The Shroom Shamaness
Maria Sabina’s ancient ancestors originally called shrooms the “flesh of the gods”, but after the Spanish Catholic conquest of the Aztec Empire, their beliefs were syncretized so Maria called shrooms “God’s flesh”. However, she liked to refer to them as the “holy children”. It all began one day in 1902 when she was sitting under a tree with her sister and they happened to notice a bunch of magic mushrooms growing within reach. Maria remembered how much her grandparents had revered shrooms, so the little girls decided to eat them. At first, the effects were so terrifying that they just cried, but the two soon got over it. This is the fungi of magi, and a deeply intuitive 8-year-old girl heard them speak to her in an otherworldly voice. Finally, when Maria peaked on her first trip she felt that everything around her was God Himself.
Much later in her life, Maria came to learn that magic mushrooms produce wisdom. She discovered that they have supernatural powers, so they can cure illnesses, proclaiming:
“I am the woman who looks inside and examines.”
For instance, when Maria was in her thirties, her sister Rosalia got really sick and almost died. So, she took her little sister to all the local healers but none of them could make Rosalia better. This is when the Shroom Shamaness decided to take matters into her own hands. She gathered sixty shrooms for a special healing vigil known as the “velada”, and the morning after the nocturnal ritual was over Rosalia was completely cured.
This is why, in 1955, an ethnomycologist named Gordon Wasson came to visit the Shroom Shamaness at her home. Then, Maria Sabina became the first contemporary North American shaman to allow Europeans to participate in the velada. This is seen as a purification and communion with the sacred through the consumption of a psychedelic sacrament. So, while he was visiting Mexico, Wasson collected spores of the fungus, which he identified as Psilocybe mexicana, and then took to Paris. The fungus was cultivated in Europe and its primary ingredient, psilocybin, was isolated in 1958 by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD. In this way, he identified the chemical structure of the active compounds psilocybin and psilocin. This was a major turning point in the scientific understanding of psychoactive substances.
In 1962, Wasson and Hofmann went to Mexico together to visit Sabina. They brought with them a bottle of psilocybin pills, which was Hofmann’s latest invention. Sandoz Laboratory was marketing them under the brand name Indocybin. Maria, her daughter, and the shaman, Don Aurelio, took up to 30 milligrams each. At dawn, their Mazatec interpreter reported that Maria Sabina felt there was little difference between the pills and the mushrooms, which is what Hoffmann had hoped she would say. Sabina then thanked Hofmann for the bottle of pills, saying that she would now be able to serve people even when no mushrooms were available. Then, from 1962 to 1967 people sought out Maria Sabina and her magic mushrooms with great intensity. By the end of that period, more than 70 people from the US, Canada, and Western Europe were renting cabins in neighboring villages.
The thing is that, while she was initially hospitable to the first of the arrivals, the overall lack of respect for the sacred and traditional purposes of magic mushrooms caused Maria Sabina to make the following comment:
“Before Wasson, nobody took the children simply to find God. They were always taken to cure the sick.”
As the community was besieged by Westerners wanting to experience the mushroom-induced hallucinations, Sabina attracted attention from the Mexican police who believed her to be a drug dealer. The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the Mazatec community and threatened to terminate the Mazatec custom. Everyone blamed Sabina, so she was ostracized from her community and her house was razed. Sabina later regretted having introduced Wasson to the practice, but he contended that his only intention was to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. Still, late in life, Sabina became bitter about her many misfortunes, and how others had profited from her name. She also felt that the ceremony of the velada had been irredeemably desecrated by the recreational use of shrooms, stating:
“From the moment the foreigners arrived, the holy children lost their purity. They lost their force. They ruined them.”
Ultimately, people should never take shrooms just to get high but instead should use them to heal themselves or others. Shrooms are Medicine, with a capital “M”. Therefore, it’s beyond disrespectful to make a mockery of the Mazatec spiritual traditions. Magic mushrooms should only be administered by doctors or witch doctors. To help make amends for this, at the very least, Maria Sabina needs to be remembered as the great Medicine Woman she was. For better or worse, we are all now the stewards of the shrooms that have been bestowed upon us.
Fortunately, contemporary medicine is finally catching up to traditional Medicine. Magic mushrooms have the potential to treat patients with a wide range of mental disorders, including but not limited to, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, cluster headaches, and end-of-life psychological distress. My only hope is that one day everyone will learn to treat Maria’s holy children with the respect they truly deserve. It’s sacrilegious to take shrooms just to get high. So, to properly honor Maria Sabina and her holy children, we need to change our ways. The Shroom Shamaness is rightly regarded as a local sacred figure in Huautla, but she should be recognized as a global sacred figure. People all around the world need to learn to cherish the lives of magic mushrooms and the Medicine Woman who revealed them to us. Their generous contributions are invaluable to our species. Such is the legacy of the Shroom Shamaness.