LSD My Problem Child
6. The Mexican Relatives of LSD
The Sacred Mushroom Teonanácatl
Late in 1956 a notice in the daily paper caught my interest. Among
some Indians in southern Mexico, American researchers had discovered
mushrooms that were eaten in religious ceremonies and that produced
an inebriated condition accompanied by hallucinations.
Since, outside of the mescaline cactus found also in Mexico, no
other drug was known at the time that, like LSD, produced hallucinations,
I would have liked to establish contact with these researchers,
in order to learn details about these hallucinogenic mushrooms.
But there were no names and addresses in the short newspaper article,
so that it was impossible to get further information. Nevertheless,
the mysterious mushrooms, whose chemical investigation would be
a tempting problem, stayed in my thoughts from then on.
As it later turned out, LSD was the reason that these mushrooms
found their way into my laboratory, with out my assistance, at
the beginning of the following year.
Through the mediation of Dr. Yves Dunant, at the time director
of the Paris branch of Sandoz, an inquiry came to the pharmaceutical
research management in Basel from Professor Roger Heim, director
of the Laboratoire de Cryptogamie of the Museum National d'Histoire
Naturelle in Paris, asking whether we were interested in carrying
out the chemical investigation of the Mexican hallucinogenic mushrooms.
With great joy I declared myself ready to begin this work in my
department, in the laboratories for natural product research.
That was to be my link to the exciting investigations of the Mexican
sacred mushrooms, which were already broadly advanced in the ethnomycological
and botanical aspects.
For a long time the existence of these magic mushrooms had remained
an enigma. The history of their rediscovery is presented at first
hand in the magnificent two-volume standard work of ethnomycology,
Mushrooms, Russia and History (Pantheon Books, New York,
1957), for the authors, the American researchers Valentina Pavlovna
Wasson and her husband, R. Gordon Wasson, played a decisive role
in this rediscovery. The following descriptions of the fascinating
history of these mushrooms are taken from the Wassons' book.
The first written evidence of the use of inebriating mushrooms
on festival occasions, or in the course of religious ceremonies
and magically oriented healing practices, is found among the Spanish
chroniclers and naturalists of the sixteenth century, who entered
the country soon after the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortés.
The most important of these witnesses is the Franciscan friar
Bernardino de Sahagun, who mentions the magic mushrooms and describes
their effects and their use in several passages of his famous
historical work, Historia General de tas Cosas de Nueva Espana,
written between the years 1529 and 1590. Thus he describes, for
example, how merchants celebrated the return home from a successful
business trip with a mushroom party:
Coming at the very first, at the time of feasting, they ate mushrooms
when, as they said, it was the hour of the blowing of the flutes.
Not yet did they partake of food; they drank only chocolate during
the night. And they ate mushrooms with honey. When already the
mushrooms were taking effect, there was dancing, there was weeping....
Some saw in a vision that they would die in war. Some saw in a
vision that they would be devoured by wild beasts.... Some saw
in a vision that they would become rich, wealthy. Some saw in
a vision that they would buy slaves, would become slave owners.
Some saw in a vision that they would commit adultery [and so]
would have their heads bashed in, would be stoned to death....
Some saw in a vision that they would perish in the water. Some
saw in a vision that they would pass to tranquillity in death.
Some saw in a vision that they would fall from the housetop, tumble
to their death. . . . All such things they saw.... And when [the
effects of] the mushroom ceased, they conversed with one another,
spoke of what they had seen in the vision.
In a publication from the same period, Diego Duran, a Dominican
friar, reported that inebriating mushrooms were eaten at the great
festivity on the occasion of the accession to the throne of Moctezuma
II, the famed emperor of the Aztecs, in the year 1502. A passage
in the seventeenth-century chronicle of Don Jacinto de la Serna
refers to the use of these mushrooms in a religious framework:
And what happened was that there had come to [the village] an
Indian . . . and his name was Juan Chichiton . . . and he had
brought the red-colored mushrooms that are gathered in the uplands,
and with them he had committed a great idolatry.... In the house
where everyone had gathered on the occasion of a saint's feast
. . . the teponastli [an Aztec percussion instrument] was
playing and singing was going on the whole night through. After
most of the night had passed, Juan Chichiton, who was the priest
for that solumn rite, to all of those present at the fiesta gave
the mushrooms to eat, after the manner of Communion, and gave
them pulque to drink. . . so that they all went out of
their heads, a shame it was to see.
In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, these mushrooms were described
as teo-nancatl, which can be translated as "sacred
There are indications that ceremonial use of such mushrooms reaches
far back into pre-Columbian times. So-called mushroom stones have
been found in El Salvador, Guatemala, and the contiguous mountainous
districts of Mexico. These are stone sculptures in the form of
pileate mushroom, on whose stem the face or the form of a god
or an animal-like demon is carved. Most are about 30 cm high.
The oldest examples, according to archaeologists, date back to
before 500 B.C.
R. G. Wasson argues, quite convincingly, that there is a connection
between these mushroom stones and teonanácatl. If
true, this means that the mushroom cult, the magico-medicinal
and religious-ceremonial use of the magic mushrooms, is more than
two thousand years old.
To the Christian missionaries, the inebriating, vision- and hallucination-producing
effects of these mushrooms seemed to be Devil's work. They therefore
tried, with all the means in their power, to extirpate their use.
But they succeeded only partially, for the Indians have continued
secretly down to our time to utilize the mushroom teonanácatl,
which was sacred to them.
Strange to say, the reports in the old chronicles about the use
of magic mushrooms remained unnoticed during the following centuries,
probably because they were considered products of the imagination
of a superstitious age.
All traces of the existence of "sacred mushrooms" were
in danger of becoming obliterated once and for all, when, in 1915,
an American botanist of repute, Dr. W. E. Safford, in an address
before the Botanical Society in Washington and in a scientific
publication, advanced the thesis that no such thing as magic mushrooms
had ever existed at all: the Spanish chroniclers had taken the
mescaline cactus for a mushroom! Even if false, this proposition
of Safford's served nevertheless to direct the attention of the
scientific world to the riddle of the mysterious mushrooms.
It was the Mexican physician Dr. Blas Pablo Reko who first openly
disagreed with Safford's interpretation and who found evidence
that mushrooms were still employed in medicinal-religious ceremonies
even in our time, in remote districts of the southern mountains
of Mexico. But not until the years 19338 did the anthropologist
Robert J. Weitlaner and Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, a botanist
from Harvard University, find actual mushrooms in that region,
which were used there for this ceremonial purpose; and only in
1938 could a group of young American anthropologists, under the
direction of Jean Bassett Johnson, attend a secret nocturnal mushroom
ceremony for the first time. This was in Huautla de Jiménez,
the capital of the Mazatec country, in the State of Oaxaca. But
these researchers were only spectators, they were not permitted
to partake of the mushrooms. Johnson reported on the experience
in a Swedish journal (Ethnological Studies 9, 1939).
Then exploration of the magic mushrooms was interrupted. World
War II broke out. Schultes, at the behest of the American government,
had to occupy himself with rubber production in the Amazon territory,
and Johnson was killed after the Allied landing in North Africa.
It was the American researchers, the married couple Dr. Valentina
Pavlovna Wasson and her husband, R. Gordon Wasson, who again took
up the problem from the ethnographic aspect. R. G. Wasson was
a banker, vice-president of the J. P. Morgan Co. in New York.
His wife, who died in 1958, was a pediatrician. The Wassons began
their work in 1953, in the Mazatec village Huautla de Jiménez,
where fifteen years earlier J. B. Johnson and others had established
the continued existence of the ancient Indian mushroom cult. They
received especially valuable information from an American missionary
who had been active there for many years, Eunice V. Pike, member
of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. Thanks to her knowledge of
the native language and her ministerial association with the inhabitants,
Pike had information about the significance of the magic mushrooms
that nobody else possessed. During several lengthy sojourns in
Huautla and environs, the Wassons were able to study the present
use of the mushrooms in detail and compare it with the descriptions
in the old chronicles. This showed that the belief in the "sacred
mushrooms" was still prevalent in that region. However, the
Indians kept their beliefs a secret from strangers. It took great
tact and skill, therefore, to gain the confidence of the indigenous
population and to receive insight into this secret domain.
