I’m travelling in Mexico, researching the indigenous culture of magic mushrooms, or hongos as they are called here. Last weekend, I visited Huautla de Jimenez, a town eight hours drive from Mexico City, in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a remote mountain town, mainly populated by Mazatec Indians who speak Mazatec and also communicate through whistling. This little town was where Westerners discovered magic mushrooms. It was the spark that started the fire of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s.
I should say at the outset that I’m no Mexico expert, nor an anthropologist or ethno-botanist. I travelled with two historians of Mexico – Ben Smith of Warwick University and Nathanial Morris of Oxford – who are researching an AHRC project on the war on drugs. In the meantime here are my early impressions (I’ll correct my errors if you point them out).
There are records of Indian tribes taking mushrooms since at least the time of the conquistadors. Friars write disapprovingly of the Aztecs taking a substance they called teonanacatl, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in order to prophesy and discover the will of their gods – perhaps it was through mushrooms that they arrived at the uncanny prophesy that bearded men would come from the East and rule over them. They also took mushrooms for fun – there’s an anecdote of the Aztec aristocracy consuming them at a wedding dance.
Western ethno-botanists assumed that teonanocatl was peyote, which western scientists discovered was psycho-active in the 19th century. But in the 1930s, several scholars suggested it might be mushrooms instead – a theory finally proved in 1938 by famed ethno-botanist Richard Evans-Schultes, when he visited Huautla and identified the shrooms. He realized there are as many as 30 types of Mexican mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic drug. The Mazatec Indians still consumed them in ceremonies called veladas, in which shamans called curanderas used them to cure people of illnesses, physical and spiritual.
In the 1950s, a New York banker called Gordon Wasson made numerous laborious journeys to Huautla, driven by a passion for mushrooms and a desire to become the first Westerner to consume the hongos. In 1955, he got his wish. A curandera called Maria Sabina allowed him and his photographer into a velada after Wasson made up a story about needing the hongos‘ help to cure his sick son.
He was amazed by the experience. ‘For the first time, the word ecstasy took on a real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.’ He drew on the theory of Aldous Huxley that psychedelics give one temporary access to the same mystical experience attained by religious virtuosos like St John of the Cross, and this experience lies at the esoteric core of all religions.
Although Wasson had said he would protect the secrecy of the sacred ritual, he sold the story and photographs of the velada for several thousand dollars to Life magazine, where a sub-editor coined the phrase ‘magic mushrooms’. He also gave enough clues in his writing for the curious to be able to identify the village as Huautla. His article, published in 1958, was a smash hit and opened the floodgates for an extraordinary influx of hippy spiritual-seekers in the 1960s, who camped outside Huautla. Initially, they sought out Maria Sabina for veladas, but soon the locals were selling them the mushrooms and they were taking them wherever and whenever they felt like it, in the day, in the fields and rivers, with other substances, even dancing naked in the streets, thereby breaking Mazatec taboos about the proper way to treat the sacred medicine.
‘They were something remarkable’, remembers Lleno, a Huautla local who was a boy in the Sixties. ‘With their long hair, crazy clothes and rock music, always saying ‘peace and love’. Some of the locals were scared of them, although they also influenced the culture here – young people started growing their hair and listening to rock.’ Eventually, the municipal president had enough and called in the army in 1969, who shipped out the hippies in buses. The arrival of the army changed the town forever, bringing the semi-autonomous Mazatec town under the control of the national government.
There are tall stories about all kinds of celebrities descending on Huautla during that brief mushroom frenzy – John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel – but we do know for sure that the psychologist Timothy Leary visited the town, took the shrooms, had a mystical experience, then returned to Harvard to establish the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which spread the gospel of psychedelics throughout western culture.
Leary and Wasson helped to shape the idea that psychedelics lead to a mystical, ecstatic experience, an experience of unitive consciousness beyond time, space and culture. This idea is still very influential in American psychedelic science – in 2006, American researchers at John Hopkins University started to study psilocybin again after a hiatus of 40 years, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences.’ This mystical experience of being one with all things helps free people from their habitual ego patterns and releases them – according to recent trials – from depression, addiction, even fear of death.
There’s much to celebrate in recent Western psychedelic research, but it’s problematic to claim that psychedelics always – or even usually – lead to mystical experiences of unitive consciousness. The problem with this theory, as cultural historian Andy Letcher pointed out in his book Shroom, is that it ignores the way different cultures treat psychedelic substances, and reduces the weird variety of freaky experiences people can have into one box, called ‘core mystical experience’.
The idea psychedelics take us to some mystical state beyond culture is itself culture-bound – it’s the product of the culture of American transcendentalism, of William James, and of Aldous Huxley’s perennialist mysticism. The participants in John Hopkins’ trials have mystical experiences partly because that’s what they’re expected to have – the mind responds to the expectations and theories we bring to it, through what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘looping effects’. People in Pentecostal churches encounter the Holy Spirit because they expect to…and so on.
Other cultures frame psychedelic experiences in different ways, leading to different mental outcomes. The anthropologist Nicholas Langlitz has shown that European psychedelic laboratories, like those of Zurich and Imperial College, tend to be more secular and Freudian, and to use phrases like ‘ego-death’ or ‘psychosis-imitation’ rather than ‘mystical experience’. Participants in their labs obediently report fewer mystical experiences.
