Origin of a Mushroom Religion, Soma in the Americas

Religion in the New World Before Columbus


Carl de Borhegyi

Copyright  2010


The following research presents visual evidence that both the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom and the Psilocybin mushroom were worshiped and venerated as gods in ancient Mesoamerica. These sacred mushrooms were so cleverly encoded in the religious art of the New World, “Hidden in Plain Sight” that prior to this study they virtually escaped detection. This online research study is an enormous document containing over 300 images, is presented in five parts at this time (the Home Page, Soma in the Americas , Part I and Part II, and 2012 Alert ). 

This study which is exclusively my own work is still undergoing editing and peer review, and will eventually be published in book form, scaled down with fewer images, and be divided into chapters. Scholars will find an extensive bibliography of works consulted and cited at the bottom of Part II.

 Until this work is published in print (pending copyright laws) I encourage all viewers seeking an overall idea of the subject matter to scroll quickly through the different images and pages, and then return to the subject matter of interest. Others may wish to look for specific images or subject matter by utilizing “Control F” to find them.

                        The following images are presented for educational, scholarly, and artistic research purposes.


  My study was inspired by a theory first proposed over fifty years ago by my father, the late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with human sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame. He supported this theory with a solid body of archaeological and historical evidence.

                                    MUSHROOM STONES OF MESOAMERICA


(Photograph by Richard Rose reproduced from Stamets, 1996)

The prevailing anthropological view of ancient New World history is that its indigenous peoples developed their own complex cultures independent of outside influence or inspiration.  Any suggestions to the contrary have been generally dismissed as either fanciful, racist, or demeaning. The peoples of the New World, scholars have argued,  were fully capable of developing their own civilizations as sophisticated as any found in Asia or the West. Today trans-oceanic contact between the hemispheres is still considered highly unlikely despite the exception of the Viking outpost discovered in Newfoundland in the 1960’s, and the recent awareness that early humans reached far distant Australia by boat as many as 50,000 years ago. After viewing the visual evidence presented below, readers of this study may wish to challenge this view of New World history with a more open-minded acknowledgement of the capability of ancient peoples to explore their environment and disperse their intellectual heritage to its far corners. 


 I have found an abundance of archaeological evidence supporting the proposition that Mesoamerica, the high cultures of South America, and Easter Island shared, along with many other New World cultures, elements of a Pan American belief system so ancient that many of the ideas may have come from Asia to the New World with the first human settlers.  I believe the key to this entire belief system lies, as proposed by R. Gordon Wasson, in early man’s discovery of the mind-altering effects of various hallucinatory substances. The accidental ingestion of these hallucinogenic substances could very well have provided the spark that lifted the mind and imagination of these early humans above and beyond the mundane level of daily existence to contemplation of another reality.


 My father, who from now on  I will now refer to simply as Borhegyi, emigrated to the United States from war-torn Hungary in 1948. Although he had recently graduated with a Ph.D. degree in Egyptology, Classical, and Early Christian archaeology from the Peter Pazmany University in Budapest, he had chosen to open new fields of endeavor for himself in New World archaeology.  To his very good fortune, he was taken under the wing of Dr. Alfred Vincent Kidder, one of the great pioneers in New World archaeology. Through Dr. Kidder, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington with which Kidder was affiliated, Borhegyi secured a grant from the Viking Fund (later known as the Wenner-Gren Foundation) to catalog the extensive artifact collections stored in the basement of the Guatemalan National Museum. 

While at work on these collections he came across a number of small, unprovenanced carved stone effigy figures that resembled mushrooms to such a degree that they were called “mushroom stones.” At the time, however, no one seriously thought that they represented real mushrooms. Some of the small mushroom-shaped sculptures were plain and realistic, others were adorned with human and animal effigies.  While only a few had been found in the course of  archaeological investigation,  there was sufficient evidence on specimens excavated by archaeologists working with the Carnegie Institution of Washington  research team to enable Borhegyi to classify and date them typologically. The majority had been found in Guatemala in the highlands or on the Pacific Piedmont–Maya areas along the intercontinental mountain range which were heavily influenced in Preclassic times by the powerful Olmec culture.(Borhegyi, 1957, 1961, 1963).

 Borhegyi found the figures so intriguing that he prepared a monograph for submission to the C.I.W.s “Notes on Middle American Archaeology and Ethnology”. Before submitting it, however, he sent it off to be critiqued by archaeologist Gordon Ekholm at the American Museum of Natural History.  Ekholm, in turn, showed it to his friend R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist who was looking for archaeological evidence of ancient hallucinogenic mushroom rites in Mesoamerica.  Wasson wrote to Borhegyi and within months the two embarked on what became an intense and fruitful collaboration that lasted until the end of Borhegyi’s tragically short life.

Wasson included Borhegyi’s mushroom stone study in his monumental book entitled Mushrooms, Russia and History. In this article Borhegyi identified the existence of an ancient mushroom stone cult that had begun as early as 1000 B.C.E. and which lasted as late as 900 C.E.  He noted that many of the mushroom stones, especially those dating between 1000 and 100 C.E. depicted images of toads, as well as snakes, birds, jaguars, monkeys, and humans. The majority of the images appeared to emerge from the stem of the mushroom (Wasson and Wasson, 1957).

The historical evidence came to Borhegyi’s attention through his extensive correspondence with  Wasson.  Wasson  pointed him toward reports of ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms among the Aztecs in a number of Spanish chronicles written shortly after the Spanish conquest.   Wasson also directed him toward reports of the existence of modern-day ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in various parts of Mexico and, in particular, among the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca. Together, Borhegyi and Wassonsurmised that If the mushroom stones did, indeed, represent a mushroom cult, then the mushroom itself was an iconographic metaphor, and the mushroom stone effigies could supply the clues necessary to decipher their meaning.

In the book Mushrooms, Russia and History, the Wassons reported on the ritual consumption of mushrooms (the Amanita muscaria) among Siberian and northern Asian peoples, suggesting the possible antiquity of the mushroom cult to Stone Age times. According to Wasson… 

  “It can of course be argued that the two great mushroom traditions, that of New World Indians and that of the peoples of Eurasia, are historically unconnected and autonomous, having arisen spontaneously in the two regions from similar requirements of the human psyche and similar environmental opportunities. But are they really unrelated?  

“If it is indeed that ancient, it would also help explain why the same motif is found in strikingly similar form in Maya art as well as in shamanic tradition and ritual of other indigenous peoples of the New World”.

” There is little doubt that the substance called Soma in the Rig Veda has been identified as the fungus Amanita Muscaria.”

According to Wasson, the term shaman  is not native to Mesoamerica or even to the New World but derives from the languages of Siberia.  Siberian shamanism incorporates ecstatic trances brought on by a ritual of dance and the inducement of hallucinations, most commonly through the consumption of some hallucinogenic substance. The intention was to open communication directly with the spirit world, often through a form of animal transformation. The worship of animal spirit companions and the concept of human-animal transformation is so ancient, that the origins of these beliefs appear to predate the development of agriculture. Since these beliefs are also present throughout North and South America that they may very well have been brought there by the first hunters and gatherers to reach the New World. We find the first evidences of these shamanistic rituals in Mesoamerica in the art of the ancient Olmecs along with the development of agriculture, food production, and settled village life.

  The Preclassic Mayan mushroom stone pictured at the far left isfrom the site of Kaminaljuyu in the Guatemala Highlands, which depicts a mushroom emerging from the back of a crouching jaguar. Mushroom stones with a double edge or groove on the underside of the cap, have been dated to the Late Pre-Classic period about 300-100 B.C. by Stephan F. de Borhegyi based on the few mushroom stones that have been excavated in context at Kaminaljuyu.

Ethno-Mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson…

“In examining these mushroomic artifacts we must keep in mind that they were not made for our enlightenment. They were iconic shorthand summarizing a whole bundle of associations ,–whatever those associations were. The Christian cross is to be found in endless shapes, including the “effigy cross” or crucifix, and all stem back to a complex of emotions, beliefs, and religious longings. The crucifix would reveal to an archaeologist eons hence more than, say, a Maltese cross. So with the mushroom stones, the subject matter of the effigies holds the secret”.

According to testimony recorded in 1554 in the Colonial document entitled El Titulo de Totonicapan, the Quiché Maya revered mushroom stones as symbols of power and rulership, and before them they performed rituals (of blood sacrifice)to pierce and cut up their bodies. (Sachse, 2001, 186).

 ”  The lords used these symbols of rule, which came from where the sun rises, to pierce and cut up their bodies (for the blood sacrifice). There were nine mushroom stones for the Ajpop and the Ajpop Q’amja, and in each case four, three, two, and one staffs with the Quetzal’s feathers and green feathers, together with garlands, the Chalchihuites precious stones, with the sagging lower jaw and the bundle of fire for the Temezcal steam bath.”  

