Divine Flesh

The Sacred Magic Mushrooms of the Psilocybe Tribe

Consuming God's Flesh
author unknown

On the 10th of June 1957 the International edition of Life magazine carried a groundbreaking article that was to profoundly alter the West's attitude towards the wilder side of the natural world. For here was the first ever personal account written by a European of the extraordinary psychological effects induced by a species of mushroom deified and ritually worshipped by native Mexicans. Consumption of the sacred Mexican mushroom allowed one to contact the Gods, experience profound visions, and gain mystical knowledge.... or at least these were the most extravagant of the native Mexican beliefs about the mushroom being reported by anthropologists during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, in pre-Columbian times the mysterious mushroom had been known by the Aztecs as 'God's flesh' testifying to it's divine potency. Such veneration ensured the mushroom a cult status amongst native Mexicans despite the violent cultural upheavals wrought by the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. Thus, although the once mighty Aztec culture was eventually destroyed, the sacred mushroom continued to be used in and around Mexico throughout the Spanish occupation. Yet despite the legendary effects of this particular fungal species, it remained right up until the middle of the 20th century for an outside investigator to finally acquire and eat of the mushroom and hence verify the native's fantastical claims.

Transmitted solely by word of mouth since the time of the Spanish Conquest, detailed knowledge of the revered fungus had lain principally in the hands of jealously guarding shamans or native healers who were loath to disclose their botanical secrets to outsiders. For they feared, perhaps justifiably, that the sacred mushroom's supernatural power would be diminished or be used profanely should the untrustworthy White man gain full admittance into it's living mystery. Therefore the 1957 Life article in which the secret of the mushroom was openly exposed, dramatically symbolised the West's bypassing of this long-standing cultural security system. The sacred mushroom had finally been forcibly plucked from it's localised shamanic niche and thence presented to the Western world in the form of mass-circulated print with colour photographs and specimen drawings to boot.

Despite its exposure to the prying eyes of the West, the status of the Mexican mushroom remained as lofty and as tantalisingly ethereal as ever, more so even since the Western psyche was just as stunned and awed by it's transcendental visionary effects as were the Mexican natives. In the following decades a psychedelic mushroom cloud of fascination would slowly expand and loom beyond Mexico, eventually extending it's magical influence as far away as the British Isles.... but at this initial stage in it's sudden growth, the strange mushroom remained a purely Mexican phenomenon.

On the front cover, Life's simple headline read 'The Discovery of Mushrooms that cause Strange Visions', a rather unusual claim from such a traditionally conservative magazine. The article was included as part of Life magazine's series of 'Great Adventures', and was written by Robert Gordon Wasson, vice-president of a Wall Street banking firm who, with the aid of his wife, had spent some 30 years of part-time study creating a new scientific discipline - ethnomycology - the study of the cultural and historical use of fungi.

Although such a science is clearly specialised and seemingly remote from the affairs of modern culture, it was only due to their dedicated ethnomycological investigations that the Wassons learned of sacred Mexican mushrooms, sought to find them, experienced them first-hand, and thence gave psilocybin (the as yet unnamed active constituent of the mushroom, pronounced either 'silla-sigh-bin' or 'sigh-le-sigh-bin') to the West. Once discovered, ethnomycological science suddenly acquired a distinctly mystical edge allowing it to breach the domains of religion and psychology. It also provided a new impetus to mankind's enduring quest to access transcendental knowledge and there can be no doubt that Wasson's discovery and vivid description of the effects of the Mexican mushroom were crucial in generating the subsequent cultural wave of psychedelic experimentation that soon followed in the 60's. And as we shall eventually see, the mushroom also reveals itself as a key to unlocking the nature of both consciousness and reality as well as the nature of the mystical experience. God, mind, and reality, these three most profound of topics are all met in some way by the psilocybin mushroom. But, before we jump into the deep end who, pray, was this Wasson fellow, this financier-cum-adventurer, and how had he come to penetrate the Earth's secret psychedelic dimension? Who was he to bring news of sacred fungi into the Western world?

In effect, Wasson's Life article was timed to coincide with the release of his magnum opus 2-volumed book 'Mushrooms, Russia, and History', co-written with his wife Valentina. It is this work which fully reveals the extent of Wasson's long-standing interest in the cultural use of fungi and how he finally came to be at the door of perception marked 'psilocybin'.

