Teonanácatl: The Secret History of Magic Mushrooms (Video, links, and more)

Teonanácatl: The Secret History of Magic Mushrooms (Video, links, and more)

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.”
Mushroom Mycelium (magnified)
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”).
Stinkhorn mushroom, or Phallus Impudicus ("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.

Psilocybe cyanescens (wavy cap)

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.
Ancient mushroom stone carvings from around the world.
Demeter giving a mushroom to Persephone, Temple of Eleusis and mushroom images from Stonehenge
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.

Ancient mushroom iconography from Central and South America

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.”
Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who introduced R. Gordon Wasson to the magic mushrooms
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.
Gordon Wasson's influential 1957 LIFE Magazine article
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 "Miracle at Marsh Chapel"

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.”

Roland Griffiths in the "psilocybin room" at Johns Hopkins

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.”

Groundbreaking paper in the journal Psychopharmacology (2006) by Griffiths et al.

Outside of scientific studies, however, possession of this natural medicine is illegal. Seems the Spanish inquisition never ended.

Psilocybin mushrooms are illegal to possess or consume in the U.S.

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.

Psilocybin mushrooms = Medicine from the Earth

A future where these little marvels of creation can welcome us back into the mysterious, healing worlds within us all.

Michael Hughes
Written by Michael Hughes

Michael M. Hughes is a writer and performer. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

14 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    November 22, 2010

    Hello Hudghes,
    I don’t know how to relate the tzolk’in to the Greek pantheon. Do you know the guy who does?


    Here are my somewhat erratic attempts :






    I’m probably preaching for the converted,
    but you may also like this :




    Best regards,
    John Keys ( The Ursprachist )

  2. Avatar
    November 29, 2010

    Thanks, John—fascinating material. I will take some time and look at them more thoroughly.

  3. Avatar
    April 14, 2011

    Wow, great article.
    Your readers might want to check out my research site at mushroomstone.com
    I’ve been working on a similar subject for over 10 years.
    My research was inspired by a theory first proposed by my father, the late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, (who worked with Wasson) that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame.
    As a result of my study and solid evidence from other scholars, I have been able to expand this subject far beyond my father’s pioneering efforts. I have found evidence supporting the proposition that Mesoamerica, the high cultures of South America, and Easter Island shared, along with many other New World cultures, elements of a Pan American belief system (mushroom Venus religion) so ancient that many of the ideas may have come from Asia to the New World with the first human settlers. I believe the key to this entire belief system lies, as proposed by R. Gordon Wasson, in early man’s discovery of the mind-altering effects of various hallucinatory substances. The accidental ingestion of these entheogenic (1) substances could very well have provided the spark that lifted the mind and imagination of these early humans above and beyond the mundane level of daily existence to contemplation of another reality.
    Once again great work,
    Carl de Borhegyi

  4. Avatar
    April 14, 2011


    Thanks for your kind comments, and for the link to your site. I’m currently at work on a book about psilocybin and Psilocybe mushrooms, so may be contacting you via your website. Would love to discuss your work as well as your father’s and potentially set up an interview. I’ve long been fascinated by the Maya, and have traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America.

  5. Avatar
    January 23, 2012

    I have an original boxed set of the Wasson-Sabina Velada, including recordings, for sale, if anyone’s interested.


    Thank you.

  6. Avatar
    January 20, 2015

    How have I never seen this video? You just said everything I’ve been trying to tell people about mushrooms in 5 minutes! Holt shit!

  7. Avatar
    February 03, 2015

    Thanks, Daniel, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  8. Avatar
    May 30, 2016

    This is a very imfomative arrival would like more info on the effects off mushrooms If found what to do type articles thank u

  9. Avatar
    July 02, 2016

    The problem begins when the to-be-healed person gets addicted on the rediscovery of one’s lost island of the self, replacing eventually the persona by it’s self. To say, some people can became forever dissociated, or not very well capable of fitting again in the world of the living common people, becaming addicted on the rituals, the only place and moments where it turns to make sense being in this living body, the a prison of the infinite inner soul.
    I really don’t know what are the different conditions/parameters of someone that will be really beneffited by these encounters with the “true self” and those who won’t. But I have the impression people participating in the Ayahuasca rituals tend to became kindda forever displaced from the common world, not interacting properly nevermore.

  10. Avatar
    January 24, 2017

    Great article and video, I am thinking about to translate it into german if its okay?

    Maybe one thing to add: researcher McKenna created the interesting thesis, that magic mushrooms could be the missing link in humans evolution. Only their psilocybin could made our ancestors logical thinking.

    Quite interesting thought…

  11. Avatar
    January 24, 2017

    By all means, feel free to translate! Much appreciated. I am also intrigued by McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory, though it will always remain in the realm of speculation. Certainly psychedelic fungi could have hastened the growth of language and abstract thinking in some of our ancestors.

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