Lect16: Mushrooms and Religion - II: Teonánacatl

Mushrooms and Religion: Teonánacatl 


The Origin of Religion

The origin of religion, according to Terrence McKenna, involves psilocybin, the toxin found in the genera of mushrooms that we will discuss today. This in itself is interesting, but did not originate with Mckenna (1992). In 1986, shortly before his passing, Gordon Wasson put forth his own hypothesis on the origin of religion from mushrooms containing entheogens, psychoactive compounds that is taken to bring on a spiritual experience. Usually, these are of plant origin, e.g. peyote, but may be of fungal origin, e.g. Amanita muscaria, as well. Wasson gave examples from several cultures that he had previously described, in details. In addition, Wasson, with respect to Soma, he believed that it was responsible for..

"A prodigious expansion in Man's memory must have been the gift that differentiated mankind from his predecessors, and I surmise that this expansion in memory led to a simultaneous growth in the gift of language, these two powers generating in man that self-consciousness which is the third of the triune traits that alone make man unique. Those three gifts - memory, language and self-consciousness - so interlock that they seem inseparable, the aspects of a quality that permitted us to achieve all the wonders we now know. Those three gifts - memory, language, and self-consciousness - so interlock that they seem inseparable, the aspects of a quality that permitted us to achieve all the wonders we now know…. I am asking myself whether Soma could have possessed the power to spark what I have called these triune traits.”

R. Gordon Wasson, from pg. 80, Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. Yale University Press, New Haven MA.

A modified version of this hypothesis was later developed by McKenna, in the late 1980's. His hypothesis differed from Wasson in that Mckenna believed that mushrooms involved contained the entheogen psilocybin, and he specifically says Stropharia cubensis, was responsible for the origin of religion and development of memory, language and self-consciousness. According to Mckenna, both events occurred in Africa, and began during the prehistoric, nomadic, hunting/gathering period of man's existence. The conclusion that Stropharia cubensis was "The Tree of Knowledge" was based on the elimination of plants containing entheogens that are available in Africa. Mckenna further restricted the plants considered to those having entheogens with indole compounds, which are characteristically strong visionary entheogens. With these prerequisites, the list of hallucinogenic plants was short:Tabernanthe iboga and Peganum harmala (Syrian Rue). Although both are known to be used by religious cults, these species were eliminated from consideration. The roots of Tabernanthe iboga contain the the alkaloid ibogaine, the entheogen, is required in far greater amounts than would normally be consumed in a meal by early man. In addition, its usage is only traced as far back as the 19th. While Peganum harmala may be found through the arid part of Mediterranean North Africa, there is no history of its usage here and it, again, must be too highly concentrated or must at least be combined with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) before it will produce an hallucinogenic effect. With the elimination of these two species, McKenna was left only with psilocybin mushrooms. These mushrooms could be found abundantly growing on the dung of the hooved animals that grazed in the grassland areas where they were being hunted. Stropharia cubensis was singled out because it was the only species thought to produce psilocybin in concentrated amounts and to be free of other compounds that may produce side-affects. It was the addition of the Stropharia to the diet of early man that led to better eyesight (an advantage for hunters), sex, language, and ritual activity (religion among them), when eaten.  One qualification that should be added here. These are not characteristics that were endowed to the mushroom eaters and then transferred to later generations, genetically. This cannot happen because of the mechanism by which evolution operates! Instead, the mushroom augmented the above traits by changing the behavior of individuals. These changes in behaviors favored increased usage of language, leading to an increase in vocabulary to communicate when hunting and gathering. Although evolution was occurring on the genetic level, due to increase in mutations from the change in diet that had occurred, according to McKenna, social evolution, due to the mushroom consumption was responsible for the above changes.

At the same time that language was developing, religion also began. When taken at levels that cause intoxication, a feeling of ecstasy occurs, with hallucination and access to what the user would perceive as the realm of the supernatural. This led to the origin of the shaman whose duty is to communicate with the unseen mind of nature (the gods?). 

