Mushrooms and Religion: Psilocybe, Conocybe, Stropharia, Panaeolus, Copelandia, etc.


The Origin of Religion

The origin of religion, according to Terrence McKenna, involves psilocybin, the toxin found in the genera of mushrooms that we will discuss today. This in itself is interesting, but did not originate with Mckenna. In 1986, shortly before his passing, Gordon Wasson put forth his own theory on the origin of religion from hallucinogenic mushrooms, specifically Amanita muscaria, with examples from several cultures that he had previously described, in details. In addition, Wasson also believed that Soma was responsible for

"A prodigious expansion in Man's memory must have been the gift that differentiated mankind from his predecessors, and I surmise that this expansion in memory led to a simultaneous growth in the gift of language, these two powers generating in man that self-consciousness which is the third of the triune traits that alone make man unique. Those three gifts - memory, language and self-consciousness - so interlock that they seem inseparable, the aspects of a quality that permitted us to achieve all the wonders we now know."

R. Gordon Wasson, from pg. 80, Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. Yale University Press, New Haven MA.

A modified version of this theory was later developed by McKenna, in the late 1980's. His theory differed from Wasson in that Mckenna believed that mushrooms containing the entheogen psilocybin, and he specifically says Stropharia cubensis, was responsible for the origin of religion and development of memory, language and self-consciousness. According to Mckenna, both events occurred in Africa, and began during the prehistoric, nomadic, hunting/gathering period of man's existence. The conclusion that Stropharia cubensis was "The Tree of Knowledge" was based on the elimination of plants containing entheogens that are available in Africa. Mckenna further restricted the plants considered to those having entheogens with indole compounds, which are characteristically strong visionary entheogens. With these prerequisites, the list of hallucinogenic plants was short:Tabernanthe iboga and Peganum harmala (Syrian Rue). Although both are known to be used by religious cults, these species were eliminated from consideration. The roots of Tabernanthe iboga contain the the alkaloid ibogaine, the entheogen, is required in far greater amounts than would normally be consumed in a meal by early man. In addition, its usage is only traced as far back as the 19th. While Peganum harmala may be found through the arid part of Mediterranean North Africa, there is no history of its usage here and it, again, must be too highly concentrated or must at least be combined with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) before it will produce an hallucinogenic effect. With the elimination of these two species, McKenna was left only with psilocybin mushrooms. These mushrooms could be found abundantly growing on the dung of the hooved animals that grazed in the grassland areas where they were being hunted. Stropharia cubensis was singled out because it was the only species thought to produce psilocybin in concentrated amounts and to be free of other compounds that may produce side-affects. It was the addition of the Stropharia to the diet of early man that led to better eyesight (an advantage for hunters), sex, language, and ritual activity (religion among them), when eaten.  One qualification that should be added here. These are not characteristics that were endowed to the mushroom eaters and then transferred to later generations, genetically. This cannot happen because of the mechanism by which evolution operates! However, that’s another story that we don’t have time to get into. Instead, the mushroom augmented the above traits by changing the behavior of individuals. These changes in behaviors favored increased usage of language, leading to an increase in vocabulary to communicate when hunting and gathering. Although evolution was occurring on the genetic level, due to increase in mutations from the change in diet that had occurred, according to McKenna, social evolution, due to the mushroom consumption was responsible for the above changes.

At the same time that language was developing, religion also began. When taken at levels that cause intoxication, a feeling of ecstasy occurs, with hallucination and access to what the user would perceive as the realm of the supernatural. This led to the origin of the shaman whose duty is to communicate with the unseen mind of nature (the gods?). 

While the above theory is not one that is well received by many or even most ethnobotanist and biologist, the line of reasoning that was given in the above theory could be followed. However, an addition to the theory is that the psilocybin mushrooms are intelligent beings, extraterrestrial in origin, drifting in space, as spores, and finally landing on Earth where they have bestowed man with intelligence. Probably most of us will have a difficult time in accepting this part of the theory.

