Maria Sabina's Mushroom Rituals
María Sabina's ancient mushroom rituals introduced Psilocybin mushrooms to the Western World.
When I first attended a “velada” (vigil) sung by María Sabina in Huautla de Jimenez, and when on her invitation I first ingested the divine mushrooms, I was bowled over by the performance. It took place in the lower floor of the home of Cayetano Garcia and –his wife Guadalupe. Little did I know, Maria Sabina's mushroom ritual was one of a few catalysts responsible for introducing Psilocybin mushrooms to the Western World.
The simple hospitality of our hosts and their children and relatives, all clothed in their best attire, the chanting of María Sabina and her daughter María Apolonia, María Sabina’s percussive artistry and her trippy solo dancing in the pitch darkness—combined with the distant worlds I was viewing with a clarity of vision never approached by eyesight in daylight—my body lying there on the Mexican floor rug responding to my touch as though it belonged to another—all these effects, shared with my photographer, Allan Richardson, shook us both to the core of our beings. My ethnomycological inquiries had led me far, but never had I expected an unearthly experience like this.
Here was a religious office, as I said to myself at the time and for months thereafter, that had to be presented to the world in a worthy manner, not sensationalized, not cheapened and coarsened, but soberly and truthfully.
We alone could do justice to it. But given the nether reaches of vulgarity in the journalism of the time, inevitably there would follow all kinds of debased accounts erupting around the world. All this we foresaw and all this took place, to a point where the Federales had to make a clean sweep of certain Indian villages in the highlands of Mesoamerica in the late 1960s, deporting the assortment of oddballs misbehaving there. Our book, Mushrooms, Russia, and History, came out in May 1957 at a staggering price and sold out at once, never to be reprinted. We published articles in Life and Life en espanol and in various learned journals.
Our need of mycological help was urgent and we immediately turned to Professor Roger Heim, then Director of the Laboratoire de Cryptogamie of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle of Paris. He grasped at once the scope of our discovery. He lent himself wholeheartedly to our program of field work, coming over to Mexico repeatedly and joining us in the remote mountain villages of southern Mexico. His able assistant Roger Cailleux by good fortune succeeded in growing several species of the divine shrooms, most of them new to science, in his laboratory. Professor Heim turned them over to Dr. Albert Hofmann of Bale, the discoverer of LSD, and his colleagues, Drs. Arthur Brack and Hans Kobel, for chemical analysis. For the pharmacological aspects of the mushrooms, Dr. Aurelio Cerletti and Professor Jean Delay of Paris initiated psychiatric studies. Thus Valentina Pavlovna and I had gratifying success in assembling a first class team to cooperate in our work, and in 1958 the Museum published a large and handsomely illustrated volume, Les Champignons hallucinogenes du Mexique (The Hallucinogenic Mushrooms of Mexico), Roger Heim and I appearing on the title page and the others contributing their respective chapters.
In 1958 we taped a complete velada, a dramatic one, of María Sabina, and a team of us worked on the tapes until 1974, when we finally published María Sabina Sings her Mazatec Mushroom Velada. The Cowans, Jorge and Florencia, reduced the tapes to a text written in Mazatec in characters that a linguist understands; they translated the text into Spanish and English, publishing the three in parallel columns. Jorge added a chapter on the Mazatec language; the musical notation of the whole velada was prepared under the supervision of Willard Rhodes, the renowned ethnomusicologist, and he added a chapter on the music. We all contributed to the footnotes and I also wrote the Prologue and an Analytical Index. The whole was illustrated with maps and with photographs of the velada taken by Allan Richardson. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich showed their breadth of vision and enterprise by publishing the book, simultaneously with the music on cassettes and discs.
The Barrier Broken
I felt that we had achieved at last the goal we set for ourselves in 1955– to treat María Sabina's velada worthily —except for one major matter. We and María Sabina felt good will in plenty for each other, but for us she was locked behind an impenetrable, an insuperable linguistic barrier. Her persona remained beyond our reach. I was perforce resigned to this gap in our presentation to the world of María Sabina, this superb exponent of the Old Religion, there being no way known to me to overcome it.
Imagine then my surprise and joy on meeting in Mexico in 1975 Alvaro Estrada, Mazatec Indian, author of Her Life and Chants, born to the Mazatec language, and learning from him that he had already embarked on taking down from María Sabina's lips her own account of her life! In Sr. Estrada's book, María Sabina, this “Sabia” (learned person) in her eighties, unlettered, tells us how life has been for her, of her ancestry and hard childhood, of her two husbands who came and went, how she got to know the mushrooms and how they revealed themselves to her in an event as dramatic as Saul’s on the road to Damascus; how we (the Wassons) came into her life, much of which is chronicled in Alvaro Estrada's book Her Life and Chants.