In the modern form of the mushroom cult, the old religious ideas
and customs are mingled with Christian ideas and Christian terminology.
Thus the mushrooms are often spoken of as the blood of Christ,
because they will grow only where a drop of Christ's blood has
fallen on the earth. According to another notion, the mushrooms
sprout where a drop of saliva from Christ's mouth has moistened
the ground, and it is therefore Jesus Christ himself who speaks
through the mushrooms.
The mushroom ceremony follows the form of a consultation. The
seeker of advice or a sick person or his or her family questions
a "wise man" or a "wise woman," a sabio
or sabia, also named curandero or curandera,
in return for a modest payment. Curandero can best be translated
into English as "healing priest," for his function is
that of a physician as well as that of a priest, both being found
only rarely in these remote regions. In the Mazatec language the
healing priest is called co-ta-ci-ne, which means "one
who knows." He eats the mushroom in the framework of a ceremony
that always takes place at night. The other persons present at
the ceremony may sometimes receive mushrooms as well, yet a much
greater dose always goes to the curandero. The performance
is executed with the accompaniment of prayers and entreaties,
while the mushrooms are incensed briefly over a basin, in which
copal (an incense-like resin) is burned. In complete darkness,
at times by candlelight, while the others present lie quietly
on their straw mats, the curandero, kneeling or sitting, prays
and sings before a type of altar bearing a crucifix, an image
of a saint, or some other object of worship. Under the influence
of the sacred mushrooms, the curandero counsels in a visionary
state, in which even the inactive observers more or less participate.
In the monotonous song of the curandero, the mushroom teonanácatl
gives its answers to the questions posed. It says whether
the diseased person will live or die, which herbs will effect
the cure; it reveals who has killed a specific person, or who
has stolen the horse; or it makes known how a distant relative
fares, and so forth.
The mushroom ceremony not only has the function of a consulation
of the type described, for the Indians it also has a meaning in
many respects similar to the Holy Communion for the believing
Christian. From many utterances of the natives it could be inferred
that they believe that God has given the Indians the sacred mushroom
because they are poor and possess no doctors and medicines; and
also, because they cannot read, in particular the Bible, God can
therefore speak directly to them through the mushroom. The missionary
Eunice V. Pike even alluded to the difficulties that result from
explaining the Christian message, the written word, to a people
who believe they possess a meansthe sacred mushrooms of course
- to make God's will known to them in a direct, clear manner:
yes, the mushrooms permit them to see into heaven and to establish
communication with God himself.
The Indians' reverence for the sacred mushrooms is also evident
in their belief that they can be eaten only by a "clean"
person. "Clean" here means ceremonially clean, and that
term among other things includes sexual abstinence at least four
days before and after ingestion of the mushrooms. Certain rules
must also be observed in gathering the mushrooms. With non-observance
of these commandments, the mushrooms can make the person who eats
it insane, or can even kill.
The Wassons had undertaken their first expedition to the Mazatec
country in 1953, but not until 1955 did they succeed in overcoming
the shyness and reserve of the Mazatec friends they had managed
to make, to the point of being admitted as active participants
in a mushroom ceremony. R. Gordon Wasson and his companion, the
photographer Allan Richardson, were given sacred mushrooms to
eat at the end of June 1955, on the occasion of a nocturnal mushroom
ceremony. They thereby became in all likelihood the first outsiders,
the first whites, ever permitted to take teonanácatl.
In the second volume of Mushrooms, Russia and History,
in enraptured words, Wasson describes how the mushroom seized
possession of him completely, although he had tried to struggle
against its effects, in order to be able to remain an objective
observer. First he saw geometric, colored patterns, which then
took on architectural characteristics. Next followed visions of
splendid colonnades, palaces of supernatural harmony and magnificence
embellished with precious gems, triumphal cars drawn by fabulous
creatures as they are known only from mythology, and landscapes
of fabulous luster. Detached from the body, the spirit soared
timelessly in a realm of fantasy among images of a higher reality
and deeper meaning than those of the ordinary, everyday world.
The essence of life, the ineffable, seemed to be on the verge
of being unlocked, but the ultimate door failed to open.
This experience was the final proof, for Wasson, that the magical
powers attributed to the mushrooms actually existed and were not
In order to introduce the mushrooms to scientific research, Wasson
had earlier established an association with mycologist Professor
Roger Heim of Paris. Accompanying the Wassons on further expeditions
into the Mazatec country, Heim conducted the botanical identification
of the sacred mushrooms. He showed that they were gilled mushrooms
from the family Strophariaceae, about a dozen different
species not previously described scientifically, the greatest
part belonging to the genus Psilocybe. Professor Heim also
succeeded in cultivating some of the species in the laboratory.
The mushroom Psilocybe mexicana turned out to be especially
suitable for artificial cultivation.
Chemical investigations ran parallel with these botanical studies
on the magic mushrooms, with the goal of extracting the hallucinogenically
active principle from the mushroom material and preparing it in
chemically pure form. Such investigations were carried out at
Professor Heim's instigation in the chemical laboratory of the
Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and work teams
were occupied with this problem in the United States in the research
laboratories of two large pharmaceutical companies: Merck, and
Smith, Kline and French. The American laboratories had obtained
some of the mushrooms from R. G. Wasson and had gathered others
themselves in the Sierra Mazateca.
As the chemical investigations in Paris and in the United States
turned out to be ineffectual, Professor Heim addressed this matter
to our firm, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, because
he felt that our experimental experience with LSD, related to
the magic mushrooms by similar activity, could be of use in the
isolation attempts. Thus it was LSD that showed teonanácatl
the way into our laboratory.
As director of the department of natural products of the Sandoz
pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratories at that time, I
wanted to assign-the investigation of the magic mushrooms to one
of my coworkers. However, nobody showed much eagerness to take
on this problem because it was known that LSD and everything connected
with it were scarcely popular subjects to the top management.
Because the enthusiasm necessary for successful endeavors cannot
be commanded, and because the enthusiasm was already present in
me as far as this problem was concerned, I decided to conduct
the investigation myself.
Some 100 g of dried mushrooms of the species Psilocybe mexicana,
cultivated by Professor Heim in the laboratory, were available
for the beginning of the chemical analysis. My laboratory assistant,
Hans Tscherter, who during our decade-long collaboration, had
developed into a very capable helper, completely familiar with
my manner of work, aided me in the extraction and isolation attempts.
Since there were no clues at all concerning the chemical properties
of the active principle we sought, the isolation attempts had
to be conducted on the basis of the effects of the extract fractions.
But none of the various extracts showed an unequivocal effect,
either in the mouse or the dog, which could have pointed to the
presence of hallucinogenic principles. It therefore became doubtful
whether the mushrooms cultivated and dried in Paris were still
active at all. That could only be determined by experimenting
with this mushroom material on a human being. As in the case of
LSD, I made this fundamental experiment myself, since it is not
appropriate for researchers to ask anyone else to perform self-experiments
that they require for their own investigations, especially if
they entail, as in this case, a certain risk.
In this experiment I ate 32 dried specimens of Psilocybe mexicana,
which together weighed 2.4 g. This amount corresponded to an average
dose, according to the reports of Wasson and Heim, as it is used
by the curanderos. The mushrooms displayed a strong psychic
effect, as the following extract from the report on that experiment
Thirty minutes after my taking the mushrooms, the exterior world
began to undergo a strange transformation. Everything assumed
a Mexican character. As I was perfectly well aware that my knowledge
of the Mexican origin of the mushroom would lead me to imagine
only Mexican scenery, I tried deliberately to look on my environment
as I knew it normally. But all voluntary efforts to look at things
in their customary forms and colors proved ineffective. Whether
my eyes were closed or open, I saw only Mexican motifs and colors.
