Before icons of mind-expanding 60s psychedelia like Timothy Leary and Ram Dass brought us the blueprint for a new cultural archetype, magic mushrooms were actually “niños santos”: the stuff of sacred healing rituals in the Mazateca communities of northern Oaxaca. In fact, the countercultural magic mushroom craze all started with a humble Mazateca curandera (medicine woman) from the Oaxacan mountain village of Huautla de Jiménez by the name of María Sabina Magdalena García.
Known as the “priestess of mushrooms,”, the Mystical Shaman Wise One, Mazateca curandera (medicine woman), and a visionary in her own right, María Sabina is, even to this day, widely regarded as the most famous Mexican healer to have ever lived. María Sabina was world famous as a ‘Wise One’, in fact, she could easily count the likes of Bob Dylan and Keith Richards amongst her fans.
Over the course of her life, María Sabina emerged as a true symbol of spirituality and firmly established herself as one of the most influential pioneers in the world of psychedelics, magic mushrooms, and sacred healing rituals. This was primarily attributed to the profound culmination of her life’s work as well as her unwavering passion, belief, and dedication to the hallowed practices of her community. In her native country, she was greatly admired by her people, who became the secret accomplices of her work, while western countries were captivated by María’s mysticism.
Since her childhood, María Sabina had guided ailing patients through healing rituals called Velada. In fact, she was the first contemporary Mexican curandera, or sabia (‘one who knows’), to allow Westerners to participate in this specific healing ritual. The Velada healing ritual requires all participants in the ritual to ingest psilocybin mushrooms as a sacrament to open the gates of one’s mind. The Velada healing ritual is seen as both a purification and a communion with the sacred.
The History of María Sabina
María Sabina was born into the Mazatec ethnic group in 1894. She came from a very small town in southern Mexico called Huautla de Jiménez, located in the Sierra de Oaxaca. According to research, María Sabina was only 8 years old when she had her first experience with hallucinogenic mushrooms. It is said that she relied on psilocybin mushrooms and their hallucinogenic powers to connect – both from a young age and throughout her life. It is believed that from a young age, Sabina frequently ate psilocybin mushrooms with her friend Maria Ana due to these hallucinogenic mushrooms growing abundantly and wildly around her, because she was hungry, and as a means to help her and her friend cope and deal with the grinding poverty of their colonized existence.
Following her first hallucinogenic experience, it is believed that she intuitively developed an in-depth understanding, knowledge, and appreciation for the sacred rituals and practices of her people and their profound healing powers. As one would expect, this earned her somewhat of a noteworthy reputation in and around her community. Her history and reputation ultimately led her to serve as a guiding spiritual force, healer, and bridge between the mystical and ritual world of the people in her community, as well as the spiritual exploration of the Western world as a whole.
María stemmed from a long lineage of shamans as her father’s family consisted of several shamans, spanning over decades. Both her grandfather and great-grandfather on her father’s side were highly respected shamans in her community. As María had regular contact with her shaman relatives from a young age, it brought her significantly closer to the region’s traditional ceremonies and sacred practises.
The region’s traditional ceremonies and rituals included the intake of hallucinogenic mushrooms. These ceremonies were performed as a method of bringing about contact with divinity. The hallucinogenic mushrooms used for the specific ceremonies were referred to as “holy children”, “saint children,” the “blood of Christ,” and “Flesh of the Gods” amongst the Mazatec people.
María Sabina, together with her entire community and elders, always bestowed the greatest degree of respect upon the “saint children”. Throughout her life and various endeavours, she always continued to echo the ancient wisdom of her people who felt that these hallucinogenic mushrooms were sacred and only to be used as medicine and for connection and contact with divinity and not for any meaningless psychedelic thrill or some sort of ‘magical bus’ taking you on a psychedelic trip.
Due to her unwavering convictions, passion, and beliefs, as well as the profound sacredness of each practice and traditional ceremony, both herself and her whole community held so dear, María completely despised the ‘hippies’ of her time. She firmly believed that they were spiritually off-base. As a result, she accused them of the dilution of sacred substances, ungrounded misuse, and corruption. In doing so, she reaffirmed and echoed the ancient wisdom and sacrosanct practices of her people, as well as herself.
The most common healing method/ceremony among the Mazatec people since prior to the colonial period, was the ritual intake of fungi of a certain mushroom species called Mexican Psilocybe. Mexican Psilocybe only grew in a particular mountain range. When someone with a distinct physical or spiritual condition requested and/or desired to visit this specific area of significance, Sabina served as a guide on the patient’s journey both to, and from, the spiritual realms (along with a cure for the illness).
To María Sabina, hallucinogenic mushrooms were so much more than most people regarded them to be – She viewed and perceived these magical mushrooms as a potential catalyst for something far greater and more profound. To Sabina, mushrooms were an instrument for connecting dimensions and realities that happen in parallel. Because of their peculiarity, intensity, and various reports of effectiveness, María’s healing sessions became remarkedly popular in Mexico during the early 1950s.