Considering her advanced age and that she is unlettered, I find this a noteworthy achievement indeed. What is more, there emerges from the pages of María Sabina something precious for all of us, the portrait of a person who has had a genuine religious calling and who has purused that calling to the end of her days. Who knows? Perhaps María Sabina bids fair to become the most famous Mexican of her time. Long after the personages of contemporary Mexico sink back into the forgotten slough of the dead past, her name and what she stood for may remain etched in men's minds. She richly deserves it. She is probably not unique except that she, alone among the shamans de primera categoria of Mexico, has allowed herself to become known beyond the confines of her personal following in the Mazatec land. I wish that the eminent painters and sculptors of Mexica would seek her out and give us her portrait, and that composers would take note of her traditional chants. The drama of her sojourn in this world needed to be down in the printed word. This last, at least, is what our friend Sr. Estrada has done admirably.
A Legacy of Pre-Conquest Aztecs
In the story of her life, María Sabina has not a word to say about the source of her verses, her chants. For us of the modern world such questions are compelling. For her they do not exist. When anyone asks her about this, her reply is simple: the cositas (Sacred Mushrooms) tell her what to say, how to sing.
María Sabina’s grandfather and her great grandfather were notable shamans, as also were her great aunt and great uncle. Recently, on reviewing my collection of slides taken during the many veladas that I have attended, I was struck by the omnipresence of children of all ages, as they cling to her with awe and adoration. They go to sleep, with her chants ringing in their ears. María Apolonia, María Sabina’s daughter, sings her part in the 1958 velada with an infant in her shawl, held tight against her mother’s body: the baby from the start feels her mother sing as well as hears her. There is no mistaking where the Sabia learned her chants, without effort. Her melodies, her verses are the warp, the woof of her being from infancy.
After I had attended two veladas (my first two) with María Sabina, my program called for me to go down to the Sierre Costera, to San Agustin Loxicha, south of Miahuatlan, in the company of Roberto Weitlaner. There we passed some days with Aristeo Matias, savant de primera categoria, and on Thursday 21 July we attended a velada that he conducted. He sang feebly but I thought it unmistakable: the chants were the same as María Sabina's. His chants were in Zapotec, most distantly related linguistically to Mazatec, as far removed as two languages can be, but both cultures are in the Mesoamerican area.
But this is not all. In 1967 Alfredo Lopez Austin, distinguished Nahualtlato, presented to his readers a list of the terms assembled by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon in 1629 in his A Study of the Superstitions of the Natives of This New Spain. What was my surprise to discover in this 17th century Tratado dealing with the Nahuatl culture but a remarkable similarity with Maria Sabina’s veladas, as shown in the velada text that I had brought out in 1974. Here are some of the parallels:
- Both María Sabina and the Nahuatl Sabio engaged in an elaborate autopresentacion (to use the word of Lopez Austin), beginning in María Sabina’s case with professions of humility and working up to assertions of power and even ability to talk with the supernatural beings almost on terms of equality. Ruiz de Alarcon points out in 1629 how the Nahuatl sabio stresses the amoxtli (“book”) as the means of arriving at the secret knowledge that he uses. María Sabina uses the Spanish word “libro,” there being today in Mazatec no word for book. It figures large in her mystical world. The amoxtli of Ruiz de Alarcon are the hand painted Codices of the Nahua, which everyone viewed with immense reverence at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The Bible and other liturgical books in the Huautla parish church have replaced the Codices of former times as the focus of adoration, but there has also evolved in the mind of María Sabina’s a mystical “libro” that belongs specifically to her and that may come down to her from the amoxtli of pre-Conquest times.
- María Sabina refers admiringly twice to a Young Man, a Youth, vigorous, athletic, virile, a kind of Mesoamerican Apollo, but whom she calls Jesus Christ. (An astonishing confluence of ideas!) Her Nahuatl confrere of more than three centuries earlier introduced a similar divinity into his singing, but we learn that this divinity was Piltzintecuhtli, the Noble Infant, who as Dr. Alfonso Caso tells us is receiving from the hands of Quetzalcoatl the gift of the Divine Mushrooms in the Codice Vindobonensis, a Codice especially important for us because it gives us the mythical origin of the miraculous mushrooms. In María Sabina's consciousness, and probably in the consciousness of other Sabios flourishing today, there is a complete synthesis of the Christian and pre-Conquest religions.
If we discover in María Sabina's words features that Ruiz de Alarcon picked out in the Nahuatl texts of his time, more than three centuries ago, features that already must have been translinguistic in Mesoamerica then, the chants that our tapes offer to us in Mazatec and that we also heard in the Zapotec of San Agustin Loxicha must have been traditional at that time and were a legacy from long, long before the Conquest.