With only 512 handcrafted copies luxuriously bound and printed, 'Mushrooms, Russia, and History' stands as a rare piece of art. Indeed, by the late 70's its value had reached some $2500 making it the most valuable book in existence at that time whose author was still alive. It is a highly polished book, written in a lively style that reflects the love of ethnomycology borne by the Wasson's. It represents the distilled wisdom drawn from their extensive studies into the role that various species of mushroom had played in different cultures and culminates in their discovery of the sacred mushroom ceremonies still being conducted in Mexico, a discovery important enough to warrant the further account in the more accessible pages of Life magazine.

 A Trail Begins

The event that originally launched the Wassons on their mushroom crusade was simple, almost trivial, yet it was enough to provoke them into a three-decade-long bout of invaluable research. The Wassons had married in 1927 and one day during their honeymoon went out for a casual stroll in the Catskill mountains of New York. At some stage Valentina, who was Russian by birth, had stopped to pick some wild mushrooms, delighting in such a fortuitous find. Her husband on the other hand, being true to his Anglo-Saxon heritage, was appalled at his new wife's interest in lethal fungal abominations, especially since she planned to cook and eat them later. After all, were not all fungal growths in actuality poisonous toadstools to be avoided like the plague? With growing dismay, Robert Wasson imagined himself waking up the next morning with a corpse instead of a wife.

This pronounced and deep-rooted difference in attitude between the two of them over the culinary virtues of fungi led them to suspect a cultural rift, that there were mycophobic peoples (sensible mushroom haters like the Anglo-Saxons) and mycophilic peoples (reckless mushroom aficionados like the Russians). Furthermore, the Wassons reasoned that there must be some historical reason for these diametrically opposed traditions not related to mere food availability but dependent instead upon cultural and psychological factors. So began the Wasson's academic quest to uncover this cultural anomaly and from the start both figured that religion somehow played a causal role.

Their intuition proved correct. Research soon unearthed the Siberian cultural history of the Amanita muscaria or fly agaric mushroom, that extraordinary bright red and white-spotted autumnal fungus found throughout the Northern hemisphere and often charmingly depicted in the illustrations adorning the pages of children's books. Indeed, it has been suggested that Lewis Carrol was influenced by knowledge of the Siberian use of the fly agaric and used the information to great effect in his 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' in which, you might recall, Alice nibbles on a mushroom which dramatically alters her size. 

As we shall see, compared to the psilocybin mushroom, the fly agaric's psychoactivity rates a poor second though it is potentially entheogenic due to the presence of an alkaloid named muscimole. Despite muscimole's entheogenic inferiority to psilocybin, the cultural role and use of the fly agaric mushroom amongst Siberian shamans is beyond dispute and the Wassons uncovered a wealth of literature testifying to this fact. The historical data concerning the shamanic use of the fly agaric mushroom proved to be a link to primitive religion just as the Wassons had originally forseen, and it soon became clear to them that psychoactive fungi were no small feature of cultural history. 

Echoes of a Shamanic Beat

Since the time of Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), the Kamchitka Peninsula, the most Eastern part of Russian Siberia, had been visited by travellers, political exiles, explorers, fur traders, and anthropologists. All were to bear witness to the nomadic reindeer herders who ritually ingested fly agaric mushrooms (their only intoxicant) in order to obtain contact with the 'spiritual' dimension. The word 'shaman' itself derives from the Siberian Tungus 'saman' which means diviner, magician, doctor, creator of ecstasy, the mediator between the human world and the supernatural.

The Siberian fly agaric user would sun-dry the mushrooms and later ingest them either alone or mixed with milk or water. If taken alone, the mushroom would first be moistened in the mouths of women who would produce a kind of pellet for the men to swallow. 

The effects of consuming this mushroom included convulsions, delirium, visual hallucinations, perceptual distortions of size, feelings of superhuman strength, and a perceived contact with a spiritual dimension, this last effect being the most important for the practising shaman whose predominant function is to access the spiritual realm in order to attain supra-mundane knowledge for the good health of his or her tribe.

