Little Saints: The Sacred Healing History of ‘Magic’ Mushrooms

Published at Australian Psychedelic Society, 2020

Currently there is a renewed interest in psychedelics as potential medical treatments for a variety of mental health conditions. In particular, recent studies have suggested that the psychedelic compound psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient found in hallucinogenic ‘magic mushrooms’) has a promising role to play in the treatment of anxiety, depression and addiction (Garcia-Romeu and Richards 2018). In clinical trials, the positive healing effects of synthetic psilocybin are positively correlated with a psilocybin-induced mystical experience; that is, people who have a mystical experience tend to have better treatment outcomes. Given that in the modern West, mushrooms have been popularly viewed as a ‘recreational drug’ this finding may seem surprising. However, psilocybin mushrooms have a long and rich history of use as a sacred medicine. Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used in indigenous healing ceremonies in Mesoamerica since at least the sixteenth century, and references to sacred mushroom use in Mexico are found in the very earliest written documents or codices produced in the Spanish New World (Guzmán 2008: 405). In these documents mushrooms have been referred to as teonanácatl, meaning “flesh of the gods.”

After the Spanish Conquest, mentions of ceremonial mushroom use completely disappeared for approximately four hundred years, a period scholar Benjamin Feinberg (2003: 127) refers to as “The Long Silence.” It has been suggested that during this time – from the colonial period to the early twentieth century – ceremonial mushroom use was suppressed by, or strategically hidden from, the Spaniards. While there is no official record of ceremonial mushroom practices during this period, some scholars argue that it is likely that sacred mushroom use continued in secret in remote mountainous villages (Guzmán 2008). Feinberg (2003: 71) argues that the mushroom tradition was likely preserved because of the stubbornness of the Mazatecs and their resistance to religious conversion, and the geographical remoteness of the region.

The long silence was broken in the early twentieth century when a number of ethnobotanists, anthropologists, and linguists reported that Mazatec Indians in the town of Huautla de Jiménez (Huautla) in northern Oaxaca were using hallucinogenic mushrooms in indigenous healing ceremonies or veladas (Letcher 2008: 78-80). During a mushroom velada, the curandero or curandera (healer) uses the mushroom to diagnose and treat illness. Generally, both the healer and the patient ingest mushrooms, although there are documented instances of only the healer taking mushrooms. The healer then facilitates the passage of the mushroom’s ‘spirit’ to the patient’s afflicted area through prayers, chanting, massage, and other techniques (Duke 1996).

In 1938, anthropologist and linguist Jean Bassett Johnson (1916-1944) became one of the first Westerners to witness a mushroom velada. In describing the ceremony, he wrote:

“The curandero (healer), while under the influence of the hallucinogenic mushroom, divined the patient’s illness; and it was the mushroom that gave instructions on how the sick person should be cured” (cited in Letcher 2008: 79-80).

According to traditional healers, psilocybin mushrooms grant access to, or are literally seen as, spirits with whom the healers can form a relationship. The mushrooms reveal information, or speak through the healer in improvised, poetic chants believed to have healing power (Letcher 2008: 83-84). The names given to the mushrooms by the Huautecos—‘little saints’, ‘saint children’, ‘holy children’—are indicative of the spiritual significance this culture has attributed to psilocybin mushrooms.

Although the mushroom velada was known to Westerners at the beginning of the twentieth-century, the rediscovery of psilocybin mushrooms is commonly attributed to R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986), a banker, scholar, and amateur mycologist who made it his life’s work to investigate the relationship between hallucinogenic mushrooms and the origins of religion. Wasson was the first person to travel to Huautla specifically to study and experience the indigenous use of psilocybin mushrooms. In 1955 he met with renowned Mazatec curandera María Sabina (1894-1985) and convinced her to allow him to participate in a velada, making him one of the first Westerners to ever intentionally eat the sacred mushrooms. Awestruck by the resulting ecstatic mystical experience, Wasson claimed: “the mushroom holds the key to a mystical union with God” (Riedlinger 2005: 78).

Wasson published his experience with psilocybin mushrooms in both Mushrooms, Russia and History, an expensive limited edition volume aimed at private collectors and universities, and the popular weekly magazine Life. The Life article, titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions” was published on 13 May 1957 and read by an audience of millions. The term ‘magic mushroom’ derives from this Life article.

Sacred Mushroom Use: María Sabina and Huautla de Jiménez

Andy Letcher (2008: 84) writes that when Wasson met Mazatec curandera María Sabina in the town of Huautla de Jiménez, he was immediately struck by her presence, describing her as “a woman of rare moral and spiritual power.” However, despite being a leading figure on topic of psilocybin mushrooms, relatively little has been written about Sabina’s life. Of the texts that do exist, María Sabina: Selections is of particular importance as it contains Sabina’s oral autobiography. Selections was compiled by Álvaro Estrada, a Huautla resident and Mazatec speaker who engaged Sabina in a series of recorded conversations, which he then translated into Spanish. The autobiography provides a first person account of Sabina’s life as a curandera, her meeting with Wasson and her relationship with psilocybin mushrooms. It is clear from this text that the mushrooms – which she refers to primarily as “little saints,” “saint children,” or just “children,” – held great spiritual and religious significance for Sabina. She repeatedly describes the mushrooms as being “like God” (Estrada 2003: 14), stating “the mushrooms have power because they are the flesh of God” (Estrada 2003: 28) and “I take Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth [mushrooms] and I see God” (Estrada 2003: 29). Sabina notes that during the mushroom velada she speaks to the saints – “to Lord Santiago, to Saint Joseph, and to Mary” (Estrada 2003: 37) – and describes her devotion to being a healer as being partly due to her desire to be close to God:

“I gave myself up for always to wisdom, in order to cure the sicknesses of people and to be myself always close to God. One should respect the little mushrooms. At bottom I feel they are my family. As if they were my parents, my blood. In truth I was born with my destiny. To be a Wise Woman. To be a daughter of the saint children” (Estrada 2003: 14).