In 1969 my father died in an automobile accident.  Wasson, no longer able to continue his fruitful collaboration with Borhegyi on Mesoamerica, continued his earlier studies of mushrooms in East Indian religion and mythologyWhile by this time many anthropologists and archaeologists had accepted the  idea that mushrooms and other hallucinogens were used in ancient Mesoamerica, their use was, in most cases, dismissed as relatively incidental and devoid of deeper significance in the development of Mesoamerican religious ideas and mythology.  With a few exceptions, notably the research and writings of ethnoarchaeologist Peter Furst, further inquiry into the subject on the part of archaeologists came to a virtual halt.  Fortunately,a few mycologists, most notably Bernard Lowy and Gaston Guzmán, (2002:4; 2009) continued through the years to make important contributions to the scientific literature.To this day. the subject remains relatively little known and generally missing from the literature on Mesoamerican archaeology, art history, and iconography

Wasson may have provided an important explanation for this lack of interest. He and his wife, Valentina, had observed that, across the globe, cultures seemed to be divided into those who loved and revered mushrooms, and those who dismissed and feared them. The first group of cultures they  labeled “mycophiles,” while the latter were “mycophobes.”  In the New World, it appears that all of the native cultures were, and still are, unquestionably mycophilic.  In contrast, the great majority of archaeologists and ethnologists who studied and described them, and who traced their cultural origins to Western Europe, were decidedly mycophobic. This major difference in cultural background may be responsible for what I believe should be seen as a lamentable gap in our understanding of indigenous New World  magico-religious origins.   (Wasson: 1957)

Fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria).  This colorful mushroom is a powerful hallucinogenic, containing the drugs ibotenic acid and muscimol. The effects are unpredictable, and a few deaths have been attributed to this mushroom. It takes its name from the medieval practice of breaking the caps into a saucer of milk in order to stupefy flies. It is commonly found amongst birch trees in temperate regions in autumn. (caption and photo from http://www.sciencephoto.com) Credit: SIMON FRASER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Michael J. Harner ….
“Undoubtedly one of the major reasons that anthropologists for so long underestimated the importance of hallucinogenic substances in shamanism and religious experience, was that very few had partaken themselves of the native psychotropic materials (other than peyote) or had undergone the resulting subjective experiences so critical, perhaps paradoxically, to an empirical understanding of their meaning to the peoples they studied.” 
(From Marc Blainey #250104784)

One of the most influential archaeologists of the time, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, was a major doubter. He wrote Borhegyi as follows:

  “I had heard of the theory that these stones might represent a narcotic mushroom cult, but I would think it a difficult theory to prove or disprove… I know of no reference to their use among the Maya, ancient or modern” (Thompson to Borhegyi, March 26,1953, MPM Archives).  

Thompson was not unfamiliar with mushroom stones. He had found an anthropomorphic mushroom stone representing a seated individual with a mushroom cap in the course of a trial survey of the Southern Maya area.  The specimen came from the Central Highlands of Guatemala. Thompson described the piece as a huge mushroom-like object that some anthropologists thought to be stone stools–though he admitted that they could hardly have been comfortable seats!  He also excavated and illustrated several tripod mushroom stones with plain stems at Finca El Baul on the Coastal piedmont of Guatemala. These he also described as stone seats. (Borhegyi in Wasson, 1962:49)

  Archaeologist Michael D. Coe…

   “I do not exactly remember when I first met Gordon Wasson, but it must have been in the early 1970’s. He was already a legendary figure to me, for I had heard much of him from the equally legendary and decidedly colorful Steve Borhegyi, director of the Milwaukee Public Museum before his untimely death. Steve, who claimed to be a Hungarian count and dressed like a Mississippi riverboat gambler, was a remarkable fine and imaginative archaeologist who had supplied much of the Mesoamerican data for Gordon and Valentina Wasson’s Mushrooms, Russia and History, particularly on the enigmatic “mushroom stones” of the Guatemala highlands. His collaboration with the Wassons proved even to the most skeptical that there had been a sort of ritual among the highland Maya during the Late Formative period involving hallucinogenic mushrooms” (from the book; The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: tributes to R. Gordon Wasson, 1990 p.43)

 In 1972  Wasson  declared the matter resolved:

“Some Middle American specialists may challenge my assumption of a connection between the “mushroom stones”, which ceased to be made centuries before Columbus arrived on these shores, and today’s surviving mushroom cult.” ….For years I had only an assumption to go on , but now, thanks to discoveries made by the late Stephan F. de Borhegyi  and us, I think we can tie the two together in a way that will satisfy any doubter”   (Wasson,1972:188n)  

Furst, who supported  Borhegyi and Wasson’s research added:

“The connection between these sculptures and the historic mushroom cults of Mesoamerica has not always been accepted. Though many mushroom stones are quite faithful to nature, they were, until recently, not even universally thought to represent mushrooms at all, and a few die-hards even now, in the face of all the evidence, reject this interpretation.” (1972)

I am pleased that now, after more than a half century of virtual denial by the anthropological community of the centrality of hallucinogenic substances, and in particular two varieties of hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Amanita muscaria and psilocybin, I can finally present undeniable visual evidence of its existence “hidden in plain sight” in the ancient art and iconography of Mesoamerica.


  Ethno-Mycologist  R. Gordon Wasson…

“I believe the whole corpus of surviving pre-conquest artistic expression should…be reviewed on the chance that divine mushrooms figuring therein have hitherto escaped detection”.  (from Thomas, 1993 p.644 11-17n)

Since the great majority of the images I have found appear to represent theAmanita muscaria mushroom,  I am ready to propose that the Amanita muscaria mushroom like the Vedic god Soma in East Indian mythology, is the metaphorical  key to decoding the esoteric religions of the New World that prevailed from prehistoric times.       

                        “Hidden In Plain Sight”        



                                                 IN THE NEW WORLD

  Like the god Soma of ancient Hinduism, the ancient god myths of Mesoamerica contain a  sacramental food or beverage associated with sacrifice and immortality.   I  have found sufficient visual evidence in the art of Mesoamerica to identify this sacramental food as an hallucinogenic substance, most notably,  Amanita muscaria or psicilocybin mushrooms. Like the Vedic god Soma , the Amanita muscaria mushroom of Mesoamerica assumes, from earliest times, the persona of the god itself. In Mesoamerica this god took the form of the Underworld “were jaguar”.




 Above left, “hidden In plain sight,”  the ceramic Precolumbian mask depicts the transformation of a human into a “were-jaguar,” a half-human, half-jaguar deity first described and named in 1955 by archaeologist Matthew W. Stirling. The were-jaguar appears in the art of the ancient Olmecs as early as 1200 B.C.  I believe this mask symbolizes the soul’s journey into the underworld where it will undergo ritual decapitation, jaguar transformation, and spiritual resurrection.  An Amanita muscaria mushroom (actual specimen shown in the photo on the right) is encoded into the head and nose of the human side, while the left half of the mask depicts the effect of the Amanita mushroom as resulting in were-jaguar transformation.The were-jaguar eventually came to be worshiped and venerated throughout Central and South America.  Mexican art historian, Miguel Covarrubias, demonstrated that later images of Quetzalcoatl, feathered serpents, and rain gods like the Mexican god Tlaloc were all derived from the Olmec were-jaguar associated with sacrifice and the underworld (Miller and Taube, 1993:185)

(photo below by Prof. Gian Carlo Bojani Director of the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza, Italy) (Photo of Amanita muscaria by Richard Fortey)

Image of “Weeping God”  from VANKIRK, Jacques, and Parney Bassett-VanKirk,  Remarkable Remains of the Ancient Peoples of Guatemala,  Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1996.)

“…fanged anthropomorphic individuals with dangling eyeballs, are commonly associated with the god Quetzalcoatl in his form of Ehecatl the Wind God”. ( Borhegyi 1980:17)


The stone carving shown above is a good example of the clever way in which the Precolumbian artist hid the sacred mushrooms of underworld jaguar transformation from the eyes of the uninitiated.   I believe that knowledge of the mushroom Venus resurrection ritual was considered so sacred that the artist deliberately obscured mushroom imagery. In this case the sculptor hid them behind the tears of the “Weeping God”,  known in legend as Quetzalcoatl Ce Acatl, the bearded god-king of the Toltecs.  In order to distinguish this semi-historical Quetzalcoatl from Quetzalcoatl as the Feathered Serpent or Wind God deity,  the Toltecs prefixed his birth date to his name, Ce Acatl,  meaning “One Reed.”

