Created September 13, 2007. Revised May 3, 2013.
Coypright in 2007 by John W. Allen.



WASSON'S FIRST VOYAGE:
The Rediscovery of Entheogenic Mushrooms

By
John W. Allen



An Expanded Special Edition, excerpted from "Mushroom Pioneers: Richard Evans Schultes, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Timothy Francis Leary and Others." Originally published in an edited version of "High Times" magazine, October 1987-(CLICK HERE).


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R. Gordon Wasson was born in Great falls, Montana in 1898. The son of a protestant minister, he became the greatest amateur mycologist the world has ever known. His interest in wild mushrooms spanned more than twenty-five years, during which time he rediscovered the famed magic mushrooms of Mesoamerica.

R. Gordon Wasson's interest in mushrooms began during his honeymoon in the Catskill mountains. Wasson and his Russian-born wife, pediatrician Valentina Pavlovna, were hiking one day on a forest trail when suddenly she espied a cluster of mushrooms which she recognized as being similar to ones she used to gather from the forest lawn for dinner in her native Russia. Overcome with great joy, Valentina picked as many mushrooms as she could hold and that evening she prepared and served them with their evening dinner. Of course, R. Gordon Wasson declined to eat any of the nasty toadstools his new wife had gathered from the forest floor and told her he did not want to become a widower, thinking that all mushrooms were poisonous. It was for this reason that R. Gordon Wasson soon began to wonder why Europeans love the mystical fungi and western civilization abhorred them. Thus began the age of mushroom entheogism.

Wasson, who worked as a journalist, soon became interested in banking and in 1928 began working as an investment banker for Morgan Guaranty Trust. By the early 1950's, Wasson had become a vice-president of J. P. Morgan & Company.

In the early 1950's, Wasson received an important letter from Eunice V. Pike, a missionary from the Wycliff Bible Translators. Pike had been living for many years among the Mazateco Indians in the southern Mexican State of Oaxaca. She wrote to Wasson informing him that there were Indian medicine men and woman who employ certain mushrooms in ritual-like ceremonies. Pike informed Wasson that the use of these mushrooms probably originated prior to the conquest of the new world. (see Pike & Cowan 1959; Pike 1960).

Wasson also received a letter from the noted Greek historian and scholar Robert Graves. Graves informed Wasson of two research articles written by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes (see Davis, 1997) about a mysterious mushroom known to the ancient Aztec nation as teonanácatl. However, these amazing discoveries concerning the sacred use of mushrooms by the Aztecs during the Spanish conquest generated little interest within the scientific community (Schultes 1939, 1940). In fact, the question of whether or not the mushrooms ever even existed drew little public attention.

Wasson received another letter from a friend in Switzerland which included a sketch of a Guatemalan mushroom stone carving over 2000 years old. The drawing represented a sculpture of a man with a mushroom for a head. The sculpture had been discovered somewhere deep in the jungles of Guatemala.

These startling new revelations peaked Wasson's interest immensely, so he then contacted Schultes (Pers. Comm. 1988) "one day I was home from the Amazon. Wasson phoned me for references to Mexico. I sent him to Reko who was very helpful to him and who introduced him to Weitlaner Thus Reko still had his contribution towards the study of the mushrooms." (Blas Pablo Reko, along with Schultes, had collected mushroom specimens of the alleged sacred fungi for herbarium deposit and Roberto Weitlaner was the first westerner to observe a sacred mushroom ceremony during the early 1930's).

In 1953, Wasson and a small band of adventurers traveled to Mexico. After arriving in Mazatec country and inquiring about the sacred mushrooms they finally succeeded in attending an all night Velada (as the ceremony is called by the Mazatec shamans or curanderos, who officiate and perform them). This first ceremony was conducted under the guidance of a Mazatec shaman named Don Aurelio. At the first ceremony, Wasson observed the procedures and took notes of what transpired, but was not allowed to join in or partake of the mushrooms, however, he was very ecstatic over the performance, and felt no regret for not being able to fully participate.

Wasson led two more exploratory excursions into Mexico during the next two years. On his third trip to Oaxaca and his second into Huautla de Jiménez, Wasson and his photographer-friend Allan Richardson, arrived on the morning of June 29, 1955. In the tiny village hamlet of Huautla de Jiménez that lies perched high up in the Mazatec mountains of Southern Mexico, Wasson and Richardson became the first foreigners to partake of the sacred mushrooms.

