Mushroom John's Shroom World Presents:
The Aztecs and the Sacred Mushrooms
|Psychoactive fungi of the genera Psilocybe and possibly Panaeolus have
been traditionally used for over 3000 years. The use of these interesting
fungi in magico-religious ceremonies as divinatory sacraments among several
tribes belonging to the Nahua speaking Indians of Mesoamerica is well
documented (Wasson & Wasson 1957; Schultes 1939, 1940).
The Nahua are the ancestors of the once mighty Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs. The Mayan cultures of Central America may also have employed the mushroom entheogens ceremoniously. The indigenous native inhabitants of Mesoamerica currently employ several entheogenic mushrooms for the purpose of healing and curing through divination via magico-religious veladas.
Jim Jacobs, a renown investigator of the sacred Mexican "magic mushrooms" claims that "their use in a magico-religious ceremony is correct, but that their use is much broader" then one could possibly imagine.
To began with, what do we know of the existence of the sacred mushrooms? Were they always with us and why did they just recently resurface into the 20th century of entheogenism? And why did it take over four hundred years of mystery shrouded in silence and secrecy before the mushroom entheogens resurfaced into our modern world? We must remember and never forget that it was the Mazatec curandera Doña María Sabina, the wisest of sabio's who shared her secrets with R. Gordon Wasson and photographer Alan Richardson and made it possible for all of us to experience her ecstatic and sacred knowledge.
Many of the early Spanish chroniclers (which included naturalists, botanists and members of the clergy) sailed from far across the Atlantic. They were the first to explore this brave new world of ours. They traveled here under the fear of God, leaving behind them the terrors of the dark middle ages, leaving behind them a world they were just learning to crawl out from under.
More than 500 years have passed since España triumphed over 700 years of Moorish rule. In 1469, 17-year-old Ferdinand V, ruler of the kingdom of Aragon met and married 18 year-old Isabella I, queen of Castile and Leon. This was an important step in making España a single kingdom. They had fought the Moors, the Mohammedan invaders who had ruled much of España for hundreds of years (700). In 1492, after more than twenty years of fighting, Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in what is now Spain. It was also, at this point in their history, that Spain began to expel most Jews from their country, forcing several hundred thousand Jews to migrate to other countries, except for those who converted to their religion of Christianity.
After the war with the Moors was over, Ferdinand and Isabella gave court to a navigator, who was also a map-maker as well, a man who claimed to know the "secrets of the winds." This man was Christopher Columbus. A man who had dreamed of sailing west for more than twenty years. At first, Columbus tried to get help from the King of Portugal, but that failed. Then in 1485, he turned to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who at that time, were fighting to drive out the Moors from their country, so Columbus had to wait.
Finally his orders arrived, given to him by Ferdinand and Isabella, the royal degree directing him for his first voyage. These documents claimed that Columbus would be sailing to "certain islands in the sea" which he knew existed. Interestingly, Columbus had once sailed to Scandinavia and may have even heard stories about the travels of Leif Ericsson, thus presenting him with an incentive for finding shorter sailing routes to the Indies.
After the war between the Moors and Spain was over, it appeared that it was very important for the merchants of Spain to find a new route to India and Asia. After their defeat in Grenada, the Mohammedan Arabs had shut off all of the eastward land routes to Asia and Portugal's explorers had not yet completed their passage around Africa, so new sailing routes were often discussed by the merchants yet no one was enthusiastic about attempting to find newer sailing routes to increase the trade of the country.
The purpose of Columbus' voyage and subsequent ventures across the Atlantic was to increase the resources of Spain with new avenues of commerce and trade. Eventually, they accidentally stumbled upon this brave new world, landing first at what is now El Salvador and later setting up the first colony in Haiti. Eventually Columbus explored most of the South American Coast, and Central America as far west as Panama.
In 1519, the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez landed with his men in Mexico and set up a new town, Vera Cruz, and then marched toward the capital city. Within two years Cortez had conquered the country. Cortez also began the task of ordering his clergy to convert the Indians into Christians and stopped them from worshipping demonic idols and from performing their rituals which sacrificed human beings to the gods. While these human sacrifices must have seemed very cruel to the invading Europeans, it would be more reasonable to assume that Cortez turned out to be more cruel in his conquest of the native peoples and the way he conducted his conquest than what he was trying to destroy or change. Not only did Cortez destroy many of the Aztec temples but he also brutally put down all resistance. At the time of the conquest it was believed that there were more than 100,000 Aztecs who lived in the capital and over six million Indians living throughout Mexico.
Imagine the fear which the native population held towards their conquerors. Here was an enemy who had greater powers than their mighty Gods. Weapons of mass destruction, more powerful than their spears and arrows. Muskets, rifles, cannons. Armored suits, mighty vessels which breached the sanctity of the waters.
