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Secrets of Mazatec Shamans: What Message did They Leave Us?

Visions of places long forgotten, connection with nature, even spiritual healing. "Magic" of the Mazatecs continues to inspire people all over the world. Their knowledge and understanding of natural psychoactive substances is immense, for they are one of the wisest tribes in the whole Mexico.

Mazatec are native inhabitants of Sierra Mazateca (also known as Sierra Madre) in region Northern Oaxaca, known for their use of psychoactive plants, seeds and mushrooms. Although they use dozens of psychoactive plants and/or compounds, the most sacred and used are: Salvia Divinorum, Morning glory and Mushrooms.

Shamans (curanderos) are well respected and honored members of Mazatec society. In order to become a full curandero, one has to study under informal apprenticeship of an older and wiser shaman for at least two or more years. It is a common custom that apprentice has to be at least 30 years old (to gather enough life experiences). Almost every week, will he or she consume psychoactive substances under shaman's supervision to gain "knowledge of the God and nature".

Whole apprenticeship is divided into 3 steps

  1. The process starts with using Salvia Divinorum to learn the "Way to the Heaven". Traditional way to consume salvia is to take a handful of its leaves and chew them for a few minutes. Another method is to fill pipe with leaves and smoke it. This method is much stronger and should be used only by full shamans. After salvia is ingested, apprentice will not be able to control his body and experience a dream-like state of mind with deep connection to the nature. Duration of one trip is about 20 minutes when smoked and up to 3 hours when chewed.

  2. Next comes the mastery Rivea Corymbosa (Morning glory). Seeds of a Morning glory contain psychoactive chemical called LSA, which is very similar to a well know drug LSD. Seeds are usually grinned, poured in the water and drank. Person will experience closed- and open-eyed visuals with feelings of insight and introspective thoughts. Total duration is about 5-10 hours.

  3. Finally one learns to use Sacred Mushrooms. Most of the Mazatecs use mushrooms in order to find lost objects. To find a lost person or object one takes some mushrooms at night. It is not allowed to keep any animals around, which might cry out and disturb the "sleeper", who goes on speaking while another person listens. They believe that it is the God who speaks through the "sleeper" and reveals the location of a lost object. After the apprentice becomes shaman, he/she will ingest psychoactive plants much less frequently. During the whole procedure one has to take strict diet and shouldn't have sex or drink alcohol.

Probably the most famous curandera was María Sabina. She was known for usage of many types of sacred mushrooms such as Psilocybe Mexicana. María was born in the Sierra Mazateca toward the end of 19th century. She was the first native shaman which allowed outsiders to participate in the healing ritual that became known as the velada, where participants ate sacred mushrooms in order to open their minds. In the sixties, many Americans, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger, began seeking María and her "holy children". But the Mazatec community didn't like her attitude about outsiders combined with sacred plants and had her house burned down.

For the rest of her life Maria blamed herself for her decisions and before she died in the year 1985 she left us a final message:

"From the moment the foreigners arrived, the 'holy children' lost their purity. They lost their force, they ruined them. Henceforth they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it...."

Written by Tomas Tichy