After Wasson and Richardson had found lodging, they set out on separate searches, asking everyone they encountered for help in their mushroom hunt. After several hours of fruitless questioning of the natives, Wasson decided to find a government official who might be willing to discuss the mushroom secrets with him. So off he went to the local municipio (city hall), even though he was aware that many government officials were dishonest and corrupt, especially when it came to matters involving gringo white foreigners. But Wasson decided he didn't have much to lose by approaching the officials.

Eventually Wasson met a man working in the office of the presidente who was the town sindico. The sindico was the number two man in the village, and since the presidente was away on business, the sindico was the officially acting presidente. His name was Cayetano Garcia Mendoza. After exchanging introductions and greetings with Cayetano, Wasson was polite in his humble manner and discussed several topics such as the weather, maize crop prices, the problems with the drinking water, and the current prices of coffee, etc. It wasn't long before Wasson found himself leaning over the counter towards Cayetano and whispering the Mazatec name for the mushrooms.

All of a sudden, Cayetano appeared bewildered and much astounded. How could a foreigner have knowledge of such a well kept secret that very few Mazatec people would mention so casually? But in answer to Wasson's question, Cayetano replied that "nothing could be easier", and then he asked Wasson "to come to my humble adobe after four o'clock, when I am done and finished with my day's work, and I would be ever so glad to help you with your unusual request."

Later that afternoon, Wasson and his friend Richardson, arrived at Cayetano's home where he resided with his two younger brothers who had been waiting for the strangers to arrive. They were then led down the road by Cayetano's two brothers, Emilio and Genero, to a spot not more than a hundred feet from Cayetano's house, where they found an abundance of mushrooms fruiting out of sugar cane mulch. While Richardson began photographing the mushrooms, Wasson picked several and placed them gently into a paste board box which he had brought along for this occasion.




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In the meantime, while Wasson was picking mushrooms, Cayetano proceeded to the home of his friend, Doña María Sabina, a sabia (wise one or wise woman) with whom he was acquainted. Cayetano found Doña María alone in her home and related to her the events that transpired earlier in the day. He told her (Estrada 1976) "that some blond men have traveled from afar in search of a sabia", and he quietly mentioned to her that the blond stranger had spoken to him in a soft quiet whisper, asking him in a discreet way, that he was seeking 'nti-xi-tjo. Although Cayetano was somewhat startled by the question asked of him, he confirmed his feeling of the stranger's request, explaining to Doña María that the blond stranger "knew of what it was that he was talking about." Cayetano felt that Wasson was definitely sincere in learning the secrets of 'nti-xi-tjo. Apparently the discretion Wasson displayed to Cayetano confirming his sincerity in seeking the knowledge of the mushrooms and their use had convinced Cayetano to talk with Doña María and to convey to her the message from the blond strangers from the far-away lands.

Cayetano then explained to Doña María that he told the visitors "I know a true wise woman". Cayetano asked Doña María if he could bring the strangers to her home so that she might teach them the true knowledge of the mushrooms. Doña María replied, "if you want to, I can't say no".

Years later, María Sabina stated that she felt compelled to accept Wasson's visits because of Cayetano's official position, and she assumed Cayetano's visit to her humble dwelling on that hot summer day was one of official business. Many years later, Wasson wondered if María Sabina would have shared her knowledge of the mushrooms with him if Cayetano had not intervened as he did. In 1971, Wasson read an interview with María Sabina which appeared in a European magazine "L'Europe", published in Milan. It reported that when Cayetano had requested her aid in helping the foreigners, she did so because she felt she had no choice. But she also declared that when she was asked to meet them [the Wasson and Richardson] that she "should have said no."

By late afternoon, Wasson, Richardson, and their friends Emilio and Genero, had finished picking the mushroom samples and returned to Cayetano's home just as Cayetano was returning from María Sabina's. It should be noted that a few days later, Wasson offered to pay Cayetano for the fine hospitality and services they had provided Wasson and Richardson, but Cayetano and his wife refused. They informed Wasson that they had been happy to have helped.

Cayetano requested that Emilio go along to María Sabina's home and act as an interpreter so the strangers would understand what was happening during the ceremony. At María Sabina's, Wasson opened his paste board box and exposed the mushrooms he had just picked. Doña María cried out in joy seeing the honguito's which she loved and adored. She held them in her tiny fragile hands, caressing them while talking to them in her own language. Arrangements were soon made for a velada later in the evening.