The Creation of Gods

We have touched upon this topic in several earlier lectures when discussing man's contact with events that could not be explained within the knowledge they possessed. In order to explain such events, deities were created that controlled these events. Different deities may have controlled events, such as the rising and setting of the sun and moon, lightning, diseases, etc. Thus, early cultures recognized numerous deities and were said to be polytheistic. As cultures become more advanced, the number of gods would become reduced to one and the society becomes monotheistic. The earliest records of religious ceremonies, involving mushroom cults, have been discovered that date back from 7000 to 9000 years, in Algeria, Libya and Chad (For a detailed description of these areas and mushroom cave art images, go the article by Italian entheogen researcher, Giorgio Samorini telling of the oldest representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the world. Unfortunately, the images have been removed in the reproduction of this article).

Conocybe, Panaeolus, Psilocybe and Stropharia, etc.: The Little Flowers of the Gods or Teonánacatl.

In the case of Soma, the entheogen was even considered to be a god. In the psilocybin containing mushroom, this is not the case. Although the mushrooms are still considered to be sacred, their role differs from that of Soma. Teonánacatl is looked upon as the mediator of god. Also, unlike the A. muscaria, Teonánacatl represents a number of genera and species of mushrooms. However, the use of various species of mushrooms, containing psilocybin and psilocin toxins, in religious ceremonies are still known to occur. These toxins were identified as psilocybin and psilocin and belong to the same family of compounds as LSD. They were first isolated from Psilocybe mexicana, by Albert Hofmann. Hofmann tested the psychoactive properties of cultivated specimens of this mushroom and described his experience, in detail.

In North and South America, it is believed that the religious ceremonies originated from Asia, where it was traditionally believed that the first settlers of the Americas migrated, by crossing the Bering Strait (Fig 1), which connected Russia and America, during the last ice age. These people would eventually settle throughout North and South America, to form the many diverse cultures in the Western Hemisphere.

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Fig. 1: Map showing the Bering Strait where a presumed land-bridge that connected Alaska with Russia, which was thought to have allowed migration of Asians to the Americas.

Evidence of such a migration have been found by anthropologists in the form of relics, and remnants of cultural traits that persist in the Americas. However, recently discovered artifacts now have been discovered in Chile that are far older than those in North America and has led to different ideas as to the settlement of the Americas. It is now believed that migrations may have occurred from different parts of the old world, by land and by sea. The immigrants that settled America are now thought to have sailed along the coast and settled throughout the Americas in a short period of time rather than a gradual migrations that began from Alaska and gradually moved southward.

The earliest literature, concerning these sacred mushrooms that the Aztecs called Teonánacatl, flesh of the gods, was in the 16th. Century, by a Spanish Priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, in his Florentine Codex. In 1651, Francisco Hernandez, was able to distinguish between three different kinds of psychoactive mushrooms that were revered by the Indians of Central Mexico at the time of the conquest by the Conquistadors.

However, after the conquest, much was done to suppressed use of these mushrooms in religious ceremonies. The European clerics regarded such practices with revulsions and believed it to be the work of the devil. There was an immediate attempt to suppress these ceremonies. This was, in part, an attempt to convert the Indians to Christianity and save their souls from the devils/idols that they worshipped. For those who resisted and continued their ceremonies, in secret, punishment was in the form of public flogging to burning alive at the stake. However, this only seemed to validate the traditional symbolic and religious views of the Native Indians. Thus, these practices were driven underground and became impossible to combat. To outsiders, these ceremonies were eventually only remembered only as myths, and after a period of time, there was doubt that such ceremonies even existed.

Although de Sahagún specifically stated Teonánacatl  to be a mushroom, in 1916, William Safford, an American botanist concluded that the stories of hallucinogenic mushrooms among American indians were actually Lophophora diffusa and L. williamsii, entheogenic cacti, locally referred to as  Peyote and that the Indians were telling authorities that it was a mushroom in order to protect it. This story was disputed by Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, an amateur botanist, who was certain that Teonánacatl not only existed, but was was still being used in Mexico. News of this dispute would eventually reach  Roberto Weitlaner, an Australian, amateur anthropologist. Weitlaner had witnessed a mushroom ceremony, in the early 1930's and contacted Reko concerning the ceremony and sent voucher specimens of the mushrooms. Reko forwarded the specimens to the Harvard herbarium where they were received by a young Richard Schultes, at that time still a graduate student. In 1938, Schultes  traveled to Mexico to verify that Teonánacatl was indeed a mushroom. It was his meeting with Eunice Pike, a missionary-linguist, who confirmed the identity of Teonánacatl . Collections of the mushrooms were made and in 1939 Schultes published Plantae Mexicanae II: The Identification of Teonanacatl, a Narcotic Basidiomycete of the Aztecs, in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets. 

