Article Written by: Caleb Kouns
Indigenous tribes across the world hold the perspective that entheogenic compounds are an offering from the Kosmos to bring humans and the environment into balance with themselves and each other. Entheogenic substances have been used throughout human history in religious and ceremonial contexts to promote the flourishing of life in all its forms.
This ancient perspective risks being overwhelmed by the narrow focus of the psycho-medico-pharma model of psychedelics for human healing. The “use” of psychedelics for “improving mental health outcomes” is a 21st-century, western concept. It sets the horizon for entheogens firmly in the realm of the reductionist, scientific, capitalistic, and mechanistic worldview. The Indigenous peoples know that they offer so much more.
The first evidence of entheogenic mushroom use dates back perhaps nine or ten thousand years, found in Africa, Australia, and Spain. There is also more recent evidence of ceremonial use of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom in Scandinavia, Siberia, and Western Europe. But the most well-known and best-preserved traditions come from southern Mexico and Central America. Though he was not the first to discover and write about them, amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson’s account of his trip to Mexico and meeting with Maria Sabina, a Mazatec curandera, published in Life magazine in 1957, was the first time widespread exposure was given to these rituals and traditions.
Along with the Mazatecs, there are numerous other indigenous groups that have documented traditional ceremonial use of mushrooms, many of which remain in practice to this day. Among these groups are the Matlazincs in the state of Mexico; the Totanacs in Veracruz; the Nahuatls in the states of Puebla, Morelos, and Mexico; and then in the state of Oaxaca there are the Zapotecs. Though there are regional, cultural, and language differences in each of these varying traditions, the core of the ceremonies remains very similar.
The reason there is such a high concentration of indigenous entheogenic ceremonies in Oaxaca is twofold. First, there are many and varied psilocybin mushroom species that grow naturally in the mountainous cloud forests of that area. By some estimates, over fifty varieties grow throughout the state! Second, when the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire and began colonizing Mexico in the mid-sixteenth century, indigenous practices such as mushroom ceremonies, among many others, were seen as heretical and outlawed. The mountainous terrain of Oaxaca provided welcome protection from the long reach of the Spanish interlopers, allowing these sacred practices to be preserved in the bosom of Oaxaca’s protective peaks. Still, caution had to be practiced to keep these traditions safe and whole. Ceremonies began to be conducted for one person at a time, under the cover of night. This secrecy helped keep and save the traditions but also kept them hidden from the rest of the world.
It wasn’t until Marina Sabina, a Mazatec curandera, agreed to facilitate a mushroom ceremony for R. Gordon Wasson, an American author, and ethnomycologist, that the West was introduced to the healing power of psilocybin. While we can be grateful to have been introduced to such a powerful medicine, it’s important to remember that there was a tremendous price Sabina and the Mazatec community paid for this exchange. After the publicity of Wasson’s visit, Sabina’s small village was inundated with Westerners seeking the experience they’d read about. This brought attention to Sabina by the police, as well as anger and blame from the community. As a result, she was ostracized, her house was burned down, her brother was murdered, and she was jailed for a short time. In the end, Sabina regretted introducing Wasson to the practice.
Because of this fateful meeting between Wasson and Sabina, the Mazatec tradition is the most well-known to us here in the West. While the details might be a little different than other traditions (for Mazatecs, Catholic prayers, saints, and iconography are standard fare due to the colonial influence of the Spanish on the entire Mexican culture), the main elements of the mushroom ceremony are very similar throughout all the mesoamerican cultures, including the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Zapotec, Mazatec, among many others.
The first element is cleansing. Participants are often asked to abstain from certain activities such as strenuous travel or sexual intercourse, and from certain kinds of food and drink such as sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. It is seen as important to preserve one’s energy in the time leading up to a ceremony, for strength and focus, and to clean the system out a little bit in order for the medicine to be able to do its work as effectively as possible.
The shaman or curandera will also do a variety of cleansing rituals, known as verandahs or limpias, on the participants, the space, and the mushrooms themselves. Herbs, copal, candles, incense, aguardiente, and tobacco are some of the elements that may be used in cleansing and preparation. During this preparation phase, forms of divination may also be used to determine the work to be done–a diagnosis of sorts. In some Mazatec traditions, specially chosen maize kernels would be dropped onto a cloth and their configuration would provide insight. On the Congregation’s recent inaugural trip to Oaxaca to participate in a Zapotec ceremony, the curandera cracked an egg into a glass of water and interpreted its form in order to determine the reason someone had been called to the sacred mushrooms.
Once the cleansing has been completed and the space is prepared, the mushrooms are then given to the participants. In the Mazatec tradition, the mushrooms are always presented in pairs, as they are believed to be married, and only one species of mushroom is consumed at a time. Traditionally these ceremonies only take place at certain times of the year when the mushrooms are in season, as they are always harvested and consumed fresh.
During the ceremony, the curandera will call on the elements, their ancestors, “principal beings”, and the mushrooms themselves for guidance and knowledge. Regardless of which tradition you choose to look at, this belief that the mushrooms and all the elements of nature are beings in and of themselves is foundational. The mushrooms are not only sacred, not only alive, but imbued with soul and intelligence, and knowledge and the curandera invokes their ancestral inheritance and knowledge to commune with them, to be led and taught by them. The curandera is simply a vessel, a conduit, through which the sacred is given a voice, interpreted for the benefit of those who would hear it.
The expansiveness of the Indigenous ceremonies that commune with ancestors, the earth, the spirit world, the intelligence and wisdom of the mushrooms, and the innermost essences of life itself stands in stark contrast to the narrow focus of the psycho-medico-pharma model currently controlling our research in the west. If we look to the mushroom ceremony to expand our awareness, our communion with the Divine, our alignment with our essence, and for the freedom to express our love without fear then that’s what we receive. If we look to the psilocybin compound to reduce our depression symptoms or anxiety symptoms, then that’s what we receive. Fungus is the most ancient kingdom of organisms on the Earth pre-dating both plants and animals. They have ancient wisdom to offer for those who have ears to hear. We evolved directly from them.
It is a true gift, this primordial knowledge that has been passed down for millennia, preserved and guarded in the face of time and change. The embers of this ancient technology have been held and kept warm in the hills of Oaxaca, among other places, quietly waiting. Now they are being fanned into lively flames once again.
On your next journey, take a moment to reflect with gratitude on what a gift we’ve been given by the stewards of these sacred practices. Not only did they discover this beautiful sacred medicine and learn how to use it with care and respect, not only did they guard this knowledge for thousands of years and through so much change and upheaval, but they chose to take a risk and share it back with the world. A gift for which we should all bow our heads in gratitude and offer thanks.