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Mushroom Pioneers
by John W. Allen
Chapter 1. Modern Field Research on Teonanácatl 1915-1940

Today in México, only a handful of remote montane tribes still practice the customs and rituals of what once must have been a splendid and powerful system of worship and empirical magic. So utterly complete was the neglect and ignorance in our western world of the ethnoborological aspects of Aztec and other Mexican shamanism, that in 1915, William E. Safford, a reputable and distinguished USA botanist who was than a sort of expert on the subject of many Native American psychotropic plants, claimed that the visionary mushrooms as described in the Spanish histories did not in fact exist and that the Mesoamérican Indians had never used such, whether before, during, or after the conquest. Disdaining the graphic testimony of several Spanish chroniclers, Safford dismissed the well-documented evidence of the chroniclers, mostly clerics, who described as mushroomic, the effects the mushrooms allegedly had upon those who consumed them. There is no evidence any of the Spaniards deigned to sample the psychoptic mushrooms.

"[T]hree centuries have failed to reveal that an endemic fungus is being used as an intoxicant in Mexico. Nor is such a fungus mentioned either in works on mycology or pharmacology, yet the belief prevails even now that there is a narcotic Mexican fungus."
-- W.E. Safford, 1915 in "An Aztec Narcotic", erroneously stating that teonanácatl was actually peyote.
Safford (1915) presented a botanical society the results of his study of an Aztec sacred inebriant referred to in a few historical sources as teonanácatl which means "wondrous mushroom." He claimed that the so-called wondrous mushrooms were in fact dried peyote buttons and that no mushrooms had been used as inebrients by the native peoples of Mesoamérica. Safford's colleagues displayed little interest when he claimed that the word teonanácatl simply meant peyote. In his paper, he reproduced a photograph of dried peyote buttons. These could easily have been mistaken for dried mushroom-caps, which is what they vaguely resembled to the untrained eye. Safford relied on the fact that "three centuries have failed to reveal that an endemic fungus is being used as an intoxicant in Mexico. Nor is such a fungus mentioned either in works on mycology or pharmacology, yet the belief prevails even now that there is a narcotic Mexican fungus."

According to Safford, the early Spanish descriptions of numerous medicinal plants from Mesoamérica led him to believe that the Aztec entheogen ololiuhqui was either the seed of Datura or of a morning-glory species, but he further denied that either plant provoked visionary effects (for a more detailed description of the properties of the sacred morning- glory seeds, see Albert Hofmann's biography, "LSD: My Problem Child" [1980]).

As late as 1921, Safford still held firm to his theory by again denying the existence of the sacred mushrooms, claiming that they were simply dried peyote buttons. Safford (1923) also noted: "Peyote has been called a habit-forming drug, and some writers have likened it to hashish, or Indian Hemp, the latter which had been introduced into the country of México and our southwest under the name of Marijuana, is a most dangerous drug. Introduced clandestinely into prisons, it has of course, been the cause of riots. Its use is now forbidden in México by the government."

It should be obvious to anyone who reads the above letter by Safford that he was a confirmed pharmacophilac and thanks to his prominence the mushrooms continued to be obscured from the world until the late 1930's when they were once again brought to the attention of the scientific community.

Fig. 1. Dr. Blas Pablo Reko
Drawn by E.W. Smith
In the second decade of this century, Austrian Blas Pablo Reko (1919), a physician with an interest in ethnobotany, learned that some groups of Indians living in the Mexican state of Oaxaca were still using psychoptic mushrooms in secret ceremonies perhaps involving ancient rites. These rites were performed apparently for the purpose of divinatory healing. Reko published his findings in a journal entitled El México Antiguo.

Reko subsequently discussed this discovery with his colleagues, who paid little attention to his mushroomic theories and showed no interest in pursuing this information on the supposititious use of inebriating mushrooms by the Indians of Mesoamérica. Reko wrote that teonanácatl was "Div. géneros de hongos, especialmente un hongo negro que crece sobre estiércol y produce efectos narcóticos." ["Various genera of mushrooms, especially a black mushroom that grows on dung and produces psychotropic effects"].

Reko (1923) later wrote to Dr. J. N. Rose of the United States National Herbarium that "I see in your description of Lophorphora (peyote) that Dr. Safford believes this plant to be the `teonanácatl' of Sahagún which is surely wrong. It is actually as Sahagún states, a fungus which grows on dung heaps and which is still used under the same old name by the Indians of the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca in their religious feasts." Safford's last defender, Huntington Cairns (1929), became the last person to expound the Safford theory.

B. P. Reko's cousin, Victor A. Reko (1928), published the first objection to Safford's claims. It appeared in a book written years later in 1936. Below is an excerpt describing the effects of the mushrooms taken from that book entitled Magische Gifte: Rausche und Betäubungsmittel der Neuen Welt ("Magical Poisons: inebrients and Narcotics of the New World"):

"The nanacates are poisonous mushrooms which have nothing to do with peyote. It is known from olden times that their use induces intoxication, states of ecstacy and mental aberrations, but, notwithstanding the dangers attendant upon their use, people everywhere they grow take advantage of their intoxicating properties up to the present time."

In 1936, an Austrian engineer, Roberto J. Weitlaner, who was also an avid ethnobotanist, spent four days in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, where he was engaged in linguistic investigations. Weitlaner had learned of the existence of the sacred mushrooms from a Mazatec merchant named José Dorantes. Dorantes had described to Weitlaner his reactions after eating three of the mushrooms which were given to him during a divinatory healing (Johnson, 1940). It was Weitlaner who first realized that these sacred mushrooms were most likely the teonanácatl described in the chronicles of the Spanish clerics. During this period, several mushroom specimens were collected and forwarded to Blas Pablo Reko. Reko in turn sent the specimens to Harvard University for botanical identification. However, the specimens spoiled before they arrived, thus further delaying their identification and proof of their existence to the scientific community.

In 1936, Weitlaner became the first white man in modern times to observe an actual sacred mushroom ceremony. Two years later, in 1938, his daughter Irmgard, her fiancé Jean Basset Johnson and two friends (Louise Lacaud and Bernard Bevan) continued the investigations begun by Weitlaner. These intrepid investigators were not only able to gather a considerable amount of data on Mazatec shamanism and the use of the sacred mushrooms, but in the process became the first westerners to witness a Mesoamérica shamanic mushroom ceremony. The velada was held in a hut in the tiny montane village of Huautla de Jiménez. Johnson (1939a) published two startling papers regarding his observations on Mazatec "witchcraft." Furthermore, while in Oaxaca, these investigators met Dr. Richard Evans Schultes and Dr. Blas Pablo Reko who were also in Huautla collecting ethnomycological data and mushroom specimens.

While Johnson referred to these ceremonies as examples of "witchcraft", it should be noted that ethnobotanist William Emboden (1979) mentioned that certain modern-day "witches" use a species of Panaeolus mushroom as one of many inebrients in their rituals. Emboden said that the fungus used by a cult of contemporary witches living in Portugal was identified by Roger Heim as Panaeolus papilionaceus which may or may not be a synonym for Panaeolus subbalteatus or possibly Copelandia cyanescens.