When the doctor supervising the experiment bent over me to check
my blood pressure, he was transformed into an Aztec priest and
I would not have been astonished if he had drawn an obsidian knife.
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, it amused me to
see how the Germanic face of my colleague had acquired a purely
Indian expression. At the peak of the intoxication, about 1 1/2
hours after ingestion of the mushrooms, the rush of interior pictures,
mostly abstract motifs rapidly changing in shape and color, reached
such an alarming degree that I feared that I would be torn into
this whirlpool of form and color and would dissolve. After about
six hours the dream came to an end. Subjectively, I had no idea
how long this condition had lasted. I felt my return to everyday
reality to be a happy return from a strange, fantastic but quite
real world to an old and familiar home.
This self-experiment showed once again that human beings react
much more sensitively than animals to psychoactive substances.
We had already reached the same conclusion in experimenting with
LSD on animals, as described in an earlier chapter of this book.
It was not inactivity of the mushroom material, but rather the
deficient reaction capability of the research animals vis-à-vis
such a type of active principle, that explained why our extracts
had appeared inactive in the mouse and dog.
Because the assay on human subjects was the only test at our disposal
for the detection of the active extract fractions, we had no other
choice than to perform the testing on ourselves if we wanted to
carry on the work and bring it to a successful conclusion. In
the self-experiment just described, a strong reaction lasting
several hours was produced by 2.4 g dried mushrooms. Therefore,
in the sequel we used samples corresponding to only one-third
of this amount, namely 0.8 g dried mushrooms. If these samples
contained the active principle, they would only provoke a mild
effect that impaired the ability to work for a short time, but
this effect would still be so distinct that the inactive fractions
and those containing the active principle could unequivocally
be differentiated from one another. Several coworkers and colleagues
volunteered as guinea pigs for this series of tests.
Psilocybin and Psilocin
With the help of this reliable test on human subjects, the active
principle could be isolated, concentrated, and transformed into
a chemically pure state by means of the newest separation methods.
Two new substances, which I named psilocybin and psilocin, were
thereby obtained in the form of colorless crystals.
These results were published in March 1958 in the journal Experientia,
in collaboration with Professor Heim and with my colleagues Dr.
A. Brack and Dr. H. Kobel, who had provided greater quantities
of mushroom material for these investigations after they had essentially
improved the laboratory cultivation of the mushrooms.
Some of my coworkers at the timeDrs. A. J. Frey, H. Ott, T.
Petrzilka, and F. Troxlerthen participated in the next steps
of these investigations, the determination of the chemical structure
of psilocybin and psilocin and the subsequent synthesis of these
compounds, the results of which were published in the November
1958 issue of Experientia. The chemical structures of these
mushroom factors deserve special attention in several respects.
Psilocybin and psilocin belong, like LSD, to the indole compounds,
the biologically important class of substances found in the plant
and animal kingdoms. Particular chemical features common to both
the mushroom substances and LSD show that psilocybin and psilocin
are closely related to LSD, not only with regard to psychic effects
but also to their chemical structures. Psilocybin is the phosphoric
acid ester of psilocin and, as such, is the first and hitherto
only phosphoric-acid-containing indole compound discovered in
nature. The phosphoric acid residue does not contribute to the
activity, for the phosphoric-acid-free psilocin is just as active
as psilocybin, but it makes the molecule more stable. While psilocin
is readily decomposed by the oxygen in air, psilocybin is a stable
Psilocybin and psilocin possess a chemical structure very similar
to the brain factor serotonin. As was already mentioned in the
chapter on animal experiments and biological research, serotonin
plays an important role in the chemistry of brain functions. The
two mushroom factors, like LSD, block the effects of serotonin
in pharmacological experiments on different organs. Other pharmacological
properties of psilocybin and psilocin are also similar to those
of LSD. The main difference consists in the quantitative activity,
in animal as well as human experimentation. The average active
dose of psilocybin or psilocin in human beings amounts to 10 mg
(0.01 g); accordingly, these two substances are more than 100
times less active than LSD, of which 0.1 mg constitutes a strong
dose. Moreover, the effects of the mushroom factors last only
four to six hours, much shorter than the effects of LSD (eight
to twelve hours).
The total synthesis of psilocybin and psilocin, without the aid
of the mushrooms, could be developed into a technical process,
which would allow these substances to be produced on a large scale.
Synthetic production is more rational and cheaper than extraction
from the mushrooms.
Thus with the isolation and synthesis of the active principles,
the demystification of the magic mushrooms was accomplished. The
compounds whose wondrous effects led the Indians to believe for
millennia that a god was residing in the mushrooms had their chemical
structures elucidated and could be produced synthetically in flasks.
Just what progress in scientific knowledge was accomplished by
natural products research in this case? Essentially, when all
is said and done, we can only say that the mystery of the wondrous
effects of teonanácatl was reduced to the mystery
of the effects of two crystalline substancessince these effects
cannot be explained by science either, but can only be describe.
A Voyage into the Universe of the Soul with Psilocybin
The relationship between the psychic effects of psilocybin and
those of LSD, their visionaryhallucinatory character, is evident
in the following report from Antaios, of a psilocybin experiment
by Dr. Rudolf Gelpke. He has characterized his experiences with
LSD and psilocybin, as already mentioned in a previous chapter,
as "travels in the universe of the soul."
Where Time Stands Still
(10 mg psilocybin, 6 April 1961, 10:20)
After ca. 20 minutes, beginning effects: serenity, speechlessness,
mild but pleasant dizzy sensation, and "pleasureful deep
10:50 Strong! dizziness, can no longer concentrate .
10:55 Excited, intensity of colors: everything pink to red.
11:05 The world concentrates itself there on the center of the
table. Colors very intense.
11:10 A divided being, unprecedentedhow can I describe this
sensation of life? Waves, different selves, must control me.
Immediately after this note I went outdoors, leaving the breakfast
table, where I had eaten with Dr. H. and our wives, and lay down
on the lawn. The inebriation pushed rapidly to its climax. Although
I had firmly resolved to make constant notes, it now seemed to
me a complete waste of time, the motion of writing infinitely
slow, the possibilities of verbal expression unspeakably paltry
- measured by the flood of inner experience that inundated me
and threatened to burst me. It seemed to me that 100 years would
not be sufficient to describe the fullness of experience of a
single minute. At the beginning, optical impressions predominated:
I saw with delight the boundless succession of rows of trees in
the nearby forest. Then the tattered clouds in the sunny sky rapidly
piled up with silent and breathtaking majesty to a superimposition
of thousands of layersheaven on heavenand I waited then
expecting that up there in the next moment something completely
powerful, unheard of, not yet existing, would appear or happen
- would I behold a god? But only the expectation remained, the
presentiment, this hovering, "on the threshold of the ultimate
feeling." . . . Then I moved farther away (the proximity
of others disturbed me) and lay down in a nook of the garden on
a sun-warmed wood pilemy fingers stroked this wood with overflowing,
animal-like sensual affection. At the same time I was submerged
within myself; it was an absolute climax: a sensation of bliss
pervaded me, a contented happinessI found myself behind my
closed eyes in a cavity full of brick-red ornaments, and at the
same time in the "center of the universe of consummate calm."
I knew everything was goodthe cause and origins of everything
was good. But at the same moment I also understood the suffering
and the loathing, the depression and misunderstanding of ordinary
life: there one is never "total," but instead divided,
cut in pieces, and split up into the tiny fragments of seconds,
minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years: there one is a slave of
Moloch time, which devoured one piecemeal; one is condemned to
stammering, bungling, and patchwork; one must drag about with
oneself the perfection and absolute, the togetherness of all things;
the eternal moment of the golden age, this original ground of
beingthat indeed nevertheless has always endured and will endure
foreverthere in the weekday of human existence, as a tormenting
thorn buried deeply in the soul, as a memorial of a claim never
fulfilled, as a fata morgana of a lost and promised paradise;
through this feverish dream "present" to a condemned
"past" in a clouded "future." I understood.