The most bizarre aspect of this shamanic tradition however, was the habit of....(readers of a frail disposition should skip the next few sentences)....urine-drinking. Somehow, the Siberians discovered that the active ingredient of the mushroom, muscimole, passed through the body without being metabolised so that by drinking fly agaric-spiked urine one could prolong the intoxication. Possibly the Siberians learned of this odd fact by observing reindeer who not only eat the fly agaric themselves with much gusto, but also have an equal passion for human urine, so much so that the Siberians reindeer herders considered it dangerous to pee out in the open!

The rather disturbing and unpalatable practice of drinking psychoactive urine attained great significance in Wasson's later work in the 60's since urine-drinking is mentioned in the Rig Veda, the ancient religious scripture of India. Written in Sanskrit and derived from the oral traditions of the Indo-Europeans who migrated down into the Indus Valley some three and a half thousand years ago, the Rig Veda eventually went on to influence the development of Hinduism. Of the 1000 holy hymns in the Rig Veda, over 100 are dedicated solely to the divine plant Soma and it's spectacularly numinous effects. Because urine-drinking is clearly alluded to in these hymns deifying Soma and from analysing the poetic descriptions of the plant, Wasson came to the conclusion that the fly agaric mushroom was the sacred Soma worshipped by the ancient Indo-Europeans. Indeed, in some parts of India, followers of the Vedic tradition still perform a religious ceremony in which soma is ingested only they now utilise an inactive surrogate species of plant. Wasson's identification of Soma was, at the time he made the claim, one of only a handful of serious attempts to explore and name the legendary Soma plant, and his identification has generally come to be accepted by Vedic scholars to this day. 

Mushroom Lore

The shamanic use of fly agaric mushrooms by primitive Siberians seemed to date far back into history as there were various legends that spoke of its mythical origins. For instance, a Koryak legend tells of a hero named Big Raven who was able to attain immense strength by eating spirits given to him by the god Vahiyinin - the god of existence. By spitting upon the earth, Vahiyinin caused the necessary spirits to grow, these being fly agaric mushrooms with their ability to provide supernatural strength and wisdom.

The Wassons theorised that it was this archaic shamanic practice of fly agaric ingestion, so well reflected in legend and mythology, that had eventually lead to the mycophobic pre-Christian taboos against eating mushrooms which were still evidently shared by most of the peoples living around the shores of the North Sea. In other words, since the mushroom was used mainly by shamans in a ritual context, cultural injunctions and taboos would conceivably have begun to evolve in order to stop others wantonly utilising it's strange power. Or, it is just as likely that through migrations and invasions misinformation spread regarding the true nature of the mushroom's effects. Through such typical cultural mechanisms as these, the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom gradually came to attain a mythical status, guaranteeing it cultural immortality as it progressed as the stuff of legend from generation to generation.

As it's shamanic use diffused out from Russia, whilst some peoples gradually came to eschew the mushroom, others embraced it's effects. Not only did the Aryan people who migrated down into the Indus Valley 3500 years ago bring with them their religious cult of Soma, later still, some 1000 years BC., we find artistic representations of mushrooms on Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish Bronze Age objects. On bronze artifacts like razors have been found mushroom motifs (generally stylised cross-sectional views of a mushroom) which depict the mushroom in a way that suggests that it was an object of worship. Since the fly agaric mushroom abounds in Scandinavia, these motifs are thought to represent a similar fly agaric-worshipping cult to those of Siberia.

Apart from Siberian folklore many European folktales also testify to the enigma of the fly agaric mushroom, providing an echo of the distant cultural interconnections of the past. Yugoslav peasants take the mushroom's supernatural origin back to the time of pre-Christian Nature gods. The legend relates that Votan, chief of all the gods and a potent magician and healer, was riding his magical horse through the countryside when suddenly demons appeared and started chasing him. As he fled, his horse galloped so fast that flecks of bloodied foam flew from its mouth, and wherever this bloody foam fell, fly agarics sprang up.

Hungarians call the fly agaric 'boland gamba' or the 'mad mushroom'. Austrians and Germans used to speak of the 'fool's mushroom' and were wont to paraphrase British comedian Tony Hancock's 'have you gone raving mad?', with 'have you eaten crazy mushrooms?'.

