Ritual Use of Psilocybe mexicana & Lophophora williamisii in North America
The use of hallucinogens in religious ceremony is an ancient practice that has appeared numerous times throughout human history and into modern day. Throughout Mexico and into the southern United States the now famous Peyote (lophophora williamisii) and hallucinogenic mushrooms (Psilocybin mushrooms) have been used in indigenous ceremonies since pre-Columbian history. Both of these hallucinogens are said to produce visions and profound mystical and transcendental experiences that connect the user with the divine. They are used by religious cults to strengthen the connection with, and promote the understanding of, a greater force or power within the natural and cosmic world.
Brief History of Psilocybin Mushrooms
Archaeological evidence suggests that as early as 1,000 B.C.E mushrooms were being used by Mayan and other Latin American cultures. At least 400 pre-Columbian mushroom statues have been found from as far north as southern and central Mexico to as far south as Honduras and El Salvador. A majority of these figures were recovered from the highlands of Guatemala. A statuette dating from ca. 200 AD was found in a west Mexican shaft and chamber tomb in the state of Colima. This statuette strongly resembles the common hallucinogenic mushroom of the area; Psilocybe mexicana. Conflicting beliefs exist as to whether these statuettes suggest an actual worship and ritual use of the mushrooms or not, but later evidence from Spanish written records and the Aztec Codex suggest it is a very strong possibility.
Drawings indicating mushroom worship in central Mexico date back to as far as 300 AD. In the Mixtec Vindobonensis Codex and Aztec Magliabechiano Codex sacred mushrooms and their use make an appearance. Tepantitla frescoes of Teotihuacan also depict similar mushrooms in such a away as to infer that they were used in a ritual context. Piltzintecuhtli, one of the many gods of the Miztec culture, was responsible for hallucinatory plants and worship, particularly pertaining to psilocybin mushrooms. The Aztecs also had a similar god by the name of Xochipilli who was the divine patron of the “flowery dream” which was the name given to hallucinatory trances. Psilocybin mushrooms were often served with honey and chocolate at many of the holiest Aztec events.
When Spaniards first arrived in Mesoamerica they were astounded to find such a wide variety of plants being used for both medicinal and religious purposes. The Aztecs were using Psilocybe mushrooms which they called “teonanácatl” which is Nahuatl for “god’s mushroom” or “flesh of the gods” a combination of the word “teó” meaning “god” and “nanácatl” meaning “mushroom.” The Spanish priest-historian Bernardino de Sahagún reported ritualistic use of teonanácatl by the Aztecs and that teonanácatl was served at the coronation of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II in 1502.
“The first thing to be eaten at the feast were small black mushrooms that they called nanácatl and bring on drunkenness, hallucinations and even lechery; they ate these before the dawn… with honey; and when they began to feel the effects, they began to dance, some sang and others wept… when the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke to one another of the visions they had seen.” – Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España by Bernardino de Sahagún.
The use of mushrooms at religious ceremonies were seen as unchristian and were quickly pegged as “pagan idolatry” by Spanish missionaries. These practices as well as other indigenous beliefs were quickly suppressed by the Spanish who forced Christian ideologies on the native populace, ending the widespread use of Psilocybe mushrooms among indigenous peoples. But more remote regions have retained their mushroom ritual and continue into modern day. These include the Mazatec, Chinantec, Zapotec, Mije, and Mixtec of Oaxaca; the Nahoa of Mexico; and possibly the Otomi of Puebla and the Tarascana of Michoacan. Species of Psilocybin mushrooms currently utilized in religious ceremonies in these areas include: Conocybe siligineoides, Panaeolus sphinctrinus, Psilocybe acutissima, Psilocybe aztecorum, Psilocybe caerulescens, Psilocybe caerulipes, Psilocybe cordispora, Psilocybe cubensis Psilocybe fagicola, Psilocybe hoogshageniii, Psilocybe isauri, Psilocybe mexicana, Psilocybe mixaeensis, Psilocybe semperviva, Psilocybe yungensis, Psilocybe zapotecorum. The varieties most likely to have been used by the Aztecs were probably Psilocybe caerulescens and Psilocybe mexicana. The now popular Psilocybe cubensis was not introduced to America until after the arrival of Europeans and their cattle. This strain of mushroom preferring to grow near fertile manure.
In more recent times the use of Psilocybe mushrooms came to the attention of Westerners by the Mazatec people of the southern state of Oaxaca who in June of 1955, in the village of Huautla de Jimenez, allowed R. Gordon Wasson to participate in a ceremony known as velada. Velada is the modern vestige of the ancient and sacred use of teonanácatl. It was Wasson’s account of this experience that initiated the rebirth of the sacred mushroom in modern times as a recreational drug rather than a ceremonial one and initiated the study of such mushrooms and their effects.