Once the conquest had begun the invaders immediately began to build their churches, the base core of their spiritual imaginations. Then they began to strip the native inhabitants of their heritage, culture and resources. The many treasures they collected and cataloged were sent back to their homeland. They carried these precious cargoes to Spain in the name of God and King. Interestingly, many treasure vessels sank or sunk soon after their embarkation; mainly because their precious vessels were too heavily laden with treasure and ironically it was surely their greed which caused their ships to sink; remember that these were seasoned seamen. They were definitely good at their skills and they knew how to sail their ships. Furthermore the Spanish invaders were also seeking such treasures as the Coronado's "Seven Cities of Cibola" (the lost city of gold) or "El Dorado" as it later became known; the "fountain of youth" and even aphrodisiacs to seduce young women.
During this period of conquest, they proceeded to rape the land of its many resources and strip away the native peoples of their culture, heritage and religion. Soon they thus began their indoctrination of their way of life into that of the native population. This was achieved largely through the fear of death; thus the conquerors began to civilize the heathens of their pagan like rituals practices and converted many Aztecs to Christianity.
An interesting observation which has not before been under discussion is about one of the rewards given to all Indians who converted to Christianity. This meant that if any Indian was attacked, beaten on or in danger, it was the honored duty of the soldier or conquistador, all loyal to the King of Spain, to defend, with his life, any Indian who was of the same faith. This is why the Moors were repelled and expelled from España; so that the Catholic church could exist. In fact, one of the titles of Ferdinand, King of España, was "Protector of the Faith" or "Keeper of the Faith."
In contrast to this above noted observation, in the American colonies, where the English missionary breakaway protestant laymen imposed their harsh religions doctrines and dogma on the native populations whom they encountered, were able to convert only small populations of the native inhabitants into their religions. However, English attitudes towards people of a different skin color was obvious (India is an example) and the Indians who became christianized were probably not even allowed to sit at the same table with their white brothers even though they were of the same faith.
Eventually, the conquerors had succeeded in their endeavor to devour the land they now lay claim to. Now the botanists and clergy began to initiate the long and somewhat tedious task of cataloging and recording on paper all that they had discovered in the new world.
During the initial conquest of Nueva España from the Caribbean throughout Central America to México, the use of inebriating intoxicants (including fungi) was a dominating factor in the culture and peoples of the Aztec empire. These sacraments were frowned upon by the Spanish invaders, who observed the Aztec priests and their followers being served the sacred fungi at festivals and coronations. It should be pointed out that the Spanish were very mycophobic and they were repulsed by the mere mention of any type of mushroom. They also deplored the pagan like rituals and the priests who employed mushrooms and other magical herb/drug plants as divinatory substances. They wrote in their histories that Teonanácatl (Teunamacatlth), a term used by the Nahuatl speaking Aztec priests in describing the sacred mushrooms may have implied "God's Flesh or Flesh of the Gods." However, many historians wrote of the mushrooms in a negative view. For example: one author described the mushrooms as "Hongol demonico ydolo" (for more terms and names of the sacred mushrooms, see Allen, 1997c). According to Wasson (1980), "teo" meant awesome or wondrous and "nanacátl" implied mushroom or even meat.
Teonanácatl or "magic mushroom" was one of the most important of the many narcotic drug/herb plants described in several codices written after the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century. The mushrooms were often administered among the common people, merchants, visiting dignitaries; and even the wealthy were known to have consumed them.
Other plants were also employed in the treatment of different ailments, divinations and for healing or curing and were also used during different seasons. Additionally, several other minor plants were also employed when the more popular remedies were not available.
Many plants used in these magico religious ceremonies more than 400 years ago by the Aztecs and as much as 2000 years earlier by their ancestors the Olmecs and Toltecs, and quite possibly the Mayan people, are still in use today. These include peyote (mescaline), ololiuhqui/tlitlitzin (morning glory seeds = ergine alkaloids), Salvia divinorum ("Leaves of the Shepherdess" a member of the mint family), datura (jimsom weed, also known as torna loca, toloache or tolatzin), mescal beans (cytisine), puffballs (Lycoperdon mixtecorum) or (Lycoperdon marginatum). The former is referred to as "gi-i-wa" and means "fungus of the first quality" and the latter implies "fungus of the second quality." It has been reported that they cause auditory hallucinations. Use of these alleged puffball inebriants occurs primarily among the Mixtec shamans.
Second only to peyote are the sacred mushrooms referred to by the Aztecs as teonanácatl. The majority of the sacred mushrooms of Mesoamerica belong to the genus Psilocybe, and a few quite possibly belong to the genera Panaeolus and Conocybe.
Although indigenous use of many psychotropic plants in Mesoamerica is not uncommon today, the ritualistic or ceremonial use of the sacred mushrooms and other drug/herb plants can be traced back to approximately 1000 BC.