This inebriation was a spaceflight, not of the outer but rather
of the inner man, and for a moment I experienced reality from
a location that lies somewhere beyond the force of gravity of
As I began again to feel this force of gravity, I was childish
enough to want to postpone the return by taking a new dose of
6 mg psilocybin at 11:45, and once again 4 mg at 14:30. The effect
was trifling, and in any case not worth mentioning.
Mrs. Li Gelpke, an artist, also participated in this series of
investigations, taking three self-experiments with LSD and psilocybin.
The artist wrote of the drawing she made during the experiment:
Nothing on this page is consciously fashioned. While I worked
on it, the memory (of the experience under psilocybin) was again
reality, and led me at every stroke. For that reason the picture
is as many-layered as this memory, and the figure at the lower
right is really the captive of its dream.... When books about
Mexican art came into my hands three weeks later, I again found
the motifs of my visions there with a sudden start....
I have also mentioned the occurrence of Mexican motifs in psilocybin
inebriation during my first self-experiment with dried Psilocybe
mexicana mushrooms, as was described in the section on the chemical
investigation of these mushrooms. The same phenomenon has also
struck R. Gordon Wasson. Proceeding from such observations, he
has advanced the conjecture that ancient Mexican art could have
been influenced by visionary images, as they appear in mushroom
The "Magic Morning Glory" Ololiuhqui
After we had managed to solve the riddle of the sacred mushroom
teonanácatl in a relatively short time, I also became
interested in the problem of another Mexican magic drug not yet
chemically elucidated, ololiuhqui. Ololiuhqui is
the Aztec name for the seeds of certain climbing plants (Convolvulaceae)
that, like the mescaline cactus peyotl and the teonanácatl
mushrooms, were used in pre-Columbian times by the Aztecs and
neighboring people in religious ceremonies and magical healing
practices. Ololiuhqui is still used even today by certain
Indian tribes like the Zapotec, Chinantec, Mazatec, and Mixtec,
who until a short time ago still led a genuinely isolated existence,
little influenced by Christianity, in the remote mountains of
An excellent study of the historical, ethnological, and botanical
aspects of ololiuhqui was published in 1941 by Richard
Evans Schultes, director of the Harvard Botanical Museum in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. It is entitled "A Contribution to Our Knowledge
of Rivea corymbosa, the Narcotic Ololiuqui of the
Aztecs." The following statements about the history of ololiuhqui
derive chiefly from Schultes's monograph. [Translator's note:
As R. Gordon Wasson has pointed out, "ololiuhqui"
is a more precise orthography than the more popular spelling used
by Schultes. See Botanical Museum Leaflets Harvard University
20: 161-212, 1963.]
The earliest records about this drug were written by Spanish chroniclers
of the sixteenth century, who also mentioned peyotl and
teonanácatl. Thus the Franciscan friar Bernardino
de Sahagun, in his already cited famous chronicle Historia
General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, writes about the wondrous
effects of ololiuhqui: "There is an herb, called coatl
xoxouhqui (green snake), which produces seeds that are called
ololiuhqui. These seeds stupefy and deprive one of reason:
they are taken as a potion."
We obtain further information about these seeds from the physician
Francisco Hernandez, whom Philip II sent to Mexico from Spain,
from 1570 to 1575, in order to study the medicaments of the natives.
In the chapter "On Ololiuhqui" of his monumental
work entitled Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus seu
Plantarum, Animalium Mineralium Mexicanorum Historia, published
in Rome in 1651, he gives a detailed description and the first
illustration of ololiuhqui. An extract from the Latin text
accompanying the illustration reads in translation: "Ololiuhqui,
which others call coaxihuitl or snake plant, is a climber
with thin, green, heart-shaped leaves.... The flowers are white,
fairly large.... The seeds are roundish. . . . When the priests
of the Indians wanted to visit with the gods and obtain information
from them, they ate of this plant in order to become inebriated.
Thousands of fantastic images and demons then appeared to them...."
Despite this comparatively good description, the botanical identification
of ololiuhqui as seeds of Rivea corymbosa (L.) Hall.
f. occasioned many discussions in specialist circles. Recently
preference has been given to the synonym Turbina corymbosa
When I decided in 1959 to attempt the isolation o the active principles
of ololiuhqui, only a single report on chemical work with
the seeds of Turbina corymbosa was available. It was the
work of the pharmacologist C. G. Santesson of Stockholm, from
the year 1937. Santesson, however, was not successful in isolating
an active substance in pure form.
Contradictory findings had been published about the activity of
the ololiuhqui seeds. The psychiatrist H. Osmond conducted
a self-experiment with the seeds of Turbina corymbosa in
1955. After the ingestion of 60 to 100 seeds, he entered into
a state of apathy and emptiness, accompanied by enhanced visual
sensitivity. After four hours, there followed a period of relaxation
and well-being, lasting for a longer time. The results of V. J.
Kinross-Wright, published in England in 1958, in which eight voluntary
research subjects, who had taken up to 125 seeds, perceived no
effects at all, contradicted this report.
Through the mediation of R. Gordon Wasson, I obtained two samples
of ololiuhqui seeds. In his accompanying letter of 6 August
1959 from Mexico City, he wrote of them:
. . . The parcels that I am sending you are the following: . .
A small parcel of seeds that I take to be Rivea corymbosa,
otherwise known as ololiuqui well-known narcotic of the Aztecs,
called in Huautla "la semilla de la Virgen." This parcel,
you will find, consists of two little bottles, which represent
two deliveries of seeds made to us in Huautla, and a larger batch
of seeds delivered to us by Francisco Ortega "Chico,"
the Zapotec guide, who himself gathered the seeds from the plants
at the Zapotec town of San Bartolo Yautepec....
The first-named, round, light brown seeds from Huautla proved
in the botanical determination to have been correctly identified
as Rivea (Turbina) corymbosa, while the black, angular
seeds from San Bartolo Yautepec were identified as Ipomoea
While Turbina corymbosa thrives only in tropical or subtropical
climates, one also finds Ipomoea violacea as an ornamental
plant dispersed over the whole earth in the temperate zones. It
is the morning glory that delights the eye in our gardens in diverse
varieties with blue or blue-red striped calyxes.
The Zapotec, besides the original ololiuhqui (that is,
the seeds of Turbina corymbosa, which they call badoh),
also utilize badoh negro, the seeds of Ipomoea violacea.
T. MacDougall, who furnished us with a second larger consignment
of the last-named seeds, made this observation.
My capable laboratory assistant Hans Tscherter, with whom I had
already carried out the isolation of the active principles of
the mushrooms, participated in the chemical investigation of the
ololiuhqui drug. We advanced the working hypothesis that
the active principles of the ololiuhqui seeds could be
representatives of the same class of chemical substances, the
indole compounds, to which LSD, psilocybin, and psilocin belong.
Considering the very great number of other groups of substances
that, like the indoles, were under consideration as active principles
of ololiuhqui, it was indeed extremely improbable that
this assumption would prove true. It could, however, very easily
be tested. The presence of indole compounds, of course, may simply
and rapidly be determined by colorimetric reactions. Thus even
traces of indole substances, with a certain reagent, give an intense
We had luck with our hypothesis. Extracts of ololiuhqui
seeds with the appropriate reagent gave the blue coloration characteristic
of indole compounds. With the help of this colorimetric test,
we succeeded in a short time in isolating the indole substances
from the seeds and in obtaining them in chemically pure form.
