Psilocybin Mushrooms Encoded In Ancient Maya Art

Spanish chroniclers recorded that the Aztecs, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, revered three different kinds of narcotic mushrooms. The Spanish chroniclers who reported these mushroom rituals were repulsed by what they perceived to be a devil-inspired misinterpretation of the Holy Eucharist.,

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 god Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in Yucatec Mayan) 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.

Much of our understanding of Mesoamerican religion has been pieced together from Spanish chronicles and prehispanic and Colonial period manuscripts called codices. Unfortunately, for our understanding of the role of mushrooms in this religion, the Spanish missionaries who reported these mushroom rituals were repulsed by what they perceived to be similarities to holy Christian communion.  As a result, they made no attempt to record the rituals in detail and banished all forms of mushroom use.

Spanish chroniclers recorded 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)

One of the Spanish chroniclers named Jacinto de la Serna, 1892 (The Manuscript of Serna) described the use of sacred mushrooms for divination: “These mushrooms were small and yellowish (Psilocybin mushrooms) 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). Serna in 1650 pointed out that the Aztec calendar was called the “count of planets”. Serna writes that the people of Mexico “adored and made more sacrifices to the sun and Venus than any other celestial or terrestrial creatures”, and that it was believed that twins were associated with the sun and Venus (The Manuscript of Serna).

Above left, is a closeup image from a page in the Codex Mendoza, an Aztec codex created just after the Spanish Conquest. The page shows tribute collected by Aztec civil servants from the province of Tochtepec.  Included in the tribute were psilocybin mushrooms which the Aztecs called Teonanacatl, meaning “Flesh of the Gods.” The enlarged image of a two-handled vessel containing sacred psilocybin mushrooms (second image from left on next to bottom row) shows the mushrooms emerging from what appears to be the Fleur-de-lis emblem.

There is plenty of evidence in Mesoamerican mythology linking the many avatars of Quetzalcoatl, Jaguar-Bird-Serpent, to the duality of the planet Venus. Archaeologist 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, meaningthe “sunbringer” or “carrier of the sun or day.” (Tedlock, 1993:236).

We know from the early chronicles that Quetzalcoatl (known in the Maya area as Kukulcan and Gucumatz) was a Toltec ruler, and was apotheosized as Venus according to archaeoastronomy expert Susan Milbrath (177).  Quetzalcoatl in the Mixteca-Puebla codices is also identified with Venus. Quetzalcoatl’s mushroom ritual of underworld jaguar transformation and Tlaloc Venus resurrection was so scared that, if one gave one’s own life in sacrifice the act emulated Quetzalcoatl, himself (Wauchope, Ekholm and Bernal, p.323).

Above, an image from the Codex Ríos, shows a deity who, although apparently bearded,  has been identified as the Aztec goddess Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey plant. The codex, a Spanish colonial-era manuscript now in the Vatican library (also called Codex Telleriano-Remensis), is attributed to Pedro de los Ríos, a Dominican friar who worked in Oaxaca and Puebla between 1547 and 1562. The codex itself was likely written and drawn in Italy after 1566. Based on the beard and mushroom headdress, the deity probably also represents an aspect of Quetzalcoatl, the god who bestowed sacred mushrooms to mankind and instructed humans on how to perform sacrifices in exchange for the gift of fire and immortality. Note that his crown consists of a stylized fleur-de-lis from which emerge three sacred psilocybin mushrooms.  Note also that two probable psilocybin mushrooms emerge from the fleur-de-lis emblem within the drinking vessel held in his right hand. The implication is that the vessel contains a psilocybin-based Soma beverage .

In Mesoamerica, as in the Old World, the royal line of the king was considered to be of divine origin.  Descendents of the god-king Quetzalcoatl and thus all kings or rulers were identified with the resurrected Sun God, and the Maize God of Mesoamerican mythology.

Many of the images I studied 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 God of 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 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.

Ethno-mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson believed that the origin of ritual decapitation lay in the mushroom ritual itself.  In a letter to my father, Mesoamerican archaeologist Stephan de 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)

In summary, the mushroom imagery I found encoded in pre-Columbian art, 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.

For more on mushroom and Venus imagery in pre-Columbian art read, BREAKING THE MUSHROOM CODE:   by  Carl de Borhegyi



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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