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Freaky Friday: Exploring the “Secrets Mushroomic”: R. Gordon Wasson in Mexico

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s Freaky Friday brings Points readers the insights of Tace Hedrick, Associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and a specialist in 20th-century Latin American literature and culture.  Having written previously on Mestizo Modernisms, Hedrick is now at work on a study of national and cosmic identity discourse across the Latin American and Latino Americas diaspora.  Her meditation on the mid-20th century Mexican mushroom vogue is drawn from that project, whose working title is Queering the Cosmic Race: Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Mendieta, and Walter Mercado, 1968-2010.  She will return in a few weeks to discuss the psychedelic journeys of Gloria Anzaldúa.

Plants of the Gods, 1979

Most people do not think of the middle of the 20th century—the super square 1950s—as a time when indigenous drug rituals and experiments with psychoactive plants were topics of popular interest for the average Joes and Janes (or Ozzies and Harriets) of the United States.  In Mexico, however, traditional rituals with psychoactive plants had been a sometimes intense focus of interest (for Mexicans and people from the United States alike) since the post-armed phase of the Revolution, beginning in the 1920s, and in the U.S. the 1950s brought a resurgence in the popularity of earlier texts about indigenous drug use. Among these were Carl Lumholtz’s 1902 Unknown Mexico, which detailed Mexican Huichol peyote rituals, and Robert Zingg’s 1938 writing on Huichol artwork, commonly assumed to be psychedelic because of their religious use of peyote.  Also during the 1930s, Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes traveled with anthropologist and ethnobotanist Raoul Weston LaBarre throughout Oklahoma (not quite as exotic as Mexico) to study Plains Indians’ peyote use. Their disparate findings, published in 1938, were among the texts revived first in the 1950s and again in the ’70s:  LaBarre’s The Peyote Cult sought to psychologize the indigenous use of peyote visions, while Schultes’ “The Appeal of Peyote [Lophophora Williamsii] as a Medicine” (published in American Anthropologist) argued that the substance’s value lay in its therapeutic and stimulating properties more than in its psychoactive ones.

Research performed in the 1930s and ‘40s, then, formed the basis of many of the bestselling ‘70s volumes on the indigenous roots of psychedelic culture.  Schulte, for example, co-authored Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (1979) with chemist Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD; Zingg’s  work informed Barbara Meyerhoff’s popular 1974 Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians.  Significantly, the people most responsible for opening up this field were botanists, scientists, or social scientists; their interests lay in the medicinal properties of the plants and the social and psychological dimensions of the rituals.  Only later, when countercultural figures became interested in altered states as ways to transcend the materialism and pettiness of the “establishment” (who can forget the advice offered to young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate?: “I want to say one word to you, young man…. Are you listening? …’Plastics’”)—only then did scientists and anthropologists begin thinking of the presumed spiritual and transcendent benefits of indigenous botanicals.

Enter R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina: vice-president of J.P. Morgan, “gentleman scholar,” and a hater of mushrooms; and pediatrician, Russian émigré, and mushroom lover.  Honeymooning in the Catskills in 1928, the Wassons set out to explore what they came to think of as “mycophobic” (mushroom hating) and “mycophilic” (mushroom loving) cultures.  From this research sprang several texts on the ritual uses of fungi and mushrooms throughout the world and over time.  The Wassons frequently worked in consultation with trained mycologists, and became justly famous in the world of (ethno)mycology.  In 1957, probably hoping to publicize their forthcoming two volume treatise Mushrooms, Russia and History, the Wassons agreed to contribute an essay to LIFE magazine.

Desperately Seeking the Magic Mushroom

The article, published as part of LIFE’s “Great Adventure” series, was called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” and highlighted the Wassons’ and their botanist friend Roger Heim’s experiences with hallucinogenic mushrooms under the guidance of a Mexican curandera.  Accompanied by color photographs that added to its verisimilitude, the seventeen page article was, in the words of Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s Acid Dreams, “laudatory in every way” (72).  Having read anthropological accounts of mushroom rituals, the Wassons and Heim had scoured Mexico to locate them.  R. Gordon was proud not only of the fact that they had tracked down a ritual guide who could take them through the journey, but that they were the first “white people” to have actually taken mushrooms rather than just observing their effects. The mushroom in question was the species apparently called by the Aztecs teonanácatl—“teo” for “sacred” and “nanácatl” for mushroom”; its use was first described by Bernardo Sahagún in the mid-1500 codices he constructed with his Aztec “informants.”

The Wassons’ “magic” mushroom  session was guided by a Mazatec Mexican woman named María Sabina, called “Eva Mendez” in the article to protect her identity from too-eager seekers (an attempt that failed, by the way).  It took place in a mountain pueblo called Huautla de Jiménez, in the state of Oaxaca.  Doña María, who affectionately called the mushrooms “niñitos” (little children), was described as a curandera de primera categoría by the people of the town, and after their participation the Wassons were also convinced of the authentic (and for them, authentically indigenous) nature of the ceremony (Znamenski 127). [3]  At the center of the experience for Wasson was his feeling of ecstasy; he dismissed his actual visions as mere beautiful pictures.  The intensity of the experience convinced him and Valentina that “plant hallucinogens gave rise to human spirituality in archaic times” (Znamenski 122).

