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Meet the Sage of the Diviners

‍Salvia divinorum: The visionary herb named after its use in medicinal divination by the Mazatec Indians of the Sierra Mazateca.

Overview: Salvia divinorum, known as the "sage of the diviners," is a psychedelic plant with historical roots in Mazatec ceremonies in Mexico. Traditionally used for healing and divination, it holds cultural and spiritual significance. While its origin is uncertain, recent popularity as a recreational drug contrasts with its sacred use. The plant, containing salvinorin A, is integral to Mazatec healing practices, inducing visionary experiences. Traditional ceremonies involve meticulous preparation, guided experiences, and post-ceremony integration. Salvia's association with the Virgin Mary adds a unique spiritual dimension. Despite its growing popularity, especially outside Mexico, it remains a sacred sage with distinctive visionary qualities and healing potential.

A Brief Introduction to Salvia

Salvia divinorum, commonly known as salvia or the "sage of the diviners," is a psychedelic plant. It contains the psychoactive compound salvinorin A, which induces profound psychedelic effects when consumed.

Rooted in the magico-religious ceremonies of the Mazatec, an indigenous people from northeastern Oaxaca, Mexico, this semi-tropical perennial herb has played a vital role in facilitating communication with supernatural forces and fostering life-changing spiritual experiences. Referred to as "xka pastora" or "ska Maria pastora" ("the leaves of Mary the shepherdess") by the Mazatec, salvia's plant species name, "divinorum," meaning "of the seer," reflects its integral role in Mazatec divination.

While traditionally esteemed for its psycho-spiritual significance, the recent surge in its distribution and recreational use, fueled by the internet, has propelled salvia into a new realm of popularity and intrigue.  

The Origin of Salvia Divinorum 

As of yet, no researchers have been able to determine the definite origin of salvia. Interestingly, there is no evidence of sexual reproduction of salvia in the Sierra Mazateca — the only region from which it is known, where it grows wild in humid, canopied areas near watercourses — suggesting that the origins of the plant may lie elsewhere. 

The reported lack of sexual reproduction, in addition to the fact that the conditions of the Sierra Mazateca appear unsuitable for sexual reproduction, poses the question of whether salvia could perhaps be the plant known as “Pipilzintzintli,” or, “little prince,” seemingly depicted in ancient Aztec murals and the Dresden Codex — the oldest surviving book written in the Americas — as has been hypothesized.

Reports of other indigenous cultures orally consuming leaves for medicinal-divination purposes supports the hypothesis that salvia originally grew and was distributed across a much larger geographical range than its current, limited distribution in the Sierra Mazateca.

In 1995, ethnobotanist Jonothan Ott, who, incidentally, is credited with co-coining the term “entheogen” — an alternative name for psychedelics meaning “creating God within” — speculated that salvia may have been introduced to the Sierra Mazateca after the Spanish conquest, based on the fact that it lacks an indigenous Mazatec name. Its current name, Ska Maria Pastora, refers to two post-conquest introductions: the Virgin Mary and sheep.

There are also reportedly no documented wild populations of salvia in the Sierra Mazateca, with botanist Aaron S. Reisfield observing in 1993 that all known salvia populations in the region are clonal and, at least potentially, exist as a consequence of human introduction. Many others believe, however, that the Mazatec have resided in the Sierra Mazateca since pre-Hispanic times, and are indeed the true cultivators of this sacred sage. 

Earliest Mentions of Salvia Divinorum in Scientific literature 

Salvia has not received as much attention as other plants or fungi used by the Mazatec, such as the lysergic acid amide-containing morning glory seeds, or psilocybin-containing psychedelic mushrooms.

Salvia was first mentioned in western academic literature in a 1939 paper entitled The Elements of Mazatec Witchcraft, authored by anthropologist Jean Bassett Johnson. This was followed up in 1945 by Austrian-born ethnobotanist Blas Pablo Reko, who documented the use of a “magic plant” by the Mazatec called “hoja de adivinación” or “the leaf of the prophecy,” indicating the inhabitants of the Sierra Mazateca consumed the plant to induce visionary experiences.

In 1952, ethnologist Roberto J. Weitlaner reported the use of “yerba de Maria” by curanderos in Oaxaca, before the first botanical specimen of salvia was collected by a Mexican botanist named Arturo Gómez-Pompa 5 years later, and identified at the genus level. 

In 1961, discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, and ethno-mycologist, R. Gordon Wasson undertook an expedition to Oaxaca, Mexico, chronicling the use of several psychoactive plants by Mazatec curanderos. As well as reporting on cultural uses of entheogenic plants, Hofmann and Wasson became the first western academics to participate in a traditional salvia ceremony. 

In December 1962, Wasson and Hoffman collected a flowering specimen of the revered plant, which was later identified by taxonomist Carl C. Epling as the new species, Salvia divinorum

Traditional Use of Salvia Divinorum

Mazatec use of salvia takes place during healing and divination ceremonies, as well as in the training of medical practitioners. These include curanderos (“chjota chjine” meaning “men of knowledge”), herbalists (Chjota chjine-xka), midwives (chjine kjindi), and bonesetters (chjota chjine b’ekjaoninda). 