When Psilocybin is ingested it is broken down to produce psilocin. Psilocin is the substance responsible for producing the hallucinations which participants experience. The intoxicating effects generally last from about 3 to 7 hours during which time the user experiences a wide range of physical, emotional, and sensory effects. About thirty minutes after ingestion there are noticeable changes to audio, visual, and tactile senses. Shifts in perception, visually, including enhancement of color, changes in surfaces (I.e rippling, shimmering, breathing), and the appearance of halos or auras. Objects morph or change before one’s eyes, a feeling of melting into surroundings, and trails may occur behind moving objects. Hallucinations with eyes opened or closed, flourishes of color and patterns can be experienced.
Once in this state of mind a person becomes very open to suggestion. Words or other cues can set off complex visions or hallucinations. Depending on the users frame of mind these can be exhilarating or frightening. Many people, whether participating in a religious ceremony, or a more recreational experience, often relay or claim to experience an understanding of a force larger then themselves whether it is of God or the cosmos.
When put in a ceremonial context with the enhancement of drums, language, or other cues one can be transported to a parallel plane, so to speak. Experiencing what could be relayed as the divine or an infinite understanding. The Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina, who allowed R. Gordon Wasson to participate in the Velada, relays the experience of teonanácatl by saying:
“The more you go inside the world of teonanácatl, the more things are seen. And you also see our past and our future, which are there as a single thing already achieved, already happened…. Millions of things I saw and 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 the secret of teonanácatl can even see that infinite clockwork.” – Maria Sabina
Hallucinations and the experience of Psilocybin mushrooms are also seen as not only a cosmic experience but a self reflection and inner lesson as well. Fears are often brought to the surface if a person is not of a positive frame of mind and can be quiet frightening and engaging. These types of experiences are often seen as an emotional and religious trail when used in a ceremonial context. While vomiting is not common with Psilocybin mushrooms as it is with Peyote (Peyotl), the act is still viewed as a physical reaction of the cleansing of a person’s soul. Overall the experience and use of Psilocybin mushrooms is seen as a positive intellectual and spiritual journey among pre-Columbian and modern hallucinogenic drug cults.
Legality in Modern and Ancient Times
As mentioned earlier, after the arrival of Spanish conquistadors the use of psychedelic mushrooms as well as other ritual hallucinogens were forcefully put to a halt because of the view that they were sacrilegious and non-Christian. In remote regions they continued on outside the reach of their European conquerers and into modern day when R. Gordon Wasson was invited to a ceremony in 1955. After he relayed accounts of this experience many foreigners came to Oaxaca in search of “magic” mushrooms, but they did not come without attracting the attention of the Mexican authorities. But even this has not completely halted the use of such mushrooms by individual indigenous groups. There are laws protecting ethnic minorities in Mexico and their right to practice their religion.
In the United States psychedelic mushrooms are categorized as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are drugs that are considered to have a high potential for abuse and that have no recognized medical use. This though has come under some criticism as Psilocybin mushrooms are considered to be among the “softer” drugs. It is a common misconception, even among the professional fields, that the effects of “magic” mushrooms are due to a poisonous nature of the compound. But the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a branch of the Center for Disease Control, rated psilocybin less toxic than aspirin.
Brief History of Lophophora williamisii
Two archaeological specimens of Lophophora williamisii, more commonly known as peyote, were recovered from Shumla Cave No. 5 on the Rio Grande, Texas. The two specimens were Peyote buttons, or dried tops of the cactus, and were both dated by professionals independently. The results dated the specimens to between 3780 – 3660 BC producing sound evidence that native North Americans were using the cactus as early as 5,700 years ago. A burial cave in west central Coahulia, Mexico also produced specimens of Lophophora williamisii. The specimen from this site is associated with radio carbon dates of AD 810 – 1070.
Lophophora williamisii also appeared in art throughout Mesoamerican history. Archaeological mortuary ceramics depicting the cactus were found in western Mexico and dated to about 100 BC to 300 AD in the state of Colima. But the primary source of accounts of the use of Peyote, or Peyotl, appear in post-Colombian times.
Bernardino de Sahagún also mentioned the use of a ceremonial drug known as Peyotl among the Aztecs, in his Florentine doctrine.
“There is another herb like tunas [Opuntia spp.] of the earth. It is called Peyotl. It is white. It is found in the north country. Those who eat or drink it see visions either frightful or laughable. This intoxication lasts two or three days and then ceases. It is a common food of the Chichimeca, for it sustains them and gives them courage to fight and not feel fear nor hunger nor thirst. And they say that it protects them from all danger.” – Bernardino de Sahagún.
