The Tragedy of Maria Sabina

In 1955, banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur connoisseur of mushrooms, was introduced by the Mazatec shaman María Sabina to the ancient teonanácatl — the Psilocybe mushroom, called ‘nti-ši-tho in Mazatec, Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. María Sabina called them her saint children. Wasson was deeply impressed by his mushroom experience. He speaks of ecstasy, the flight of the soul from the body, entering other planes of existence, floating into the Divine Presence, awe and reverence, gentleness and love, the presence of the ineffable, the presence of the Ultimate, extinction in the divine radiance. He writes that the mushroom freed his soul to soar with the speed of thought through time and space. The mushroom, he says, allowed him to know God.

Wasson’s description falls effortlessly into the language of ecstasy, awe, soul flight, the Divine Presence, the knowledge of God — the same stock of European concepts from which Mircea Eliade drew. But María Sabina herself could not understand any of this. She says: “It’s true that Wasson and his friends were the first foreigners who came to our town in search of the saint children and that they didn’t take them because they suffered from any illness. Their reason was that they came to find God.”

And none of it, of course, had anything to do with the indigenous uses of the mushroom, whose purpose was to cure sick people by, among other things, making them vomit. And she adds: “Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.” To find God, Sabina — who considered herself a Catholic — went to Mass.

When Sabina ingested the mushrooms, the mushroom spirits would show her the cause of the sickness — for example, through soul loss, malevolent spirits, or human sorcerers. “The sickness comes out if the sick vomit. They vomit the sickness. They vomit because the mushrooms want them to. If the sick don’t vomit, I vomit. I vomit for them and in that way the malady is expelled.” And she would then be able to cure the patient through the power of her singing. Sometimes the spirits told her that the patient could not be cured.

Wasson had clearly come to Mexico anticipating a religious or mystical experience, and now he had one. Indeed, he had lied to get it. He knew that the mushroom ceremonies were for curing sickness or finding lost objects, and he told Sabina — as well as other Mazatec healers — that he was concerned about the whereabouts and wellbeing of his son. He later admitted that this was a deception in order to gain access to the ceremonies.

Like Wasson, the influx of North Americans who followed him to her village were not seeking the cure of sickness; they were seeking enlightenment. “Some of these young people sought me out for me to stay up with the Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth. ‘We come in search of God,’ they said. It was difficult for me to explain to them that the vigils weren’t done from the simple desire to find God, but were done with the sole purpose of curing the sicknesses that our people suffer from.” She laments: “But from the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”

While Wasson was climbing the mountain of spirit, seeing Sabina as a saint-like figure, a spiritual psychopomp, “religion incarnate,” María Sabina dwelled steadfastly in the valley of soul, healing the sick, vomiting for them, expelling their sickness, living her own difficult and messy life — until Wasson’s spiritual bypass destroyed the power of her mushrooms.

This is what her poetry was like:

Because you gave me your clock
Because you gave me your thought
Beacause I am a clean woman
Because I am a Cross Star woman
Because I am a woman who flies
I am the sacred eagle woman, says
I am the Lord eagle woman, says
I am the lady who swims, says

Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opposum
Because I am the Lord opposum

I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin.

And here is Sabina singing, in a recording made by Wasson in 1956:

Ethnopoetic theorist and poet Jerome Rothenberg has put together a collection of Sabina's songs translated into English, along with biographical and interpretive essays, as part of the Poets for the Millennium series. There are excellent reviews of the collection by poets Nathaniel Tarn, Hank Lazer, and Heriberto Yépez.


  1. Yes, it's pretty well documented the international publicity had devastating effects on Maria Sabina´s practice, family, and environment. One only has to visit Huautla nowadays to witness. Somewhere I have xeroxes of a series of articles from a local Huatla magazine describing the intra-family feuding that broke over her succession. Not pretty. Sometimes it seems like western attention is the very kiss of death.

  2. This post really activates the righteous side of me :). The spiritual tourism has been internalized by a lot of people, including natives as well. This is very sensitive especially in ceremonies involving Peyote or Ayahuasca. People try go to ceremony every week and forget of some of the original purposes of ingesting the medicine. It becomes very easy to abuse the medicine and the elders that run it. Most of the time people even forget to state their reason to go to ceremony and forget to follow protocol. This means that people with all kinds of issues and in all kinds of conditions and with all kids of diseases show up to ceremony and expect to get healed. This is tricky and abusive towards the elders, they cannot help anyone who doesn’t request the healing in the proper way and that is being honest. The not so nice part is that the elder then literally pays the consequences of those who fail to ask for help and take a whole bunch of medicine and energy away. One can fool an elder, one can fool oneself, but if one has respect and believes in indigenous ways then one must be present that one can not fool that which is mysterious and alive.

    I recently witnessed the frustration of one of my uncles that was having a hard time in the middle of a meeting with someone that was requesting help, but would not estate what kind of problems he was facing. If the person is not willing to surrender their control and be open about their sickness no ceremonial leader can help. Also lets not forget how people that think that the ceremony and the medicine just would heal their emotional, relationship, psychological issues etc. without any work form their part are not being honest with themselves and are just looking for an excuse to not get better. There are a lot of people that go to all kinds of ceremonies and get all kinds of “telepathic messages, healings and visions” but have never tried professional therapy because this involves being honest and talking about your baggage with another human being.

    It is also very common to have families become “holly” and feud over who is to carry the medicine of dad, mom, grandpa etc. and fail to understand that the medicine was the result of the hard work, sensitivity, ceremonial mileage, spiritual connection and way of life of the deceased one and not for them to have or try to duplicate. If they want to be like them well, then they need to start to work and maybe one day they can be good versions of themselves and honor their dead relatives that way.

  3. "forgive them for they know not what they do." really. they don't. they didn't.

    understanding is much more precious than we suppose.

    and courage, even more rare. we do tremendous damage without realizing it. all of us. but impermanence, disappointment and loss are some of our most important teachers. especially now.

  4. Searching for a pic of Maria Sabina, I happened upon your article and your blog. Today, btw, I received in the mail a fine copy of the May 13, 1957 LIFE Magazine, the mag which introduced Maria to the world, and I began a little leisurely research. Happy to discover your blog. I just began to write my own recently: +Peace be with you+

  5. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  6. Thank you all for your most interesting comments. I wonder whether we have learned anything. I wonder whether the influx of foreigners into the Upper Amazon seeking ayahuasca healing isn't just a repetition of history. [sigh] I guess we'll find out.

  7. A thought I've recently had is that the plants/mushrooms have their own intelligence. While this is probably old news to a lot of people who write here, its a new idea to me. I've had little expience with LSD/plants/shrooms, but tried peyote tea last July. I don't think my intentions for taking it were clear/honest, and in retrospect I think the cacuts knew that. It scared the living hell out of me to such a degree that I've never felt before. Sort of like astounding me and then booting me out. I too feel like a lot of these westerners who don't know exactly what ails them or much about the traditional context, and I think I was punished for it to a degree in the experience.

  8. I'm not sure that I would say you were punished. I would guess that you were warned. :-) But it seems to me that it is the warning of a loving grandmother, looking out for you.