Findings from carefully conducted field research indicate that Mazatec differentiate between illnesses that can be cured with medicines, and illnesses that can be cured by curanderos.

The types of illnesses that can be cured by curanderos are typically believed to be caused by an evil supernatural entity, whereas illnesses cured by medicines are based on humoral theory — an ancient Greek theory stating that the body is composed of four basic “humors” or bodily fluids such as black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood — and are thought to be caused by bodily imbalance. For example, thermal shock is often considered a cause of illness by the Mazatec. 

Mazatec healers are known to use medicinal plants, including salvia, to stop the progression to death, and treat the following illnesses:

  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches and rheumatism
  • As a palliative for those nearing death 
  • “Panzón de arrego” or “swollen belly” — a gastrointestinal disorder unique to the Mazatec which they believe to be caused by an evil sorcerer or “brujo” 

The Mazatec perceive illness not only as a natural deviation from full health but also as a threat to life. In fact, the Mazatec term “ti-mee-nia” means both “I am sick” and “I am dying.” The medicinal potential of salvia is currently being scientifically studied outside of the Mazatec community. 

What is a Traditional Salvia Ceremony Like? 

Before overseeing ceremonies, prospective Mazatec curanderos must be trained through an informal apprenticeship in which an experienced practitioner guides them through a series of psychedelic experiences with a variety of visionary plants. 

Over two years, trainees ingest increasingly large amounts of salvia leaves at regular intervals to become familiar with the medicine, enhance their ability to navigate the salvia experience, and attain sacred knowledge that can be integrated into their eventual practice. 

According to Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México researcher, José-Luis Díaz, ceremony participants must partake in ritual preparation that involves careful and respectful harvesting of leaves, fasting for a prolonged period, and abstaining from sex for 40 days before they are allowed to journey with salvia.

Once these preparatory responsibilities have been met, participants are judged to be ready for the consciousness alteration induced by the plant’s fresh, green leaves, which are either chewed or crushed into a fine pulp to be infused in water and ingested as a liquid. 

Quiet is considered foundational to the success of salvia journeys. As such, ceremonies take place at night in dark, remote locations to prevent disruptions. Ceremonies last approximately two to three hours, during which time the participants are guided through a dynamic, dream-like state of consciousness as the curandero (man) or curandera (woman) enchantingly recites religious incantations. 

Once the incantations come to an end, the curandero/a often bathes the participant in the “blood” (juice) of the salvia leaves, which marks the end of the ceremony. After the ceremony, participants are debriefed to help them interpret the meaning of their experience and consolidate significant insights, which, in some sense, bears some similarity to integrative therapy sessions that take place in clinical studies using psilocybin and MDMA. 

There is also always one sober person present to watch over the ceremony and prevent any harm to participants.

The Mazatec people are typically quite hesitant to reveal any procedural details regarding healing ceremonies. By allowing strangers to witness what goes on inside a sacred ceremony, curanderos risk committing sacrilege and possible ostracism from the community. So goes the tragic tale of famous mushroom healer, María Sabina, whom, having been pursuaded by Gordon Wasson to facilitate a mushroom ceremony for him after he feigned illness, and been convinced to allow Wasson's friend Allan Richardson to photograph the cermeony, was eventually shunned by the people of Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, for contributing to the popularization of their sacred tradition.

Salvia and The Significance of The Virgin Mary 

The Mazatec associate Salvia with the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. Interestingly, the reference to Mary as a shepherdess is inconsistent with the teachings of Christianity, prompting some researchers, including Jonathan Ott, to speculate that it may represent an indigenous description of the plant pre-conquest that was later incorporated into Christian beliefs.

Before the ceremony, participants are told to expect contact with the spirit of Mary as the experience is a form of communion with her leaves. Naturally, many users report visions of Mary, which is perhaps not all that surprising considering the power of expectation, not to mention the fact that almost 80% of Mexicans are Catholic.

Mexico’s sizable Catholic population could explain why salvia is not a popular recreational drug there. Nonchalant, recreational experimentation with the sage of the diviners — a plant so highly regarded for its spiritual potential — could be considered inappropriate and perhaps even disrespectful to the Catholic Church. 

Salvia Divinorum: The Sacred Sage  

Until the 1960s, the use of salvia was unique to the Mazatec, a Mesoamerican Indian group of northeast Oaxaca, Mexico. After Spanish colonization in the 1500s, the Dominicans and Jesuits began to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism, and although they were largely successful — as is evidenced by Mexico’s great percentage of Catholics — the Mazatec held on to their traditional beliefs and rituals. 

Usage patterns outside of Mexico are quite different, however, with salvia growing in popularity as a recreational drug in North America and Europe. Recreational users typically smoke concentrated salvia extracts to produce a rapid-acting intense trip, which lies in stark contrast to the traditional use of salvia in medicinal divination ceremonies. Indeed, smoking salvia is considered an act of sacrilege by the Mazatec.

Although it may not receive as much attention as other indigenous medicines, such as the Amazonian ayahuasca brew or sacred psilocybe mushrooms, salvia is a remarkable plant with truly distinctive visionary qualities and unquestionable healing potential. The reverence with which the Mazatec treat salvia comes as no surprise, and could serve as an important lesson as the use of psychedelics rises in the west.  

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