  While at first glance they give the illusion of dangling eye-balls, if you look closely at the mask you will see that the legendary tears of Quetzalcoatl are actually encoded Amanita mushrooms “hidden in plain sight.” This bearded and fanged deity shared feline, serpentine, and bird-like features. Identified as a Feathered or Plumed Serpent by archaeologists in his earliest representations,  he took on many additional guises and attributes over the years, and became known by a great variety of names throughout the New World. I have elected to refer to him, as did the Toltecs and Aztecs, as Quetzalcoatl.

There is plenty of evidence in Mesoamerican mythology linking the many avatars of Quetzalcoatl, Jaguar-Bird-Serpent, to the duality of the planet Venus.  Eduard Seler was the first to link feathered serpent imagery to the planet Venus and Quetzalcoatl and Seler believed that the jaguar-bird-serpent image was associated with war and the Morning Star ( Milbrath ).  In Aztec mythology the cosmos was intimately linked to the planet Venus in its form as the Evening Star, which guides the sun through the Underworld at night, as the skeletal god Xolotl, the twin of Quetzalcoatl.  As the Morning Star, Quetzalcoatl’s avatar was the harpy eagle.  Among the Quiche Maya,  Venus in its form as the  Morning Star, was called iqok’ij,  meaning the “sunbringer” or “carrier of the sun or day.”(Tedlock, 1993:236). 

According to Spanish chronicler Fray Diego Duran, (The Aztecs,1964, p.149) it was written that before Quetzalcoatl departed  his beloved Tula, he left orders that his figure be carved in wood and in stone, to be adored by the common people. “They will remain as a perpetual memorial to our greatness in the way that we remember Quetzalcoatl”.

Anthropologist and author Irene Nicholson…

 “In spite of the great gulf that separates Precolumbian thought from our own in many of its external aspects; in spite of distortions, irrelevancies, decadence and subsequent annihilation by European conquerors of a great part of it; the culture which this mysterious leader established [Quetzalcoatl Votan] shines down to our own day. Its message is still meaningful for those who will take the trouble to make their way, through the difficulties of outlandish names and rambling manuscripts, to the essence of the myth”.   (from the book, Mexican and Central American Mythology 1967, p.136)

The ancient cultures of the Nahua and Maya developed similar ideologies and mythologies from the same Olmec roots. The sacred mushroom ritual shared by these cultures was intended,  I believe, to establish direct communication between Earth and Heaven (sky) in order to unite man with god. As told in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya,  the sun-god of the Maya, Kinich Ajaw, and his Aztec equivalent, Huitzilopochtli, would be extinguished in the underworld if not nourished with the blood of human hearts. Quetzalcoatl’s essence in the world as a culture hero was to establish this communication. Quetzalcoatl taught that mankind must make sacrifices to the deity and transcend this world in order to achieve immortality. There is good reason to believe that this ritual was regularly performed  prior to sacrifice, whether the sacrifice was performed willingly by the participant, or carried out  by another individual.


     (jpg – 4.bp.blogspot.com/…/s320/Mexico+City+080.jpg)

(Photo of Amanita muscaria, Fly Agaric Mushrooms from Salvia Space Ethnobotanicals)   

   Above, another Precolumbian incense burner (Toltec?) from Central Mexico encodes Amanita muscaria mushrooms as the “legendary tears of Quetzalcoatl.”  Note as well that the scroll at the bottom of the censer repeats a hook-shape that I have come to believe is the symbol of a religion based on mushrooms and worship of the planet Venus.

Photograph © Justin Kerr 

Above, on the left, is the Amanita muscaria mushroom, and on the right a Maya figurine (300-900 C.E.) photographed by Justin Kerr (K 656a).  The figurine wears a headdress inspired by the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Its contorted face depicts the “Olmec snarl”, a common motif in Olmec art which I believe  represents the mushroom’s effect of jaguar transformation and the soul’s mythical underworld journey.  The figurine holds in its hands a concave mirror.  Mirrors were used by shamans to see into the past and future and communicate with ancestors and gods. I believe that in many, if not most cases, this communication was conducted under the influence of mushrooms.  According to Hugh Thomas (1993 p.14) “The mushrooms of the Mexica (Aztecs), the most important of these plants, came from the pine-covered slopes of the mountains surrounding the valley.”  Above left is an  Amanita muscaria mushroom commonly found in the pine-covered slopes of highland Guatemala.

  The early Olmecs were likely the first to create concave mirrors from iron-ore minerals. Terrence Kaufman and Lyle Campbell , two linguists  studying the diffusion of languages in Mesoamerica, postulate that the language of the ancient Olmec,  the “mother culture” of civilization, was Mixe-Zoque.  Borhegyi  (1980)  suggested that the Olmec of La Venta likely spoke Mayan or Proto-Mayan, and that the words muxan and okox (mushroom) are two of several words borrowed or loaned by the ancient Maya, perhaps as early as 1000 B.C.E.  (Furst, 1976, p. 79).



          (Photo of Amanita muscaria mushroom from Royalty Free Stock Photos)
The photograph above is of an Olmec whistle owned by Higinio Gonzalez of Puebla, Mexico. It most likely comes from the San Lorenzo phase of Olmec culture, 1200-400 B.C.E.  These infantile baby-faced figurines, many of which depict the symbolism of a snarling jaguar, are a distinctive feature in Olmec art. This figure appears to represent an Olmec baby wearing an Amanita mushroom cap and holding a gigantic Amanita mushroom. According to ethno-mycologist Gastón Guzmán, one of the effects of the Amanita muscaria mushroom experience is to see objects as gigantic in size. (Guzman, 2010).

The rise of the Olmec, the first complex civilization in the New World in the swampy jungles of the Gulf Coast has puzzled archaeologists for some time. Archaeologists contend that Olmec culture appears to come from out of nowhere in full bloom at the site of San Lorenzo, in Chiapas, Mexico. Carbon 14 dates place Olmec civilization at San Lorenzo at 1200 B.C.E. (M. D.  Coe, 1970, p.21). 

The discovery of numerous toad bones in Olmec burials at San Lorenzo suggests that the Olmecs may have used other mind-altering substances, such as hallucinogenic toad toxin, in various ritual practices (Coe, 1994:69; Furst, 1990: 28; Grube, 2001:294).  Mushroom-shaped stones, many bearing toad images carved on their base, have been found throughout Chiapas, Mexico, the Guatemala highlands, and along the Pacific slope as far south as El Salvador.  (Borhegyi, 1957, 1961, 1963, 1965a, 1965b). Gordon Wasson was the first to call attention to the pervasiveness of the toad and it’s association with the term toadstool, with the intoxicating or poisonous mushrooms in Europe. Tatiana Proskouriakoff demonstrated that in Mayan glyphs the toad is the divine symbol of rebirth (Coe, 1993:196)   .

 Quoting from ethno-archaeologist Peter T. Furst:

“It is tempting to suggest that the Olmecs might have been instrumental in the spread  of mushroom cults throughout Mesoamerica, as they seem to have been of other significant aspects of early Mexican civilization……” It is in fact a common phenomenon of South American shamanism  (reflected also in Mesoamerica) that shamans are closely identified with the jaguar, to the point where the jaguar is almost nowhere regarded as simply an animal, albeit an especially powerful one, but as supernatural, frequently as the avatar of living or deceased shamans, containing their souls and doing good or evil in accordance with the disposition of their human form” (Furst 1976, pp. 48,79).”


  Photographs © Justin Kerr # 6608

Owner: Denver Art Museum Denver CO
Maya vase K6608 from the Justin Kerr Data Base of Maya vase paintings, depicts three underworld jaguars which may symbolize the three hearth stones of creation, a “trinity of gods” in Maya religion known at the archaeological site of Palenque as GI, GII, GIII.  The underworld jaguars all wear mushroom shaped ear plugs, and wear sacrificial scarves, symbolic of underworld decapitation. The scarves metaphorically bear the colors and spots of the Amanita muscaria mushroom.


Jaguar Effigy Incensario with an encoded stylized mushroom for a nose. Remujadas, Veracruz, Mexico. Classic period, circa 450-650 A.D. Height 14 ½”.  Above right is a cross section of Amanita muscaria fruiting body, (Wentworth Falls, Author, Casliber  Category:Amanita muscaria)   (Photo above left from Stendahl Galleries Fine Precolumbian Art).


Photograph © Justin Kerr:

Maya figurines from the Justin Kerr Data Base. Above, on the left, is a  bearded dwarf, K2853 holding a shield and wearing a hat designed as an upside down Amanita mushroom (Princeton Art Museum). In Mesoamerican mythology the dwarf is related to Quetzalcoatl and guides the dead in their descent into the underworld. On the right is a photograph of an Amanita muscaria mushroom with its trademark skirt  (photograph copyrighted and owned by the artist, Esther van de Belt ).  According to Gordon Wasson,  among the various tribes in Siberia where the inebriating mushroom Soma has survived, words used for, or to describe the Amanita muscaria mushroom personify it as “little men.”

