Entheogenic plant use among the indigenous peoples of the Mexica region

by Frater 0=2

A number of vision inducing plants grow in the tropical regions of the New World. Powered by alkaloids that mimic human brain hormones, these plants would instill visions of the spirit realm to those that consumed them and gave the shamans the ability to commune with their gods. The indigenous peoples of the Mexica region were well versed in their attributes, and these plants of power became holy sacraments. Used to diagnose the sick, foretell the future, stave off hunger and fear during battle, and appease the gods, entheogenic plants were a vital part of the Mexican peoples’ culture. Despite long and repeated attempts by the Catholic Church, the practices of consuming visionary plants has survived today and give us great insight to the workings of these ancient cultures.

The history of the entheogenic plants of the Mexica is one shrouded in secrets and lost knowledge. Cults that use entheogens have never been very open with information and it is all but impossible for outsiders to gain access to the majority of secrets. Recent archeological evidence in Texas shows that the peyote cactus may have been gathered and used as far back as 5,000 BCE. In Guatemala, over two hundred mushroom effigies buried with dignitaries, dating back to the first millennium BCE link to the Mayan Popol Vuh and the journey to the underworld.

The 16th century statue of Xochipilli, the Prince of Flowers, unearthed on the slope of Popocatapetl near Tlamanalco, has an ecstatic god covered in representations of various entheogenic plants. Adorning his body and the base on which he sits are images of tobacco, morning glories, mushrooms, sinichuichi, possibly cacahuaxochitl, and one other unidentified plant, the classic plants of the shaman. Xochipilli’s relaxed, ecstatic gaze is well representative of the visionary state. The youthful god may have been prayed to, to provide guidance during forays into the spirit world. As with most aspects of Mexica culture, the arrival of the Catholic Church destroyed all but a fragment of the written work on these holy plants.

The Church was appalled at the Mexica’s communion with demons. Ritual intoxication never took hold in Christianity and was considered part of the realm of demons and black magic. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and Dr. Francisco Hernández would provide the earliest written accounts of people using entheogenic plants. From Sahagún’s account of the Chichimeca peyote ritual.

“There is another herb like tunas of the earth. It is called peiotl. It is white. It is found in the north country. Those who eat or drink it see visions either frightful or laughable. This intoxication lasts two or three days and then ceases. It is a common food of the Chichimeca, for it sustains them and gives them courage to fight and not feel fear not hunger nor thirst. And they say it protects them from all danger.”

The Jesuit priests went to great lengths to stamp out all vestiges of drug use. So thorough of a job they did, it would be another four centuries before evidence of the use of mushrooms would become public again. That is not to say that the practices were abandoned, they just went underground.

Oral tradition would keep alive the traditional use of visionary plants. Teacher to student, family to family, the old rituals were passed down and carried out in an almost identical manner to those of the ancients. The Huichol tribe in the Oaxaca region still speaks the old Mayan language and practices the shamanic arts as their ancestors once did. The integrity of their oral tradition has been a major boon to ethnobotanists trying to decipher what remains of the written histories.

For the Aztec gods, sustenance came from tobacco, piciétl, usually in smoke form. It is the one failing of gods, they wished to share tobacco, so much that they gave it all to man. Without access to their divine food, the gods were dependent on man to share the holy smoke. This is a bargaining chip the humans have when dealing with the gods; if they wish to live, they must be willing to offer favors for the shaman who brings them food and the hardships it entails.

Using tobacco in a sacred context did not prevent addiction (Weil). Many tobacco-using peoples would assign the same physical and psychological cravings the shamans would experience, to their gods. Some shamans claimed that the cravings they felt meant the spirits needed more smoke; they would smoke more or less continuously.

More then a simple tool for dealing with the gods, tobacco would carry prayers, fend off hunger during journeys, induce visions, even be called “my wife.” Modern cigarettes made from Nicotiana tabacum are relatively low in nicotine averaging around 3% by weight, compared to the massive 20% dose of the traditionally used N. rustica. The high levels of nicotine combined with consuming quantities of tobacco that would kill the majority of modern addicts, the shaman would hyperventilate on large cigars (sometimes as large as 60 centimeters) until they lost consciousness and entered a vision.

Initiates into certain jaguar cults would be repeatedly given large quantities of tobacco preparations, usually a liquid either drunk or inserted with an enema, these would not only build up the massive tolerance needed to smoke as they did, but would result in symptoms of long term tobacco use we rarely see in modern times. Amblyopia, a condition characterized by day blindness but enhanced night vision, rough, furred tongue, raspy voice and strong boy odor, all features of the jaguars they venerated and even claimed to shape shift into.

If tobacco was the food of the gods, it was the sacred mushrooms that were their flesh. Few plants of the gods have ever been held as holy as the Aztecs elevated teonánacatl (flesh of the gods). Used in only the most sacred of ceremonies, modern followers of the mushroom among the Mazatec often have endearing names such as “little flowers” for them. To the Mayans, the mushrooms now belonging to the genus Psilocybe were known as xibalbaj okox (xibalba = underworld, or hell, realm of the dead; okox = mushroom). In this context xibablbaj referred not only to the underworld and it’s nine lords, but to obtain visions of xibalba.

