Mushrooms are mysterious. They grow in fields, on trees, walls, and on anything that’s decaying. Some of them are red with white spots, while others emit a fluorescent hue in the night. Some shrooms can kill you if you eat them, while others can give you an immune system of steel. Then, there are the varieties that can make you see god and put you on the same frequency as the universe.
The latter variant, known as Psilocybes (or magic mushrooms), are more popular today than ever thanks to clinical trials and reform movements taking place across the United States. But many people don’t know that these sacred mushrooms have been used by Indigenous cultures around the world — mostly in pre-Colombian Latin America, but also in Africa, New Zealand, and Siberia — for hundreds, likely thousands, of years.
When we think of Indigenous cultures using mushrooms, we often think of people from Mesoamerica (or, Latin America, before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the West). It makes sense because these cultures’ use of mushrooms is documented better than the traditions of those in ancient Africa, for instance, which is likely due to erasure of culture, wars, oppression, and colonialism in general. Indigenous cultures in Mexico, and Central and South America, however, are some of the most well-documented ancient civilizations in the world.
While data varies, mushroom artifacts, such as sculptures, dating as far back as 3000 BCE have been uncovered in ancient Mayan territories of Guatemala and southern Mexico. They’re believed to be evidence of the existence of a pre-settlement mushroom cult.
But which Indigenous peoples used psilocybin mushrooms, and how did they use them? Do any Indigenous people use mushrooms today? Should all this information impact how you take mushrooms? Possibly! Keep reading and see.
Oaxaca’s Mazatec People
The Mazatec people are from the Sierra Madre mountain range of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. They’re one of only a few Indigeous cultures who use mushrooms ceremonially today. The Mazatecs were made famous in the late ‘50s by R. Gordon Wasson — the vice president of J.P. Morgan, an author, and researcher who was funded by the CIA to study ethnobotany.
He wrote a story for Time Magazine about his experience exploring Mexico and stumbling upon an “Indian” village in an area called Huautla de Jiménez, whose people ate mysterious “magic” mushrooms that induced wild visions. The piece centered around a shaman woman who he called “Eva Mendez,” even though her name was actually Maria Sabina, who came from a long lineage of curanderas, or healers.
The story went as viral a piece of writing could in the pre-internet-era and essentially chiseled the landscape for ‘60s Cultural Revolution. His story caused herds of tourists — from celebrities to regular ‘ol hippies — to descend upon the village and ultimately wreak havoc on the land. So many westerners came in search of the mushrooms that the village disowned Sabina and burned her house down.
Wasson’s story brought the lore of magic mushrooms to the Western zeitgeist. But his reporting was done without consent — he never asked Sabina if she was ok with him telling the world about her sacred traditions, and he lied in order to get her to give him the mushrooms. He also took one aspect of Indigenous culture out of context and made it the center of a story for his own benefit. That’s the definition of cultural appropriation.
The story is tragic, but it’s critical to know what actually went down — and that an Indigenous woman is behind the mushroom movement today. She is the patron saint of psilocybin mushrooms.
The Mazatec rituals are hundreds of years old, giving us a great model for safe and sacred-use. Contrary to Western understanding of Indigenous use, very few villagers are called to be curanderos and even fewer people are allowed to work with, or ingest, the mushrooms. So, it’s not like the entire village ate mushrooms and tripped together.
The mushrooms are eaten to determine the cause of someone’s physical or mental illness. They’re eaten by healers in ceremony who are essentially trained to open up dialogue with the spirit of the mushroom, or the deities the mushrooms connected the healers to, which Mazatec curanderos referred to as los chikones. Ceremonies, also known as veladas, are also only held at night and by a fire.
There is also always an altar present in the ceremony. It usually has many candles on it, items of significance, and crosses and other spiritual symbols. Altars are one of the most important aspects of a ceremony, as they connect the spiritual and physical worlds.
Aztecs Ate Mushrooms, Too
The Mazatecs weren’t the only Indigenous community to ingest mushrooms ritualistically. The Aztecs did, too, but they consumed fungi differently than the Mazatecs. Only members of the Aztec upper class ate mushrooms. And rather than eating them only in ceremony, the Aztecs ate them at festivals or large gatherings.
“Teonanácatl,” the Nahuatl (Indigenous language) name for psilocybin mushrooms, directly translates to “God mushroom.” This name was likely derived from the religious-use of the entheogen. Quetzalcoatl, a prominent Aztec god, was said to have few vices, one of which was “eating intoxicating mushrooms.” Because of this, psilocybin mushrooms were considered sacred and ingested with the intent to become unified with the universe.
Aztecs ate mushrooms with honey, while also sipping on cacao, which they considered sacred, too. Those partaking in the mushroom ceremonies would fast before ingesting the sacrament. The act of taking mushrooms is known as monanacahuia, meaning to "mushroom oneself."
Mushrooms were one of the most difficult entheogens to retrieve. Finding psilocybin-containing mushrooms was a labor-intensive and all-night excursion. This caused the price of mushrooms to be significantly higher than most other entheogens, which is partly why they were only available to the upper echelons of Aztec society.
Mayan’s Made Mushroom Stones
Mushroom artifacts were found in Mayan territory, specifically in the Guatemalan highlands, that date back to 3000 BCE. The most famous of these artifacts are the mushroom stones, which look like mini statues of ‘shroom deities.
The Tepantitla mural in Teotihuacàn, which dates back to 500 CE, is another example of ritualistic mushroom-use by the Mayans. The mural shows the Toltec rain god Tlaloc with religious-like figures bearing hallucinogenic mushrooms springing up where his raindrops fell. Interestingly, many images of mushrooms in Mayan culture seem to be connected to period endings in the Mayan calendar.
Use of Mushrooms in South America
Interestingly, there isn’t as much documentation of the Indigenous-use of mushrooms in South America. Modern scholars believe that it’s because mycophobia, or fear or disgust of mushrooms, is a common mentality among people in Peru and South America in general. But according to tons of ancient artifacts, people who lived in the Incan Empire ate all kinds of mushrooms, for ritual and sustenance.
But the Incas weren’t the only Indigenous culture to use mushrooms in South America. In Ancient Peru, the Moche (or Mochica) people produced unmistakeable images of mushrooms in their art and ceramics. It’s argued that the Moche people valued mushrooms more than other Indigenous cultures in South America. The symbolism and iconography in their art is what tipped off archaeologists that mushrooms were, in fact, a massive part of ancient Peruvian (and South American) cultures, despite the lack of documentation.
The Moche people used mushrooms similar to the Mazatecs in that mushrooms were used as medicine by curanderos to cure illnesses. But they didn’t just use psilocybin-containing mushrooms. They also used Amanita Muscaria, or Fly-Agaric, the famous red capped mushroom with white dots.
There is so much we can learn about the consumption of sacred mushrooms by looking at how our ancestors worked with them. If anything, the majority of modern day psychonauts are using mushrooms irreverently and without any regard for their sacredness. Perhaps studying the history of entheogenic mushroom-use will not only teach us how to truly use mushrooms for healing, but also remind us how to connect with each other and the Earth again.
By Mary Carreon