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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Maria Sabina: Her Life and Chants

Estrada, Alvaro. (1981).
Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson.

ISBN:0-915520-33-8 hardcover
0-915520-33-X paperback

Description: Hardcover, 239 pages.

Contents: Preface by Jerome Rothenberg, Retrospective Essay by R. Gordon Wasson, Introduction, 2 parts: 1. The Life, 2. The Chants, Notes and Commentaries.

Note:A translation of Vida de Maria Sabina by Henry Munn. One of the New Wilderness Poetics Series. “The designs on the cover, endpapers and title page are directly derived from traditional Mazatic huipal embroideries (the style of Jalapa de Diaz.” (Fredrick Usher, A Note on the Book's Design, unnumbered page 242)

Excerpt(s): In Mazatec, Mara Sabina's calling is, literally, that of "wise woman"— a term that we may choose to translate as "shaman" or, by a further twist, as "poet." But that's to bring it and her into our own generalized kind of reckoning and naming. In much the same way, this book, which first appeared in Spanish in 1977, and French by 1979, translates her from the particularities of local Mazatec culture to the generalities of a book and media technology that can travel almost anywhere. (Or so we like to think.) (Jerome Rothenberg, Preface, page 8)

Not once does Mara Sabina reproach me for having made known to the world both the mushrooms and her gift as their ministrant. But not without anguish do I read her words:

Before Wasson, I felt that the saint children elevated me. I don't feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If Cayetano hadn't brought the foreigners. ... the saint children would have kept their power...From the moment the foreigners arrived, 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.
These words make me wince: I, Gordon Wasson, am held responsible for the end of a religious practice in Mesoamerica that goes back far, for a millennia. I fear she spoke the truth, exemplifying her wisdom. A practice carried on in secret for centuries has now been aerated and aeration spells the end.

At the time of my first velada with Maria Sabina, in 1955, I had to make a choice: suppress my experience or resolve to present it worthily to the world. There was never a doubt in my mind. The sacred mushrooms and the religious feeling concentrated in them through the Sierras of Southern Mexico had to be made known to the world, and worthily so, at whatever cost to me personally. If I did not do this, "consulting the mushroom" would go on for a few years longer, but its extinction was and is inevitable. The world would know vaguely that such a thing had existed but not the importance of its role. On the other hand, worthily presented, its prestige, Maria Sabina's prestige, would endure. Alvaro Estrada has contributed the final chapter to this massive effort that I have made and I am grateful to him, and to Maria Sabina also, for her cooperation. (R. Gordon Wasson, Retrospective Essay, pages 19-20)

Once my uncle Emilio Cristino got so sick he couldn't get up. I was a girl of five, six, or seven. I didn't know what his sickness was. Grandmother Maria Estefania, worried, went in search of a Wise Man named Juan Manuel to cure uncle. ...

The Wise Man Juan Manuel had arrived to cure uncle Emilio Cristino; for the first time I was present at a vigil with the saint children. I understood that later. I saw how the Wise Man Juan Manuel talked, and talked. His language was very pretty. I liked it. At times the Wise Man sang, sang, and sang. I didn't understand the words exactly, but they pleased me. ...

Some days after the vigil in which the Wise Man Juan Manuel cured Uncle, Maria Ana and I were taking care of our chickens in the woods so that they wouldn't be the victims of hawks or foxes. We were seated under a tree when suddenly I saw near me, within reach of my hand, several mushrooms. They were the same mushrooms that the Wise Man Juan Manuel had eaten. I knew them well. My hands gently tore up one mushroom, then another. I looked at them up close. "If I eat you, you, and you," I said to them, "I know that you will make me sing beautifully." I remembered that my grandparents spoke of these mushrooms with great respect. That was why I knew that they weren't bad.

Without thinking much about it, I put the mushrooms in my mouth and chewed them up. Their taste wasn't pleasant; on the contrary, they were bitter, tasting of roots, of earth. I ate them all up. My sister Maria Ana, watching me, did the same.

After having eaten the mushrooms, we felt dizzy, as if we were drunk, and we began to cry; but this dizziness passed and then we became very content. Later we felt good. It was like a new hope in our life. That was how I felt. ...