However, by this time, the original ceremonies, as they existed prior to the coming of the Europeans, had become tainted with Christianity. Many Christian religious concepts had become intermingled with the original mushroom ceremonial rites. Eunice Pike, who had by this time spent several years among the Indians of Oaxaca related an example, concerning the Mazatecs, who spoke of the mushrooms as the blood of Christ, because they were believed to grow only where a drop of Christ's blood had touched the Earth. The mushroom, Amanita muscaria, was called angelitos ("little angel").

Schultes would have nothing more to do with mushroom for a number of years and devoted his research to areas further south of Mexico where he earned his famed as an ethnobotanist. His article on Panaeolus remained an obscure publication until the 1950's. In 1956, Roger Heim, the distinguished French mycologist, identified one species as Psilocybe caerulescens; another was identified by Harvard mycologist, David Linder, as Panaeolus campanulatus (=P. sphinctrinus) and the third by Rolf Singer, as Stropharia cubensis. More importantly, Gordon Wasson would discover Schultes article, which would inspire him to go to Mexico where he eventually came into contact with María Sabina, the shaman of the Mazatecs who permitted him to participate in the religious ceremony utilizing these "magic mushrooms". His experience was made public when it was published in the May 13, 1957 issue of Life Magazine

Gordon Wasson, his wife Valentina and a photographer, Allan Richardson were the first outsiders to participate in the mushroom, religious ceremony of North American Indians. During the ceremony, Maria Sabina, the Shaman of the Mazatec Indians spoke the following chant, which was translated from her native language:

"There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby, and invisible. And there is where God lives, where the dead lives, the spirits and the saints, a world where everything has already happened and everything is known. That world talks. It has a language of its own. I report what it says. The sacred mushroom takes me by the hand and brings me to the world where everything is known. It is they, the sacred mushrooms, that speak in a way I can understand. I ask them and they answer me. When I return from the trip that I have taken with them, I tell what they have told me and what they have shown me."

In the magazine article, Wasson gave Maria Sabina's name as Eva Mendez in order to protect her privacy. However, his effort would prove futile. Literally thousands went down to Mexico to find the magic mushroom described by Wasson. Little did these people know that there was not one magic mushroom, but many, and that some of these may be growing right in their own back yards. Among the thousands that came to experience the mushroom was Dr. Timothy Leary who would later gain fame as the most famous advocate of the psychedelic drug movement, during the 1960s. It was after he experienced the magic mushrooms, in Mexico that his life change, and his research, first with Psilocybin and later with LSD began. Thus, unwittingly, Wasson's Life article was what inspired Leary, who was instrumental in bringing about the drug movement of the 1960s.

The knowledge of magic mushrooms even spread to Hawai‘i, during the early 1960s. According to Dr. Mark Merlin, Professor of Biology, during the early 1960s, when the Peace Corp first began, some training was done in Hawai‘i. Apparently, some Peace Corp members were aware of magic mushrooms and knew that some species could be found on cow and horse dung. Although the mushrooms were probably present, in Hawai‘i, for as long as horses and cows have been here, prior to the arrival of the Peace Corp, knowledge of the mushroom's psychoactive properties was not known. While there are few species that occur in Hawai‘i, they are apparently the same ones that occur in various parts of the world. Dr. Merlin, and Mr. John Allen, a very enthusiastic collector of mushrooms, published an article in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, during the 1990s on the magic mushrooms that occur in Hawai‘i. 

Sadly, while María Sabina became famous, as the Shaman, that introduced the Wassons to participate in the religious ceremonies, in the town where she lived, she was ostracized for this same act. Her home was burned and she was banished from the town where she resided for revealing the secrets of the mushroom religious rituals to outsiders. However, she never regretted her act, and felt that it was her destiny. Maria Sabina passed away on November 22nd 1985 and is now a legend in Mexico.

