Jules Evans, History of Emotions blog, talks about the ‘magic’ behind the mushrooms in Mexico. April, 2018.
I’m travelling in Mexico, researching the indigenous culture of magic mushrooms, or hongos as they are called here. Last weekend, I visited Huautla de Jimenez, a town eight hours drive from Mexico City, in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a remote mountain town, mainly populated by Mazatec Indians who speak Mazatec and also communicate through whistling. This little town was where Westerners discovered magic mushrooms. It was the spark that started the fire of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s.
I should say at the outset that I’m no Mexico expert, nor an anthropologist or ethno-botanist. I travelled with two historians of Mexico – Ben Smith of Warwick University and Nathanial Morris of Oxford – who are researching an AHRC project on the war on drugs. In the meantime here are my early impressions (I’ll correct my errors if you point them out).
There are records of Indian tribes taking mushrooms since at least the time of the conquistadors. Friars write disapprovingly of the Aztecs taking a substance they called teonanacatl, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in order to prophesy and discover the will of their gods – perhaps it was through mushrooms that they arrived at the uncanny prophesy that bearded men would come from the East and rule over them. They also took mushrooms for fun – there’s an anecdote of the Aztec aristocracy consuming them at a wedding dance.
Western ethno-botanists assumed that teonanocatl was peyote, which western scientists discovered was psycho-active in the 19th century. But in the 1930s, several scholars suggested it might be mushrooms instead – a theory finally proved in 1938 by famed ethno-botanist Richard Evans-Schultes, when he visited Huautla and identified the shrooms. He realized there are as many as 30 types of Mexican mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic drug. The Mazatec Indians still consumed them in ceremonies called veladas, in which shamans called curanderas used them to cure people of illnesses, physical and spiritual.
In the 1950s, a New York banker called Gordon Wasson made numerous laborious journeys to Huautla, driven by a passion for mushrooms and a desire to become the first Westerner to consume the hongos. In 1955, he got his wish. A curandera called Maria Sabina allowed him and his photographer into a velada after Wasson made up a story about needing the hongos‘ help to cure his sick son.
He was amazed by the experience. ‘For the first time, the word ecstasy took on a real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.’ He drew on the theory of Aldous Huxley that psychedelics give one temporary access to the same mystical experience attained by religious virtuosos like St John of the Cross, and this experience lies at the esoteric core of all religions.
Although Wasson had said he would protect the secrecy of the sacred ritual, he sold the story and photographs of the velada for several thousand dollars to Life magazine, where a sub-editor coined the phrase ‘magic mushrooms’. He also gave enough clues in his writing for the curious to be able to identify the village as Huautla.
There are tall stories about all kinds of celebrities descending on Huautla during that brief mushroom frenzy – John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel – but we do know for sure that the psychologist Timothy Leary visited the town, took the shrooms, had a mystical experience, then returned to Harvard to establish the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which spread the gospel of psychedelics throughout western culture.
Leary and Wasson helped to shape the idea that psychedelics lead to a mystical, ecstatic experience, an experience of unitive consciousness beyond time, space and culture. This idea is still very influential in American psychedelic science – in 2006, American researchers at John Hopkins University started to study psilocybin again after a hiatus of 40 years, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences.’ This mystical experience of being one with all things helps free people from their habitual ego patterns and releases them – according to recent trials – from depression, addiction, even fear of death.