In addition to the origin of intelligence and religion, Mckenna (1986) also put forth a hypothesis that the psilocybin mushrooms are intelligent beings, extraterrestrial in origin, drifting in space, as spores, and finally landing on Earth where they have bestowed man with the gift of intelligence. While this McKenna hypothesis, presented in this context, is far-fetched, it is not entirely without merit. That life could be transported from one terrestrial body to another is not a new concept. It originated in the 5th. Century BCE, in the writings of Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher (Wikipedia 2011) and was presented as the theory of panspermia, by the scientific community as an explanation for the origin of life on Earth in the 19th and early 20th Century (Nieves-Rivera and White 2006). There is even now research being published in peer reviewed science journals on the possible transport of microorganisms from "space dust", i.e. meteorites, comets and spores, e.g.

The Creation of Gods

We have touched upon this topic in several earlier lectures when discussing man's contact with events that could not be explained within the knowledge they possessed. In order to explain such events, deities were created that controlled these events. Different deities may have controlled events, such as the rising and setting of the sun and moon, lightning, diseases, etc. Thus, early cultures recognized numerous deities and were said to be polytheistic. As cultures become more advanced, the number of gods would become reduced to one and the society becomes monotheistic. The earliest records of religious ceremonies, involving mushroom cults, have been discovered that date back from 7000 to 9000 years, in Algeria, Libya and Chad (For a detailed description of these areas and mushroom cave art images, go the article by Italian entheogen researcher, Giorgio Samorini telling of the oldest representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the world. Unfortunately, the images have been removed in the reproduction of this article).

Conocybe, Panaeolus, Psilocybe and Stropharia, etc.: The Little Flowers of the Gods or Teonánacatl.

In the case of Soma, the entheogen was even considered to be a god. In the psilocybin containing mushroom, this is not the case. Although the mushrooms are still considered to be sacred, their role differs from that of Soma. Teonánacatl is looked upon as the mediator of god. Also, unlike the A. muscaria, Teonánacatl represents a number of genera and species of mushrooms. However, the use of various species of mushrooms, containing psilocybin and psilocin toxins, in religious ceremonies are still known to occur. These toxins were identified as psilocybin and psilocin and belong to the same family of compounds as LSD. They were first isolated from Psilocybe mexicana, by Albert Hofmann. Hofmann tested the psychoactive properties of cultivated specimens of this mushroom and described his experience, in detail.

In North and South America, it is believed that the religious ceremonies originated from Asia, where it was traditionally believed that the first settlers of the Americas migrated, by crossing the Bering Strait, which connected Russia and America, during the last ice age. These people would eventually settle throughout North and South America, to form the many diverse cultures in the Western Hemisphere.

wpe1.jpg (25685 bytes)
Figure 1: Map showing the Bering Strait where a presumed land-bridge that connected Alaska with Russia, which was thought to have allowed migration of Asians to the Americas. Map from http://andyfishwrap.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-gaijin-visits-japanpart-1-over-bering.html

Evidence of such a migration have been found by anthropologists in the form of relics, and remnants of cultural traits that persist in the Americas. However, recently discovered artifacts now have been discovered in Chile that are far older than those in North America and has led to different ideas as to the settlement of the Americas. It is now believed that migrations may have occurred from different parts of the old world, by land and by sea. The immigrants that settled America are now thought to have sailed along the coast and settled throughout the Americas in a short period of time rather than a gradual migrations that began from Alaska and gradually moved southward.

The earliest literature, concerning these sacred mushrooms that the Aztecs called Teonánacatl, flesh of the gods, was in the 16th. Century, by a Spanish Priest, Bernardino de Sahagún, in his Florentine Codex. In 1651, Francisco Hernandez, was able to distinguish between three different kinds of psychoactive mushrooms that were revered by the Indians of Central Mexico at the time of the conquest by the Conquistadors.