The Aztecs of Mexico hold these mushrooms in great reverence and used them only in their most holy of ceremonies. Also, the mushrooms were not the only source of hallucinogens, mescaline, peyote and morning glory was also important in their religious ceremonies. Click here for further reading concerning the use of entheogens among the Mazatecs.

In addition to literature, evidence as to the presence of mushroom cults were also be found in the form of stone, mushroom figures, which were believed to be connected with religious ceremonies where mushrooms were utilized. Over 100 such idols have been discovered since 1961 (Fig. 2.), in the Western Hemisphere, alone. Fifty of these were discovered by, Bernard Lowy, in 1971. Lowy was the mycologists Louisiana State University at this time.

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Fig. 2: Some examples of stone, mushroom figures discovered in the Americas. The majority of these figures have been dated from 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D.

The representation of these sculptures as mushrooms had not always been accepted. Initially, they were even thought to be phallic symbols despite their obvious depiction of mushrooms. The sculptures, in Mexico, leave little doubt that they depicted some species of Psilocybe, based on the characteristic "umbel" or knob, that is characteristic of many species of this genus. Others, especially those in the highlands of Guatemala, resemble Amanita muscaria, which also grows elsewhere in North America and in various temperate parts of the world.

Gordon Wasson, Aftermath of Life Article

Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina, as you should recall, became interested in cultural behaviors concerning mushrooms because of their upbringing. Wasson was brought up with a negative attitude towards mushrooms while Valentina had a great appreciation for them. They coined the terms mycophobe and mycophile, respectively to define their culturally opposed views of mushrooms.

It was here that the new branch of ethnobotany began, and was named ethnomycology. Wasson would go on to publish numerous publications and books on the role of hallucinogenic mushrooms, not only in still-extant cultures in Mexico, but also in preconquest Mexico and eventually exploring ethnomycological studies in Europe and Asia. It was through his work that mycologists took an interest in the mushrooms involved in the ritual. It was with the above mentioned mycologists as well as Gaston Guzman, the Mexican mycologists, that the species used in these religious ceremonies became identified, and later the psychoactive principles identified through the efforts of Albert Hofmann. Hoffman also synthesized these compounds, in the lab, and made it into a pill that was generically called Indocybin. One of these bottles was presented to Maria Sabina who after trying it told Hofmann that its effects were indistinguishable from the mushrooms.

The use of psychoactive mushrooms was not restricted to Mexico. Later studies by various researchers would demonstrate that they were used by various Indians in Meso- and South America, dating as far back as 2200 years, as well as in other parts of the world.

Carlos Castaneda

Finally, no story of mushroom ceremonies among the American Indians would be complete without saying something about Carlos Castaneda. Practically everybody who followed the drug movements during the 1960s is familiar with that name and the story of how he became an apprentice to Don Juan Matus, a shaman that he met in Nogales, Arizona, while waiting at the bus stations. Castaneda became an overnight celebrity in the mid 1960's when he published his M.S. thesis, from UCLA. The book was entitled "The Teachings of Don Juan: a Jaqui Way of Knowledge." I thought this book to be very interesting when I read it many years ago. It reads like a diary and tells of the Castaneda's relationship with the shaman, Don Juan Matus, who guided him through the various religious rituals of his tribe. These ceremonies included not only mushrooms, but also hallucinogenic plants. Castaneda's descriptions of his experience while under the influence of these various hallucinogens were very vivid. After consuming Psilocybe mushrooms, he described a transformation experience where bit by bit, his body was being transformed into a bird. Following the complete transformation, he went on to describe how he flew high up in the sky, and what it was like flying as a bird, describing all that he saw while he was flying.

Castaneda would go on to write several more books in this same vein which were also successful. A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan and Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. The latter was his Ph.D. dissertation from U.C.L.A. However, although he was financially successful, and today still has a rather large following, even before his first book was published, there were questions as to the credibility of his work, i.e. people in anthropology believed he was a fake and had made it all up. His first two books, published during the "psychedelic years", late 1960's, recounted 22 different drug trips in vivid details, through which Don Juan guided him. However, as the "new age" consciousness came about, suddenly there a wealth of drugless techniques were discovered by Castaneda in field notes that he had put aside. Other books, Tales of Power and The Second Ring of Power reflected later popular trends toward occultism and feminism. One thing in which his critics give him a great deal of credit is his ability to tell stories.

