In precolumbian times the mysterious mushroom had been known by the Aztec's as Teonancatl or 'God's flesh' testifiying to its divine potency.
Teonanactl, was mentioned by Spanish chroniclers as early as the 16th century, as were peyotl and ololiuqui. The most important source of information on this drug is de Sahagun's famous chronicle, "historia General de la Cosa de nueva Espana", written in the years 1529-1590. It contains data on the use of intoxicating sacred mushrooms which were eaten by the Natives of Mexico at their feasts and religous ceremonies. From the Sahagun's chronicle and from other reports it can be seen that teonanacatl was not only ingested at social and festival occasions but also by shamans and healers. The mushrooms god - which the Christian missionaries called the devil- endowed them with clairvoyant properties, which enabled them, besides other things, to identify the causes of diseases and indicates the way in which they could be treated.
Althought this mushroom cult is very old, our knowledge of it is very recent. For some centuries the reports in the old chronicles were given surprising little attention, probably because they were regarded as extravagances of a superstitous age.
One of the oldest reports found, is written by Bernardino de Sahágun, a Spanish Catholic clerk from the 16th century:
"Before sunrise they ate the mushrooms with honey, and when the got excited because of that, they started to dance, some smiling, others crying (…) some sat down as if they where sunk in ideas. Some saw themselves die; some saw themselves being eaten by a wild beast, others imagined that they where in a fight and captured their enemies, some believed they had committed adultery and that their skulls would be cleaved as a punishment' Shortly after their arrival, the Spanish took control and forced their catholic philosophy upon the domestic population, they would not want to know anything about the worship of nature gods. In their eyes, that stood right next to adoring the devil. There existed only one god and that was without doubt the Roman Catholic one. Therefore, the use of the holy Teonanácatl (the denomination of the mushroom in the Indian language Nahuatl, rather translated 'the flesh of the gods') was soon prohibited. If the Indians were nevertheless caught during a mushroom ritual, then death penalty was their punishment."
The Spanish reports of that time remain silence as well concerning mushroom consumption. Only four centuries later, in 1916, the botanist Dr. William E. Safford brings up the subject again. He reanalyzes the Spanish reports and comes to the conclusion that the 16th century observers made a big mistake. It would not have been mushrooms that were used by the Indians in their rituals, but holy Peyote cactuses (Latin name Lophophora williamsii). In dried shape this cactus looks a bit like a mushroom is his declaration for the 'misunderstanding'. According to him mushrooms with such a psychedelic effect do not even exist!
In the meantime a lot of stubborn Europeans, who do not believe in Saffords 'misunderstanding-theory', head for the American continent. Etnobotanicus Richard Evans Schultes and physicist Plasius Paul Reko discover in the 30's that the so-called Veladas, Indian mushroom ceremonies with both Indian and Catholic spiritual influences are still alive in some areas.
However, the American R. Gordon Wasson has the honor to be the first white person to be participating in such a ritual. His search for the 'secret of the mushroom' brings him in 1955 to the Oaxaca area in Mexico (district of the Mazatec people) close to the village Huatla de Jimenez. Once arrived he meets the old curandera Maria Sabina. She takes Wasson and his photographer Richardson to a nocturnal Velada. Both man get a portion psilocybe caerulescens served up. Wasson, with his journalistic background, initially decides to remain sober but that proves to be a conceited hope. Richardson's photography is also not very successful anymore once he starts tripping. The two men see all kinds of visions and Wasson has the remarkable feeling to see more sharply than normally. He gets fascinated with this and six days later he takes the mushrooms once again with its wife and daughter. This is the first time that people from the western world are having a psychedelic mushroom experience outside an Indian ritual.
Maria Sabina on The Power of Teonanacalt:
"I was eight years old when a brother of my mother fell sick. He was very sick, and the shamans of the sierra that had tried to cure him with herbs could do nothing for him.
Then I remembered what the teonanacatl told me: that I should go and look for them when I needed help. So I went to take the sacred mushrooms, and I brought them to my uncle's hut. I ate them in front of my uncle, who was dying. And immediately the teo-nanacatl took me to their world, and I asked them what my uncle had and what I could do to save him.