Their identification led to an astonishing result. What we found
appeared at first scarcely believable. Only after repetition and
the most careful scrutiny of the operations was our suspicion
concerning the peculiar findings eliminated: the active principles
from the ancient Mexican magic drug ololiuhqui proved to
be identical with substances that were already present in my laboratory.
They were identical with alkaloids that had been obtained in the
course of the decades-long investigations of ergot; partly isolated
as such from ergot, partly obtained through chemical modification
of ergot substances.
Lysergic acid amide, lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide, and alkaloids
closely related to them chemically were established as the main
active principles of ololiuhqui. (See formulae in the appendix.)
Also present was the alkaloid ergobasine, whose synthesis had
constituted the starting point of my investigations on ergot alkaloids.
Lysergic acid amide and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide, active
principles of ololiuhqui, are chemically very closely related
to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which even for the non-chemist
follows from the names.
Lysergic acid amide was described for the first time by the English
chemists S. Smith and G. M. Timmis as a cleavage product of ergot
alkaloids, and I had also produced this substance synthetically
in the course of the investigations in which LSD originated. Certainly,
nobody at the time could have suspected that this compound synthesized
in the flask would be discovered twenty years later as a naturally
occurring active principle of an ancient Mexican magic drug.
After the discovery of the psychic effects of LSD, I had also
tested lysergic acid amide in a self-experiment and established
that it likewise evoked a dreamlike condition, but only with about
a tenfold to twenty-fold greater dose than LSD. This effect was
characterized by a sensation of mental emptiness and the unreality
and meaninglessness of the outer world, by enhanced sensitivity
of hearing, and by a not unpleasant physical lassitude, which
ultimately led to sleep. This picture of the effects of LA-111,
as lysergic acid amide was called as a research preparation, was
confirmed in a systematic investigation by the psychiatrist Dr.
When I presented the findings of our investigations on ololiuhqui
at the Natural Products Congress of the International Union for
Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in Sydney, Australia, in the
fall of 1960, my colleagues received my talk with skepticism.
In the discussions following my lecture, some persons voiced the
suspicion that the ololiuhqui extracts could well have
been contaminated with traces of lysergic acid derivatives, with
which so much work had been done in my laboratory.
There was another reason for the doubt in specialist circles concerning
our findings. The occurrence in higher plants (i.e., in the morning
glory family) of ergot alkaloids that hitherto had been known
only as constituents of lower fungi, contradicted the experience
that certain substances are typical of and restricted to respective
plant families. It is indeed a very rare exception to find a characteristic
group of substances, in this case the ergot alkaloids, occurring
in two divisions of the plant kingdom broadly separated in evolutionary
Our results were confirmed, however, when different laboratories
in the United States, Germany, and Holland subsequently verified
our investigations on the ololiuhqui seeds. Nevertheless,
the skepticism went so far that some persons even considered the
possibility that the seeds could have been infected with alkaloid-producing
fungi. That suspicion, however, was ruled out experimentally.
These studies on the active principles of ololiuhqui seeds,
although they were published only in professional journals, had
an unexpected sequel. We were apprised by two Dutch wholesale
seed companies that their sale of seeds of Ipomoea violacea,
the ornamental blue morning glory, had reached unusual proportions
in recent times. They had heard that the great demand was connected
with investigations of these seeds in our laboratory, about which
they were eager to learn the details. It turned out that the new
demand derived from hippie circles and other groups interested
in hallucinogenic drugs. They believed they had found in the ololiuhqui
seeds a substitute for LSD, which was becoming less and less accessible.
The morning glory seed boom, however, lasted only a comparatively
short time, evidently because of the undesirable experiences that
those in the drug world had with this "new" ancient
inebriant. The ololiuhqui seeds, which are taken crushed
with water or another mild beverage, taste very bad and are difficult
for the stomach to digest. Moreover, the psychic effects of ololiuhqui,
in fact, differ from those of LSD in that the euphoric and the
hallucinogenic components are less pronounced, while a sensation
of mental emptiness, often anxiety and depression, predominates.
Furthermore, weariness and lassitude are hardly desirable effects
as traits in an inebriant. These could all be reasons why the
drug culture's interest in the morning glory seeds has diminished.
Only a few investigations have considered the question whether
the active principles of ololiuhqui could find a useful
application in medicine. In my opinion, it would be worthwhile
to clarify above all whether the strong narcotic, sedative effect
of certain ololiuhqui constituents, or of chemical modifications
of these, is medicinally useful.
My studies in the field of hallucinogenic drugs reached a kind
of logical conclusion with the investigations of ololiuhqui.
They now formed a circle, one could almost say a magic circle:
the starting point had been the synthesis of lysergic acid amides,
among them the naturally occurring ergot alkaloid ergobasin. This
led to the synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD. The hallucinogenic
properties of LSD were the reason why the hallucinogenic magic
mushroom teonanácatl found its way into my laboratory.
The work with teonanácatl, from which psilocybin
and psilocin were isolated, proceeded to the investigation of
another Mexican magic drug, ololiuhqui, in which hallucinogenic
principles in the form of lysergic acid amides were again encountered,
including ergobasinwith which the magic circle closed.
In Search of the Magic Plant "Ska María Pastora"
in the Mazatec Country
R. Gordon Wasson, with whom I had maintained friendly relations
since the investigations of the Mexican magic mushrooms, invited
my wife and me to take part in an expedition to Mexico in the
fall of 1962. The purpose of the journey was to search for another
Mexican magic plant. Wasson had learned on his travels in the
mountains of southern Mexico that the expressed juice of the leaves
of a plant, which were called hojas de la Pastora or hojas
de María Pastora, in Mazatec ska Pastora
or ska María Pastora (leaves of the shepherdess
or leaves of Mary the shepherdess), were used among the Mazatec
in medico-religious practices, like the teonanácatl
mushrooms and the ololiuhqui seeds.
The question now was to ascertain from what sort of plant the
"leaves of Mary the shepherdess" derived, and then to
identify this plant botanically. We also hoped, if at all possible,
to gather sufficient plant material to conduct a chemical investigation
on the hallucinogenic principles it contained.
Ride through the Sierra Mazateca
On 26 September 1962, my wife and I accordingly flew to Mexico
City, where we met Gordon Wasson. He had made all the necessary
preparations for the expedition, so that in two days we had already
set out on the next leg of the journey to the south. Mrs. Irmgard
Weitlaner Johnson, (widow of Jean B. Johnson, a pioneer of the
ethnographic study of the Mexican magic mushrooms, killed in the
Allied landing in North Africa) had joined us. Her father, Robert
J. Weitlaner, had emigrated to Mexico from Austria and had likewise
contributed toward the rediscovery of the mushroom cult. Mrs.
Johnson worked at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico
City, as an expert on Indian textiles.
After a two-day journey in a spacious Land Rover, which took us
over the plateau, along the snow-capped Popocatépetl, passing
Puebla, down into the Valley of Orizaba with its magnificent tropical
vegetation, then by ferry across the Popoloapan (Butterfly River),
on through the former Aztec garrison Tuxtepec, we arrived at the
starting point of our expedition, the Mazatec village of Jalapa
de Diaz, lying on a hillside.
There we were in the midst of the environment and among the people
that we would come to know in the succeeding 2 1/2 weeks.
There was an uproar upon our arrival in the marketplace, center
of this village widely dispersed in the jungle. Old and young
men, who had been squatting and standing around in the half-opened
bars and shops, pressed suspiciously yet curiously about our Land
Rover; they were mostly barefoot but all wore a sombrero.