The numerous descriptions recorded by the clergy and historians concerning the effects of these drug/herb plants and their uses among the Aztec people are molded in fear and plastered in bigotry and false heresy. The effects of the mushrooms on those who had experienced them were often reported in a negative vein, most probably by the botanists and historians who were eager to appease their masters back in Spain. The Spanish historians often described the effects of these plants on native peoples as leaving their users in uncontrollable fits, claiming that the native people would even commit violent acts towards themselves and each other. Many would fall into rages as if in a stupor. These descriptions could very well describe contemporary societies description of an alcoholic syndrome.
The Spanish persecuted, often murderously, those who did not adhere to the catholic ways. Below and on the following pages are several references regarding the use of these sacred mushrooms by Indian people who inhabited Mesoamerica. It was because of the persecution which the native population faced from their conquerors that cause them to hide the use of these mushrooms from their Spanish peers. Thus they remained a secret to most of the west until R. Gordon Wasson found the Oaxacan Shamaness María Sabina and wrote of his rediscovery regarding the existence of the sacred mushrooms (see Allen, 1997a, 1997b).
Here then is an example, as recorded by the clergy concerning the effects of the mushrooms upon some users in pre-Colombian México:
"The native people would pick these little mushrooms and some were small and yellow, and some were black. They had small round heads and slender stems. They were sometimes mixed and eaten with honey or with chocolate, and when they were eaten they would make one see many things which or would not make them much afraid, or even laugh. Some would dance or weep, others would merely sit and dream. Some had visions of death, or of falling in battle. Some believed that they were being eaten by a wild animal and others believed that they would become very wealthy. All forms of good or evil could become a reality under the influence of the fungus which the natives referred to as teonanácatl, teo implies divine, and nacatl, means meat or mushroom, hence the term `flesh of the gods'...
"When the effects of the inebriation of the mushrooms were past and all had returned to normal, the Indians would then consult with each other in regards as to what they each had experienced while under the influence of the mushrooms...
"The mushrooms might make one lose his senses or give one pleasure. Some would predict the future or see a thousand or more serpents or jaguars and some believed that their arms or their legs were being cannibalized by worms or spiders. The use of the mushrooms could ward off evil or cast charms and spells to insure success, and they were thought to cure all kinds of diseases." It should be mentioned that the Franciscan monk Sahagún (1950-1959), a converted Jew, mentioned that the mushrooms were used to cure fevers and rheumatism.
It would appear that the use of divinatory mushrooms among the native inhabitants shocked the Spanish clergy. To their users these fungi gave vision giving powers to heal through divination. The natives respected the mushrooms and held their vision giving properties in awe and reverence. The mushrooms apparently projected concepts of divinity which provided visions and keys for unlocking doorways into the mind. It also allowed one to divinate an illness or find lost objects. They were sacred, they were respected and they were medicinal. They also allowed one to achieve a sacred communion with their Gods. The Aztecs even had a god who protected the mushrooms who was known as Xochipelli (Prince of Flowers).
The native people felt that the new religion of the Spaniards offered them nothing comparable to what they already had. Imagine how disappointed the Aztec converts were when they compared eating the mushroom to the agape of the Christian Eucharist. It must have been shocking to those seeking a similar experience from the taking of bread and wine and comparing it with their inebriation from the taking of the mushrooms (Pike, 1960; Pike & Cowan, 1959).
In the eyes of the Spaniards this religion was blasphemous and this heathen pagan practice most assuredly had to be stamped out. The attitude of some of the conquerors, especially the clergy, probably originated due to the fact that for 1500 years since the death of Christ, they had been trying to communicate with God and he had not responded. Yet here were these common idolaters who could communicate with God and apparently the Spaniards most likely believed the native people were actually communicating with the devil. The conquerors really felt that if God would not respond to their prayers, why would God then answer the low-life indigenous peoples prayers. Because of this the Spanish continuously persecuted the native population until they felt that the use of these drug/herb plants by the native-people no longer existed.
Remember that it was because of the severe persecution by their Spanish conquerors that many shamans, medicine men and priests moved their ritualistic practices into hiding; thereby keeping secret, their ancient rituals from the eyes of their enemies. As the conquest proceeded in the domination of the Aztecs, along came the Holy Order of the Inquisition, who after establishing an office in Mexico, attempted to control the native population through the fear of their vengeful but loving God. No matter how hard the Inquisition tried to put an end to the use of the inebriating intoxicants by their conquered subjects, it seems that they failed in regards to the use of peyote and the sacred mushrooms. Eventually many Aztec priests and their followers began to incorporate into their own religion, certain aspects and concepts of the religion of their conquerors (LaBarre 1970).
Pagan and Catholic traits were soon blended and incorporated together into the Aztec religion along with catholic images such as pictures of the Virgin Mary and statues of Jesus Christ. For instance, many contemporary Mazatec Indians believe that where Christ's blood fell to the ground or where Christ's saliva appeared on the ground, that is where the mushrooms sprang from.