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As a prominent financier, R. Gordon Wasson had the resources and the connections to enlist all manner of experts and scholars in his quest. One of these was the poet Robert Graves, who shared the Wassons’ interest in the role of mushrooms in history and in the common origins of the world’s myths and religions. In 1952, Graves sent Wasson a clipping from a pharmaceutical journal that made reference to a psychoactive mushroom used by sixteenth-century Mesoamerican Indians. The article was based on research done in Central America by Richard Evans Schultes, a Harvard ethnobotanist who studied the uses of psychoactive plants and fungi by indigenous cultures. Schultes was a revered professor whom students recall shooting blowguns in class and keeping a basket of peyote buttons outside his Harvard office; he trained a generation of American ethnobotanists, including Wade Davis, Mark Plotkin, Michael Balick, Tim Plowman, and Andrew Weil. Along with Wasson, Schultes is one of a handful of figures whose role in bringing psychedelics to the West has gone underappreciated; indeed, some of the first seeds of that movement have quite literally sat in the Harvard herbarium since the 1930s, more than a quarter century before Timothy Leary set foot on the campus. For it was Schultes who first identified teonanácatl—the sacred mushroom of the Aztecs and their descendants—as well as ololiuqui, the seeds of the morning glory, which the Aztecs also consumed sacramentally and which contain an alkaloid closely related to LSD.

Up to this point, the Wassons had been looking toward Asia for their divine mushroom; Schultes reoriented their quest, pointing them toward the Americas, where there were scattered reports, from missionaries and anthropologists, suggesting that an ancient mushroom cult might yet survive in the remote mountain villages of southern Mexico.

In 1953, Wasson made the first of ten trips to Mexico and Central America, several of them to the village of Huautla de Jiménez, deep in the mountains of Oaxaca, where one of his informants—a missionary—had told him healers were using mushrooms. At first the locals were tight-lipped. Some told Wasson they had never heard of the mushrooms, or that they were no longer used, or that the practice survived only in some other, distant village.

Their reticence was not surprising. The sacramental use of psychoactive mushrooms had been kept secret from Westerners for four hundred years, since shortly after the Spanish conquest, when it was driven underground. The best account we have of the practice is that of the Spanish missionary priest Bernardino de Sahagún, who in the sixteenth century described the use of mushrooms in an Aztec religious observance:

These they ate before dawn with honey, and they also drank cacao before dawn. The mushrooms they ate with honey when they began to get heated from them, they began to dance, and some sang, and some wept . . . Some cared not to sing, but would sit down in their rooms, and stayed there pensive-like. And some saw in a vision that they were dying, and they wept, and others saw in a vision that some wild beast was eating them, others saw in a vision that they were taking captives in war . . . others saw in a vision that they were to commit adultery and that their heads were to be bashed in therefor . . . Then when the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke one with another about the visions that they had seen.

The Spanish sought to crush the mushroom cults, viewing them, rightly, as a mortal threat to the authority of the church. One of the first priests Cortés brought to Mexico to Christianize the Aztecs declared that the mushrooms were the flesh of “the devil that they worshipped, and . . . with this bitter food they received their cruel god in communion.” Indians were interrogated and tortured into confessing the practice, and mushroom stones—many of them foot-tall chiseled basalt sculptures of the sacred fungi, presumably used in religious ceremonies—were smashed. The Inquisition would bring dozens of charges against Native Americans for crimes involving both peyote and psilocybin, in what amounted to an early battle in the war on drugs—or, to be more precise, the war on certain plants and fungi. In 1620, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the use of plants for divination was “an act of superstition condemned as opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic Faith.”

It’s not hard to see why the church would have reacted so violently to the sacramental use of mushrooms. The Nahuatl word for the mushrooms—flesh of the gods—must have sounded to Spanish ears like a direct challenge to the Christian Sacrament, which of course was also understood to be the flesh of the gods, or rather of the one God. Yet the mushroom sacrament enjoyed an undeniable advantage over the Christian version. It took an act of faith to believe that eating the bread and wine of the Eucharist gave the worshipper access to the divine, an access that had to be mediated by a priest and the church liturgy. Compare that with the Aztec sacrament, a psychoactive mushroom that granted anyone who ate it direct, unmediated access to the divine—to visions of another world, a realm of the gods. So who had the more powerful sacrament? As a Mazatec Indian told Wasson, the mushrooms “carry you there where god is.”

The Roman Catholic Church might have been the first institution to fully recognize the threat to its authority posed by a psychedelic plant, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

• • • ON THE NIGHT OF JUNE 29–30, 1955, R. Gordon Wasson experienced the sacred mushrooms firsthand. On his third trip to Huautla, he had persuaded María Sabina, a sixty-one-year-old Mazatec and a respected curandera in the village, to let him and his photographer not only observe but take part in a ceremony in which no outsider had ever participated. The velada, as the ceremony was called, took place after dark in the basement of the home of a local official Wasson had enlisted in his cause, before a simple altar “adorned with Christian images.” To protect her identity, Wasson called Sabina “Eva Mendez,” discerning “a spirituality in her expression that struck us at once.” After cleaning the mushrooms and passing them through the purifying smoke of incense, Sabina handed Wasson a cup containing six pairs of mushrooms; she called them “the little children.” They tasted awful: “acrid with a rancid odor that repeated itself.” Even so, “I could not have been happier: this was the culmination of six years of pursuit.”

The visions that now arrived “were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper . . . Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens—resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stone. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot.” And so forth.

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