|Today in México, only a handful of remote montane tribes still practice the
customs and rituals of what once must have been a splendid and powerful system of worship and empirical
magic. So utterly complete was the neglect and ignorance in our western world of the ethnoborological
aspects of Aztec and other Mexican shamanism, that in 1915, William E. Safford, a reputable and distinguished
USA botanist who was than a sort of expert on the subject of many Native American psychotropic plants,
claimed that the visionary mushrooms as described in the Spanish histories did not in fact exist and
that the Mesoamérican Indians had never used such, whether before, during, or after the conquest.
Disdaining the graphic testimony of several Spanish chroniclers, Safford dismissed the well-documented
evidence of the chroniclers, mostly clerics, who described as mushroomic, the effects the mushrooms
allegedly had upon those who consumed them. There is no evidence any of the Spaniards deigned to sample
the psychoptic mushrooms.
Safford (1915) presented a botanical society the results of his study of an Aztec sacred inebriant referred to in a few historical sources as teonanácatl which means "wondrous mushroom." Safford claimed that the so-called wondrous mushrooms were in fact dried peyote buttons and that no mushrooms had been used as inebriants by the native peoples of Mesoamérica. Safford's colleagues displayed little interest when he claimed that the word teonanácatl simply meant peyote. In his paper, he reproduced a photograph of dried peyote buttons. These could easily have been mistaken for dried mushroom-caps, which is exactly what they vaguely resembled to the untrained eye. Safford relied on the fact that "three centuries have failed to reveal that an endemic fungus is being used as an intoxicant in Mexico. Nor is such a fungus mentioned either in works on mycology or pharmacology, yet the belief prevails even now that there is a narcotic Mexican fungus."
According to Safford, the early Spanish descriptions of numerous medicinal plants from Mesoamérica led him to believe that the Aztec entheogen ololiuhqui was either the seed of Datura or of a morning-glory species, but he further denied that either plant provoked visionary effects (for a more detailed description of the properties of the sacred morning- glory seeds, see Albert Hofmann ).
As late as 1921, Safford still held firm to his theory by again denying the existence of the sacred mushrooms, claiming that they were simply dried peyote buttons. Safford (1923) also noted: "Peyote has been called a habit-forming drug, and some writers have likened it to hashish, or Indian Hemp, the latter which had been introduced into the country of México and our southwest under the name of Marijuana, is a most dangerous drug. Introduced clandestinely into prisons, it has of course, been the cause of riots. Its use is now forbidden in México by the government."
It should be obvious to anyone who reads the above letter by Safford that he was a confirmed pharmacophilac and thanks to his prominence the mushrooms continued to be obscured from the world until the late 1930's when they were once again brought to the attention of the scientific and academic community.
In the second decade of this century, Austrian Blas Pablo Reko (1919), a physician with an interest in ethnobotany, learned that some groups of Indians living in the Mexican State of Oaxaca were still using psychoptic mushrooms in secret ceremonies perhaps involving ancient rites. These rites were performed apparently for the purpose of divinatory healing. Reko published his findings in a journal entitled El México Antiguo.
Reko subsequently discussed this discovery with his colleagues, who paid little attention to his mushroomic theories and showed no interest in pursuing this information on the supposititious use of inebriating mushrooms by the Indians of Mesoamérica. Reko wrote that teonanácatl was "Div. géneros de hongos, especialmente un hongo negro que crece sobre estiércol y produce efectos narcóticos." ["Various genera of mushrooms, especially a black mushroom that grows on dung and produces psychotropic effects"].
Figure 1. Blas Pablo Reko drawn by E. W. Smith.
Sketch courtesy of Richard Evans Schultes.
Blas Pablo Reko's cousin, Victor A. Reko (1928), published the first objection to Safford's claims. It appeared in a book written years later in 1936. Below is an excerpt describing the effects of the mushrooms taken from that book entitled Magische Gifte: Rausche und Betäubungsmittel der Neuen Welt ("Magical Poisons: Inebriants and Narcotics of the New World"):
"The nanacates are poisonous mushrooms which have nothing to do with peyote. It is known from olden times that their use induces intoxication, states of ecstasy and mental aberrations, but, notwithstanding the dangers attendant upon their use, people everywhere they grow take advantage of their intoxicating properties up to the present time."
In 1936, an Austrian engineer, Roberto J. Weitlaner, who was also an avid ethnobotanist, spent four days in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, where he was engaged in linguistic investigations. Weitlaner had learned of the existence of the sacred mushrooms from a Mazatec merchant named José Dorantes. Dorantes had described to Weitlaner his reactions after eating three of the mushrooms which were given to him during a divinatory healing Johnson (1940). It was Weitlaner who first realized that these sacred mushrooms were most likely the teonanácatl described in the chronicles of the Spanish clerics. During this period, several mushroom specimens were collected and forwarded to Blas Pablo Reko. Reko in turn sent the specimens to Harvard University for botanical identification. However, upon arrival, the harvested collected semi-dried specimens spoiled before they arrived, thus further delaying their identification and proof of their existence to the scientific community.
