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Entheogens in Mesoamerican Theo-cosmology


For centuries humanity has engaged in the ingestion of plants with mind-altering properties as a pathway to communicate with the world of the supernatural. The ingestion of sacramental plants called entheogens was a common practice in the ancient Mayan and Nahua communities of Mexico. Scholars who have engaged in the study of entheogens used in ancient cultures point out that these drugs were primarily used as a vehicle to propel users to a place outside of, and above the normal realm of human perceptual experience to bring them to a spiritual plane that is closer to god (Huxley, 1954).

In ancient native cultures, the right to engage in the ceremonial ingestion of plant-based psychoactive substances fell upon the religious leaders of the community who were knowledgeable about the appropriate methods of ingesting chemical substances. Neophytes without proper training and initiation were not allowed to engage in entheogen use because of their lack of familiarity with the psychological risk of insanity and the social risk of expulsion from the native community associated with exposure to these entheogens.

In pre-Columbian Mayan and Nahua (Aztec) cultures, the priests monitored the stars in the heavens to determine the dates of religious festivals, ceremonies, divination and healing rituals. These activities were accompanied by the ritual ingestion of entheogenic plants.  Certain plants have psychoactive properties that facilitate out-of-body spiritual journeys. Theocosmology is the term which is used to refer to the Mayan and Nahua pre-Columbian association of god and the heavens with the use of entheogenic plant-based intoxicants (Blainey, 2009).

          Psychoactive plants transport the user, physically and psychologically; facilitating transcendence from the natural plane into the realm of the supernatural. Plants with psychoactive or mind-altering properties were called hallucinogens and psychedelics in the early literature but today ethnographers and ethnobotanists use the term entheogens, or god-engendering plants when referring to their use in religious beliefs and ritual (Ruck, et. al.,1979). The term entheogenic means god-producing (Forte, 1997).

          Entheogenic plants contain a variety of chemical substances which have a biochemical effect on brain function and human consciousness such as, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine DMT, salvinorin A, ibogaine, ergine, muscimol, and many other alkaloids.  Entheogens shift the natural senses and perceptions of the individual who ingests them to the point that normal sensory perception transcends into dreams, visions and auditory phenomena, many of which are prophetic or contain curative information of a spiritual origin (Ludwig, 1966). 

          The alternate reality produced by entheogens is thought to be sacred and therefore, reserved for the initiated. However, beginning in the 1960s, countercultural groups collectively referred to as “hippies,” the Timothy Leary and Carlos Castañeda generation, began experimenting with entheogens and their synthetics such as LSD, attempting to achieve mind-altering and transcendental out-of-body experiences. 

          Castañeda’s first novel, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, published in 1968 was an instant success plunging the reader into a sort of self-help pseudo-shamanism. The story chronicles Castañeda’s early experiences with three entheogenic plants peyote, mushrooms, and datura (Castañeda,1968). 

          In the 1960s, thousands of hippies and other seekers descended upon Mexico, in search of Mazatec “magic mushroom” experiences in Oaxaca and peyote at Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí. Before long the situation in Mexico was untenable requiring the Mexican government to regulate their use. Similar prohibitive regulations associated with the abuse of entheogenic mushrooms saw implementation by lawmakers in the United States as well. 

          By the 1970’s the majority of federal and state government agencies in the United Staes had imposed strict laws that provided for implementation of severe penalties for the possession and use of entheogenic plants, such as peyote, mushrooms, and marijuana.  Despite these sanctions, plant-based psychoactive drugs such as psilocybin, mescaline, marijuana, and cocaine continued to illegally make their way into the urban centers of North America throughout the decade of the seventies initiating the first substantial evidence that President Nixon’s War on Drugs was failing (Nixon, 1971).

          In Spanish-speaking America, shamanistic healers known as curanderos or spell casters are individuals who have completed years of apprenticeship preparing themselves for the physical and psychological life-altering challenges that come with the ingestion of psychoactive plants (Zavaleta, 2017). Once the shift in consciousness takes place, it produces changes in the individual user’s perception that are irreversible. The shamanic journey to an alternate reality produces a lifetime of enlightenment used in support of one’s community (Hoffman, 2015). 

          In pre-technological societies, the selection process connected to a shamanistic apprenticeship begins in childhood. The religious leaders of the community choose a select group of children to participate in shamanistic ritual training based on specific identifiable personal characteristics and abilities as well as by family heritage. These special characteristics which the priests used to select apprentices for ritual initiation were usually connected to some physical or emotional peculiarity of the individual as described in the book Aztec (Aztec, 1980). The shaman’s main role in ancient society was to serve people as a mystic and healer possessing special powers to see into the future through visionary trances brought about by the use of entheogenic plant-based substances that change human experience through the altering of perceptions of reality.

The ingestion of psychoactive entheogenic plant-based substances to achieve visionary trances has a long cultural history among spiritual leaders in pre-Columbian societies. As spiritual leaders of the community who performed no other task, shaman usually lived apart from the rest of the community and were highly revered and feared by lay people because of their direct connection to the occult powers of the spirit world.  