María Sabina & Healing Rituals
Following her first hallucinogenic experience, Sabina intuitively developed an in-depth knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of the consecrated rituals of her people and their profound healing powers. Since her childhood, Sabina had guided ailing patients through healing rituals called Velada. The Velada healing ritual requires all participants in the ritual to ingest psilocybin mushrooms as a sacrament to open the gates of one’s mind. The Velada healing ritual is seen as both a purification and a communion with the sacred. Because of the vast reports of effectiveness, peculiarity, and intensity associated with it, Sabina’s healing rituals and ceremonies became remarkedly popular in Mexico during the early 1950s.
During that same decade (around the middle of her life), María’s commitment, passion, and dedication to the healing practices and rituals of her community began to manifest and really take hold.
Sabina’s healing rituals and ceremonies with fungi included several aspects, including Mazatec chants, mezcal consumption, tobacco smoke, and ointments extracted from medicinal plants. These rituals and ceremonies were carried out at night, as the night was regarded as the primary time for the healer to be accompanied and guided by the stars to the kingdoms of the afterlife.
Over time, and as María’s sacred ceremonies and rituals became more renowned, her remarkable story, fame, and mystery caught the attention of several media outlets and various personalities around the globe and from different walks of life and disciplines. One of the first being Robert Gordon Wasson.
María Sabina & Robert Gordon Wasson
Robert Gordon Wasson was an American bank executive and economist by profession. He was also an amateur mushroom enthusiast (who eventually cultivated a lifelong fascination with hallucinogenic mushrooms), best known for his studies in ethnobotany (the interaction between humans and plants). Wasson, together with his wife Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, had several varied interests, one of which was the use of hallucinogenic plants in the rituals of ethnic groups from different parts of the world.
This interest, combined with the fact that he was a passionate student of ethnomycology, drew Wasson to Mexico after learning of Spanish codexes which spoke of Aztec mushroom rituals. After embarking on several trips, he finally made his way to Huatla de Jiménez where he visited the Mazatec Sierra. This is where Robert Gordon Wasson first heard of the infamous and mystical healer from Huautla and where a local community leader introduced him to María Sabina.
After Robert Gordon Wasson tracked Sabina down, María Sabina became somewhat of a global psychedelic superstar, which inadvertently sparked a cultural revolution that still continues to reverberate to this day.
While Sabina was initially very reluctant to perform the hallowed ritual/ceremony on someone who wasn’t technically ‘sick’ (as her sacred ritual was aimed at guiding ailing patients through healing rituals), she eventually acquiesced and agreed to perform the velada on Wasson and his wife.
Returning several more times, Wasson and his wife conducted numerous veladas (vigils) with the fungi, guided by Sabina herself. They further documented the experience in its entirety with both recordings and photos. In addition, Wasson also obtained research samples of the fungi that were used during the sessions.
With the knowledge and guidance of Sabina, Wasson underwent/ conducted several veladas with support from everyone from LIFE Magazine to the CIA (who experimented with mushrooms as part of their infamous mind-control program, MK Ultra, at the time). Following his experience, Wasson went on to publish an article in LIFE magazine in 1957. This infamous article, which included both text/information and images, not only described the research he conducted and gathered, but went on to chronicle the couple’s experiences with Sabina. After LIFE published this very detailed profile written by Wasson, visits by people from all around the globe to the mystical healer – María Sabina – multiplied tremendously, turning Sabina into a wildly famous, world-wide phenomenon.
Robert Gordon Wasson published his book ‘The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica’ in 1968. In his book he revealed, in detail, the fruits and findings of his anthropological and mycological research he gathered in Mexico. María Sabina was undoubtedly the main character. The book achieved enormous success and popularity, mainly due to the fact that at the time of publication in the United States, the hippie movement – who were ever interested in psychedelia and its accompanying mystique – was at its ultimate cusp.
In addition to María Sabina’s global popularity, the off-grid Oaxacan mountain village of Huatla de Jiménez quickly transformed into a tourist destination. As time went on, both foreign and domestic visits only continued to increase. However, many of these visitors were adventurous young mystics seeking an authentic velada or individuals purely and solely interested in engaging in psychedelic recreational pursuits – several (if not all) of whom abused the ceremony as a temporary thrill rather than respecting the ancient wisdom behind the ritual.
Once Sabina’s existence became known (following the infamous LIFE article) everyone from famous actors, artists, Beat poets and rock musicians travelled to Huautla de Jiménez in the hopes of being guided on a journey by the mushroom priestess herself.
All of these groups of people greatly obviated the long-standing and hallowed history and tradition of the incredibly sacred and ancient rituals, ceremonies, and practices of the Mazatec community. In the process, they also lost respect for the sacrosanct and deeply rooted culture, history, and religion of the Mazatec people. Through it all, Sabina condemned those who ignored the mushrooms’ sacred purpose in favour of purely hedonistic pursuits.