Above is a figurine from Nayarit, Western Mexico, dated 100 C.E-, depicting an individual sitting under a gigantic Amanita muscaria mushroom.  The figurine, which is 7.5 cm tall,  is now in the INAH Regional Museum in Guadalajara Mexico.  As mentioned earlier, one of the effects of the Amanita muscaria mushroom experience is to see objects as gigantic in size.  The photo of the Amanita muscaria mushroom was taken by : © Michael Wood.                      

Above are two figurines from western Mexico, Late Formative period  300 B.C. to A.D. 200.

In Mesoamerica, mushrooms and dogs were believed to lead the deified dead into the underworld for rebirth.

( Photograph on the left is from the Walter Art Museum, http://art.thewalters.org/browse/place/mexico/)

 (Photograph above right provided by Dr. Gaston Guzman <gaston.guzman@inecol.edu.mx>)

The standing female ballplayer figurine shown above wears a helmet and ballgame glove and mushroom-inspired belt. Sacred mushrooms such as the Amanita muscaria, above on the right, were likely consumed before entering battle and before the ritual ballgame, enhancing one’s vision and strength as well as bravery to its wildest levels. The figurine is from the site of Xochipala, Mexico, in the western state of Guerrero, and dates to 1200-900 C.E.  It is now in the  Princeton University Art Museum.   Numerous ballplayer figurines have been found at Xochipala and at such other Preclassic sites as Tlatilco and Tlapacoya in the Valley of Mexico. Borhegyi conjectured that a change in ballgame rituals and a switch from the Olmec influenced “hand ball game” most likely came as a result of the powerful influence of Teotihuacan and newly instituted Quetzalcoatl rites. (Borhegyi 1980: p. 24).  For more on ballgame hand stones and ballgame gloves see Borhegyi, 1961: 129-140.   ( photograph of ballplayer from Whittington, 2001) (photo of Amanita mushroom from Erowid)  


 Above is a female figurine with encoded mushroom in her head. Tlatilco culture, Puebla, Mexico, Early-Middle Preclassic periods, 1300-800 B.C. Dimension: 6.75in x 0in x 0in 17.145cm x 0cm x 0cm
Purchased with funds provided by The Lake Family Endowment
2000.017.005 (http://sniteartmuseum.nd.edu/collection/aztlan/index_pages/aztlan_all.html)


Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya Vase K7289 from the Justin Kerr Data Base depicts a ruler or priest involved in a mushroom ritual of underworld jaguar transformation. The ruler is depicted holding a ceremonial bar from which emerges the divine vision serpent (bearded dragon) known to scholars as the Och Chan.  A deity wearing the ears of a deer and blowing upon a conch shell emerges from the jaws of the vision serpent.  The ruler or priest wears a mushroom inspired ceremonial cloak and the headdress of the underworld jaguar.


In 1996, about the time my own twin sons were born, I began to wonder what had happened to the interesting line of inquiry that my father had opened. I knew that great strides had been made in Maya studies but, to my considerable surprise I realized that there was almost no mention of mushrooms, or for that fact any other hallucinogenic substances, in the current literature.   Curious to discover what had happened, I decided to look into the matter myself. 

I began by reading his publications. Over the next few years, as I dug deeper into the subject,  I read through the scores of letters that he had exchanged with other Mesoamerican scholars that are housed in the Borhegyi Archives at the Milwaukee Public Museum (hereinafter Borhegyi, MPM), as well as the more than 500 letters that he exchanged with Gordon Wasson  (Wasson Archives at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. (hereinafter Wasson HPM)  In time, I also read through my mother’s extensive library of books and pamphlets on Mesoamerican archaeology and ethnology and began to acquire my own personal library in addition to using materials from local library collections.

Now thoroughly intrigued by this introduction to archaeological research (I had majored in physical education at the University of Wisconsin),  I Joined the Maya Society of Minnesota in order  to attend their lectures and workshops in Maya archaeology. Assisting with their lecture programs as a board member, I met with many of the visiting archaeologists and shared ideas with them. In the fall of 2004 I enrolled in a course entitled “Topics in Maya archaeology”  at Hamline University. My assignments in that class introduced me to the online research site  FAMSI  (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc). Here I discovered Justin Kerr’s remarkable compilation and data base of roll-out photographs of Mesoamerican ceramic figurines and Maya vase paintings. It was this site, above all, that permitted me to make the detailed study of Mesoamerican visual art. This task was  immensely facilitated by new photographic technology, the computer, and my ability to access the Kerr database on my home computer, all modern day miracles unavailable to earlier researchers. As a result of this study and solid evidence from other scholars,  I have been able to expand this subject far beyond my father’s pioneering efforts.

 I found no mention of images of mushroom stones, pottery mushrooms, or images of actual mushrooms in Kerr’s extensive index.However, after hours of examining hundreds of Maya vase paintings, I discovered a significant amount of mushroom imagery, both realistic and abstract, of both the.Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric mushroom, and the better known hallucinogenic Psilocybin mushroom.  It was easy to understand, however, why the imagery had not been noted earlier. On many vases the images of mushrooms, or images related to mushrooms, were so abstract, and so intricately interwoven with other complex and colorful elements of Mesoamerican mythology and iconography, that they were, I believe, quite deliberately  “hidden in plain sight,” in an effort to conceal  this sacred information from the  eyes of the uninitiated.

  Much of the mushroom imagery I discovered was associated with an artistic concept I refer to as jaguar transformation. Under the influence of the hallucinogen,  the “bemushroomed” acquires feline fangs and often other attributes of the jaguar, emulating the Sun God in the Underworld. This esoteric association of mushrooms and jaguar transformation was earlier noted by Peter Furst,  together with the fact that a dictionary of the Cakchiquel Maya language compiled circa1699 lists a mushroom called “jaguar ear” (1976:78, 80) .

  Many of the images involved rituals of self-sacrifice and decapitation in the Underworld, alluding to the sun’s nightly death and subsequent resurrection from the Underworld by a pair of deities associated with the planet Venus as both the Morning Star and Evening star. This dualistic aspect of Venus is why Venus was venerated as both a God of Life and Death.  It was said that (The Title of the Lords of Totonicapan, 1953 third printing 1974, p.184), they [the Quiche] gave thanks to the sun and moon and stars, but particularly to the star that proclaims the day, the day-bringer, referring to Venus as the Morning star. 

 Mushrooms were so closely associated with death and underworld jaguar transformation and Venus resurrection that I conclude that they must have been believed to be the vehicle through which both occurred. They are also so closely associated with ritual decapitation, that their ingestion may have been considered essential to the ritual itself, whether in real life or symbolically in the underworld. It is also important to note that in many cases the mushroom images appeared to be associated with period endings in the Maya calendar.  

  One of the most renownedSpanish chroniclers, Fray Diego Duran, wrote in his Histories of New Spain (1537—1588) that his writings would likely go unpublished because many of his contemporaries feared that they would revive ancient customs and rites among the Indians. He added that  “(they) were quite good at secretly preserving their customs”.  Duran mentions that the word for sacrifice, nextlaoaliztli, in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, meant either “payment”, or the act of payment. He writes that young children were taught that death by the obsidian knife was a most honorable way to die, as honorable as dying in battle or for a mother and child to die in childbirth. Those who were sacrificed by the obsidian knife were assured a place in Omeyocan, the paradise of the sun, the afterlife.     

 My studies have also led me conclude that all variants of the Toltec/Aztec gods Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc, and their Classic Maya counterparts, Kukulcan, K´awil and Chac, though they may have different names and be associated with somewhat different attributes in different culture areas, are linked to the planet Venus through divine rulership, lineage and descent.  In Mesoamerica they are also linked with warfare. Maya inscriptions tell us that the movement of the planet Venus and its position in the sky was a determining factor for waging a special kind of warfare known as Tlaloc warfare or Venus “Star Wars.” These wars, waged against neighboring city-states for the express purpose of taking captives for sacrifice to the gods, thus constituted a form of divinely-sanctioned “holy” war. 

  Admittedly I have bypassed the traditional route of doctoral studies in New World archaeology, art history, and religion.  It should be noted, however,  that I am far from the first layman to make some significant contributions to Mesoamerican scholarship. The important contributions to our understanding of Maya glyphic writing by the late Soviet lay scholar, Yuri Knorosov, come immediately to mind. It is, in fact, in partial tribute to him and to his “discoverer,” Maya archaeologist, Michael D. Coe, that I have titled my book “Breaking the Mushroom Code.” (See Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 1992)  With that said, I can now present what I consider to be indisputable visual evidence of the many metaphorical relationships to mushrooms that  I discovered  within the Mesoamerican religious iconography depicted on sculptures, murals, codices, and vase paintings.

