Magic Mushrooms and Humans: A Brief History
Emily Mullins looks at the history of magic mushrooms in cultures around the world.
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Darkness. The hypnotic rattle intertwines with the medicine man’s singing. A light flickers from the darkness. The rattle and the drumming intensifies. With each beat, the light grows brighter. Reality-defying geometric patterns fill your vision. The medicine takes hold and a sense of familiarity washes over you. You can feel the thread connecting you to a long lineage of travelers who journeyed these strange realms. Indeed, the mystical history of visionary plant medicine is far more ancient than you realized.
After correspondence with Aldous Huxley, the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond coined the term “Psychedelic” in 1956, derived from the Greek word ψυχή (psyche, “soul, mind, consciousness”) and δηλοῦν (deloun, “to manifest, reveal”). Since then, the term ‘psychedelic’ is the most common term referring to the unique classification of these visionary medicines.
The ‘classical’ psychedelics include Mescaline (3,4,5- trimethoxyphenylathylamine), Psilocybin (4-hydroxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine), DMT (dimethyltryptamine), and of course, LSD-25 (Lysergic Diethylamide).
Like psychedelics, a unique classification of chemicals with similar properties is ‘empathogens.’ Popular medicines such as MDMA (3,4 – Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) fall under this classification. Psychedelics, empathogens, dissociatives, and deliriants all fall under the broader blanket term ‘hallucinogens.’
The terminology is often overwhelming for those new to the realm of psychedelics and visionary plants. However, it is important to consider that psychedelics such as dissociative, deliriants, and empathogens, reveal distinctly unique characteristics. Thus, I will use a more ancient term to refer to these unique compounds, ‘Visionary Plant Medicine’ or ‘Visionary Medicine.’
Civilizations across the globe used visionary plant medicine as sacramental tools for thousands of years – from the legendary ‘soma’ that appears throughout Sanksrit texts to the mysterious sacrament ‘kykeon’ consumed during the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece.
Carvings found in South America suggest that ancient civilizations used hallucinogenic mushrooms since before 1000 B.C. Examples of visionary medicine recorded in early human history include mushrooms containing psilocybin, morning glory seeds, and cacti, amongst a host of other unique and fascinating flora and fauna.
Pre-Columbian societies in the Mesoamerican region were immensely skilled in the knowledge of visionary plants. Contrary to popular belief, the Mesoamerican civilization is not one specific civilization. Instead, the Mesoamerican region is home to a complex set of indigenous cultures that flourished in Mexico and Central America before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
From meticulously organized political orders to sophisticated social structures, the Mesoamerican societies stand alongside Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as one of the greatest civilizations. The modern states of Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica are among the countries in this region.
Archaeological evidence shows that the domestication of cacti dates back to over 5,000 years. With over 420 varieties of cacti indigenous to Mesoamerica, Cacti played a central role in the Mesoamerican civilizations. For example, the capital of the Aztec Empire, ‘Tenochtitlan’ (present-day Mexico City), loosely translates to ‘Place of the Cactus Rock.’ Amongst the 420 varieties, the most revered cacti are the Peyote.
The ritualistic consumption of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) was widespread in the Americas dating back over 5000 years. Peyote is a type of cactus containing over 60 hallucinogenic compounds, including the primary compound mescaline.
One of the first introductions to psychedelics in the Western hemisphere came from Aldous Huxley’s popular short ‘trip report’ called ‘The Doors of Perception’. The report is a beautifully written description of Huxley’s mescaline experience. But, now, that’s a story for another time.
The potent compound mescaline is found in the nodules of Peyote cacti. Those seeking to embark on a visionary exploration with Peyote will chew the nodules or make the nodules into an infusion that can be drunk.
Those who embark on the visionary journey with Peyote report vividly colorful kaleidoscopic visions, a sense of mellowness and weightlessness, as well as an altered perception of space and time. During the rituals, the peyote facilitates a powerful sense of interconnectedness with oneself, the community, and the natural world at large. However, regardless of how well one crafts the words, one cannot capture the psychedelic experience’s phenomenal wonder, so descriptions of the experience are best kept to a minimum.
The conquistadors persecuted those who consumed Peyote during the Spanish inquisition. The horrors of colonization prohibited visionary use, healing, and exploration with Peyote.