Professionally, there is probably nobody in the field of anthropology that has taken Castaneda's work seriously and most have accused him of fabricating his entire dissertation. There have been several symposia that have been organized, in which professional and amateur ethnobotanists, ethnomycologists, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers alike have spoken on his credibility. Some of these criticisms have been summarized.

Some Terms of Psilocybe, etc.

Castaneda, Carlos: Author and anthropologist who wrote a series of books, based on his interviews with a Native American Shaman, Don Juan Matus. He was a graduate student when his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, A Jaqui Way of Knowledge, was published. This was also his M.S. Thesis, when he was a graduate student at UCLA. Although his books have become big sellers, the authenticity of his work, which he claims is based on his research and interviews, have always been regarded as questionable by anthropologists and ethnobotanists.

Don Juan Matus: The Jaqui Shaman from whom Carlos Castaneda learned of the hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms used in the religious ceremonies of Don Juan’s people.

Hofmann, Albert: Chemist at Pharmaceutical-Chemical Research Laboratories of Sandoz Ltd., Basel. Isolated and identified the psychoactive compounds, psilocybin and psilocin, in mushrooms from Mexico. Also, known for his discovery of LSD.

Indocybin: Synthesized psilocybin and psilocin pill made at Sandoz Ltd., by Albert Hofmann.

Magic mushroom: Term coined by Gordon Wasson that referred to the psychoactive mushrooms that he consumed during the religious ceremony led by María Sabina. His experiences were described in a Life Magazine article, published in May 13, 1957.

Psilocin: One of two psychoactive compounds found in various genera of mushrooms. Compounds belong in the same family as LSD.

Psilocybin: One of two psychoactive compounds found in various genera of mushrooms. Compounds belong in the same family as LSD.

Sabina, María: Shaman of Mazatec who allowed the Wassons and Allen Richardson to participate in the magic mushroom religious ceremony. The first time outsiders were allowed to participate in ceremony.

Schultes, Richard: Ethnobotanist, Harvard, rediscovered psychoactive mushrooms used in religious ceremonies, in Mexico.

Teonánacatl: Name given to magic mushrooms by Mazatec people. Name has been translated to mean “divine flesh”, “little flower of the gods” or “flesh of gods”.

Wasson, Gordon R.: Considered to be the father of ethnomycology and rediscoverer of the role of mushroom in religious ceremonies in various cultures in Native American Indians, as well as elsewhere in the world. His Life Magazine article of May 13, 1957, unwittingly, began Dr. Timothy Leary's interest in psychoactive drugs, who became the guru of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD, during the 1960s.

Questions of Interest

1.      The origin of religion, according to some, had something to do with psilocybin mushrooms. How is the mushroom involved in the origin of religion, according to McKenna?

2.    How is the evolution of intelligence thought to have occurred in man, according to McKenna?

3.    Although there was a great deal of literature on the religions of the various Native Americans, shortly after the move to convert them to Christianity began, the knowledge was suppressed and was unknown to the outside world by the 20th Century. Who rediscovered the religious activities of the Native American People?

4.    In what part of the world are the Native American Indians and their religious ceremonies believed to have originated? How did the Native Americans Indians migrate to the Americas?

5.    What evidence is there that despite the fact that the religious ceremonies remained secrete from outsiders that they nevertheless became “tainted” due to outside influence?

6.    If you have read through the Life Magazine article written by Gordon Wasson, why is it that the shaman that is named in that article Eva Mendez, when everybody familiar with Wasson now knows the shaman as Maria Sabina?

7.    Briefly describe the impact that Wasson’s article in Life Magazine had on the world of the 1960s and continues to have impact even today (No right or wrong answer here).

8.    Who is Carlos Castaneda and what has he to do with Native American religious ceremonies with hallucinogenic mushrooms?

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