Regardless of her unwavering belief and deep admiration and appreciation for the sacredness of the practice of her people, in the end, the resulting world-wide spectacle significantly displeased the members of Sabina’s community as they believed that she was profiting from their hallowed traditions. As a result, María Sabina was shunned by her community for commercializing their sacred rituals and ceremonies as they claimed the niños santos lost their power after so much misuse on her part.
Her continued fame and popularity still gave her some economic stability however, although her sessions, even until her final days, were paid for with voluntary donations.
María Sabina as a Poet
While María Sabina was a visionary, shaman, healer, and influential pioneer, she was also a profound poet, but not in the ordinary sense. Although she didn’t know how to read or write, her poetry transcended far beyond that. Sabina expressed herself through the voice of ‘the sacred mushroom’, in a language that could be neither taught nor acquired. María lived out her life in the Oaxacan mountain village of Huautla de Jiménez, and yet, her words, always sung or spoken, have carried far and wide. This is a profound and powerful reminder of how poetry can arise in a context far removed from literature as such.
Seeking cures through language – with the help of psilocybe mushrooms, said to be the source of language itself – Sabina was, as Henry Munn describes her, “a genius [who] emerges from the soil of the communal, religious-therapeutic folk poetry of a native Mexican campesino people.” She may also have been, in the words of the Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, “the greatest visionary poet in twentieth-century Latin America.”
María’s chants were first translated from her native Mazatec tongue into English, and later into Spanish. All in all, María Sabina is, and forever will be, regarded as an influential and sacred figure in Huautla as well as one of Mexico’s greatest poets. Regardless of the high praise and recognition she received, Sabina never took credit for her poetry – according to her, the mushrooms spoke through her.
Death of María Sabina
María Sabina died in poverty in 1985 at 91 years old, but not before tending to the likes of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. While on the one hand, Sabina left behind a controversial legacy, she also left one of remarkable influence, profound discovery, dedication, and passion, and one that inadvertently sparked a cultural awakening and revolution that still continues to reverberate to this day.
One could go on to say that she left an extraordinary compendium of transformative and profound wisdom and medicinal practices by sharing the customs of the Mazatec people and her community with the rest of the world. However, at the same time, her story is a stark reminder and contains a vital lesson in reminding us all of the ease with which the modern world consumes ancestral traditions. Which, as with Sabina’s story, is not always with due respect, but rather based on fashion. This, in itself, can bear significant consequences.
Although Sabina’s final years were filled with poverty, illness, and misfortune, carrying the endless burden and anger of her people, fuelled by the unwelcome attention she had brought upon her community, she was always aware of her suffering.
Yet, despite it all, she had fulfilled her ultimate calling. In an oral account of her life, Sabina described a mushroom vision whereby the ‘Principal Ones’ – regarded by her as the tutelary gods, the lords of the rivers and mountains, and ancient invisible presences in nature – announced her mission:
“On the table of the Principal Ones, a book appeared, an open book that went on growing until it was the size of a person. In its pages there were letters. It was a white book, so white it was resplendent. One of the Principal Ones spoke to me and said, “María Sabina, this is the Book of Wisdom. It is the Book of Language. Everything that’s written in it is for you. The Book is yours, take it so that you can work.” I exclaimed with emotion, “That is for me. I receive it.”‘
María Sabina Conclusion and Take-Away
What is really interesting, and profoundly remarkable is the fact that when researching and learning about María Sabina’s story, and the sacred healing rituals of the Mazateca communities, you realize that when it comes to understanding human spirituality, science is, and always has been, really far behind.
The truth is, the Mazatac people and communities, María Sabina included, understood the immense healing powers of Connection Supplements (supplements such as psilocybin mushrooms, cannabis, and peyote) hundreds, probably thousands, of years before Western hippies and Westerner scientists in their matte white lab coats. In fact, for all its intents, purposes, and pretension, science is only now cluing into and recognizing the remarkable and far-reaching benefits and powers of these substances and their ability to facilitate profound healing connections in a multitude of ways – And often in ways that transcends all logical and scientific understanding.
Thankfully, the academic inquisition and confusion seems to be coming to an end, and not a second too soon either. What the entire world needs now is not more negative stigma, false reporting, misinformation, and grand misrepresentation of these substances. But rather a massive healing push, grand representation, and powerful spread of accurate information, properly facilitated by using these remarkable substances within an appropriate, grounded, and scientific spiritual framework. That is where the true power and purpose lies. With that being said, according to several scientific studies, history and research, psilocybin mushrooms and other connection supplements are exactly what is going to facilitate this vital global push.
With regards to María Sabina and her influence and legacy among the people native to Mesoamerica, the healer (of which Sabina was one, if not the greatest, of them all) is a character whose community function is vitally essential as she is responsible for communicating and connecting this world and that of the gods. As a result, she is responsible for curing diseases (physical or spiritual), as well as predicting the future and endless other possibilities.
The figure of María Sabina, specifically, was not only a symbol of wisdom and mysticism within her community, she was also an integral bridge between the world of divinity and that of humankind. Beyond that, Sabina was one of the key figures of recent decades in the world’s approach to the sacred practices and rituals of these people, a journey which still has many lessons to show us till this day.