The United States law classifies Peyote and its primary active component, Mescaline, as Schedule 1 substances. Schedule 1 entails that the medicine is illegal to sell, possess or ingest. However, the law exempts members of the Native American Church from using peyote as a sacred medicine. At present, the Tarahumara, Tepehúan, and Huichol peoples of northern Mexico, and Navajo and Comanche in the southern United States, use peyote in ritual and curative ceremonies and to promote communication with the spirit world.
After LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide), Psilocybin is probably the most well-known visionary medicine. Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica societies reportedly used at least 54 hallucinogenic mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe. The consumption of mushrooms containing psilocybin is reportedly at least 3,500 years old.
Once mushrooms containing psilocybin are consumed, a process called dephosphorylation takes place. During the process, psilocybin is transformed into psilocin, which is responsible for the strong visionary effects.
The Maya revered these mushrooms and referred to them as ‘teonanácatl.’ The Huastec, Totonac, Mazatec, and Mixtec people revered and consumed the mushrooms containing psilocybin. Statues carved to represent these mushrooms, famously called ‘Mushroom stones’, were found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Those who consumed the mushroom did so to communicate with divine powers, for divination, and, of course, for healing. Medicine men and women in Mesoamerica consumed the mushrooms to diagnose the cause of illness by seeking wisdom from the mushrooms themselves.
Bwiti is the spiritual discipline practiced by the indigenous societies of Punu, Mitsogo, and by the Fang of Gabon and Cameroon. Loosely translated, Bwiti means “otherworldly tree medicine” or “the being who calls.” The visionary plant Tabernanthe Iboga (Iboga), a perennial rainforest shrub native to West Africa, plays a central role in the spiritual, communal, and religious foundation in the Bwiti discipline.
Followers of the discipline consume Iboga to invoke visions, heal, and participate in rites of passage. The rite of passage is the adherents’ initiation into the realm of spiritual wisdom and the establishment of a direct connection to ancestral knowledge. The long ritual is a journey into the psychedelic realm described as punishing, terrifying, powerful, and healing.
The N’ganga, meaning “spiritual leader” in Bwiti, leads the congregation. It is the leader’s role to guide the adherents through the visions. It is common for the spiritual leader to take a significantly higher dose than the rest. Similarly, young men may also take higher doses than normal during the rites of passage. Drumming, singing, dancing are accompanied by moments of pin-drop silence and contemplation during the Iboga ceremonies.
The use of Iboga is not merely for the plant’s visionary powers. Followers of Bwiti use Iboga in low doses to treat ailments ranging from fever to impotence and to assist in hunting due to Iboga’s unique ability to sharpen vision and reflexes.
The Rigveda, a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, and the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s holiest scriptures, refer to a potent ritual drink called ‘Soma.’ The ninth Mandala of the Rigveda is entirely devoted to ‘Soma.’ During the ritual, the mixture was offered to the gods, while the priest’s class consumed the remaining drink. It is known that the personified deity of Soma was the master of all flora and fauna. Scholars hypothesize the Soma was a powerful visionary plant medicine with psychedelic properties.
Besides Soma, the Hindu Sadhus are no strangers to cannabis and datura. Ancient Ayurvedic medicine comprised a host of visionary plant medicines and was used to treat conditions such as Asthma. While cannabis is one of the most well-known plant medicines globally, one must approach and explore datura with careful consideration, respect, and safety. All species of datura are poisonous and can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, fever, delirium, hallucinations, anticholinergic syndrome, psychosis, and death.
One may falsely assume that the civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Bwiti spiritual discipline, and the concoctions of plants in Ayurvedic medicine are a remnant of a long-forgotten past. On the contrary, these ancient civilizations and disciplines are at the forefront of psychedelic and visionary plant exploration. It was through a Mazatec Curandera that the Western world first discovered the immense power of the psilocybin mushrooms.
The recent findings on the healing properties of psilocybin and mescaline, as well as the potential for combating addiction with Iboga, traces back to the findings and ancient knowledge of those who worked intimately with these visionary plants for thousands of years.
Thus, it is crucial to respect and honor the ancient traditions, knowledge, and science that paved the way for the recent emergence of psychedelic science and exploration. Furthermore, the thread of psychedelic and visionary medicine holds immense healing potential for the future. From the unnamed medicine woman who helped heal her community with psilocybin to the creations of Alexander Shulgin, the thread of visionary plants and psychedelics is weaved by both the ancient and the contemporary visionaries.
Mas Mirus | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective
Mas is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to Matt via email at email@example.com
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