Over 200 Mayan stone mushroom effigies have been found dating back to 300 BCE. The Spanish priests found the use of mushrooms especially appalling and went to great lengths to stamp out the mushroom cult. Not only do early reports condemn teotánacatl, but go so far as to include illustrations of the devils dancing upon the fungus and enticing the people to eat it. While the last historical document mentioning the sacred mushrooms, written by Dr. Francisco Hernández, mentions three types of mushrooms worshipped, it would be four centuries before the mushrooms were classified by species.

There was even doubt as to the reality of religious use of vision inducing mushrooms. In 1916, the American botanist Safford, declaring the Indians and Spaniards incompetent in manners of plant identification and claimed that teonánacatl was actually the peyote cactus. Despite Sahagún’s account "It grows on the plains, in the grass. The head is small and round, the stem long and slender.” hardly a fitting account for the peyote plant, Safford’s theory would remain in vogue until the 1930’s when Reko and Weitlaner would encounter a living tradition among the Mazatecs in the Oaxaca region.

 Despite some catholic influence the essential rituals have remained intact and are spoken in the surviving Mayan dialect. To the modern Mazatecs, teonánacatl has become the Blood of Christ, and they see them as the Gods messenger to the people of the Americas, this mirrors the beliefs found in the modern peyote churches. El Niño, a Catholic saint unique to Mexico is also an evolution of the sacred mushroom. Since modern cults public exposure in the late 50’s, its influence has spread worldwide and the images of its magic mushrooms can be found in any mall.

Peyote (figure 4), peyotl to its Aztecs followers, has always been a mainstay in any shaman’s tools. Confined to a small growing zone in what is now Texas, those who wished to gather peyotl would need travel over 200 miles. No small undertaking, this is a journey comparable to the Muslim practice of going to Mecca. Once in the region, they would hunt it like a deer, mourn it as a brother, and consume it in all night rituals where they would dance in the spirit world. This was after a public declaration of their sexual histories; during this purification no one is allowed to show hate anger or jealousy. Among the polygamous Huichols this was a serious but lighthearted event, jokes, laughter and encouragement are common.

The hunt itself would be undertaken as if overcoming an animal. They would stalk around until a patch was spotted and attack with arrows. Four arrows would be shot into the ground at the cardinal directions capturing “Elder Brother.” A final killing shot would be loosed into one of the plants and all would gather around to mourn its loss. After appropriate praise and offerings were given, the hunters would retire for a night of dance, song and eating of the peyote plants. In the following days they would fill their game bags and make the long journey home for another year. Ceremonies where peyote was used are elaborate affairs, many people would join in, and the rituals would go on for days. Today they combine old Aztec song with new Christian symbolism.

Jimsonweed, known to the Aztecs as toloatzin (inclined head, a reference to its fruits) was used as a powerful and dangerous medicine. Toloztzin was given to woman to ease childbirth and applied externally to relieve arthritis. It was a plant to be treated with great respect, unlike most of the other visionary plants used by the Mexica people, toloztzin is exceedingly toxic. The Huichol personify the plant as Kieri Tewiyari, an evil sorcerer who would entice passerby’s to eat his leaves only to inflict insanity and death. More then one ethnobotanist has found themselves shunned by people they worked with after handling and collecting jimsonweed without making certain prayers and offerings. There is conjuncture that toloztzin may have been added to the “obsidian knife water” that was sometimes given to sacrificial victims to make them more pliant.

These are but a handful of the most common visionary plants used by the indigenous groups in the Mexica region. There are numerous “false peyotes,” cacti of other species that were used when the true peyote was unavailable. The seeds of the morning glory, known as ololiuqui, a Nahautl term meaning ‘round thing’, were kept in most houses, in a basket alter and worshipped as idols. Their power of assessing illness has kept the seeds use alive today. The Zapotec often call them Semilla de la Virgin (Seeds of the Virgin) or Heirba María (Mary’s Herb) an example of old paganism mixing with new Christianity. Some ethnobotanists believe that the unidentified pipilzintzintle (Nobel Prince) mentioned in the Aztec codices may be what is now known as Salvia divinorum, or diviner’s sage, in use in the Oaxaca region today.

Indigenous people usually have no concept of physically or organically induced illness. To them, disease was caused by disruptions in the spirit world, to which they had to journey in order to understand what was occurring. Under the spell of visionary plants, shamans were able to, on some level, diagnose and treat the maladies of their patients. While modern government and church declare the states brought about by consumption of these plants of the gods as, delusions, lies of Satan, psychosis and random misfiring of the brain, there must be some value in these states, or we would not see a world wide pattern of use which began long before recorded history.

Works Cited

An Aztec Herbal: the classic codex of 1552. Translated by William Gates. Ontario Canada: General Publishing Company 2000.

Carrasco, Davíd and Scott Sessions. Daily Life of the Aztecs: people of the sun and earth. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group 1998.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs: an interpretation. New York: Press Syndicate of Cambridge University 1991.

Furst, Peter T. Hallucinogens and Culture. Web published at http://www.sunrisedancer.com/radicalreader/type.asp?iType=21


Pendell, Dale. Phamakodynamis: stimulating plants, potions, and herbcraft. California: Mercury House 2003.

Pendell, Dale. Phamako/poeia: plant powers, poisons, and herbcraft. California: Mercury House 1995.

Sahagun, Fray Bernardino de. 1950﷓1963. The Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe, New Mexico: The School of American Research and the University of Utah.

Schultes, Richard Evans, and Albert Hoffman. 2001. Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use, Revised. Healing Arts Press

Weil, Andrew T. 1972. The Natural Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.