More than 180 species of hallucinogenic fungi exist worldwide, from Europe and Africa to Asia and the Americas. With over 50 types of magic mushrooms, Mexico has the greatest variety—the majority of which belong to the Psilocybe genus.
Before the western world popularized them, these fungal fruiting bodies were held sacred by Mexico’s Mesoamerican peoples.
But Catholic monks branded them as the devil’s work in the 16th century. Their ceremonial use was systemically condemned, and they became closely-guarded secrets—until the 1950s.
The rediscovery of magic mushrooms in Mexico spurred on newfound curiosity, psychedelic research, and mycological study.
Was it a blessing or a curse? Is Mexico’s mushroom movement still alive and well?
Find all these answers and more below but first, let’s take a quick journey back in time.
In Mexico, magic mushrooms are religious sacraments among several indigenous groups that still use them today. These include:
Besides regional, cultural, and language differences, the mushroom species used ceremonially among these groups also vary.
Still, psychoactive substance use was common among Mesoamerican societies in the pre-Columbian era. The Mayan mushroom stones (3,000 BC) and Teotihuacàn’s Tepantitla mural (500 CE) suggest ancestral knowledge of psychedelic fungi.
The first documented report of magic mushroom use dates back to 1598, written by an indigenous person called Tezozomoc. The account details celebrations of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II’s coronation.
In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, teonanácatl meaning “flesh of the gods,” refers to psilocybin mushrooms.
Spanish colonizers also recorded the use of sacred mushrooms in therapeutic, religious, and divination ceremonies. Mexican art that survived colonization reflects this, too, such as the Codex Vindobonensis and the Codex Magliabechiano.
Following the Conquest of Mexico, Toribio de Benavente (also known as Motolinía) published History of the Indians of New Spain. The 1558 work chronicles the ingestion of magic mushrooms with honey and the “hellish” visions they supposedly invoked.
The Franciscan concluded that these psychedelic fungi were the devil’s work.
Like many other native customs, sacred mushroom ceremonies were declared heretical and prohibited by the Catholic clergy. Consequently, these practices only survived through clandestine secrecy, syncretic adoption, and isolation in the most remote villages.
In 1938, Mexican ethnobotanist Blas Pablo Reko and the Father of Modern Ethnobotany Richard Schultes identified three other varieties in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca.
Their work pioneered the rediscovery of psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico, though it remained largely unknown to the general public for decades.
The turning point came in the 1950s, thanks to Dr. Valentina Pavlovna Wasson. She was an ethnomycologist, researcher, pediatrician, and scientist with a passion for fungi since childhood.
Her husband, Robert Gordon Wasson, a banker, was equally passionate about mycology. Contrary to the official version, Dr. Wasson led research expeditions to study the traditional uses of magic mushrooms in Mexico.
Robert Heim, credited for categorizing Psilocybe mexicana, and Guy Stresser-Péan, an expert in indigenous languages, joined the Wasson’s expeditions. They launched a massive multidisciplinary survey combining botanical, linguistic, and ethnographic approaches.
The Wassons spent several years visiting the mountainous village of Huautla de Jiménez, where they attended many veladas. They weren’t allowed to participate in these sacred mushroom purification rituals, though.
Dr. Gastón Guzmán was born in 1932 in the town of Xalapa, Veracruz. He studied biology at Mexico City’s Escuela Nacional de Ciencias Biológicas (ENCB) of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional.
Dr. Guzmán first became interested in mycology in 1956. In 1957, he met the Wassons while exploring Huautla de Jiménez, and a life-long friendship ensued. He also befriended Richard Evans Schultes and Roger Heim.
In 1958, Dr. Guzmán published his first of over 400 scientific papers, which concerned the ecology of the Psilocybe species.
In the 50 years that followed, he also published 20 books documenting the discovery of more than 300 new mushroom species. The works detailed everything from the taxonomy and ecology to distribution and cultural uses and included:
Expanding upon the Wassons’ and Heim’s ethnomycological research, Dr. Guzmán wrote about psychedelic mushroom use in Mexico. He also documented the medicinal and culinary uses of various fungi.