           The ability of the shaman to invoke the supernatural powers of the spirit world enabling them to communicate with god elevated these individuals to an elite social status in Mayan and Nahua society. The ancients selected both men and women for shamanistic status in their communities. These individuals became the spiritual leaders of the community whose primary responsibility was to serve god as his representative on earth and see to the well-being of members of the community.  

          Catholic priests documented the earliest consumption of plants with entheogenic properties in Latin America in the 16th century.  The priests learned the native languages, studied native plant codices and interviewed surviving shaman.   Anthropologists and ethnobotanists began their investigation of entheogens in the late 18th and early 19th century leading to the classification of the plants and the identification of their psychoactive agents (Carrasco, 2013). 

          Knowledge of the entheogenic properties of plants, however, predates the Colonial period by thousands of years and is well known and documented in the earliest human literature.  The book, The Psychedelic Gospels, demonstrates that the Bible is replete with examples of the use of entheogenic plants for supernatural transcendence in ancient times.  A fact, they say, that has been ignored by Christian scholars since the use of entheogens to achieve godliness falls outside of the rubric of basic Christian belief.  Because of this fact, the majority of the knowledge surrounding the use and purpose of entheogenic plants in Mesoamerican native cultures was suppressed by the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. The natives themselves kept their use of entheogens hidden from probing eyes until the early 20th century (Brown and Brown, 2016).        

          Every religion chooses certain types of secularized individuals to represent important concepts upon which the central focus of the faith is built. In his seminal work identifying human archetypes, the eminent psychotherapist Carl Jung outlines the universal human characteristics shared by the Virgin Mary, the wise man, the resurrected one, and the trickster or devil.  Each is a supernatural variant in the story of god, and each utilizes entheogens (Jung, 1936).

           Additionally, each of Jung’s archetypes is prominent in ancient Sumerian literature predating Christianity by thousands of years; invoking the use of entheogens such as Amanita muscaria, the sacred red-caped mushroom.  There is considerable evidence that ancient Sumerian religious concepts are replicated in the creation of the Christian Bible.  Joseph Campbell, in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, documents the journey of the archetypal hero and his use of the supernatural elixir. This ideology is present in all world cultures (Campbell, 1949).

          Therefore, the use of entheogenic plants to induce altered states in traditional cultures is both ancient and represents a fundamental engendering of the special class of priests who serve to connect their cultural community to the supernatural.  The use of entheogens is so important that their incidental use outside of the context of the shamanic role is considered a sacrilegious abuse.

Entheogens in Mesoamerican Theocosmology

          In 1552 the Nahua herbal, Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, known as the Badianus Codex was published; its compilation attributed to Martinus de la Cruz and Juan Badianus two Nahua students at the Colegio of Santa Cruz in Tlaltilulco, (Andreacchio, 2013). 

          The 16th century Franciscan friar and scholar, Bernardino de Sahagún is credited with the first documentation of the pre-Columbian flora in the Florentine Codex, A General History of the things of New Spain, published in 1569. 

          In 1581, Diego Durán, a Dominican friar continued the study and documentation of medicinal plants with the publication of The History of the Indies of New Spain, a history of Nahua culture (Durán, 1994). 

          Francisco Hernández de Toledo, physician to King Philip II of Spain and accomplished naturalist, journeyed to the New World in 1570 to document medicinal plants.  The result was his Index Medicamentorum, compiled during a seven-year sojourn in Mexico with the assistance of Nahuatl speakers.  His work was amazingly successful as he documented more than 3,000 medicinal plants, and his books continue to serve as important resources and have been reprinted many times over the centuries (Hernández de Toledo, 1607).

           Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón’s (1629) Tratado de las Supersticiones y Costumbres Gentilicias que hoy viven entre los Indios Naturales de esta Nueva España (Ruiz de Alarcón, 1629), describes the Nahuatl shaman’s use of the sacred book Amoxtli, the hand-painted Nahua Codices containing the supernatural formulae for entheogenic preparation and rituals. The Amoxtli describes the gift of the “Divine Mushroom” being delivered directly from the hands of Quetzalcoatl to man in the Codice Vindobonensis (Vindobonensis, 1978). 

          These five publications represent the earliest and classic literature on medicinal and entheogenic plants in Mexico.

          During the 18th and 19th centuries, a host of early published works highlighted the mind-altering properties of certain Mexican herbals, but it was not until the 20th century that the study began in earnest due to the increase in ethnographies dealing with cultures who utilize entheogens as well as the psychedelic craze it produced in the 1960s. 

          First printed in 1937, and then reprinted in 1979 by the Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexican herbalist Maximino Martínez produced an exhaustive, Catálogo de nombres vulgares y científicos de plantas Mexicanas.  The catálogo is the most important resource on Mexican plants in existence (Maximino Martínez, 1979).     

          Focusing on entheogens, in 1966, psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig published Altered States of Consciousness in response to the Timothy Leary inspired LSD craze sweeping the United States.  Ludwig (1966)  intended to examine the knowledge regarding consciousness and shamanism to determine:

1) conditions necessary for their emergence

2) factors which influence their outward manifestations

3) relatedness and or common denominators, and;

4)  adaptive or maladaptive functions which these states may serve for man.