Women and girls were nowhere to be seen. One of the men gave us
to understand that we should follow. him. He led us to the local
president, a fat mestizo who had his office in a one-story
house with a corrugated iron roof. Gordon showed him our credentials
from the civil authorities and from the military governor of Oaxaca,
which explained that we had come here to carry out scientific
investigations. The president, who probably could not read at
all, was visibly impressed by the large-sized documents equipped
with official seals. He had lodgings assigned to us in a spacious
shed, in which we could place our air mattresses and sleeping
I looked around the region somewhat. The ruins of a large church
from colonial times, which must have once been very beautiful,
rose almost ghostlike in the direction of an ascending slope at
the side of the village square. Now I could also see women looking
out of their huts, venturing to examine the strangers. In their
long, white dresses, adorned with red borders, and with their
long braids of blue-black hair, they offered a picturesque sight.
We were fed by an old Mazatec woman, who directed a young cook
and two helpers. She lived in one of the typical Mazatec huts.
These are simply rectangular structures with thatched gabled roofs
and walls of wooden poles joined together, windowless, the chinks
between the wooden poles offering sufficient opportunity to look
out. In the middle of the hut, on the stamped clay floor, was
an elevated, open fireplace, built up out of dried clay or made
of stones. The smoke escaped through large openings in the walls
under the two ends of the roof. Bast mats that lay in a corner
or along the walls served as beds. The huts were shared with the
domestic animals, as well as black swine, turkeys, and chickens.
There was roasted chicken to eat, black beans, and also, in place
of bread, tortillas, a type of cornmeal pancake that is
baked on the hot stone slab of the hearth. Beer and tequila, an
Agave liquor, were served.
Next morning our troop formed for the ride through the Sierra
Mazateca. Mules and guides were engaged from the horsekeeper of
the village. Guadelupe, the Mazatec familiar with the route, took
charge of guiding the lead animal. Gordon, Irmgard, my wife, and
I were stationed on our mules in the middle. Teodosio and Pedro,
called Chico, two young fellows who trotted along barefoot beside
the two mules laden with our baggage, brought up the rear.
It took some time to get accustomed to the hard wooden saddles.
Then, however, this mode of locomotion proved to be the most ideal
type of travel that I know of. The mules followed the leader,
single file, at a steady pace. They required no direction at all
by the rider. With surprising dexterity, they sought out the best
spots along the almost impassable, partly rocky, partly marshy
paths, which led through thickets and streams or onto precipitous
slopes. Relieved of all travel cares, we could devote all our
attention to the beauty of the landscape and the tropical vegetation.
There were tropical forests with gigantic trees overgrown with
twining plants, then again clearings with banana groves or coffee
plantations, between light stands of trees, flowers at the edge
of the path, over which wondrous butterflies bustled about....
We made our way upstream along the broad riverbed of Rio Santo
Domingo, with brooding heat and steamy air, now steeply ascending,
then again falling. During a short, violent tropical downpour,
the long broad ponchos of oilcloth, with which Gordon had equipped
us, proved quite useful. Our Indian guides had protected themselves
from the cloudburst with gigantic, heart-shaped leaves that they
nimbly chopped off at the edge of the path. Teodosio and Chico
gave the impression of great, green hay cricks as they ran, covered
with these leaves, beside their mules.
Shortly before nightfall we arrived at the first settlement, La
Providencia ranch. The patron, Don Joaquin Garcia, the head of
a large family, welcomed us hospitably and full of dignity. It
was impossible to determine how many children, in addition to
the grown-ups and the domestic animals, were present in the large
living room, feebly illuminated by the hearth fire alone.
Gordon and I placed our sleeping bags outdoors under the projecting
roof. I awoke in the morning to find a pig grunting over my face.
After another day's journey on the backs of our worthy mules,
we arrived at Ayautla, a Mazatec settlement spread across a hillside.
En route, among the shrubbery, I had delighted in the blue calyxes
of the magic morning glory Ipomoea violacea, the mother
plant of the ololiuhqui seeds. It grew wild there, whereas
among us it is only found in the Garden as an ornamental plant.
We remained in Ayautla for several days. We had lodging in the
house of Doña Donata Sosa de García. Doña
Donata was in charge of a large family, which included her ailing
husband. In addition, she presided over the coffee cultivation
of the region. The collection center for the freshly picked coffee
beans was in an adjacent building. It was a lovely picture, the
young Indian woman and girls returning home from the harvest toward
evening, in their bright garments adorned with colored borders,
the coffee sacks carried on their backs by headbands. Doña
Donata also managed a type of grocery store, in which her husband,
Don Eduardo, stood behind the counter.
In the evening by candlelight, Doña Donata, who besides
Mazatec also spoke Spanish, told us about life in the village;
one tragedy or another had already struck nearly every one of
the seemingly peaceful huts that lay surrounded by this paradisiacal
scenery. A man who had murdered his wife, and who now sits in
prison for life, had lived in the house next door, which now stood
empty. The husband of a daughter of Doña Donata, after
an affair with another woman, was murdered out of jealousy. The
president of Ayautla, a young bull of a mestizo, to whom we had
made our formal visit in the afternoon, never made the short walk
from his hut to his "office" in the village hall (with
the corrugated iron roof) unless accompanied by two heavily armed
men. Because he exacted illegal taxes, he was afraid of being
shot to death. Since no higher authority sees to justice in this
remote region, people have recourse to self-defense of this type.
Thanks to Doña Donata's good connections, we received the
first sample of the sought-after plant, some leaves of hojas
de la Pastora, from an old woman. Since the flowers and roots
were missing, however, this plant material was not suitable for
botanical identification. Our efforts to obtain more precise information
about the habitat of the plant and its use were also fruitless.
The continuation of our journey from Ayautla was delayed, as we
had to wait until our boys could again bring back the mules that
they had taken to pasture on the other side of Rio Santo Domingo,
over the river swollen by intense downpours.
After a two-day ride, on which we had passed the night in the
high mountain village of San Miguel-Huautla, we arrived at Rio
Santiago. Here we were joined by Doña Herlinda Martinez
Cid, a teacher from Huautla de Jiménez. She had ridden
over on the invitation of Gordon Wasson, who had known her since
his mushroom expeditions, and was to serve as our Mazatec and
Spanish-speaking interpreter. Moreover, she could help us, through
her numerous relatives scattered in the region, to pave the way
to contacts with curanderos and curanderas who used
the hojas de la Pastora in their practice. Because of our
delayed arrival in Rio Santiago, Doña Herlinda, who was
acquainted with the dangers of the region, had been apprehensive
about us, fearing we might have plunged down a rocky path or been
attacked by robbers.
Our next stop was in San José Tenango, a settlement lying
deep in a valley, in the midst of tropical vegetation with orange
and lemon trees and banana plantations. Here again was the typical
village picture: in the center, a marketplace with a half-ruined
church from the colonial period, with two or three stands, a general
store, and shelters for horses and mules. We found lodging in
a corrugated iron barracks, with the special luxury of a cement
floor, on which we could spread out our sleeping bags.
In the thick jungle on the mountainside we discovered a spring,
whose magnificent fresh water in a natural rocky basin invited
us to bathe. That was an unforgettable pleasure after days without
opportunities to wash properly. In this grotto I saw a hummingbird
for the first time in nature, a blue-green, metallic, iridescent
gem, which whirred over great liana blossoms.
The desired contact with persons skilled in medicine came about
thanks to the kindred connections of Doña Herlinda, beginning
with the curandero Don Sabino. But he refused, for some reason,
to receive us in a consultation and to question the leaves. From
an old curandera, a venerable woman in a strikingly magnificent
Mazatec garment, with the lovely name Natividad Rosa, we received
a whole bundle of flowering specimens of the sought-after plant,
but even she could not be prevailed upon to perform a ceremony
with the leaves for us. Her excuse was that she was too old for
the hardship of the magical trip; she could never cover the long
distance to certain places: a spring where the wise women gather
their powers, a lake on which the sparrows sing, and where objects
get their names. Nor would Natividad Rosa tell us where she had
gathered the leaves. They grew in a very, very distant forest
valley. Wherever she dug up a plant, she put a coffee bean in
the earth as thanks to the gods.
We now possessed ample plants with flowers and roots, which were
suitable for botanical identification. It was apparently a representative
of the genus Salvia, a relative of the well-known meadow sage.