However, after the conquest, much was done to suppressed use of these mushrooms in religious ceremonies. The European clerics regarded such practices with revulsions and believed it to be the work of the devil. There was an immediate attempt to suppress these ceremonies. This was, in part, an attempt to convert the Indians to Christianity and save their souls from the devils/idols that they worshipped. For those who resisted and continued their ceremonies, in secret, punishment was in the form of public flogging to burning alive at the stake. However, this only seemed to validate the traditional symbolic and religious views of the Native Indians. Thus, these practices were driven underground and became impossible to combat. To outsiders, these ceremonies were eventually only remembered only as myths, and after a period of time, there was doubt that such ceremonies even existed.

Although de Sahagún specifically stated Teonánacatl  to be a mushroom, in 1916, William Safford, an American botanist concluded that the stories of hallucinogenic mushrooms among American indians were actually Lophophora diffusa and L. williamsii, entheogenic cacti, locally referred to as  Peyote and that the Indians were telling authorities that it was a mushroom in order to protect it. This story was disputed by Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, an amateur botanist, who was certain that Teonánacatl not only existed, but was was still being used in Mexico. News of this dispute would eventually reach  Roberto Weitlaner, an Australian, amateur anthropologist. Weitlaner had witnessed a mushroom ceremony, in the early 1930's and contacted Reko concerning the ceremony and sent voucher specimens of the mushrooms. Reko forwarded the specimens to the Harvard herbarium where they were received by a young Richard Schultes, at that time still a graduate student. In 1938, Schultes  traveled to Mexico to verify that Teonánacatl was indeed a mushroom. It was his meeting with Eunice Pike, a missionary-linguist, who confirmed the identity of Teonánacatl . Collections of the mushrooms were made and Schultes (1939) published the mushroom as an unidentified species of Panaeolus. 

However, by this time, the original ceremonies, as they existed prior to the coming of the Europeans, had become tainted with Christianity. Many Christian religious concepts had become intermingled with the original mushroom ceremonial rites. Eunice Pike, who had by this time spent several years among the Indians of Oaxaca related an example, concerning the Mazatecs, who spoke of the mushrooms as the blood of Christ, because they were believed to grow only where a drop of Christ's blood had touched the Earth. The mushroom, Amanita muscaria, was called angelitos ("little angel").

Schultes would have nothing more to do with mushroom for a number of years and devoted his research to areas further south of Mexico where he earned his famed as an ethnobotanist. His article on Panaeolus remained an obscure publication until the 1950's. In 1956, Roger Heim, the distinguished French mycologist, identified one species as Psilocybe caerulescens; another was identified by Harvard mycologist, David Linder, as Panaeolus campanulatus (=P. sphinctrinus) and the third by Rolf Singer, as Stropharia cubensis

Enters Gordon Wasson

The story of how R. Gordon Wasson developed an interest in mycology is both interesting and one that is often retold. The following is a summary of the story as retold by Wasson (1986).

In 1921, he met a Russian, medical student, Valentina Pavlovna, in London. Five years later they were married, but it would be a year later, in 1927, before they would have their honeymoon northwest of New York City, in the Catskill Mountains. Here an incident occurred that would forever change their lives. While hiking, Valentina suddenly ran into the forest because she had seen a large number of mushrooms and after lifting the hem of her dress, began collecting them. She was ecstatic because she had not seen such mushrooms since 1917 while still living in Russia. Meanwhile, Wasson was still standing on the trail and was distressed at what he was seeing. He then said "I called to her, admonished her not to gather them: they were toadstools, I said, they were poisonous." However, she laughed and continued to pick the mushrooms, in Wasson's eyes, in an indiscriminating fashion. There began their first marital crisis. Valentina would take the various mushrooms she collected and prepared them for dinner that evening. Some were placed in the soup and another were prepared with the steak. The remainder were hung up to dry to be eaten later in the winter. Needless to say Wasson did not have dinner that evening. In later retelling of the story, Valentina would say that Wasson had even said to her that he would wake up the next morning as a widower. However, Wasson would always deny this allegation.

