Still Seeking: 50 Years of the ‘Magic’ Mushroom


Rak Razam

Date of original publication

Apr, 2007


Australian Penthouse

May 13, 1957, during the height of the post-war Eisenhower years, an article written by the influential banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson, 'Seeking the Magic Mushroom' , was published in the seminal Life magazine. In homes across the nation, everyday Americans weathering the poles of luxury capitalist growth and communist menace were rocked by the strange article, part anthropology and part-adventure narrative, that introduced proof of a hitherto speculative practice by indigenous Mexican Indians, who "chew strange growths that produce visions". A serpent was set loose in suburbia. The chain of events Wasson’s story unleashed popularised knowledge of altered states of mind and, some say, was the first spark of what was to become the psychedelic revolution. Now, fifty years later, Westerners are still seeking the ‘magic’ mushroom, as the time-honoured sacrament of Mesoamericans comes out of the fields and into the medical fold as a valuable tool in the burgeoning field of neuroscience.

1957 was the year that Sputnik was launched into orbit, Leave it to Beaver premiered on CBS, and, conversely, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published. It was a world with only a dim memory of the role of mind-altering mushrooms as religious sacraments, and even then, it was codified and ambiguous, or wrapped in mythology or fairy tales. The mushroom’s role in the history of Western culture had been almost extinguished from memory when Gordon Wasson and his photographer, Alan Richardson, came to the remote Oaxacan village of Huautla de Jiménez in mid-1955 and chanced upon the Mazatec curandera, or shaman, Doña María Sabina. On the night of June 29-30 she led a velada or vigil, what Wasson likened to a ‘holy communion’, where ‘divine’ mushrooms were first “adored and then consumed”.

As Wasson wrote in the Life article: 

The mushrooms were of a species with hallucinogenic powers; that is, they cause the eater to see visions. We chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck. We had come from afar to attend a mushroom rite but had expected nothing so staggering as the virtuosity of the performing curanderas and the astonishing effects of the mushrooms. Richardson and I were the first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms, which for centuries have been a secret of certain Indian peoples living far from the great world in southern Mexico. No anthropologists had ever described the scene that we witnessed.

Wasson's dramatic announcement in Life magazine was intended as advance publicity for a lavish, privately printed book he was about to publish that same year, ‘Mushrooms, Russia and History’. An editor of Life magazine had overheard Wasson’s Mexican adventures over lunch at the Century Club in New York and invited him to contribute to their True Life section with free reign to write it as he wished. The editor, however, may be the one to thank for branding this ancient indigenous sacrament with the term is has forevermore been identified: ‘magic’ mushrooms.

Wasson described his experience with the mushrooms as a “soul-shattering happening”. The sacred mushroom, he said, allows one to see “more clearly than our mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life.” How unusual must such a claim have been in the cultural milieu of 1950s America? And how unusual a man was Gordon Wasson, who has been described as part businessman, part adventurer and part scholar, a real-life Indiana Jones type adventurer?

Wasson was born 22 September 1898 and brought with him a Victorian sense of intellectual curiousity and a relentless love of knowledge. His father was an Episcopalian clergyman and he started his career as a journalist before entering the banking profession in 1928, working his way up to become vice president of J.P. Morgan, a leading New York bank. Wasson was also an amateur scholar and a pioneer 'ethnomycologist' – one who studies the cultural use of mushrooms, as he had coined the term with his wife, Valentina, a white Russian with a passion for the mushrooms born of her ethnic heritage.

On their honeymoon in 1927, on an afternoon walk in the Catskills in upstate New York, the newlywed couple had come upon “a forest floor carpeted with mushrooms”. While Valentina scooped them up lovingly and cooked and consumed them for dinner, the wary Wasson saw a fundamental division between their two reactions. Emboldened, he traced the reaction to the mushroom throughout all available folklore, literature and mythology for three decades to explore what he termed ‘mycophobes’ – those who have an aversion to the mushroom, and ‘mycophiles’ – those who eat them.

Wasson wove together clues from across inter-disciplines: history, linguistics, art, archeology, mythology and religion in a methodic, scientific way. Spanish records indicate that the Aztecs had called the ‘magic’ mushroom teonanacatl (‘flesh of the gods’), but ceremonial use in modern times had not been proven. Allusions were all through European folklore and global mythology, like the mushroom and the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and in sporadic accounts from medical accounts throughout the Victorian era of unsuspecting picnic-ers becoming bemushroomed with laughter and “intoxicated of the senses”. And then, digging through the world’s holy books and historical records, Wasson claimed to have found something even bigger: a key to understanding the religious interface of many shamanistic cultures, which he believed also lay at the base of many of the foundational world religions.

Wasson later went on to posit the sacred mushroom as the active ingredient in the hallucinogenic 'Soma' mentioned in the Hindu holy book, the Rig-Veda, around 1500 B.C. Soma is a still controversial, unidentified sacred substance with mind-altering properties that is mentioned many times through the ancient Sanskrit writings. Wasson argues, as convincingly as one can from evidence of mushroom iconography at the time but without, unfortunately, any extant biological record, that the most likely active ingredient in this elixir was the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria, the red-capped, white-stemmed fly agaric.