They told me an evil spirit had entered the blood of my uncle and that to cure him we should give him some herbs, not those the curanderos gave him, but others. I asked where these herbs could be found, and they took me to a place on the mountain where tall trees grew and the waters of a brook ran, and they showed me the herb that I should pull from the earth and the road I had to take to find them...
[After regaining consciousness] it was the same place that I had seen during the trip, and they were the same herbs. I took them, I brought them home, I boiled them in water, and I gave them to my uncle. A few days later the brother of my mother was cured."
Maria Sabina had visions on the "little saints" that someone (Wasson) was coming and would take the tradition to the world after 500 years of secrecy under Spanish rule.
Back in New York Wasson starts a study of the Magic Mushrooms and a year later he goes back again to Mexcio. This time he is accompanied by Roger Heim, a French mycologist. Together they identify seven different types of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Of the spores which they take back Heim manage to grow artificial fruit bodies. Among others an adult copy of the psilocybe cubensis. Wasson writes a big article about that in 1957 under the title 'Seeking the Magic Mushroom'. It has the subtitle: 'Great adventures in the discovery of mushrooms that cause strange visions.' It is published in the American magazine Life which is then available all over the world in English as well as in Spanish. It is a big success and true mushroom-hype is unchained. Although Wasson did not mensioned no names in his article, he cannot prevent that the origin of the Teonanácatl leaks out. Innumerable amounts of hippies and other fringe groups head off for Mexico, Maria Sabina becomes a local celebrity and the village of Huautla de Jimenez changes into a pilgrimage harbor. Under the pilgrims are many famous figures such as Peter Townsend and John Lennon. Yet the question remained, which exact component of the mushrooms did the hallucination-trick. In an attempt to unraffle this 'secret' Heim sends a few gram of his self-grown material to Albert Hofman.
This Swiss scientist (the one who earlier synthesized LSD) and he isolate the two operative substances psilocybin and psilocin. As an ultimate test Wasson and Hofman visit Maria Sabina in 1962. Hofman let her try the pills with synthesized psilocybine and she concludes that the pills have the same effect on her as the mushrooms. If the old curandera is as happy as the scientists with the solvation of the mushroom-mystery, remains to be doubted. The mushroom pilgrims are searching for the mushrooms for all the wrong reasons in her eyes. Because the Indians used the mushrooms only for medical and religious reasons; the hippies are just using them for their own pleasure. In the sixties there was a huge psychedelic movement which the mushrooms were an important part of.
Doña María believed in the sacred force of the mushrooms with the same enthusiasm that many people came to believe in "the Force". As the years passed since Wasson first came to Huautla de Jiménez, Doña María felt the force of the mushrooms diminish within her spirit. Doña María realized that with the coming of the white man, the mushrooms were losing their meaning. Doña María claimed that "before Wasson, I felt that the `saint children' elevated me. I don't feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If Cayetano had not brought the foreigners...the `saint children' would have [probably] kept their powers. From the moment the foreigners arrived, the `saint children' lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won't be any good. There is no remedy for it."
This revelation from María Sabina most assuredly rings of the truth. The debasement of the mushrooms by casual thrill-seekers is widespread throughout the planet. Apolonio Teran, a fellow sabio (wiseman) was once interviewed by Alvaro Estrada. Estrada asked Apolonio about the breach of sanctity of the mushrooms by debasement wondering if the mushrooms were still considered to be a sacred and powerful source of medicine.
Apolonio claimed that "the divine mushroom no longer belongs to us [the Indians of Mesoamerica]. It's sacred language has been profaned. The language has been spoiled and it is indecipherable for us...Now the mushrooms speak NQUI LE [English]. Yes, it's the tongue that the foreigners speak...The mushrooms have a divine spirit. They always had it for us, but the foreigners arrived and frightened it away..."
Later Wasson (1980) agreed that "since the white man came looking for the mushrooms, they have lost their magic." This could mean that the magic is gone forever among the shamans and native peoples who worship them.Wasson believed that Doña María's words rang of truth. In exemplifying her wisdom, Wasson stated that "a practice carried on in secret for three centuries or more has now been aerated and aeration spells the end (Estrada, 1976)."