Mazatecs and Maria Sabina

Historical Background

There is scant information available regarding the origin and history of the Mazatecs. There are two versions with some degree of verisimilitude about their origin. According to one of them, based upon interpretation of the “Quauhtinchan Annals”, Mazatecos descend from the Nonoalca-Chichimecas who migrated from Tula at the beginning of the twelfth century. On the upper part the current Mazateca territory they founded Teotitlán, Eloxochitlán, Mazatlán, Chichotla, and probably Ixcatlán in the lower region. It would seem that among Nonoalca-Chichimecas there were Mazateca speakers.

According to the other version documented through investigation, the region was inhabited by Mazatecos since the arrival of Nonoalca-Chichimecas from the Orient after a long journey in 890 AD. Its capital called Matza-Apatl, o Mazatlán, stood on the shores of the Santo Domingo River, near the present Jalapa Diaz. According to the same version, during 280, Mazatecos lived peacefully and independently until the arrival of Nonoalca-Chichimecas on or about 1170, who subjugated them. On or about 1300, however, they rid themselves of Nonoalca-Chichimeca control, and formed two dominions. That of the lower or Oriental Area, and that of the Upper or Western Area.

That the Mazateco territory was invaded and subjugated by Mexicas can be proven historically. It happened during the Moctezuma Ilhuicamina reign from 1455 to 1456, who established military posts in Teotitlán del Camino and Tuxtepec –upper and lower areas respectively– to maintain it under control. The high tributes established by Mexicas, as well as the humiliations they were subjected to, cause Mazateco uprisings, though unsuccessful, since they joined forces with Spaniards who arrived in 1520 to fight their oppressors.

Location and Environment

Mazatecos currently reside in the septentrional region of Oaxaca State, and due to their migration for the previously stated reasons, in some Southern areas of Veracruz State. Their territory includes two environmentally and culturally well-defined regions. The Upper region in the Sierra Madre Oriental, with elevations between 3,937 to 8,202 feet above sea level and are richly populated with the now famous Salvia divinorum plant. The Lower region, which extends from sea level to 3,937 feet, located in the area denominated “Papaloapan Basin”.

The Upper region lacks any important rivers and has a mild climate with some extremely cold and foggy areas, and copious rain in the summer. It has pine, oak, madrone, peach, apple, and pear trees. The main crop is coffee in the lower region.

The Papaloapan and its three main tributaries– Santo Domingo or Quiotepec, Tonto, and Usila — irrigate the lower area. The flow of these rivers and torrential rains provoke frequent floods. The climate is generally warm, which permits cultivation of corn and beans in addition to sesame seed, tobacco, peanuts, carrots, and Mexican Tea “epazote”. There are areas of tropical growth, though indiscriminate deforestation has decreased their numbers. These areas include fine timber such as cedar, primrose, and conacaste. Orange, lime, avocado, mango, and plum are among the fruit tree species.

Fauna is varied and includes deer, “mazates”, wild cat, wild boar, armadillo, fox, and other lower mammals. Fowl species such as chachalaca (Ortalis vetula mocalli), goldfinch, calander, “zezontle”, and diverse reptiles of various degrees of danger, such as rattle snake.

Maria Sabina, Mazatec healer, curandera, and Shaman. A native of Huautla de Jimenez, in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico, passed away in 1985 at the age of 91. She is famous for the role she played introducing the sacred mushroom ceremony velada to the world, as well as the Salvia divinorum plant that was often sued when the sacred mushroom was in short supply. Salvia has been cultivated in this region since recorded history, and this plant has played an important role in the history of this people.

In the early 1930’s, prior to Maria’s rise to prominence, Robert J. Weitlaner, witnessed, but it is not recorded he participated in, the Mazatec mushroom ceremony just northeast of Oaxaca. On July 16, 1938, his daughter Irmgard, with an anthropologist who eventually became her husband, Jean Bassett Johnson, together with two others, Bernard Bevan and Louise Lacaud, attended a mushroom rite in Huautla. Johnson later gave a full account of the event and were the first white persons “recorded” to attend such a ceremony (although it is said they did not participate in the ceremony or ingest the mushrooms).

Throughout the intervening years numerous reports have surfaced, although none offically recorded, of other white men having actually participating in the ceremony. Of those, there is only one of any note, that being a mysterious halluciogenic bio-searcher and mushroom hunter from the Taos, Santa Fe, New Mexico area. He is said to have had several species named after him and known as well, to have been married to a very powerful curandera Shaman himself (see).

In 1955, Gordon Wasson and Allan Richardson, made history by becoming the first KNOWN white men to document, publicize, or to participate in the nocturnal mushroom ceremony. Under the guidance of Maria Sabina, Wasson and Richardson each consumed six pairs of the mushroom Psilocybe caerulescens var. mazatecorum after which they began to feel the effects, manifesting visions of geometric patterns, palaces, and architectural vistas. The results of that experience was published in Life Magazine, May 13 1957, in an article titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” That article is considered the inspiration for Dr. Timothy Leary and others to try similar mushrooms and halucinogens.

Famous Mazatec Shaman

“I was eight years old when a brother of my mother fell sick. He was very sick, and the shamans of the sierra that had tried to cure him with herbs could do nothing for him. Then I remembered what the teo-nanacatl [mushrooms] told me: that I should go and look for them when I needed help. So I went to take the sacred mushrooms, and I brought them to my uncle’s hut. I ate them in front of my uncle, who was dying. And immediately the teo-nanacatl took me to their world, and I asked them what my uncle had and what I could do to save him. They told me an evil spirit had entered the blood of my uncle and that to cure him we should give him some herbs, not those the curanderos gave him, but others. I asked where these herbs could be found, and they took me to a place on the mountain where tall trees grew and the waters of a brook ran, and they showed me the herb that I should pull from the earth and the road I had to take to find them…[After regaining consciousness] it was the same place that I had seen during the trip, and they were the same herbs. I took them, I brought them home, I boiled them in water, and I gave them to my uncle. A few days later the brother of my mother was cured.”

Maria Sabina had visions on the “little saints” that someone (Wasson) was coming and would take the tradition to the world after 500 years of secrecy under Spanish rule. As a result of that action, giving the secrets of the “little saints” to outsiders, her son was murdered and her house burned to the ground. During the later years of her life she lamented that “the power of the sacrament had been lost in the clouds,” and ending up speaking English instead of the Mazatec. She lived to age 91, passing away on November 22, 1985.