The plants had blue flowers crowned with a white dome, which are
arranged on a panicle 20 to 30 cm long, whose stem leaked blue.
Several days later, Natividad Rosa brought us a whole basket of
leaves, for which she was paid fifty pesos. The business seemed
to have been discussed, for two other women brought us further
quantities of leaves. As it was known that the expressed juice
of the leaves is drunk in the ceremony, and this must therefore
contain the active principle, the fresh leaves were crushed on
a stone plate, squeezed out in a cloth, the juice diluted with
alcohol as a preservative, and decanted into flasks in order to
be studied later in the laboratory in Basel. I was assisted in
this work by an Indian girl, who was accustomed to dealing with
the stone plate, the metate, on which the Indians since
ancient times have ground their corn by hand.
On the day before the journey was to continue, having given up
all hope of being able to attend a ceremony, we suddenly made
another contact with a curandera, one who was ready "
to serve us ." A confidante of Herlinda's, who had produced
this contact, led us after nightfall along a secret path to the
hut of the curandera, lying solitary on the mountainside
above the settlement. No one from the village was to see us or
discover that we were received there. It was obviously considered
a betrayal of sacred customs, worthy of punishment, to allow strangers,
whites, to take part in this. That indeed had also been the real
reason why the other healers whom we asked had refused to admit
us to a leaf ceremony. Strange birdcalls from the darkness accompanied
us on the ascent, and the barking of dogs was heard on all sides.
The dogs had detected the strangers. The curandera Consuela
García, a woman of some forty years, barefoot like all
Indian women in this region, timidly admitted us to her hut and
immediately closed up the doorway with a heavy bar. She bid us
lie down on the bast mats on the stamped mud floor. As Consuela
spoke only Mazatec, Herlinda translated her instructions into
Spanish for us. The curandera lit a candle on a table covered
with some images of saints, along with a variety of rubbish. Then
she began to bustle about busily, but in silence. All at once
we heard peculiar noises and a rummaging in the room-did the hut
harbor some hidden person whose shape and proportions could not
be made out in the candlelight? Visibly disturbed, Consuela searched
the room with the burning candle. It appeared to be merely rats,
however, who were working their mischief. In a bowl the curandera
now kindled copal, an incense-like resin, which soon filled
the whole hut with its aroma. Then the magic potion was ceremoniously
prepared. Consuela inquired which of us wished to drink of it
with her. Gordon announced himself. Since I was suffering from
a severe stomach upset at the time, I could not join in. My wife
substituted for me. The curandera laid out six pairs of
leaves for herself. She apportioned the same number to Gordon.
Anita received three pairs. Like the mushrooms, the leaves are
always dosed in pairs, a practice that, of course, has a magical
significance. The leaves were crushed with the metate,
then squeezed out through a fine sieve into a cup, and the metate
and the contents of the sieve were rinsed with water. Finally,
the filled cups were incensed over the copal vessel with
much ceremony. Consuela asked Anita and Gordon, before she handed
them their cups, whether they believed in the truth and the holiness
of the ceremony. After they answered in the affirmative and the
very bitter-tasting potion was solemnly imbibed, the candles were
extinguished and, lying in darkness on the bast masts, we awaited
After some twenty minutes Anita whispered to me that she saw striking,
brightly bordered images. Gordon also perceived the effect of
the drug. The voice of the curandera sounded from the darkness,
half speaking, half singing. Herlinda translated: Did we believe
in Christ's blood and the holiness of the rites? After our "creemos"
("We believe"), the ceremonial performance continued.
The curandera lit the candles, moved them from the "altar
table" onto the floor, sang and spoke prayers or magic formulas,
placed the candles again under the images of the saints-then again
silence and darkness. Thereupon the true consultation began. Consuela
asked for our request. Gordon inquired after the health of his
daughter, who immediately before his departure from New York had
to be admitted prematurely to the hospital in expectation of a
baby. He received the comforting information that mother and child
were well. Then again came singing and prayer and manipulations
with the candles on the "altar table" and on the floor,
over the smoking basin.
When the ceremony was at an end, the curandera asked us
to rest yet a while longer in prayer on our bast mats. Suddenly
a thunderstorm burst out. Through the cracks of the beam walls,
lightning flashed into the darkness of the hut, accompanied by
violent thunderbolts, while a tropical downpour raged, beating
on the roof. Consuela voiced apprehension that we would not be
able to leave her house unseen in the darkness. But the thunderstorm
let up before daybreak, and we went down the mountainside to our
corrugated iron barracks, as noiselessly as possible by the light
of flashlights, unnoticed by the villagers, but dogs again barked
from all sides.
Participation in this ceremony was the climax of our expedition.
It brought confirmation that the hojas de la Pastora were
used by the Indians for the same purpose and in the same ceremonial
milieu as teonanácatl, the sacred mushrooms. Now
we also had authentic plant material, not only sufficient for
botanical identification, but also for the planned chemical analysis.
The inebriated state that Gordon Wasson and my wife had experienced
with the hojas had been shallow and only of short duration,
yet it had exhibited a distinctly hallucinogenic character.
On the morning after this eventful night we took leave of San
José Tenango. The guide, Guadelupe, and the two fellows
Teodosio and Pedro appeared before our barracks with the mules
at the appointed time. Soon packed up and mounted, our little
troop then moved uphill again, through the fertile landscape glittering
in the sunlight from the night's thunderstorm. Returning by way
of Santiago, toward evening we reached our last stop in Mazatec
country, the capital Huautla de Jiménez.
From here on, the return trip to Mexico City was made by automobile.
With a final supper in the Posada Rosaura, at the time the only
inn in Huautla, we took leave of our Indian guides and of the
worthy mules that had carried us so surefootedly and in such a
pleasant way through the Sierra Mazatec. The Indians were paid
of, and Teodosio, who also accepted payment for his chief in Jalapa
de Diaz (where the animals were to be returned afterward), gave
a receipt with his thumbprint colored by a ballpoint pen. We took
up quarters in Dona Herlinda's house.
A day later we made our formal visit to the curandera María
Sabina, a woman made famous by the Wassons' publications. It had
been in her hut that Gordon Wasson became the first white man
to taste of the sacred mushrooms, in the course of a nocturnal
ceremony in the summer of 1955. Gordon and María Sabina
greeted each other cordially, as old friends. The curandera
lived out of the way, on the mountainside above Huautla. The house
in which the historic session with Gordon Wasson had taken place
had been burned, presumably by angered residents or an envious
colleague, because she had divulged the secret of teonanácatl
to strangers. In the new hut in which we found ourselves, an incredible
disorder prevailed, as had probably also prevailed in the old
hut, in which half-naked children, hens, and pigs bustled about.
The old curandera had an intelligent face, exceptionally
changeable in expression. She was obviously impressed when it
was explained that we had managed to confine the spirit of the
mushrooms in pills, and she at once declared herself ready to
" serve us" with these, that is, to grant us a consultation.
It was agreed that this should take place the coming night in
the house of Doña Herlinda.
In the course of the day I took a stroll through Huautla de Jiménez,
which led along a main street on the mountainside. Then I accompanied
Gordon on his visit to the Instituto Nacional Indigenista. This
governmental organization had the duty of studying and helping
to solve the problems of the indigenous population, that is, the
Indians. Its leader told us of the difficulties that the "coffee
policy" had caused in the area at that time. The president
of Huautla, in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional Indigenista
had tried to eliminate middlemen in order to shape the coffee
prices favorably for the producing Indians. His body was found,
mutilated, the previous June.
Our stroll also took us past the cathedral, from which Gregorian
chants resounded. Old Father Aragon, whom Gordon knew well from
his earlier stays, invited us into the vestry for a glass of tequila.