The Mazatec think about hongos in their own way. They naturally do not take mushrooms for an ecstatic release from the disenchantment of Western modernity. Sabina said: ‘Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’ The mushrooms were a form of medicine for those without access to proper healthcare, let alone psychotherapy or psychiatry. ‘We didn’t take them out of curiosity’, says Florencio Carrera, an elderly former teacher in Huautla. ‘We took them out of necessity’.
Rather than an ecstatic connection to the cosmos, ‘ultimate Mind’ or some such lofty transcendental goal, the Mazatecs took (and occasionally still take) mushrooms to connect to local saints or local spirits, to help with local problems in their relationships, work or health. As David Luke of Greenwich University has put it, theirs is a horizontal transcendence, rather than the vertical individualist transcendence of Wasson, Leary, Huxley et al.
The Mazatec also have a different model of illness, believing that some illnesses or accidents are caused by sorcery, by external enchantment. You could claim, as some anthropologists do, that while Westerners think emotional problems are caused by trauma in their past which are resolved through acceptance and insight, Mazatecs are more likely to think emotional problems are caused by external events – curses by your enemies or offences against the local spirits – which are resolved through magic.
However, you can over-emphasize the differences between Mazatec and Western healing cultures. Today, one also notices some similarities.
I visited a local curandera called Profesora Elodia, who lives in a concrete bungalow on the outskirts of Huautla. As in a Harley Street surgery, I waited outside while Elodia finished a consultation with a local. Then Elodia guided me in to her tiny shrine room, sat me down, and asked how she could help. Like Wasson, I made up a story to get access, claiming I was suffering from low energy and poor sleep (I was half-worried she would misunderstand me and give me a herbal cure for impotence, leading to unintended results). She asked me to write down my name and birthplace, and then began to ask the spirits for help for Julian from the country of London. She said prayers to the saints in Spanish, and prayers in Mazatec too, perhaps to the local spirits or duendes. Then she rubbed an egg all over my body, pushed some pressure points, blew water in my face, sucked the air around me, lit a candle and said a prayer to protect me from my enemies. So far, so magical.
But she also offered therapeutic advice that wasn’t so far from what I’d be offered by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist or mindfulness life-coach. She told me to have faith in myself, to believe I can succeed in my work. She told me not to think too much about the past or future, but focus on the present. She spoke in parables – see how this water runs down the hill, be like that, let the past go. When I spoke a bit about family troubles, she told me not to let my parents’ problems ruin my life, or I’d transmit them to my own children.
I asked her about the mushrooms, and what they can do, and she said: ‘They help you realize things you haven’t been paying attention to, in your soul.’ Again, that’s pretty close to what you’d hear from psychedelic therapists working in western research labs. Rosalind Watts, an NHS therapist who works at Imperial College’s psychedelic lab, says mushrooms help you confront and accept your shadow – a Jungian term for the parts of the psyche you have ignored or repressed.
Local Mazatecs also spoke of how mushrooms helped them confront and integrate trauma from their past – Florencio said mushrooms helped him overcome emotional problems after he was in a car crash, while another lady (whose name I’ll keep confidential) told us that she first took mushrooms when she was 14 after a trauma: ‘Something bad happened to me and I needed help. It helps young people find a reason to live. It can be scary, especially if people have been raped. You feel very afraid but afterwards you feel better. You can let it go.’ Elodia said: ‘The mushrooms let you remove the weight you have been carrying and pick yourself up.’
Both Westerners and Mazatecs also speak of feeling more connected to nature through mushrooms – Maria Sabina spoke of how, when she first took mushrooms as an adolescent, she felt all of nature was filled with God and speaking to her. That’s not so far from a Western-style mystical experience. I don’t know to what extent contemporary Mazatecs have incorporated Western psychological concepts into their healing discourse. If so, it shows that cultures aren’t hermetically sealed, but leak into each other. Or perhaps certain healing mechanisms are universal – curanderos, like CBT or mindfulness coaches, emphasize the importance of concentration, discipline, integrity.
And most medical procedures rely at least partly on the faith and hope of the patient. ‘Those that believe are healed’, said Sabina. Sadly, she felt the mushrooms lost some of their power once the hippies had desecrated the secret ritual. She became something of a pariah in Huautla, although once she was dead she was almost canonized, and is now celebrated in a large statue of her standing on a mushroom as you enter the town. Florencio likewise laments: ‘The arrival of the hippies swept away the old ways, and the mysticism and magic of Huautla.’
It’s interesting to wonder if the same will happen with Western psychedelic medicine, as it goes from being the latest new wonder drug to something familiar, standardized and commodified. Even as rational a therapy as CBT no longer works as well as it did in the 1960s, when it was the new wonder therapy. Will the miracle results of psilocybin therapy level off in a decade or two?
Today, Huautla has mushroom regalia festooned all over the town in a bid to bring the tourists back, but we hardly saw any – the town is too far away from Mexico City or Oaxaca City. Instead, the new mushroom Mecca is San Jose del Pacifico, a tiny town of 700 people conveniently located on the main highway from Oaxaca City to the beaches of Puerto Escondido.
The first hippies arrived here in the early 70s, perhaps after having been booted out from Huautla – the locals say they arrived after a solar eclipse. They bought huts in the hills, and found a local curandero to sell them mushrooms. Gradually the village became a New Age hot-spot, offering tourists a menu of therapies like Reiki, hydrotherapy, sweat lodges and mushrooms. ‘The gringos mainly take them in the day, and wander in the forest or by the river’, says a local young woman. ‘Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they cry, sometimes they stare at trees. They don’t bother anyone.’ I asked her if the locals in San Jose ever take them. ‘Oh no’, she said. ‘Only the gringos.’