picture language, portray mushrooms. For example, the Codex Vindobonensis (the Vienna Codex), a Mixtec work depicting the mythological origins of the world, shows several gods and goddesses, including the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, clutching or eating mushrooms.

Furthermore, throughout Central America, about three hundred stone and pottery mushrooms and effigies have been uncovered. The earliest figures date from the pre-classic period, that is the second millennium BCE; the latest, and simplest, from the late classic 600-900 CE. Quite what they were for is uncertain, but it is extremely likely that these figures were connected with mushroom consumption, albeit in some unspecified and unknowable way. This would suggest that the practice extended back, not just hundreds of years to the time of the Spanish invasion, but thousands of years to the pre-classic period.