Psychedelic History

The Mother of Modern Psychedelics: Learning from the Life and Works of Maria Sabina

Written by David Connell
[Artwork by pgm_xiii – you can find more of her art here]

It can be argued that Maria Sabina has a place within the modern psychedelic pantheon, albeit lesser-known and eclipsed by more colorful and outspoken figures like Terence McKenna, Timothy Leary, and Alan Watts. While others experienced more notoriety, closer inspection reveals Maria Sabina is perhaps one of the most critical and tragic figures in the psychedelic world. 

Maria Sabina was a native of Huautla de Jiménez, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Born in 1894, she descended from a long line of traditional Mazatec healers. Sabina continued her family’s work as a curandera, a type of shamanic healer. 

Curanderos and curanderas are the traditional healers and medicine people of central Mexico. Known for their skill in the shamanic arts, these healers often oversee the veladas, a term for healing journeys fueled by the consumption of psilocybin-containing fungi, also known as healing angels or Los Ninos, the “little children.”  

One of Sabina’s first known acts as a curandera was the healing of her uncle, an event that brought her notoriety within her community and earned her the title of sabia, or “wise one.” Within her village, and eventually around the world, Sabina continued to perform the traditional healing arts of her people, leading many veladas over more than fifty years.  

For Sabina, this sacred act of care was a duty and responsibility. During these psychedelic-assisted healing sessions, she would guide the individuals through the ritualistic consumption of psilocybin mushrooms. The seekers would then begin the process of self-exploration, guided by Sabina’s gentle hands and healing skills. During these sessions, Sabina would play healing music, chant, and recite pieces of poetry. For Sabina and other curanderos, the psilocybin mushrooms consumed in the ceremony were sacred medicine and an essential tool for putting seekers in touch with the spiritual fabric of which they are a part.

Like modern psychedelic users today, the seekers who participated in veladas reported personal healing and an experience that left them feeling more connected with the planet they inhabited and the people they shared it with. Maria Sabina’s role in this was vital due to her skill in guiding the sessions. Her healing sessions quickly became known for their singular intensity, spirituality, and effectiveness. The skill that Sabina displayed rapidly brought her fame throughout the Oaxaca region, and she found her skills increasingly in demand. 

Initially, the heightened demand for her healing abilities was not seen as a problem by Sabina as she was a woman who, by all accounts, possessed an incredible depth of empathy and love. Moreover, it was well known that Maria Sabina would never turn away a patient. Instead, she would reportedly welcome each person with open arms into her home where she performed her practice. 

Meeting Gordon Wasson; the West Comes Knocking

Sabina’s love and willingness to lend aid to any seeker would eventually lead her to meet Gordon Wasson, then Vice President of J.P Morgan Chase, a United States-based financial institution and economic juggernaut. Wasson was an amateur mycologist and had spent several years studying Mesoamerica legends surrounding a psychoactive fungus known as teonanacatl, used in traditional Central American medicine. 

Upon learning of a well-regarded and famed Mazatec healing woman operating in a small town in the Oaxaca province of Mexico, Wasson formulated a plan to journey there himself. Wasson found he had an opportunity to encounter the “divine” spirit so intrinsic to local legends surrounding the consumption of teonanacatl. Thus began Wasson’s three-year journey, ultimately culminating in his meeting with Maria Sabina.

While the initial purpose of Wasson’s journey was the discovery of the divine, his desire for knowledge and to experience teonanacatl led him to use deception in seeking admission to Sabina’s practice. As veladas are primarily for medical and healing rituals, Wasson feigned illness to convince Sabina to accept him. Sabina performed with characteristic care and warmth, carefully leading Wasson through an experience that he would later describe as life-changing and granting him a new and enlightened perspective. 

“For the first time, the word ecstasy took on real meaning,” Wasson wrote later. “For the first time, it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.”

However, the meeting between Wasson and Sabina also represented a clash of cultures. Sabina, an indigenous woman focused on the spiritual wellbeing of others, trustingly welcomed a stranger into her home intending to offer healing. Wasson, on the other hand, was a giant of the American financial sector and single-mindedly focused on personal experience. For his part, Wasson showed remarkably little consideration for Maria Sabina and her culture as became evident as time progressed.

It is perhaps sadly unsurprising that Gordon Wasson would play a central role in the downfall of Maria Sabina. During their session, Wasson documented the entire experience and while it is unclear if Sabina granted permission, the resulting photos and recordings were published and widely distributed. Wasson went on to author an article for Life magazine featuring Maria Sabina. While the article did not divulge Sabina’s location or the name of her hometown, Wasson did so in his later books and other works on the subject. As a result, the curandera’s identity and her village’s location became a matter of public knowledge.

This newfound notoriety would spell disaster for Sabina’s close-knit community. Following Wasson’s article, a flood of westerners poured into her hometown and the surrounding area, causing hardship for much of the Mazatec community. From the overharvesting of the sacred mushrooms to the eventual harassment of the Mazatec by Mexican federal police with repeated raids seeking narcotics, the community at large experienced hardships for years to come. 