          In the 1960s psychiatry and anthropology joined in the formation of medical anthropology which included the active research of the use and function of entheogens and their effect on human consciousness by examining native cultures around the world.    

          Beginning with The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968, Carlos Castañeda a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles produced a series of books that described his supposed training in shamanism via the use of entheogenic plants and ritual ordeals including symbolic death and rebirth. The books claimed to relate his experiences under the apprenticeship of a Yaqui nagual named Don Juan Matus (Castañeda, 1968).   

          The term nagual is often used interchangeably with shaman, but they are not the same. Mexican folklore describes the nagual as a person able to shapeshift into an animal form through magic rituals using the three primary entheogens: peyote, datura and mushrooms as done by the curandera Última, in Anaya’s Bless me Última.  Última, a curandera-nagual, could shift into animal form such as a lechusa or owl or a raven and sometimes a coyote, to overhear rival plots against her (Anaya, 1972).

          Anthropologists questioned the veracity of Castañeda’s claims since he was never able to introduce Don Juan the Yaqui nagual to his anthropology professors. Although Castañeda’s books never achieved prominence among professional anthropologists his work did influence the thinking of a select group of enlightened young people throughout the world for at least two generations. They supported the drug culture as well as the search for personal development and spiritual awakening.  Castañeda’s influence continues to the present day though he died in southern California in 1998.   

          Marlene Dobkin de Ríos, a medical anthropologist and the author of numerous books and articles, was also often professionally controversial since her life and work leaned toward the popular and away from the purely academic.  During her life, Dobkin de Ríos focused on the use of entheogens in Peru and principally the use of the entheogen ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine which grows in the Amazon jungles of South America.

          Similar to mushrooms and to a lesser extent peyote, ayahuasca has become very popular as an aid to self-discovery in psychotherapy.  John Horgan described his experiences with Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John H. Halpern at a Navajo peyote mitote, or medicine circle as not frenetic but rather calm and meditative. 

          In the 1950s and 60s, the U.S. federal government admonished the ingestion of psychoactive entheogens such as peyote claiming it caused irreversible psychological damage.  However, in the 1990s, Halpern and his Harvard colleague Harrison G. Pope wrote:

          “The literature tentatively suggests that there are few, if any, long-term neuropsychological deficits attributable to hallucinogen use” (Halpern, 2005). 

          Concerning the long-term use of peyote, a Navajo medicine man noted that “if there were any long-term negative effect, certainly the Navajo would have noticed it by now” (Halpern, 2005).

          Interestingly, as pointed out earlier in this paper, Halpern asserts that concerning peyote, the native people believe that the improper use of the sacramental plant, peyote, is harmful to an individual who abuses its use.  The term “harm” is intended spiritually and not psychologically.   

          Turning to our knowledge of ayahuasca, Horgan notes in his Scientific American article that UCLA psychiatrist Charles Grob suggests that, “ayahuasca has no adverse neurocognitive effects.  MDMA, 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine or Ecstasy is now being tested in psychological trials for the treatment of post-traumatic stress syndrome since its most noticeable effects are amplified feelings of diminished anxiety but conversely heightened feelings of spirituality supported by visual and auditory hallucinations” (Horgan, 2017).       

          In 1957, Wasson ingested psilocybe caerulescens describing his experiences in the article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in which he described María Sabina’s ritual techniques initiating the Mexican magic mushroom craze.  Wasson’s experience with Psilocybe in Mexico engendered interest including the beginning of our knowledge of entheogenic mushrooms used by pre-Columbian and contemporary Mayan shaman. Wasson followed up his experiences with the publication of Soma: Divine Mushroom (Wasson, 1969).    

          Ayahuasca, today a controlled substance,has attracted seekers from all over the world to ayahuasca sessions in Peruvian jungles and is considered an important psychoanalytic treatment.  Today ayahuasca sessions can be found in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Santa Fe, New Mexico among many other places where “New Agers” live. 

          In her early work, The Wilderness of Mind: Sacred Plants in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Dobkin de Ríos offered the following insight:

          “The forces or powers of a person’s unconscious are projected outward to the forces of nature to enable the drug-using shaman to believe that his world is understandable and a charted one and that he will not founder on its shoals.  Insofar as spirit helpers stereotypically seen in hallucinogenic visions, these substances enable men to put on a good face and go about the daily tasks associated with basic survival such as hunting for food, curing disease, and incapacitating their enemies. Hallucinogenic drugs were an adaptive tool that helped human beings in primitive cultures to cope with the psychological issues of life ” (Dobkin de Ríos, 1976).

           Eric Thompson, respected early 20th century anthropologist and Mayan scholar, published Maya History and Religion in 1970. The work debates the anthropological theories of Dobkin de Ríos, remarking that it is: “Certainly rash to substitute for such strong mythological association the theory that we are faced with representational evidence that the Maya used toad and water lily in their hallucinatory rites” (Thompson,1990).

          Dobkin de Ríos, a Thompson student, spent time in his Mayan field school and ultimately de Ríos’ theories were proven correct (Blainey, 2009).  