How long before? For this calculation we possess three points of departure from which to triangulate back into the distant past, two of our tripodal bases being contemporary with us but distant in space from each other—San Agustin Loxicha and Huautla and the third being distant from the other two both in space and time—the Nahuatl culture of the early 17th century. We must bear in mind how slowly, at a snail’s pace, human cultures evolved in proto- and prehistory, before the art of writing was perfected. We must remember how ancient must have been the cult of the divinatory mushrooms in Mesoamerica: the Indians’ skill as herbalists was no novelty when Cortes burst in on them. They knew the empirical properties of all plants accessible to them with an accuracy that puts us to shame. Early Man depended for his very life on this knowledge.
As for Siberia, where mushroom veladas among the most remote tribes have survived down into our own days, there are two striking resemblances in specific features between the respective mushroom cults: (1) in both, the mushroom “speaks” through the mouth of the Sabio; he is only serving as the vehicle for the mushroom’s voice; and (2) the mushrooms are visualized as little beings—male or female or both —the size of mushrooms, up to all manner of endearing and mischievous tricks. Surely the Mesoamerican cult goes back in direct genetic lineage to Siberia, back to the migration across the Bering Strait or the landbridge of the last Ice Age.
Sacred Mushrooms and Christianity
María Sabina has always been in good standing with the Church. Though she herself does not know her age, thanks to the diligence of Sr. Estrada we learn from the parish records of the church in Huautla that she was born on 17 March 1894 and duly baptized as María Sabina eight days later. It seems that as far back as memory now reaches there has been no conflict between the Church and the customary practices of the native healers. Father Alfonso Aragon, whose incumbency in the parish lasted for almost twenty years up to 1962 and who gave to the Church in Huautla a vigorous impetus, maintained throughout a certain contact with the Sabiosin his parish.
Father Antonio Reyes Hernandez in 1970, in an interview with Sr. Estrada, speaking of his Huautla parish, said to Sr. Estrada:
The church is not against these pagan rites . . . if we may refer to them as such . . . There isn’t much of that about. Even María Sabina is a member of the Association of the Apostolate of Prayer and attends Mass on the first Friday of each month. As I see her, she is a modest person who does harm to no one . . . the sages and healers are not in competition with our religion, not even the witch doctors. They all are very religious and come to Mass. They are not working at proselytizing and are not in general considered heretics. And let it be the furthest thing from our minds to anathematize these people.
How far we have progressed from the days of Motolinia and the Holy Office of the Inquisition of the early 17th century!
End of the Mystery —Or the Beginning?
In 1971 Irmgard Weitlander Johnson and I visited Huautla once more. We had heard what had happened there since my last visit in 1962 and we were fearful that the hurly-burly of the great world would have changed María Sabina radically. We were both dumbfounded to see that, contrary to our expectations, María Sabina was unchanged. She shows no vainglory. The Governor of Oaxaca has given her two mattresses for the first bed that she has ever owned. She has visited the principal citizens in the city of Oaxaca and in Mexico, and in turn the great of the world have waited on her in her humble hut high in the pass going from Huautla to San Miguel. A bishop has called on her; he wished to take the mushrooms but it was not the mushroom season. He asked her to teach the younger generation of her own offspring her wisdom, and her reply, unlettered as she is, was memorable:
I told you that the color of the skin and eyes, and the manner of crying or smiling, can be inherited. But one cannot do the same with wisdom. Knowledge one brings with one’s self from birth. My knowledge cannot be taught. This is why I was not taught my language, because it is the language spoken by the mushrooms as they enter my body. He who is not born to be a sage cannot grasp the language even if he makes many vigils.
Not once does María Sabina reproach me for having made known to the world both the mushrooms and her gift as their ministrant. But not without anguish do I read her words:
It is certain, she says, that before Wasson, nobody had spoken with such looseness about the mushrooms. None of the Mazatecs had revealed knowledge of this matter . . . The mushrooms are the blood of Christ. When the Mazatecs speak of mushrooms we do so in a low voice, in order not to pronounce the name they have in the Mazatec language—we call them cositas—little things—or santitos—little saints. Thus they were called by our ancestors. Before Wasson I felt that the sacred mushrooms elevated me. I no longer feel this way . . . If Cayetano had not brought the strangers, the mushrooms would have retained their power . . . From the moment the strangers arrived the mushrooms are now worthless. There is no remedy.
These words make me wince: I, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia. “The mushrooms are now worthless. There is no remedy.” I fear she spoke the truth, exemplifying her wisdom. A practice carried on in secret for centuries has now been aerated and aeration spells the end.
Extinction was and is inevitable. The world would know vaguely that such a thing had existed but not the importance of its role.
Maria Sabina, thought to be more visionary or shaman than poet, was born in 1894. Her ideas and teachings are shown in this exclusive documentary about her life and devotion to Psilocybe Mushrooms.