A Woman in Exile: Life and Death after Wasson

According to some sources, Sabina’s growing international renown led to visits from industry titans and stars like Walt Disney, John Lennon, and Keith Richards, among others. With these new visitors came fame abroad and infamy at home. Sabina, never one to deny a request for help and healing, would eventually come to express regret about her interactions with Wasson. Her regret was not due to the negative impact on her own life but the effect that this new influx of outsiders had on her village and the surrounding area. Throngs of Western researchers and spiritualist seekers flooded into Oaxaca to experience the veladas and gather the local psilocybe fungi for research and recreational use. 

Eventually, this tumult caused the locals to turn on the woman they once dubbed sabia, forcing her from her ancestral home. Her former friends and townsfolk went on to burn down the family home where she and the generations before her had healed so many. The influx of foreign travelers also drew the attention of the watchful eye of Mexico’s oppressive government, then led by Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, and the town was raided multiple times in fruitless searches for narcotics and other contraband.  

Despite all of the negative repercussions and her own regrets, Sabina never lost her willingness to help others or seemed to exhaust her deep well of compassion. Maria Sabina was tireless in her efforts to enrich the lives of others, writing a series of poetic works and songs that continue to influence Mexican pop culture today. Eventually, in 1985 she was finally allowed to return home where she passed away on November 22 of that year.

Today Sabina is hailed as a Mexican folk hero and is revered in Huautla as a spiritual figure and healer of otherworldly skill. In 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, her great-grandson, Bernardino Garcia Martinez, was permitted to exhume her remains from the municipal cemetery in her hometown of Huautla and transport them back to the site of her family home. There she was interred and a shrine was built to honor her and her teachings. 

Respecting Maria Sabina and Indigenous Psychedelic Traditions

In one sense, modern psychonauts and practitioners can take something deeply positive away from Sabina’s story. Maria Sabina stands as a role model and example of a wise elder within the psychedelic tradition. Today’s practitioners can find inspiration in her embodiment of compassion, adopting a welcoming stance both in and outside of psychedelic ceremonies. This is not to say psychedelic practitioners should act without caution. Instead, Maria Sabina’s lesson is that if others approach knowledgeable practitioners and healers with openness and honesty, these seekers can find access to love, healing, and knowledge.

At the same time, Gordon Wasson, in particular, should be looked at as a cautionary example of someone who approached the use of psychedelics with a disingenuous mindset and who appropriated and abused another culture’s sacred traditions. As modern psychonauts, it is important that the traditions of cultures outside of our own be approached with respect, honesty, and the intention to integrate into and fully participate in them. Today’s psychedelic practitioners should, unlike Wasson, be fully honest about their reasoning for participating in native traditions and should, if they are honored with an invitation to do so, approach these experiences with the respect they deserve. 

This speaks to the larger problem within the community of cultural appropriation. Today’s psychonauts owe much of their knowledge and traditions to native cultures that have gone mostly unrecognized for their contributions to the psychedelic world. A modern example of this is the increasing interest of the healthcare and scientific community in psychedelics. This can be seen with the rapid growth of the medical psychedelic industry. There has been an explosion in interest psychedelic stocks such as Compass Pathways (NASDAQ: CMPS), MindMed (NEO: MMED) and Field Trip Health (Field Trip Health, Inc. (CSE: FTRP). All while native practitioners continue to see their sacred medicines criminalized and then appropriated by western medicine to be used not as a tool for spiritual growth but as treatment designed to get patients back on their feet and participating in capitalistic society again. This sanitization of psychedelics ultimately leads to the sanitization of native psychedelic spiritualism and further cultural appropriation, eroding what awareness remains of the ancient traditions. Indigenous cultures rarely receive proper recognition or compensation commensurate with their contribution to this recently booming area of Western public interest.

One way for today’s psychedelic explorer to avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation is to engage in reciprocity. Reciprocity can be performed by acting with humility, openness, and finding intentional ways to give back to indigenous communities. Examples of reciprocity could include finding out what is needed in a particular community and funding basic supplies such as clean water or sanitation, teaching classes in collaboration with indigenous leaders, or participating in intentional, ethical retreats that partner with nonprofits to support their local communities, and acknowledging the massive contributions that native cultures have made to today’s psychedelic practices. It is also important that modern practitioners use their voices to advocate for fair and equitable drug reform that eliminates the criminalization of native practices. This balanced and cooperative aspect of reciprocity contrasts with Western capitalism, which prioritizes personal profit and often leads to exploitation.

Maria Sabina’s life and its intersection with Western society should serve as a lesson to modern psychonauts. Act with compassion, never shy away from those in need, and always search for the human divinity within yourself and others. When modern society is viewed through Sabina’s eyes, we as psychedelic users, see its inequity and lack of compassion. Today’s psychonauts should choose to embody her spirit: spread knowledge, provide the gift of healing in whatever way they can, and never turn away those in need. As we delve into the mysterious inner realms of our psyches, an opportunity granted by traditional psychedelics, psychonauts can choose to share the truth we find there with the broader world and practice incorporating the essence of Maria Sabina’s life and lessons into our own.

In the second part of this series, readers will learn about Maria Sabina’s writings, poetry, and philosophical teachings.

David Connell is a writer, U.S. Air Force Veteran, and author of Cooking with Magic: The Psilocybin Cookbook. David holds a B.A. in Communications and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Connect with him about drug policy reform, his thoughts on research in novel psychedelic therapies, creative writing, and his unabashed love for Science Fiction on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram

References:

About the author

David Connell

Leave a Comment