Lost Saints: Desacralisation, Spiritual Abuse, and Magic Mushrooms

Psilocybin containing mushrooms have been used in indigenous healing ceremonies in Mesoamerica since at least the sixteenth century. However, the sacramental use of mushrooms was only discovered by Westerners in the early to mid-twentieth century. Most notably, the meeting between amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson and Mazatec curandera María Sabina in 1955 resulted in the widespread popularisation of ingesting ‘magic mushrooms’ in the West. To Sabina and the Mazatec people, psilocybin mushrooms were sacred and only to be used for healing. However, Western ‘hippies’ viewed mushrooms as psychedelic drugs which they consumed with little regard for cultural sensitivities, rendering the mushrooms desacralised. This article argues that the desacralisation of psilocybin mushrooms constitutes a form of spiritual abuse that has had far-reaching and long-lasting consequences at individual, local, and global levels. Further, acknowledging and understanding the desacralisation of psilocybin mushrooms as spiritual abuse has important implications for restorative justice and the understanding of psilocybin as a sacred medicine.

Introduction

This article discusses the history of the uptake of psilocybin mushrooms by Westerners following the uncovering and publicisation of their significance in the healing rituals of the indigenous people of Mexico after American banker and amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson met Mazatec curandera or healer María Sabina in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in 1955. Andy Letcher (2008: 84-85; 102) writes that Wasson was immediately struck by Sabina, considering her to be “a woman of rare moral and spiritual power” and that he dismissed the other curanderos as “second rate, practitioners of a degenerate tradition.” In Mazatec culture, hallucinogenic mushrooms are not just ingredients in religious rituals, but channels for the divine. In ceremonies called velada, mushrooms, sometimes called ‘little saints’ or ‘children’, are ingested by ritual specialists to cure the spirit, communicate with Mazatec deities, ask profound questions, and seek guidance from an ‘ultimate source’ (Flores 2018). However, the influx of Western spiritual seekers into Mexico during the hippie era saw the contamination and desacralisation of these powerful cultural icons and practices, which the following discussion argues is a form of spiritual abuse.

The previously isolated town of Huautla became more accessible in the 1950s with the constructions of roads and the Papaloapán hydroelectric project—a project which had as one of its goals the integration of indigenous inhabitants of the Mazatec region (Feinberg 2003: 69)—and Wasson and his wife Valentina Pavlovna Guercken travelled to the remote region early in the decade to discover more about the use of sacred mushrooms. The Wassons were not the first Westerners to engage with mushroom rituals in Huautla: since the 1930s Protestant missionaries had tried (although not particularly successfully) to convert the Mazatecs and to replace traditional mushroom rituals with Mazatec-language Christian Bibles (Faudree 2015: 58, 840). After the publication of Wasson’s mystical encounters with mushrooms, this town quickly became associated with mysticism and shamanic activity. Viewed through the eyes of the outsider, Huautla is “a ‘magical world,’ one whose inhabitants live harmoniously in a metaphysical dream time” (Duke 1996: 139), and the site saw unprecedented tourist interest as Westerners flocked to experience the spiritual and psychedelic opportunities of the mushrooms. By the 1960s the ‘mushroom trip’ had the celebrity endorsement of various rock stars and musicians who travelled to Huautla including Pete Townsend, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan (Letcher 2008: 97). The damaging effects of Western tourism on Huautla resulted in an official response from the government but the impact on Mazatec religion was profound and long-lasting.

After providing an overview of sacred mushrooms in Mexican culture and the interaction and influence of Wasson and Sabina, the article moves on to a discussion of desacralisation and spiritual abuse. There is a potential problem that exists when applying the term ‘sacred’ to indigenous cultures; that is, the word may contain Anglo-Christian Western assumptions about religiosity that may not pertain to indigenous contexts. However, this article takes the view that the term ‘sacred’ as defined by Émile Durkheim (that is, something that is set apart from the profane) can be applied cross-culturally. Some further extrapolation of the term ‘spiritual abuse’ is also warranted. While ‘spiritual abuse’ is a contemporary term, the practices that it describes are documented as having existed throughout history and across religious traditions (Oakley and Kinmond 2013: 8). In this context, the abuses are perpetrated not by leaders of the spiritual community but by the Western seekers from outside the community who have misappropriated indigenous sacred practices and diminished their power for the original practitioners. The outcome of such abuses were acutely felt by Sabina, who was heavily persecuted for her role in introducing outsiders to their spiritual traditions, as she recounted: “I had revealed the ancestral secret of our native medicine to foreigners. It’s true that before Wasson nobody spoke so openly about the children. No Mazatec revealed what he knew about this matter” (Estrada 2003: 56). Eventually acknowledging his role in this cultural destruction, in a piece written for the New York Times in 1970, Wasson admitted: “I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia. ‘The little mushrooms won’t work anymore. There is no helping it’. I fear she spoke the truth.” (quoted in Rothenberg 2003: xvi).

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[1] Clinical trials use synthetic psilocybin, not mushrooms.

