The History & Taboos of Plant Medicine

Explore the history and taboos associated with the ceremonial use of certain plant medicines.

Humans have long depended on the remarkable versatility and utility of plants for our survival. They give us energy and nourishment, turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into oxygen allowing us to breathe, and provide materials used to produce homes, clothing, and heat.

We have also used plants as poisons and medicines for many thousands of years. For example, much of our modern pharmacopeia is derived from plant medicines. 

With that being said, grab yourself a coffee, tea, or other plant-derived beverage, and let’s delve into the history and taboos of psychedelic plant medicine.

Ayahuasca: History and Taboos

Ayahuasca is perhaps the most popular plant medicine among people seeking healing. A botanical brew native to Amazonia, ayahuasca is a combination of two plants, one containing the powerful psychedelic compound DMT, the other containing compounds that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

Now, why is that important? Well, when orally ingested, DMT is rendered inactive by a digestive enzyme called monoamine oxidase. Co-administration of DMT with a plant containing MAOIs, however, facilitates the absorption of DMT into the bloodstream, producing a 4-6 hour introspective journey through the vast expanse of the psyche. 

Evidence of Ayahuasca use in Bolivia dates back some 1000 years, however, some anthropologists estimate that indigenous tribes have been availing of the brew’s visionary qualities for at least 5000 years.

The ritualistic use of ayahuasca has changed in different cultures, at different times, and according to different needs. In most cases, ayahuasca is used as a plant medicine to diagnose diseases, heal, or connect to spirit. However, it is also used for purposes of social bonding. 

There are certain restrictions that one must follow when partaking in an ayahuasca ceremony. Dietary restrictions are often viewed as important, with ceremony participants frequently warned to avoid salt, fats, and sweets. There is a pharmacological logic to this since ingestion of tyramine-rich foods together with MAOIs can lead to undesirable consequences.

Also, due to potentially dangerous interactions with MAOIs, ayahuasca ceremony attendees are advised to stop taking certain types of antidepressants before ingesting ayahuasca, particularly ones that interact with serotonin.

In some settings, engaging in sex, smoking, and consumption of alcohol in the days before and after an ayahuasca ceremony is considered taboo.  

Peyote: History and Taboos

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is a small, slow-growing, globular-shaped cactus, the principal psychoactive component of which is the psychedelic compound mescaline. 

Samples discovered in Texas reveal that the ritual use of peyote has existed since before 3500 BCE.

Through her research and participation in magico-religious pilgrimages, American anthropologist and filmmaker, Barbara Myerhoff discovered that the Huichol, an indigenous tribe of approximately 35,000 living in the Sierra Madre Occidental range, and the oldest surviving culture in Mexico, use peyote for healing purposes, to reconnect to their homeland, and revitalize their souls. 

Each year, the Huichol undertake a peyote hunting pilgrimage in which they travel 500 kilometers to the sacred land they call Wirikuta in the desert of San Luis Potosi. Along the journey, dressed in vibrant-colored hand-sewn dresses and long smocks with beautifully embroidered depictions of deer, peyote, and other significant symbolisms, conduct ceremonies at significant natural sites, including lakes, lagoons, rivers, and mountains, that serve to retrace and pay homage to the path of the First People.

The pilgrimage is believed to be multifunctional, serving to consolidate the Huichol culture and share sacred knowledge with new generations.

However, the long journey to Wirikuta in search of peyote is not without its share of 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 sufficiently prepare for the pilgrimage, participants are expected to abstain from salt for 2 weeks, eat only small meals, and refrain from washing and sexual intercourse.

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

Peyote Mythology

Dr. Stacy B. Schaefer has also done important research on the indigenous use of peyote. She points out that Huichol and the Native American Church, a pan-Indian religion for whom consuming peyote is a central practice, both have female-centric myths surrounding the cactus’ origins. 

In the Huichol myth, peyote is discovered by a pair of goddesses who consume it and discover its psychoactive powers. One of the goddesses remained in the place of discovery and became known as the Mother of Peyote, while the other, the Earth Goddess, returned to her community to share the plant medicine with them.

One version of the Native American Church tale tells of a woman who is lost in an unknown land. Exhausted, she lies on the ground, sleeps, and dreams of peyote. Upon waking, she discovers the plant and eats it. The peyote tells her how to reconnect with her family and encourages her to facilitate Native American Church meetings. 