He further reasoned, backing it up with archeological clues, that the ancient Greek Mystery Rites of Eleusis (which included such Hellenic ‘trippers’ as Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, and possibly Homer) were laced with a fungus containing ololiuqui or morning glory seeds, which produce a milder version of LSD effects. His provocative theories upset multi-disciplinary applecarts but gained many adherents, and helped catalyse new fields of research in cultural anthropology, comparative theology and enthnomycology.

Wheras earlier cultures had preserved the secret of the mind-altering effect of the mushroom and its plant cousins, draping them in ceremony and ritual to support initiates into an experiential communion with the ‘divine’, the culture of the 1950s reacted in a more traditional way. 

Wasson funded all his mushroom expeditions (of which there were dozens throughout the 50s-70s) himself, but as a banker he was always shrewd with money, and conversely knew the true value of things. He put out for grant money to help finance one of his later trips in 1956 and the CIA responded, using a front group called the Gerschickter Fund for Medical Research.

This was the heyday of MK-Ultra, the secret mind-control program that dosed soldiers, unwitting government agents and ordinary citizens with LSD over a dozen years, according to declassified documents released in 1975. Under the banner of project ARTICHOKE, which scoured the world for psychotropic plants that could prove useful mind-control agents, the CIA reasoned that possession of, and samples from, the hallucinogenic Mazatec mushroom could help in their cold-war mind battles. They assigned James Moore, a nervous, uptight CIA chemist from the University of Delaware to accompany the expedition.

Moore secured a supply of the sacred fungi but failed in his attempts to isolate the chemical ‘spirit’ in the mushroom. Thus it was that the CIA, one of the world’s most powerful organisations, was beaten to the punch yet again by Dr. Albert Hofmann, the famous discoverer of LSD-25, who isolated, identified and synthesised the active principles of the mushrooms: psilocybin and psilocin, from samples Wasson made available in 1958. The chemical giant Sandoz patented them, and man replicated in little white pills the sacred “spirits in the mushroom” the Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina had first revealed a scant few years earlier. The nascent field of neurochemistry was also growing in leaps and bounds, and as it studied psilocybin it proved it was non-addictive and related to the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.

Wasson’s groundbreaking work with the mushrooms soon spread like information spores in the global psychotherapy network. An up-and-coming Harvard psychologist named Timothy Leary tried ‘magic’ mushrooms whilst on holiday in Mexico in 1960, inspired by a colleague whom had read Wasson’s article. What followed was the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which experimented with Leary’s early work with the psychology of game playing. In 1961, after a period of controversial self-experimentation upon other Harvard faculty and students, Leary instigated psilocybin tests for alcoholism and personality disorders at Concord prison. Leary was famously quoted as saying “Let’s see if we can turn the criminals into Buddhas.” The results, which used psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to help reduce recidivism with prisoners, had dramatic effects, reducing the number of prisoners returning to jail after six months from a national average of 67% to only 25% – but they have yet to be retested.

In concert with Walter Pankhe, a physician and a minister, Leary later conducted further controversial psilocybin experiment in 1962, where the mushrooms’ active ingredient was given to a double-bind group of 10 of the 20 Harvard Divinity students present to induce religious states. On Good Friday, 1962 at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, the group participated in a worship service, and reported profound religious experiences that seemed to provide empirical support for earlier academic connections between psychoactive substances and the roots of religion.

 In a few short years the sacred mushroom had traveled from the wild hills of Mexico to the honoured halls of Harvard, as the Western fascination with the nature of consciousness – and the knowledge and power it represented – escalated.

At the heart of this cultural transfusion was the need to redefine the nature of religious or mystical experiences themselves and integrate the potential for plant-assisted sacraments back into the Western cosmology. Wasson, along with fellow writers and scientists, Ott, Schultes and Hofmann, was later responsible for the popularisation of the word ‘entheogen’, which is Latin for “evoking the Divine within”, which they coined in 1978 to steer the sacred use of these substances away from the stigma the word psychedelics had created, and towards religious use. The theory that Wasson and his coterie developed on the use of psychoactive plants and their connection to primal, Gnostic spirituality is described in his book, The Road to Elusius:

As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of a mushroom (or was it a higher plant?) with miraculous properties was a revelation to him, a veritable detonator to his soul, arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence, and gentleness and love, to the highest pitch of which mankind is capable, all those sentiments and virtues that mankind has ever since regarded as the highest attributes of his kind. 

