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Psilocybe Mushroom History
by Erowid

Version 1.01
Last update: Oct 2011

Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been part of human culture as far back as the earliest recorded history. Ancient paintings of mushroom-ed humanoids dating to 5,000 B.C. have been found in caves on the Tassili plateau of Northern Algeria. Central and Southern America cultures built temples to mushroom gods and carved "mushroom stones". These stone carvings in the shape of mushrooms, or in which figures are depicted under the cap of a mushroom, have been dated to as early as 1000-500 B.C. The purpose of the sculptures is not certain, but they may have been religious objects.

The Mixtec culture of central Mexico worshipped many gods, one known as Piltzintecuhtli, or 7 Flower (his name presented in the pictoral language as seven circles and a flower) who was the god for hallucinatory plants, especially the divine mushroom. The Vienna Codex (or Codex Vindobonensis) (ca 13th-15th century) depicts the ritual use of mushrooms by the Mixtec gods, showing Piltzintecuhtli and 7 other gods holding mushrooms in their hands.

The Aztec people had a closely related god of sacred psychoactive plants. Xochipilli, Prince of Flowers, was the divine patron of "the flowery dream" as the Aztecs called the ritual hallucinatory trance. The Aztecs used a number of plant hallucinogens including psilocybian mushrooms (teonanácatl), morning glory seeds (tlilitzin), Salvia divinorum, Datura (tlapatl or toloache) , Peyote (peyotl), and mixitl grain. Psilocybian mushrooms were used in ritual and ceremony, served with honey or chocolate at some of their holiest events.1

With Cortez's defeat of the Aztecs in 1521, the Europeans began to forbid the use of non-alcohol intoxicants, including sacred mushrooms, and the use of teonanácatl ('wondrous mushroom', or 'flesh of the gods'2) was driven underground.

In the mid 16th century, Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún wrote of the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms by the Aztecs in his Florentine Codex :

"The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they called nanacatl and bring on drunkenness, hallucinations and even lechery; they ate these before the dawn...with honey; and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance, some sang and others wept... When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen."
According to Sahagún, the psychoactive mushrooms which were ingested by the Aztec priests and their followers were always referred to as teonanácatl though the term does not appear to be used by modern indians or shamans in mesoamerica. 3 The varieties most likely to have been used by the Aztecs are Psilocybe caerulescens and Psilocybe mexicana. Psilocybe cubensis, which is currently quite popular as it is easy to locate and cultivate, was not introduced to America until the arrival of the Europeans and their cattle.

During the early 20th century there was dispute amongst western academics as to whether psychoactive mushrooms existed. Though Sahagun had mentioned teonanácatl in his diaries, an American botanist William Safford argued he had mistaken dried peyote buttons for mushrooms. This theory was strongly disputed by Austrian amateur botanist Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, who had lived in Mexico. Reko was convinced that not only did teonanacatl refer to psychoactive mushrooms as Sahagun had written, but that people were still using these mushrooms in Mexico.

In the early 30's, Robert Weitlaner, an Austrian amateur anthropologist witnessed a Mazatec mushroom ceremony (velada) just northeast of Oaxaca, Mexico. After hearing about the dispute between Safford and Reko, he contacted Reko, told him that the Otomi Indians of Puebla used mushrooms as inebriants, and sent him samples of the mushrooms. Reko forwarded the samples to Stockholm for chemical analysis, and to Harvard for botanical examination, but by the time the samples arrived they were too decayed to be properly identified.

The samples had been received at Harvard by ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes quickly became a supporter of the idea that Teonanácatl did indeed refer to mushrooms and in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets of April and November 1937 he argued against Safford's conclusions and urged that further work be done to identify the mushrooms. In 1938, Schultes and Reko went to Mexico and after hearing reports of Mazatec veladas near Huautla de Jimenéz northeast Oaxaca and collected specimens of Panaeolus sphinctrinus, which was reported to be the primary psychoactive mushroom used by the Mazatecs. They also collected Psilocybe cubensis, Psilocybe caerulescens, and possibly a few specimens of Psilocybe mexicana,4 all of which were deposited in the Harvard herbarium. While P. sphincrinus was identified as psychoactive, only two analysis have since detected indole alkaloids in the species, while hundreds of other analyses have not detected any activity whatsoever. The mushrooms which were examined were probably a mixed collection labeled as one species. 5

The investigations of Schultes and Reko came to an end during World War II, and little more was learned until the early 1950's when amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson, and his wife Valentina Povlovna, became interested in the traditional use of mushrooms in Mexico. In 1953 Wasson and a small group travelled to Huautla de Jimenéz where they observed an all night ceremony under the guidance of a shaman named Don Aurelio. Two subsequent trips to Mexico led to meeting the Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina who on June 19th 1955 provided Wasson and his companion photographer Allan Richardson with Psilocybe caerulescens during a Velada (mushroom ceremony).

In 1956, Heim requested help from Sandoz Pharmaceuticals (a Swiss company) in extracting the active ingredients of the mushrooms. Albert Hofmann, a research chemist at Sandoz, soon isolated psilocybin and psilocin and developed a synthesis technique. Wasson continued to travel to Oaxaca over the next few years, and with Roger Heim published the first widely distributed article about psychoactive mushrooms and the Mazatec Velada in the May 13, 1957 issue of Life Magazine.

Popular information about the mushrooms soon spread. Experimentation with the mushrooms and the synthesized active substances began and "magic mushrooms"6 were soon part of the psychedelic movement. Through the '60s, mushrooms and their active ingredients were used recreationally, therapeutically, and as a part of new spiritual traditions. In 1968, possession of psilocybin and psilocin became illegal in the United States and in 1970 it was added to the new "Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970", commonly known as the Controlled Substances Act, which came into force in 1971. Research into their medicinal and therapeutic uses continued until 1977.7

Though recreational use continued, research halted through the '80s and '90s due to strict govermental controls, but in recent years, psilocybin and its effect on the human mind has once again become the subject of scientific study.




NOTES

1. While it is sometimes rumored that the Aztecs stored their mushrooms in honey, there is debate as to whether honey will actually preserve the mushrooms. Jonathon Ott states that "embalming in honey is useless for preservation of mushrooms." [Jonathon Ott, Pharmacotheon (City: Publisher, 1993) Notes on Psilocybin Section.] While amateur experimentation has shown that it can be at least somewhat effective, it is not believed that the Aztecs actually employed this technique. [Return to text]

2. John W. Allen, Teonanacatl: Ancient and Contemporary Shamanic Mushroom Names of Mesoamerica and other Regions of the World (City: Publisher, 1997) 3. [Return to text]

3. John W. Allen, Teonanacatl: Ancient and Contemporary Shamanic Mushroom Names of Mesoamerica and other Regions of the World (City: Publisher, 1997) 3. [Return to text]

4. John W. Allen, Personal Correspondence with Erowid, 1999. [Return to text]

5. Richard Evans Schultes, Descriptions written on herbarium sheets at Harvard. [Return to text]

6. The term "magic mushroom"was coined by the editor of Wasson's Life Magazine article in 1957, despite Wasson's reservations about the term. [Peter Stafford. Psychedelics Encyclopedia. 236] [Return to text]

7. 21 USC Chapter 13 Sec 812. Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 aka the "Controlled Substances Act of 1970".