While I may be the first to call attention to this encoded mushroom imagery, these images can be viewed and studied with ease on such internet sites as Justin Kerr’s Maya Vase Data Base and F.A.M.S.I. ( Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc). 

  In summary, the mushroom inspired images I have presented to this point, most of which are cleverly encoded by the artist, are just a few of the many images I found that clearly  represent mushrooms and mushroom worship. Mushroom imagery occurred with such frequency and in such indisputably religious context that there can be no doubt as to their importance in the development and practice of indigenous religion.  In these pages, and those that follow,  I demonstrate how and why I reached these conclusions by leading my readers through many of the mushroom-related images, most notably of the Amanita muscaria mushroom,  that I  found encoded in Mesoamerican art.  By so doing I hope to correct a lamentable gap in our knowledge and understanding of the past.

While reading through one of Borhegyi´s letters I found that he had quoted two interesting passages from native chronicles written around 1554.  Both related to indigenous use of mushrooms in Guatemala.  One,  from The Annals of the Cakchiquels,  (1953:82-83), records:

“At that time, too, they began to worship the devil.  Each seven days, each 13 days, they offered him sacrifices, placing before him fresh resin, green branches, and fresh bark of the trees, and burning before him a small cat, image of the night.  They took him also the mushrooms, which grow at the foot of the trees, and they drew blood from their ears.”

 Another passage from the Popol Vuh, (Goetz,1950:192) reads:

 “And when they found the young of the birds and the deer, they went at once to place the blood of the deer and of the birds in the mouth of the stones that were Tohil, and Avilix.  As soon as the blood had been drunk by the gods, the stones spoke, when the priest and the sacrificers came, when they came to bring their offerings.  And they did the same before their symbols, burning pericon (?) and holom-ocox (the head of the mushroom, holom=head, and ocox= mushroom”).

Still another passage from the Popol Vuh identifies Tohil, not as a stone god, but as the charismatic leader of the Quiche Maya and a variant of Quetzalcoatl, ..Even though Tohil is his name he is the same as the god of the Yaqui people who is named Yolcuat and Quitzalcuat “.  (Tedlock, 1985:183)

 At the end of his letter, Borhegyi added: “I think this section definitely indicates that the Quiche used mushrooms in connection with their religious ceremonies.  I even wonder what made the stones speak?”

In one of  Wasson letters, he refers  to the fact that  the Aztecs, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, revered three different kinds of narcotic mushrooms. This reference led me to a Wasson pamphlet in which he wrote that he had found this information in a guide for missionaries written before 1577 by Dr. Francisco Hernandez , physician to the king of Spain (Wasson, 1962: 36; see also Furst, 1990 ed., 9)

Spanish chronicler Jacinto de la Serna, 1892 (The Manuscript of Serna) described the use of sacred mushrooms for divination:

“These mushrooms were small and yellowish and to collect them the priest and all men appointed as ministers went to the hills and remained almost the whole night in sermonizing and praying” (Quest for the Sacred Mushroom, Stephan F. de Borhegyi 1957).

  Photograph © Justin Kerr    Photograph on right Copyright magic-mushroom.com

Maya Polychrome ceramic container with diving god wearing bird headdress. ht. 11.4 cm. U.S. Library of Congress, J. Kislak Collection 

    The Toltec /Maya vessel above is from Quintana Roo, Mexico, postclassic Maya, 1200-1400 C.E.  The vessel depicts the image of a diving god, wearing the familiar guise of the harpy eagle, attributes that link this diving deity to Quetzalcoatl as the Morning Star and god of Underworld resurrection.  I would argue strongly that the objects in the hands of the diving Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in Yucatec Mayan) above, are the severed caps of psilocybin mushrooms, and do not represent, as other scholars would argue, balls of incense. The removal of the head of the mushroom or mushroom cap is a symbolic reference to ritual decapitation in the Underworld. The idea that Quetzalcoatl was in direct opposition to human sacrifice is simply not true. He was the god of self-sacrifice. Wasson writes that the stems of sacred mushrooms were removed and the mushroom caps consumed ritually in pairs prior to self-sacrifice.

Wasson believed that the origin of ritual decapitation lay in the mushroom ritual itself.  In a letter to Borhegyi he writes:

“The cap of the mushroom in Mije (or Mixe) is called kobahk, the same word for head. In Kiche and Kakchiquel it is doubtless the same, and kolom ocox is not “mushroom heads”, but mushroom caps, or in scientific terminology, the pileus of the mushroom. The Mije in their mushroom cult always sever the stem or stipe (in Mije tek is “leg”) from the cap, and the cap alone is eaten. Great insistence is laid on this separation of cap from stem. This is in accordance with the offering of “mushroom head” in the Annals and  the Popol Vuh.  The writers had in mind the removal of the stems”.

  “The top of the cap is yellow and the rest is the color of coffee, with the gills of a color between yellow and coffee. They call this mushroom, pitpa “thread-like”, the smallest, perhaps 2 horizontal fingers high, with a cap small for the height, growing everywhere in clean earth, often along the mountain trails with many in a single place. In Mije the cap of the mushroom is called the “head” “kobahk in the dialect of Mazatlan. When the “heads are consumed, they are not chewed, but swallowed fast one after the other,  in pairs.” ( June 7, 1954, MPM archives)   


Above is a page from the Codex Ríos, a Spanish colonial-era manuscript, now in the Vatican library (also called Codex Telleriano-Remensis), attributed to Pedro de los Ríos, a Dominican friar working in Oaxaca and Puebla between 1547 and 1562. The codex itself was likely written and drawn in Italy after 1566. The “bearded” deity above who has been identified as the Aztec goddess Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey plant, more likely represents an aspect of Quetzalcoatl, (note beard and mushroom headdress) as the god who bestowed sacred mushrooms to mankind.


Metaphorically, then, the  mushrooms bestowed to mankind represent the soul and flesh of Quetzalcoatl. If human beings partake of him they acquire some of his divine essence. In the scene below from the Codex Vindobonensis, Quetzalcoatl holds in his left hand the head of the underworld god of death. I interpret this as symbolizing their belief that a ritual decapitation in the underworld would result in the deceased’s resurrection and rebirth. I believe that this interpretation is strengthened by the two depictions of the V-shaped cleft symbolizing the portal to the underworld in the left panel of this scene. The upper scene depicts the deceased in the act of plunging through the portal into the underworld. In the lower scene, the portal is shown being opened by the outstretched arms of Quetzalcoatl.  It would not have been difficult for them to conclude that  mushrooms were indeed a gift to mankind from the gods..

Bernard Lowy, 

“Maya codices has revealed that the Maya and their contemporaries knew and utilized psychotropic mushrooms in the course of their magico-religious ceremonial observances” (Lowy:1981) .

In the Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus  [below], believed to be a 14th century Mixtec document, the original of which is now held in the National Library of Vienna, Austria, page 24 shows the ceremonial use of mushrooms held in the hands of gods. Attention was first called to these figures by Alfonso Caso, who provisionally identified what he called “T-shaped” objects in the manuscript as mushrooms. Heim later published this page in color and accepted without hesitation its mushroomic interpretation. More recently, Furst has concurred in this opinion in his minute examination and analysis of the codex. Also summarizing the significance of this page, Wasson concludes that it shows “the major place occupied by mushrooms in the culture of the Mixtecs.” The additional collateral evidence to be considered further supports the validity of these opinions, and extends the base upon which they rest (Lowy 1980 pp.94-103).

Page 24 of the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis

  Above is page 24 of the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis, also known as the Codex Vienna. The codex is one of the few prehispanic native manuscripts which escaped Spanish destruction. It was produced in the Postclassic period for the priesthood and ruling elite.  A thousand years of history is recorded In the Mixtec Codices, and Quetzalcoatl (9-Wind), who is cited as the great founder of all the royal dynasties, is the pervasive character. 

In 1929 Walter Lehmann noted the resemblance to mushrooms of the objects portrayed in the hands of many of the characters depicted in this Codex.  Alfonso Caso later confirmed, although reluctantly, that they were indeed mushrooms. (Wasson 1980, p. 214).  In the second row from the top, the last figure on the right wearing a bird mask has been identified as the Wind God, Ehecatl. an avatar ofQuetzalcoatl.  He is shown bestowing divine mushrooms to mankind.  

According to Aztec legend,  Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl created mankind from the bones he stole from the Underworld Death God, whose decapitated head Quetzalcoatl holds in his hand.  Note the tears of gratitude on the individual sitting immediately opposite Quetzalcoatl.  This individual, and those who sit behind Quetzalcoatl on the left also hold sacred mushrooms and all appear to have fangs.  Fangs suggest that, under the magical influence of the mushroom, they have been transformed in the Underworld into the underworld jaguar. 