On the evening of June 29, 1955, Wasson and Richardson became the first white people to consume the sacred mushrooms of the ancient Aztec people, in a ceremony held under the supervision of Doña María Sabina, Curandera Supreme, who performed for them and with them a vigil which was conducted by her at the home of her friend Cayetano.

Wasson later wrote, "we all ate our mushrooms facing the wall where the small altar table stood. We ate them in silence, except for Cayetano's father, don Emilio, who was consulting the mushrooms about his infected left forearm. He would jerk his head violently with each mushroom that he swallowed, and utter a smacking noise, as though in acknowledgment of their divine potency. I was seated in the corner of the room on the left of the altar. The señora asked me to move because the word would come down there..."

"I joined Allan immediately behind the señora, we took about a half hour to eat our six pairs of mushrooms. By eleven o'clock we had finished our respective portions, the señora crossing herself with the last swallow.…At about 11:20 Allan leaned from his chair and whispered to me that he was having a chill. We wrapped him in a blanket.. A little later he leaned over again and said, `Gordon, I am beginning to see things,' to which I gave him the comforting reply that I was too."

"The patterns grew into architectural structures, with colonnades and architraves, patios of regal splendor, the stonework all in brilliant colors--gold and onyx and ebony--all harmoniously and ingeniously contrived, in richest magnificence extending beyond the reach of sight. These architectural visions seemed oriental, though at every stage I pointed out to myself that they could not be identified with any specific oriental country..."

"At one point in the faint moonlight the bouquet on the table assumed the dimensions and shape of an imperial conveyance, a triumphal car, drawn by zoological creatures conceivable only in an imaginary mythology, bearing a woman clothed in regal splendor. The visions came in endless succession, each growing out of the preceding ones. We had the sensation that the walls of our humble house had vanished, that our untrammeled souls were floating in the empyrean, stroked by divine breeze, possessed of a divine mobility that would transport anywhere on the wings of a thought. Only when by an act of conscious effort I touched the wall of Cayetano's house would I be brought back to the confines of the room where we all were, and this touch with reality seemed to be what precipitated nausea in me."

What Wasson experienced and felt during his first trip convinced him that he would never do it again, but a few nights later he asked Doña María if she would repeat her performance in order to record the proceedings. On this occasion Allen Richardson declined partaking of the sacred mushrooms so he could photograph the session in its proper perspective.

Doña María referred to Wasson as "Basson" and she allowed the taking of photographs by Richardson on the condition that Wasson would not profane her by allowing other people access to the photographs taken during the ceremony. She requested that Wasson only share them with his closest and dearest friends and that no others should see them. Eventually their publication in Life Magazine made María Sabina known to the world. Although this event brought thousands of people into Oaxaca in search of these entheogenic fungi, María Sabina never held any contempt or disrespect toward Wasson because of it.

On the night of July 5, 1955, Wasson's wife Valentina and their 19 year-old daughter Masha (in his 1980 book, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica, Wasson inadvertently reported that Masha was only 13 years old) became the first westerners to consume entheogenic mushrooms outside of their natural native setting. Here we have what appears to be the first reported incident describing the recreational use of psychoactive fungi (Wasson 1958).

Six weeks later, after returning to New York, Wasson again felt compelled to experience what he had in Mexico, so once again he consumed some dried specimens of mushrooms he had brought back with him from Mexico. This was Wasson's third experience with the sacred mushrooms.

During Wasson's many excursions into Mesoamerica, always seeking new evidence to support his theories on the cultural use of entheogenic mushrooms by traditional societies, Wasson sought information which would link the enigmatic mushroom stones of Guatemala to cultic use in primitive Mayan societies.

Wasson believed that there was definitely a link between these mushroom effigies and the use of entheogenic mushrooms in Mesoamerica. Once during an excursion to the village of Juxtlahuaca, Mexico, Wasson photographed a young Mexican girl grinding mushrooms upon a grinding stone. The mano she used to grind mushrooms on a matate and the way in which she positioned herself while grinding the mushrooms, was similar in poster and almost identical in form to some of the mushroom stones unearthed in various secluded regions of Guatemala (Furst 1986).

