Ethnomycology is the discipline that studies the historical uses and sociological impact of fungi. While the discipline theoretically includes the study of fungi as food, medicine, and tinder for fire, its primary focus has been on the human use of psychoactive mushrooms, especially Amanita muscaria and mushrooms that contain, among other compounds, psilocybin.
Brian P. Akers
To date, more than twenty mushroom species, primarily in the genus Psilocybe, have reportedly been recognized as sacred and used in ceremony among various indigenous peoples of Mexico. Cultures in which some form of psychoactive mushroom use has been documented in modern times include the Chatino, Chinantec, Matlatzinca, Mazatec, Mixe, Mixtec, Nahua, and Zapotec. Apart from continuing interest in Mazatec shamanism, inspired in large part by the figure of María Sabina, there has been little general interest in sacred mushroom use by peoples elsewhere in Mexico, and scholarly work in this area has not been easily accessible.
But at least some of that situation has now been remedied. Brian P. Akers, an ethnomycologist, has collected a number of significant readings in his book The Sacred Mushrooms of Mexico: Assorted Texts, which presents classic scholarship, previously unavailable in English, on Matlatzinca, Mixtec, Mixe, and other Mesoamerican sacred mushroom rituals.
In addition to gathering and translating these texts, Akers has provided a lengthy and valuable introduction to the history of ethnomycological scholarship in Mesoamerica. He also discusses issues of translation and transliteration of Mesoamerican indigenous languages. Each individual article in the collection, too, is preceded by a lucid and thorough preface that places the work in its historical and cultural context. Five of these articles are translations of relevant scholarly sources in Spanish, many published in relatively obscure journals and difficult to find even in their original language.
But to call these articles scholarly, I think, does them an injustice. They include rich and detailed accounts — what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called thick description — of the place of psychoactive mushrooms in the lives of the peoples who use them, and of the reverence with which these medicines, these santitos and hombrecitos, curers of sickness and givers of information, are approached by those who use them.
The sixth text in the book is a transcript of The Sacred Mushroom, a celebrated episode of the classic television show One Step Beyond, a series that began in 1959 and dramatized allegedly paranormal events. This episode, however, featured host John Newland, with doctors, scientists, and a camera crew, traveling into the mountains of Mexico in search of a fabled mushroom that “stimulates extrasensory perception, enabling the mind to become telepathic.” This program may have been the only show in network television history — it was broadcast on ABC in 1961 — in which the host ingested psychoactive mushrooms and let the effects be recorded on camera.
To complement the transcript, here is the broadcast in its entirety:
Akers, the editor and translator, has a PhD in mycology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He specializes in the genus Lepiota which, like the genus Amanita, includes species containing potentially psychoactive amanitins. He has published a number of scientific journal articles on ethnomycology and fungal systematics. A recent interview with Akers on his book is here.