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The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)
The Psilocybe are the hallucinogenic mushrooms most widely used for recreational purposes. Most users call them 'magic mushrooms' or 'Liberty Caps'. Psychoactive Psilocybe species are found almost the world over, including Europe, from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego at the most southerly tip of South America, in New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand (both the north and south islands). There are estimated to be as many as eighty hallucinogenic species containing the psychoactive alkaloids psilocybin and psilocin (which are also found in species belonging to four other genera of mushrooms - Conocybe, Panaeolus, Stropharia and Copelandia). In sufficient quantities these mushrooms can cause visual, auditory and other hallucinations and profound changes in the perception of time and space (see the account of María Sabina below).
There is little evidence for the historical use of Psilocybe mushrooms in Europe, although the archaeologist Jeremy Dronfield as suggested that their use by the Neolithic builders and decorators of the Irish megaliths may have been responsible for the hallucinogenic imagery on these monuments, much of which still remains today. In fact, despite the near cosmopolitan distribution of the 'magic mushrooms', their traditional use has yet to be demonstrated outside of the Americas. There are a number of types of ancient artefacts that indicate the antiquity of mushroom use in this part of the world. Mushroom-shaped stone artefacts (some of them incorporating toad designs) have been found in considerable numbers at sites in Guatemala dated between 100 BC and AD 300. Gold effigies from Colombia (AD 100-350) depict objects that have been interpreted as mushrooms. They are depicted in Mexican art dating from AD 300 and also feature in Aztec iconography. The most spectacular such representation in Aztec art is the sixteenth-century statue of Xochipilli, 'Prince of Flowers'. The pedestal is decorated with numerous mushroom caps identified as the hallucinogenic species Psilocybe aztecorum, which is known solely from the region around the volcano Popocatepetl where the statue was discovered. The body of Xochipilli is adorned with floral motifs of other psychoactive plants, including tobacco and morning glory.
It was not known that the contemporary Indians of Mexico had maintained the cult of the mushrooms until earlier this century. In the thirties the anthropologist Robert Weitlaner obtained specimens of the mushrooms, which were subsequently investigated by the ethnobotanists Blas Pablo Reko and Richard Schultes (the latter correctly identifying them not as Psilocybe but as Panaeolus, another genus of mushrooms used as entheogens). Weitlaner's daughter attended a native mushroom ceremony in 1939 but did not partake of them herself. After the Second World War the trail was picked up again by the ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina, who visited Mexico in 1953 to seek out the sacred mushrooms after Robert Graves had pointed out a reference to the existence of the cult to them in a letter. This was the first of a number of field trips that revealed the mushrooms to the world at large. In 1955 Wasson met the Mexican Mazatec healer María Sabina who was to be his spiritual guide in the inner world of the sacred mushrooms.
The sacred powers of the mushrooms are not open to all, as María Sabina has so eloquently said:
the mushroom is similar to your soul. And not all souls are the same. Marcial [her second husband, a violent and drunken man] had taken the teo-nanácatl [sacred mushrooms], had had visions, but the visions served no purpose. Many people of the sierra have taken it and are taking it, but not everyone enters into the world where everything is known. Also Ana María, my sister, began taking them together with me, had the same visions, talked to the mushrooms, but the mushrooms did not reveal all their secrets. The secrets that they revealed to me are enclosed in a big Book that they showed me and that is found in a region very far away from their world, a great Book. They gave it to me when Ana María fell ill … and seemed almost near death. So I decided to return again to the teo-nanácatl. I took many, many more than I had ever taken before: thirty plus thirty. I loved my sister and was ready to do anything, even to make a very long trip, just to save her. I was sitting in front of her with my body, but my soul was entering the world of the teo-nanácatl and was seeing the same landscape that it had seen many other times, then landscapes that it had never seen because the great number of mushrooms had taken me into the deepest of the depths of that world. I was going ahead until, at one point, a duende, a spirit, came toward me. He asked a strange question: 'But what do you wish to become, you, María Sabina?'
I answered him, without knowing, that I wished to become a saint. Then the spirit smiled, and immediately he had in his hands something that he did not have before, and it was a big Book with many written pages.
'Here,' he said. 'I am giving you this Book so that you can do your work better and help people who need help and know the secrets of the world where everything is known.'
I thumbed through the leaves of the Book, many written pages, and I thought that unfortunately I did not know how to read. I had never learned, and therefore that would not have been of any use to me. Suddenly, I realised I was reading and understood all that was written in the Book and that I became as though richer, wiser, and that moment I learned millions of things. I learned and learned … I looked for the herbs that the Book had indicated to me, and I did exactly what I had learned from the Book. And also Ana María got well.
I didn't need to see the Book again because I had learned everything that was inside it. But I again saw the spirit that gave it to me and other spirits and other landscapes; and I saw, close by, the sun and the moon because the more you go inside the world of teo-nanácatl, the more things are seen. And you also see our past and our future, which are there together as a single thing already achieved, already happened. So I saw the entire life of my son Aurelio and his death and the face and the name of the man that was to kill him and the dagger with which he was going to kill him because everything had already been accomplished. The murder had already been committed, and it was useless for me to say to my son that he should look out because they would kill him, because there was nothing to say. They would kill him, and that was it. And I saw other deaths and other murders and people who were lost - no one knew where they were - and I alone could see. And I saw stolen horses and ancient buried cities, the existence of which was unknown, and they were going to be brought to light. Millions of things I saw and I knew. I knew and saw God: an immense clock that ticks, the spheres that go slowly around, and inside the stars, the earth, the entire universe, the day and the night, the cry and the smile, the happiness and the pain. He who knows to the end of the secret of the 'teo-nanácatl' can even see that infinite clockwork.
On top of all her other suffering María Sabina was later imprisoned because she had inadvertantly attracted the attention of unwelcome hippies who had heard about the mushrooms through the publications of Wasson and others. Wasson was deeply distressed at how his own sincere and respectful interest had indirectly had the consequence of causing additional suffering to María Sabina. But the hippies were not the first to profane the sacred mushrooms: that was done by the CIA. In 1955 the CIA had sought Wasson's co-operation, having become aware of initial publications concerning the hallucinogenic mushrooms. Their interest was in the possible military applications of the fungi. Wasson refused. The CIA would not take no for an answer and so successfully planted one of their operatives, James Moore, on the next expedition that Wasson had organised. It was only in 1979, when certain covert CIA activities were revealed, that Wasson learnt that Moore had played this role.