          In 1972 Peter Furst’s, Flesh of the Gods, examined an assortment of entheogens utilized in the ritual ingestion of hallucinogens.  In a review of Furst work, Roberts, and Hruby, state that:

          “Hallucinogens have been part and parcel of man’s cultural baggage for thousands of years. Moreover, as the other contributors to this volume document, hallucinogenic or psychoactive plants have been of great significance in the ideology and religious practices of a wide variety of people around the world, and in some traditional cultures continue to play such a role today” (Roberts and Hruby, 1998).

          In 1956, Michael J. Harner, initiated his field research on the Jívaro of the Ecuadorian Amazon, launching a career as an ethnologist interested in the religious use of entheogens.  By 1961 Harner was experimenting with the Amazonian entheogenic plant ayahuasca and in 1973, as president of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, published Hallucinogens and Shamanism, a collection of ten anthropological essays.

          Hallucinogens were widely denounced by American and most other societies during the 1960s.  The cultural use of entheogens by the Mayan, Nahua and many other native groups was simply not understood. 

          Mircea Eliade, another pioneer in the study of shamanism, published Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, in 1951, introducing the term shaman to the public in an attempt to explain the role of the shaman and his use of entheogenic plants in native societies: 

          “The theoretical literature has largely overlooked the fact that even “classic” shamanism often involved the use of hallucinogens” (Harner 1973).

          In 1974 Dobkin de Ríos, examining the work of Ludwig, listed his important components of the entheogenic journey devising ten general distinguishing characteristics of altered states of consciousness applied to entheogen-induced religious experiences:

  • Altered thinking/concentration
  • Modified sense of time
  • Loss of control
  • Eccentric, emotional expression making intoxication obvious
  • Altered sense of one’s own body and atypical sense of self
  • Sensory distortions including synesthesia
  • Unconventional meaning/significance given to one’s surroundings and events compared to the sober state
  • Belief in the acquiring of ineffable knowledge
  • Mental and physical sensations of invigoration, and;
  • Hyper suggestibility and the loss of conceptual and behavioral inhibitions.

These ten characteristics comprehensively outline the most important aspects of the entheogenic experience.

     Arnold Ludwig was a medical doctor and psychiatrist who in the 1960s studied the use of LSD in psychotherapy which interested him in other entheogens. He is credited with writing, Altered States of Consciousness and is attributed with the comment:

     “Beneath man’s thin veneer of consciousness lies a relatively uncharted realm of mental activity, the nature, and function of which have been neither systematically explored nor adequately conceptualized” (Ludwig, 1966).

      Ludwig’s research attempted to organize the sparse knowledge that was available in the literature about the inner workings of the human mind by discussing the various altered states of consciousness to determine :

  • the conditions necessary for their emergence
  • the factors which influence their outward manifestations
  • their relatedness and common denominators; and
  • the adaptive or maladaptive functions which these states may serve for man.

     Dobkin de Ríos, from her own experiences with ayahuasca, explains that:

     “The hallucinations of the group session and the guidance provided by the shaman are viewed as agents that reinforce the patient’s belief in the reality of the shaman’s power and information” (Harner, 1973).

          In 1979, Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hoffmann published Plants of the Gods, a seminal study on entheogens and hallucinogens while Gordon Wasson, a New York banker, and amateur ethnomycologist, is credited with the earliest documentation of his personal experience with the Mazatec use of mushrooms. 

          Used by Mazatec shaman, the Oaxaca mushroom classified as Psilocybe mexicana, “magic mushroom”was ingested by Wasson under the direction of Mazatec curandera María Sabina while participating in a ceremony called a velada or candle ceremony(Wasson, 1955).   

          In 1988, Alfredo López Austin published, Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas (López Austin, 1988), followed in 1990, by Barnard Ortiz de Montellano’s Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, both books examine the use of entheogens in pre-Columbian cultures(Montellano, 1990).

          In 1990,the distinguished Mexican anthropologist, Mercedes de la Garza Camino  who has spent the majority of her professional academic career studying the Maya and Nahua cultures, published, Sueño y alucinación en el Mundo náhuatl y Maya (de la Garza, 1990), and more recently an updated an expanded version of this work entitled, Sueño y éxtasis visión chamánica de Los nahuas y los Mayas, (de la Garza Camino, 2012).

          In his review of de la Garza’s book, Mario Humberto Ruz writes, de la Garza reviews the colonial as well as the modern works on medicinal plants and entheogens and reflects on the abilities that are produced by them, Ruz quotes:

          “Ritos iniciáticos, transmutación y transfiguración, augarios y adivinaciones, diagnósticos y terapéuticas, y asunto de particular interés desde una perspectiva diacrónica” (Ruz, 2012).

          In a companion review of de la Garza’s book published in Reseña, Martha Ilia Nájera tells us that:

          “En síntesis, señala que los sueños y el éxtasis que son provocados por sustancias psicoactivas o prácticas ascéticas se originan en las funciones cerebrales y hacen emerger aspectos irracionales y emocionales, bloquean la reflexión y el pensamiento y cortan los estímulos externos” (Nájera, 2012).