Interestingly, while the mushrooms hold a special spiritual significance, in her autobiography Sabina states that before Wasson arrived, no one took the mushrooms purely to “know God” (that is, for a ‘spiritual experience’) (Estrada 2003: 49). Rather they were always taken within the context of a healing ceremony – to cure the sick. Even today, for many Huautecos the mushroom velada is a ritual of particular importance as it is often viewed as a last resort for healing; people turn to psilocybin mushrooms to heal serious illnesses that have not responded to other treatments (Flores 2018).

Mushrooms in the West: From Sacrament to ‘Drug’

In the 1950s and 1960s psilocybin mushrooms made their way from Mexico into the Western counterculture, which had already embraced other psychedelics such as mescaline and LSD. In 1958, Albert Hoffman (1906-2008) – the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD – successfully synthesised psilocybin and psilocin, which initiated scientific research into the psychological effects of psilocybin. Shortly after in 1960, psychologist Timothy Leary (1920-1996) founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project. While this project was initially designed to test the effects of psilocybin on personality, it soon became apparent that research participants who took psilocybin were having religious and spiritual experiences (Letcher 2008: 201). The project’s most well-known study, The Marsh Chapel Experiment (also known as the ‘Good Friday Experiment’), supported the idea that psilocybin could reliably induce mystical experiences and that the compound had a definite sacramental quality. The creation of a number of countercultural ‘mushroom sects’ and new religious movements during this period (for example, The Fane of the PSILOCYBE Mushroom Association; The Church of the Golden Rule; Church of the One Sermon) also attests to the profound religious and spiritual effects that people found in both synthetic psilocybin and psilocybin mushrooms (Stuart 2002). Further, by 1973 the term ‘psychedelic’ had largely been replaced by ‘entheogen,’ meaning ‘that which engenders God within.’ This term was coined by a group of academic and amateur scholars (including Wasson) in order to emphasise the spiritual effects of psilocybin and to “distance their own practices from recreational and non-medical psychedelic mushroom use” (Letcher 2007: 84).

By the mid-1960s there was a moral panic and backlash regarding the use of psilocybin mushrooms in the West. This was driven partly by sensationalist and often exaggerated media stories about people who had allegedly ‘lost their minds’ or ‘gone mad’ after taking psychedelics, in particular LSD. However, Letcher (2008: 202) argues that the panic was likely less about personal health risks (in fact, a recent study by David Nutt, Leslie King, and Lawrence Phillips [2010] ranks mushrooms as the least harmful of illicit substances and LSD as the third least harmful) and more about a rising concern that an increasing number of people were taking psychedelics and losing their motivation to work. Regardless, in the United States a federal law that specifically banned psilocybin and psilocin was enacted on October 24, 1968; psilocybin-containing mushrooms were made illegal and their status was officially changed from sacrament to illicit drug. Following this, the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin were listed as Schedule I drugs (defined as having a high potential for abuse and no recognised medical uses) under the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971). Scientific research into the psychological and medical effects of these compounds ended and those who wished to use psilocybin-containing mushrooms for spiritual or religious purposes were no longer legally able to do so. Scholars including Charlotte Walsh (2011; 2016) argue that the widespread restriction of psychedelics (many of which, like mushrooms, have a rich history of indigenous use) is a denial of spiritual rights, sacramental freedom and cognitive liberty. Others have argued that denying people access to effective antidepressant compounds such as psilocybin is a denial of human rights. Professor David Nutt has warned that patients are missing out on the potential benefits of such treatments and has said the restrictions amount to “the worst censorship in the history of science” (Campbell 2015).

The Future

Acknowledging and understanding the traditional role of psilocybin mushrooms as a healing sacrament is vitally important for several reasons. First, it may help to remove the unnecessary and unfortunate stigma surrounding mushrooms, and encourage the acceptance of their use as powerful antidepressants and healing agents. Understanding the mushroom velada could also possibly provide more insight into how psilocybin has its therapeutic effect, and hence inform future medical studies and clinical trials. Finally, recognising the sacramental history of mushrooms helps to address the historical trauma that has occurred in indigenous communities in Mexico. The re-categorisation of psilocybin mushrooms from ‘sacred medicine’ to ‘drug’ has not only prevented spiritual and healing use of mushrooms in the West, it has also affected indigenous practices in Mexico. For example, a study by Feinberg (2003: 96) includes a conversation with two Mazatec teachers who lamented that foreigners were destroying Mazatec indigenous culture and the velada by treating the mushrooms as drugs: “To us they are not drugs. They are sacred,” they repeated. Flores (2018) also argues that despite a history of forced religious conversion and desacralisation, the Mazatec people have continued to preserve the mushroom velada and consider it to be as sacred and significant as any other rituals that are found in the world’s major religions. Hence, it is important that both indigenous and non-indigenous people respect psilocybin mushrooms and the contexts in which they are consumed. Understanding that psilocybin mushrooms have held, and continue to hold, a significant place in the spiritual lives of many people is a critical step towards de-stigmatisation, sacred justice, and healing.


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Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash