The Spanish, The Aztecs and the Sacred Mushrooms
Image 3: The Goddess of Shrooms
Designed by John W. Allen
These Nahua-speakers were the ancestors of the once mighty Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs. Additionally, the Mayan cultures of Central America may also have employed the mushroom entheogens ceremoniously. The indigenous native inhabitants of Mesoamerica currently employ several entheogenic mushrooms for the purpose of healing and curing through divination via magico-religious veladas.
Jim Jacobs, a renowned investigator of the sacred Mexican "magic mushrooms" claims that "their use in a magico-religious ceremony is correct, but that their use is much broader" then one could possibly imagine.
We would know little or nothing of these indigenous peoples' use of the mushrooms, were it not for Doña María Sabina, a Mazatec curandera who shared her secrets with R. Gordon Wasson and photographer Alan Richardson and made it possible for all of us to experience her ecstatic and sacred knowledge. What led to these discoveries will now be presented below.
Many of the early Spanish chroniclers (which included naturalists, botanists and members of the clergy) sailed from far across the Atlantic. They may or may not have been the first to explore this brave new world of ours, but they are the first to have recorded the history of their discoveries. They traveled here under the fear of God, leaving behind them the terrors of the dark middle ages, and leaving behind them a world they were just learning to crawl out from under.
More than 500 years have passed since España triumphed over 700 years of Moorish rule. In 1469, 17-year-old Ferdinand V, ruler of the kingdom of Aragon met and married 18 year-old Isabella I, queen of Castile and Leon. This was an important step in making España a single kingdom. They had fought the Moors, the Mohammedan invaders who had ruled much of España for seven hundred years. In 1492, after more than twenty years of fighting, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in what is now Spain (Nat. Geo. Mag.). It was also, at this point in their history, that Spain began to expel most Jews from their country, forcing several hundred thousand Jews to migrate to other countries, except for those who converted to Christianity.
After the war with the Moors was over, Ferdinand and Isabella gave court to a navigator, who was also a map-maker as well, a man who claimed to know the "secrets of the winds." This man was Christopher Columbus, who had dreamed of sailing west for more than twenty years. At first, Columbus tried to get help from the King of Portugal, but failed. Then in 1485 he turned to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who at that time were fighting to drive out the Moors from their country, so Columbus had to wait.
Finally his orders arrived, given to him by Ferdinand and Isabella: the royal degree directing him for his first voyage. These documents claimed that Columbus would be sailing to "certain islands in the sea" which he knew existed. Interestingly, Columbus had once sailed to Scandinavia and may have even heard stories about the travels of Leif Ericsson, thus presenting him with an incentive for finding shorter sailing routes to the Indies.
After the war between the Moors and Spain was over, it appeared that it was very important for the merchants of Spain to find a new route to India and Asia (Nat. Geo. Mag.).
After their defeat in Grenada, the Mohammedan Arabs had shut off all of the eastward land routes to Asia. Portugal's explorers had not yet completed their passage around Africa, so new sailing routes were often discussed by the merchants yet no one was enthusiastic about attempting to find newer sailing routes to increase the trade of the country.
The purpose of Columbus' voyage and subsequent ventures across the Atlantic was to increase the resources of Spain with new avenues of commerce and trade. Eventually, they accidently stumbled upon this brave new world, landing first at what is now San Salvador and later setting up the first colony in Haiti. Eventually Columbus explored most of the South American Coast, and Central America as far west as Panama.
In 1519, the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez landed with his men in Mexico and set up a new town, Vera Cruz, and then marched toward the capital city. Within two years Cortez had conquered the country (Nat. Geo. Mag.). Cortez also began the task of ordering his clergy to convert the Indians into Christians and stopped them from worshipping demonic idols and from performing their rituals which sacrificed human beings to the gods. While these human sacrifices must have seemed very cruel to the invading Europeans, it would be more reasonable to assume that Cortez turned out to be more cruel in his conquest of the native peoples and the way he conducted his conquest than what he was trying to destroy or change. Not only did Cortez destroy many of the Aztec temples but he also brutally put down all resistance. At the time of the conquest it was believed that there were more than 100,000 Aztecs who lived in the capital and over six million Indians living throughout Mexico.
