The History & Taboos of Plant Medicine

Explore the history and taboos associated with the ancient use of indigenous plant medicines.

Overview: This blog explores the history and taboos surrounding ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms. Indigenous cultures have used these plant medicines for centuries for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Ayahuasca is a sacred brew from Amazonia that induces a psychedelic experience, while peyote is a sacred cactus used by indigenous communities in North America. Psilocybin mushrooms have been used in indigenous cultures worldwide. Taboos and dietary restrictions are associated with these plant medicines to maintain their integrity and ensure safety. The blog also discusses the impact of outsiders on indigenous traditions and emphasizes the importance of approaching these substances with respect and understanding.

Indigenous Traditions: A Look at the Taboos and History of Ayahuasca, Peyote, and Psilocybin Mushrooms

Indigenous plant medicines have been used for centuries for medicinal, spiritual, and ceremonial purposes in various cultures around the world. In recent years, these substances have gained popularity in the Western world as alternative forms of therapy and personal growth tools.

However, the use of plant medicines such as ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms is often shrouded in mystery and taboo due to their association with indigenous cultures and the lack of understanding of their cultural and historical significance. In this blog, we will explore the history and taboos surrounding these plant medicines.

Ayahuasca: A Sacred Brew from Amazonia

Ayahuasca, a sacramental botanical brew native to Amazonia, is made by combining two plants. One of these plants contains DMT, a powerful psychedelic compound, while the other contains compounds that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This is significant because DMT is rendered inactive by a digestive enzyme called monoamine oxidase when orally ingested. Co-administration of DMT with a plant containing MAOIs facilitates the absorption of DMT into the bloodstream, resulting in a 4-6 hour introspective psychedelic experience.

The use of ayahuasca has a rich history that can be traced back at least 1000 years in Bolivia and up to 5000 years in indigenous tribes according to some anthropologists. In most cases, ayahuasca is used as a plant medicine to diagnose diseases, heal, or connect with the spirit. However, it is also used for social bonding.

Beyond the Brew: Ayahuasca Taboos and Their Significance

The ayahuasca “dieta” is a set of dietary restrictions that is typically followed for at least a few days leading up to an ayahuasca ceremony. The restrictions typically include avoiding salt, sugar, spicy, fatty foods, and foods rich in tyramine. This is because these foods can interfere with the absorption of the active ingredients in ayahuasca and can also interact with the MAOIs in the brew, potentially leading to dangerous health effects.

In addition to the dietary restrictions, there are also certain taboos associated with ayahuasca use. These can vary depending on the specific tradition or culture, but commonly include abstaining from sex for a period before and after the ceremony, avoiding certain types of physical contact with others during the ceremony, and refraining from certain activities such as using tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs (including prescription and over-the-counter medications).

These taboos are seen as important for maintaining the integrity of the ayahuasca experience and for ensuring the safety and well-being of the participants. It's worth noting that these taboos and restrictions are not universal across all ayahuasca traditions and cultures, and may vary depending on the specific context and setting in which the ceremony takes place.

The Sacred Peyote Plant: Its Role in the Spiritual and Cultural Identity of Indigenous Communities

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small, round-shaped cactus that grows slowly and contains the psychoactive compound mescaline. Peyote is seen as a sacred plant and is considered an important part of the spiritual and cultural identity of indigenous communities in North America.

The ritualistic use of peyote dates back to at least 3500 BCE, as evidenced by samples found in Texas. Historically, peyote was used for various purposes such as healing, divination, and spiritual guidance.

The Native American Church, a religious organization that formed in the late 19th century, uses peyote as a sacrament in its ceremonies. The use of peyote is also protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which recognizes the importance of traditional Native American religious practices and protects their rights to access and use peyote in religious ceremonies.

The Huichol Pilgrimage to Wirikuta: A journey of healing and spiritual renewal

According to American anthropologist and filmmaker, Barbara Myerhoff, the Huichol, an indigenous tribe of about 35,000 people who live in the Sierra Madre Occidental range, are the oldest surviving culture in Mexico. They use peyote for healing purposes, to reconnect with their homeland, and revitalize their souls.

Every year, the Huichol undertake a peyote hunting pilgrimage that covers 500 kilometers to reach the sacred land they call Wirikuta in the San Luis Potosi desert. Along the way, they wear brightly colored hand-sewn dresses and long smocks with embroidered depictions of deer, peyote, and other significant symbols.

They conduct ceremonies at important natural sites, including lakes, lagoons, rivers, and mountains, to retrace and pay homage to the path of the First People. The pilgrimage serves to consolidate the Huichol culture and share sacred knowledge with new generations.

However, the journey to Wirikuta in search of peyote requires sacrifice, both for those on the hunt and those who stay behind. Many offerings are made to the sacred sites, including coins and food. To properly prepare for the pilgrimage, participants are expected to abstain from salt for two weeks, eat only small meals, and refrain from washing and sexual intercourse.

During the pilgrimage, the pilgrims publicly confess all of their past and present sexual relationships to let go of the past and purify their souls.

Myths Surrounding the Discovery of Peyote

Dr. Stacy B. Schaefer, an expert on indigenous peyote use, has noted that both the Huichol and the Native American Church have myths that focus on women's roles in discovering the psychoactive properties of peyote.