In the middle of the page on the right side Quetzalcoatl is depicted  gesturing to the god Tlaloc directly in front of him to open the portal to the underworld.  According to Peter Furst, who describes this  iconography, the scene depicts the divine establishment of the ritual consumption of sacred mushrooms” (1981, p.151).  He identifies the triangular or V-shaped cleft in the basin of water on the left as a cosmic passage through which deities, people, animals and plants pass from one cosmic plane to another. 

On the bottom left,  two figures stand beside another V–shape portal of Underworld resurrection. The figure on the left who points to the sky, also has fangs. He appears to be a human transformed at death into the Underworld Sun god, or mythical “were jaguar”.  This gesture probably signifies resurrection from the Underworld. The two-faced deity in front of him holds what appear to be sacred psilocybin mushrooms similar in shape to the ones in the photograph below.

 This two-faced deity is,  in all likelihood,  the dualistic planet Venus and the god of Underworld sacrifice and resurrection. Note that the two-faced deity is painted black (signifying the Underworld) and wears a double-beaked harpy eagle headdress (signifying the sun’s resurrection). The five plumes in the harpy eagle’s headdress refer to the five synodic cycles of Venus. The three mushrooms in his hand refer to the Mesoamerican trinity:  the three hearthstones of creation. ie., the sun, the morning star and the evening star.

The circle below the feet of the figure on the left is divided into four parts, two of them dark and two light, each with a footprint.  The Fursts, Peter and Jill, have identified this symbol as representing the north-south axis or sacred center as the place of entry into the Underworld. (Furst, 1981: 155).  This symbol also appears in the scene above in association with a figure plunging through the V-shaped cleft into the Underworld. 

The ancient myth of Quetzalcoatl’s creation was preserved for us by a Franciscan friar named Jeronimo de Mendieta in 1596. In his manuscript, Historia Eclesiastica Indiana, Mendieta writes that it was “Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican Prometheus, the beneficent god of all mankind, descended to the world of the dead to gather up the bones of past generations, and, sprinkling them with his own blood, created a new humanity”. (Alfonso Caso, 1958; THE AZTECS, PEOPLE OF THE SUN)

 Photo on the left from the online article, “Magic Mushrooms Positive Effects last a year say Researchers” June 18, 2011. Photo on the right from from the online article, “Magic mushrooms reduce anxiety over cancer,” September 2010 by Jessica Griggs.


  A miniature stone hacha, the Spanish word for axe, from Veracruz, Mexico (Late Classic Period, 700-900 C.E.) ( photograph from Whittington, 2001)

Hachas, like the one depicted above, fit into the belt or yoke worn by ballplayers in the Mesoamerican ballgame. This hacha was probably used in ceremonies associated with the ballgame. The hacha represents a decapitated trophy head of a wrinkled faced and toothless old man wearing a cone-shaped hat. The wrinkled face and toothless mouth suggest the Old Fire God (Xiuhtecutli), while a closer look reveals the image of a sacredpsilocybin mushroom encoded in the cheek and hat. The conical or cone-shaped hat, in this case mushroom-inspired, is a trademark attribute of the Mexican god-king Quetzalcoatl and of his priesthood.


                                             (Photograph by Stephan de Borhegyi)

Another stone hacha from Veracruz with a  mushroom in profile encoded in the cheek.  Borhegyi believed that  stone hachas , as well as anthropomorphic and zoomorphic vertically and horizontally tenoned stone heads, were symbolic of the human (trophy) heads of earlier times. Stone hachas were worn on ceremonial ballgame yokes, while the tenoned stone heads were set into the walls of formal ball courts. (1980:17)  


Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya vase K4932  depicts Maya merchants carrying large sacks over their shoulders filled with what appear to be mushrooms.

Fray Sahagun (in book 9 of 12) refers to mushrooms with a group of traveling merchants known as the pochtecas, meaning merchants who lead, because they were followers of  Quetzalcoatl who they worshipped under the patron name Yiacatecuhtli or Yacateuctli, Lord of the Vanguard. The pochteca journeyed down from Central Mexico into the Gulf lands and into the Maya region carrying merchandise as well as spreading the religion of Quetzalcoatl.    

The complex iconography along the rim of this vessel depicts what I believe represent cross cut  mushrooms; a symbol similar in shape to glyphs representing the planet Venus. The X-icon, which is a common symbol found on Maya vase paintings, most likely represents a sacred portal to the underworld. The fact that the X-icon above is twisted may be a reference to the symbol olin, meaning movement or motion. If so it may refer to the mushroom-Venus portal’s movement of up and down, down into the underworld as a death star, and up from the underworld, and into the heavens as a resurrection star.

Photographs  © Justin Kerr
 Above left is an effigy censer lid from Copan, Honduras, A.D 600-700, depicting a Maya ruler wearing mushroom-inspired ear plugs like the jade ones depicted on the right.


  Photograph  © Justin Kerr

The gold Aztec figurine above left (K2048, Justin Kerr Data Base) depicts a warrior wearing a  mushroom-inspired nose plug. Hallucinogenic mushrooms appear to be linked with what scholars have called “Tlaloc warfare” or “Venus star-wars”.  Note that the warrior holds a shield depicting the “quincunx”, a Mesoamerican Venus symbol identifying the four cardinal directions of the universe and its cosmic center, the sacred portal into the spirit world. On the right is a gold mushroom-inspired ear ornament.

  “They [the Aztecs] could do practically anything, nothing seemed to difficult for them; they cut the greenstone, they melted gold, and all this came from Quetzalcoatl – arts and knowledge.” – Fray Bernandino Sahagun.


                        Replica mushroom stone alongside a stone toad receptacle from the                                                        de Borhegyi family collection  (Photo by Cory de Borhegyi)

Ethno-Mycologist  R. Gordon Wasson…

“In the association of these ideas we strike a vein that must go back to the remotest times in Eurasia, to the Stone Age: the link between the toad, the female sex organs, and the mushroom, exemplified in the Mayan languages and the mushroom stones of the Maya Highlands. Man must have brought this association across the Bering Strait (or the land bridge that replaced it in the ice ages) as part of his intellectual luggage.”

In Mesoamerica mushrooms were also most likely consumed by priests before the holy act of penis perforation. In this ritual blood was drawn from the penis and sprinkled upon the exhumed bones or cremated ashes of deceased ancestors, thus emulating in myth the way of Quetzalcoatl.

 It was through blood sacrifice that Mesoamerican rulers and priests nurtured the gods who had been their ancestors.  I believe that the mushroom was consumed in rituals of human sacrifice and self sacrifice. Self sacrifice by means of ritual bloodletting was likely the most important ritual among the ancient Maya. The act of bloodletting was so sacred in fact that according to Michael D. Coe, today’s unofficial  “Dean of Maya studies”, that the perforator itself was worshiped as a god (from Olmec Bloodletting: An Iconographic Study 1991).  


  The carved relief panel above is one of a series of six carvings in the vertical side walls of the South Ball Court at El Tajin, in Veracruz, Mexico (drawing from Coe, 1994, p.117). The carved panel depicts an individual, a ruler or Underworld god, with were-jaguar fangs, in the sacred act of drawing blood from his penis. Note that the figure in the water below receiving the blood offering, wears a fish headdress, which may be a symbolic reference to a mythological ancestor from a previous world age, who survived a world ending flood by being changed into a fish. The bearded god above him, with two bodies, likely represents Quetzalcoatl in his twin aspects of the planet Venus representing both the Evening Star and Morning Star. Most importantly, note that there are tiny mushrooms depicted on the limb of a tree just left of center. This tree, I believe, represents the world tree as the portal leading up and down at the center of the universe.  The bottom of the panel has an intricate scroll design which I  believe is more than mere decoration and likely represents a stylized cross-section of a mushroom. Stylized Venus symbols are also depicted on the panel at both of the sides. Each Venus symbol is associated with three circles, maybe representing the three hearth stones of creation.

Stephan de Borhegyi…

“When one world collapsed in flood, fire, or earthquake, they believed another was born only to come, in its turn, to a violent end”. “This philosophy probably led religious specialists to divine by magical computations the sacred cycle of 52 years, at the end of which cosmic crisis threatened the survival of mankind and the universe”. “Mesoamericans further believed that in order to avoid catastrophe at the end of each 52-year period man, through his priestly intermediaries, was required to enter into a new covenant with the supernatural, and in the meantime, he atoned for his sins and kept the precarious balance of the universe by offering uninterrupted sacrifices to the gods” (Borhegyi,1965a:29-30)..

