The history of magic mushrooms is a long and rich one, dating back millennia. The first human representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms can be found depicted in the cave drawings found in the Sahara Desert. Although it is a vast wasteland now, some 7,000 – 9,000 years ago, when these drawings are thought to have been produced, the Sahara was a fertile land covered in vegetation.
Evidence from this region depicts giant mythological beings, usually in a humanoid or animal form, surrounded by dancing horned and feathered creatures. These depictions cover the ancients stone shelters found on the high plateaus of the Sahara. Most importantly, images found around the Tin-Tzarift rock art site depict a line of masked humans, either dressed hieratically or as dancers. All of them hold mushrooms in their right hand. It suggests that mushrooms were held with a religious reverence and it is largely hypothesised that it is the visions gained from magic mushrooms that led to the creativity and inspiration behind all of these paintings.
Other archeological evidence depicting the use and reverence of psilocybe mushrooms dates back to 1,000 – 500 B.C. It has been found that Central and Southern American cultures built temples to mushroom Gods, carved mushroom statuettes, and carved images of people being sheltered by mushrooms; once again suggesting that magic mushrooms had a large part to play in the everyday life and religions of ancient cultures.
The most recent “ancient” civilisation to have harnessed magic mushrooms were the Aztecs. A culture with multiple Gods, the Aztecs had one God in particular that is largely associated with psychoactive plants. This is Xochipilli, the Prince of Flowers, and the divine patron of “the flowery dream”. In an unearthed statue of Xochipilli engravings of mushrooms, tobacco, morning glory, sinichuichi, and more psychoactive „flowers“ were found. As proposed by Wasson, Schultes and Hofmann, Xochipilli represents entheogenic ecstasy.
A Roman Catholic priest called Bernardino de Sahagún, who was amongst the invading Spaniards, described the Aztec use of magic mushrooms in his Florentine Codex as follows:
“Before sunrise they ate the mushrooms with honey, and when they began to feel the effects, they started to dance, some smiling, others crying (…) some sat down as if they where sunk in ideas. Some saw themselves die; some saw themselves being eaten by a wild beast, others imagined that they where in a fight and captured their enemies, some believed they had committed adultery and that their skulls would be cleaved as a punishment (…) When the drunkenness of the mushrooms had passed, they spoke with one another of the visions they had seen”.
The Aztecs refereed to magic mushrooms as divinatory mushrooms or “Teonanácatl”, meaning the flesh of God. The Spanish, being renowned as fiercely religious and devout, saw this use of so called “divine” mushrooms as heretical and set about stamping out its use. They thought that the worship and communication with these “false” Gods through the use of mushrooms was actually opening up the Aztecs to communication with the devil. Under Spanish rule, the use of magic mushrooms was punishable by death. The conquerors were so dedicated to their duties, there are records describing how resisting Aztecs were tortured for days before having their eyes gouged out, a crucifix carved into their chest and their entrails fed to starving dogs. Truly, the catholics brought the light of god.
Whilst the Spanish thought themselves to have won this “war” on the heretic mushroom practices, in reality they never did. The ceremonial use of magic mushrooms was just continuing in the hidden underground.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the fairly rigorous work of the Spanish had led many scientists of the western world to question whether magic mushrooms had existed at all. The American botanist, William Safford, even went as far as to suggest that the priest Bernardino de Sahagún had made a mistake in his writings, and it was in fact peyote that he had witnessed the Aztecs using – another psychedelic plant whose use reportedly “wiped out” by the Spanish conquistadors. This claim was disputed by Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, a scientist living in Mexico. He not only believed that the references were to magic mushrooms, but that they were also still in use to that day by Mexicans.
The mystery surrounding magic mushrooms began to unravel in the early 1930's. Robert Weitlaner, an amateur anthropologist was fortunate enough to witness a Mazatec mushroom ceremony. Knowing that Dr. Reko and Safford can come to intellectual blows over the subject, he obtained a sample and sent it to Reko with the information that the Otomi tribe were using it in spiritual ceremonies. Reko forwarded samples on to both Harvard university and Stockholm for botanical and chemical analysis, but unfortunately the samples had decayed beyond use by the time they arrived at each destination.
