COMMON NAMES: A-mo-kid (Chinantec), Angelito (Spanish, ‘little angel’), Atka:t (Mixe), Chamaquillo (Spanish, ‘little boy’), Cui-ya-jo-to-ki (Catino), Di-chi-to-nize (Mazatec), Kongk (Mixe), Little Bird, Mbey-san (Zapotec), Nashwinmush (Mixe, ‘earth mushroom’ or ‘world mushroom’), Ndi-shi-tjo-ni-se (Mazatec), Nize (Mazatic, ‘little bird’), Pajarito (Spanish, ‘little bird’), Pi-tpa (Mixe), Teonanacatl (Aztec), Teotlaquilnanacatl (Nahuatl)
Psilocybe mexicana is a small Central American member of the Psilocybe genus. It has a cap measuring between 3 to 5 centimeters that is conical when young, expanding to a flatter convex cap at maturity. The color of Psilocybe mexicana’s cap and stem can range from a dark green to dark brown when young, lightening to a rust or straw color at maturity (Letcher 2007). The fruiting body turns dark brown to greenish brown when dried, and stains blue when bruised. The margin of the cap is curved and the stem can reach 10 centimeters in height with a maximum diameter of 1 centimeter.
Psilocybe mexicana fruits between June and September, producing sepia to dark purple-brown spores (Hoffman et al 1992). This species is found throughout jungle regions of Mexico and Guatemala, where it grows near oak, alder, and plane trees (Hoffman et al 1992), and it has also been found in swampy subtropical areas of the southern United States, primarily in Florida (Letcher 2007).
TRADITIONAL USE: “ ‘There is a world beyond ours that is far away, nearby, and invisible. And that is where God lives, where the dead live, the spirits and the saints, a world where everything has already happened and everything is known. That world… has a language of its own. I report what it says. The sacred mushroom takes me by the hand and brings me to the world where everything is known. It is they, the sacred mushrooms, that speak in a way I can understand. When I return from the trip that I have taken with them, I tell what they have told me and what they have shown me’ ” (Hoffman et al 1992: 157). The above words are those of Maria Sabina, the Mazatec medicine woman who was famously promoted as a shaman by amateur anthropologist and New York banker R. Gordon Wasson (Letcher 2007).
In the 16th century when the Spanish made contact with Mesoamerica (and in the centuries beforehand) Psilocybe mexicana and other entheogenic species such as peyote (Lophohora williamsii) and morning glory, or ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa), were used in contexts as varied as religious ritual, recreation, state feasts, and as medicines (Letcher 2007). Of all the Aztec entheogens, Psilocybe mexicana seems to have been subject to the most widespread and varied use. Psilocybe mexicana was known to the Aztecs as teonancatl, or in some transliterations teunamacatlth, meaning “god’s flesh” (Letcher 2007, Hofmann et al 1992), which underscores the mushroom’s use in religious ceremonies to bring about visions and noesis, or divine knowledge. Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler at the time of European Contact, kept a few priests on hand who were tasked with divining the future by means of interpreting their psilocybin-induced visions (Letcher 2007).
Besides their widespread religious application, Psilocybe mexicana were also consumed recreationally and even diplomatically in the Aztec world. Another reported use of Psilocybe mexicana was in diplomatic feasts, also held by Moctezuma II, ostensibly to make amends with traditional enemies. Spanish missionaries stationed in Mexico at the time reported that this “Feast of Revelations”, though a gesture of goodwill on the surface, might have contained an undercurrent of political trickery, as the delegates often became greatly affected by the mushroom’s psychoactive effects and sometimes experienced fear and other unpleasant reactions (Letcher 2007).
The Spanish arriving in Mesoamerica in the 1500s brought with them Catholic Christian beliefs and thus an aversion to the Aztec custom of religious worship through the use of inebriating plants and fungi; many missionaries recorded the conviction that it was the devil who enticed indigenous people to consume teonanacatl and other entheogens: “ ‘if they used certain small toadstools… they would see a thousand visions and especially snakes… They called these mushrooms in their language teunamacatlth (teonanacatl), which means “God’s flesh”, or of the Devil whom they worshiped, and in this wise with that bitter victual by their cruel God were they houseled’ ” (Hoffman et al 1992). A missionary guide in use in 1656 further advocated that the mushroom cult be extirpated as “native idolatry” and the work of the devil (Hoffman et al 1992).