Studies by Villacorta & Villacorta (1927), Johnson (1938), Schultes (1939, 1940), Singer (1949), Wasson & Wasson (1957), Unsigned (1961), de Borhegy (1962), Lowy (1971, 1972), Ott (1976), Mayer (1977), Weil (1977), Wasson (1980), and those who followed Wassons initiative first brought to the attention of the world the many interesting ancient frescoes, mushroom paintings, illustrations and gold pectoral workings (Schultes and Bright 1979), mentioned in the codices and writings of anthropologists and historians. The mushroom stones and other rare works, including pictorials which visually displayed mushroom motif designs of fungi in paintings and sculptures, often portrayed in silence, were ample proof that the entheogenic mushrooms once held an important role in the development of religion in pre-Colombian cultures.

It is possible to conceive that sometime, somewhere, over 3000 years ago in Mesoamerica, a sophisticated form of religion once flourished and prospered, quite possibly including the sacramental use of entheogenic fungi and other psychoactive herbs/plants as a major focal point in the cultural development of primitive traditional societies.

Wasson led many more field trips into the heart of Mesoamerica (1953-1962), gathering and collecting mushroom specimens and information on the sacred mushrooms, their rituals and the various cultures who used them. During this period Wasson sought the collaboration of many eminent scholars and investigators who later assisted him in his investigations of these fungi. The specialists who assisted Wasson in his endeavor included; Roger Heim, Rolf Singer, Gastón Guzmán, Roberto Weitlaner, his daughter Irmagard Weitlaner Johnson, Guy Stresser-Pean, C. Cook de Leonard, W.S. Miller, Searle Hoogshagen, B. Upton and Albert Hofmann (the Father of LSD) and his colleagues, all chemists at Basel Pharmaceutical Laboratories in Switzerland.

Together these intrepid scholars and scientists learned that the use of the sacred mushrooms was heavily concentrated in Oaxaca, Mexico. Before too long these eminent scientists discovered that there were several species and varieties of fungi employed ceremoniously by several tribes of Nahuatl- speaking indians. These native peoples of Mexico spoke no Spanish or Mexican and had no written language of their own. They consisted of the following groups of native peoples; The Mazatecs, Chinantecs, Chatinas, Zapotecs, Mixtec, and the Mixe (Mijes). They are the descendants of the Olmecs, Toltecs and Aztecs. Other indigenous tribes who employ mushrooms ceremoniously include the Nahua and the Otomic of Puebla, and quite possibly the Tarascana of Michoacan.

Each tribal group of Indians residing in Oaxaca prefers different species of mushrooms. The rituals which these individual tribes perform vary somewhat from village to village, however, not all shamans or medicine men use or employ the same mushrooms on a regular basis. Each tribe uses these sacraments ceremoniously, often depending on what type of species are available during the different seasons of the year. Oddly enough, different species may be used for specific purposes in diagnosis and treatment during a healing and curing ritual (Wasson & Wasson 1958).

The subsequent and somewhat startling news account of the Wassons' discoveries in Mexico while under the influence of the inebriating mushrooms became public knowledge in 1957. This event took place with the publication of a two-volume set of books called "Mushrooms, Russia and History". Even though these books are out of print, many university libraries have copies available for viewing. They are usually kept in the rare book room section of the library and may not be checked out. Since Wasson's death, both volumes are in the process of being reprinted.

The second public announcement of their discoveries came about in an issue of Life magazine in 1957 (Wasson 1957a) and in an issue of This Week magazine (Wasson 1957b). These articles, one by Wasson and the other by his wife, were the beginning of the psychedelic movement. Collectors of the Wassons' papers and books have been known to pay up to $50.00 an issue for a mint copy of this particular Life magazine.

A third presentation to the world occurred in 1958. Wasson and Roger Heim, along with Albert Hofmann and several collaborators, published Les Champignons Hallucinogènes du Mexique. A second volume appeared ten years later Nouvelles Investigations sur les Champignons Hallucinogènes. These volumes were written in French and originally appeared as separate papers in Comptes Rendus Acad. Sci., Revue du Mycologie and Deux Supplement.

R. Gordon Wasson died on Dec 23, 1986. He is survived by a son and a daughter.


R. Gordon Wasson. 1978. Hallucinogens and Shamanism in Native American Life. San Francisco.



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