This drug too was used in a similar way as Psilocybin mushrooms and was quickly deemed unchristian in nature. Peyotl’s use also suffered with the implement of the conquistador’s laws which prohibited the use of all intoxicants other than alcohol. Shortly there after, the drug and its users disappeared into the mountains, hills, and deserts of Mexico.
But the use of Peyote did not die there. Although the cactus only exists naturally in southwestern Texas and Northern Mexico, the use of peyote has extended as far north as Canada in the last few millenniums. Peyote is known for its healing and ceremonial properties and has been implemented by native North American tribes for its medicinal and therapeutic properties. It was believed the spread of peyotism was spurred by the initial efforts of the Apache.
Today more than fifty Indian tribes practice peyotism through the Native American church and there are believed to be somewhere around 250,000 followers. Beliefs vary from tribe to tribe and church to church, but generally use a mixture of Christian ideologies and more traditional Native American beliefs. The ritual use of Peyote, or peyotism, is at the center of a successful and thriving modern drug cult.
Mescaline is the property in peyote which gives it its intoxicating nature. An effective dose of mescaline is about 300 to 500 mg (approximately 5 grams of dried peyote) and the effects last between 10 to 12 hours. The use of peyote often induces intense stimulatory effects and intricate hallucinations. Vivid patterns such as stripes, checkerboards, multicolored dots, angular spikes and very simple fractals which often turn evermore complex, have occurred. Such patterns have been relayed as resembling light passing through a colorful stain glass window.
The top of the cactus known as peyote buttons are ingested to trigger the experience. Because of the bitter taste of these buttons sometimes involuntary vomiting can occur. When put into a ceremonial context this is often seen as a process of cleansing the soul. The buttons can be ground and put into pill form to avoid such an occurrence, but this is not commonly done by those using peyote in a ritual context.
Since so many tribes within the Native American church practice peyotism the actual ceremony and beliefs vary from area to area. But generally the ceremony occurs within a tepee, hogan or other traditional structure and begins in the evening on a Saturday and ends with breakfast in the morning on Sunday. There is generally a fire which the participants sit around in a circle or semi-circle. The ritual includes prayer, the ingestion of peyote, peyote songs, sometimes water rituals, and deep contemplation. The goal of such rituals is generally to commune with the Spirit or Creator or in some cases the deceased, and to give guidance, power and/or healing.
In areas of Northern Mexico, local indigenous groups such as the Huichol, not only think of the use of peyote as ceremonial or ritual but the collection of the cactus has its own significance and meaning as well. Small groups go into the desert to collect the cactus in a very practiced and formal way. The cactus is very fragile and if not harvested properly the plant will die. Peyote cactus take a long time to bloom and are a very delicate plant. Many of the modern users of peyote, who do not deem the plant as sacred and are careless with the harvesting of peyote, have put the cactus in danger in areas of southwestern Texas and northern Mexico.
Legality in Modern and Ancient Times
In 1620, with the Inquisition of New Spain, an order was published prohibiting the use of peyote and other drugs, besides alcohol, for any purposes. Although this order failed to stop the use of peyote completely, particularly among the Huichol and Tarahumara in Northern Mexico, it did stop its widespread use.
Peyotism survived among the Huichol and Tarahumara of Northern Mexico into the 1800’s, when the Lipan Apaches were driven from Texas and took refuge with the Comanche, Kiowa, and other tribes. It was with these tribes that the Lipan Apaches discovered peyotism and were converted. And the religion began to spread once again from there.
From 1886 to 1932 extensive measures were taken by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and traditional Christian missionary societies to end the use of peyote for good. They implemented federal prohibitions but these failed in halting the use and they resorted to moving the attempts to the state level. By 1837 at least 14 states had outlawed the use of peyote, but Natives in Oklahoma, in 1918, succeeded in keeping their use of peyote by implementing it within the Native American Church.
Members of the Native American Church believe that peyote was put on earth by God or the Creator in order to help the Native Americans, and for this reason it is considered sacred. Peyote is considered a divine messenger and medicine and aids true believers in receiving knowledge and advice from God or Jesus. Jesus is mentioned fairly often in hymns and prayers. The general rules or guidelines of the Native American Church state that alcohol is an evil and to be avoided, the family is to be sanctified, and the earth and all natural products are to be respected.
The use of peyote and psilocybin mushrooms is an ancient practice, found sacred to many indigenous groups. Although numerous attempts have been made to halt or terminate their use, they are so deeply embedded they continue to be used into modern day by select indigenous groups throughout Mexico and the United States. With the implementation of an organization such as the Native American Church, it looks unlikely that peyotism will die in the near future. Such a belief has survived this long, it is hard to conceive that it will disappear anytime in the near future.