However, missionary accounts ironically offer the first European ethnographic descriptions of the different species of psychoactive mushrooms used by the Aztecs and related groups, as well as preparations, effects, and context of use. From missionary accounts and Spanish translations of indigenous documents (such as the Florentine Codex compiled by Bernardino de Sahagùn), it is know that several species of mushrooms were in use in Mesoamerica, each with its own indigenous name; later fieldwork has determine that the two most important species were probably Psilocybe mexicana and Psilocybe hoogshagenii (Hoffman et al 1992). One missionary described that to procure mushrooms for ritual “ ‘the priests and old men, appointed as ministers for these impostures, went to the hills and remained almost the whole night in sermonizing and in superstitious praying. At dawn, when a certain little breeze they know begins to blow, they would gather [teonanacatl], attributing to them deity’ ” (Hoffman et al 1992).
Although missionary accounts state that P. mexicana and other species were also given out at the feasts of princes and nobles, presumably as entertainment, the Spanish descriptions of teonanacatl’s effects are less than positive, ranging from the mild—that the mushrooms “ ‘intoxicate, depriving those who partake of them of their senses and making them believe a thousand absurdities’ ” (Hoffman et al 1992)—to the terrifying: a less-sympathetic Franciscan friar, Toribio de Benavente, recorded that the mushrooms made those who took them “ ‘see a thousand visions and especially snakes; and as they completely lost their senses, it would seem to them that their legs and body were full of worms eating them alive, and thus half raving they would go forth from their houses, wanting someone to kill them’ ” (Letcher 2007).
By the early 20th century, the Catholic Church had been so successful in its campaign to exterminate the mushroom cult that anthropologists and ethnobotanists working in Mesoamerica were not even sure of teonanacatl’s taxonomic identity. In 1916, American botanist William Safford proposed that teonanacatl may have been the indigenous name for Lophophora williamsii, the psychoactive peyote cactus, and not a mushroom at all (Hofmann et al 1992, Letcher 2007). He argued that Sahagùn and his informants had mistakenly identified dried peyote cactus buttons as dried mushrooms, and that to add to the confusion, indigenous peoples in modern Mexico had been misdirecting researchers toward Psilocybe mexicana and other mushrooms in order to protect peyote (Hofmann et al 1992).
At first widely accepted, Safford’s identification of Lophophora williamsii as the divine sacrament teonanacatl was met with debate in the 1930’s, first by amateur botanist and anthropologist Blas Pablo Reko, and later by Robert J. Weitlaner, a linguist living in Mexico City who conducted fieldwork among the Mazatec living in Huautla (the village where curandera Maria Sabina was born). Weitlaner discovered that the Mazatec in Oaxaca were using psychoactive mushrooms in divinatory and healing ceremonies (Letcher 2007). Although he wasn’t able to determine the species, Weitlaner’s work opened the door for more ethnographic work among the Mazatec, including a party of linguists led by Jean Bassett Johnson who became the first Westerners to witness an indigenous curing ceremony involving mushrooms (Letcher 2007).
Although it was deeply suppressed by the Catholic Church, ethnographic and archaeological work now suggests that the use of psychoactive mushrooms in the Psilocybe genus, as well as the other indigenous entheogens mentioned above, was probably widespread in Mesoamerica; mushroom use likely had some use in South America as well. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Mayan language had several words for different mushrooms, some of which are named for the underworld (Hofmann et al 1992). Sculptures of people or possibly deities crowned by what appear to be the caps of mushrooms have also been discovered, mostly in Guatemala but also in El Salvador and Honduras and as far north as Vera Cruz and Guerrero in Mexico. Of the more than 200 “mushroom stones” discovered, the earliest dates back to the 1st millennium B.C. (Hofmann et al 1992). Stones found in association with the grave of a Mayan dignitary suggest that the sculptures had religious significance and were perhaps connected to the Nine Lords of Xibalba described in the sacred text Popol Vuh (Hofmann et al 1992).