Imagine the fear, which the native population held towards their conquerors. Here was an enemy who had greater powers than their mighty Gods. Weapons of mass destruction, more powerful than their spears and arrows. Muskets, rifles, cannons. Armored suits, mighty vessels which breached the sanctity of their waters.
Once the conquest had begun the invaders immediately began to build their churches, the base core of their spiritual imaginations. The many treasures they collected and cataloged were sent back to their homeland. They carried these precious cargoes to Spain in the name of God and King. Interestingly, many treasure vessels sank after their embarkation mainly because their precious vessels were too heavily laden with treasure. Ironically it was surely their greed which caused their ships to sink (remember that these were seasoned seamen. They were definitely good at their skills and they knew how to sail their ships). Furthermore the Spanish invaders were also seeking such treasures as the Coronado's "Seven Cities of Cibola" (the lost city of gold or "El Dorado" as it later became known), the "fountain of youth" and even aphrodisiacs to seduce young women.
During this period of conquest, they proceeded to rape the land of its many resources and strip away the native peoples of their culture, heritage and religion. Soon they thus began their indoctrination of their way of life into that of the native population. This was achieved largely through the fear of death; thus the conquerors began to civilize the heathens and converted many Aztecs to Christianity.
An interesting observation which has not before been under discussion is about one of the rewards given to all Indians who converted to Christianity. This meant that if any Indian was attacked, beaten on or in danger, it was the honored duty of the soldier or conquistador, all loyal to the King of Spain, to defend, with his life, any Indian who was of the same faith. We must not forget that the Moors were repelled and expelled from España; so that the Catholic church could exist. In fact, one of the titles of Ferdinand, King of España, was "Protector of the Faith" or "Keeper of the Faith," Thus the reason for the soldier to defend a Christian Indians life.
In contrast to this above noted observation, in the American colonies the English missionary breakaway Protestant laymen imposed their harsh religions doctrines and dogma on the native populations whom they encountered and were able to convert only small populations of the native inhabitants into their religions. However, English and European attitudes towards people of a different skin color were obvious (India is an example) and the Indians who became christianized were probably not even allowed to sit at the same table with their white brothers even though they were of the same faith.
Eventually, the conquerors had succeeded in their endeavor to devour the land they now lay claim to. Now the botanists and clergy began to initiate the long and somewhat tedious task of cataloging and recording on paper all that they had discovered in the new world.
During the initial conquest of Nueva España from the Caribbean throughout Central America to México, the use of inebriating intoxicants (including fungi) was a dominating factor in the culture and peoples of the Aztec empire. These sacraments were frowned upon by the Spanish invaders, who observed the Aztec priests and their followers being served the sacred fungi at festivals and coronations. It should be pointed out that the Spanish were very mycophobic and they were repulsed by the mere mention of any type of mushroom. They also deplored the pagan like rituals and the priests who employed mushrooms and other magical herb/drug plants as divinatory substances. They wrote in their histories that teonanácatl (Teunamacatlth), a term used by the Nahuatl speaking Aztec priests in describing the sacred mushrooms may have implied "God's Flesh or Flesh of the Gods." However, many historians wrote of the mushrooms in a negative view. For example: one author described the mushrooms as "Hongol demonico ydolo" (for more terms and names of the sacred mushrooms, see Allen, 1997c). According to Wasson (1980), "teo" meant awesome or wondrous and "nanacatl" implied mushroom or even meat.
Teonanácatl or "magic mushroom" was one of the most important of the many narcotic drug/herb plants described in several codices written after the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century. The mushrooms were often administered among the common people, merchants, visiting dignitaries; and even the wealthy were known to have consumed them.