In 1936, Weitlaner became the first white man in modern times to observe an actual sacred mushroom ceremony. Two years later, in 1938, his daughter Irmgard, her fiancé Jean Basset Johnson and two friends (Louise Lacaud and Bernard Bevan) continued the investigations begun by Weitlaner. These intrepid investigators were not only able to gather a considerable amount of data on Mazatec shamanism and the use of the sacred mushrooms, but in the process became the first westerners to witness a Mesoamérican shamanic mushroom ceremony. The velada was held in a hut in the tiny montane village of Huautla de Jiménez. Johnson (1939a) published two startling papers regarding his observations on Mazatec "witchcraft." Furthermore, while in Oaxaca, these investigators met Dr. Richard Evans Schultes and Dr. Blas Pablo Reko who were also in Huautla collecting ethnomycological data and mushroom specimens.
While Johnson referred to these ceremonies as examples of "witchcraft", it should be noted that ethnobotanist William Emboden (1979) mentioned that certain modern-day "witches" use an active Panaeolus species as one of many inebriants in their rituals. Emboden said that the fungus used by a cult of contemporary witches living in Portugal was identified by Roger Heim as Panaeolus papilionaceus which may or may not be a synonym for Panaeolus subbalteatus or possibly Copelandia cyanescens. Currently the species originally identified Schultes and Singer and smith, Panaeolus sphinctrinus has now been renamed as Panaeolus papilionaceus.
|The collecting of teonanácatl mushrooms took place when a young
Harvard botanist, Richard Evans Schultes, made a trip to Huautla de
Jiménez with Blas Pablo Reko Schultes (Pers. Comm. 1989)
and collected several specimens of mushrooms that were suspected of being used in "magico-religious ceremonies."
After sun-drying several specimens of these mushrooms, they mailed the dried specimens directly to Harvard
University for identification.
Mushrooms collected by Schultes (1939, 1940, 1978) and Schultes and Reko, were later identified as Stropharia cubensis Earle (syn.=Psilocybe cubensis [Earle] Sing, Psilocybe caerulescens Heim and some specimens of what years later were re-examined and identified as Psilocybe mexicana Heim. Since several varieties of fungi had been mistakenly mixed with several species in a single collection. This cause confusion by the presence of another mushroom identified as Panaeolus campanulatus var. sphinctrinus (also a synonym for what is now referred to as Panaeolus papilionaceus. After these mushrooms were deposited in the herbarium at Harvard, even more confusion surrounded their mycological identification and their alleged relationship to the sacred mushroom of the Aztecs as described by the historians and Friars and Monks who recorded their prescense in their codices. This confusion lasted until the early 1950's (these discoveries will be discussed in Chapter Three).
Richard Evans Schultes must be recognized as one of the most influential and somewhat extraordinary remarkable man of the 21century. A real pioneer involved in the identification of thousands of New World plants and more than 100 known entheogenic plants and fungi used as a sacrament in ritual ceremonies hidden for more than 400-years from the overlords of contemporary Western Medicine and Civilization. His expertise was rubber, arrow poisons (curare), and orchids, especially those from Mesoamérica and the Amazonia of Colombia in South America. His research into psychoptic plants is undoubtedly the most extensive ever undertaken by any botanical scientist during the past 110 years.
Richard Evans Schultes was also a Jeffrey Professor of Biology and Director of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University (Emeritus), and was a native Bostonian. Not merely a botanical explorer, he was also a well noted and respected ethnobotanist and conservationist. Among his numerous awards are the Cross of Boyacá, Colombia's highest honor, and the annual Gold Medal of the World Wildlife Fund, presented by H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh; in 1987, he received the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement.
His crowning achievement however, was the receipt of botany's Nobel Prize---the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society at London in 1992. Schultes is also on the exclusive list of 50 "Foreign Members" of that in itself exclusive society.
His explorations and botanical identification of thousands of plants from the Amazon rainforests are as immense as they are eclectic. During his 14-years in the Amazon, Richard Evans Schultes had collected more than 24,000 plants new to science, of which over 80 were later identified as entheogenic Davis (1996). He has written more than two dozen books and over 100 scientific articles on his discoveries. He is, moreover, at the time, the only living ethnobotanist in the world to have more than two million acres of land named in his honor; "Sector Schultes," part of an Amazonian ecological preserve formally designated in 1986 by the Colombian government.
The field of ethnobotany was Schultes' framework throughout his life. His field work in Oaxaca, México in 1938 and 1939 was somewhat limited due to the second world war. However, he made history by pioneering the study of the Aztec and modern shamanic use of the sacred mushrooms of the Mazatec and other indigenous Indians if the Amazon.
Richard Evans Schultes was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 12, 1915. When he was about six years old, Schultes developed an illness that constantly caused him severe stomach problems. During this period, his father and mother would read to him and one book that caught the attention of Schultes was Richard Spruce's "Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes." This was young Schultes' introduction to the world of botany.
As a young child, Richard once read a floral guide given to him by an uncle and after studying it, he would collect leaves to identify and press (something my grandmother taught me how to do after giving me a copy of a child's book on flowering plants and how to preserve them by pressing the flowering plants I would gather from our backyard garden that she planted in giant tubs every spring). For Schultes, it seemed that this helped the young collector develop what some people refer to as "the taxonomic eye."