          In other words, the entheogen removes the participant from his senses and extends him/her to an alternate reality.  And therefore:

          “Un chamán, era un hombre sabio y protector de los demás, tenía poderes sobrenaturales de transformación y de videncia; no obstante, los frailes que recogieron esta información hicieron hincapié sobre el mal nahualli, al que llamaron brujo, al igual que al animal en el que se transformaba, y ésta es la acepción que sobrevivió durante la Colonia, proporcionando al término una connotación europea” (Nájera, 2012). 

          In 1997, Robert Forte continued the study of entheogens with the publication of Entheogens and the Future of Religion, an edited volume of the study of psychedelic plants and drugs in religion and society.  Forte’s work has been called a great overview of the few forefront minds privy to understanding the place and role of entheogens in modern society.   

          Representing two decades of plant collection and identification, in 2005, Christian Ratsch produced a massive Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications; serving to further our knowledge of Mesoamerican entheogens (Ratsch, 2005).

          In a 2009 doctoral dissertation, entitled, Evidence for Ritual Use of Entheogens in Ancient Mesoamerica and the Implications for the Approach to Religion and Worldview, Marc Blainey, reviewed the entheogenic literature stating:

           “Humans have long understood that the ingestion of psychoactive chemicals via local flora and fauna produces powerful alterations in consciousness” (Blainey, 2009).     

          Additionally, the study of entheogens and medicinal plants in Mexico has been a major focus of research at the national university, UNAM, most notably the Instituto de Biología and the amazing work at the Biblioteca digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana, and in Cuernavaca at the Jardín Etnobotánico y Museo de la Medicina Tradicional.  The Revista Digital Universitaria regularly publish articles on medicinal plants (Masdemex, 2017).

          In 2013, Ruck and Hoffman published, Entheogens, Myth and Human Consciousness, examining entheogenic mythology throughout world cultures and advancing our knowledge of god-plants into the 21st century (Ruck and Hoffman, 2013). 

          Finally, and significantly, in 2013, Adrian Andreacchio completed a Master’s Thesis in Latin American Studies at University College London, entitled, The Role of Psychoactive Substances as Entheogens and Medicines in pre-Columbian Mexico, reviewing the literature and analyzing the importance pre-Columbian entheogenic use(Andreacchio, 2013).

          The combined effect of the literature cited informs both our increased knowledge of the ritual use of entheogens as well as their importance in contemporary psychotherapy.

The Pre-Columbian Entheogens

          For this examination, only the most significant pre-Columbian entheogens will be considered. The first set or primary entheogens include Mushrooms, Peyote, Tobacco, Pulque, Cacao, and Datura while the second set includes Morning Glory, Artemisa, Salvia, Ajenjo, Water Lily, Colorín, and Sinicuichi.

           Important entheogens not of pre-Columbian use are: Ayahuasca, Coca, Cannabis, Mescal Bean, Poppy flower and San Pedro cactus.   

Primary Entheogens

          Mushrooms/Hongos: The Mexican entheogenic mushroom, Psilocybe mexicana is one of the most important Mesoamerican entheogens with over 20 different species identified. There is sufficient archaeological and ethnographic evidence to conclude that both the Mayas and the Nahuas ingested mushrooms teonanácatl or “divine flesh,” in rituals as a means to commune with god (Metzner, 2005). 

          In the archaeological record there is abundant evidence of mushroom-shaped artifacts including pottery objects and mushroom-shaped stones featuring mushroom glyphs describing ritual ingestion of entheogenic plants. (Borhegyi and Monaghan, 1957).

          In the Mayan language, mushrooms are called xibalbaj okox or “underworld mushroom” as well as k’aizalah okox, or “lost judgment mushroom.”  In Nahuatl, Psilocybe mexicana is referred to as teonanácatl or “divine mushroom.”  The active alkaloids in Mexican magic mushrooms are psilocin; baeocystin and norbaeocystin, all known to be powerful hallucinogens (Díaz, 1977). 

          The Maya often added mushrooms to cacao-based or chocolate beverages. Diego Durán wrote of the mind-altering mushrooms eaten in celebration of successful battles, stating that, once the mushrooms had taken effect, “The warriors went out to dance” (Durán, 1994).

          Our modern interest in Psilocybe mexicana is derived from Gordon Wasson, U.S. ethnomycologist and banker who in 1955, visited María Sabina the famous Mazatec curandera, and participated in a mushroom-ritual candle ceremony.  Wasson also collected the spores of the mushrooms he ingested; sending them to biochemist Albert Hoffmann in 1958 who classified them as Psilocybe mexicana.    

          Therefore, María Sabina was the first contemporary Mexican curandera, or native shaman, to allow Westerners to participate in the healing vigil in which all participants in the ritual ingested psilocybin mushroom as a sacrament of enlightenment and communication with the sacred (Wasson, 1955).  Since the 1950s, magic mushrooms have become a worldwide phenomenon, today psilocybe is frequently synthesized in laboratories.