Another day we ate the mushrooms and I had a vision: a well-dressed man appeared, he was as big as a tree. I heard the mysterious voice that said: "This is your father Crisanto Feliciano. . . ." My father. It was years since he had died, now it gave me pleasure to know him. The immense man, my father, spoke. Pointing at me he said these words: "Maria Sabina, kneel down. Kneel and pray. . . . ." I kneeled and prayed. I spoke to God who each time I felt to be more familiar. Closer to me. I felt as if everything that surrounded me was God. Now I felt that I spoke a lot and that my words were beautiful. (pages 38-40)

For me sorcery and curing are inferior tasks. The Sorcerers and Curers have their Language as well, but it is different from mine. They ask favors from Chicon Nindo. I ask them from God the Christ, from Saint Peter, from Magdalene and Guadalupe.

It's that in me there is no sorcery, there is no anger, there are no lies. Because I don't have garbage, I don't have dust. 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. The mushrooms have power because they are the flesh of God. And those that believe are healed. Those that do not believe are not healed. (page 55)

Cayetano Garcia was sindico for three years; in that time there were no serious problems or situations that the town government could lament. ...

"Maria Sabina," he said, still breathing hard from the walk, "some blonde men have arrived at the Municipal Building to see me. They've come from a faraway place with the aim of finding a Wise One. They come in search of Little-One-Who Springs-Forth. I don't know whether it displeases you to know it, but I promised to bring them to meet you. I told them that I know a true Wise Woman. The thing is that one of them, looking very serious, put his head up close to my ear and said: 'I'm looking for ?nti1xi3tjo3.' [the dear little ones that leap forth]. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. For a moment I doubted it, but the blonde man appeared to know a lot about the matter. That was the impression I got. The man seems sincere and good. Finally I promised to bring them to your house."

"If you want to, I can't say no. You are an official and we are friends," I replied. ...

One night soon after, the foreigners were present at my vigil. Afterward I found out that Wasson had been left marveling, and that he went so far as to say that another person in Huautla who claimed to be a Wise One was nothing but a liar. In reality he meant the sorcerer Vanegas.

When the foreigners took the saint children with me. I didn't feel anything bad. The vigil was fine. I had different visions than usual. I saw places I had never imagined existed. I reached the place the foreigners came from. I saw cities. Big cities. Many houses, big ones.

Wasson came other times. He brought his wife and his daughter. Different people came with him as well. ...

After those first visits of Wasson, many foreign people came to ask me to do vigils for them. I asked them if they were sick, but they said no ... that they had only come "to know God." They brought innumerable objects with which they took what they call photographs and recorded my voice. Later they brought papers [newspapers and magazines] in which I appeared. I've kept some papers I'm in. I keep them even though I don't know what they say about me.

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.

Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well. (pages 71-73)

And even though I'm the "clean woman," the "principal clown woman," evil has been done to me. Once they burned my house of seven arm-lengths. It was built of wood with a thatched roof of dried sugarcane leaves. I don't know the reason why they did it. Some people thought it was because I had revealed the ancestral secret of our native medicine to foreigners.

It's true that before Wasson nobody spoke so openly about the children. No Mazatec revealed what he knew about this matter. I only obeyed the sindico; and yet I think now that if the foreigners had arrived without any recommendation whatsoever, I would still have shown them my wisdom, because there is nothing bad in that. The children are the blood of Christ. When we Mazatecs speak of the vigils we do it in a low voice, and in order not to pronounce the name that they have in Mazatec (?nti1xi3tjo3) we call them little things or little saints. That is what our ancestors called them. (page 79)

For a time there came young people of one and the other sex, long-haired, with strange clothes. They wore shirts of many colors and used necklaces. A lot came. 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.

Later I found out that the young people with long hair didn't need me to eat the little things. Fellow Mazatecs weren't lacking who, to get a few centavos for food, sold the saint children to the young people. In their turn, the young people ate them wherever they liked: it was the same to them if they chewed them up seated in the shade of coffee trees or on a cliff along some trail in the woods.

These young people, blonde and dark-skinned, didn't respect our customs. Never, as far as I remember, were the saint children eaten with such a lack of respect. For me it is not fun to do vigils. Whoever does it simply to feel the effects can go crazy and stay that way temporarily. Our ancestors always took the saint children at a vigil presided over by a Wise One.

The improper use that the young people made of the little things was scandalous. They obliged the authorities in Oaxaca City to intervene in Huautla. ... though not all the foreigners are bad, it's true. (page 86)

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.

Before Wasson, I felt that the saint children elevated me. I don't feel like that anymore. The force has diminished. If Cayetano hadn't brought the foreigners. . . . the saint children would have kept their power. Many years ago when I was a child, they grew everywhere. They even grew around the house; but those weren't used in the vigils, because if human eyes see them that invalidates their purity and force. It was necessary to go to distant places to search for them, where they were out of reach of human sight. (pages 90-91)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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