The resurrection ritual was likely timed astronomically to the movements of Venus and possibly to the sacred period of inferior conjunction. At this time Venus sinks below the horizon and disappears into the “underworld” for eight days. It then rises from the underworld as the Morning Star. Bloodletting rituals were often performed in caves, which were believed to be entrances into the underworld. Cave ritualism on an elite level as apposed to a folk level is evident as early as 1000 B.C. at the Olmec influenced site of Chalcatzingo, near the Valley of Mexico (Pasztory, 1997:90).  Archaeologist  Brent Woodfil  found ceramic mushrooms in the Candelaria cave system in the highlands of Guatemala. There has been some speculation that these sacred caves may have been believed to be the legendary Chicomoztoc, the name given for the place of mythical origin of the ancient Mayas, Toltec and Aztecs–a place known as the “seven caves of emergence” (Woodfill,2002). According to Mary Miller and Karl Taube, (1993:136) the four founders of the Quiche lineages, who were formed of maize, “journeyed to Tulan Zuyua, the mountain of the seven caves, and there they received the gods, whom they then carried home in bundles on their backs. “Balam Quitze received Tohil, who gave humans fire, but only after human sacrifice to him had begun”. 


 Classic Maya vase paintings are rife with imagery of sacrifice in the Underworld. Since hundreds of these vase paintings can now be viewed in roll out photographs on Justin Kerr’s website,  I checked  carefully for mushroom imagery and discovered a significant amount of encoded mushroom-related symbolism. These vase paintings frequently depict images of self sacrifice which include images of were-jaguars and other characters from Maya mythology.

    According to first-hand reports written at the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Aztecs ate the mushrooms or drank a mushroom beverage in order to induce hallucinatory trances and dreams. During these dreams they saw colored visions of jaguars, birds, snakes, and little gnome-like creatures. 


Photograph  © Justin Kerr  

 Maya vase K1185 from the Justin Kerr Data Base, depicts a Maya scribe with what I believe is a sacred mushroom encoded into his headdress.  Painted Maya vessels like the one pictured above may have contained a divine drink concocted from the Amanita muscaria mushroom or other hallucinogenic mushrooms in a manner very similar to that described for the legendary Soma. Soma was prepared by extracting juice from the stalks of a certain plant. That certain plant was likely the Amanita muscaria mushroom, first identified by ethno-mycologist  R. Gordon Wasson. Soma was the divine beverage of immortality, and in the Rig-Veda Soma was referred to as the “God for Gods” seemingly giving him precedence above Indra and all other Gods (RV 9.42). The drinking of Soma by priests at sacrifice produced the effects of god within, and according to Wasson the act of collecting hallucinogenic mushrooms was always accompanied by a variety of religious sanctions. For example, among the present day Mixtecs the sacred mushrooms must be gathered by a virgin. They are then ground on a metate, water added, and the beverage drunk by the person consulting the mushroom.” (Borhegyi, 1961)

The ritual use of intoxicating enemas for spiritual transformation has been described in the earliest Spanish accounts of native customs. This ritual use of enemas, although poorly understood, is commonly represented in Maya vase paintings.

   Below are Maya vase paintings showing the that clearly represent  that mushrooms were not only ingested orally but also by means of enemas.

Photograph © Justin Kerr Kerr

Maya vase K5172, photographed in roll out form by Justin Kerr,  probably depicts an enema ritual associated with the ballgame. On the left the ballplayer wears a deer headdress and a ballgame belt or yoke. The yoke takes the shape of a loop that believe identifies the mushroom religion.  He crouches on one knee, and holds an Amanita muscaria mushroom in one hand and an enema apparatus in the other.  

A mushroom infusion administered by means of an enema would have a much quicker and more powerful effect on the body than one ingested orally. 

Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya Vase painting K8662 depicts four separate scenes and should be read from left to right. Here a priest or shaman, prepares an enema for the sacred mushroom ceremony. Scene three depicts a large plate-size Amanita mushroom in the lap of the priest. Scene four depicts the priest holding the enema device.  On the far right, the device is filled with a mushroom infusion, possibly one that could be identified as the semi-mythical Soma,  to be injected into the colon. Such a device was used as a means to avoid vomiting and to achieve the altered state of consciousness required for self sacrifice.   The priest holds a small vase containing the mushroom mixture which he has poured from a larger jar marked with a twisted X-icon which is a symbol of the portal to the Underworld.  The portal, identified with the planet Venus, carries the deified dead to the heavens by a divine bird symbolized by eagles or vultures as avatars of the Morning Star. This X-icon, like the sacred ballcourt in the underworld, Identifies the holy place of rebirth and deified resurrection.  Soma was prepared by extracting juice from the stalks of a plant which, according to Wasson, can be identified as the Amanita muscaria mushroom.

Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya vase K8792, depicts a Maya ruler and wife in a hallucinogenic trance. The ruler in this scene is sitting on his thrown next to a drinking vessel (Maya vase). Based on the artist’s use of mushroom inspired headdresses, the vessel would likely contain a mushroom beverage. The ruler appears to be hallucinating as he fixates on his transforming hand. Behind the ruler is his wife, who appears to be in a euphoric trance. She wears a symbolic mushroom headdress and a blouse with two of the loop symbols associated with the religion. Behind her on the ground is a ritual bundle which may contain the bones and skull of the deceased ancestor who will be summoned through the vision serpent god named  K’awil.  The sacrificial victim in this scene is depicted on the left in front of the ruler. His arms are crossed in front, suggesting that he is a willing participant.  By so doing he emulates the way in which Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself to become immortal and deified at death.

   Photograph © Justin Kerr

Maya vase K2763 depicts an offering of a mushroom, most likely an Amanita muscaria mushroom judging by it’s size and shape.

 Maya Vase painting K2797 is a good example of mushroom-inspired art  from the Justin Kerr Data Base. The Maya god, identified by scholars as God K, is depicted twice, once on the far right and again, just to the left of center.  Glyph expert David Stuart (1987) found a syllabic spelling for God K’s name which reads K’awil, meaning “sustenance” in Yukatek Mayan, but also meaning “idol” or “embodiment” in the Poqom and Kaqchikel Maya languages.  (Freidel, Schele, Parker: 1993 p.410 n).  K’awil is commonly recognizable by the smoking tube, obsidian mirror, or axehead that penetrates his forehead. These attributes are metaphors of the power to penetrate, or enter, into another world. In native mythology K’awil symbolized a bolt of lightning which, by penetrating the ground and entering the underworld, could create new life in a place of death and decay. K’awil, who appears to be undergoing jaguar transformation, is conjured up in a mushroom ceremony by the figure to his left.  Both of these participants, who have summoned K’awil to the underworld,  wear mushroom-inspired headdresses and are covered with jaguar spots. The individual on the left clearly holds a sacred mushroom in his left hand.

Photograph  © Justin Kerr
  Maya vase K1882 shows the Maya god K’awil, on the left, as the serpent-footed god (manikin scepter). The artist has encoded what looks like a mushroom into the forehead of K’awil at the base of his projecting trademark smoking tube.  The Maya saw K’awil as a spirit who, through divine transformation, enters the material world via lightning, conflating with the attributes of other gods and with material objects.  One-legged gods like K’awil and his Aztec counterpart Tezcatlipoca may be an esoteric metaphor for the divine mushroom–a one-legged god manifested from the power of lightning.   The words “serpent” and “sky” are homonyms in the Mayan language.According to David Freidel “the axe through the forehead signaled that the person was in a state of transformation embodied by the power of lightning”(Freidel, 1993:194,199).  Dennis Tedlock’s analysis of the Popol Vuh reveals that “the three q’abawil were wooden and stone deities called Cacula Huracan, Lightning One-leg”; Chipa Cacula, “Youngest or Smallest Lightning”; and “Sudden or Violent Lightning” and suggests that spirit is manifested within material objects (Tedlock,1985, 249-251).  Since it was believed that stones were  created from lightning, and the spirit K’awil entered this world through lightning into material objects, stones may have been carved to look like mushrooms, in order to worship K’awil as a one-legged god of divine transformation.  The mushroom stones, were most likely venerated with the blood of human and animal sacrifices.  It may be that the one-legged gods of Mesoamerica, K’awil and his Mexican counterpart Tezcatlipoca, both represent the divine mushroom and that the one-leg refers to the mushroom’s stem or stipe, as well as to lightning.  

It should be noted that the mysterious plant worshiped in the Rig Veda called Soma, which was identified by Gordon Wasson as the Amanita muscaria mushroom, was found high in the mountains and was associated with lightning.  The mushrooms’ sudden appearance after a storm led to an association with thunder and lightning.  The ancient peoples believed that mushrooms appeared where lightning hit the ground.

In the center, above, an aged deity with the antlers and ear of a deer emerges from the head of Kawil’s divine serpent foot. He holds in his hands a conch shell attached to what appears to be a three-stemmed mushroom bundle. K’awil, who I would argue is the esoteric mushroom god of the Classic Maya, represents the embodiment  of divine spirit who opens a divine portal for the so-called vision serpent, known as the och chan (Olmec dragon?) during ritual blood letting in veneration of the ending of a period of bundled time.  Note that K’awil’s eyes appear to be fixated on this mushroom bundle.  Also note that the Maya god Chac, his head identified by his spondulus ear flair, can be seen rising from the Kawak throne above.