          The abuse of the sacred nature of mushrooms, in allowing the popular rather than sacred use of Psilocybe Mexicana, led to the temporary expulsion of María Sabina from the Mazatec healing community. The Mazatec elders believed that not only had María Sabina violated their sacred cultural trust but she had allowed their secrets to be conveyed throughout the profane world.  The elders believed that the supernatural connectivity of the entheogen was thus terminated by the profane use of the mushroom spirit.   

          With the publication of Wasson’s work, as early as 1962, youth from around the world began traveling to Oaxaca in search of María Sabina and the “magic” mushroom experience (Estrada, 1996). In the years that followed, thousands of counterculture mushroom seekers, scientists, and others arrived in the Oaxacan Sierra Mazateca seeking their own experience (Harner, 1973, Estrada, 1996).

          Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, is known to theNahua as péyotl, the “glistening cactus” (Schultes, 1938).  The active alkaloids in peyote are mescaline and phenethylamine.  Peyote is one of the most widely used entheogenic substances used by the natives of the pre-Columbian world, although its native region is limited to Northern Mexico and South Texas. 

          There is substantial archaeological evidence from both Mayan and Nahua pottery artifacts containing glyphs of peyote symbology suggesting its use in central and southern Mexico in pre-Columbian times.  One highly significant example is a snuffing effigy pipe dating from 500 BCE, found at Monte Alban in Oaxaca with the figure of a deer with a peyote in its mouth.  To the Huichol, the peyote and the deer are synonymous, and I have personally experienced a deer appear in a peyote field out of thin air, it was simply not there only moments earlier.  Peyote is chewed raw, but the dried resin may be smoked, or ingested through the rectum as an enema (Schultes and Hoffmann, 1979).  Hippy lore claims that peyote contains the deadly poison strychnine, but that has been proven false (Erowid, 2017). 

          While the early chroniclers described peyote as known to both the Maya and Nahua, it was not readily available to them without established trade routes to the north which were known to have existed (Sahagún, 1569).  Sahagún wrote in his chronicle that, “This peyote grows only in the northern region called Mictlan.  On him who eats it or drinks it, it takes effect like mushrooms.” 

          Contemporary Native-American groups of the American Southwest such as the Navajo and North-Central Mexican groups such as the Huichol or Wixáritari of Sierra Madre Occidental of Jalisco are very familiar with peyote which is the primary sacrament used in their initiation rituals.    

          Native-American tribes in the Southwest and Midwest U.S. have formed the Native-American Christian Church in which peyote is consumed as both a sacrament and as medicine (Horgan, 2017). 

          My personal experience with peyote is both through this church in its hunt for peyote around Mirando City in South Texas as well as with Huichol shaman at Real de Catorce, known to them as Wirikuta, “the birthplace of the sun” (Schultes, 1938 and Zavaleta, personal experience, 1985).  

          In 1955, Slotkin, in his study of missionary chronicles of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico identified peyote as an entheogen as well as a medicinal plant.  While peyote only grows as far south as the mountain deserts of San Luis Potosí, it was traded throughout Mesoamerica and considered a valuable entheogen (Slotkin JS, 1955, Zavaleta, 1988). 

          The Mesoamericans regularly used four additional entheogens in pre-Columbian time included in the major category, including:

          Tobacco, Nicotiana spp., called picietl in Nahua and sikar in Mayan, is a plant native to the New World containing the alkaloid nicotine and today used worldwide.  Archaeologists have found pottery and other ritual vessels containing tobacco residue at Mayan sites. Anthropologist Kevin Groark (2010) stated that “tobacco was a godlike plant that had a soul and wielded the force of lightning and thunder; it provided spiritual protection and healing properties, and the Mayan shaman used tobacco enemas to invoke powerful visions” (Groark, 2010).     

          Cacao, Theobroma cacao, Chocolate, “food of the gods,” was called cacaocuihuitl and xocolatl by the Nahua and haa by the Maya.  The cacao bean produces chocolate which we know in the modern world produces a mild euphoria.  Both modern archaeologists and Mayan shaman claim that cacao is one of the most powerful entheogenic spirits.  Today Mayan shaman often prefers cacao-induced spiritual journeys to more powerful entheogens. Interestingly, there is a recent (2017) fad among youth in the United States of the nasal ingestion or “snorting” powdered chocolate, sometimes mixed with ginkgo biloba, taurine and guarana. The chocolate mixture is said to produce a “buzz” and has not yet been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  The chocolate snorting trend apparently began in Europe and the ingestion is said to produce an endorphin rush, a serotonin rush, euphoric energy with an added calming focus.  All credit must be given to the ancient Mayan priests who ingested chocolate as an entheogen (Forbes, Pharma, and Health, July 5, 2017). 

          Datura or Tolache, Datura stramonium, and Datura wright often called Jamestownweed, thorn apple, and angel trumpet is one of the four entheogens introduced to Carlos Castañeda by Don Juan Matus.  There are nine species of datura known, some very intoxicating.  In some cases, simply brushing against the plant may make a person dizzy and in extreme cases disoriented. 