[2] Some scholars have argued that archaeological evidence (such as mushroom carvings and effigies found in Guatemala, Ecuador and Southern Mexico, some dating back to 1000 BCE) suggest that sacramental mushroom use has an ancient history, however this cannot be definitively proven (Letcher 2008: 25-48).

[3] It is unclear whether ceremonial mushroom practices continued during this period, although some scholars argue that it is likely that mushroom use continued in secret in remote mountainous villages (Guzmán 2008). Benjamin Feinberg (2003: 71) argues that the mushroom tradition was preserved because of the stubbornness of the Mazatecs, and the geographical remoteness of the region—physical isolation from social and commercial traffic “left the Sierra outside national progress.”

[4] Wasson was accompanied by society photographer Allan Richardson, who also ate the mushrooms (Letcher 2008: 85).

[5] Mushrooms, Russia and History was co-authored with his wife Valentina Pavlovna.

[6] The term ‘magic mushroom’ derives from this Life article.

[7] Letcher (2008: 97) notes that Sabina’s name and location were disguised in the Life article but not in Mushrooms, Russia and History. Feinberg (2003: 52) suggests that Sabina’s identity was first discovered by a photographer who traced her location based on the identifying patterns on her huipil.

[8] The need to abstain from sexual activity for 4-5 days before and after consuming mushrooms is, according to most Huautecos, absolutely essential (Duke 1996: 175).

[9] Duke writes: “a popular genre of stories in Huautla concerns outsiders—often Japanese—who, either deliberately or out of ignorance, flaunt the prohibitions associated with mushroom usage and consequently descend into madness, or else are robbed of the ability to speak” (Duke 1996: 175-176).

[10] Although Sabina said that in retrospect, even if they had come without recommendation from the authorities she would still have shown them her wisdom “because there is nothing bad in that” (Estrada 2003: 57).

[11] Along with the book Mushrooms, Russia and History, and the Life magazine article, Wasson made two separate recordings of Sabina’s veladas, one of which was released to the public and one for an academic audience (Letcher 2008: 86).

[12] In a piece written for the New York Times in 1970, Wasson admitted his role in this desacralisation, writing:

“I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for millennia. ‘The little mushrooms won’t work anymore. There is no helping it’. I fear she spoke the truth, exemplifying her sabiduría [wisdom]” (quoted in Rothenberg 2003: xvi).

[13] Sabina died as a result of “her age, pernicious anemia, pulmonary emphysema, advanced malnutrition, chronic bronchitis, and nose bleeding” (Aridjis 2003: 169).

[14] Written in cooperation with her godson and translator, Juan García Carrera, the book is titled The Other Life of María Sabina (La Otra Vida de María Sabina).

[15] Not all Huautecos feel this way. Feinberg (2003: 147) notes that some Mazatec people remember the 1960s nostalgically as a time when they assumed a central role in world history.

[16] Duke (1996: 161) notes: “Others feel that the diminution in the availability of mushrooms, and their concomitant transformation into objects of commerce, is not so much a punishment from God as it is the result of certain landowners denying access to their fields.”

[17] Feinberg (2015: 514) notes that Sabina is considered a symbol of local pride “as a native woman who interacted as an equal with experts and rock stars.” Taxi companies and businesses display Sabina’s image and are named after her, and there has even been some local pressure to change the name of the town from Huautla de Jiménez to Huautla de María Sabina.

[18] Also known as the ‘Good Friday Experiment’, this study was run by Leary’s PhD student, Walter Pahnke.

[19] Psilocybin mushrooms were caught up in the general moral panic regarding LSD. The media celebrity and prophesying of Timothy Leary (who was encouraging people to take LSD and to “turn on, tune in, drop out”) and political concerns linking psychedelics to anti-war protests (“drop acid, not bombs”) also did not help the mushroom cause. See: Breaking Convention, “Dr David Nutt – Banning psychedelics – the worst censorship of scientific research ever?”, YouTube, 28 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=oAkC9jTlXy0 .

[20] In the modern West, like in the high mountainous regions of the Sierra Mazateca, there exists an underground culture of spiritual and therapeutic mushroom use, which includes healers, therapists and other spiritual practitioners. However, the fear of prosecution likely deters many from pursuing a spiritual practice that involves psilocybin mushrooms.

[21] Further, Walsh (2016) argues that the decriminalisation of entheogens is a human rights issue and that there is a need to move beyond seeking exemptions from drug prohibition based on religious freedom; rather there should be a broader right to take these compounds based on cognitive liberty and freedom to explore consciousness.

[22] While these laws are rarely, if ever, enforced against indigenous users of mushrooms, people who partake in traditional mushroom ceremonies are still technically committing a crime.

[23] For example, psychologists suggest there are a number of psychological and social factors which may result in immoral acts being committed by otherwise moral people (Zimbardo 2007: 196).

[24] Letcher (2008: 96) writes that Wasson “had little time for hippy culture, hated being treated as a psychedelic guru, and expressed nothing but contempt for Timothy Leary.”

[25] “What else,” he implored, “could we have done?” (Letcher 2008: 99).

[26] For a review see Oakley and Kinmond (2013: 72).

[27] Letcher (2008: 107) notes that Estrada could “provide a great service to scholarship by publishing the transcripts of his interviews verbatim.”

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