“I realized the young people with long hair didn’t need me to eat the little things. Kids ate them anywhere and anytime, and they didn’t respect our customs.”
— María Sabina
Humans have consumed psilocybin, the naturally occurring psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, for more than 10,000 years. Until the mid 20th century, the context was religious. That changed on June 29, 1955, when a vice president of J.P. Morgan named R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Mexico with a photographer to the mud hut of the Mazatec curandera (medicine woman) María Sabina and they became, in Wasson’s words, the “first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms.”
The subsequent Life magazine article written by Wasson in 1957, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” opened a Pandora’s Box that would see, among other things, the birth of the American psychedelic counterculture, the defilement of the mushroom ritual, and ultimately, the banning of psilocybin across much of the world. The article also eventually led to Sabina’s ruin as Westerners came to her by the hundreds.
Wasson’s intentions were sincere, if naive. An amateur ethnomycologist, he had spent the previous thirty years traveling with his wife Valentina, documenting differing cultural attitudes toward wild mushrooms.
“We were not interested in what people learn about mushrooms from books, but what untutored country folk know from childhood — the folk legacy of the family circle,” Wasson recalled. “It turned out that we had happened on a novel field of inquiry.”
Wasson found that many cultures across the world worshipped mushrooms and had constructed elaborate religious ceremonies around their consumption. He determined to find out which kinds of mushrooms were worshipped and why. He was especially interested in the Aztecs and early Spanish missionary accounts of the Aztec mushroom ceremony of eating the teonanacatl, or “God’s flesh.”
Wasson made several trips to Mexico in search of those who still performed the mushroom rite, but it wasn’t until 1955 in the Oaxacan village of Huautla de Jiménez that he was successful. He visited the town hall and asked an official if he could help him learn the secrets of the divine mushroom. “Nothing could be easier,” the official replied. The official took Wasson to a mountainside where the mushrooms grew in abundance, and then to higher ground where María Sabina lived.
María Sabina was well-respected in the village as a healer and shaman. She’d been consuming psilocybin mushrooms regularly since she was seven years old, and had performed the velada mushroom ceremony for over 30 years before Wasson arrived.
The intention of the all-night velada was to commune with God to heal the sick. The spirits, if effectively contacted, would tell Sabina the nature of the sickness and the way it could be healed. Vomiting by the afflicted was considered an essential part of the ceremony. Each participant in the ritual would ingest psilocybin mushrooms as Sabina (who typically ingested twice as much) chanted invocations to coax forth the divine.