          “Due to the potent combination of anticholinergic substances, it contains, Datura intoxication typically produces effects similar to that of an anticholinergic delirium involving a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy, hyperthermia, tachycardia, bizarre and possibly violent behavior and severe dilation of the pupils” (Freye, 2010).

           The Mayan and Nahua shaman knew exactly how to prepare datura for the entheogenic effect.  While datura has very intoxicating properties, it is also used today by curanderas throughout Mexico.

          Pulque is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from Agave americana or tequilana or any number of other agave species.  Pulque is an ancient entheogen which played a central role in the Mayan Popol Vuh. Pulque scholarGonçalves de Lima describes that pulque was key in the Mayan cosmological vision and was known to have played a major role in the religious rituals concerning Temoanchan, the lost paradise (Gonçalves de Lima, 1956).  

          The Maya created an entheogenic drink by combining pulque with balché.  Balché is made from the bark of a leguminous tree, Lonchocarpus violaceus, soaked in honey and water, and fermented. The ancient Maya consumed balché in an enema form to maximize its physical entheogenic effect (Escalante et. al., 2012).   

          The Nahua called pulque metoctli meaning agave wine, iztacoctlli white wine or poliuhquioctli meaning rotten wine.  Pulque was often added to other beverages such as balché to forma mildly intoxicating beverage that was commonly consumed by the ancients. Correa-Ascencio found that the most likely origin of the ritual use of pulque as an entheogen comes from La Ventilla, from 200 to 550 CE and Teotihuacan known to have been a major site for the production of pulque.

          “During the height of Nahua culture, pulque was produced and consumed predominately in religious and sacred rituals and was forbidden to the common citizens, with strict rules limiting its use and consumption” (Correa-Ascencio et. al., 2014). 

The Secondary Entheogens

          For this paper, seven secondary entheogens, mostly all very important in Mayan and Nahua historic culture are briefly examined; they are: Morning Glory also called Christmas vine; Artemisa or Mugwort; Salvia or sage; Ajenjo or wormwood; Water lily; Colorín or Coral bean and Sinicuichi.

          Morning Glory/Manto de Cielo or Christmas vine, Turbina corymbosa, was known to the Nahua as ololiuhqui or tlitliltzin, and xtabentuń to the Maya.  Morning Glory or Christmas vine’s primary alkaloid is LSA ergoline.  The seeds contain ergine, d-lysergic acid, amide related to LSD, and ergoline alkaloids.  An intoxicating beverage was made from honey produced from the nectar of a species Turbina corymbosa called xtabentún. This entheogenic beverage produced powerful hallucinogenic visions (Schultes and Hoffmann, 2001).

          In his Florentine Codex, Sahagún described the narcotic effects of morning glory: “Ololiuqui makes one besotted; it deranges one, troubles one, maddens one, and makes one possessed.  He who eats it, who drinks it, sees many things which greatly terrify him” (Sahagún, 1963). 

          Ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes first identified ololiuhqui as Turbina corymbosa in 1941 while the chemical composition was not identified until 1960 by Albert Hoffmann (Hoffmann, 1960). Images of morning glory vine are commonly depicted in Mayan hieroglyphs as this important entheogen was a major part of the Mayan cosmotheology.

          Artemisa or Mugwort, Artemisa vulgaris contains essential oils such as cineole, thujone, flavonoids, triterpenes, and coumarin derivatives. Artemisa is known to produce vivid dream states, and out-of-body experiences hence it was highly valued by the Mayans and the Nahuas (Grieve, 1931).  Artemisa is prepared many ways including smoking the dried leaves which produce psychoactive results (Burgess, 2003).  In Mayan and Nahua ritual ceremonies Artemisa was usually mixed or added to other entheogens.  Little is known about what psychoactive effects the mixing of entheogens produces.   

          Salvia/Sage, Salvia divinorum, yerba de la pastora or Maria pastora is in the mint family.  It is presumed that the Mayans knew of salvia divinorum and many believe it to be the famed pipiltzintzintli,the Noble Prince found in the Nahua Codices; however, this is debated (Valdez, 2001, Gómez Pompa, 1957). Other Nahua candidates for salvia divinorum include poyomatli and cacahuaxochtl.  Its active ingredient is salvinorin A, which is the first documented diterpene hallucinogen (Giroud, Felber, Augsburger 2000 and D Turner, 1996).

          Ajenjo, Artemisa mexicana, Mexican Wormwood, isrelatedto Artemisa absinthium but not the same as the Artemisa mentioned above.  Artemisa vulgaris called Mugwort is also in the Compositae family but species vulgaris, is not the same.  Artemisa mexicana is called Si’sim by the Maya and Tlalpoyomatli by the Nahua.  Most commonly in the study of plantas medicinales it is known as ajenjo and contains the ingredients thujone, theactive component of absinthe, that is, γ-aminobutyric acid type A.  The ancients would prepare the inside of the stem as an intoxicant which is thought to improve overall well-being and produce euphoria (Voogelbreinder, 2009).

