The Wondrous Mushroom by R. Gordon Wasson
Originally published in 1980, the 2013 edition of R. Gordon Wasson’s ‘The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica’ is issued by City Lights Books. Early in his career, Wasson was Vice-President of J. P. Morgan but later became the ‘father of ethnomycology’, dedicating his life to the study of psychoactive mushrooms in religion, culture, and history.
The story of R. Gordon Wasson—the ethnomycologist—begins with the oft told story of his honeymoon with his Russian bride Valentina. Upon discovering a host of mushrooms growing, his wife excitedly picked some for dinner, while Wasson looked on in horror thinking his would wake up a widower. Fortunately, he did not, and the curious opposition of their opinions about mushrooms eventually led them on a worldwide research adventure, which, among other things, led to them coming across an existing ‘mushroom cult’ in Mexico. While conflicting and deeply entrenched mushroom attitudes were discovered across the globe, in Mexico there had been identified important cultural monikers of long-held ritualistic mushroom taking and that the ‘cult’ was still existing was astonishing. Indeed, Wasson and his photographer became the first Westerners on record to intentionally consume the psychoactive Psilocybe mushrooms of Mexico.
Their research and discoveries were published in the two part edition Mushrooms, Russia, and History (1957), and more famously in a Life magazine article Wasson wrote called Seeking the Magic Mushroom (1957). Although Wasson’s work was an important influence on the rise of hallucinogen use during the 1960s counterculture, he vehemently disliked the hedonistic and sacrilegious use of the ‘sacred mushroom’ by the masses. He distanced himself from the whole episode, while continuing his project with numerous books for the remainder of his life. Although an amateur mycologist, Wasson’s early work was well received by scholars, if still largely ignored by certain sections of academia, but later as he began to investigate the role of mushrooms in early Indo-European culture his mushroom crusade became less popular among the white pillars.
In The Wondrous Mushroom he returned to their use in Mesoamerica, going over the evidence that he had first found thirty years before and introducing new information that had surfaced in the meantime. In many respects, the book is a knowledge map that seeks to draw not only the directions of research and their fungi-laced content and conclusions, but also go a step beyond and speculate on further possibilities—in this way, the book is an important starting point for anyone researching the use of mushrooms in Mesoamerica. Largely, Wasson’s mycological projects have been historical in scope, but his own experiences taking the mushrooms ritualistically with the curandera Maria Sabina meant he had a contemporary context with which to use in his investigation. Indeed, one of arguments therein is that the ritual culture changed very little and that remnants of ancient practice could be found in the modern setting—giving a backwards indication.
Evidence [of ancient entheogen use], strong though it might be, is immeasurably broadened and strengthened by the shamanic performances that still survive throughout the highlands of southern Mexico. These survivals permit us to gain a perspective on the antiquity of the use of the mushrooms (Wasson 2013, 40)
By examining the chants of Sabina in Mazatec country with Aristeo Matias’ far away in Sierra Costera, in Zapotec country, Wasson finds that they are “musically the same.” And, by contrasting the Mazatec liturgy with one found in the writing of Ruiz de Alarcon from the early seventeenth century, which Wasson believes were “unmistakably founded on the same oral traditions,” he concludes he is able to “legitimately triangulate deep into Mesoamerican prehistory to arrive at the age of the divinatory mushroom rite” (Wasson 2013, 41). Granted, this certainly reveals one way in which to engage with the research material, however, it is far from conclusive. In order to strengthen his argument Wasson turns to the historical record, archaeology and artefacts, art and etymology.
One of the most fascinating paths of Wasson’s investigation, and which is certainly in keeping with his approaches of the 1950s—though not necessarily explicitly—are his attempts to learn about the mushroom cult through its entwining with Christian traditions. The chapter Piltzintli, Child god of the Nahua, and His Christian Progeny investigates the parish church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, near Puebla. The church is beautifully decorated inside, with a wonderful motif of a children’s orchestra and a strongly suggested “plunging youth.” This youth is understood within the context of the “Child God of the Indians” who became identified with the cult of Our Lady of Atocha, which was introduced into the New World by the Dominican Order. At some point, the virgin and the child motif became centralised around the child, and the plunging child had significance with other earlier motifs of mushroom use. Wasson carefully argues that this is evidence of the continuation of the ancient mushroom cult, and its reinterpretation through a Christian lens.
Ultimately, a great deal of Wasson’s project involves the often non-precise arts of etymology and art interpretation, however, this is largely the evidence we have and therefore necessitates such an approach. His discoveries, certainly in Mesoamerica, are prescient and grounded and the republication of this book is necessary for a number of reasons—not least the short print runs Wasson’s books usually received upon first appearing and the high price they often fetch. As an amateur, albeit one with the connections of a life-long scholar, he would surely see the importance of giving this information to the widest possible audience or, then again, maybe not, as his own short publications appear to indicate. Regardless, it is a great book to have back on the scene and no doubt a vital starting place for anyone interested in magic mushrooms, Mesoamerican history, and the entheogenic analysis itself.