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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Teonanácatl, the "sacred mushroom" of the Aztecs

About 60 years passed after the elucidation of "peyotl" before the second magic Mexican drug "teonanácatl" could be analysed in the Research Laboratories Sandoz Basle (Switzerland). Teonanácatl, an Aztec word which could be translated as "sacred mushroom" or "God's flesh", was mentioned by the Spanish chroniclers as early as the sixteenth century, as were peyotl and ololiuqui. The most important source of information on this drug is de Sahagun's famous chronicle, "Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España", written in the years 1529-1590. It contains data on the use of intoxicating sacred mushrooms which were eaten by the Indians of Mexico at their feasts and religious ceremonies. From the Sahagun's chronicle and from other reports it can be seen that teonanácatl was not only ingested at social and festival occasions but also by witch doctors and soothsayers. The mushroom god-which the Christian missionaries called the devil- endowed them with clairvoyant properties, which enabled them, besides other things, to identify the causes of diseases and indicate the way in which they could be treated. The use and the worship of these mushrooms by the Indians of Central America must be very ancient. In Guatemala so-called "mushroom stones" have been found. These are stones carved in the form of a pileate mushroom, in the stem of which the head or entire figure of a god is depicted. The oldest specimens found are over three thousand years old. It can therefore be concluded that the mushroom cult of the Indians dates back to more than thousands of years before Christ. More detailed historical data can be found in the monograph of the Wassons' "Mushroom, Russia and History". Although this mushroom cult is very old, our knowledge of it is very recent. For some centuries the reports in the old chronicles were given surprisingly little attention, probably because they were regarded as extravagances of a superstitious age. However, between 1936 and 1938, American investigators, i.e. Weitlaner, Reko, Johnson, and Schultes, ascertained that mushrooms are currently still being eaten for magical purposes by the natives in certain districts of southern Mexico.
Systematic studies of the mushroom cult in its present form were later made by the amateur investigators R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna Wasson. Between 1953 and 1955 they made several expeditions to the remote mountainous districts of southern Mexico to study the current use of the magic mushrooms. In the summer of 1955, R. G. Wasson was for the first time able to take active part in a secret nocturnal mushroom ceremony in Huautla de Jimenez, Province of Oaxaca, and probably was the first white man to ingest the holy mushrooms. This experience, which impressed him profoundly and which convinced him of the hallucinogenic effect of the mushrooms, has been described by him in detail in his monograph. On a further expedition in 1956 Wasson was accompanied by the mycologist Roger Heim, director of the laboratoire de cryptogamie du Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris. Heim succeeded in identifying and classifying the most important types of mushrooms used for magical purposes by the Indians. These were foliate mushrooms (agaricales) of the family Strophariaceae, mostly new types, the greater part belonging to the genus Psilocybe, as well as one species of the genus Stropharia and one species of the genus Conocybe. Subsequently cultures of some of these species were successfully grown in the laboratory. Artificial cultivation provided a very good yield, especially of one of these sacred mushrooms, namely, Psilocybe mexicana Helm. The chemical analysis of this mushroom material was effected in the Pharmaceutical Chemical Research Laboratories of Sandoz Ltd. in Basle by A. Hofmann and collaborators. The mushroom extracts were first tested on animals. Studies were made of pupillary reaction and of piloerection in mice and of general behaviour in dogs. The results were not clear-cut and led to disagreement in the evaluation of the various extract fractions. After most of the very rare and valuable material (or rather the extract) had been given to the animals without effect, there was some doubt as to whether the mushrooms cultivated and dried in Paris were still active. A personal trial by the author of this article settled this fundamental point. He ate thirty-two dried specimens of Psilocybe mexicana weighing 2.4 g, a medium dose by Indian standards. The mushrooms exerted a marked psychotomimetic effect which was described as follows