Depictions of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychoactive plants also appear in Aztec art, including most famously a statue of the god Xochipilli, the Prince of Flowers, or more accurately the Prince of Inebriating Flowers. (The Aztecs referred to psilocybin mushrooms as “flowers” even though, as fungi, they do not flower.) Dating from the 16th century, this statue was discovered on the slopes of a volcano, Mt. Popocatepetl, depicted with various species of plants and flowers engraved on his body, most of which are psychoactive species. He sits on a pedestal carved to represent the cap of the mushroom Psilocybe aztecorum, a species that has been found only on Mt. Popocatepetl (Hofmann et al 1992).
Psychoactive fungi may also have been consumed in South America, though the practice has either died out or been vastly reduced in the modern era: for instance, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit missionaries reported that the Yurimagua tribe in the Peruvian Amazon consumed a potent beverage made from a tree fungus (probably the psychoactive Psilocybe yungensis) and a reddish fungal film that grows on rotting tree trunks, which caused strong inebriating effects. Furthermore, there have been archaeological finds in Colombia of gold pectorals with two domed ornamental headpieces, mostly in the Sinu region in the northwest and the Pacific coastal region of Calima. Referred as “telephone bell gods” for lack of a better term, it has been suggested that the round domes represent mushroom fruiting bodies. Similar artifacts have been found in Panama, Costa Rica, and Yucatan, suggesting a possible mushroom cult stretching from north to south all through southern Mexico and into Colombia (Hofmann et al 1992).
Today, different species of psychoactive mushroomsm including Psilocybe mexicana, are employed in religious and healing rituals by contemporary Mesoamerican indigenous groups in Oaxaca such as the Mazatec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Chinantec, Mije and Chatino, with the Mazatec preserving the epicenter of mushroom use in this region. Other groups that employ mushrooms in ritual include the Nahua and, possibly, the Otomi in Puebla, and the Tarascans of Michoacan (Hofmann et al 1992). There is also some modern use of Psilocybe species near the Mayan center of Palenque and along the border with Chiapas, Mexico, though it is unclear if these practices descend from ancient Mayan rituals or were imported through more recent contact with Oaxaca (Hofmann et al 1992).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Records from the time of European contact report that the Aztecs consumed mushrooms either fresh or dried, along with honey to ease the bitter taste. At feasts and celebrations, chocolate (Theobroma cacao) was often consumed with the mushrooms (Letcher 2007). Mushrooms were sometimes also steeped in pulque, a drink made from the Agave cactus, before being consumed. Although celebrity anthropologist Carlos Castaneda claimed that indigenous groups also dried and smoked mushrooms, the active tryptamine alkaloids would probably not remain active at high temperatures. Thus it is unlikely that this was a traditional method of consumption (Hofmann et al 1992).
In Oaxaca and other Mesoamerican regions where mushrooms are used today in all-night séances and healing rituals called veladas (Letcher 2007), the fungi are collected in the forest on the night of a new moon by a young girl, and are only used ritually, never sold in the marketplace (Hofmann et al 1992). Before the ceremony, the mushrooms are briefly displayed on an altar in church, hinting at the syncretic nature of the Mazatec belief system, which incorporates both Christian and indigenous concepts of the sacred. Among the Mije, dietary restrictions prohibit the consumption of certain foods such as poultry, pork, eggs, and vegetables before a mushroom ceremony; participants must also abstain from drinking alcohol and taking other medicines or drugs for the three days before a ceremony, and do not participate in farming activities during this time (Ratsch 1998). On the morning of the ceremony, participants consume a light breakfast of maize; the morning after they must eat a quantity of chili peppers for purification, and must not eat meat or take alcohol for a month afterward (Ratsch 1998).
Traditionally, mushrooms are administered in pairs according to the age and gender of participants in the velada: on average, children would receive three pairs, women seven, and men nine pairs. A prayer is offered to the mushrooms, and candles lit before they are ingested with water (Ratsch 1998). R. Gordon Wasson, the first westerner to intentionally ingest psilocybin mushrooms, reported that he ingested six pairs of what were probably Psilocybe mexicana in a velada held by Maria Sabina (Letcher 2007). Indigenous medicine people often have a preferred species of mushroom they use in religious ceremonies, and will not ingest other species; mixing species of mushrooms is also not traditionally done, as it can lead to an unpleasant experience (Ratsch 1998).