In the Huichol myth, a pair of goddesses find peyote and consume it, discovering its effects. One becomes known as the Mother of Peyote, while the other shares the plant medicine with her community.

In a version of the Native American Church's tale, a woman lost in an unfamiliar place dreams of peyote. After discovering the plant, it tells her how to reconnect with her family and inspires her to facilitate Native American Church meetings.

In a 1938 paper titled The Appeal of Peyote as a Medicine, pioneering ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes writes about the ritualistic use of peyote and its effects, and discusses various peyote origin myths including inducing visions and prophecies. 

According to one myth, a “lost starving Indian” (native american) is saved by the “remarkable sustaining powers of peyote.” In another myth, a group of downtrodden souls facing terrible odds in battle are said to have been saved by the curative and stimulating properties of this sacred plant medicine.

These myths are significant in highlighting the perceived healing and life-saving properties of peyote in indigenous cultures.

The History of the Magic Mushroom

Psilocybin mushrooms, also known as “magic mushrooms” or “shrooms,” are a type of fungi that contain the psychedelic compound psilocybin, which can induce altered states of consciousness. Psilocybin mushrooms have been used for thousands of years in indigenous cultures for spiritual and medicinal purposes.

Prehistoric rock art found near the city of Cuenca, Spain provides the earliest evidence of religious use of psilocybin mushrooms almost 6000 years ago, specifically Psilocybe hispanica. Archaeological evidence suggests that these medicinal fungi were used well before the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, with frescos of mushroom-bearing shamans depicted in the caves of Southeastern Algeria dating back to 5000 BCE, and mushroom stones suggestive of a mushroom cult in Guatemala dating back to 1500 BCE.

Before the 1950s, magic mushrooms were largely unknown in western society, but they have played a significant role in the magico-religious ceremonies of several indigenous societies in Mexico. The Nahua people, who are indigenous Americans and whose best-known members are the Aztecs, referred to the magic mushroom as "teonanácatl," which is a Nahuatl word meaning "flesh of the gods." The Mazatec people of Northern Oaxaca are also recognized for their ritual medicinal use of magic mushrooms. 

Taboo and Betrayal: The Aftermath of Gordon Wasson's Mushroom Ceremony with Maria Sabina

In 1952, mycologist Gordon Wasson and his wife Dr. Valentina Pavlovna traveled to Oaxaca to partake in a traditional mazatec mushroom ceremony. There, they met the renowned Mazatec healer, Maria Sabina, who facilitated their sacred mushroom experience.

It was considered taboo for Maria Sabina to have facilitated Gordon Wasson's mushroom ceremony. In the Mazatec culture, the sacred mushroom ceremony was a highly guarded secret and was only conducted in strict adherence to traditional rituals. The fact that Sabina shared this secret with outsiders was seen as a betrayal of the Mazatec culture and traditions.

Wasson wrote about his experience in an article for Life Magazine. Wasson described were entranced by the visions induced by psilocybin for several hours, and upon emerging from the experience, he was left in a state of awe.

Wasson claimed that the mushrooms enabled him to truly understand the meaning of ecstasy for the first time, providing him with unparalleled clarity. After Wasson's article, the secret of magic mushrooms was out. They quickly gained popularity in the West, becoming a highly sought-after substance for spiritual exploration and healing until their prohibition in 1970.

The article revealed the location of Sabina's village and the details of her mushroom ceremony, which drew the attention of outsiders seeking to experience the sacred mushrooms for themselves. As a result, many tourists, researchers, and famous figures descended on the Mazatec region.

This provided Sabina with some economic stability, but ultimately disrupted the traditional practices and social dynamics of the community, and some Mazatec people blamed Sabina for allowing outsiders to exploit their traditions for profit and personal gain. Sabina was blamed by the community, leading to her expulsion and the destruction of her home.

Although she regretted introducing the practice to Wasson, Wasson maintained that her intention was to contribute to the knowledge of humanity.

Traditional Medicinal Mushroom Ceremonies: Taboos and Requirements

Gaston Guzman, a Mexican mycologist and anthropologist, has conducted extensive research into the history and use of magic mushrooms. According to his findings, there are several taboos and requirements that are essential to the traditional medicinal mushroom ceremonies practiced in indigenous societies.

Firstly, the mushrooms are to be consumed on an empty stomach to allow for maximum absorption of the psychoactive compounds. Furthermore, it is believed that different species of psilocybe mushrooms should not be mixed as this can lead to undesirable effects. It is also believed that consuming more than 12 mushrooms can result in mental illness, so doses should be limited and carefully monitored.

In addition to these guidelines, it is deemed important to avoid alcohol and other drugs before and during the ceremony. Participants should also refrain from traveling in the days immediately following the ceremony to allow for proper integration of the experience.

The history and taboos surrounding indigenous plant medicines like ayahuasca, peyote, and psilocybin mushrooms provide a fascinating glimpse into the traditions and beliefs of different cultures.

While these substances have gained popularity in the West, it is important to approach their use with respect and understanding, considering the guidelines set forth by the indigenous peoples who have been using them for centuries. By doing so, the potential benefits of these powerful plant medicines can continue to be explored while honoring and preserving the cultures from which they originate.

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