          Water Lilies/Lirio de agua, Nymphaea ampla, is called naab, lolha’, nikte’ha vulva of the water, nukuchnabb, and xikinchaak, by the Maya and quetzalxochiatl by the Nahua. Numerous Mayan glyphs depict the lily which is dedicated to the rain god.  The Mayans combined it with balché to produce an intoxicating beverage.  The lily contains nuciferine and aporphine and is said to act much like an opiate apomorphine.  There is an extensive inventory of lily motifs in Mayan archaeology discussed in detail by McDonald and Stross in their article, Water Lily and Cosmic Serpent: Equivalent Conduits of the Maya Spirit Realm. They write,“These mind-altering activities and devices of Maya priests and gods were apparently the means by which the mysterious conjuring serpent is beckoned for a visionary experience”(McDonald and Stross, 2012).

          Colorín, Coral Bean, Erythrina herbaceous, xk’olok’max in Mayan contains the toxic alkaloids including eysopine, erysothiopine, erysothiovine, erysovine, erythrinine, erthroresin, coralin, erythyric and pypaphorine, it is known for its mild narcotic properties and can cause paralysis similar to curare. While this entheogen is common to the geocultural areas of both the Nahua and the Maya, it is not clear if they utilized it as a ritual entheogen.

          Sinicuichi(e), Heimia salicin folia is known as Sinicuichi or Xochipilli or as the sun opener or elixir of the sun. Heimia salicin folia contains 16 different active alkaloids compounds including, dihydrocodeine, Cryogenine/vertine, lythrine, Hermine, sinicuichi, lythridine, lyfoline, heimidine, anelisine, abresoline, demethyllasubine I, demethyllasubine II, sinine, nesodine, epidemethoxyabresoline, and vesolidine. Studies show that the alkaloidal precursor to Cryogenine, the main active compound in Sinicuichi, is phenylalanine; which is structurally very similar to dopamine and adrenaline, and accounts for some of the reported effects of the plant (Malone & Rother 1994).

          Calderón first reported the hallucinogenic effects of Sinicuichi in 1896 while investigating the medicinal folk remedies of Mexico (Theatrum Botanicum 2004, and Gottlieb 1973).  Sinicuichi is known to act as a muscle relaxant and tranquilizer (Malone & Rother 1994). Research by Gottlieb (1973) and Graham (1997) documented the physiological effects entheogenic substances on the human body including:

  • pleasant drowsiness
  • skeletal muscle relaxation
  • a slowing of the heartbeat
  • dilation of coronary vessels
  • inhibition of acetylcholine
  • enhancement of epinephrine
  • a slight reduction of blood pressure
  • cooling of the body
  • mild intoxication and giddiness
  • darkening of the vision
  • auditory hallucinations (sounds seem distant); and
  • increased memory function.  

Other Important Entheogens Include:

Ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis caapi; Coca/Cocaine, Erythroxylum coca; Cannabis, Cannabis spp.; Mescal Bean/Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora or Dermatophyllum secund flora; Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, morphine; and San Pedro cactus, Echinopsis pacha Noi syn.


          The use of entheogens support of transcendence is documented throughout the ancient literature of the world for the archaeologists have found ample evidence of the use of entheogens in Mesoamerican sites such as Palenque and Teotihuacan and ethnologists and ethnobotanists have validated both pre-Columbian as well as contemporary ritual and religious practices using entheogens in ritual ceremonies and healing.

          Gordon Wasson’s experiences in Oaxaca with mushrooms in the 1950s and Carlos Castañeda’s with peyote, datura, and mushrooms in the 1960s, along with the early work of Eliade on Shamanism, furthered the study of entheogens that continues today.  This is especially true of the religious practices of the ancient Maya and Nahuas.

           The rich variety of plant entheogens used by pre-Columbians assisted them in their theocosmology and in attaining communication with god.  Three groups of entheogens are briefly examined, the primary entheogens utilized by the pre-Columbian shaman, the secondary but important group also used by priests and a third group not used by Mayans and Nahuas, but equally important in universal world culture today.         


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Dr. Tony Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and is a member of one of the 13 founding families of northern Mexico. He is the nephew of Dr. Joe Zavaleta and Prax Orive, each of whom served on the TSC Board.

Dr. Zavaleta graduated from Saint Joseph Academy in 1964 and entered Texas Southmost College, graduating and transferring to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1976. Moving back to Brownsville in 1976, Dr. Zavaleta began teaching sociology and anthropology at Texas Southmost College and at Pan American University at Brownsville. Dr. Zavaleta became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for UTB/TSC, and also served as the Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and Technology. He next served as Vice President for Partnership Affairs, where he coordinated all of the work between the TSC Board and UTB, and then became the Vice President for External Affairs, which included governmental relations and all external programs such as Workforce Training and Continuing Education. Dr. Zavaleta served as Interim Provost, the chief operating officer of UTB/TSC, and then as the Associate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2011 he retired from the administration to return to full-time teaching. Dr. Zavaleta retired in May 2016 after 40 years of service.

Dr. Zavaleta is regarded as one of the top experts on the US-Mexico Border, and frequently speaks throughout Mexico and the U.S. Dr. Zavaleta was appointed to two Federal commissions by Presidents Reagan and Obama, and he served two terms on the Brownsville City Commission, followed by a term on the City of Brownsville Civil Service Commission.

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