During his lifetime, Dr. Guzmán identified and classified more than 140 psychedelic mushroom species in the Psilocybe genus alone. From Mexico and South America to New Zealand and Japan, he found these fruiting bodies all around the world.
In 1955, the Wassons met María Sabina, a Mazatec curandera or traditional healer. She was the first known shaman to receive outsiders.
Similarly, the Wassons and their photographer Allan Richardson were among the first westerners to participate in a velada. They experienced the psychedelic effects of sacred mushrooms, changing the course of history forever.
The couple also collected spores which were later cultivated and analyzed by Albert Hoffman, the chemist who discovered LSD.
In 1957, Robert Gordon Wasson famously detailed his experience in Life magazine. Dr. Valentina Pavlovna Wasson published her own account in the popular This Week magazine.
The couple also published Russia, Mushrooms, and History, revealing Sabina’s true identity and location. This went against her wishes.
The publications inspired a tidal wave of tourists, scientists, hippies, and celebrities to travel to Huautla de Jiménez. Rumor has it the likes of Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan all participated in veladas with Sabina.
She turned few away, though she often expressed misgivings about introducing the Wassons to sacred mushrooms. Sabina always emphasized the true purpose of the los niños santos or little saints: Healing.
María Sabina was born in 1894, coming from a long lineage of curanderos on her father’s side. She consumed psilocybin mushrooms for the first time at just eight years old.
When the Wassons met Sabina, she had been conducting veladas for 30 years. The goal of these ancient all-night ceremonies was to heal the sick and commune with the divine.
Eaten on an empty stomach, the sacred mushrooms were typically served in pairs of 6 to 12, placed in a gourd, and incensed. As a devout Catholic, Sabina’s Mazatec rituals had Christian elements, something the local bishop didn’t consider heretical.
Sabina would consume twice as many psilocybin mushrooms as her participants and chant invocations to call forth the divine.
At first, she was apprehensive of the Wassons. Not because they were foreigners but because they didn’t need healing. Indeed, Robert Gordon Wasson later admitted that he deceived her concerning his son’s well-being to participate in the velada.
Sabina was once called “the greatest visionary poet in twentieth-century Latin America.”
But not everyone in the community felt the same.
As stories of María Sabina and the mountain village of Huautla de Jiménez continued to attract outsiders, the locals faced a never-ending tide of unwanted attention.
In many instances, their centuries-old sacred rituals, mushrooms, and plants were defiled and reduced to cheap thrills.
Sabina was ostracized, accused of profiting from sharing the town’s secrets, and shunned by the community. Disgruntled locals even burned her house down.
The curandera came to regret her role in exposing the velada to outsiders.
“From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity,” she said. “They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them…”
María Sabina was 91 years old and poverty-stricken when she passed away in 1985.
Today, stores, restaurants, and even taxis bear Sabina’s name, mushroom-themed ornaments are everywhere, and the main plaza has murals depicting the fungus.
Huautla de Jiménez has embraced its popularity as a Pueblo Mágico or “Magic Town.” Still, many locals grapple with the commercialization of their sacred and ancient practices.
San José del Pacífico, located in the Oaxacan cloud forest, has quickly become Mexico’s modern-day mushroom town and a global tourist attraction.
During an eclipse on March 7, 1970, foreigners swarmed the town in droves. They later began asking about mushrooms found in Huautla de Jiménez, and the locals delivered.
More than 50% of the locals work in tourism, and everything from stalls and restaurants to niños santos cabins proudly display their mushroom-themed decor.
The town’s economy benefits, but some locals remain adamant about preserving their sacrosanct traditions.
The rediscovery of Mexico’s magic mushrooms was revelatory yet extremely controversial.
Some indigenous groups feel their most sacred ceremonies, fungi, and plants were exploited and disrespected.
On the flip side, such discoveries have brought invaluable research to the world.
While psilocybin mushrooms may have a place in western medicine, it’s up to us as a collective to respect, protect, and preserve the sacred rites and sacraments of indigenous groups.
What’s one way to do that?
Stock up on spores from a sustainable provider like Fungushead.
Get out the microscope and visit our shop today!