MEDICINAL USES: In sub threshold doses, Psilocybe mexicana have been used in Mexico to treat stomach and gastrointestinal upset, seizures, migraines, and broken bones. The Aztecs also used Psilocybe mexicana therapeutically to treat gout and to lower fevers (Ratsch 1998). In addition to direct medicinal applications, Psilocybe mexicana and related species also play an important role in healing veladas, enabling a curandero to receive insights about the source of a sick person’s illness, as well as the type of medicine and treatment to be used for healing that illness (Letcher 2007).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Psilocybe mexicana holds the honor of being the species from which Albert Hofmann extracted the active tryptamines psilocin and psilocybin at Sandoz Lab in Basle, Switzerland. He named the tryptamine psilocybin after the species’ genus name, Psilocybe, which means “bald head” in Latin (Letcher 2007). Typical samples of Psilocybe mexicana contain %0.25 psilocybin and %0.15 psilocin by weight when dried, with more psilocin in fresh samples (Ratsch 1998).
The traditional effects of Psilocybe mexicana can be described in wholly different ways depending on one’s cultural perspective. Spanish missionaries, operating within a Christian framework that labeled Psilocybe mexicana and other entheogenic plants as devilry, described natives falling into stupors, losing their senses, seeing visions of “all kinds of things, such as wars and the likeness of demons” (Hofmann et al 1992), and “[believing] a thousand absurdities” (Hofmann et al 1992).
However, when R. Gordon Wasson became the first non-native participant in a Mazatec mushroom ceremony in 1955, he expressed quite a different perspective on the experience. Influenced by stirrings in the anthropological literature that hinted at the ancestral shamanic use of Psilocybe mexicana and other psychoactive plants and fungi, Wasson traveled to Huautla to become the first non-native participant in a velada held by Maria Sabina. He wrote at great length later both about the content of his experience and the difficulty of describing it to Western readers who had not experienced the “bemushroomed” state for themselves:
“There are no apt words to characterize one’s state when… ‘bemushroomed’: for hundreds, even thousands of years we have thoughts about these things in terms of alcohol, and we now have to break the bounds imposed on us by our alcoholic obsession. We are all, willy nilly, confined within the prison walls of our everyday vocabulary. With skill in our choice of words, we may stretch accepted meanings to cover slightly new feelings and thoughts, but when a state of mind is totally distinct, wholly novel, then all our old words fail. How do you tell a man who has been born blind what seeing is like? … This is an especially apt analogy because superficially the bemushroomed man shows a few of the objective symptoms of one who is intoxicated, drunk. Now virtually all the words describing the state of drunkenness, from “intoxicate” (which literally means “poisoned”), through the scores of current vulgarisms, are contemptuous, belittling, pejorative… If we use… the terms suitable for alcohol, we prejudice the mushroom, and since there are few among us who have been bemushroomed, there is danger that the experience will not be fairly judged. What we need is a vocabulary to describe all the modalities of a divine inebriant” (Wasson quoted in Ratsch 1998).
Perhaps seeking to create this new terminology in his own account, Wasson described how, shortly after he ingested his six pairs of acrid brown mushrooms, he felt himself removed from his body into a realm of “geometric patterns, angular, in richest colors, which grew into architectural structures, the stonework in brilliant colors, gold and onyx and ebony, extending beyond the reach of sight, in vistas measureless to man. The architectural visions seemed to be oriented, seemed to belong to the … architecture described by visionaries of the Bible” (Wasson quoted in Ratsch 1998).
Wasson goes on to describe a phase of his journey in which “it seemed as though the visions themselves were about to be transcended, and dark gates reaching upward beyond sight were about to part, and we were to find ourselves in the presence of the Ultimate. We seemed to be flying at the dark gates as a swallow at a dazzling lighthouse, and the gates were to part and admit us. But they did not open and with a thud we fell back, gasping. We felt disappointed, but also frightened and half-relieved, that we had not entered the presence of the ineffable, whence it seemed to us at the time we might not have returned, for we sensed that a willing extinction in the divine radiance had been awaiting us” (Wasson 1957: 295).
Hofmann, A., C. Ratsch, R. Schultes. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Letcher, Andy. Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.
Ratsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Wasson, Valentina Pavlova, and R. Gordon Wasson. Mushrooms, Russia and History. New York: Pantheon Books, 1957.