In his 1938 paper, The Appeal of Peyote as a Medicine, pioneering ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes expands upon the written accounts of some of the first Spanish explorers to encounter the ritualistic use of peyote. Among its reported uses were its ability to induce visions and prophecies, strengthen warriors, and treat a wide variety of ailments. 

In his work with the Oklahoma plains tribes, Schultes discovered peyote was used to treat tuberculosis, scarlet fever, STIs, pneumonia, diabetes, colds, fevers, and more.

Schultes also speaks of peyote origin myths wherein a “lost starving Indian” (Native American) is saved by the “remarkable sustaining powers of peyote,” and another wherein a group of downtrodden souls facing terrible odds in battle are saved by the curative, stimulating properties of this sacred plant medicine. 

The History of the Magic Mushroom

Prehistoric rock art found near the city of Cuenca, Spain provides the earliest evidence of religious use of psilocybe 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.

Though virtually unknown to western society before the 1950s, so-called “magic mushrooms” played a central role in the magico-religious ceremonies of various indigenous societies in Mexico.

For example, the Nahua, an indigenous American people of which the Aztecs are the best-known members, referred to the magic mushroom as teonanácatl, a Nahuatl word meaning flesh of the gods. The Mazatec people of Northern Oaxaca are also widely recognized for their ritual medicinal use of magic mushrooms. 

In 1952, mycologist Gordon Wasson and his wife, Dr. Valentina Pavlovna, made the journey to Oaxaca to discover the mushrooms for themselves. There, they encountered the legendary Mazatec curandera (healer), Maria Sabina.

The pair recounted their journey in an article for Life Magazine. Recalling his experience, Wasson described being served chocolate, something he remembered the early Spaniards recording, before he and his colleagues experienced hours of visions and “emerged from the experience awestruck.” 

The psilocybin-induced visions experienced by Wasson enabled him to understand the real meaning of ecstasy for the first time. According to him, these sacred mushrooms, ritually consumed by the Mazatec for centuries, allowed him to see the world more clearly than ever before.

After Wasson’s publication in Life Magazine, the cat was out of the bag. Due to the soon-revealed ease with which the mushrooms could be grown, coinciding with the growing popularity of psychedelics at the time, magic mushrooms quickly became one of the most popular medicines in the west until their being made illegal in 1970. 

Magic Mushroom Ceremonies in Mexico: Taboos

In his research into the history of magic mushrooms, Mexican mycologist and anthropologist Gaston Guzman mentions the following taboos and requirements that are integral to traditional medicinal mushroom ceremonies: 

  • The mushroom is to be eaten on an empty stomach
  • Different species of psilocybe mushrooms are not to be mixed
  • Doses of more than 12 mushrooms are to be avoided as it is believed this can lead to mental illness
  • Alcohol and other drugs are to be avoided before and during the ceremony
  • One should not travel in the days immediately following the ceremony

In modern-day Mazatec rituals, participants are expected to refrain from consuming alcohol, eating certain kinds of food, and having sexual relations before and after the ceremony.  

In Closing

Though the earliest evidence for the use of different plant medicines may be hundreds or thousands of years apart, and though the regions wherein indigenous people made use of them may be thousands of miles apart, resemblances are apparent in both their historical use and taboos.

Historically, these indigenous plant medicines have chiefly been used sacramentally in magico-religious ceremonies that incorporate symbols, elements, and taboos that are common across a variety of ancient cultural and religious traditions. In Mazatec mushroom ceremonies, for example, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are important symbolic figures. So too are certain western medicines, foods, and other substances contraindicated with plant medicines and the sacred rituals in which they are used. 

As plant medicines, ayahuasca, peyote, and magic mushrooms all demonstrate promising efficacy for a variety of different ailments, inlcuding anxiety, depression, and substance addictions

It is time we re-engage with what was once repressed, and, with caution, realize the full, far-reaching potential of plant medicines.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
(We don't like spam either)

Test Answer 222


Test Answer

Dr. Ana Holmes, Physican, Philadelphia, US

Test Answer 2


Test Answer 3


Test Answer 2


Test Answer

Dr. Ana Holmes, Physican, Philadelphia, US

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.