How far the consumption of Magic Mushrooms (mushrooms containing the psychoactive substance psilocybin and psilocin) goes back in time is difficult to say. But the forefathers of the Aztecs and their in-laws were probably already familiar with the psychoactive functioning of these mold plants. Although, that is what is concluded from the numerous amount of ‘mushroom stones’ and rock paintings that were found in archeological sites all over the aria from Central America till Chile. The exact meaning of these finds remains unclear, but it looks a lot like the purposes where of medical and religious nature and played a big part in daily life. The first real (read: written) indications of mushroom consumption are given by the Spanish gringo’s who, when they took their residence on the American continent, kept reports about the habits and uses of the domestic Indian population. One of the oldest reports found is written by Bernardino de Sahágun, a Spanish Catholic clerk from the 16th century:
‘Before sunrise, they ate the mushrooms with honey, and when the got excited because of that, they started to dance, some smiling, others crying (…) some sat down as if they where sunk in ideas. Some saw themselves die; some saw themselves being eaten by a wild beast, others imagined that they where in a fight and captured their enemies, some believed they had committed adultery and that their skulls would be cleaved as a punishment’ Shortly after their arrival, the Spanish took control and forced their catholic philosophy upon the domestic population, they would not want to know anything about the worship of nature gods. In their eyes, that stood right next to adoring the devil. There existed only one god and that was without a doubt the Roman Catholic one. Therefore, the use of the holy Teonanácatl (the denomination of the mushroom in the Indian language Nahuatl, rather translated ‘the flesh of the gods’) was soon prohibited. If the Indians were nevertheless caught during a mushroom ritual, then death penalty was their punishment.
That would temper the ‘primitive and inhuman nature’ of the domestic people, the conquerors thought. However, the rituals proceeded underground, and without changing a word ever more in public. The Spanish reports of that time remain silence as well concerning mushroom consumption. Only four centuries later, in 1916, the botanist Dr. William E. Safford brings up the subject again. He reanalyzes the Spanish reports and comes to the conclusion that the 16th-century observers made a big mistake. It would not have been mushrooms that were used by the Indians in their rituals, but holy Peyote cactuses (Latin name Lophophora williamsii). In dried shape, this cactus looks a bit like a mushroom is his declaration for the ‘misunderstanding’. According to him mushrooms with such a psychedelic effect do not even exist! In the meantime a lot of stubborn Europeans, who do not believe in Saffords ‘misunderstanding-theory’, head for the American continent. Etnobotanicus Richard Evans Schultes and physicist Plasius Paul Reko discover in the 30’s that the so-called Veladas, Indian mushroom ceremonies with both Indian and Catholic spiritual influences are still alive in some areas. However, the American R. Gordon Wasson has the honor to be the first white person to be participating in such a ritual. His search for the ‘secret of the mushroom’ brings him in 1955 to the Oaxaca area in Mexico (district of the Mazatek people) close to the village Huatla de Jimenez. Once arrived he meets the old curandera (Spanish for medicine woman/shaman) Maria Sabina. She takes Wasson and his photographer Richardson to a nocturnal Velada. Both men get a portion psilocybe caerulescens served up. Wasson, with his journalistic background, initially decides to remain sober but that proves to be a conceited hope. Richardson’s photography is also not very successful anymore once he starts tripping. The two men see all kinds of visions and Wasson has the remarkable feeling to see more sharply than normally. He gets fascinated with this and six days later he takes the mushrooms once again with its wife and daughter. This is the first time that people from the western world are having a psychedelic mushroom experience outside an Indian ritual.
Back in New York Wasson starts a study of the Magic Mushrooms and a year later he goes back again to Mexico. This time he is accompanied by Roger Heim, a French mycologist. Together they identify seven different types of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Of the spores which they take back Heim manage to grow artificial fruit bodies. Among others an adult copy of the psilocybe cubensis. Wasson writes a big article about that in 1957 under the title ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’. It has the subtitle: ‘Great adventures in the discovery of mushrooms that cause strange visions.’ It is published in the American magazine Life which is then available all over the world in English as well as in Spanish. It is a big success and true mushroom-hype is unchained. Although Wasson did not mention any names in his article, he cannot prevent that the origin of the Teonanácatl leaks out. Innumerable amounts of hippies and other fringe groups head off for Mexico, Maria Sabina becomes a local celebrity and the village of Huautla de Jimenez changes into a pilgrimage harbor. Under the pilgrims are many famous figures such as Peter Townsend and John Lennon. Yet the question remained, which exact component of the mushrooms did the hallucination-trick. In an attempt to unraffle this ‘secret’ Heim sends a few gram of his self-grown material to Albert Hofman.
This Swiss scientist (the one who earlier synthesized LSD) and he isolate the two operative substances psilocybin and psilocin. As an ultimate test Wasson and Hofman visit Maria Sabina in 1962. Hofman let her try the pills with synthesized psilocybine and she concludes that the pills have the same effect on her as the mushrooms. If the old curandera is as happy as the scientists with the solvation of the mushroom-mystery, remains to be doubted. The mushroom pilgrims are searching for the mushrooms for all the wrong reasons in her eyes. Because the Indians used the mushrooms only for medical and religious reasons; the hippies are just using them for their own pleasure. This way, Maria Sabina said once regretfully, ‘the strength of the sacrament get lost in the clouds’. At the end of her life, she spoke only English (instead of the Mazatek language). She died when she was ninety-one. In the sixties, there was a huge psychedelic movement which the mushrooms were an important part of. The mushrooms which became more and more popular in a very short time attracted the attention of the United States government quickly. It did not take a long time before the mushrooms were banned (1968). Shortly after that, the psilocybine mushrooms were placed on the “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970”. Quickly other countries followed with a result that these days the mushrooms are illegal in most parts of the world.