Antonio N. Zavaleta, Ph.D. & Mitchell A. Kaplan, Ph.D.
The practice of using plant-based entheogenic psychoactive substances as a means of spiritual transcendence is well-documented in the literature of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Archaeologists who have conducted excavations at Mesoamerican sites such as Palenque and Teotihuacan have found a substantial amount of artifactual evidence of the use of entheogen compounds in the healing rituals of the ancient native cultures of Mexico and South America.
Scientific evidence of the extensive use of entheogens in pre-Columbian societies has also been validated by the work of ethnologists and ethnobotanists who have studied the contemporary use of these psychoactive substances in the religious and healing practices of those who still use them in the modern world.
The ingestion of sacramental plants called entheogens was a common practice in the ancient Mayan and Aztec communities of Mexico. Scholars who have engaged in the study of entheogens used in ancient cultures point out that these substances 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.1
1 Huxley A., 1954, The Doors of Perception.
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. Neophytes without proper training and initiation were not allowed to engage in entheogen use at a risk of social expulsion from their native community. The use of entheogens is so important that their incidental use outside of the context of the shamanic role is considered a sacrilegious abuse.
In pre-Columbian Mayan and 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 sacred entheogenic plants.
In pre-technological societies, the selection process connected to a shamanistic apprenticeship usually begins in childhood. The religious leaders of the community choose a select group of children to participate in ritual training based on specific identifiable personal characteristics and abilities as well as family heritage. These special characteristics which the priests used to select apprentices for ritual initiation were connected to some physical or emotional peculiarity of the chosen initiate.
The shaman’s primary role in ancient society was to serve people as a mystic and healer possessing special powers to see into the future through visionary trances. In some cultures, these trances were brought about by the use of entheogenic plant-based substances. 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, the shaman usually lived apart from the rest of the community and was highly revered and feared by lay people because of their unusual appearance and behavior and 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 enabled them to communicate with the divine, elevating these individuals to an elite social status in Mayan and Aztec society. The ancients selected both men and women for shamanistic status in their communities. These individuals became the spiritual leaders of their community whose primary responsibility was to serve the gods and goddesses as their representative on earth and to see to the well-being of community members.
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’ began experimenting with entheogens and their synthetics such as LSD, attempting to achieve mind-altering and transcendental out-of-body experiences. 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 Potosi. 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 States 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.
The Pre-Columbian Entheogens
Mushrooms/Hongos: Over 20 different species of the Mexican entheogenic mushroom, Psilocybe Mexicana, have been identified. There is sufficient archaeological and ethnographic evidence to conclude that both the Mayas and the Aztecs ingested mushrooms teonanácatl or ‘divine flesh’, in rituals as a means to commune with the divine.
María Sabina, the Mazatec curandera, was the first contemporary Mexican 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.
With the publication of Wasson’s work1, as early as 1962, youth from around the world traveled to Oaxaca in search of María Sabina and the “magic” mushroom experience. She died as she lived in the mountains of Oaxaca in 1988. In the years that followed, thousands of counterculture mushroom seekers, scientists, and others arrived in the Oaxacan Sierra Mazateca seeking their own experiences of enlightenment.2
Peyote, Lophophora williamsii, was known to the Aztec as péyotl, the ‘glistening cactus’. The active alkaloids in peyote are mescaline and phenethylamine. Peyote is one of the most widely used entheogenic substances ingested 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 Aztec 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 peyote in its mouth. To the native Huicholes, the peyote and the deer are synonymous.
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.
1 Wasson, 1957, Seeking the Magic Mushroom, Life Magazine, May 13, 1957.
2 Harner, Michael J., ed. 1973, Hallucinogens, and Shamanism.
Tobacco, Nicotiana spp., called picietl in Aztec 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 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”1.
Cacao, Theobroma cacao, chocolate, ‘food of the gods’, was called cacaocuihuitl and xocolatl by the Aztecs and haa by the Maya. The cacao bean produces chocolate known in the modern world as producing mild euphoric and aphrodisic sensations. 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.
Datura or Tolache, Datura stramonium, is often called Jamestown weed, thorn apple, and angel trumpet. There are nine species of datura known, some very intoxicating. Simply brushing against the plant may make a person dizzy and in extreme cases disoriented.