A Mushroom Ceremony
As we returned home to Herlinda's house toward evening, María
Sabina had already arrived there with a large company, her two
lovely daughters, Apolonia and Aurora (two prospective curanderas),
and a niece, all of whom brought children along with them. Whenever
her child began to cry, Apolonia would offer her breast to it.
The old curandero Don Aurelio also appeared, a mighty man, one-eyed,
in a black-and-white patterned serape (cloak). Cacao and sweet
pastry were served on the veranda. I was reminded of the report
from an ancient chronicle which described how chocolatl
was drunk before the ingestion of teonanácatl.
After the fall of darkness, we all proceeded into the room in
which the ceremony would take place. It was then locked up-that
is, the door was obstructed with the only bed available. Only
an emergency exit into the back garden remained unlatched for
absolute necessity. It was nearly midnight when the ceremony began.
Until that time the whole party lay, in darkness sleeping or awaiting
the night's events, on the bast mats spread on the floor. María
Sabina threw a piece of copal on the embers of a brazier
from time to time, whereby the stuffy air in the crowded room
became somewhat bearable. I had explained to the curandera
through Herlinda, who was again with the party as interpreter,
that one pill contained the spirit of two pairs of mushrooms.
(The pills contained 5.0 mg synthetic psilocybin apiece.)
When all was ready, María Sabina apportioned the pills
in pairs among the grown-ups present. After solemn smoking, she
herself took two pairs (corresponding to 20 mg psilocybin). She
gave the same dose to Don Aurelio and her daughter Apolonia, who
would also serve as curandera. Aurora received one pair,
as did Gordon, while my wife and Irmgard got only one pill each.
One of the children, a girl of about ten, under the guidance of
María Sabina, had prepared for me the juice of five pairs
of fresh leaves of hojas de la Pastora. I wanted to experience
this drug that I had been unable to try in San José Tenango.
The potion was said to be especially active when prepared by an
innocent child. The cup with the expressed juice was likewise
incensed and conjured by María Sabina and Don Aurelio,
before it was delivered to me.
All of these preparations and the following ceremony progressed
in much the same way as the consultation with the curandera
Consuela Garcia in San José Tenango.
After the drug was apportioned and the candle on the "altar"
was extinguished, we awaited the effects in the darkness.
Before a half hour had elapsed, the curandera murmured
something; her daughter and Don Aurelio also became restless.
Herlinda translated and explained to us what was wrong. María
Sabina had said that the pills lacked the spirit of the mushrooms.
I discussed the situation with Gordon, who lay beside me. For
us it was clear that absorption of the active principle from the
pills, which must first dissolve in the stomach, occurs more slowly
than from the mushrooms, in which some of the active principle
already becomes absorbed through the mucous membranes during chewing.
But how could we give a scientific explanation under such conditions?
Rather than try to explain, we decided to act. We distributed
more pills. Both curanderas and the curandero each received
another pair. They had now each taken a total dosage of 30 mg
After about another quarter of an hour, the spirit of the pills
did begin to yield its effects, which lasted until the crack of
dawn. The daughters, and Don Aurelio with his deep bass voice,
fervently answered the prayers and singing of the curandera.
Blissful, yearning moans of Apolonia and Aurora, between singing
and prayer, gave the impression that the religious experience
of the young women in the drug inebriation was combined with sensual-sexual
In the middle of the ceremony María Sabina asked for our
request. Gordon inquired again after the health of his daughter
and grandchild. He received the same good information as from
the curandera Consuela. Mother and child were in fact well
when he returned home to New York. Obviously, however, this still
represents no proof of the prophetic abilities of both curanderas.
Evidently as an effect of the hojas, I found myself for
some time in a state of mental sensitivity and intense experience,
which, however, was not accompanied by hallucinations. Anita,
Irmgard, and Gordon experienced a euphoric condition of inebriation
that was influenced by the strange, mystical atmosphere. My wife
was impressed by the vision of very distinct strange line patterns.
She was astonished and perplexed, later, on discovering precisely
the same images in the rich ornamentation over the altar in an
old church near Puebla. That was on the return trip to Mexico
City, when we visited churches from colonial times. These admirable
churches offer great cultural and historical interest because
the Indian artists and workmen who assisted in their construction
smuggled in elements of Indian style. Klaus Thomas, in his book
Die kunstlich gesteuerte Seele [The artificially steered
mind] (Ferdinand Enke Verlag, Stuttgart, 1970), writes about the
possible influence of visions from psilocybin inebriation on Meso-American
Indian art: "Surely a cultural-historical comparison of the
old and new creations of Indian art . . . must convince the unbiased
spectator of the harmony with the images, forms and colors of
a psilocybin inebriation." The Mexican character of the visions
seen in my first experience with dried Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms
and the drawing of Li Gelpke after a psilocybin inebriation could
also point to such an association.
As we took leave of María Sabina and her clan at the crack
of dawn, the curandera said that the pills had the same
power as the mushrooms, that there was no difference. This was
a confirmation from the most competent authority, that the synthetic
psilocybin is identical with the natural product. As a parting
gift I let María Sabina have a vial of psilocybin pills.
She radiantly explained to our interpreter Herlinda that she could
now give consultations even in the season when no mushrooms grow.
How should we judge the conduct of María Sabina, the fact
that she allowed strangers, white people, access to the secret
ceremony, and let them try the sacred mushroom?
To her credit it can be said that she had thereby opened the door
to the exploration of the Mexican mushroom cult in its present
form, and to the scientific, botanical, and chemical investigation
of the sacred mushrooms. Valuable active substances, psilocybin
and psilocin, resulted. Without this assistance, the ancient knowledge
and experience that was concealed in these secret practices would
possibly, even probably, have disappeared without a trace, without
having borne fruit, in the advancement of Western civilization.
From another standpoint, the conduct of this curandera
can be regarded as a profanation of a sacred custom-even as a
betrayal. Some of her countrymen were of this opinion, which was
expressed in acts of revenge, including the burning of her house.
The profanation of the mushroom cult did not stop with the scientific
investigations. The publication about the magic mushrooms unleashed
an invasion of hippies and drug seekers into the Mazatec country,
many of whom behaved badly, some even criminally. Another undesirable
consequence was the beginning of true tourism in Huautla de Jiménez,
whereby the originality of the place was eradicated.
Such statements and considerations are, for the most part, the
concern of ethnographical research. Wherever researchers and scientists
trace and elucidate the remains of ancient customs that are becoming
rarer, their primitiveness is lost. This loss is only more or
less counterbalanced when the outcome of the research represents
a lasting cultural gain.
From Huautla de Jiménez we proceeded first to Teotitlán,
in a breakneck truck ride along a half-paved road, and from there
went on a comfortable car trip back to Mexico City, the starting
point of our expedition. I had lost several kilograms in body
weight, but was overwhelmingly compensated in enchanting experiences.
The herbarium samples of hojas de la Pastora, which we
had brought with us, were subjected to botanical identification
by Carl Epling and Carlos D. Jativa at the Botanical Institute
of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They found
that this plant was a hitherto undescribed species of Salvia,
which was named Salvia divinorum by these authors.
The chemical investigation of the juice of the magic sage in the
laboratory in Basel was unsuccessful. The psychoactive principle
of this drug seems to be a rather unstable substance, since the
juice prepared in Mexico and preserved with alcohol proved in
self-experiments to be no longer active. Where the chemical nature
of the active principle is concerned, the problem of the magic
plant ska María Pastora still awaits solution.
So far in this book I have mainly described my scientific work
and matters relating to my professional activity. But this work,
by its very nature, had repercussions on my own life and personality,
not least because it brought me into contact with interesting
and important contemporaries. I have already mentioned some of
themTimothy Leary, Rudolf Gelpke, Gordon Wasson. Now, in the
pages that follow, I would like to emerge from the natural scientist's
reserve, in order to portray encounters which were personally
meaningful to me and which helped me solve questions posed by
the substances I had discovered.
DRCNet Library |