Visionary Mushroom of the Americas
Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.
Maria Sabina related that she discovered the magical effects of the mushrooms when as a 7- or 8-year-old child playing in the woods with her sister, she ate some and found herself in a realm with lots of “children” (los niños), who talked to her and played with her with great good humor and laughter. She knew that her father and grandfather used these mushrooms in healing. Ever after, she referred to the mushroom spirits as “los niños” and as she grew up she learned to consult with them when she needed help in healing. They might tell her about certain herbs at a particular place that she should find and apply to the patient. She became known as a gifted curandera, and devoted herself fully to her vocation--except during her two marriages, when she was raising her children.
When I became a widow for the second time, I gave myself up for always to wisdom, in order to cure the sicknesses of people and to be myself always close to God. One should respect the little mushrooms. At bottom I feel they are my family. As if they were my parents, my book. In truth I was born with my destiny. To be a Wise Woman. To be daughter of los santos niños (the saint children). (Estrada 1981)
During her veladas, Maria Sabina would sing and chant for hours, with percussive clapping and slapping her hands against her body, praying for the sick person, calling to the holy little ones, los santos niños. She would invoke the names of Christian saints and also the spirits of her native land, like the Lord of the Mountain and spirits of nature. Her words were mostly Mazatec, but sometimes included unknown words or repeated syllables, a kind of spirit language similar to that found among shamans around the world.
Her chanted statements would have the form of a first person declaration: “I am ... woman, says” at the end. The syllable t’so, “says,” is a kind of impersonal affirmation commonly found in trance mediums that indicate that it is not she, the personality that is saying these things, it is the mushrooms. Here are a few samples of her lines that give a sense of the awe and mystery that emanated from this tiny, humble woman, transformed into a powerful healer-shaman during her mushroom trance:
I am a woman who waits, says
I am a daylight woman, says
I am a Moon woman, says
I am a Morning Star woman, says
I am a God Star woman says...
I am the doctor woman, says
I am the herb woman, says…
I am a lord eagle woman, says
Our woman who flies, says...
Our woman who looks inside of things, says
You are the saint, says
You are the saintess, says…
I am a woman wise in medicine, says
Whirling woman of colors, says
Woman of the sea, says…
In one particularly powerful vision that Maria had when she was trying to heal her sister, who was very ill, she met beings she called “the Principal Ones, who inspired me with respect . . . of whom my ancestors spoke . . . I knew it was a revelation the saint children were giving me. I understood that the mushrooms were speaking to me. On the Principal Ones a book appeared, an open book that kept on growing until it was the size of a person. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent. One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said, ‘Maria Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that is written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work.’ . . . At that moment, I began to speak. Then I realized that I was reading the Sacred Book of Language. The Book of the Principal Ones. . . . And it’s because the mushrooms are saints; they give wisdom.”
She realized too that this was a divine or spiritual wisdom book that she was seeing and reading. In her personality she was a peasant woman who never learned to read. In her essence she was a spiritual giant, a sabia, a wise woman: “I am lord eagle woman, says...” After that vision and transmission of spiritual healing, she no longer saw the book “because I already had its contents in my memory.” Her reputation as a healer grew and people came to her from far away with difficult problems, including possession by bad spirits.
R. Gordon Wasson brought back specimens of the mushrooms that Maria Sabina and other healers used and worked with the great French mycologist Roger Heim to identify them, name them, and publish the results of their findings in the mycology literature. Wasson also contacted Albert Hofmann, who identified the psychoactive principles in the visionary Mexican mushrooms as psilocin and psilocybin.
In 1962 Albert Hofmann and his wife accompanied Wasson and some other friends on a journey to Mexico to investigate the hallucinogenic plant now known as Salvia divinorum. As part of this journey they also went to Huatla de Jimenez, where they met with Maria Sabina. Hofmann provided her with pills that contained the synthetic psilocybin, asking for her evaluation. She agreed to conduct a session with the synthetic tablets. At the end of the ceremony, Hofmann reported:
As we took leave of Maria 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.
Maria Sabina also remarked that with the help of the tablets she would now be able to conduct mushroom healings even during the seasons when they normally don’t grow.