_The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica_, No. 7 in the Ethnomycological Studies series, by newspaper reporter and banker turned ethnomycologist, R. Gordon Wasson, is a fascinating account of the hallucinogenic mushroom cult and its use among shamans in Mesoamerica. Wasson along with his wife Valentina Pavlovna had written their first account of hallucinogenic mushrooms in _Mushrooms, Russia and History_. Later, they extended their research to include the presence of the hallucinogenic mushroom cult among the Indo-European peoples in _SOMA: Divine Mushroom of Immortality_. The author refers to the hallucinogenic drugs he discusses as entheogens, a neologism coined to mean "God-within-us" referring to the quasi-religious experiences invoked by these substances. Wasson's writings focus on the mushroom cult as well as revealing its role in the origins of primitive religious practice and among shamans. Nevertheless, Wasson was opposed to the crass usage of the mushroom by pleasure and thrill seekers as well as hippies. He expresses his disgust at the "hippies, self-styled psychiatrists, oddballs, even tour leaders with their docile flocks . . . upsetting and abusing the quiet tenor of life in what had been, superficially at least, an idyllic Indian village". For Wasson, the mushroom was a sacred substance and therefore merited treatment with the highest respect. The regions discussed in this book begin at Nicaragua and run north and west to a wavy line that runs across Mexico just north of Mexico City.
The author begins by discussing his encounter with the mushrooms at a velada (a shamanic mushroom ceremony) in Huautla, Mexico. At this velada the author encounters Maria Sabina, a mushroom seeress who administers the mushrooms and undergoes a transformative rite. The author notes the religious syncretism involved among the Indian inhabitants of Mesoamerica, often combining Catholic Christianity with their traditional pagan religious beliefs and worship of the mushroom. While Maria Sabina sings and dances, the author reports on his hallucinogenic state after he has consumed the mushroom. The author notes the kaleidoscopic colors that flash before his eyes comparing them to Plato's forms. While initially the experience induces nausea, at his second velada he did not experience this nausea to such a degree. The author thoroughly describes the Mesoamerican velada mentioning the essentials as well as the role of the shaman. The mushrooms are affectionately known as "small fry" or "little tykes" but also "clowns" by the shaman. Wasson considers the eating of mushrooms to be a sacrament and notes the animosity felt towards this sacrament by the early Spanish Christian colonizers. Wasson also compares these mushroom ceremonies to Siberian and Eurasian mushroom eating.
Following this discussion of the velada, the author turns his attention to the past. Here, he traces the historical origins of the hallucinogenic mushroom in Mesoamerican art, culture, myth, and traditional religion. The book includes many valuable photographs and drawings showing beautiful artworks which exhibit the mushroom symbolism. Among others, the author attempts to show that the statue Xochipilli (or "Prince of Flowers") concerns the hallucinogenic mushroom, traces the development of the mushroom among Nahuatl poetry (referenced as "the flowers" by the aristocratic poets and translated by Father Garibay), inebriating drinks of the Nahua, codices, lienzos, and mapas, the role of the "Holy Child" ("Holy Childe") Pilzintli pictured as a plunging god and referenced in the rites of Maria Sabina, Teotihuacan and the mushroom, and the mushroom stones of the Mayas. The author also discusses the historical record, in which he shows the mycophobic reaction of the European colonists and the Inquisition to the hallucinogenic mushroom cult as well as a discussion of human sacrifice among the Aztecs and the Mayan ball game in which he argues that the players partook of the mushroom before entering the game. The author brings out the distinct contrast between mycophobes (such as the Western Europeans) and mycophiles (including many of the archaic peoples of the earth). The book concludes with a discussion of shamanism and the mushroom. Wasson argues for the primacy of the hallucinogenic mushroom experience as a source for primitive religion. Indeed, the early Christians may have seen hallucinogenic mushroom eating as an abomination because it mocks Holy Communion. This may have led to the persecution of the native populations of Mesoamerica.
Wasson's book offers a fascinating account of mushroom use among the primitive peoples of Mesoamerica. It includes beautiful photographs and drawings which show much of the mushroom presence in Mesoamerican artworks. Wasson also references the mushroom's development in primitive myth and the worship of the mushroom as a deity (mycolatry). This book provides a fascinating perspective and a very interesting addition to our knowledge of primitive religious belief among the Mesoamericans.