In 1955, banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur connoisseur of mushrooms, was introduced by the Mazatec shaman María Sabina to the ancient teonanácatl — the Psilocybe mushroom, called ‘nti-ši-tho in Mazatec, Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. María Sabina called them her saint children. Wasson was deeply impressed by his mushroom experience. He speaks of ecstasy, the flight of the soul from the body, entering other planes of existence, floating into the Divine Presence, awe and reverence, gentleness and love, the presence of the ineffable, the presence of the Ultimate, extinction in the divine radiance. He writes that the mushroom freed his soul to soar with the speed of thought through time and space. The mushroom, he says, allowed him to know God.
Wasson’s description falls effortlessly into the language of ecstasy, awe, soul flight, the Divine Presence, the knowledge of God — the same stock of European concepts from which Mircea Eliade drew. But María Sabina herself could not understand any of this. She says: “It’s true that Wasson and his friends were the first foreigners who came to our town in search of the saint children and that they didn’t take them because they suffered from any illness. Their reason was that they came to find God.”
And none of it, of course, had anything to do with the indigenous uses of the mushroom, whose purpose was to cure sick people by, among other things, making them vomit. And she adds: “Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.” To find God, Sabina — who considered herself a Catholic — went to Mass.
When Sabina ingested the mushrooms, the mushroom spirits would show her the cause of the sickness — for example, through soul loss, malevolent spirits, or human sorcerers. “The sickness comes out if the sick vomit. They vomit the sickness. They vomit because the mushrooms want them to. If the sick don’t vomit, I vomit. I vomit for them and in that way the malady is expelled.” And she would then be able to cure the patient through the power of her singing. Sometimes the spirits told her that the patient could not be cured.
Wasson had clearly come to Mexico anticipating a religious or mystical experience, and now he had one. Indeed, he had lied to get it. He knew that the mushroom ceremonies were for curing sickness or finding lost objects, and he told Sabina — as well as other Mazatec healers — that he was concerned about the whereabouts and wellbeing of his son. He later admitted that this was a deception in order to gain access to the ceremonies.
Like Wasson, the influx of North Americans who followed him to her village were not seeking the cure of sickness; they were seeking enlightenment. “Some of these young people sought me out for me to stay up with the Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. ‘We come in search of God,’ they said. It was difficult for me to explain to them that the vigils weren’t done from the simple desire to find God, but were done with the sole purpose of curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from.” She laments: “But from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”
While Wasson was climbing the mountain of spirit, seeing Sabina as a saint-like figure, a spiritual psychopomp, “religion incarnate,” María Sabina dwelled steadfastly in the valley of soul, healing the sick, vomiting for them, expelling their sickness, living her own difficult and messy life — until Wasson’s spiritual bypass destroyed the power of her mushrooms.
This is what her poetry was like:
Because you gave me your clock
Because you gave me your thought
Beacause I am a clean woman
Because I am a Cross Star woman
Because I am a woman who flies
I am the sacred eagle woman, says
I am the Lord eagle woman, says
I am the lady who swims, says
Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opposum
Because I am the Lord opposum
I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin.
And here is Sabina singing, in a recording made by Wasson in 1956:
Ethnopoetic theorist and poet Jerome Rothenberg has put together a collection of Sabina’s songs translated into English, along with biographical and interpretive essays, as part of the Poets for the Millennium series. There are excellent reviews of the collection by poets Nathaniel Tarn, Hank Lazer, and Heriberto Yépez.