Though the sending of samples could not yield any hard scientific fact, it did gain Reko the support of the Harvard based ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. Schultes thought the presence of a mushroom being used in the ceremonies of the Otomi was a substantial enough amount of evidence to question Safford's theory, urging more research to be conducted into the matter. Both Reko and Schultes went out to Mexico to obtain samples in 1938 after hearing that the Mazatecs were collecting Panaeolus sphinctrinus – the main mushroom used in their rituals. Whilst Panaeolus sphinctrinus has been identified as psychoactive, only two separate analysis out of hundreds successfully identified any indole alkaloids. It has been suggested that the collected sample may have in fact been many species of mushrooms, mis-labeled as one.
It was not until much later, in the 1950's that more would be discovered about magic mushrooms. The mycologist R. Gordon Wasson witnessed an all night ceremony involving the use of mushrooms on his expedition to Mexico. He became intrigued with mushroom use, and after two further trips to Mexico to research its use, he met the Mazatec curandera (healer/shaman) Maria Sabina, who in 1955 allowed him to take some magic mushrooms during one of the Mazatec mushroom ceremonies. This made Wasson the first known westerner to ever participate in a traditional mushroom ceremony. Wasson described the experience as fascinating, observing multiple visions and obtaining a sharpened sense of vision. He was so intrigued by the nature of magic mushrooms, that six days later, he took them again with his wife and daughter.
Wasson later returned to Mexico with the mycologist Roger Heim. Together they successfully identified seven different species of magic mushrooms, which they later managed to cultivate from spores.
Although these mushrooms had clearly been identified as reliably hallucinogenic, the exact chemical that caused it was unknown. In 1956, in an attempt to find out more, Heim requested the help of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. A sample was sent, and Albert Hofmann, the creator of LSD and keen researcher of psychedelics who worked at Sandoz, isolated both psilocybin and psilocin within the mushrooms. To test whether these really were what caused the visions, Hofmann synthesized the isolated chemicals into a pill, which was later given to Maria Sabina in 1962; she confirmed that the pill induced an effect that was the same as experienced when taking mushrooms.
Wasson and Heim's research led them to write an article on the subject for Life Magazine, titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: Great adventures in the discovery of a mushroom that causes strange visions”. The article was available worldwide and quickly became well known among popular culture. It was the beginning of the mainstream use of magic mushrooms. Although they kept the location and names of their travels a secret, it was not long before the information was leaked, with Mexico becoming the new pilgrimage site for truth seekers of the world - including celebrities such as John Lennon and Peter Townsend.
We can be deeply thankful for the efforts of Wasson and Hoffmann to bring magic mushrooms to the attention of the western world. But the sudden influx of hippies seeking the mushroom high upset the Mazatecs. Until then, magic mushrooms had only been used for religious and medical purposes. Many of the mushroom tourists though were only after the visions and the high. Maria Sabina showed great regret about this and remarked that “the strength of the sacrament got lost in the clouds”. She lamented that the mushroom had lost heir powers.
The rapidly growing popularity and recreational use of magic mushrooms quickly caught the attention of the US government. The use of psilocybin and psilocin were banned in 1968 and became illegal under the "Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970" – with many other countries following suit. Although magic mushrooms have continued to be used for spiritual enlightenment and recreational use as part of the psychedelic movement, clinical research was all but halted. It is only recently that scientists have been allowed to start studying the effects of psilocybin and psilocin again. Recent research suggests that magic mushrooms are of little noteworthy harm to the health of society. It may not be long before scientists find a medical application for this drug – more and more research is being conducted every day.
Once the mushrooms were listed as a drug worldwide, over the time, a completely new trend has emerged and it originated in Holland. Because some types of fungi, like Psilocybe Mexicana, develop subterranean sclerotia (see above). And according to the dutch law, those don't count as mushrooms in the real sense and are, therefore, legal. Since sclerotia, the "truffle", also contains those psychoactive ingredients, they are superbly suited for psychonautic purposes.