Mayan and Aztec shaman knew exactly how to prepare datura safely 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 and any number of other agave species. Pulque is an ancient entheogen which played a central role in the Mayan Popol Vuh. Pulque scholar Gonçalves de Lima describes that pulque was key in Mayan cosmological vision and was known to have played a major role in the religious rituals associated with Temoanchan, the lost paradise.2
There are seven secondary entheogens that played a central role in the history of Mayan and Aztec cultures: Morning Glory/Manto de Cielo or Christmas vine, Turbina corymbosa, was known to the Aztec as ololiuhqui or tlitliltzin, and xtabentuń to the Maya. Morning Glory or Christmas vine’s primary alkaloid is LSA ergoline. The seeds of these plants contain ergine, d-lysergic acid, amide. An entheogenic substance is combined with honey extracted from the nectar of this plant to produce an intoxicating beverage ingested by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs as part of their ceremonial rituals.
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 and its use was most likely associated with a specific deity, hence it was highly valued by the Mayans and the Aztecs.
The ancient Maya and Aztecs ingested Artemisa in many different forms including smoking the dried leaves to produce the desired psychoactive effects. In Mayan and Aztec ritual ceremonies Artemisa was usually mixed or added to other entheogens. There is limited knowledge of the psychoactive effects that mixing entheogens produces.
Salvia/Sage, Salvia divinorum, yerba de la pastora or María pastora is part of the mint family. It is the presumption that the Mayans knew of Salvia divinorum and many believe it to be the famed pipiltzintzintli, the Noble Prince of plants found in the Aztec codices; however, this has been the subject of a great deal of debate in the literature.
Ajenjo, Artemisa mexicana, Mexican Wormwood, is related to Artemisa absinthium but not the same as the Artemisa mentioned above. Artemisa mexicana is called Si’sim by the Maya and Tlalpoyomatli by the Aztec. Scholars that have studied the ritualistic use of plantas medicinales or medicinal plants by the ancients call this entheogenic substance ajenjo. It is composed of a combination of thujone, the active component of absinthe with γ-aminobutyric acid type A. The ancients prepared this mixture inside a plant stem and used it as an intoxicant which was said to improve the user’s overall sense of well-being with a state of euphoria.
1 Groark, K. 2010, The Angel in the Gourd: Ritual, Therapeutic, and Protective uses of Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum)
Among the Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico, Journal of Ethnobiology, Vol. 30, Issue 1 pp 5-30.
2 Gonçalves de Lima, 1956, El maguey y el pulque en los códices mexicano, Fondo de Cultura Económico.
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 Aztec. Numerous Mayan glyphs depict the water lily as dedicated to the rain god, Tlaloc. The Mayans combined it with the drink balché to produce an intoxicating beverage. The water lily contains nuciferine and aporphine and is said to act much like an opiate apomorphine.
There is an extensive inventory of water 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”1.
Colorín, Coral Bean, Erythrina herbaceous, xk’olok’max in Mayan contains toxic alkaloids eysopine, erysothiopine, erysothiovine, erysovine, erythrinine, erthroresin, coralin, erythyric and pypaphorine. It is known for its mild properties but can cause paralysis similar to curare. While this entheogen is common to the geo-cultural areas of both the Aztec 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 the sun opener or elixir of the sun. Heimia salicin folia contains sixteen different active alkaloid compounds. 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.
There are many more entheogenic plants known to Mexican ethnobotany and a complete inventory may be found in the appendix of Mercedes de la Garza’s 2012 book, Sueño y Éxtasis: Visión chamánica de los nahuas y los mayas2.
Dr. Antonio ‘Tony’ Zavaleta is a native of Brownsville, Texas. He received a doctoral degree in Anthropology in 1976 from the University of Texas and has spent the last 40 years studying the U.S.-Mexico border. Tony is internationally renowned for the study of population growth, poverty, immigration and many other border topics including most importantly health disparities. Dr. Zavaleta has studied curanderos and shaman throughout Mexico and has published numerous books and articles on shamanism and medicinal plants of the borderlands. Dr. Zavaleta was awarded the Order of the Ohtli ‘Pathfinder’ by Mexico, the highest award given to a non-Mexican citizen, for his 40 years study and social and political activity in support of Mexicans in the United States. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Texas Southmost College.
Mitchell A. Kaplan, Ph.D. is a program evaluation consultant in private practice in New York City. Dr. Kaplan received his Ph.D. in sociology from the City University of New York Graduate Centre and was the recipient of a postdoctoral research fellowship from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dr. Kaplan has worked as a research scientist and professional consultant for several non-profit and local government organizations in New York. He is a regular contributor to academic journals and professional magazines. You can contact Dr. Kaplan at his email address DrMKaplan@aol.com.
1 McDonald and Stross, 2012, Water Lily and Cosmic Serpent: Equivalent Conduits of the Maya Spirit Realm, Journal of Ethnobiology, 32(1), pp.74-107.
2 De la Garza, Mercedes, 2012, Sueños y Éxtasis: Visión chamánica de los nahuas y los mayas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, D.F.