When they woke the next morning, cooler heads apparently prevailed and they began to talk about their different attitudes concerning mushrooms. How Wasson, with his mycophobic, Anglo-Saxon background disliked mushrooms  and Valentina, with her mycophilic, Russian background adored mushrooms. They began to ask their respective friends about their attitude towards mushrooms and thus began their interest in how different cultures differ in their attitude toward mushrooms. Later, they would decide that cultures could be classified as mycophobic or mycophilic (this was a "black and white" type of classification and certainly this generalization would not apply to everyone within a culture). Nevertheless, this was the beginning of their life-long interest in mushrooms. At first their primary career, Valentina as a doctor and Wasson, as a banker would occupy much of their time, but with what spare time they had, they began to pursue their interest in mushrooms. Eventually, this would lead to a full time interest and would at some point began the field that we now know today as ethnomycology: The study of the historical uses and sociological impact of fungi (a.k.a. "fungi lore"), and can be considered a subfield of ethnobotany or ethnobiology (Wikipedia June 2011).

Wasson and Valentina would discover Schultes' article on mushroom and religious use among the native people in Mexico and would be inspired to go to Mexico learn more about the ceremony. However, this would not happen immediately, but he eventually met María Sabina, the shaman of the Mazatecs who permitted him to participate in the mushroom, religious ceremony. Wasson would write up his experience and it would later be published in the May 13, 1957 issue of Life Magazine

Gordon Wasson, his wife Valentina and a photographer, Allan Richardson were the first outsiders to participate in the mushroom, religious ceremony of North American Indians. During the ceremony, Maria Sabina, the Shaman of the Mazatec Indians spoke the following chant, which was translated from her native language:

"There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby, and invisible. And there is where God lives, where the dead lives, the spirits and the saints, a world where everything has already happened and everything is known. That world talks. It has a language of its own. I report what it says. The sacred mushroom takes me by the hand and brings me to the world where everything is known. It is they, the sacred mushrooms, that speak in a way I can understand. I ask them and they answer me. When I return from the trip that I have taken with them, I tell what they have told me and what they have shown me."

In the magazine article, Wasson gave Maria Sabina's name as Eva Mendez in order to protect her privacy. However, his effort would prove futile. Literally thousands went down to Mexico to find the magic mushroom described by Wasson. Little did these people know that there was not one magic mushroom, but many, and that some of these may be growing right in their own back yards. Among the thousands that came to experience the mushroom was Dr. Timothy Leary who would later gain fame as the most famous advocate of the psychedelic drug movement, during the 1960s. It was after he experienced the magic mushrooms, in Mexico that his life change, and his research, first with Psilocybin and later with LSD began. Thus, unwittingly, Wasson's Life article was what inspired Leary, who was instrumental in bringing about the drug movement of the 1960s.

The knowledge of magic mushrooms even spread to Hawai‘i, during the early 1960s. According to Merlin* (personal communication), during the early 1960s, when the Peace Corp first began, some training was done in Hawai‘i. Apparently, some Peace Corp members were aware of magic mushrooms and knew that some species could be found on cow and horse dung. Although the mushrooms were probably present, in Hawai‘i, for as long as horses and cows have been here, prior to the arrival of the Peace Corp, knowledge of the mushroom's psychoactive properties was not known. While there are few species that occur in Hawai‘i, they are apparently the same ones that occur in various parts of the world. A list of these mushrooms were published by Merlin and Allen (1993). 

Sadly, while María Sabina became famous, as the Shaman, that introduced the Wassons to participate in the religious ceremonies, in the town where she lived, she was ostracized for this same act. Her home was burned and she was banished from the town where she resided for revealing the secrets of the mushroom religious rituals to outsiders. However, she never regretted her act, and felt that it was her destiny. Maria Sabina passed away on November 22nd 1985 and is now a legend in Mexico.

The Aztecs of Mexico hold these mushrooms in great reverence and used them only in their most holy of ceremonies. Also, the mushrooms were not the only source of hallucinogens, mescaline, peyote and morning glory was also important in their religious ceremonies.

