Imagine yourself in Huautla de Jimenez, the same town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca that ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson visited when he and his companions were among the first Americans to seek out the sacred mushroom ceremonies that have been conducted for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Can you picture yourself in that situation? You’ve traveled far from your home to undergo a transformational experience that so few of your peers back in the modern world could even imagine. As the stars shine brightly in the night sky, the shaman approaches you…
Many people still travel to the Oaxaca region to have the same kind of outer and inner journey today. In this post of The Psilocybe Philosophy, we’ll explore the fascinating history of the region and the works of a certain Franciscan friar who, like the intrepid Wasson, traveled to Mexico and undoubtedly encountered some very fascinating fungi indeed. Then we’ll take a look at what typically happens during a modern day sacred mushroom ceremony.
Bernardino de Sahagún: the “First Anthropologist” Arrives in Mexico
Bernardino de Sahagún was a Franciscan friar from Spain who, at the age of about 30 in the year 1499, traveled across the ocean to “New Spain,” which of course we now know as Mexico. He lived in Mexico for the rest of his long life—he made it to about 90 years old, which was no small feat in those days—and spent his time studying and documenting Aztec culture.
Among many other works, he was the author of the Florentine Codex, an absolutely massive manuscript that spanned twelve books. The books contain over 2,500 drawings given to Sahagún by the indigenous people. This is in addition to the written portions of the books (about 2,400 pages total) where the author recorded a great deal of information about the Aztec way of life, including history, economics, cosmology, and ritual practices.
The Florentine Codex itself is currently housed in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. A digitized version of the codex has been made available in its entirety by the World Digital Library. One can’t help but wonder what old Bernardino might have thought of his books being put on this thing called the internet 500 years after he wrote them!
In any event, some of the art and information recorded by Sahagún concerns the use of psilocybin mushrooms—and it serves as a lovely historical record of the relationship between humans and fungi.
Sahagún’s Florentine Codex and the Evidence for Psilocybin Mushroom Rituals in Mexico Over 500 Years Ago
The use of psilocybin mushrooms for spiritual ceremonies is an ancient practice. We’re not sure how long ago humans started interacting with these fungi, but some estimates date the beginnings of ritualistic use at 11,000 years ago in Northern Africa. Some mycologists believe that our relationship with fungi goes back much further in history, and perhaps even contributed significantly to our evolution. You can learn more in our article Mushrooms and Humanity.
Regardless of when these ceremonies began, it’s why“magic mushrooms” are known as an entheogen, which is the term used to describe a psychoactive substance used for spiritual or mystical experiences, usually within the context of a sacred ritual.
Evidence of rituals like this were recorded in the Florentine Codex:
Depicted in this art is a person sitting on a ceremonial mat, eating a mushroom described in the text as teonanacatl (or divine flesh). More mushrooms are featured prominently in front of the man, perhaps in a cultivation bed of some sort, and behind him is what is described as a demon or spiritual being. The being is touching his head as he eats the divine flesh.
So, we know pretty conclusively that mushrooms were used among the Aztecs—certainly at least among the ones that Sahagún lived with—but what happens during one of these rituals in modern day Mexico?
What Happens During a Modern Sacred Mushroom Ceremony in Mexico?
As alluded to in the beginning of this post, a sacred mushroom ceremony takes place at night. This is important, because it reduces the number of distractions and helps the participants to fully focus on their inner experience.
A shaman, who may be a man or a woman, always leads the ceremony. In preparation, participants are asked to attend the ceremony on an empty stomach, and drinking alcohol is not recommended. Some shamans will also require that participants don’t plan to travel for at least a couple of days after the ceremony.
Adventurous travelers who have attended modern mushroom ceremonies in Mexico have noted that the influence of Catholicism is quite obvious—and at least somewhat commercialized by the number of tourists who come to experience them. Nevertheless, attendees still describe the experience as unlike anything they could find at home.
The mushrooms to be eaten are dried and stored in a gourd, which is often placed in front of a Catholic altar (such altars were, of course, likely not to be found prior to the arrival of the Spanish).
Prayers are uttered, either in Spanish or the local indigenous language, and may include native as well as Catholic elements. Mushrooms are then given to participants by the shaman, who takes care not to give them a larger dose than they can handle. The participants are then allowed to quietly and peacefully enjoy the experience, taking what spiritual insights from it as they will.
Studying Psilocybin Mushroom Spores as a Window to History and Culture
One of the most satisfying things about being an amateur microscopist with a focus on exotic mushroom spores is the ability to see the most formative stages of the fungi that have such a rich place in our shared human culture.
Since spore strains can continue to live on more or less indefinitely under the care of experienced mycologists, it’s possible to study strains like the Huautla mushroom strain—it’s a way to learn more about taxonomy, history, sociology, and more. Few hobbies offer such a wide array of educational opportunities! To get started, read our guide to amateur microscopy or visit our spore syringe shop now.