Chac is the most frequently depicted Maya god in the three surviving pre-Hispanic codices Scholars have also identified Chac as being the gods Kukulcan, Quetzalcoatl and Itzamna (God D) because of his reptilian or snake-like appearance, it is likely that all are different  manifestations of the same god. The Maya also associated Chac with the four cardinal directions of the world, with each direction represented by a different color.



Photographs © Justin Kerr
Owner: Popol Vuh Museum, Guatemala

Maya vase K3066, depicts a Late Classic version of the
och chan the bearded Olmec dragon. This god is known also as the Maya god Chac. He likely represents a Maya version of the god Quetzalcoatl-Tlaloc, a Venus god connected with Venus warfare during the Classic period, and with the four cardinal directions and it’s sacred center. He is the God of Underworld decapitation who is intimately associated with sacred mushrooms as divine portals to the Underworld located at the four cardinal directions and it’s sacred center, which can be seen depicted above.  Chac, like Tlaloc, is associated with rain, lightning and thunder.  Both gods are depicted in art wielding the axe associated with underworld decapitation. Although Chac is identified with the four cardinal directions, he was sometimes thought of as the “one” god who resided at the center of the universe. Above Chac has the hook-shaped symbol used to create a serpentine eye which I believe like the Ik symbol is code for the religion. Note the X-icon in the head symbolizing a sacred portal of Venus resurrection.  A page in the Dresden Codex portrays four Chacs seated in the trees located at the four cardinal directions of time and space. A fifth Chac is seated in a cave representing the cosmic center of the world. This configuration of five, identified as the quincunx, is a reference to the central portal of Venus resurrection and the spirit world. 


Photographs © Justin Kerr

 Above is Maya vase K502. I believe that the artist encoded abstract or stylized mushrooms conflating with the “hook symbol” which I will continue to demonstrate is code for the mushroom religion. The image I believe represents a bird encoded with the sacred symbol of three, referring to the three stones of Maya creation.  The mushroom bird image may  allude to avian resurrection, from the Underworld as the Morning Star aspect of Venus. The stylized mushrooms, would symbolize the sacred journey into the underworld,  the so called mushroom portal to the Underworld.  The image of the bird itself would symbolically represent the harpy eagle, who resurrects the newly born Sun God from the Underworld and is one of the avatars of the Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl as the Morning Star. The dual image of three dots may represent the three hearth stones of Maya creation, and the dualistic nature of the planet Venus as both an Evening Star, the Sun Gods executioner in the Underworld, and the harpy eagle who resurrects the Sun God from the Underworld.


Above is a Late Classic Maya Tripod plate (A.D. 550-800) from the Peten area of Northern Guatemala. The artist is likely depicting a mythological scene, which takes place each night in the Maya Underworld, in which the central character, the Maize God who in this scene emulates the Underworld Sun God is being dressed and prepped for Underworld sacrifice by a naked female, I suspect represents the the Moon Goddess. Note the probable Amanita muscaria mushroom protruding from the Moon Goddesses headress. The dark figure on the far right wearing jaguar attire and standing on an obscure object most likely represent the Lord of the Underworld and God of the Underworld Decapitation. The plate is in the Kurt Stavenhagen Collection, Mexico.

Photograph © Justin Kerr

  Above, Maya vase K5534 depicts the journey of a ruler into the underworld. Note the partial loop encoded on the conch shell carried on the back of the second figure on the right. Note also that the individual at the far right of the procession carries a large sack encoded with a mushroom.


  Spanish chronicler Fray Diego Duran(Duran, 1971)

“The Indians made sacrifices in the mountains, and under shaded trees, in the caves and caverns of the dark and gloomy earth. They burned incense, killed their sons and daughters and sacrificed them and offered them as victims to their gods; they sacrificed children, ate human flesh, killed prisoners and captives of war….One thing in all this history: no mention is made of their drinking wine of any type, or of drunkenness. Only wild mushrooms are spoken of and they were eaten raw.”

…“It was common to sacrifice men on feast days as it is for us to kill lambs or cattle in the slaughterhouses…. I am not exaggerating; there were days in which two thousand, three thousand or eight thousand men were sacrificed…Their flesh was eaten and a banquet was prepared with it after the hearts had been offered to the devil…. to make the feasts more solemn   all ate wild mushrooms which make a man lose his senses… the people became excited, filled with pleasure, and lost their senses to some extent.”

Photographs © Justin Kerr,

This Maya vase painting K638 from the Kimbell Art Museum, Ft. Worth Texas, depicts a prisoner stripped of his clothing, his arms bound behind his back, being led by priests into the underworld to undergo the ritual of underworld decapitation. The prisoner is followed by a priest holding an axe. He is dressed in the guise of the underworld jaguar. That the prisoner is an offering to a Venus God is indicated by the Venus glyphs in the cartouche at the lower right. The artist encodes the four cardinal directions and it’s sacred center in the mushroom-inspired shields. The shields also encode three stems symbolic of the creator gods who represent the three hearth stones of Maya creation. The priest leading the way into the underworld wears a robe decorated with symbolic mushrooms. The portion of his headdress which is painted red is esoterically shaped to form a partial loop, the symbol of the religion.

The priest on the far right wears a red tunic with white  spots symbolic of the Amanita muscaria mushroom. The priest directly  behind the prisoner wears an Amanita-inspired hat with the same colors.  Dictionaries of Maya highland languages compiled after the Spanish Conquest mention several intoxicating mushroom varieties whose names clearly indicate their ritual use. One type was called xibalbaj okox, “underworld mushroom” in reference to the belief that the magic mushroom transported one to a supernatural realm known as the underworld  (Sharer, 1983: 484). The artist infers that  they all journey into the underworld as a group under the influence of Amanita mushrooms, including the prisoner who will be ritually decapitated by a priest dressed as the underworld jaguar.

Photograph © Justin Kerr

The above Maya vase painting K2781, from the Justin Kerr Data Base, drawn below by Alexandre Tokovinine, strongly  supports my theory that a ritual intoxicating drink such as the beverage Soma, was consumed prior to sacrifice and ritual decapitation. It was believed that this beverage would transport the individual to the Underworld in which underworld decapitation was the portal to rebirth and divine resurrection.

Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya Vase painting K7516 depicts a decapitation scene, in which the individuals involved standing in line appear to be willing participants. The individual on his knees above is about to lose his head. The victim on the left however may be a captive (note rope around arms?) being fed what I would argue are hallucinogenic mushrooms prior to decapitation. The arms-on-chest gesture of the standing victims depicted above has been associated with self sacrifice and submissiveness.  It is a gesture commonly depicted on monuments at sites in the Guatemala Highlands and the Guatemalan Pacific Piedmont, (the Soconusco) in the Cotzumalhuapa region at El Baul and Bilbao.    

           Photographs © Justin Kerr

Maya vase K5390 from the Justin Kerr Data Base depicts four warriors. The leader at the center right holds what appears to me as being a red capped Amanita muscaria mushroom in his left hand and a staff in his right hand which bears an upside down ceremonial trophy head. The warrior at center left on his knees receiving the sacred mushroom of underworld jaguar transformation wears what looks like a stylized mushroom inspired headdress along with symbolic jaguar attire.  

About deborhegyi
My research was inspired by a theory first proposed by my father, the late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a trophy head cult associated with human sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame. My study, which is exclusively my own work, presents visual evidence that both the hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom and the Psilocybin mushroom were worshiped and venerated as gods in ancient Mesoamerica. These sacred mushrooms were so cleverly encoded in the religious art of the New World, "Hidden in Plain Sight" that prior to this study they virtually escaped detection. This online research study, "BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE" is an enormous document containing over 300 images, is presented in five parts at this time (the Home Page, Soma in the Americas, Part I and Part II, and 2012 Alert ). In the course of my study have found an abundance of archaeological evidence supporting the proposition that Mesoamerica, the high cultures of South America, and Easter Island shared, along with many other New World cultures, elements of a Pan American belief system so ancient that many of the ideas may have come from Asia to the New World with the first human settlers. I believe the key to this entire belief system lies, as proposed by R. Gordon Wasson, in early man's discovery of the mind-altering effects of various hallucinatory substances. The accidental ingestion of these hallucinogenic substances could very well have provided the spark that lifted the mind and imagination of these early humans above and beyond the mundane level of daily existence to contemplation of another reality. In summary, the encoded mushroom imagery occurred with such frequency and in such indisputably religious context that there can be no doubt as to their importance in the development and practice of indigenous religion.

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