My Ignite Baltimore talk, “Teonanácatl: The Secret History of Magic Mushrooms” is now online. It was incredibly challenging to reduce such a complex and fascinating subject down to 5 minutes and 20 slides, but I did my best (albeit with a few clunky moments). If you saw the talk and came here looking for more information on the subject, I will be uploading material over the next few weeks, including the images from my slides, references, and links to sites about psychedelic mushrooms and culture.
Here’s the text of the talk (click the images for larger versions):
Mushrooms, even the most mundane of them, are truly magical products of nature. The mushroom itself is merely the visible reproductive body of a much larger organism, made up of networked microscopic white fibers, or mycelium, that colonize the soil or rotting vegetation from which it springs. This vast , interconnected mycelial web has been likened to “nature’s internet.”
It’s this reproductive organ that pokes up into our world and ejaculates invisible, single-celled spores—sometimes numbering in the trillions—before shriveling and disappearing back down into its mycelial form.
Sometimes the mushroom itself, ever the mischievous little trickster, makes clear to us its biological similarity to other, more familiar reproductive organs. (Image of the Stinkhorn mushroom, Phallus impudicus, or “lewd penis”).
But tonight we’re going to talk about the most magical mushrooms of all, of the genus Psilocybe, which contain the psychoactive compounds psilocybin and psilocin. They are found on every continent except Antarctica and nearly every climate, frequently following human activity, growing in disturbed soil and the manure of our cattle. Because of their unique ability to alter human consciousness, they are often considered sacred or even gods in their own right.
Anthropologists point to tantalizing evidence of ritual and spiritual use of psychoactive fungi throughout human history, from the 7,000 year-old rock carvings of bemushroomed shamans of Tassili, Algeria, to the temple of the sacred Mystery Cult of Eleusis in ancient Greece, the megaliths of Stonehenge, and the abundant ancient mushroom effigies in Central and South America.
But it was in the new world where the living mushroom cult was first witnessed. When Spanish explorers saw ritualistic use of Teonanácatl, or flesh of the Gods, among the Aztecs, they persecuted the practice as “demonic” and forced it underground, where it remained hidden for over 400 years. One man’s passion for the folklore of mushrooms, however, lifted that veil of mystery.
R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president at JP Morgan and an amateur mycologist, convinced Maria Sabina, a curandera in Oaxaca, Mexico, to let him participate in a night-long healing ceremony, where he ingested 6 pairs of dried mushrooms, left his body, and encountered what he called “the Divine Presence.”
Wasson’s 1957 article on LIFE magazine introduced millions of Westerners to “magic” mushrooms and profoundly altered human history. When psilocybin was synthesized, Wasson gave the pills to Maria Sabina, who said the chemical contained the same spirits as the mushrooms and that they would be useful during the seasons when mushrooms didn’t grow.
On Good Friday in 1962, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and minister Walter Pahnke gave 10 divinity students psilocybin as part of his PhD project at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. The study provided the first empirical, controlled evidence that chemically-induced mystical and religious experiences are indistinguishable from classical, non-drug mystical experiences.
The excesses of the 60s killed that kind of research and psychedelic drugs became schedule 1. But in 2006, Roland Griffiths and his team at Johns Hopkins replicated Pahnke’s study, but with tighter controls and more rigid science. Their conclusions were identical. Under controlled conditions, Psilocybin can produce life changing mystical experiences in the majority of those who take it, connecting them with something inside themselves yet much bigger than themselves, whether they call it God, Nature, or what Terence McKenna termed “the lost continent of the Self.”
Such experiences can dramatically reduce emotional suffering in the terminally ill. Three weeks before his death from cancer one of the volunteers in Griffith’s study took psilocybin. “God is real,” the former agnostic told his daughter. “All is love. Everything is going to be okay.”
Outside of scientific studies, however, possession of this natural medicine is illegal. Seems the Spanish inquisition never ended.
But imagine a future where this isn’t so, where instead of spending years in therapy, you can spend a week at a licensed psilocybin retreat and take a healing journey into that lost continent of the self to emerge a more whole, loving, and enlightened person. A future where those facing imminent death can come to peace with their transition and die knowing that everything is going to be okay.
A future where these little marvels of creation can welcome us back into the mysterious, healing worlds within us all.