The Wassons also analysed the vast array of words used to describe mushrooms in different cultures and the latent metaphors that such words conveyed; words like 'toadstool' for instance which links the toad to the mushroom, the toad being a creature much maligned in myth and folklore. The Wassons also conjectured that the 'fly' in fly agaric was not due to its supposed insecticidal effect but because the fly used to be associated with demonic power (Beelzebub is 'Lord of the Flies'), and was thus fearfully associated with the mysterious mushroom.

In short, the Wassons uncovered a vast cultural diffusion of homogeneous mushroom lore that strongly indicated a common origin and the psychoactive fly agaric mushroom seemed to fit the historical picture. Wasson later summed up his views in the following way:

"Death will come if the layman presumes to eat this forbidden fruit, the Fruit of Knowledge, the Divine Mushroom of Immortality that the .....poets of the Rig Veda celebrated. The fear of this 'death' has lived on as an emotional residue long after the shaman and his religion have faded from memory, and here is the explanation for the mycophobia that has prevailed throughout Northern Europe, in the Germanic and Celtic worlds."
At this point the Wassons might well have ended their mycological investigations, an interesting enough climax since they had left the fungal world and ventured into the domain of primitive religion. The plot however, was going to thicken and the fly agaric was to become overshadowed by the far more powerful figure of the psilocybin mushroom, a mushroom whose living mystery Gordon Wasson would eventually confront within the depths of his soul.

Intimations of a Sacred Mexican Mushroom

In 1952 an acquaintance of the Wassons, the noted poet and historical writer Robert Graves, wrote a crucial letter informing them of a supposed secret mushroom cult still in existence in Mexico. Graves included in his letter a clipping from a Canadian pharmaceutical journal which discussed finds made by Richard Evans Schultes years earlier. It transpired that Schultes, one of the world's leading ethnobotanists attached to Harvard had, in 1938, identified a species of Panaeoleus mushroom as being the sacred sacrament reputedly employed by Mexican Indians. At that time, only this one entheogenic species had been identified by Schultes and although a few European people had observed a native Mexican mushroom ceremony, no outsiders had been permitted to partake of the mushroom itself. This is significant, for without actually personally experiencing the psilocybin mushroom, one can only guess at it's effects and therefore the early anthropological observations passed by without much interest. Now that the Wassons learned of these facts, armed as they were with an already detailed knowledge of fly agaric mushroom history, it was only natural for them to heed Graves' investigational indications and focus their attention upon Mexico. If mushroom ceremonies were still being practised there then it would represent testimony for the shamanic use of fungi not limited to the pages of history. 

Through associates, the Wassons were soon in avid correspondence with one Eunice Pike, an American linguistic student and bible translator (which is short for missionary) who had been living amongst Mazatec Indians in Huautla, Mexico for over 15 years. Having become familiar with the native customs and beliefs about certain sacred mushrooms, she was only too willing to share her knowledge with the Wassons.

Miss Pike informed them by letter that one Indian boy had referred to the mushroom as a gift from Jesus, no less than the blood of Christ. The Indians also said that it helped 'good people', killing 'bad people' or making them crazy. Furthermore, the Indians were sure that Jesus spoke to them whilst in the 'bemushroomed' state. Everyone whom Pike asked agreed that they were seeing into Heaven itself through the mushroom. 

As well as highlighting the on-going integration of the Christian faith into native Indian culture, the Indians' claims indicated that the mushroom was highly powerful in its psychological effect, able to induce a radical alteration of consciousness still relatively new to Western science. It was also clear that the normal procedure was for a 'wiseman' or shaman to eat the mushroom on behalf of another usually in order to heal, this being the classic social function of the shaman found in most of the world's native cultures.

Miss Pike ended her initial informative and tantalising letter by wishing that the natives would consult the bible instead of resorting to consumption of the strange mushroom, a remark natural enough to anyone concerned with preaching the bible and unfamiliar with the psychological territory accessed through psilocybin. But still, is it not odd that someone so obviously religiously inclined, as this woman was, should not have detected something of spiritual importance in the Indians' claims? If so many of them readily attested to the virtues of the sacred mushroom why did she not try them for herself? After all, she mentions no harmful effects apart from the dangers of possessing a 'bad heart'.