In addition to literature, evidence as to the presence of mushroom cults were also be found in the form of stone, mushroom figures, which were believed to be connected with religious ceremonies where mushrooms were utilized. Over 100 such idols have been discovered since 1961, in the Western Hemisphere, alone. Fifty of these were discovered by Lowy (1971).

Mushroom Idols.JPG (23593 bytes)
Figure 2: Some examples of stone, mushroom figures discovered in the Americas. The majority of these figures have been dated from 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D. From http://www.mushroomstone.com/Borhegyi%20mushroom%20and%20Soma%20stone.jpg

The representation of these sculptures as mushrooms had not always been accepted. Initially, they were even thought to be phallic symbols despite their obvious depiction of mushrooms. The sculptures, in Mexico, leave little doubt that they depicted some species of Psilocybe, based on the characteristic "umbel" or knob, that is characteristic of many species of this genus. Others, especially those in the highlands of Guatemala, resemble Amanita muscaria, which also grows elsewhere in North America and in various temperate parts of the world.

Gordon Wasson, Aftermath of Life Article

Following the publication in Life Magazine, the new branch of ethnobotany began, and was named ethnomycology. Wasson would go on to publish numerous publications and books on the role of hallucinogenic mushrooms, not only in still-extant cultures in Mexico, but also in preconquest Mexico and eventually exploring ethnomycological studies in Europe and Asia. It was through his work that mycologists took an interest in the mushrooms involved in the ritual. It was with the above mentioned mycologists as well as Gaston Guzman, the Mexican mycologists, that the species used in these religious ceremonies became identified, and later the psychoactive principles identified through the efforts of Albert Hofmann. Hoffman also synthesized these compounds, in the lab, and made it into a pill that was generically called Indocybin. One of these bottles was presented to Maria Sabina who after trying it told Hofmann that its effects were indistinguishable from the mushrooms.

The use of psychoactive mushrooms was not restricted to Mexico. Later studies by various researchers would demonstrate that they were used by various Indians in Meso- and South America, dating as far back as 2200 years, as well as in other parts of the world.

Carlos Castaneda

Finally, no story of mushroom ceremonies among the Native American Indians would be complete without saying something about Carlos Castaneda. Practically everybody who followed the drug movements during the 1960s is familiar with that name and the story of how he became an apprentice to Don Juan Matus, a shaman that he met in Nogales, Arizona, while waiting at the bus stations. Castaneda became an overnight celebrity in the mid 1960's when he published his M.S. thesis, from UCLA. The book was entitled "The Teachings of Don Juan: a Jaqui Way of Knowledge." I thought this book to be very interesting when I read it many years ago. It is written in the first person and reads like, telling of Castaneda's relationship with the shaman, Don Juan Matus, who guided him through the various religious rituals of his tribe. These ceremonies included not only mushrooms, but also hallucinogenic plants. Castaneda's descriptions of his experience while under the influence of these various hallucinogens were very vivid. After consuming Psilocybe mushrooms, he described a transformation experience where bit by bit, his body was being transformed into a bird. Following the complete transformation, he went on to describe how he flew high up in the sky, and what it was like flying as a bird, describing all that he saw while he was flying.

Castaneda would go on to write several more books in this same vein which were also successful. A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan and Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan. The latter was his Ph.D. dissertation from U.C.L.A. However, although he was financially successful, and today still has a rather large following, even before his first book was published, there were questions as to the credibility of his work. For example, the convenient changes in the themes of his books over time. His first two books, published during the "psychedelic years", late 1960's, recounted 22 different drug trips in vivid details, through which Don Juan guided him. However, as the "new age" consciousness came about, and drugs were no longer accepted, suddenly a wealth of drugless techniques were discovered by Castaneda in field notes that he had put aside. Other books, Tales of Power and The Second Ring of Power reflected later popular trends toward occultism and feminism. One thing in which his critics give him a great deal of credit is his ability to tell stories. An article summarizing some criticism that Castaneda has received over the years can be found here.

Literature Cited

Horneck, G. D.M. Klaus and R.L. Mancinelli. 2010. Space Microbiology. Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. 74: 121-156.

