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LSD My Problem Child
6. The Mexican Relatives of LSD
The Sacred Mushroom TeonanácatlLate 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.
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 merely superstition.
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 shows:
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 PsilocinWith 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 substance.
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 PsilocybinThe 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 breathing."
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 inebriation.
The "Magic Morning Glory" OloliuhquiAfter 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 southern Mexico.
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 (L.) Raf.
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: . . .
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 violacea L.
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 blue-colored solution.
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. H. Solms.
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 history.
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 CountryR. 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 MazatecaOn 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 bags.
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 the effects.
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 CeremonyAs 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 psilocybin.
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 feelings.
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.
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