What is the nature of this fear which would prevent a single open-minded experiment with such fungi? How can one claim to be fully religious and not take the testimonies of shamans seriously? This was an anomaly which was to continually crop up in the relations between the Western psyche and the mushroom. Psilocybin would come to generate absolute awe or absolute rejection in those who confronted it, which is evidence that something significant is at work in the actual experience. If there was nothing of real interest to be gained from such visionary plants, if the experiences were purely limited personal fantasies, then there would be no stimulational force with which to generate debate. However, as I will show, many have claimed that psilocybin does offer some great knowledge about our existence, that it can yield soulful insights about reality. This is why the psilocybin mushroom experience has remained such an abstruse phenomenon and why opinions are so divided.

Sensing in the letter of Miss Pike's that there was indeed some great revelational discovery to be made, the Wassons decided to travel as soon as possible to Huautla, and in 1953 they did so. There could be no mistaking the aroma of the ethnomycological Holy Grail as they neared its living presence. As an aside, they also realised that to judge from Miss Pike's description, the mushroom being used by these Indians was not the Panaeoleus species previously identified by Schultes, and this was a further reason for scholarly investigation.

Getting Warmer

By August 1953 the Wassons had managed to enlist the help of a Mexican curandero or shaman and this was an achievement in itself since the Indians were reluctant to discuss the mushroom with European outsiders. However, under the pretence of wanting supernaturally inspired news of their son, the Wassons were permitted to take part in a mushroom rite in which the shaman would ingest sacred mushrooms in order to gain the requested information. Unfortunately the shaman was the only person allowed to consume the fungi and the Wassons were forced to remain uninitiated.

The shaman, under the effects of psilocybin, made 3 specific predictions concerning Wasson's son which, at the time, he (Wasson) politely humoured as he had no real inkling into psilocybin's latent ability to produce feats of clairvoyance. His interest was, after all, still predominately academic and any kind of supernatural utterances were to be taken with a large pinch of salt. As it later transpired, all 3 of the shaman's predictions were borne out and Gordon Wasson was at a loss to explain this. Was it coincidence? Or was it a genuine case of the paranormal? Whatever it was, the mysterious mushrooms demanded closer scrutiny for they seemed to promise much more of interest. Wasson was being drawn ever nearer, as his lifelong adventure drew to an epic climax.

A fully detailed witness account of the above mushroom ceremony was to be the culminating chapter of 'Mushrooms, Russia, and History', though just as the book was going to press in June of 1955 a new breakthrough was made. In fact, it was the ultimate breakthrough and became the highlight of Gordon Wasson's scholarly career. It also generated another chapter in the book and the seminal piece for Life magazine. The middle-aged New York banker-turned-ethnomycologist became the first white man on record to deliberately consume sacred Mexican mushrooms and thus taste the entheogenic glory of natural psilocybin. He had sought and finally accessed one of the most remarkable experiences to be had upon this Earth, and thanks to his lifelong persistent efforts our enduring quest to uncover the true nature of reality and the true bounds of conscious experience became suddenly enhanced as psilocybin made it's extraordinary psychedelic presence felt. Indeed, for our purposes, it is rather apt that our man Wasson be provided with such an informative and illuminating meal at this time - almost a vegetal calling-card in fact - as only a few months earlier Nature had consumed the great Einstein. At least it was apt in a relative kind of way for anyone deeply interested in the subtle-yet-never-maliscious force of such a wily killer/creator as Nature.

The Mystery Explodes into Life


Gallery I 
Mesoamerican stone and ceramic mushroom artifacts circa 1000 b.c. to 500 a.d.
- from Plants of the Gods, Schultes and Hoffman

Gallery II
 Maria Sabina and her healing mushroom veladas...
- from Plants of the Gods, Schultes and Hoffman

"We may be human, but we're still animals..."
                ~ Steve Vai from 'Passon and Warfare'

Thanks for the memories, Terence...
and for your courage and vision in expanding...the possibilities

Terence McKenna

All rights reserved, © Teonanacatl Journeys, 1997-2012

website design by
revised 11/27/01