It was the type of message that the sprouting counter-culture of the early 60s embraced, as the readers of Wasson’s tale of initiation into the secrets of the ‘magic’ mushroom went through their own psychedelic initiations. Western thrillseekers came to the remote Oaxaca village in search of the mystical connection Wasson wrote about. Such was the power of curandera Maria Sabina’s allure, mixed with the psychedelic-inspired movement of the time, that rock legends such as Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Pete Townsend all made pilgrimages to mushroom journey under her guidance. From the late 60s to the mid-70s, Huautla was literally besieged by Western seekers. The police were doing their best to seal off the little mountain hamlet from curious hippies, and the government went as far as to close off the village to outsiders for a time.

Wasson was against the masses taking the mushrooms without a foundational support like tribal societies provided in their religious ceremonies. Yet he was also one of the founders, unwittingly or not, of the ‘psychedelic movement’, by bringing the sacred knowledge of the Indians to the masses in the first place. “I had always had a horror”, he wrote, “of those who preached a kind of pseudo-religion of telepathy, who for me were unreliable people; if our discoveries were to be drawn to their attention, we were in danger of being adopted by such undesirables.” And while the hippies banged on the village door, the locals had their own problems.

Maria Sabina’s house first house was eventually burned down, presumably because she lived with the stigma of being the curandera who let the sacred mushroom be tainted by the West. Now, decades later, the mushrooms have become items of commercial value and trade in shops from Amsterdam to Tokyo. Before recent changes to UK laws, ‘magic’ mushroom growing kits and spores were widely available across Britain, and European stores still sell them over the internet. In 1971, Wasson read an interview with María Sabina, which appeared in the European magazine L'Europe, published in Milan. It reported that when the village official had requested her aid in helping the foreigners, she did so because she felt she had no choice. But she also declared that when she was asked to meet them [Wasson and Richardson] that she "should have said no."

Psychedelic author Daniel Pinchbeck visited the town of Huautla de Jiménez while researching for his book, “Breaking Open the Head: A Contemporary Journey into the Heart of Modern Shamanism”, published in 2002. Decades after Wasson’s groundbreaking and sacred mushroom ceremony, Pinchbeck participated in a mushroom ritual that catered to the spiritual tourist market that still draws seekers to the remote village. But the set and setting were much different than half a century ago, and Pinchbeck found that the power of the ritual had faded. Maria Sabina herself said as much herself, noting that some ephemeral ingredient seemed to be missing ever since Westerners were brought into the secret.

Some indigenous critics suggest that in talking about the mushrooms Wasson had profaned them, and broken a sacred trust, desacralizing the sacred by taking it out of context. Yet as Wasson himself said in his 1980 book, ‘The Wonderous Mushroom’: "I arrived [among the Mexican Indians] in the same decade with the highway, the airplane, the alphabet. The Old Order was in danger of passing with no one to record its passing." As the modern world collided with the archaic, an exchange happened. They got the technology and we got the mushroom – and maybe an old way of knowing for a modern world, if we have the courage to face it.

But since that fateful day Wasson encountered the sacred mushroom our cultural jadedness has also increased. In our modern technological age, having lived through the days of flower-power and widespread drug experimentation, we’re now a global village that’s been there and done that. 

The idea of changing our brain chemistry is not only nothing new, it’s now one of the biggest businesses in town, with some estimates at over 30 million Americans on one brand or other of antidepressants. But is there room on the market shelves for a psilocybin brand drug? Absolutely.

Almost 40 years since psychedelic medicine was last explored a medical resurgence in the use of psilocybin for treating depression, alcoholism and other addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and in relieving pain and anxiety for the terminally-ill is underway around the world. A number of legal studies have been approved or are awaiting approval by the US Food & Drug Administration. One of the most prominent of these clinical trials is being spearheaded by a team of Harvard doctors exploring the use of psilocybin for treating patients with an extreme form of migraine called a 'cluster headache'.

Dr. Charles S. Grob, M.D., has conducted psilocybin research with late-stage cancer patients at the Harbour-UCLA Medical centre in California, and Dr. Rick Doblin, Ph.D., the founder of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), a registered non-profit organisation in California, assists researchers worldwide in facilitating government approval for beneficial psychedelic research in humans.

And in July 2006 a follow-up study to the Good Friday divinity tests was conducted by John Hopkins researchers under controlled scientific procedures. This breakthrough legal study was co-sponsored by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), and points towards a thaw on the 40-year freeze on clinical psychedelic research. Like the original volunteers, participants in the modern mushroom-derived tests said that the experience led to “positive changes in attitude and behaviour”, and a third of them cited it as one of the single most significant experiences of their lives.  The long-term ‘spiritual buoyancy’ of a controlled dose of psilocybin, and the catalyst it has proven itself for mystical or religious states of mind is now a pressing neurological issue for 21st century researchers and society at large.

Wasson died 23 December, 1986, at his home in Danbury, Connecticut. By acting as the archetypal Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods, he was often held to blame for some of the spot fires that broke out in the intervening years from his bringing the sacred mushroom to a profane world. But as he said in his book, The Road to Elusius:

"[The mushroom] made [me] see what this perishing mortal eye cannot see. What today is resolved into a mere drug ... was for [early humans] a prodigious miracle, inspiring in [them] poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Or do we need them more than ever?"