Lowy, B. 1971. New records of mushroom stones from Guatelmala. Mycologia 63: 983-93.

McKenna, T. 1992. Food of the Gods: the Search for the original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books, New York.

Merlin MD, Allen JW (1993) Species identification and chemical analysis of psychoactive fungi in the Hawaiian islands. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 40, 21-40.

Nieves-Rivera, A.M. and D.A. White. 2006. Ethnomycological notes. II. Meteorites and fungus lore. Mycologist 20: 22-25.

"Panspermia." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 15 October 2011. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.. Accessed 19 October 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia>.

Schultes, R.E. 1939. Plantae Mexicanae II. The Identification of Teonánacatl, a narcotic Basidiomycete of the Aztec. Botanical Museum Leaflets, harvard University 7:37-54

Wasson, R.G., S. Kramrisch, J. Ott and C.A.P. Ruck. 1986. Persepone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. Yale University Press, New Haven MA.

Some Terms of Psilocybe, etc.

Castaneda, Carlos: Author and anthropologist who wrote a series of books, based on his interviews with a Native American Shaman, Don Juan Matus. He was a graduate student when his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, A Jaqui Way of Knowledge, was published. This was also his M.S. Thesis, when he was a graduate student at UCLA. Although his books have become big sellers, the authenticity of his work, which he claims is based on his research and interviews, have always been regarded as questionable by anthropologists and ethnobotanists.


Don Juan Matus: The Jaqui Shaman from whom Carlos Castaneda learned of the hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms used in the religious ceremonies of Don Juan’s people.  


Ethnomycology: The study of the historical uses and sociological impact of fungi (a.k.a. "fungi lore"), and can be considered a subfield of ethnobotany or ethnobiology. 

Magic mushroom: Term coined by the editor of Life Magazine that referred to the psychoactive mushrooms that he consumed during the religious ceremony led by María Sabina. Wasson did not coin this term.


Mycophilic: Literally, the love and desire to consume mushrooms.


Mycophobic: Literally, the fear and hatred of mushrooms.  


Panspermia: The hypothesis that life can be transported from one celestial body to another in the form of space dust, e.g. spores, meteorites, comets, etc.

Psilocin: One of two psychoactive compounds found in various genera of mushrooms. Compounds belong in the same family as LSD.


Psilocybin: One of two psychoactive compounds found in various genera of mushrooms. Compounds belong in the same family as LSD.


Sabina, María: Shaman of Mazatec who allowed the Wassons and Allen Richardson to participate in the magic mushroom religious ceremony. The first time outsiders were allowed to participate in ceremony.  

Schultes, Richard: Ethnobotanist, Harvard, rediscovered psychoactive mushrooms used in religious ceremonies, in Mexico.


Teonánacatl: Name given to magic mushrooms by Mazatec people. Name has been translated to mean “divine flesh”, “little flower of the gods” or “flesh of gods”.

Wasson, Gordon R.: Considered to be the father of ethnomycology and rediscoverer of the role of mushroom in religious ceremonies in various cultures in Native American Indians, as well as elsewhere in the world. His Life Magazine article of May 13, 1957, unwittingly, began Dr. Timothy Leary's interest in psychoactive drugs, who became the guru of psychedelic drugs, especially LSD, during the 1960s.

Questions of Interest

      1.  What is the origin of religion according to McKenna and Wasson?

      2.  How is the human species thought to have evolved intelligence, according to McKenna and Wasson?

      3.  What is the “Panspermia Theory”?

      4.  By what means were the Native Americans thought have been able to migrate to the Americas?

      5.  Why was the knowledge of the mushroom ceremonies lost after they had been observed and documented by missionaries, following conquest by the Conquistadors?

      6.  How was the knowledge rediscovered?

      7.  What is the Teonánacatl?

      8.  What significant events occurred after the rediscovery of the mushroom religious ceremonies?

      9.  Who is Carlos Castaneda and what is his claim to fame with respect to “magic mushrooms”?