Other plants were also employed in the treatment of different ailments, divination's and for healing or curing and were also used during different seasons. Additionally, several other minor plants were also employed when the more popular remedies were not available.
Many plants used in these magico religious ceremonies more than 400 years ago by the Aztecs and as much as 2000 years earlier by their ancestors the Olmecs and Toltecs, and quite possibly the Mayan people, are still in use today. These include peyote (mescaline), ololiuhqui-tlitlitzin (morning glory seeds = ergine alkaloids), Salvia divinorum ("Leaves of the Shepherdess" a member of the mint family), Datura (jimsom weed, also known as torna loca, toloache or tolatzin), mescal beans (cytisine), puffballs (Lycoperdon mixtecorum) or (Lycoperdon marginatum). The former is referred to as "gi-i-wa" and means "fungus of the first quality" and the latter implies "fungus of the second quality." It has been reported that they cause auditory hallucinations. Use of these alleged puffball inebrients occurs primarily among the Mixtec shamans.
Second only to peyote are the sacred mushrooms referred to by the Aztecs as teonanácatl. The majority of the sacred mushrooms of Mesoamerica belong to the genus Psilocybe, and a few quite possibly belong to the genera Panaeolus and Conocybe.
Although indigenous use of many psychotropic plants in Mesoamerica is not uncommon today, the ritualistic or ceremonial use of the sacred mushrooms and other drug/herb plants can be traced back to approximately 1000 BC.
The numerous descriptions recorded by the clergy and historians concerning the effects of these drug/herb plants and their uses among the Aztec people are molded in fear and plastered in bigotry and false heresy. The effects of the mushrooms on those who had experienced them were often reported in a negative vein, most probably by the botanists and historians who were eager to appease their masters back in Spain. The Spanish historians often described the effects of these plants on native peoples as leaving their users in uncontrollable fits, claiming that the native people would even commit violent acts towards themselves and each other. Many would fall into rages as if in a stupor. These descriptions could very well describe an alcoholic syndrome in contemporary society.
The Spanish persecuted, often murderously, those who did not adhere to the catholic ways. It was because of this persecution which caused the native population to hide the use of these mushrooms from their Spanish peers. Thus word of the sacred remained a secret to most of the west until R. Gordon Wasson found the Oaxacan Shamaness María Sabina and wrote of his rediscovery regarding the existence of these mushrooms which are still considered sacred by indigenous peoples living in Certain regions of Mesoamerica (Wasson, 1957; Wasson and Wasson, 1958; see also Allen, 1997a, 1997b). The legend of that discovery is now retold here one more time so that all may learn the tale and tell it to others.
This volume of Ethnomycological Journals Sacred Mushroom Studies Volume VII presents an overview of R. Gordon Wasson's discoveries, four short biographies of the original pioneers who divulged the mysteries of the mushrooms, and their interrelationship with some of the many collaborators who forged new trails in these uncharted domains, presenting new insights into humankind's relationship with sacred mushrooms of the gods. Furthermore, there are many short biographies devoted to many of those brave psilophores who helped paved the way to the magical world of the wondrous mushrooms. Although the present study lists works devoted to psilocybian mushrooms, many of their authors are also prominent researchers and investigators of other kinds of visionary or psychoptic organisias. I have also included in this volume, revised versions of both volume I and II of my series Ethnomycologial Journals Sacred Mushroom Studies, María Sabina: Saint Mother of the Sacred Mushrooms, and Wasson's First Voyage: the Rediscovery of Entheogenic Mushrooms.
As noted in Volume IV of this series, the fear of persecution on the part of the Spanish conquistadores among those who used the sacred mushrooms and other entheogens for healing ceremonies became widespread throughout Mesoamérica. Naturally, the shamans who hid from the Spanish the special powers they derived from the sacred mushrooms concealed this use from public scrutiny, a situation which continues today in the form of (underground) psychedelic therapy in the United States and Europe.