Preparing Los Niñitos-- Step One: Remove All Traces of Christianity

While the indigenous peoples in the region did find the hallucinogenic experience more “authentic” than the Christian ritual of sharing the “blood and flesh” of Christ, by the time Wasson visited, they had come to believe that mushrooms grew where Christ had spilled his blood, and that the mushrooms themselves spoke with Jesus’ voice.  Unperturbed by these details, in his writings Wasson traced the ritual ingestion of mushrooms back to Mesoamerican pre-Columbian times. This origin story is particularly curious given that both the LIFE article and Mushrooms, Russia and History make clear that while the contemporary indigenous use of hallucinogenic mushrooms followed many of the structural aspects of the much older Aztec rituals, it was by this time also deeply intertwined with Christian beliefs and mythologies.  In “The Magic Mushroom,” Wasson describes the altar where Doña María performed the sacred mushroom ritual as a simple “table adorned with Christian images, the Child Jesus and the Baptism in Jordan….[where] In a solemn musical chant, [she gave] an invocation to the mushroom in the name of Christ and the saints.”  But his attitude in the article seemed to be that the Christian trappings of the mushroom ritual were a mere matter of context and not particularly interesting.  The bottom line, from Mushrooms, Russia and History: mushrooms’ psychoactive effects planted the idea of spirituality in the mind of “primitive” peoples, and religious feeling and indeed religion itself came from the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants (375).

Indeed, Wasson himself ignored one of the basic requirements of the ritual in which he participated in Huautla: rather than having a serious question in mind for Jesus/the mushroom, he fabricated one to satisfy Doña María.  Had his bad faith been known, he probably would have been disqualified from participating, since the curandera and indeed all who believed in the mushrooms’ efficacy never touched them without good reason.  As Wasson himself noted in LIFE:  “the mushrooms are not used as therapeutic agents: they themselves do not effect cures. The Indians ‘consult’ the mushrooms when distraught with grave problems.”  Perhaps it is for this reason that Wasson’s visions were about as prosaic as one could not hope for; he reported hallucinating forests and river falls, gorgeous palaces, beautiful women, etc.  While he describes the feeling of being “high” on the mushrooms as one of ecstasy, the visual effects had no apparent spiritual or divinatory value to him.

The Man with the Gray Flannel Trip

It is also possible, however, that Wasson’s descriptions of the visual aspects of his trip may have been deliberately banal.  A proper WASP suburbanite, he frowned upon the use of drugs by the scruffy “beatniks” of the period, and considered himself a scientific, though lay, investigator.  Both Wassons were apparently horrified by the results of the LIFE Magazine article, which laid the groundwork for the psychoactive “seeking” of the next decades.  Thousands of readers were and continue to be fascinated and influenced by “The Magic Mushroom,” conveniently ignoring (just like the Wassons did) the specifically Christian (and syncretic) dimensions of the ritual and fetishizing its “authenticity.”  Following Wasson’s lead, they sought not a connection with the indigenous church or with contemporary indigenous life, but with their own visions of ancient and timeless ritual—ritual that would not only allow them to ascend temporarily beyond the quotidian, but that might bestow actual spiritual or cosmic power to those deserving of it. (This latter fantasy, needless to say, was particularly potent for those who read Carlos Castañeda’s fictions as ethnographical fact.)

Some: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (The Hague: Mouton, 1968. 680 Copies)

Wasson’s own refusal to address the specific religious dimensions of the ritual in which he participated, then, helped to create the perception of the mushroom ritual as an ancient and “shamanic” rite, not one which was by this time syncretic, Christian, ancient, and indigenous.  Abashed at (if not fully understanding) the effects of the LIFE article, the Wassons began publishing their work privately, hoping that small print runs and high prices would discourage the riffraff from taking further inspiration from their discoveries. ( currently features a clothbound copy of Mushrooms, Russia and History for $3000.00).  This is a shame; not only is Mushrooms, Russia and History the ultimate scholarly tome on mushrooms, it is also stylish and amusing, featuring chapters on “Puffballs, Filth, and Vermin” and “Mucus, Mushrooms, and Love,” grouped in sections such as “The Riddle of the Toad and Other Secrets Mushroomic.”

At one point in Volume II, Wasson describes the way that interest in finding and documenting mushroom rituals was revived in 1915 by a polemical speech to the Botanical Society of Washington by reputable ethno-botanist W. E. Safford.  Safford asserted (against all evidence) that there had never been any psychoactive mushrooms in Mexico (236).  His denial of the history, lifeways, and botanical realities of the place spurred a counter movement in which Wasson played a central role.  Ironic, then, that Wasson replicated Safford’s move, dismissing the particularities of the mushroom ritual for Doña María and her indigenous followers, and thus paving the way for a commercialized psychedelic movement he came to abhor.

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Works Cited

Lee, Martin and Bruce Shlain’s Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. Grove Press, 1994 [rev. ed.].

Znamenski, Andrei. The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamanism and Western Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2007.


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