The "Magic Mushroom" (Psilocybe) in Ritual and Healing

James R. Coffey By James R. Coffey, 22nd Jan 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Culture>General

The highly-prized fungus commonly known as the "magic mushroom," was consumed by ancient Aztecs and Maya for centuries in religious ceremonies, used for healing, divination, and communion with the spirit world. Today psilocybe shows great promise in treating various forms of depression, prolonged states of agitation, or as a substitute for more unstable, mind-altering drugs used in psychotherapy.

The Scared Mushroom & the Cross

In 1970, a book called The Scared Mushroom & the Cross, written by renown scholar and self-proclaimed “free thinker” John Marco Allegro, hit the book shelves and quickly became a hip-pocket feature of Hippies all across America.

In it, Allegro argues that when spirituality first began to arise within human culture, it was enamored with what Allegro describes as essentially the creativity of nature, with “god” the force that allowed the seasons to change, crops to grow and die, and the cycle of life to continue.

According to Allegro, fertility was central to this concept and commonly represented in phallic symbology, with psychedelic mushrooms the prime component of humankind’s ancient rites. Thus, the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms became a sacrament in tune with their cosmological view, related to survival, health, and spiritual communion.

For many “truth seekers” of the 60s counterculture searching for new ways to expand their minds, attain higher levels of consciousness, and simply escape the mundane, Allegro’s perspective was quite alluring, with many deciding to explore the “magic” of the sacred mushroom for themselves (a trend that continues even today, for some).

But what was not commonly known at the time was that the revelations of Allegro’s beliefs had actually begun some 15 years earlier with a prominent businessman named Gordon Wasson.

Enter Gordon Wasson

On a June night in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1955, Wasson, a vice president of the J. P. Morgan Mutual Finds Corporation, became the first known outsider to eat what the Aztecs called teonanacatl, the “flesh of the gods.”

During several years of attempting to gain the trust of a group of Native Americans who had continued the religious traditions of their pre-Columbian ancestors, Wasson, and a number of scientists who’d accompanied him on numerous expeditions to Mexico to explore the ethnobotanical and ethnopharmacological properties of the co-called “magic mushroom,” had discovered that this highly-prized fungus had been consumed by ancient Aztecs for centuries in religious ceremonies; used for healing, divination, and communion with the spirit world (a fact confirmed by journal entries of many Spanish Conquistadores).

And while Wasson and members of his team were eventually allowed to partake of the sacred mushroom under the guidance of the renown spiritual healer and curandera, Maria Sabina, their studies were cut short just two years later when an article Wasson had written for Life magazine brought a flood of spiritual seekers to Sabina’s little village. In the process, however, it did open the door for scientists to take a serious look at the fascination this fungus had long held.

Ancient origins

As evidenced by findings at the numerous Maya sites throughout Guatemala in subsequent years, the discovery of numerous mushroom-shaped stone idols dating to 1000 BCE led archaeologists to the aptly-named “mushroom cults” of Mesoamerica, who had apparently held the psilocybe mushroom in highest esteem for centuries. In fact, the archaeological record shows that early Mesoamerica people not only regularly partook of psilocybe, but a variety of other hallucinogenic fungi for ritual diving and healing, a practice continued today by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. But, what are these so-called sacred, magic mushrooms all about?


Chemically speaking, four indole alkaloids (a class of alkaloid containing over 4100 different compounds), the neurotransmitter serotonin (which already exists in the human brain and is commonly known as the “happiness hormone”), as well as high levels of psilocybin, psilocin, baeocystin, and nor-baeocystin are found in psilocybe.

Psilocybin, the most active as well as interactive component found in psilocybe, is believed to be 900-1000 times less potent than the popular drug LSD, but nearly 100 times more potent than the hallucinogenic alkaloid mescalin, found in peyote (an hallucinogen commonly used by several Native American groups of the US West).

Technically speaking, psilocybin affects the human sympathetic nervous system, especially the sympathetic structures of the brain, and can physically manifest in erection of the hair, rapid heartbeat, and the tell-tale dilation of the pupils. But it’s what goes on internally that is of prime interest.

With the highest concentration occurring in the liver and kidneys after just 20-30 minutes, the most potent elements of the magic mushroom travel directly to the brain, centralizing in the neocortex and hippocampus, affecting memory and the sense of space and time. It is this chemical action scientists believe produces the ultra-euphoric, religious-like states of mind most subjects report experiencing. Yet despite its effect on the liver and kidneys, psilocybin appears to have virtually no toxic or long-term side-effects.

Spiritual Healing

Traditionally (as both Wasson and Allegro noted), the Aztecs and other native groups of Mexico and America who regularly used psilocybe did not use it for pleasure, but considered its hallucinogenic effects to provide spiritual insight.

In that most indigenous groups both past and present day (virtually all around the world) view human health from an holistic body, mind, and spirit perspective, users of this fungi ingest it either for divination ritual, during which the gods or spirits are asked health questions about individuals (or sometimes entire tribes, as with epidemics), or during night-long vigils involving chanting or praying. Thus, the result is that shaman and curanderas are provided with cures and answers to health and spiritual issues beyond their reach in the mundane world.

Medicinal Uses

Since 2006, several studies have been conducted to consider the potential medicinal value of psilocybe, including those conducted by Dr. Roland Griffins of John Hopkins University.

In that this fungus predictably induces a mental state akin to religious experiences, scientists are considering its use for patients suffering various forms of depression, experiencing prolonged states of agitation, or as a substitute for more unstable, mind-altering drugs used in psychotherapy. It is being considered that the euphoric effects of psilocybe may have beneficial long-term value whereby states of calm and relaxation can be induced without the catatonic conditions many synthetic drugs produce.

Medicinal Mushrooms, by Christopher Hobbs

images via except idols via

Related Articles:
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The Red Paint People of North America
New York's Greenwich Village
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Medicinal Fungi
The Christians of Cappadocia
The Laws of Magic(k)
Aging and Memory
Tibetan Book of the Dead
Shinto, Japan's Indigenous Religion
The Method of Magic(k)
Meditating and Chanting
Choosing Natural Curatives Over Synthetic Drugs


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author avatar Jerry Walch
22nd Jan 2011 (#)

As always, when reading anything you write, my friend, i have learned something new from reading this piece.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
23rd Jan 2011 (#)

Glad to hear that, my friend!

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author avatar Denise O
23rd Jan 2011 (#)

I do remember the 70's (wink, wink) , I have to admit it was fun. All joking aside, I hope this research leads to helping folks.
James, thank you for the kind comment you left on my last article. This will be my last comment to you, for the next few weeks. I hate to do it but, I must delete from this day on. I have about 20 more messages to go and then rest.
Great read, I enjoyed it and as always, thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar James R. Coffey
23rd Jan 2011 (#)

Pleasure, Denise.

I look forward to your return.

Peace and love.

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author avatar Carol
23rd Jan 2011 (#)

Mushrooms certainly are magic! Thanks so much for sharing this.

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author avatar Retired
30th Jan 2011 (#)


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author avatar Retired
8th May 2011 (#)

Very interesting

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